Travel in Laos: Vang Vieng, Vientiane & Pakse

Travel in Laos: Vang Vieng, Vientiane & Pakse

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.


Tubing on the Mekong at Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng

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

Travel in Laos; Vang Vieng

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

Travel in Laos; Vang Vieng

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.

Travel in Laos: Vang Vieng

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.

travel in Laos; Vientiane

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.

Travel in Laos

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

Travel in Laos


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 in Laos

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


Gosia's hat

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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?

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Hmong New Year in Laos

Hmong New Year in Laos

 …..and is being awarded a UNESCO World Heritage Site Award a blessing or a curse?

After two days on the slow boat from Thailand to Laos we arrived at the UNESCO listed city of Luang Prabang which sits, as do most major towns in Laos, on the banks of the Mekong River.  At this stage we were totally unaware that the Hmong New Year was just around the corner.

I explored Luang Prabang and the surrounding countryside, both by myself and with new friends that I had met on the slow boat (you can read what Luang Prabang has to offer its visitors here), but even after a week in the city and getting to know my way around, there was something unsettling that I was unable to put my finger on.

Luang Prabang got its World Heritage Site Award thanks to the fusion of the varying architectural styles.

Traditional wooden Lao houses blend with modern buildings which in turn blend with the villas built by the Europeans who colonised and claimed Laos in the 19th and 20th centuries.

great things to do in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang.

The architecture makes Luang Prabang special although much of the original work is being hidden as the townspeople embrace tourism and cover up the traditional frontages with brash signs inviting you to try the fresh coconut drinks or the cheap beer.

When I was in town there was an additional attraction.  Luang Prabang was celebrating its 20th anniversary of the World Heritage award.

The traditional Laos name for Laos means the land of a million elephants and as a very special attraction a herd of twelve elephants was walked – some for more than six hundred kilometres – into Luang Prabang to take part in the parade.

Luang Prabang

Unesco World Heritage celebration

There was a massive celebration event planned.  Thousands of people turned out, all dressed in their traditional costumes and they paraded along the main street in.  They walked in groups, representing their communities, their villages or their employers.

Luang Prabang

UNESCO World Heritage Site celebrations

They carried flowers, they played instruments or danced and they looked beautiful.  But to be honest, not that many of them looked very comfortable in the spotlight.

The sides of the main street were packed and tourists were running over and shoving cameras in faces to get the perfect shot – never mind the fact that the Laos are generally very shy.  That they were in the parade seemed to mean that they were fair game to some of the audience.

I did take plenty of photographs but I didn’t push my lens into people’s faces and I always indicated that I was asking permission if somebody was looking straight at me.  If they refused to acknowledge me, I lowered my camera.  For this reason I travel with a small descreet camera which I can easily slip into my pocket if anybody indicates that they are not happy to have their photo taken.  I use the Panasonic Lumix which has a decent zoom – click here if you are interested in the specs and the latest prices.


This lady was happy to be photographed

To be granted a UNESCO World Heritage Site status does undoubtedly bring more visitors and therefore more money to a town, but at what cost?

The locals put on a wonderful procession but in my opinion, many of them were uncomfortable with the attention.  On the other side of the coin the tourists often just get a sanitised Disney-fied view of the world and don’t experience the real world. (Just wait until you read about Hoi An in Vietnam).

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.


It was cold in Nong Khiaw.

Now let’s fast forward in my adventures in Laos via Nong Khiaw which was truly beautiful and pick up the story again after a ten hour minivan ride through tortuous mountains when we arrived in Xam Neua.

Hmong New Year

keeping warm in Laos

Xam Neua is in Laos’ most remote province and when we were there was freezing cold, wet, rainy and muddy and I began to fall sick after eating some very dodgy food.

Gosia and I had planned to head up into the remote north eastern region and visit the caves from where the Lao PDR party had conducted their operations but it was just too damn cold and the guesthouses were just too damn horrible.

The only saving grace was that we met the lovely Christian on the bus and hung around together for a few days.  Walking around in the rain and the mud the three of us stumbled across some ladies who were weaving on the porches of their falling down wooden homes and we met others at the bus station who were working on a large tapestry.  This is what I mean by getting an authentic view of a place – meeting and interacting with the ordinary workers, families and people going about their usual business

Hmong New Year

working together

Gosia and I decided that no matter how impressive the caves were we just were too cold to go and visit and I was too sick  so we jumped on another minivan and dropped southwards to Phonsovan.

Many tourists stop at Phonsovan and  use it as a base for visiting the Plain of Jars which was also on our hit list but I was too sick to consider venturing out on a day trip and Gosia was still too cold.

Our accommodation was nothing more than a wooden cabin (think garden shed) with a tiny bathroom attached and piles of fleecy blankets on the bed, although the family that owned the hostel were lovely.  We decided to keep moving south but we had to wait for the next epic minivan journey the following day.

The Hmong New Year

We had a day to kill and we had heard loud music so we decided to go and explore the town.  What a find!

Forget your UNESCO processions and your world heritage parades.We had struck gold and we had landed in Phonsovan at the Hmong New Year.

A large piece of land behind the bus station was hosting a country style fair such as you might imagine would have taken place in the UK many years ago or in the rural United States back in the 1930’s.

Hmong New Year

Hmong New Year

Tailors and seamstresses were busy in the market making new dresses and outfits.  The girls (and many of the men) were dressed up to the nines in traditional Hmong costumes – there were bright colours everywhere.

The Hmong people are, or used to be, identified by their elaborate clothing with the different designs and headwear which symbolised which village or even which family they belong to.  They do still wear the clothes but the dress code is not so rigid as it used to be, or in the towns at least.

Now in Phonsovan during the Hmong New Year celebratons many of the girls have the freedom to choose their own costumes and they team up with best friends to coordinate their look, splashing out on new clothes and tottering around the field aand the dirt roads in towering high heeled shoes.

Hmong New Year

Hmong New Year

On the fair ground itself, hawkers were running country fair type entertainment; there was nothing high-tech here.  There was a rickety looking ferris wheel which appeared to be constructed out of old bits of pipe and there were dodgem cars speeding around a circuit.  You could throw darts at balloons to win a large cuddly toy….. or you could find yourself a husband or a wife!

Courtship rituals of the Hmong people.

In the fields behind the fairground people were swarming around.  Women were standing chatting and eating fried chicken on sticks, small children were scampering around and men were parading and eyeing up all of the young ladies.

Most intriguing of all, many groups had arranged themselves in two parallel lines facing each other.  They were tossing small balls between them as they recited some sort of a chant or poem., many sheltering from the sun under brightly coloured parasols.

Hmong New Year

courtship rituals

I was over the moon.  We had stumbled upon a Hmong courtship ritual.  I had heard about this before I had come to Laos and here I was witnessing it for myself.  This display wasn’t being put on for tourists – this was day to day life during the Hmong New Year.

The done thing is for the participants to look suitably bored as they toss the ball underarm to the person standing opposite but this was one way that they would choose a marriage partner.

Just like many places in the world there were more hopeful women than men, but the men and teenagers who had joined in were looking like the cats that got the cream surrounded by all of the beautiful girls with their perfect complextions, intricate makeup and wonderful clothes.

Unlike imy time in Luang Prabang where I often felt uncomfortable looking at the people, their buildings and the places of interest, here we felt accepted.  Yes, we were stared at – we only met two other ‘farangs’ (foreigners) in town while we were there – but it was a different sort of staring.

There was no animosity just intrigue.  WE were the exhibition, the interesting sight.  We were on their turf during the Hmong New Year and we were constantly invited to take photos of people and their children or to pose with groups of teenagers for ‘selfies’.

I managed to hold my bout of sickness together long enough to enjoy our afternoon in the sun and watching all ages enjoy their Hmong New Year celebrations.

Gosia and I agreed that despite the cold and despite the fact that we hadn’t made it to either the caves or to the Plain of Jars and despite the fact that we had been crammed onto overcrowded minivans for long days of travel (did I mention that the Laos are unable to ride on buses without being travel sick?) we were both so pleased that we had made our long journey around the mountains of northern Laos and we were grateful to be able to join with the Hmong people as they celebrated their New Year.

Do you want to learn more about minority people and their traditional clothing?

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Scarlet Jones Travels is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to

This article was originally published in May 2016 and has been updated and republished with new content


Did you know there was a secret war in Laos?

Did you know there was a secret war in Laos?

bomb casings outside the UXO museum

Did you know that there was once a secret war in Laos?

Did you know that since the end of that war more than 20,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO – unexploded bombs?

I want to tell you about the secret war in Laos because its after-effects still have such a huge impact on the population today.

A brief history of the secret war in Laos

Throughout it’s history Laos has been invaded and occupied.  For many years much of the rest of the world refused to acknowledge it as a country in its own right – with France and Vietnam claiming it as their own among others.  It has a dramatic history but no period is so sad as the years between 1964 and 1972 when the US was fighting its war with Vietnam.

During this time the US dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions – equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.   (text from: Can you believe these disturbing statistics?

The histories of Laos and Vietnam are intertwined.  Here is a brief look at the disturbing legacy of the secret war in Laos.

There is no war in Laos.

Henry Kissinger repeatedly denied US involvement in Laos.  He did not obtain the permission of Congress to bomb the country, nor did he inform them once it had begun. During the American (or the Vietnam War depending on which side you view it from) it was agreed at the Geneva Convention that Laos would remain neutral.

The US were fighting in Vietnam, desperate to prevent the spread of communism in the region; and they especially targeted the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  The Vietnamese transported goods, arms and personnel along this route from north to south.  The Ho Chi Minh Trail borders Laos in many places, in a vast mountainous area covered with thick tropical jungle. (When I was in Vietnam I took a motorbike tour along some of the Ho Chi Minh Trail – you can read that article here)

Many Laos were anti-American and supported either the Vietnamese operations and/or communism.  They were fighting their own battles inside Laos between the (royal) government and the Pathet Lao. Despite the rulings at the Geneva Convention the CIA conducted an undercover operation in Laos to prevent the spread of communism and which enabled them to support their operations against the Vietnamese and the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  For nine years they constantly denied their operations in Laos, however they have since held their hands up and confessed that they were there.

The US bombed the trail – they bombed across the border in Laos and hundreds of returning bombers simply indiscriminately emptied their cargo of bombs as they flew across Laos.

remnants from the secret war in Laos

The secret war in Laos gets worse!

They didn’t drop ‘normal’ bombs either.  They dropped napalm (Agent Orange) on the jungle so that the leaves would die on the trees and to reveal the villages and the route of the Ho Chi Minh Trail below; and they dropped big bomb casings which exploded and which released hundreds of little bombs (known locally as bombies) – each the size of a cricket ball – designed to injure people as opposed to killing them outright or destroying property.

The war ended and people got on with their lives.  But life in Laos today still means living on a knife’s edge.  Thousands of the bombs and bombies failed to explode and they are still injuring or killing more than 300 civilians a year.  Farmers work in their fields, children play, fish or climb trees.  Women light cooking fires.  Many of them are blinded, lose limbs or lose their lives

Over time the bombies slowly work their way to the surface of the fields and then the farmer might step on one as he innocently plants his rice.  The children net them from the river bed or knock them out of the trees where they have grown upwards, caught in the branches.  Cooking fires are lit and the heat can trigger an explosion and I was even told of a man who was killed while digging a hole in the earth floor in his bedroom for a new bedpost.

a bomb casing containing bombies

I bet you have never considered the following either.

Laos is a desperately poor country but even with the money that is available it is unable to easily develop a better infrastructure.   For example, the govenment allocates money which is set aside for a new highway and a new school.

Before ANY work can begin the land has to be checked and cleared for dormant bombs. And it’s not enough to simply clear the land which forms the footprint of the school building. The surrounding land has to be checked which is slow, painstaking and dangerous work.  Other countries are providing help and manpower but when you consider the mountain of unexploded devices that are still hanging around this is just a drop in the ocean.

The hospitals still see too many victims of the bombies and everywhere you see men, women and children who have lost limbs, eyes or have burn injuries. Schools are closed when a new bombie is discovered in the playground and the dangers of driving off the side of the highway have somewhat more disturbing implications than just toppling the bus into a ditch.

Up to one third of the bombs didn’t explode when they were supposed to, leaving behind a deadly legacy.  I am lifting the following facts and figures from the Legacies of War web site which you really should check out, although I did read the same at the UXO Museum.  There are many NGOs and charities trying to improve the lives of the Laos people but this website starkly sets out the facts for you.

  • Over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War (210 million more bombs than were dropped on Iraq in 1991, 1998 and 2006 combined); up to 80 million did not detonate.
  • Nearly 40 years on, less than 1% of these munitions have been destroyed. More than half of all confirmed cluster munitions casualties in the world have occurred in Laos.
  • Each year there continue to be over 100 new casualties in Laos. Close to 60% of the accidents result in death, and 40% of the victims are children.
  • Between 1995 and 2013, the U.S. contributed on average $3.2M per year for UXO clearance in Laos; the U.S. spent $13.3M per day (in 2013 dollars) for nine years bombing Laos.
  • The U.S. spent as much in three days bombing Laos ($51M, in 2010 dollars) than it spent for clean up over 16 years ($51M).

I just find my jaw dropping even lower with each horrific statistic.

the UXO museum in Luang Prabang


An education programme is in place across Laos.  In primary schools children are taught how to identify the various explosive devices and told about the consequences of playing with them or of accidentally disturbing them.  The little bombies look like small balls which are  especially attractive to toddlers and some boys being boys will try to break them apart to get the explosives out.

Adults also do this too so that they can use the gunpowder or they melt down the metal casings to exchange for money; taking risks every day. Some villages recycle the deactivated aluminium cases into jewelry or cutlery which they sell, and all across Laos you can see the larger bomb cases turned into furniture, fence posts or flower baskets.

The people of Laos live with the legacy of the secret war every day.  They have become desensitised to it.  The bombs are a part of the fabric of their culture.  It is no great shock when a villager loses a limb after stepping on a bomb – it is normal life. Sadly, it still happens in Laos too frequently.

UXO Lao visitor's centre

No apologies

I make no apologies for what some might view as a pro-Laos stance in this article and there are two sides to every war.  One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter but no matter what your viewpoint on the advance of communism or whatever reason is given for a war, there needs to be transparency, a majority well-informed decision to take action and as little impact as possible on the lives of civilians. The Laos resorted to living in caves by day and farming their rice fields at night.  I repeat:-

  • Over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War (210 million more bombs than were dropped on Iraq in 1991, 1998 and 2006 combined); up to 80 million did not detonate.
  • Nearly 40 years on, less than 1% of these munitions have been destroyed. More than half of all confirmed cluster munitions casualties in the world have occurred in Laos.

I would be grateful if you would share this article with your friends and for additional reading, information or to donate please take the time to check out the following links. Clear Laos Now – Legacies of War Fred Branfman at Alternet on Henry Kissinger Read about the impact of UXO devices and the correlation with poverty here COPE – Helping people to move on How and why the Hmong got involved And from a modern day writer who weaves some fantastic stories around the history of Laos, click here and discover my new favourite author – Colin Cotterill 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. Scarlet Jones Travels is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to This post contains affiliate links and/or references to our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on or make a purchase using these links This article has been updated and republished from the original in April 2016

Don Det and the 4000 Islands

Don Det and the 4000 Islands

New Year on Don Det and the 4000 Islands

Gosia and I met Delia as we were all squashed in a hot tin box of a bus together on our way to Don Det and the 4000 islands.  Squatting uncomfortably on child sized plastic seats in the aisle we were soon chatting away and we decided to stick together and celebrate the New Year in style. 

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I was really stepping outside of my comfort zone by being around all this water and the boats but I wouldn’t have missed this part of Laos for the world.

You don’t have to go as far as Laos to challenge yourself but if you would like to find out what you are capable of, then take a look at this link and see what the The Smash the Pumpkin Project can offer you.

Andn case you don’t get to Don Det and the 4000 islands, you can live vicariously through my eyes in this article.

The 4000 Islands lie at the bottom tip of Laos and they share this section of the Mekong River with Cambodia. 

Don Det and 4000 Islands

One of Don Det’s famous sunsets

Many of the islands are little more than lumps of rock with a couple of trees growing on them but others have a well developed tourist industry and they support a population who get on with their lives as they have done for generations. 

We were on our way to Don Det – not to be confused with Don Dhet.  Don Det is one of the smaller islands with a focus on budget and backpacker travellers and we had heard that it had a relaxed vibe. 

Arriving on Don Det in the 4000 islands

We first had to take a ferry ride over to the island’s sandy beach.  Our rucksacks were all piled at the front of the boat and the passengers were warned not to move once we were seated or the boat would tip over – and then thankfully quite quickly we were landed on the hot sand over on the island.

Don Det and the 4000 islands

Arriving at Don Det

 There are a couple of brick built hotels on Don Det but the majority of the accommodation is in wooden cabins or bungalows.  Many of these are built on land which has been in families for generations and they now cater to the increasing influx of travellers.

Don Det and 4000 Islands

our home on Don Det

You can choose to stay on either the sunrise or the sunset side of the island – although don’t worry too much because, especially at the pointy bit, it is literally a three minute walk across to the other side.

Most of the bungalow groups have river-side settings, many have restaurants on decking which hang over the water and nearly all are completely laid back, chilled and relaxing. – Click here for up-to-date prices for accomodation from Agoda on Don Det

Don Det and 4000 Islands

view from our balcony

Things to do on Don Det 

We hired some bicycles and we spent a day touring the length of the island, crossing over the old stone bridge to the even smaller island of Don Khone (which is not to be confused with Don Khong).

Don Det and 4000 Islands

Chilling on the bridge

The centre of both islands is given over to rice fields, those cute little Laotian brown cows with their magnificent eyelashes, fruit plantations and vegetable gardens.

The main attraction on the island of Don Khone are the spectacular Somphamit Li Phi waterfalls.


Don Det and 4000 Islands

The Mekong

At one point on the side of Don Khone, the normally sedate river Mekong is forced to tumble through chasms and down the rocky river bed.  From our vantage point we stood for ages watching the water roar and pour its way angrily southwards.

The local fishermen spread their nets and fishing traps in the rapids and anybody wanting to tube up the river around Don Det is warned to get out of the river long before this point or risk getting swept down to Cambodia. 

Where the river settles down again it widens out and you can see across to Cambodia.  Here you can see why the area is known as the 4000 Islands, and it is here at this point that  you may have the opportunity to watch the increasingly rare Irawaddy dolphins.

Don Det and 4000 Islands

Stopping to chat to a local man 

Organised boat trips are available from the agents in the little town, but you can arrange one yourself and here at the southern-most tip is where you can bargain for a local guide to motor you out to the ‘pool’ where the dolphins like to chill during the day.

We almost hired a boat – it was cheap enough – but people coming in told us that it was the wrong time of the day to see the dolphins doing anything but lying on the surface and it was all a bit sad. 

The boats generally keep a respectful distance from the animals – but we didn’t really want to cause them any undue stress so we declined to go out.

Don det and 4000 Islands


Party Central 

We had come to Don Det knowing that it generally catered to the backpacker brigade and we were hoping to catch a few parties. It was New Year after all and a beach party was advertised.

There was only one small beach on the island – where the boats from the mainland come in – and there was to be music, dancing, drinking and celebrations.

We wandered down and picked our spot on the sand.  Clusters of people were quietly chatting and drinking and music was played over some loudspeakers by a group of teenagers. 

Unfortunately they didn’t seem able to be able to agree to anything and they kept cutting tunes off halfway through or switching from dance and trance to folk music as they argued.  So the dancing never really got off the ground and anyway the majority of people were just too chilled to even think about standing up or moving in any way.

 Midnight struck – or somebody shouted that it had, and we did all jump to our feet to hug and kiss friends.  A few intrepid men stripped naked and ran screaming and shouting into the water, only to be quickly ordered out again by police who were paranoid about yet another tourist drowning in paradise.

Don Det and 4000 Islands

Don Det and 4000 Islands

 We were now into 2016 and we were given the nod about another fantastic party that would be taking place far away from prying eyes.

We wandered down the sandy track into the dark and into the interior of the island.  The stars here were wonderful as there was no light pollution and we found a bunch of people cooking and eating pizzas.  We made ours up and popped them into the makeshift oven and waited for the party to get going.

Like just about everything else on the island it was all too much effort and a little bit disappointed that we still wouldn’t be able to party we left.  We heard that the party never actually did get going but we went back to one of the bars and we had  a few cocktails.

Don Det and 4000 Islands

more chillin’ 

You can get hold of drugs everywhere in Laos and especially in the tourist areas, although I wouldn’t recommend you do take them because the penalties are very high if you are caught in possession of them. 

We had only just arrived on the slow boat from Thailand to Laos  when were offered weed and/or opium and here on Don Det  island weed was freely smoked in certain of the bars and some of them advertised ‘happy’ pizzas or ‘happy‘ shakes.

Maybe this contributed to the relaxed atmosphere, maybe it was the hot weather or the decks lined with floor cushions and where nobody objected if you lazed around all day, but whatever the reason, the 4000 Islands is the perfect place to kick back and unwind.

Don Det and 4000 Islands

Don Det and 4000 Islands 

We would wander a little bit, occasionally cycle around if it wasn’t too much effort, lounge around and chat or sit on the decks and we would watch the sunsets across the water. 

I do think that I should travel with a hammock so that I can sling one anywhere and create my own little bit of paradise – Amazon sell a selection – and whilst not pretty, this one should do the trick – click here for the link to Amazon

Don Det and 4000 Islands

sunset on Don Det

Laos – to sum up 

Gosia and I had been in Laos for the thirty days which was the amount that was permitted on our tourist visa and sadly it was now time to leave.

We had travelled from the north-west where Laos borders Thailand and we had spent time in the UNESCO World Heritage Award winning town of Luang Prabang.

I had climbed a mountain in Nong Khiaw with a Catalan and got very sick in the north-east.  We had to abandon our plans to go across to the cave system close to the Vietnamese border due to the freezing cold weather, the rain, the mud and my stomach.

We` had been privileged to be a part of the Hmong New Year festivities and we had witnessed their courtship rituals and we had found out about the shocking legacy of the ‘Secret War’.

I had tubed down the river in Vang Vieng and we spent Christmas Day dining on fish on the same river as it flowed through the dusty sleepy capital Vientiane.

We fell in love with Champasak and we totally relaxed on Don Det on the 4000 Islands.

Don Det and 4000 Islands

catching supper on Don Det 

We didn’t have time to do any of the classic motorbike routes through what I have heard is beautiful unadulterated mountains but we did see rescued bears, waterfalls and millions of wooden houses where people live as they have lived for generations. 

Can you see the link which runs through this article and binds all of these places, and Laos together?

It is the River Mekong.  It forms the border for much of Laos with Thailand and later Cambodia and the main cities are all sited along its banks.  It is always wide and it usually flows calmly and it breathes life into this magical country.

Don Det and 4000 Islands

the river Mekong

It provides food, irrigation and a means of transport.  It provides hydro-electric power. It is the life blood of Laos. 

Much of Laos is underdeveloped and is still covered in jungle and forests and the Laos people are gentle, softly spoken and extremely shy.

Don Det and 4000 Islands

the people are all beautiful

The nation is immensely poor and it is stuck in poverty partly because of the Secret War.  The women are very beautiful, the food is generally simple and the countryside goes on for miles and miles. 

If you are reading this and wondering whether it is worth a visit – YES it is. 

Do go.

Do not be confrontational and do speak gently.

Be prepared to witness entire busloads of Lao vomiting into plastic bags because they all get travel sick and please don’t eat anything from a roadside cafe in the mountains that looks and smells like road-kill!

Gosia and I were unable to leave Laos without a nightmare thirty six hour journey. 

I had a panicky couple of minutes when I thought that I was being kidnapped and we got stuck for the night in a town where packs of feral dogs reigned after dark, but we finally left the peace and quiet and the gentleness of Laos for Vietnam. 

Boy, were we in for a shock! 

I have mentioned the books of Colin Cotterill in previous posts but he really does write beautifully and describes the countryside, the people and the traditions of Laos so well.  You can see some of his books in the  Dr Siri series here 

Sign up here (fill in the details in the box on my home page) so that you don’t miss my soon to be released articles about Vietnam and you can find out whether I loved or hated that country, and please, please, please DO NOT travel without decent insurance – I use Alpha Travel Insurance – you can get your free quote here

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Champasak shadow puppets, Vat Phou & more

Champasak shadow puppets, Vat Phou & more

We had a dilemma!  Gosia and I were planning to spend New Year in the 4000 Islands in the far south of Laos, but the question was, should we break our journey and go and see the Champasak shadow puppets? 

Champasak sounded like a tiny one street town (it was), with few guesthouses (true) and not many tourist attractions (correct), so should we press the pause button for a few days or continue to Laos?

Champasak: Shadow puppets & Vat phou

on the way to Champasak: nobody is around

We flipped a coin and it came up as a yes. Since I started travelling I have allowed myself to trust in fate more and more and as a result my self-confidence has been growing – to such an extent that I now coach others.

As the bus driver pulled up alongside a deserted beach on the banks of the river Mekong and dumped us out onto the sand we began to wonder about trusting our luck to a toss of a coin when there was no visible means of a crossing in sight.

After a thirty minute wait, some floating planks (a ferry) eventually approached and we were taken across to Champasak. 

Champasak; shadow puppets and Vat Phou

Champasak: the ‘ferry’

Champasak: the village 

It’s stretching it a bit to call Champasak a town as it is just a couple of streets.  They are however very long and lined with little ‘shops’ which all sell the same noodles, crisps and sweets and drinks with not a lot else. 

The budget accommodation mostly consists of various little wooden cabins.  They are usually grouped around leafy gardens and with dining areas suspended over the Mekong on wooden decks. Most offer breakfast or lunch time snack and nearly all are quiet, calm and peaceful.


breakfast in Champasak

There are a few choices of small places to eat and just at the edge of the village is a neat place – the Nakorn cafe and restaurant where you can get really decent coffee and food and is run by a Belgium man called Jacques and his wife. 

The Champasak shadow puppets.

The Champasak shadow puppet theatre was the main reason that Gosia and I had wanted to stop in this tiny town and we were certainly not disappointed.

Champasak: shadow puppets, Vat Phou

Champasak: shadow puppets

Drinking coffee and Thai iced milk tea in the Nakorn coffee shop we met Yves Bernard, the director and the man who had brought the old puppets and the theatre back to life through his project the Theatre de Ombres de Champasak ATOC.

The theatre had ‘disappeared’ in 1975 but six years ago the puppets were discovered in the back of an old temple.

Yves who is originally from France came to stay and helped the local people to dust off their puppets, get out their instruments and revitalise this ancient art. 

Champasak: shadow puppets

after the show – demonstrating the puppets

You have a choice of two shows – depending on the day of the week that you are in town.

  1. The tale of Phralak-Phralam: the Lum Siphandon song which you can see on a Tuesday and Friday or
  2. Cinema Tuk-tuk:  Chang, once upon a time in the jungle.  This is Cooper and Scoedsack’s black and white movie about everyday life in North Laos in the 1920s and set to live music on a Wednesday and Saturday

We paid our small entrance fee and we went in to watch the tale of Phralak-Phralam.  As we chose our places on the colourful raffia mats and the floor cushions one of those big fat, blood red full moons rose alongside us above the river Mekong, the crickets chirruped and the sky was dusted with brilliant stars. 

The ‘theatre’ was outdoors under a canopy of trees where the scents of night jasmine and frangipani mingled with the sweet smell of sandalwood from the village cooking fires. 

Local children had free access to all of the shows and a small group of them shoved and giggled on the benches at the side of the little arena while the small audience of just 24 settled down and got comfortable. 

The troupe of 13 musicians joined us and sat together cross legged, smoking and laughing while they tuned up their traditional instruments. 

Yves Bernard stood and outlined the storyline to us in his native French and halting English. 

Champasak: shadow puppets

the musicians start to tune up

I got a little bit confused and once the play started I got hopelessly lost but it didn’t matter: it was magical!

The music the puppets, the narration in Lao, the stunning setting – it all combined into one of those truly never-to-be-fogotten experiences.

Yet it was all so simple. 

A sheet strung between some trees and a few spotlights; actors working their puppets on sticks; the musicians who were having a fine old time and a chilled audience sprawling on the floor.

We could have been any group of people from any time in the previous two hundred years spending a summer evening together.

After the show Yves explained how the musicians were all local men who got on with their normal lives during the day time.

 Allegedly, the best musician in the South of Laos is a blind man and he plays in this orchestra.  Another of the men regularily rises at 4am to take 40 ducks on the back of his motorbike to sell in Pakse market, the director of the project works at the temple and one man is a hairdresser operating out of his garage.  

These were physically tough men – hard and wiry with muscles from a life time of hard work and with skin and teeth which glittered under the full moon.  

They played the most intricate and traditional Laotian instruments and together they transported us to another realm for the duration of the show.

If you have read some of my other articles about Laos, you will remember that I have told you about the author Colin Cotterill.  

One of his books – Thirty Three Teeth – includes a story-line about superstitions in Laos (well most of his books do because the Lao tend to be superstitious people).  

Colin’s books are well worth a read and are written with beatifully descriptive language and humour and as a bonus the royalties from his sales are distributed to good causes within Laos. 


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.


Vat Phou – some ancient Khmer culture

The day following the Champasak shadow puppets, Gosia and I hired bicycles and foolishly headed off under the mid-day sun.  We cycled along the road for about an hour, passing clusters of the cutest Laotian cows and we were overtaken by farmers driving their strange two wheeled tractors known as Iron Buffalos or Tak-taks while people worked in the paddy fields, farming by hand or with buffalo. 

Champasak: shadow puppets

iron buffalo

Expecting a bunch of ruins and temples similar to all of the others that we had seen we were amazed by Vat Phou (the name is often Westernised into Wat Pho)

We were yet to visit Siem Reap but this temple in Laos which was built between the 7th and 12th century is an offshoot of that ancient Khmer complex. 

Pronounced ‘wat poo’ this temple is built into the side of a sacred mountain and is accessed by a scramble of steep, stone, lichen covered steps. 

At the base of the mountain are two large reservoirs of water and everywhere there are large stones and columns from collapsed buildings. 

Champasak: Vat Phou

Champasak: Vat Phou

Wandering around the remaining standing buildings in the silence that accompanies the hottest part of the day I could feel the energy crackling around me and I could fully understand why the Khmer chose to build their temple here. 

Hauling ourselves up this stairway to heaven we passed under a corridor of fragrant frangipani trees.  The view across the plain below was uninterrupted rural-ness and an aura of peace and serenity bathed this spiritual place.  You could feel the energy seeping into your body and mind.

Champasak: Vat Phou

Champasak: Champasak: Vat Phou

We wandered among the large boulders which crowded the land at the back of the shrine and we found the rock believed to have been a sacrificial altar.  There were also rocks carved with crocodiles and other creatures.

We sat quietly and looked down over the plain and we saw how the holy water ran around and through the shrines to Buddha, cleansing and purifying as it flowed. 

This temple complex is yet another reason why you shouldn’t by-pass this tiny town.


Forgotten palaces 

We extended our stay in our little wooden cabin (shed) for a further night and taking to our bicycles we followed the river.  We rode through small indigenous communities where life is still lived almost exactly as it has been lived for years.

Champasak: Vat Phou


Dilapidated wooden houses on crooked stilts cluster around the river edge, and whole families hung and swung in their hammocks in the shade or dozed on the cots (bamboo platforms) which were outside every home.

Smoke lazily rose from the charcoal and wood cooking fires and little children shouted ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ to us as we passed.

Dodging chickens and sleeping dogs we pedalled along the overgrown path by the river until we came to a couple of grand houses.

These were once the summer palaces of the King of Champasak but they had long since been abandoned.  Monks had adopted the grounds and some of the buildings into one of their temples, but the grand facades are slowly decaying and crumbling as nature claims them back for her own. 

Despite wandering miles from anywhere among the jungle paths and small hamlets of inquisitive people we never felt unsafe or worried.  The Lao are a beautiful gentle people. 

STAY A WHILE IN CHAMPASAK.  Allow her to weave her magic around you too.

What interests you? What would you like to learn more about?

The Smash the Pumpkin Project shows you how you can explore new things and integrate them into your life.  You will engage with a series of personal challenges that will guide you to more self-confidence and self esteem while you follow your dreams and passions.

If theatre or performance lights your fire, shadow puppets are an amazing art form to explore.  You don’t need to go all the way to Laos – but who knows.  Why not!

Click on the button below to find out more about the project


Smash the Pumpkin

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