Laos in Seconds: A Laotian Video Vacation
By Dave Fox
Traveling in Laos
Join me on my 18-day Christmas and New Year vacation in Laos! Each day from December 19, 2016, to January 5, 2017, I’m stitching together lots and lots of very short video clips to take you on a fast-paced (try not to blink) journey through Laos.
Each video will be around two to three minutes in total. I’m creating a new one every day and uploading them as quickly as time and technology allow.
Day 1: December 19, 2016 – Fly to Luang Prabang
Kattina, and I fly from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (where we live), to Hanoi, then on to Luang Prabang in northern Laos. Getting here took us the better part of the day, but this video squishes all that flying into less than two minutes — arriving in Luang Prabang in time to enjoy some afternoon wandering.
Day 2: December 20 – Luang Prabang
Kattina and I continue to explore Luang Prabang with our pal, Julie (who, like us, lives in Saigon, Vietnam). We wander the streets, make our way across a creaky bamboo footbridge, meet boisterous kids and friendly dogs, and soak in the sunset on a private boat.
Day 3: December 21 – Luang Prabang & Kuang Si Falls
Today, we catch a tuktuk and travel one hour outside of Luang Prabang to visit the Kuang Si Falls and Bear Rescue Center.
Day 4: December 22 – Luang Prabang
Today’s “Laos in Seconds” video is a bit shorter than the others as I took much of the day to write. But I also took a stroll through other parts of the town and wrapped up the evening at a bar overlooking the river.
Day 5: December 23 – Luang Prabang to Phonsavan
In today’s video, we drive from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan, near the “Plain of Jars” sites. It was a seven-hour drive on winding mountain roads with an insane driver. I was stuck in a middle seat so shooting decent video was tricky today — but I got some good clips and we arrived in Phonsavan in one piece.
Day 6: December 24 – Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars
It’s Christmas Eve in Laos! We’re staying in Phonsavan near the Plain of Jars sites. We rent motorbikes and ride to Muang Khoun, the original capital of Xieng Khuang province. Muang Khoun was the victim of secret American bombing raids, which targeted civilians and decimated the town during the Second Indochina War. (After the war, the provincial capital was moved to Phonsavan.) We visit a stupa dating back to the 1500s, and we see the wreckage of a French-built hospital destroyed by US bombs.
In the afternoon, we ride to the region’s biggest tourist attraction. The Plain of Jars is one of Southeast Asia’s most important prehistoric sites. Thousands of giant, stone jars lay scattered across the landscape. They are believed to have been used in ancient burial practices. Our Laotian Christmas Eve in Laos ends with a bonfire, back at our guesthouse in Phonsavan.
Day 7: December 25 – Drive from Phonsavan to Vang Vieng
It’s Christmas in Laos today – but Laos is a Buddhist country, so celebrations are low-key. Kattina and I travel by minibus from Phonsavan to Vang Vieng – and from pine trees to palm trees – on another winding, jostling, six-hour ride. Totally random trivia that pops up in today’s video: Did you know geckos get their name from the fact that some species of gecko actually say, “Gecko! Gecko!?” Don’t believe me? Listen carefully and you’ll hear it.
Day 8: December 26 – Vang Vieng
After yesterday’s long bus trip from Phonsavan to Vang Vieng, today it’s time to do nothing. Well … sort of. Actually, I have work to do, so Kattina and I find a riverside spot with hammocks, coconuts, and … okay, a little bit of beer for inspiration.
Vang Vieng is an odd place — a dichotomy of stunning nature and a throbbing backpacker party. I was here four years ago, when the town had an infamous reputation. Drugs of many persuasions were easy to obtain, and the most popular leisure activities included floating down the river in inner tubes or flinging yourself off rope swings high above the river. Hallucinogens and massive amounts of alcohol, combined with river activities were having deadly results. At one time, Vang Vieng was averaging two tourist deaths per month.
But authorities have since cracked down on the party scene. The so-called “happy shakes,” “happy pizzas,” and other mushroom-infused concoctions are still on offer — and people are still tubing — but the fest has mellowed. Four years ago, Vang Vieng rocked until sunrise. Now, the town enforces a curfew that’s in place throughout Laos. On this visit, crowds were smaller, and Vang Vieng’s party was more chilled out than the last time I visited.
All of that said, the limestone karst formations that surround Vang Vieng create some of the most stunning nature I’ve seen anywhere in Southeast Asia. It was the perfect place to catch up on my writing. Some people tell me it must suck to have to work when I’m in a place as beautiful as Vang Vieng. I see it the other way around. I feel lucky to have a job that enables me to work in a place as beautiful as Vang Vieng. I even figured out how to work on my laptop while swinging in a hammock.
Day 9: December 27 – Bicycle Ride Near Vang Vieng
We rent bicycles in Vang Vieng and follow the 26-kilometer “West Vang Vieng Loop” in our “Lonely Planet Laos” guidebook. The roads are dreadfully bumpy. At a stream crossing, the footbridge is under repairs so we have to walk our bikes through the stream. And we get tangled up in a traffic jam of cows. But we live to tell the tale and arrive back in Van Vieng in time for a sunset beer.
Day 9 Extra: Cow Traffic Jam Near Vang Vieng
Until now, my “Seconds in Laos” series has consisted of one video per day with lots of very short clips to summarize that day. On day nine, we had a moment that deserves its own, 49-second, uncut video.
Kattina and I were on a bike ride on the outskirts of Vang Vieng, Laos, when we found ourselves surrounded by a herd of cows. They got in our way. They were weaving all over the road as if they were drunk. Man! Laotian cows! Bad behavior! In any case, we finally got them to moove (sorry) and our ride continued.
Day 10: December 28 – Vang Vieng to Vientiane
We leave Vang Vieng in the morning and catch a bus four hours south to Vientiane. The capital of Laos is delightfully small with a population of just 210,000 people. We wander the streets of Vientiane and catch the Mekong River sunset, with a view across to Thailand. At the end of the evening, a guy on the waterfront challenges me to a dart-throwing contest. As my prize, I win a delicious bottle of Laotian soy milk. (Yeah, I know you’re jealous.)
Day 11: December 29 – Vientiane to Don Det / 4,000 Islands
We catch an early morning flight on Lao Airlines out of Laos’s capital, Vientiane and fly an hour and a half south to Pakse. From there, we hop on a “songthaew” — a cross between a public bus, a tuktuk, and a cattle car, for a bumpy, swervy, three-hour drive to Nakasong. It’s a cramped ride, but a nice lady shares her coconut sticky rice with us. In Nakasong, we hop in a rickety, wooden boat that buzzes us 15 minutes to Don Det in the 4,000 Islands area.
Day 12: December 30 – Don Det, 4,000 Islands
Today’s video is a shorter one. After a rooster awakens us at our bungalow, we spend a leisurely day chilling (and doing a little work) in Don Det, one of the more lively towns in the 4,000 Islands area. We also meet curious canines and snorty pigs, and take in a stellar sunset.
Day 13: December 31 – New Year’s Eve in Don Det
It’s New Year’s Eve in Don Det, the party capital of the 4,000 Islands region in the Mekong River. A hungry rooster steals fruit from a spirit house. Rowing teams head down river for a competition in a nearby village. Innocent cows wander the streets, oblivious to the looming fireworks that will scare the hell out of them at midnight.
Day 14: January 1, 2017 – New Year’s Day in Don Det and Don Khon
Happy New Year! This morning, on the island of Don Det in the 4,000 Islands region, we wake up to see a group of young boys imitating boat racers from a sports competition the day before. Kattina and I rent bicycles and pedal across Don Det, over the bridge that connects it with neighboring Don Khon (Don Khong). On Don Khon, we see a massive chain of waterfalls, and we hire a boat driver of our own to take us out in search of the elusive Irrawaddy dolphins. Only a few remain in the area. We catch some very quick glimpses. (Don’t blink!) In the late afternoon, we make our way back to Don Det, just in time to catch the sunset.
Day 15: January 2 – Don Det and Don Khon
Yesterday’s bicycle ride from Don Det to Don Khon was so great, today we do it again, joined by our pal, Julie, who is also a teacher in Vietnam. We brave some dodgy, wooden foot-bridges, visit gushing waterfalls, and catch more glimpses into local village life.
Day 16: January 3 – Don Det
After five terrible nights at a place called Don Det Bungalows, we move to a new home for our final night on Don Det. (Our “river view” room was across the street from the river and we couldn’t use our balcony due to constant construction noise. The management lied to us daily, reassuring us the noise would end, but it never did. A British employee made frequent, disparaging remarks about Laotian people as an excuse for his own terrible customer service. And when we paid our bill, they lied to us about bank fees, extorting an inflated commission out of us. If you are going to 4,000 Islands, don’t stay at Don Det Bungalows unless you enjoy getting lied to and ripped off by people who love telling their guests that the local people are lazy.)
None of this is in today’s video, but what you will see is the happy result: Kattina and I debate whether to go someplace more upscale, or rather to go back to our hard-core budget-travel roots. We choose the latter, and, for a fraction of what we were paying at Don Det Bungalows, we find a bungalow on stilts over the Mekong River with two hammocks on a huge balcony, a private bathroom (cold water only), and a friendly cat — all for five US dollars per night!
In the afternoon, we head out with our friend, Julie, to go tubing on the Mekong River. I couldn’t shoot much video there as I didn’t have a waterproof camera with me, but after an hour of floating (with a couple of cans of Beer Lao in an inner tube), I did get some shots of Kattina and Julie as the boat we hired towed us back to land.
Day 17: January 4 – Don Det to Pakse
It’s our final day in 4,000 Islands. We hang out in Don Det in the morning, then hire a boat in the afternoon to buzz us back to the mainland town of Nakasong. From Nakasong, it’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive to Pakse, where we’ll catch our flight back home to Vietnam tomorrow.
On our drive from Nakasong to Pakse, we stop at the same halfway point where, on the way to Nakasong, our songthaew (a local transport option a bit like an oversized and overloaded tuktuk) was accosted by a gang of street-food vendors. On the journey back to Pakse, we travel by minivan. This time, we get out of the vehicle and buy some Laotian fast food: an entire, barbecued chicken — feet, beak, and all — flattened and impaled on a bamboo skewer (if you avoid looking at the beak, the rest of the chicken is tasty) and some coconut sticky-rice cooked inside sections of bamboo.
In the early evening, we roll into Pakse — a dusty town without a lot going for it other than an airport and buses to 4,000 Islands. But there, after dinner, Kattina engages a couple of local teenagers in an impromptu game of street soccer. (And she kicks their butts. She’s a good soccer player!)
Day 18: January 5 – Flight Home: Pakse to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
All great vacations must come to an end, and for this trip, today is the day. We awake to sun-soaked Buddhist temples in the dusty town of Pakse. Three of us pile onto a motorbike and side-car built for less than, well, a driver and three passengers, for a crazy ride to the airport.
We board a flight in Pakse for our 90-minute journey on Lao Airlines, home to Vietnam. Along the way, we get some great aerial views of the 4,000 Islands area, where we’ve just come from, as well as a look at Saigon’s cluttered skyline. Finally on the ground, we make our way home by taxi as Ho Chi Minh City gets ready for the upcoming Tet / Lunar New Year celebrations.