Laos part 2 – the one with all the festivals

After our U-turn at the Laos-Vietnam border, we headed to Phonsavan to see the famous Plain of Jars site. This is the Laos equivalent to Stone Henge, there’s a lot of mystery and speculation around why these Jars exist and how they were made / moved to their location.

We had read online that Phonsavan was barely visited and once we stepped of the bus guesthouse owners would swarm us with offers of accommodation. This may have been the case on any other week of the year, but we had arrived in the middle of Hmong new year festival (the first of 5 New Years celebrated in Laos) the Hmong people are the local villages in the region and so the town was inundated with people who had travelled from far and wide to congregate in Phonsavan in traditional dress, to celebrate, watch bull fighting and arrange suitable marriages for their children.

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Hmong traditional dress

Thankfully, we were warned about this by another traveller on our bus and she texted her guesthouse for us, the owner Kong had one spare room and kindly came to meet us from the bus stop. As we walked back to the hostel we saw “no room” signs in practically every window. 

We cycled to the first Plain of Jars the next day, which you technically can do but we would not recommend it. The bikes we hired were made for 12 year olds and we struggled up the hills of a main road in 30 degree heat. We eventually made it but our lungs felt coated in fumes and dust.

The Plains are normally empty apart from a few tourists but due to the festival they were full of people in lovely dresses and we of course featured in a few family photos.

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A few days later we arrived in Vang Vieng, previously notorious party haven there has been a serious crack down on drinking and other activities here, what remains is quite a calm, beautiful riverside town (picture above is the view from our hostel). Little did we know on arrival it was hosting Laos’ biggest music festival of the year that weekend! Again everywhere was full, so we had pre-booked one night in a hostel and begged the owner to let us extend. She was so nice and took a group of us out to the festival. We paid our 70,000kip (~£7) and went to the festival, we presumed this would be quite traditional music, but not at all, as we arrived there was heavy drum and base and EDM being played from huge stages, rock and guitar music from others. Young Laos people had travelled from the whole country to be there, we had basically accidentally stumbled upon Laos’ Glastonbury. It was the complete opposite of the traditional Hmong new year festival we had just left, but it was great to see this completely different side to Laos culture (even if we were the only group of people dancing at the front!)

The day after we just had to go tubing, this is what Vang Vieng is infamous for. Although the once 30+ bars in now restricted by police to 3 or 4. You can also kayak down the river as an alternative. It was a hilarious day floating down the river and in the evening the hostel was full again of people getting ready to go to the festival. Which is when we briefly adopted the Hostel owner’s nephew (pictured above).

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Vang Vieng is stunning

From here we took a bus down to Vietenne and on to the 4000 islands. The buses in Laos are unlike anything else we have experienced, it’s not so much the buses themselves (which can vary a lot – you never know whether your booking an old school bus or a VIP bus with beds for your next 12 hours!) but the roads which make travelling in Laos extremely slow and uncomfortable. The roads are rarely tarmac-ed, and sometimes the main road is barely more than a dirt track, when driving in the north you are often in or above the clouds with not much more than 5ft of visibility, which does not stop the drivers attempting 80kmph through the mountains! On our first journey in Laos we saw two accidents, and when we took the bus to the 4000 islands the driver actually hit a cow in the road, crushing the door so no one could get out. One bus journey a lorry in front of us got stuck in a mud slide and we had to get out and walk down the slippery mountain road with all our bags to get into another bus, which then in turn got stuck in the mud! In total we spent 59 hours out of 23 days on buses, they were extremely bumpy and uncomfortable but there is no real alternative to reach a lot of places in Laos. Ella’s super-power of being able to sleep anywhere was really put to the test during our stay, as we flew through the mountain roads swerving corners and bouncing over pot holes.

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Isaac asleep on one of our many buses

Top tip: put your rain cover on your bag even if it goes in the boot because people sitting at the back tend to be sick (including Ella on one sleeper double decker bus!)🤢

There’s no coastline to Laos, but we headed to the 4000 islands which are actually where the Mekong river stretches to 14kms wide and there are islands within it. Close to the Cambodian border the weather was beautiful and we enjoyed cycling around Don Det and neighbouring Don Khon. There are no cars, no ATMs, but oddly 5 Indian restaurants. The islands have only had electricity since 2010 and we wished we could have stayed longer, it had some of the most incredible sunsets we’ve seen.

It was sadly time to leave the islands and Laos, but we were excited to fly to Thailand to meet Ella’s family for Christmas. We got the tiny Pakse airport which services 2 or 3 flights a day, in British fashion 2 and half hours early to find the airport wasn’t even open! The cleaners gave us strange looks as we unloaded our bags from the Tuk Tuk.

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Top tip: We made the mistake of leaving Laos with 1 million Lao Kip which we thought we could exchange once we got to Bangkok, the woman at the money exchange was actually laughing when we asked to change it up. The currency is basically worthless outside of Laos and so make sure you don’t leave with any! It took us almost 2 months to find someone to take it from us and got nowhere near as much as it was worth! 

Love Ella & Isaac xxx

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