Travel in Laos: Vang Vieng, Vientiane and Pakse
You can truly appreciate the diversity and the beauty of Laos when you travel the length of it. Travel in Laos is not easy but it is worth the effort. The climate, the people, the clothes, the food and the scenery all change as you bounce south on the buses. Central Laos from Vang Vieng, through Vientiane to Pakse is vast with some long travel days.
Up in the north, Luang Prabang the UNESCO World Heritage Site is possibly Laos’ touristic jewel in the crown, although you will have read how we had a much more authentic experience when we rocked up in Phonsovan during the Hmong New Year.
Cold, sick and a little bit travel jaded, my friend Gosia and I made our way south to Vang Vieng. This town has a reputation for booze, drugs and hard partying although too many sad and fatal incidences on its main tubing attraction have led to the authorities closing many of the riverside bars down which has changed its dynamic.
Don’t let the reputation put you off though as hordes of backpackers continue to crowd the streets and Vang Vieng is actually a charming town.
It consists of a cluster of small streets and bars that crowd close to the river, You can choose to eat on decks hanging over the water, from low tables and on comfy floor cushions or you can cross the river on one of the narrow rickety bridges and walk in relatively peace and quiet or stay in one of the little wooden cabins which are dotted around here.
The tubing is still here but it’s now a much calmer affair. The couple of bars that remain open do their best to entice you to stay and get so drunk that you can’t walk – but it’s a bit like arriving late to the party. Better to enjoy the tubing for what it is.
A gentle three hour float down the river, passing under the shadows of the impressive limestone karst formations in relative silence. It’s a good idea to get some sort of a waterproof pouch for some cash and maybe your phone too – you can find a selection here at this link to Amazon
There are plenty of waterfalls and caves to visit close to Vang Vieng – and it’s easy to hire a scooter to get around them. The night life in the town is still pretty vibrant and unlike Luang Prabang, the locals just get on with their own lives, shrugging at the antics of some of the louder travellers.
I have to do a ‘shout out’ here for the local hospital which is where I finally had to drag myself after days of sickness. The ward looked a bit grim and bare – but the service was top class (within the restrictions that come with living in an extremely poor country).
Please, please, please don’t travel anywhere without purchasing travel insurance. You can get a quote at this link from Alpha Travel Insurance
My doctor spoke good English and she agreed that they should run some tests to find out what was happening inside me. The tests came back within THREE HOURS (eat your heart out NHS), although they didn’t have the capability to run all of the tests that I requested. You can read my associated article about getting sick while travelling here
It was enough to rule out some exceptional nasties though and armed with antibiotics and Chinese medicines we moved on to Vientiane.
Travel in Laos: Vientiane
On our route from Vang Vieng to Pakse we needed to stop off in Vientiane to sort our our visas for Vietnam. I know that a lot of people say don’t bother and they would straightaway get the bus from Vientiane to Pakse, but in my opinion it is worth a look because Vientiane must rank as one of the most laid back capital cities in the world. It couldn’t be just because it was Christmas because it was not really celebrated in Laos. It was hot, dusty and well, sleepy. It was as if everything was just too much trouble so everybody seemed to be dozy.
We had an okay hostel in Vientiane with a pool which is always a bonus as we had to stay in this sleepy capital for 3 days while the Vietnamese Embassy staff processed our visa applications. There is a vast choice of places to stay at Agoda. Click here to check the latest places and prices.
To accompany this series of articles on Laos, I have published a comprehensive 28 page travel itinerary of my month-long route around Laos. Simply enter your details in the box below to get your free guide.
Vientiane has plenty of temples although most are covered with a layer of sandy dust, It has its version of the Arc de Triomph (as do Paris and Barcelona), some good markets and some excellent and atmospheric open air eating places which line the riverbank. Vientiane also has some stunning sunsets, lovely bread rolls and baguettes and cheap beer.
I discovered the works of Colin Cotterill who writes beautifully and extremely humorously about Laos. Although his novels about the reluctant coroner are set just after the end of the war and when the Lao PDR came into being, nothing really seems to have changed in Vientiane since that time!
His characters showed me the city in a new light – I felt that I could understand the psyche of the Laos people a little bit better.
Gosia, Jodi and myself celebrated Christmas 2015 dining on the banks of the iconic Mekong.
We sat on the decking in the dusty heat of the night watching the twinkling lights from the more affluent Thailand across the river and raised a glass and then some more to friends and family who were far away.
We ate a large fish which had been baked in a salt crust and plenty of veggies – fish for Gosia because fish is the traditional Christmas meal in Poland and we wore our Santa hats despite the heat.
The sleeping bus from Vientiane to Pakse
The Vientiane to Pakse sleeper bus was like no other night bus that I had experienced before. It was not possible to stand up straight on the top deck and there were no reclining seats. There were no seats. They had all been removed and partitions divided the length of the bus into boxes.
Each box was 5’ 32 in length and about 3’ wide. For two people! I am 5’6” tall so I spent a very uncomfortable night and luckily I was travelling with Gosia rather than a stranger. We rolled into our ‘coffin’ and settled down awkwardly. As if the ‘beds’ were not challenging enough we hadn’t taken into account the rough road systems of Laos. It was sort of fun, and it was certainly an adventure but we didn’t get much sleep. If you are planning on any long trip, you might like to take a travel pillow for comfort – check this link for ideas
What can I say about Pakse except that most people use the town as a transport hub or as a start point for the Bolaven Plateau motorcycle loop. Pakse to Vientiane or Pakse to Vang Vieng (or vice versa) seem to be the only reasons why people do come through this town. Interestingly since writing this article I have heard from other people who actually liked it here – so don’t take my word for it. If you have time check it out for yourself.
Gosia and I decided not to do the Bolaven Plateau Loop because we were both in our own way exhausted. I explored the town, taking my book and hoping to find a nice quiet spot to relax by the river – but I was unable to find anywhere that wasn’t buried under piles of litter, plastic and filth.
Get the latest information on the places that you pass through with the Lonely Planet Guidebooks – click here for the latest special offers such as 3 for 3
We caught up on our sleep and got a bus out the very next day. Things were looking up – we were going to Champasak and then onwards to the 4000 Islands.
Travel companions on this leg of the trip.
Gosia – originally from Poland but with wanderlust in her soul. We travelled together for months from Luang Prabang to Siem Reap and Vietnam in between. Gosia is the BEST travel companion. Gosia has a wicked sense of humour and an infectious giggle.
We laughed a lot, cried some and we got lots of attention as Gosia is stunningly beautiful. It was generally assumed that we were mother and daughter which, although I was pissed off that people didn’t think that I was only 34, gave me a nice warm feeling inside.
I have one picture of Gosia which I took on Christmas day in her strange Christmas hat and when I was so sick later in Vietnam I would lie in my bunk and look at it just to cheer myself up.
Rudi – a Frenchman who is in Canada (does that make him a French Canadian?) – who slept one night sandwiched between Gosia and myself (in separate single beds). I still laugh when I think about the evening we spent playing silly songs via YouTube. (sorry Rudi that you had to share a bathroom and my antibiotics were yet to kick in!)
Cuong – the heart doctor from Vietnam who was a real sweetheart and who kept an eye on me, checking my medicines were acceptable and generally being nice. I met with Cuong and one of his sons later in his home city of Hanoi. THANK YOU Cuong.
Jodi – a Canadian who lives in Taiwan. I have to tell you that on her leaving day Jodi had it in her head that check-in for her flight was at a certain time. Sitting in our dorm room it suddenly dawned on her that she had been looking at the departure time!
The air turned blue, she stuffed everything into her rucksack and legged it out of the hostel with about twenty minutes to get to the airport. A later text confirmed that she had made the flight by the skin of her teeth but Jodi was STILL WEARING her PYJAMAS!
And just in case you are wondering – here is my forever happy picture of Gosia in that hat!!!
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This article was originally published in May 2016 and has been updated and upgraded since then
The Smash the Pumpkin Project
The Smash the Pumpkin project challenges you to step outside your comfort zone. These are some of the ways that travel in Laos would fit into some of the categories.
The Transporter challenge
Face your Fears
Mini-vans in the mountains, the sleeping bus and floating down the Meking in an inner tube; how many types of transport can you think of and how many have you tried?
Fear of heights, water or meeting new people – some of these may fill you with fear, others hold no challenge. What causes you to feel anxious?
The Smash the Pumpkin project challenges your self beliefs with a series of emails that encourage you to step outside your comfort zone. Click on the button below to find out more