A trip of a lifetime in Laos

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(Photo: Freddy Wally)

IO – Indochina is indeed a very exotic destination in Asia. Its mostly calm socio-political situation offers assurance for travelers from around the world, especially from Europe, who would feel at home spending months exploring its beauty and charm. Some even choose to live like locals and enjoy local activities. 

Apart from its still pristine nature, as well as a warm tropical climate throughout the year, another factor that makes Indo-China regions the favorite of world travelers is their wealth of culture. Last but not least, their rich variety of food is equally tempting. 

One of the countries that offers a peaceful journey in the Indo-China region is Laos. Bordering Thailand and Vietnam, already popular with tourists and surrounded by five countries, Laos has many exciting places to explore even though it is landlocked. As a member of ASEAN, visiting Laos is visa-free for 30 days for nationals from Southeast Asian countries, which include Indonesia. 

Trip to Laos from Jakarta or other cities in Indonesia will require a stopover in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia as one of the main aviation hubs with flight connections to almost all Asian countries. This offers a lot of benefits especially for budget travelers looking to explore the region. From Kuala Lumpur there are direct flights to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. The flight will take around 2.5 hours with only one flight a day departing early in the morning and arriving around 8.20 am local time. 

When I landed at Wattay International Airport in Vientiane, I went directly to a money changer. The local currency is called Kip (LAK). The exchange rate for 1 Kip is around 1.62. So if the bus fare is 15,000 Kip, it equals to IDR 24,300. 

There are many intercity buses that can shuttle you from the airport to the downtown or Central Bus Station at a fairly affordable rate. The city buses, which is part of a system built with a grant from the Japanese government in the 1980s, are still in good condition. Passengers will be reminded of the vibe from past decades from the look at the seats and exterior paint. 

Vientiane’s location is quite strategic as it is very close to Thailand. The city of Nong Khai in the southeastern part of the capital is actually sitting near the Thai border. This makes for an interesting itinerary, as travelers can visit Nong Khai in less than 30 minutes from downtown Vientiane by taking the Thai-Lao International Bus from the Central Bus Station. There are six trips offered every day with a fare of around 12,000 Kip. 

The short duration of trip to the border of the two countries is an adventure in itself, starting from queues at the border which will take a bit of patience. Prepare your passport and pen to fill out various forms when entering Thailand, including around 40,000 Kip for the entry fee. 

One of the attractions in the Laos and Thailand border is the Friendship Bridge, which was inaugurated in 1994. The 1.17 km bridge straddles the Mekong river. It is a two-lane bridge which can be traversed by four-wheel and two-wheel vehicles as well as pedestrians. It is the first bridge to connect Laos and Thailand. The second bridge was built in Savannakhet in 2007. 

Bustling Nong Khai 

Stepping foot into Nong Khai, one can feel a totally different atmosphere. In contrast to Vientiane, which tends to be touristy, Nong Khai offers authentic Isaan culture. Isaan is a term for Thais who inhabit northeastern part of Thailand. The Isaan region is one of the largest areas in the “white elephant” country. 

Interestingly, like in many other bordering countries, the currencies of both countries are equally accepted for transactions. You can pay using either Kip or Thai Baht (THB) at Nong Khai. For the sake of comparison, 1 THB is equal to IDR 500. 

In this small transit city, we can enjoy the festive atmosphere of the night market on the banks of the Mekong river, which usually open from late afternoon into the night. The exact location is near the holy temple of Wat Hai Sok, directly adjacent to the Nong Khai pier. 

On certain nights, we can also watch music and dance performances by local residents at the night market, which seems to spring up suddenly. Experience a variety of fun snacks such as the delicious grilled squid with sweet and sour Thai sauce, taste the savory pad thai (a kind of fried broad noodle), or extreme local delicacies such as grilled caterpillar larvae, while enjoying the unique rhythm of Thai music performed by energetic dancers, a relaxing activity to fully enjoy Nong Khai when it gets dark. 

If you are a hiker who likes to watch sunsets then you can sit at one of the many cafes around the bank of the Mekong river in Nong Khai. While watching the sun setting slowly into the horizon with its reddish orange hue, you can also see fishermen catching fish in the Mekong river. 

As a transit city, Nong Khai has many hotels or hostels to cater to budget travelers. You can choose to stay in the middle of the city, which tends to be quiet at night or a row of guest houses and hotels on the Mekong river bank and riverside shophouses. They offer a contrasting atmosphere. 

If you have more than one day to spend at Nong Khai, don’t miss to visit the historical site of Sala Kaeo Ku, also called Wat Khaek. This is an ancient park with a row of statues from Buddhist mythology and traditional Thai society, located only 3 km from the city center. 

To get to this place, travelers can rent a Tuk Tuk (a three-wheeled auto rickshaw similar to “bajaj” in Indonesia). Due to its quite remote location, it is a good idea to ask the Tuk Tuk driver to wait for you while you are in Sala Kaeo Ku. The price of renting a Tuk Tuk with a waiting time of one hour ranges from THB 80-140, depending on how well your negotiation skills are, of course. 

The entrance fee to Sala Kaeo Ku is THB 40 for foreign tourists. Here we can see various statues made of cement and sand, from Buddha statues of various sizes and height up to 10 meters, as well as other statues from Thai mythology and the Ramayana legends laid out in unique formation around the mystical area said to be built in 1978. 

If you are done experiencing Thailand via Nong Khai, you can head back into Laos. From Nong Khai, cities in northern Laos such as Vang Vieng and Vientiane are reachable by public buses from the city center. There is only one bus to Vang Vieng from Nong Khai, departing at 10:20 am. The bus itself is quite punctual so you should heed the schedule if you don’t want to miss the bus! 

Pumping Adrenaline in Vang Vieng 

The trip from Nong Khai to Vang Vieng generally takes about five hours. The road tends to be bumpy in several places and thick dust from the road construction along the route is a common scene in developing countries such as Laos. 

Vang Vieng is a small town bustling with tourists. At first glance, it is comparable to the Kuta-Seminyak area in Bali, thronged with tourists and almost all corners of the city are dedicated to tourism, from motorbike rentals, restaurants offering international cuisine, to various homestay options. The city itself is surrounded by a karst hill. 

In the past, Vang Vieng was still relatively unknown to tourists and not as bustling as it is now. Most travelers would spend their time in Luang Prabang, a popular ancient city in northern Laos which is included into the UNESCO World Heritage List. 

The Karst hill and the Nam Song river which has strong current are the main attractions of Vang Vieng. Travelers who look forward to adrenaline-pumping adventure while being immersed in natural surrounding will feel at home here. 

If you can only spare a short time in Vang Vieng, don’t miss its newest attraction, Nam Xay View Point. Located 1 km from the city center, this place offers a 360-degree sweeping panorama at an altitude of about 750 meters and can be reached by climbing steep karst hill after approximately 35 minutes. It is highly recommended that one use mountain trekking sandals or sneakers. Also, bring a bottle of drinking water because you will definitely sweat a lot and can easily become dehydrated. 

Nam Xay View Point itself is popular in social media. From a height, we can take a break for a moment in a scenic pavilion built by local residents. Of course, various Instagrammable devices have been “prepared” by local tourism entrepreneurs, such as two old motorbikes complete with the flag of Laos used as props for tourists to take a photo with. 

It is best to visit Nam Xay View Point early in the morning before sunrise or late afternoon, when it is not too hot. This place does not have an official ticket counter, so usually there are local residents waiting in the parking lot collecting tips or money from visitors. 

Immerse yourself in peaceful Luang Prabang 

When you are satisfied exploring Vang Vieng, a trip in Laos would not be complete without visiting Luang Prabang. As one of UNESCO heritage sites, the old city is rich in colonial history. 

As a former French colony, we can see a lot of old architecture in Luang Prabang, which is heavily influenced by the French style. Luang Prabang is also known as the center of Buddhism in Laos; thus, it’s no wonder that we can find many temples and a special school for monks in this city built on the banks of the Mekong river. 

There are many activities for us in Luang Prabang, because this city offers not only a serene atmosphere but also exquisite beauty in its neat urban layout. It’s orderly and lively, which at first sight will remind us of the city of Paris lined with many street-side cafes. 

When in Luang Prabang, don’t forget to get up at dawn to see a unique procession called “Tak Bat” performed by the monks who reside in the temple. The procession, which is said to have taken place for more than 600 years, is indeed a not-to-be-missed tourist attraction. 

Tak Bat is a ritual of the monks’ morning collection of food. Laotians believe that giving food or alms to a monk will bring good karma. The procession will begin at dawn, where a dozen monks will walk barefoot in groups through the city streets carrying empty baskets or orange sling bags. People will then give them food like sticky rice, fruits, cakes, or even money. They do this while kneeling on the sidewalk. 

After collecting the food, the monks will chant a prayer of blessing while the local residents greet with “anjali” (hands folded together in front of the chest). The procession doesn’t take long and was so calm and peaceful so travelers who want to see this ritual must be respectful. One being by not using the camera flash or talking noisily. 

After the Tak Bat is over, you can return to rest for a while at your hotel or homestay and plan your next trip to the impressive Tat Kuang Si waterfall. Located some 30 km to the south of Luang Prabang, this multilevel waterfall is very scenic and the air is so fresh and cool. 

You will find many local tour operators in Luang Prabang offering short trips to Tat Kuang Si with prices starting from 30,000 Kip (entrance fee and round-trip transportation included). 

Usually, if you join a local tour with a dozen other tourists in a minivan, you can play and swim at the turquoise pool for 2-3 hours. But don’t forget to bring swimsuits as well as towels and spare clothes. 

For those of you who are hungry for adventure, you can also get to the top of the cascading waterfall. Here you will find another hidden gem – a private pool for soaking (with swings!). To get to the top of Tat Kuang Si, you have to climb a hill covered in moist tropical forest for about 600 meters which can be very exhausting. But your struggle will pay off with the beauty it has to offer. 

In the late afternoon, you can visit the Sisavangvong night market, which is located adjacent to the Royal Palace Museum and Th Kitsarat. The roads around it will be closed to vehicles (like a Car Free Day in Indonesia). The market offers unique souvenirs to take home as memento. Here you can buy T-shirts, bags, local handicrafts, snacks, and works of art from local artists. Don’t hesitate to haggle for the best price. The vendors are also very friendly and they will smilingly greet each passing visitor. 

Although it doesn’t have as many popular and modern tourist attractions as in other Asian countries, Laos offers you who long for the peace of life a brief escape from the hustle and bustle of hectic of a big metropolis. You can visit Laos any time of the year, but generally in the summer the climate will be much more humid due to less rain. In the rainy season the climate in northern Laos tends to be cooler. Overall, Laos can be a great alternative for those of you who want to experience the more idyllic side of Southeast Asia and gain a newer perspective in life. (Freddy Wally)