When we were planning this trip, visiting Laos and Cambodia were two big priorities for us. I had happy memories of Laos from my 2000 trip. It was quirky, laid back, and low on backpackers. Getting around was tough. The roads were terrible and for many areas the only transport was trucks jam packed with locals. Now the roads are better and the buses have much improved, I hoped to get to some of the far flung places that I missed out on last time. Unfortunately, every backpacker that visits Thailand has the same idea. Many places in Laos are now fully paid up members of the Banana Pancake Trail, a collection of towns, beaches, and islands that are epicenters for backpackers. The only reggae in the ubiquitous reggae bars is Bob Marley, the spicy curries are toned down, banana pancakes appear on every menu, and the de rigeur clothing is a Lao PDR hoodie! It’s safe, you can find millions of like-minded uninspired backpackers, and most likely you can party. You jump on boats and buses full of foreign tourists going to places overrun by foreign tourists.
There is no denying that the Banana Pancake Trail (BPT) covers a lot of the must-sees in Southeast Asia, but the sheer numbers of tourists are beginning to seriously affect the nature of the places you visit. Vang Vieng in Central Laos is one such town. Back in 2000, it was a sleepy place, with a few hotels and cafes, and just happened to have some of the most beautiful karst scenery anywhere. In the intervening years, Vang Vieng weirdly became party central. People partied really hard here and rumor has it that ten’s of tourists were dying here every year from drunken shenanigans. In 2012, a government minister visited the town and was appalled at what he saw. He ordered an immediate crackdown and the town is trying to reinvent itself as a family-friendly adventure destination. The party people of course don’t give a damn. They just move on somewhere else.
A friend in Sihanoukville, once a laidback town and beach resort area in South Cambodia, tells me that the party people have set up camp there. The party scene is so bad, he is moving out to Central Vietnam. Even when the party is low key, the sheer number of foreigners is somehow wearying! We don’t travel to see this. We prefer places where the local character is dominant. Sadly, it is hard to pass up visiting iconic places like Angkor Wat, Thailand’s Andaman Islands, Bagan, and Northern Laos. So, we steeled ourselves and jumped on the BPT for a few weeks. And, boy, did the Banana Pancake Blues hit us hard!
In Laos, we ended up limiting the pain by visiting just five places, Luang Namtha and Phongsaly (see our previous post), Nong Khiaw, Muang Ngoi Neua, and Luang Prabang. There are plenty more places to visit in Lao but somehow they really didn’t capture our imagination.
WHEN WE WERE THERE
We were there from January 29-February 17. This is still high season for Laos but there was a miserable and unprecedented cold snap at the beginning of our stay that pushed the temperatures right down.
- The viewpoint in Nong Khiaw high above the town.
- The boat journey up the Nam Ou River to Muang Ngoi Neua
- Hapless service in restaurants
- Overcrowded boat to Muang Ngoi Neua and lack of foreign intervention
- Lots of gap year type backpackers in very small villages
GETTING THERE & AWAY
Bus from Udomxai to Nong Khiaw
Boat to Muang Ngoi from Nong Khiaw. The boat left Nong Khiaw at 11am. The return boat leaves Muang Ngoi Neua at 9am. You cannot do a day trip to Muang Ngoi by public boat.
Pick up from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang. A tuk tuk meets the boat from Muang Ngoi and whisks all the foreigners to the bus station a kilometer away. The 11am bus to Luang Prabang is a pickup and takes 4 hours. The ride was comfortable enough. Those wanting aircon minibus can catch the 2 PM bus
FOOD & DRINK
- Banana Pancake Trail food with the occasional Lao dish
- Muesli with fruit and yogurt
- Mediocre thali at Chennai, an Indian restaurant in Nong Khiaw
- Sandwiches and excellent Lao dishes at Alex’s restaurant in Nong Khiaw. Probably the best place in the village
- Lao-lao (rice whisky) cocktails
By the time we got to Nong Khiaw I was feeling pretty groggy with flu symptoms and not in the best of moods to appreciate the stunning scenery. The two main streets in Nong Khiaw, one either side of the river, are replete with all the trappings of the BPT: restaurants and bars serving Indian curries, muesli, espresso, and cheap cocktails. There are plenty of activities on offer for the adventure tourist- organized bike rides, hikes, and visiting caves. As we get further into the trip, we are less inclined to spend dollars on organized tourist packages to get enjoyment from a place, unless it is a special, off-the-beaten-track adventure (like our hill tribe trek in Phongsali). It starts pushing you over budget and, effectively, shortens your trip. That is why we love Nepal for hiking and Indonesia for snorkeling. The places are beautiful in themselves and activities are effectively free.
On day one, I sat around the bedroom, felt ill, and grumped. We knew our fast pace around mainland Southeast Asia would be hectic for us but we wanted to limit our time in the banana pancake trail! I think we pushed a bit too hard. Places like Nong Khiaw on paper look like ideal places to chill out on the road. We find that they are not. You cannot walk out of the hotel without an invite to bike, tuk tuk,or eat. Counter-intuitively, we prefer boring, modern cities to chill out. You usually get better food, better hotels, faster WiFi, and some of the trappings of home. No-one bothers you in Kuala Lumpur, Bishkek, Osh, or Chiang Rai. You suddenly become your boring old self again and not a walking ATM!
The best thing about Nong Khiaw is the limestone karst scenery. The village spreads over both sides of the Nam Ou river, connected by an ugly concrete bridge. Fortunately, when you stand on the bridge, you don’t see the bridge, and you get great views up and down river. The most atmospheric times of day were around 10 AM when the morning mist dissolves, and late afternoon for golden sunset light.
On day two, Laura decided I should get active to try and burn off my lurgy! We cycled out of the town to try and find some flooded rice terraces Laura had spotted on the bus into town. At this time of year, most rice fields are dry, but a few are flooded and planted with a second harvest. After ten minutes cycling, we were back in real Laos. The villages were cute in a ramshackle way and the rice terraces had just been watered so they were very photogenic.
In the late afternoon, we hiked up to a viewpoint behind the town. A group of locals have built a lookout hut on top of a mountain above the down and a clear trail to it. There is a small entry fee and this seems well spent in providing garbage cans at the lookout and signs exhorting you not to litter. It was a steady hour long climb to the top with a few steep patches where the owner of the trail has put in a few ropes. The view was fabulous. A really lovely sunset over the surrounding area. Don’t forget your flashlight though. The sun sets fast and the walk down is under the trees. It’s dark and potentially precarious. I wouldn’t be surprised if the odd backpacker gets lost for the night!
Oh, Delilah! Having bitched out the BPT, we were stoked to find a cute cafe that serves espresso and the best bowl of homemade yogurt and granola that we have found on the trip. We were happy to eat fishy noodles for breakfast for a few weeks but after a while the novelty wears off. Enter Delilah’s, a backpacker hostel and cafe. It was full of French and Israeli backpackers wearing baggy elephant pants and gazing into the distance. The cafe sold lots of exotic lao-lao with submerged snakes and scorpions, and is attached to a reputable tour and trek company. It was cool. Maybe. The service, however, was straight up Fawlty Towers. In the back kitchen, the clearly long suffering Kiwi boss constantly berated his staff. The staff had no notion of table numbers or any system of working out whose food was what. During the busy breakfast period, when everyone had breakfast before their tour departure, I doubt a single item went to the right table straight away. We made the terrible mistake of ordering a second round of coffee. It turned up 40 minutes later! We went back the next day more for the entertainment than in the expectation of our order turning up. Not a place to visit hungry or in a hurry. Damn fine coffee and muesli though.
MUANG NGOI NEUA
Muang Ngoi Neua is a smaller, quieter village an hour upriver from Nong Khiaw. The public boats leave around 11am. Note that I said boats. Plural. About thirty backpackers turned up for the boats but on this occasion there was only boat. Singular. People piled into the narrow longboat way beyond capacity. A couple of people murmured that yesterday three boats headed upriver but still they dutifully piled in. A few people were left on the dock and a couple of boat captains sat around watching the mayhem. I tried to get on board but the boat rocked perilously and a few startled grunts emanated from the passengers. Worse still I hurt my lower back when I wrenched my bag out of the boat. Grrr!
Now I know that quite often in Asia you end up in utterly rammed transport and most times your choice is to put up, shut up or get off. But, here the solution was obvious. Ask the boat captains to run another boat. Of course, no-one piped up. After all, that would ruin your “I have been traveling in Asia for six months and this is what it’s like” credentials. Well, you can be cool. I will sort the problem out. I mentioned to our captain that it was dangerous and a German girl effectively told me to shut up since it wasn’t his fault. I muttered under my breath something like “How shall I stop you from drowning? Take my foot off your head.” And, continued my protest. Several minutes later a captain pulled his boat into the dock and we loaded up twenty people in each. It was comfortable and you could turn around and see the scenery. Plenty of travelers and certainly millions of local people get killed in dumb transport accidents every year. By not speaking up, you are potentially allowing one more dumb situation to arise.
The journey upriver was pleasant enough but I think I have od’ed on karst this last year! Muang Ngoi is a pretty chill place. There are only a couple of roads. The vast majority of buildings have some tourist connection. However, there was a pleasant laid back village feel to the place and it was obvious that the increase in tourism isn’t harming the regular pace of life. One aspect of life that seemed timeless was the morning tak bak, the when the monks from the monastery at the end of the village make their alms round. This was in sharp contrast to Luang Prabang, where tourists have all but ruined the ceremony.
We were ravenous when we got there so we stopped off at a pleasant cafe on the main street. I am certainly a fan of freshly cooked food but not food that should take ten minutes taking ninety minutes. Oh, and we ordered two bowls of soup and only got one. Again, I will wait longer if the place was slammed but there was only one other order in the café. Laos seems to specialize in hapless service. Aside from one restaurant in Udomxai and the Riverside Cafe in Muang Ngoi, pretty much every time we ate there was some issue with our order.
The stresses and strains of the BPT were beginning to tell so we hit the booze! The Riverside Cafe sold damn fine cheap cocktails made of lao lao. Thankfully, all our drinks had a kick. A few days earlier in Nong Khiaw, the bartender forgot to put the lao lao in Laura’s drink. Although all these things are really minor issues, when you are on the road for this long, there are times when small shit really nags. I recall reading a Lonely Planet guide where a traveler was relating his travel woes. On his first day in India, he saw a weary traveler respond to a girl gesturing with her hand to mouth begging for food by doing the same thing back. Not cool. A few months in dude was exhausted and ended up doing the same thing. This time a girl responded by giving him two rupees. He broke down, cried, and realized it was time for home. We are pretty far from that point but you have to watch for signs that you are heading down that path and change what you are doing. We did this in Central Asia and saved our trip.
Over a lao-lao or two in the Riverside, we decided to cut short our time in mainland Southeast Asia and head for the Island nations. We even considered missing out on Angkor Wat, which would have been quite something for us. It has become clear that we aren’t inspired by mainstream destinations. Laos was annoying us so much we even spent a budget-busting load of dollars on flights from Luang Prabang to Siem Reap (Cambodia, for Angkor) instead of spending three days covering the distance by bus. Amusingly, we were now following the trail of high-end travelers who book vacations from overseas and stay in $200 a night hotels. That ain’t us either!