Tad_Lo_Bolaven_Plateau

In the south of Laos, there’s a little slice of paradise that most travellers haven’t discovered yet. It’s called the Bolaven Plateau, a land filled with tribal villages, enormous waterfalls, coffee plantations and unexplored jungles.

Before going there, I’d spent two weeks in Laos, visiting the three cities most backpackers end up in: Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane. While I’d enjoyed myself, I knew that these tourist hot spots were a far cry from your typical Lao town.

I wanted to see more – to get off the beaten track and explore rural Laos.

That’s how Gilles and I find ourselves in Pakse, a small but lively city in Southern Laos,  the starting point of our four-day motorbiking trip on the Bolaven Plateau.

Armed with a photocopy of a hand-drawn map and some tips we’d received from the bike rental shop, I didn’t have the slightest idea of what was going to happen to me.

Little did I know that these would be the best and craziest four days of my life.

So. What happened exactly?

I had my first motorcycle accident  

 
I guess it was bound to happen sooner or later.

We picked the worst day ever to leave the city. It was the day of the Boat Racing Festival, a huge event held after the end of Buddhist Lent. Villagers from all over Southern Laos were making their way to Pakse. Traffic was out of control.

People were driving even worse than usual, which I didn’t think was possible but I was wrong.

I saw dozens of ten year old kids on the highway, driving motorbikes on the wrong side of the lane.

Many bikes didn’t have 3, but 5 people + a tent + a kitchen + a chicken crammed on them.

And then it happened. As we were overtaking another motorbike driver, he abruptly turned left and crashed straight into us. We got pushed to the side of the road, almost colliding with a mini-van.

Everyone was fine, minus a few scratches. The kid riding the other bike must not have been older than 12. He’d crashed his bike and broken his mirror. We stuck around for a while to make sure he was fine (he was, but did his best to avoid eye contact, knowing this was 100% his fault) and headed back to Pakse to mend our wounds.

We got very lucky. It could have been so much worse.

I stayed in a small Lao village in the middle of nowhere

 
After riding in the countryside for hours on end, we stopped in Tad Lo for the night. It’s a modest little village about 85km from Pakse, surrounded by forests and waterfalls.

When we checked in to our bungalow, we didn’t realise we’d have company. There were farm animals running around everywhere. And by everywhere, I mean everywhere. I was kept awake all night by the sound of cattle and water buffalos and god knows what other creatures lurking outside of our door.

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I slept inside a tent in the jungle

 
Given that our only travel itinerary was the rapidly deteriorating map I’d scribbled a couple of guesthouse names on, we were bound to get lost at some point. It was the end of day 2. The sun was starting to set and we still hadn’t found a place to stay.

That’s when we stumbled upon a sign advertising tents for a couple dollars a night.

The tents belonged to PS Garden, a sort of camping site next to the Tad Faek waterfall, in the middle of the jungle. We could barely fit in the tent and there was no mattress. I didn’t get any sleep, courtesy of all the mutant insects and wild animals that scared the shit out of me all night. Does anyone else sense a pattern here?

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I saw things I’ll never be able to unsee (in a good way)

 
A few people in Pakse told that Tayicsua and its surroundings was the best part of the Bolaven Plateau. They weren’t lying.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that it’s possibly the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to in my life.

Blue skies, lush green forests, waterfalls everywhere. Only a dozen other travellers, if that. We spent the afternoon in Tayicsua, trekking through the jungle and searching for waterfalls.

It felt like I’d stumbled upon an undiscovered corner of the earth.

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I attended a local Lao Karaoke night

 
Upon arriving to our guesthouse in the tiny village of Ban Nong Oy, we asked the owner to recommend us a place to eat. He told us to check out a place near a petrol station. Apparently, it was the best restaurant in town. Five of us headed there, looking forward to eating some local Lao cuisine.

Turns out it wasn’t quite a restaurant. It was a karaoke bar.

It was definitely an experience I’ll never forget. All of us stuck out like sore thumbs amidst a group of drunk locals getting hammered on Lao Lao rice whisky (that thing is lethal).

I spent a day swimming in waterfalls

 
As you can probably tell by now, there’s no shortage of waterfalls on the Bolaven Plateau.

On our last day on, we hopped from one waterfall to the next, spending the whole time swimming in them.

One of the waterfalls had a raft next to it – you could use to pull yourself closer. It was so much fun. We got soaked straight away and laughed while wondering how close to the falls we could get before getting thrown off.

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I drank vodka with a centipede in it

 
Yep, that’s exactly what it looks like. A bottle of vodka with a centipede in it. And yes, I drank from it. I was offered to me at the Tad Yuang waterfall by the restaurant owner, Mr Impong, who entertained who was determined to get us drunk. I mean look at that thing. It’s an offer you can’t refuse right? Right.

In case you’re wondering, it tasted exactly what you’d imagine a centipede to taste like.

Centipede_Vodka 

Final Thoughts

 
I know it sounds cheesy, but getting off the beaten track and exploring the Bolaven Plateau changed my perspective on travel.

While visiting big cities and ticking off popular tourist attractions off my list is great, nothing compares to adventures like these. I got out of my comfort zone and embraced the unknown instead of fearing it like I usually would.

Since exploring the Bolaven Plateau in Laos, I’ve adjusted my travel plans to include more destinations off the beaten path. I know it will be worth it.

Have you gotten off the beaten path in South East Asia? What was your favourite spot? Leave a comment below to let me know!

 


WANT TO EXPLORE THE BOLAVEN PLATEAU? HERE’S SOME TRAVEL INFO:

 
How long should I stay? There are two roads circling the Bolaven Plateau otherwise known as ‘loops’. For the small loop, you’ll need 2-3 days depending on how much you stop. I’d definitely recommend the big loop though as there’s so much more to see but you’ll need 4-5 days for that.

What should I see? The waterfalls are the main attraction of the plateau. The ones I found the most impressive were Tad Lo, Tad Champee, Tad Yuang as well as all the ones in Tayicsua.

How much money do I need? The equivalent of $20/£17 should suffice for a day, including motorcycle rental fees.

Any other travel tips? Rent your bike in Pakse from a shop called Miss Noy’s. They’re incredibly helpful and will provide you with a map to help you navigate the plateau.

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Luang_Prabang_Travel_Blog

Shortly after being greeted by my guesthouse host in Luang Prabang (a friendly topless old man listening to disco tunes) I decided to read the rules and regulations printed on my door.

Rule number five made me chuckle:

‘Do not allow domestic and international tourist bring prostitute and others into your accommodation to make sex movies. This is not Thailand’.

Alright then.

When you see something like that, you can’t help but wonder what could have possibly gone down in that room for rule number five to exist. Just how many prostitutes had starred in porn videos filmed on my bed?

I’d rather not know. But given what happened next, I’d say probably quite a few.

Seconds after we first left the guesthouse to find a place to eat, we walked past a massage parlour. It didn’t take long for a group of scantily-clad (well, for Laos anyway) ‘masseusses’ to start running towards us, desperately trying to lure Gilles in.

Not Thailand huh? Yeah right.

The thing is, appearances can be deceiving. At a first glance, you’d never think anything remotely kinky happens in Luang Prabang.

Located in a mountainous area of Northern Laos, the ancient royal city of Luang Prabang looks like a movie set from another era.

The old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is filled with beautiful temples, luxury resorts and hoards of sophisticated French tourists.

Luang Prabang definitely isn’t your typical Lao city. Quite far from it actually. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth visiting. I spent three days discovering Luang Prabang and this is what went through my mind:

It looks like a French colony

 
The first thing I noticed about Luang Prabang was the colonial architecture. Laos part of the French Colonial Empire until 1954 and it still shows.

The old city is filled with large European-style villas and opulent wooden houses overlooking the Mekong river. Buildings are perfectly maintained and feature large gardens, many of which feature golf carts that take tourists around the city.

Streets are lined with expensive French restaurants serving entrecôte and camenbert au four to hungry French holiday-makers.

Because Luang Prabang is a small city, most of these luxury boutique hotels sit next to traditional food markets and street vendors catering to locals.

I’m not gonna lie, this colonial/modern mixture looks and feels a little bit forced at first. But it’s definitely part of the city’s charm.

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It’s definitely not a party town

 
Luang Prabang is not your average South East Asian megacity. It’s calm, relaxed and slow-paced. There’s not much going on nightlife wise, much to the disappointment of some hard-partying backpackers.

It’s they’re loss. The peacefulness of Luang Prabang is a breath of fresh air. I enjoyed walking around, exploring small streets and alleyways and drinking Beerlao while watching the sunset on the Mekong River.

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The temples are out of this world 

 
The temples are Luang Prabang are some of the most sacred in Laos. The city has 34 of them, housing more than 1000 monks. As someone who’s life was made after temple hopping for four days in Kyoto, I must have been dying to see them, right?

Wrong. The thing is, that after spending a month in Thailand, I was slowly losing my temple keenness.

Ok, fine. I seriously couldn’t stand seeing another freaking temple. 

Kind of shameful, I know. But I’m just saying out loud what every other backpacker in South East Asia is thinking.

Luckily, I got over the temple fatigue and decided to go see what was out there. I’m glad I did, because Luang Prabang’s temples are out of this world.

My favourite ones were in Mt Phousi, a sacred hill which features many small temples and religious artefacts. Then there’s Wat Xieng Thong, one of the most famous Buddhist monasteries in the whole country. It’s also the best-kept and most beautiful temple compound I’ve visited on my trip so far.

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Luang Prabang will make you fat 

 
Last, but definitely not least: the food. Everything I ate was delicious. As a picky eater, this doesn’t happen very often. Without fully realising it, I basically took part in a three-day restaurant crawl, trying dozens of new foods and eating some of the best soups of my life. And could have easily kept going for another three. Out of everything I tasted, the Luang Prabang stew at the Tamarind restaurant (pictured below) was the dish I’ll miss the most. Thanks Luang Prabang for making me fat. But that’s ok, you were worth every calorie.

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Final Thoughts

 
Luang Prabang was weird, beautiful and entertaining all at the same time. It’s definitely one of the most intriguing cities I’ve visited in South East Asia so far. The magnificent colonial buildings, breathtaking temples and disturbingly hilarious guesthouse rules are not things you encounter everyday.

What are your thoughts on Luang Prabang? Does it look fake or just well-maintained? Leave a comment below to let me know.

 


Want to go to Luang Prabang? Here’s some TRAVEL INFO:

 
How long should I stay? I’d recommend 3 days. This will give you enough time to see (and most importantly, eat) all the good stuff.
 
What should I see? Go visit the main temples, including the ones on Mt Phousi and Wat Xieng Thong. The UXO Visitor’s Centre is a must-see to understand how the people of Laos still struggle with unexploded bombs that were dropped there during the Indochina war. If you’ve got time, go to The Kuang Si Falls outside of the city – I heard many travellers rave about them.
 
Where should I stay? There are loads of guesthouses in the city. I stayed in Souk Lan Xang, a lovely little guesthouse in the old town.
 
How much money do I need? Luang Prabang is much more expensive than the rest of the country. I spend the equivalent of $35/£23 pounds per day, including food and accomodation.

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Mekong_River_Laos

Cruising down the Mekong River in Laos.

One month has passed since I started my backpacking adventure across South East Asia.

I have to pinch myself every so often because I still can’t believe I’m really here.

Living out of backpack and constantly being on the move feels much more normal than I expected. I’m writing this in a hostel lobby in Vientiane, Laos, where the receptionist is blasting Laos techno (I think?) and breaking some smooth dances moves. She hasn’t even started drinking yet.

It’s a Monday afternoon but somehow it feels like the most natural thing in the world. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

So much has happened in the past month. I’ve visited two countries and found so much to love in both. While I’ve had the time of my life, not everything has gone according to plan.

Let’s not forget that I’m a walking liability – things are bound to go wrong at some point.

This post is the first of a series of roundups where I look back of the crazy things that happened in the past month. I’ll share the best stories, totally random experiences and blunders, while reflecting on what travel has taught me so far.

Let’s get started:

Where did I go?

 

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Making friends with a rescued elephant in Chiang Mai.

The places I visited last month, in chronological order:

  • Bangkok, Thailand – 6 days
  • Ayutthaya, Thailand – 1 day
  • Chiang Mai, Thailand – 7 days
  • Pai, Thailand – 4 days
  • Chiang Rai, Thailand – 2 days
  • Chiang Khong, Thailand – 1 day
  • Pakbeng, Laos – 1 day
  • Luang Prabang, Laos – 2 days
  • Vang Vieng, Laos – 3 days
  • Vientiane, Thailand – 2 days

The best moments

 

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The weird and magnificent White Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

  • Watching the most beautiful sunset of my life at the Cloud47 rooftop bar in Bangkok.
  • Riding a bicycle around the temple ruins of Ayutthaya and surviving to tell the tale.
  • Drinking SamSong (Thai rum disguised as whisky) and singing along to 90s pop songs with other backpackers on the front porch of a hostel.
  • Getting over my fear of motorbikes and exploring the mountains of Northern Thailand by sitting at the back of one.
  • Learning 5 important life lessons during a two-day silent meditation retreat with Buddhist monks.
  • Going to an open mic jazz night and witnessing an old white man playing the flute and hitting himself repeatedly on the head with a large plastic hammer. 
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Wandering around temple ruins in Ayutthaya, Thailand.

  • Spending a day feeding and washing rescued elephants at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai.
  • Sleeping in a bungalow overlooking a gorgeous valley in Pai, for $3/£2 a night.
  • Learning swear words from a drunk Thai guy in a Chiang Rai rasta bar.
  • Visiting the bizarre but magnificent White Temple in Chiang Rai.
  • Getting to Laos in style, by cruising down the Mekong River for two days and gazing at the scenery.
  • Eating the best stew of my life at the Tamarind Restaurant in Luang Prabang.
  • Crashing a surprise French birthday party in a reggae-themed British pub in the middle of nowhere.
  • Drinking beer while floating down the Nam Song River in Vang Vieng on the inner tube of a tractor tyre.
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A beautiful Bangkok sunset, as seen from the Cloud47 rooftop bar.

The bad stuff

Backpacking isn’t always fun and games – here’s a couple misadventures from last month:

  • Almost getting scammed in Bangkok by a guy who pretended he wanted to practice his English. As a result, I’m always suspicious when someone comes to talk to me out of the blue, even if they genuinely just want to chat. Such a shame.
  • Hurting my foot pretty badly on a motorcycle in Chiang Mai, courtesy of Gilles. Apparently, he ‘forgot’ I was sitting at the back when attempting to pass through two parked cars. Thanks for that.
  • Witnessing the rudest, most obnoxious and disrespectful tourists treat monks like circus animals at the aims giving ceremony in Luang Prabang.
  • Having a massive cockroach stuck to my leg and not being able to get it off. Somehow I managed not to scream my lungs out.

Some epiphanies

Thoughts and reflections on what backpacking in South East Asia has taught me so far:

The best adventures are unplanned

Before I started this trip, I’d spent weeks researching places I wanted to go to and popular attractions I wanted to see. I’d always expected that major attractions that everyone raves about – the very things that attracted me to South East Asia in the first place–to be the most memorable.

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Trekking in the jungle in Chiang Mai. I somehow managed not to fall into the river.

While some of the experiences I crossed off my list were just as amazing as I thought they would be, it’s the things I didn’t plan that impacted me the most.

For example, striking up a conversation with a restaurant owner who went through Thailand’s entire culinary history while I was eating. Being amused when realising that locals like to nap everywhere in Laos, regardless of the time of day or the location. Or when I was trekking in the jungle and accidentally stumbled upon the biggest waterfall I’ve ever seen in my life.

Sometimes it’s the little things that matter the most.

Travel makes you aware of your privilege

Now, I know this is kind of a cliché. Every backpacker and their mother has this epiphany when they travel to a third world country and realise for the first time how lucky they really are.

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Empty explosives at the UXO Visitor Centre in Luang Prabang, Laos.

I always knew I’d won the geographical lottery and am aware of the many social and economical perks that come with the prize.

But perhaps naively, I didn’t realise my privilege extended so much further than access to education and financial security.

I never realised how lucky I was not to live in fear. Until I went to Laos.

Laos is the most bombed heavily bombed country on earth. It got caught in the middle of two Indochina wars, despite wanting to remain neutral.

As a result of the war, the whole country is covered in UXO – unexploded bombs that were dropped there 40 years. They can explode at any time. UXOs kill and injure people almost daily.

Walking to school can be a deadly exercise for young children who mistake grenades for rocks they can play with. People don’t cultivate their lands, for fear that a bomb might detonate while they work.

Travelling to Laos taught me that privilege can take many forms. In this case, it means living our lives without being haunted by events from half a century ago.

You don’t need to be a social butterfly to enjoy travelling

Every time I ask someone what they love most about travelling, it’s almost always the same answer: the people. And by that they mean other backpackers from around the world, with whom they’ve quickly become friends with.

I get it, but I find it difficult to relate.

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Exploring the rice fields in Pai, Thailand.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I love making new friends too. Believe it or not, I’m not that weird. In the past month I’ve met some amazing people who I know I’ll stay in touch with.

But I don’t need constant social interaction to enjoy travelling.

At first, I thought there was something wrong with me. It seemed like everyone else, including other couples, needed to socialise 24/7 in order to have a good time. Except for me. I was perfectly happy just doing my own thing most of the time and finding people to hang out with when I felt like it.

The thing is, as an introvert, spending too much time with other people, like you tend do in hostels, overwhelms me. Just so you know, this includes Gilles too. While I love hanging out with people as much as the next person, but I just can’t do it three, or four days in a row.

Not everyone is a social butterfly. That’s ok. It doesn’t mean my travel experience won’t be as good. It will just be different.

Some people never get a tan. Ever.

Now it’s time to talk about a first world problem of epic proportions.

I don’t believe I’ve ever tanned in my entire life. Sure, I’ve burned many times. And the burns never turned into a tan. Those bastards.

Ayutthaya, Thailand

As pale as ever in the 35 degree Celcius heat in Ayutthaya, Thailand.

In order to spare people of the sight of my pasty white legs, I used to rely St Tropez tanning mousse, aka a 150ml confidence booster container for critically pale human beings. Sadly, I had no choice but to leave it behind. I figured that the overpowering smell on fake tan inside a humid hostel dorm wouldn’t go down too well with people.

But I got my hopes up. I thought that maybe, just maybe, if I tried really hard it might just work. After all, sunning in the scorching sun, everyday single day, for 1 month, should do something, right? Right?

No.

It’s time to face the facts. It’s just not gonna happen.

That’s it for this month! Now I’m heading off to Cambodia and Vietnam. Any recommendations on what I should do?

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