Kayaking and Rock Climbing in Laos
Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang Laos
By Christine Horvat
I woke up with the rising sun in my eyes, peeking in through cracks of the window of my overnight train, bound for the Laos border.
I had boarded in Bangkok, Thailand, where I began my Southeast Asia adventure six weeks before. The train ride was beautiful, all lush green landscape, with no roads or buildings to be seen.
This stunning, landlocked country is often overlooked by many travelers, standing in the shadows of its neighboring countries like Thailand or Cambodia. The environment is still very pristine, and outside of town you probably won’t run into any other tourists.
When I arrived in Vientiane, the capitol of Laos, I hunted for a hostel on foot; the city center is small, so it wasn't difficult, even with my huge pack. I paid 40,000 Laos Kips for a clean room with hot water (don’t be fooled, that’s about the price of a Starbucks latte).
That night I saw the most beautiful sunset of my life, all brilliant pinks and oranges on the Mekong River, where fishermen were casting their nets for the final time. It was the first time in my life I'd noticed the sun both rise and set in the same day, and it felt good.
The next day I rented a bicycle and rode to the outskirts of the town, where I came across some temple grounds. I saw saffron-colored monks robes drying between trees in the sun, and ended up having a conversation with one of the monks-in-training.
I asked him why he had decided to become a monk. He told me that many families in Laos are too poor to send their children to school, so they send their sons to monasteries instead, to give them some sort of education.
He was really eager to practice his English with me, and we ended up exchanging email addresses. I still find it amusing to imagine him in his austere robes, typing away in front of a computer screen, avoiding pop-up ads for escorts.
I rode on to find one of the quirkier sights in Vientiane, the Buddha Park. Situated beautifully on the banks of a river, it’s filled with hundreds of statues -- an eclectic mix of deities from Buddhism, Hinduism, and many mythical creatures as well.
One of the highlights of my stay in Vientiane was visiting the Golden Stupa. I learned that this temple is the national symbol of Laos, and the architecture references Laos culture and identity.
When I entered the temple grounds I met an old woman selling birds in tiny wooden cages. She claimed that if you bought one and released it, it would give you good luck.
When I came to the temple itself I was impressed by the magnificent gold silhouette it cast against a blue and cloudless sky, as if the sky was made with the temple in mind.
After a few days I took a bus north to Vang Vieng, a small river town known mostly for its tubing. The river was gorgeous, with dramatic limestone karsts rising right up from the banks.
Despite its beauty, one day of tubing on the river was enough to do me in; you barely got drifting when the first riverside bar appeared, and there was no shortage of dangerously high rope-swings and zip-lines.
This is a town that seems to have popped up and survived purely for the backpackers traveling between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, further north.
The hostels play reruns of hit TV sitcoms all day and night, and you can lounge on pillows, order a ‘happy’ mushroom pizza, and let your mind melt to episode after episode of Friends, until I’ve, I mean you’ve, stayed much longer than you intended. But, the vibe here wasn't really my thing, but I did enjoy some rock-climbing, and got to hike some beautiful trails on the way to the climbing areas.
The last stop for me in Laos was Luang Prabang, the old capitol, where several rivers converge. The bus ride to get there was challenging -- it took seven hours to go 90 miles on an unmercifully winding, mountainous road.
But the rewards were worth it, Luang Prabang has more temples than you could possibly want to see, and an endless amount of outdoor activities to choose from, including climbing, trekking, kayaking, biking, and diving into the crystal blue pools at the bottoms of waterfalls.
Also, the quaint French restaurants and real coffee are a welcome treat after the limited options in Vang Vieng.
I signed up for a kayaking tour on the Nam Ou River, which was a great experience. The guides fit four kayaks onto the roof of a small truck, with all six of us piled into the bed.
On the river, there were four or five capsizes, and the guides had to dive into the cold water several times to help people back into their kayaks.
Oddly enough, I was never one of the unlucky ones to fall into the river! We stopped and had a delicious packed lunch, including sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves, and by the end of the day I was sore but satisfied.
I befriended some other travelers on the kayaking trip, and we ended up hiring a boat to take us for a tour along the Mekong.
It was a very international group; between the eight of us, Argentina, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Thailand and the U.S. were all represented. Some of the group didn’t speak English, but everyone except myself and a guy from Thailand spoke Spanish nearly fluently.
I never would have thought my high school Spanish classes would be put to the test in a Laotian town in South East Asia! Along the way, we stopped at a village where they specialized in weaving and whiskey, a strange and excellent combination! Village life seemed so refreshingly simple, and tradition seemed strongly intact.
To Haggle or Not
Bridge in Vang Vieng, Laos. Christine Horvat photo.
Unfortunately, watching beautiful silk scarves being painstakingly handmade in front of me made me feel guilty for haggling over the $2 I paid for one at a street market the previous night.
Before we continued on, I bought a bottle of whiskey with a small snake coiled inside, wondering if I'd ever have the nerve to actually drink it. On the way back, we all took pictures of the sun setting over the river from the boat, and ended the night with a street food feast of spicy noodle soup and chicken skewers.
On my last morning in Luang Prabang, I woke up early to witness something I’d heard about from another traveler.
Hundreds of monks congregated at dawn in their ascetic, saffron-colored robes and walked slowly through the streets, passing beautiful ancient temples and receiving alms from both locals and tourists. The scene, both awing and serene, was the perfect end to my Laos adventure.
Of course I wished I had more time to explore, but Cambodia was calling to me. I said goodbye to the new friends I'd made in Luang Prabang, and boarded a small plane bound for Siem Reap, where the famous Angkor Wat Temples were waiting.
Christine Horvat (shown here with her lunch of sticky rice) is from Austin, Texas. After college, she spent three years teaching and traveling in Korea, Japan, China, and Southeast Asia. Now back in the U.S., she lives and works in New York City, as a creative in an advertising agency.