We awoke on the train with about an hour left before we arrived in Nong Kai, the Thai border town. Supposedly, it’s a great place to take a cruise down the river and watch the sunset. If you catch it in October, you will see some amazing phosphorescent bubbles (Naga Fireball) rising from the river.
Land Border Crossing from Thailand to Laos
The border is a place where you can end up paying some extra money if you don’t know what you’re doing. All you need is your passport, one passport photo and your visa fee ($35 US). We took a tuk tuk from the station to the border for 100 Baht (don’t even try to haggle, it was useless). Of course, we were taken to an office where they told us we needed to pay our entrance fee plus 400 Baht ($14 US) to cross. We refused, and told them to take us to the border. When we got there we were bombarded with more people offering to take us across the border for 200 Baht.
All you need to do is take the bus across (15 Baht) and then pay your visa fee. After the bus, we took another tuk tuk into Vientiane where we met a couple from Israel who urged us not to go to Vietnam after Laos. They said they hated it and felt like they were getting ripped off at every turn. This was disappointing news considering we already had our flight booked from Laos to Vietnam in a week.
Mixay Guesthouse in Vientiane
The tuk tuk dropped us off in the middle of town and from there we found a hostel called Mixay Guesthouse. We stumbled upon Mixay while looking for a different guest house that we had found in our guide book. It was $14 US per night for a private room and bath with A/C. The staff was extremely helpful and friendly and it was also a great place to meet other travelers. Many of the signs posted around the guest house were very amusing. One in particular said, “commercial sex workers are not allowed in this establishment. Thank you for your understanding.”
Vientiane was not exactly high on our list of places to see. It was merely a place to stay the night after crossing the border from Thailand, and before heading to Vang Vieng. The bright spot for us in Vientiane was visiting a few temples, meeting some fellow travelers at our hostel, and eating one of the best falafels we have ever had!
Bus Ride from Vientiane to Vang Vieng
Our “VIP” bus to Vang Vieng was not what I would call VIP. Most of the ride I spent bent over my knees, trying not to get sick. The window next to us looked like it had been glued together in about 20 different spots by something that resembled tar. I prayed that the next bump would not break my seat since Scott’s seat cushion had already come out from under him three times. After three hours of grueling corners and constant bumps on a bus with no shocks, I was ready to kiss the ground when we arrived in Vang Vieng.
The Otherside Bungalows in Vang Vieng
Of course the bus dropped us off right in front of a hotel. Thinking this was a bit suspect, we took the advice of some travelers we had met in Vientiane and made our way to the Otherside Bungalows. We were told it was just across the river and with the help of some friendly hippie employees advertising free joints at one of the local bars, we made our way across a narrow, rickety, wooden bridge.
At first, the hotel seemed nice enough. They showed us to our bungalow, complete with outdoor hammock, private bathroom and a couple of free cats already in our bed. After settling in, we decided to pay for the room and get our key. A mere 50,000 Kip, ($5 US) what a steal! A nice enough Norwegian couple was able to help with the translation as the owners seemed to speak no English. They gave us our key, which didn’t work in our bungalow.
We spent the next hour trying to communicate with the Laotian owners so that we could get a key that actually worked. Four keys later and two new bungalows, we were finally walking across the make shift bridge to get some much needed lunch.
The Town of Vang Vieng
Vang Vieng is a party town for sure. Most of the restaurants have pillows for seats. It’s a great place to chill and relax for a few days. There are quite a few outdoor restaurants that play “Friends” or “Family Guy” re-runs. Upon first glance, it seemed pretty fun to sit back on a few pillows, watch TV, eat and drink in an outdoor restaurant.
Although, after a few days, you realize your ONLY choice is to watch Friends or Family Guy. We also found that most of the tables and seats at these places were dirty and at one place in particular, the floor was so sticky that it really was challenging to walk through the restaurant. But that didn’t stop all the travelers from eating there!
You will find the food and drink to be pretty cheap in Vang Vieng, even compared to other places in SE Asia. We were not really too excited about what Laotian cuisine had to offer, besides the beer Lao of course! Although, most restaurants in Lao sure do know how to make a delicious chicken sandwich! Something about those toasted chicken, mayo and cheese filled baguettes seemed to follow us everywhere in Lao. So that is our memory of the food in Lao, $1 chicken sandwiches. And we were not alone. We met some other travelers who also shared our chicken sandwich infatuation.
We did find a really great restaurant along the river called “Santana”. The family that owns it are genuinely friendly and that’s what really makes this place special. They were the nicest locals we encountered in Vang Vieng. At many of the other places we went in both Vang Vieng and Vientiane the staff seemed annoyed and irritated to be serving us. In addition to Laotian dishes and chicken sandwiches, this restaurant also serves the Thai dessert dish of mangoes and sticky rice that will appease your sweet tooth.
Tubing in Vang Vieng
During a visit to Vang Vieng, one simply must try tubing down the river. 55,000 kip per person will get you a ride up the river and a large tractor inner tube. At the drop off point, your first impression might be the deafening blare of rave-like music and the screams of thrill seekers as they splash into the chocolate milk colored water. We weren’t sure if the water was brown from being dirty or if it was just the mud from the bottom. Maybe a little of both.
Nobody else around seemed to mind the color of the water so we jumped on our tubes and instantly got thrown a line by the first bar offering to reel us in. The empty plastic water bottle to the face took me a little by surprise. We decided to skip the first bar since it seemed unexciting, but we were lured in by the second bar’s slapdash zip line. Although it was fun to watch all the debauchery, we weren’t ready to take part in it. I like to be able to see the rocks in the water before I land on them! Maybe in my younger days I would have been a little more reckless.
It’s fun to chill and have a beer or two and then be on your way. The best part for us was after we passed all the bars and noise. The last 3/4 stretch of river is a quiet, peaceful tubing experience where all you have to do is sit back and gaze at the beautiful scenery. During the dry season it will take about 3 hours to tube down the river, whereas the wet season takes 1 hour, so plan accordingly. You don’t want to get caught on the river at dark. Unless you brought your bug spray with you! Oh, and you won’t get your tube deposit back if you show up past 6pm!
Have you been to Laos? If so, what is your take on it?