Pakse, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng & Vientiane: 9-14 Dec '13
Mon 9 Dec 13 - Sat 14 Dec 13 28 °C
Our time in the homestay over, we headed to Pakse, a town surrounded on three sides by two rivers. And here began the abiding theme of Laos: bakeries. Settling down for a cofee and a French patisserie in Pakse when there is afew hours before you head to an airport seems like a good idea at the time, but in Laos it was the beginning of the end. Bakeries followed bakeries; Luang Prabang clocking up three (plus additional cake) in under three days, Vang Vieng an extended stop and Vientiane an impressive three in half a day. Not so good for the waistline, but definitely worth it for the proper coffee. In fact, the visiting of bakeries/coffee shops had started long before in Cambodia, but it took on a whole new level in Laos, which seemingly continues to this day.
Luang Prabang is an UNESCO heritage site, which means the beautiful old French colonial buildings and quiet temples have to be preserved. The result is a laid back (typically Laotian) sleepy, beautiful town. That said, the night market is bustling and crowded with excellent street food, and a few decent bars enliven up proceedings. The same cannot be said of the Laotian nightclub we visited, where everyone does the same slightly bizarre dances, depending on how upbeat the music is.
Luang Prabang was also where two of us tried to give back a little by volunteering to read to children. It did not go well, as we weren't actually wanted! A real highlight was visiting Kuang Si waterfalls, which we climbed over the top of and then once back below, some of us jumped into the pools off a swing rope in a most refreshing manner. We also saw and heard about moon bears, an endangered species often poached for their use in Chinese medicine. The bear centre at the waterfalls houses a number of rescued bears with the intention of releasing them into the wild.
The temples and monks are one of Luang Prabang's lasting memories - Wat Xieng Thong is simply stunning - but the fabled monks alms in the morning did not quite live up to lunchtime in Bago's (Myanmar) Kha Khat Wain Kyaung monastery.
Next stop was Vang Vieng - legendary hedonistic party town known mostly for tubing. Tubing is essentially sitting in a big rubber inner tyre and floating down a river - basically something me and my brother did in the sea as kids. Actually, Vang Vieng is a sleepy town set in a beautiful landscape of karsts and ricefields, and although you can still party (we did) and tube (we didn't), in fact many of the bars have been closed down, and Vang Vieng is instead full of outdoor activities - caving, trekking, climbing, kayaking to name but a few; some of us hired bikes and after a brief and bumpy ride through the fields, pedalled leisurely around the outskirts of the whole town.
Vientiane may be the capital of Laos, but as typifies the whole country, it is hardly the most lively of cities. We visited Pha That Luang, a very important temple and national symbol. Its huge gold taht (stupa) is impressive but surprisingly tame after the mass of super-ornate stupas in Myanmar. It is, however, square, so a little different. We followed this by a visit to Patuxai, the vertical runway - a replica of the Arc de Triomphe in concrete - so called because it was built with cement donated by the US for building a new airport.
This was followed by visits to three bakeries. Oops.