That time of the year that we count down to – January. The month of adventure, exploration and new memories! Our winter vacation break has finally arrived, our backpacks are packed and ready, the batteries are charged (the electric kind), passports in the pocket, smiles of anticipation all around – Thailand and Laos, here we come!
We were very excited, as we were going to places that we have only heard friends, that have been there already, speak highly of. The loose itinerary looked like this: Chiang Mai, Pai (Northern Thailand), then Luang Prabang (after taking the slow-boat down the ‘Mighty Mekong’ which takes around 3 days, more on this later) , Vang Vieng and Vientiane (Laos).
We can’t stress enough how beneficial a flexible itinerary is. You go to place “A”, if you don’t like it, you move on to “B”, if you do like it, you add an extra few days (our case in Pai). On the road you might even learn from fellow travelers about this ‘gem’ that you haven’t even read of before, and decide to re-route to include this on your itinerary!
We had an amazing time as always, and again met some new friends on the way (more on that later). In this post I’m going to talk about each place we stayed at, share what we did, what we enjoyed, and maybe some budgeting tips for those interested.
♠ CHIANG MAI ♠
In the beginning we were a bit disorientated, and just didn’t get why many people raved about CM… But it did slowly grow on us. Again we had it totally wrong in our heads – we didn’t expect CM to be as big as it actually is (we realized this fact as we had to ride the scooter back into CM from Pai, and had to navigate to our final destination, but more on that later).
CM is the jump-off spot for most major activities in the surrounding area. These include zip-lining, rafting, hilltribe village tours, trekking, quad biking, elephant jungle trekking / visiting a sanctuary, river rafting, and more. We stayed in the ‘Old City’ which is surrounded by an old wall with it’s 4 different gates, and a moat. We chose this area mostly due to its close proximity to the main attractions.
***What we did***
= Sunday Market (aka Walking Street)
It worked out that we arrived in time for the Sunday Market, which is at the center of the old walled city, stretching down the full length of Ratchadamnoen Road. The market is open every Sunday from 4pm to
around midnight. We had a great time just strolling down the street, picking up some cool souvenirs, snacking on different things as we go, and just embracing the whole vibe.
[TIP: go at around 4pm – you can shop and stroll at your own speed, from around 7pm your pace is determined by the throngs in front of you (the street is just THAT wide ya know… )]
We booked a morning of zip-lining through our guesthouse with Eagle Flight. This was something we’ve been wanting to do for a while, and it didn’t disappoint. Wanna glide through the sky in a lush green forest canopy, suspended 10’s of meters above the ground with some amazing views? Put this on your list then. I dare you to make no sound whilst doing this… Buffet lunch included when you are finished.
= Rent a bicycle and explore
We rented bicycles for next to nothing and explored the old city area. Be honest now – why walk and sweat, when you can paddle and, well, sweat a little less ;). You cover a larger area in a shorter amount of time – time is money, and when you travel, you know… you do the math!
= Temples at night
To be totally honest – living in South Korea and having had traveled all over SEA the past few years, we are quite templed-OUT! But, it must be said that the temples in Chiang Mai is quite cool – at night with the lights on it looks especially dramatic. We walked around the grounds of Wat Chedi Luang at around sunset, and it was impressive. We planted ourselves on a bench, and just sat there, taking in the whole
site, doing some people watching, reflecting on the crazy day, watching the monks clean up everywhere, and contemplating what we are going to do on the rest of our trip.
Budget stuff (Chiang Mai):
~ Bicycle hire 50B/day
~ Ziplining 1600B
~ Beers (bottle) 50B
A lot of people venture to Pai by hiring a scooter in Chiang Mai and riding the way there. It sounded like an adventure, but we needed to know more about the route, the length, the traffic and the weather conditions before we committed to something like this. A good tip before doing this route is obviously to check the weather on the day that you intend to go… We decided to first get a feel for the route, get a sense of how long we will ride, and make a decision accordingly (also whether each of us will ride our own bike) [read more on this later]. We decided to take the 3 hour minivan up to Pai.
Make sure that you understand what Pai is about before going there. We met a few people after that didn’t care much for it, but then also others that loved it… Pai is REALLY laid back, the pace of things is a lot slower, and many describe it as a ‘hippy-hangout’ (many wannabes too…).
We had an amazing time, and actually extended our stay a bit (#fistbump for flexible itineraries). After the faster pace and congestion of Chiang Mai, Pai was a welcome reprieve from all this. Here we could really kick back and recharge our batteries for a while. Our awesome stay at Pairadise played a big part in making our ‘Pai-drop-by’ an unforgettable one. We can’t recommend staying here high enough – it’s outside of town (no noise), has a little lake in the middle of the resort (swimming possible) with its own pagoda/platform in the middle (yoga?), they can assist in organising any trips for you, there’s a German bakery with breakfast options and lunchtime baguettes (they deliver to your balcony!). To ensure chill vibes each balcony has a hammock!
***What we did***
= Rent a scooter
This is definitely a must if you have any sense of adventure and want to explore the outlying areas. Upon arrival we rented a scooter for our entire stay (as recommended by other friends) – thanks to that that we happened upon the awesome Pairadise. There is a motorcycle loop (17km long, indicated on most maps)
with some places of interest along the way which was a fun half day thing to do.
= Visit Pai Canyon
A few kilometers outside town you can pull off into the parking, walk up quite a steep hill, and take in the impressive views the Pai canyon has to offer.
= Mor Paeng Waterfall
It was a nice spot for a picnic, and a little down time, but nothing much to write home about visually speaking…
= Explore the countryside
Either take your bicycle or scooter and go explore the outlying villages along the river and elsewhere.
= White Buddha (temple on the hill)
Be prepared to attack A LOT of stairs… There is a massive white buddha at the top, looking out over the valley. The views from the top might make the effort to get there worth it (for others maybe not).
= Conquer the 762 curves
We surveyed the route on the way there, and decided we are going to ride back to Chiang Mai. I felt confident enough that we could do it. So, 134km, 762 curves, sore bums, and about 4 hours later we rode into Chiang Mai unscathed with a huge sense of accomplishment! [Note: inexperienced riders should NOT attempt this; the route is dangerous at some points, and there is other traffic to contend with].
~ Eat at the Witching Well, great food, and interesting ‘fizzy drinks’.
~ Eat & Drink in walking street – in the ‘main’ street, there is a lady selling chai tea, you HAVE to experience it! Also, there are quite a few vendors where you choose your own ‘bamboo glass’ and they fill it up with your choice of hot tea!
~ Detox / Get healthy food & drinks at ‘The Good Life’ restaurant (next to Witching Well) – they also have free meditation classes sometimes in the week.
~ The motorcycle loop with all its attractions.
~ Relax. Find somewhere nice, chill, read a book.
~ Eat mango sticky rice! Your life will be forever changed… (my wife’s were;))
~ Try the Pai Crepe, nutella & banana is a winner (also, it’s huge – enough to share).
~ If you’re comfortable on a scooter, ride it back to Chiang Mai!
Budget stuff (Pai):
~ Minivan to Pai 190B
~ Scooter rental 120B/day
~ Pairadise bungalows 900B/night
~ Brook View place 900B/night
~ Pai Crepe 50B & lemon grass tea in bamboo 30B.
~ Pai – CM with scooter: 160 (rental) + 500 (‘service fee’) + 200 (helmets, this is deposit) = 860B total. Fill up tank at gas station 60B.
♥ BOAT DOWN THE MEKONG ♥
(Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang)
After Pai, and riding the scooter back, we spent our last night in Chiang Mai. We booked our ‘package deal’ (CM – Luang Prabang) through our guesthouse (everything included, i.e. less to worry about). The next morning, we were picked up by minivan, and drove to Chiang Rai (quite a few hours), where we visited Wat Rong Khun, better known amongst foreigners as “The White Temple”. Entrance is free, and you get around 30min to wander around. Then we drove to Chiang Kong (on the border) where we spent the night (CM to Chiang Kong – 6 hours in total).
The next morning the minivan takes you to the border crossing, where you get all your stamps, buy your visa on arrival (prices vary according to nationality – our new Swiss mates literally just showed their passports and walked through, pfff if only), and eventually you’ll get on a local truck/taxi thingy that takes you to the slowboats lying in wait for all the passengers.
Our boat took off at around 11am, much later than advertised, but hey, who’s in a rush (you’re gonna spend the rest of the day on the water anyways)? The slowboat from Chiang Kong to Pakbeng along the Mekong took us around 6 hours. Along the way you pass many villages and people
on boats making a living off of the river. Seeing how those villagers make a living (albeit only at a glance from the slowboat) the disparity in our lifestyles struck me, and it just reinforced my sense of adventure and wanting to explore more of this world – there are many more places that are ‘different’ from what we know and are used to.
We were passed a few times by streamlined speedboats flying past us, with its passengers sitting in single file, some even wearing helmets (if this isn’t a good enough indication to you that this is the more dangerous option, I don’t know what is…)! Arriving at Pakbeng (this is in Laos) all passengers disembark and the ‘rush-up-the-hill’ event commences. First up = first choice of accommodation. We didn’t want to be too fussy (many potential guests still coming past), so we chose the first acceptable clean room with double bed and bathroom (with a hot shower).
They also took our order that night, for our take-away baguettes for the next day (for lunch on the boat) – freshly made the next morning. The place we stayed at had a balcony with beautiful views of the Mekong river, it sure made the next
morning’s breakfast memorable…
TIP: they tell you the boat only leaves at 9am, but be warned, everyone goes down much earlier to ensure a good seat – latecomers had to go sit at the back of the boat, behind the engine room (must have been very noisy). The scenery was still nice along the way, but can get a bit monotonous after the first 2 hours. It took us 6,5 hours to get to Luang Prabang on this second leg.
In the two days, you spend 6h + 6,5h = 12,5 hours on the boat cruising down the Mekong – plan accordingly. Some people gather with their new travel buddies, and just start drinking (beers and other beverages and snacks for sale on boat), most people read, others sleep, some journal, and others just soak in the passing scenery pondering life’s unanswered questions I guess.
Arriving at the drop-off point in Luang Prabang, you have to get on a shared tuk-tuk into town (10,000 Lao Kip, if I remember correctly). They sell tickets, it’s a legit organised thing, no haggling (who cares at this point, just get me there!).
Budget stuff (Pakbeng):
~ Room with double bed, hot shower = THB 400 (you can pay in Thai baht here).
~ Beers 10-15,000 Kip
~ Slowboat ticket 1600B [includes transport, minivan & boat, accommodation for 1 night (Chiang Kong) and dinner, breakfast and lunch]
♦ LUANG PRABANG ♦
The tuk-tuk will drop you close to the daily night-market, next to the post office. TIP: it’s on that same block where you are dropped, that you want to go looking for a guesthouse. Even in high season, it was easy enough for us to find a vacancy. Suggestion: if staying in LP for a few days (recommended), that first night just lay your bags down, at the first reasonable guesthouse – the next morning, after situating yourself, you can go find a nicer place that’s more to your liking and price range or whatever. Another good tip: a longer stay = opportunity to negotiate a better price (most places it works like that in Laos).
There’s a reason Luang Prabang (the old town centre) got allocated UNESCO World Heritage status – it is a visually stunning, culturally rich city. It sits at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers, has numerous Buddhist temples and monasteries and beautiful architecture. There’s a daily morning alms giving ceremony (5 am) where monks from various monasteries walk the streets collecting alms.
We had a beautiful 5 days that we spent exploring (mostly) everything that LP has to offer. You HAVE to try the bacon and avocado (many other choices also) ‘sandwiches’ (it’s a baguette) and fruit smoothies at the numerous stands at the beginning of the night market street.
***What we did***
= Night market
This market is on every night. Pick up some souvenirs, bargain hard! It was nice that we didn’t see too many ‘singlet and t-shirt’ stalls (you know what I mean) – you can find some nice crafts and other more authentic wares here.
= Hire a scooter
I guess they’re just riding the gravy train, and having World Heritage status helps, but hiring a scooter around LP has been the most expensive of all the places in S.E.A yet! It cost us 100,000 K/day to hire a bike. But, at the end of the day, you save – here’s why: to get to the surrounding area and waterfalls using the tuk-tuks is really expensive. We got quoted crazy prices. There’s a kind of price standard among all the drivers anyway. So we rationalised – our freedom to come and go as we want, to stay at a site as long as we want, and to possibly explore off the beaten path made the renting of the scooter (even at that price) a good deal.
= Tad Sae Waterfalls
Beautiful, aqua coloured and multi-tiered, a rope swing – what’s not to like? There is a path that goes up a ways along the ‘stream’ that you can hike – quite nice scenery. There’s also an elephant camp, where you can ride them, and I think also swim and wash them (elephant riding not on our agenda, but won’t get into that now…).
If going here by yourself, make sure you have a good map. Also, the sign indicating the turn-off to the falls is a bit obscure. You have to get on a local boat that will take you on a 5 minute ride upriver where they drop you off on the other bank to get to the falls.
= Utopia bar/restaurant
This is a great place to take a break from the heat for an hour or so with nice views of the Nam Khan river. Order a drink and some food, and lounge on the (little bit worn) mattress thingy’s with triangle cushions. The wife raved about her roast vegies and goat’s cheese sandwich. Also very busy at night – one of THE spots for backpackers to gather and imbibe…
= Kuang Si Waterfall
Breathtakingly beautiful! The most impressive waterfall we’ve ever visited. A must when in LP and also a good opportunity to swim in the cool blue pools. TIP: Try to go earlier in the day, or later in the afternoon, when tourist numbers are lowest. Doing it by yourself with
a scooter is possible – 35km away, takes about 45min. Side tip: buy your breakfast baguette and smoothie at the stalls in LP, and have it here. We were there around 10:30, and there were a handful of people – they all came crashing in about an hour later (Korean tour group anyone?).
= Mount Phousi sunset
Did it, won’t do it again. Yeah, it’s a cool view from atop this hill (100m high), and there’s a tiny temple at the summit, but just too many people… I’d rather opt for a cold beer at one of the restaurants next to the Mekong, and watch the sunset in peace without the hordes. [So, I have to PAY to climb hundreds of stairs, wait up there in the heat for the sun to eventually go down, and have my personal space invaded the whole time – I’ll think twice next time, haha]
= Alms giving ceremony
Woke up at 5 am to watch monks walking in single file, and collect snacks, fruit and rice… Would not have been the end of the world if we missed this. We got very annoyed by the tourists shoving their large cameras and flashes into the monks’ faces, sometimes literally obstructing their way to walk (no respect or understanding for the sacred tradition).
If only there were falls. In the time we were there, we didn’t see any falls – either it was dried up (January) or we completely took the wrong paths. What must be said though, is that the hike through the jungle is really nice – lush greenery all around, a few streams, some big old trees. At the beginning of the trail (close to lake and restaurant) there’s a tiny waterfall with pool where you can cool off…
⊗ Must do’s:
– Try and get a guesthouse or room with a balcony. Sometimes you just wanna kick of your shoes and relax outside (a view would be great, but you can’t be too picky now…).
– Buy fresh fruit, whole skewered fish from the street vendors, some chicken skewers, a smoothie or something, and enjoy it somewhere relaxing (how ’bout that balcony ;)).
– Sit Mekong-side at the stilted bars/restaurants during sunset for spectacular views as the horizon catches fire!
– Hire bicycles to explore the outer reaches and smaller unknown streets of LP.
– Find a noodle shop! We found one that was right in the beginning of the night market. Delicious chicken/pork/beef
noodle soup, accompanied by a big Beerlao, people watching – good memories.
– Have a coffee and a pastry at any of the number of French bakeries around.
– Try the ‘street buffet’. You pay between 10-15,000 K, and get a plate that you can
fit as much food as you want on…
– Do temple hopping…
– DEFINITELY get your ‘sandwich’ on! They are some of the tastiest baguettes we’ve EVER had – bacon & avo FTW!
Budget stuff (Luang Prabang): [prices in Lao Kip]
~ Somjith Guesthouse 180,000/room/night
~ Scooter rent (24hours) 100,000
~ Baguette 15,000 K, smoothie 10,000, Crepes 10-15,000
~ Tad Sae Falls: bike entrance 5,000, boat ride 10,000, entrance to falls 15,000
~ Mount Phousi entrance 20,000
~ ‘Chicken Fried Noodle’ at ‘our’ noodle shop 15,000
~ Bicycle hire 20,000 / 24 hours
Once again we were pleasantly surprised by a destination that got a lot of negative press in the past (same as Nha Trang, Vietnam). We had an amazing time here during our 5 days, and would highly recommend you NOT to scrap this off of your itinerary!
I think we stayed at the BEST spot in VV – Banana Bungalows. Somewhere I’ve read that it’s noisy here, this could not be farther from the truth. Beautiful views of the limestone karsts, away from the busy town – bliss!
The ride from LP to Vang Vieng (VV) was quite a distressing one (the mountain part). The ‘VIP bus’ stopped on top of the mountain, at the rest stop, and proceeded to test the brakes – this did not instil confidence that it works properly! The curvy road, the speed of the driver, and the sheer drop-offs didn’t make this our all time favorite ride. At least we made it safely (at the bottom we stopped for lunch, they hosed the brakes down, a LOT of steam rose off of it from all the braking). The route is really scenic though – very green, limestone karsts and rice fields, and local farmers going about their daily business…
***What we did***
We booked a kayaking trip through Green Discovery, for the next day at 1pm. You get dropped upriver (past all the tubing bars). The water is nice and clean, and the scenery is spectacular with the karsts on the side. Fell over once after going down a rapid and into a bush – had a good laugh. You also stop by a
cave and walk through it with headlights. You hike through some streams (thigh depth at one point) and explore the inside, in complete silence – there were no one else there but us. It’s 8km of kayaking and took us about 3 hours. Highly recommend doing this.
= Hike the viewpoint (look for red flag)
You’ll see trails heading in the direction of the karts on the other side of the river. Follow it and you’ll eventually see the ‘lone hill/little mountain/karst’. It’s quite a rigorous climb, and good footwear would be a prudent decision (some rocks very jagged and steep climb). Once you get up there though, you are spoiled with a spectacular view of the whole area, with the fields and its cool patterns lying beneath you, like a completed puzzle.
= Hot air ballooning
This is one of the most exciting experiences we’ve ever had in our lives! And there is a HUGE discrepancy between the price vs satisfaction equation – you get a whole lot of awesome for only $80 paid… That feeling of just floating in silence with that spectacular view – priceless.
= Blue Lagoon
If you’re feeling like a swim (with a big bunch of people) in a nice clear blue swimming hole, head here. We cycled there, but be warned it gets really hot and the road condition aint the best (very dusty too). The water is cool and gives a welcome reprieve from the heat. Jump off of the tree into the water if you like.
Did it for the experience and scenery, not for the getting out of your face drunk (sole purpose of many). Met some cool Ausies with the same mind-set. Had a few chill beers along the way, had a lot of laughs. Note to self; people can be really stupid if they want to.
Booked a full day (9:30am – 4:30pm) rock climbing with Adam’s Rock Climbing school (they are a recognized outfit who’s been around for long – can also judge that by the climbing shoes…). Had good fun, and challenged ourselves with some tricky routes. Proud of the wife who tried it for the first time, and had a blast!
⊗ Must do’s:
– Hang out at the ‘Friends’ restaurants. These are restaurants with cushions (yes you can lie back) all facing (usually) 2 big screen TVs. It’s almost like lounging on your comfy sofa back home, snacking on something – just this time you share the moment with a few others. Say what you will, Friends will always stay funny. It has been such a long time since we’ve seen any episodes, it was fun to have our breakfast and have a little laugh altogether – not a bad way to start the day!
– Do the hot air balloon; that price I think is very hard to beat, and with those spectacular views, a killer deal.
– Stuff your face with more sandwiches! Think picnic, think snack, or don’t think and just get one anyways!
Budget stuff (Vang Vieng):
~ VIP bus to Vang Vieng 130,000
~ Cliff View Bungalows (across river) 150,000/night
~ Kayaking $20 per person
~ Hot air balloon $80
~ Giant mountain bikes 20,000/day until 7pm or something
~ Tubing 55,000 (60,000 deposit, lost if returning tube after 6pm)
~ Rock climbing 260,000 / person (full day, lunch included)
« VIENTIANE »
We took the VIP minivan to Vientiane. It took us about 4 hours, and for 60,000 Kip not too bad of a deal. There’s not much gonna be written in this section, because we didn’t care too much for Vientiane. Luckily we only spent one night here and then flew out.
I’m not trying to be funny or anything, but nothing around or in the capital appealed to us. It’s very busy, noisy and come of a bit grimy. It must be said though, that there are some nice eateries to be found around here (try the Le Benetten Bakery – the almond croissants are quite something).
The best part was when we visited the Buddha sculpture park outside of the city. You can walk around the grassy grounds and take in the more than 200 Hindu and Buddhist statues. It was a welcome break from the crazy capital.
And that is all of it! Awesome memories made once again, a new country under the belt, new friends from a few different countries and a whole lot of ‘wow’ moments. Is there anything better than traveling and exploring this wonderful world? Cheers for now!