Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Slowboat versus Speedboat

The slowboat currently costs 85.000 kip from Louang Prabang to Pakbeng, and the same amount from Pakbeng to Houay Xai

The slowboats leave from the boat pier behind the Royal Museum at about 08:30.

Commonly known as the “backpacker express” they take one day for each leg, depending on time of year (dry or wet season) and whether upstream or downstream each leg takes 7-11 hours. Occasionally the total journey can take more than two days upstream in the dry season.

If you get the slowboat from Pakbeng to Houay Xai you will have to stay in Laos overnight as slowboats hardly ever dock before the border crossing closes.

The boats are often crowded and uncomfortable, standards vary and they are all full of other ‘farang’.
You may be on a different boat on day two from the one you travelled on in day one even if you buy a combined ticket all the way from louang Prabang to Houay Xai.

“The boat was already over-full and struggling when we picked up an extra 7 westerners and backpacks. The journey had been slow because the boat was already overloaded before the additional passengers, we were running late and it was beginning to get dark. Just as we came out of a set of rapids, the engine failed, the water pump stopped working and the boat began to sink. We paddled to the bank and managed to get ourselves and our backpacks out before the boat sank. Within 15 minutess it was pitch black. We did managed to bail the boat out and salvage it but resigned ourselves to a night in the jungle on the river bank”

However the scenery is good, you get the chance to talk to other people and are not contributing to some of the ecological pollution of the speed boats.

The speedboat cost 150,000 kip from Louang Prabang to Pakbeng, and the same from Pakbeng to Houay Xai.

They leave Louang Prabang from the speedboat station 7kms north of the citynear the northern bus station. They start to leave at 08:30 and get in to Houyxai around 15:00 – 16:00 with ample time to cross the border.

You will be equipped with a motorcycle helmet, lifejacket and should take earplugs with you.

Many people say the speedboats should be avoided for some of the reasons below.

They are extremely cramped, very very noisy and it can be cold

“These boats are small, so that you have to sit on the floor of the boat; imagine trying to sit in (not on) a milkcrate, with your legs packed in and your chin resting on your knees - well, not so much resting as crushed up against it”

“Imagine the world's loudest chainsaw. Imagine putting it right next to your ear. Then imagine running the chainsaw for 6 straight hours”

"They are a menace to those living by the river and the wild life. Also with logs etc, brought down by the river in the rainy season, they can be dangerous."

“My fillings fell out, my ears became joined at the back of my head, the driver was high (on something) I needed my hips and knees replaced I also had bruises on my arse that had to be seen to be believed (not that I showed anybody), and I have been obliged to wear a hearing aid ever since. In one very short sentence you would have to be completely nuts to even think about taking the speedboat.”

However some people prefer them and like the sense of adventure they bring and sometimes if short of time or at the end of your visa you may have no other alternative.

(All quotes Lonely Planet Thorn Tree)

Houay Xai - food and accommodation

Looks like I will be staying the night here as the slow boats don't reach Houay Xai until after the border crossing shuts (deliberately or otherwise).

The settlement of Houay XaiI , sandwiched between the Mekong and a range of hills, is a popular border crossing with Thailand . Thirty-day Thai visas are available on arrival in Chiang Khong on the Thai side.

Once you're across the Mekong and past immigration (daily 8:00-17.30), you can get one of the regular buses to Chiang Rai (2-3hr) or Chiang Mai (5-6hr).

Houay Xai's only real sight is hilltop Wat Chom Khao Manilat , boasting a tall, Shan-style building of picturesquely weathered teakwood, now used as a classroom for novice monks.

Thaveesinh Guesthouse seems to have all the amenities and sells boat and bus tickets. Also worth a look might be Friendship Guesthouse with its rooftop balcony.

The no-frills Mouang Neua restaurant dishes out decent Lao and Chinese meals - the vegetable omelette is good. The lively Nutpop, a few blocks north, does stir-fry dishes to order, cold beer and delicious fruit smoothies, while nearby Ban Midtapab offers excellent fish and views across the Mekong.

The Riverside restaurant is located looking out over the river. The setting is pleasant and they serve traditional Lao dishes as well as the usual fried rice and noodle favourites. Their Sindad, a Lao favourite, a type of soup/grilled meat do it yourself barbecue at the table comes recommended.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Louang Prabang - ideas for what to do

Probably three days here. Haven’t really thought what to do yet, but relaxing, eating and drinking comes high on the list. Should hire a bike and see a few of the following:

Wat Mai Photisarath: next to the Royal Palace. 8:00-17:00 Entry fee 5,000kip, Built between 1718-1788, Considered to be one of the most beautiful temples in Laos. It used to house one of the most important Buddha Statues in Asia - 'Pha Bang Buddha', 50kg pure Gold Buddha, now it's supposedly stored in a Bank. Bas-reliefs on the walls are beautiful.

Royal Palace Complex: on the main Road. Royal Palace: National Museum & Royal Apartments. Monday to Friday 8:00-11:00, Entry fee 10,000kip. Built in 1904 by King Sisavangvong, a mix of French/Lao design. It is said to have one of the best, most interesting collections in South East Asia. One of the highlights is the copy of 'Pha Bang Buddha'- the Golden Buddha.

Mount Phousi: (Sacred Hill) Opposite the Royal Palace. Entrance from the Main Road. Rear gate is now closed The hill has 328 steps. The best sunset views of the city from the top. Entry fee 8,000kip. Inspectors are everywhere. Not possible to bunk in. After 20:00 free to climb up.

Wat Xieng Thong: (Copper Tree Temple Complex) East end of town. 7:00-17:00 Entry fee 5,000kip, Built in 1559 by King Setthathirat. The oldest temple in Louang Prabang. Architecturally the finest example of Classical North Lao temple design. Its huge, multi-layered roofs that almost touch the ground, are ornately decorated and have many small pagodas on the top. This wat houses the king's funeral chariot.

Pak Ou Caves: Entry fee 6,000kip 25km upstream from Luang Prabang, by boat - 2 hours to go & 1 hour to come back. Beautiful riverside scenery en route. There are two caves, Tham Ting and Tam Phum, full of thousands of Buddha images. Take a torch.

Kwang Xi Waterfalls: 30km South of Luang Prabang, tuk-tuk charter 4-50,000kip. Entry fee 10,000kip. Waterfalls and beautiful pools in a forest setting. Pass through rice terraces, teak groves and local villages en route.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Vang Vieng -things to do

Land of Pizza and Friends Videos

Vang Vieng is a small town/village surrounded by limestone karst mountains and rivers. The main attractions are caves, Hmong villages, and the natural mountain scenery. A favourite with travellers - many stay longer than planned. However many say this town has become too popular and now has a reputation as a party village.

I intend to stay here one or two days depending on how I feel about it. However it is a good stop off point between Vientiane and Louang Prabang

Things to do:

Tham Chang: 2km from the town centre. This is a popular trip by bicycle. 7:30-11:30, 13-16:30. Entry fee 8,000kip + 1,000kip to enter to resort, plus 500kip for bicycle. There are beautiful views of the village and rice fields from here. This cave is well lit with a fairy tale atmosphere.

Tham Poukham: S of town on other side of river. Walk/bicycle 7km W(Go W 5km then turn right and go another 2km.). Cross a bridge and take a tuk-tuk waiting the other side, 3000kip/p, and walk 1km. Entry fee 3000kip, 9-17:00, A big cave with a sleeping Buddha inside. Simple food and drink are available.

Tubing on the river: 5000kip/p including tube rental and the tuk-tuk ride to the 4km point. From here it 3- 5 hours back to town. Numerous bars along the river banks for a cool Bia Lao and relaxing.

Kayaking Tour: 72,000kip/p Wild Side Eco Tour T511-230 or at Xayon Bar. Departs 9:30, back by 17:00. Including Hmong village, caves, Hanging Bridge, BBQ for lunch, organic farm and kayaking

One Day Vang Vieng Tour: A few agents organize tours around Vang Vieng including caves, Hmong villages, lunch and finishing with tubing. Leaving around 9-10:00 and coming back around 17:00.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Vientiane - things to see

Most of Vientiane's sights are spread around the town. I will probably hire a bicycle as this has been recommended as the best way to get around. Rental costs about 4000+kip/day.

A few things to look at could be:

Wat Pha Kaew: (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) Setthathirat Rd. E of President Palace, in front of Wat Sisaket. Entry fee: 1,000kip 8:00-12 & 13:00-16

Wat Sisaket: Lane Xang Rd + Setthathirat Rd. opp. from Wat Pha Kaew, Wat is free but the museum 1,000kip 8:00-12 & 13-16:00 The oldest original temple in Vientiane, built by King Anou in 1818. Houses more than 2,000 small Buddha statues, brought here by devotees.

Anousavari Monument: The triumphal arch of Vientiane built in 1962. NE of Lane Xang Rd. Monument for the people who died in wars defending the country. It is possible to climb up the Monument 1,000kip 8:00-17:00

That Luang: The holiest Stupa in Laos, 3km NE from center of the town along Lane Xang Rd. Built by King Settathirat in 1566. Very unique-shaped Stupa and the most important religious symbol of the country. 2,000kip 8-12, 13-16:00

Lao National Museum: Samusenthai Rd. W from Lao Plaza Hotel 3000k 8-12, 13-16:00 A lot of propaganda.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Laos Food

Rice and particularly sticky is the foundation for all Lao meals, and almost all dishes are cooked with fresh ingredients such as vegetables, freshwater fish, poultry, duck, pork, beef or water buffalo. Lime juice, lemon grass and fresh coriander give the food its characteristic tang, and various fermented fish concoctions are used to salt the food. Chillies, garlic, mint, ground peanuts, tamarind juice and galangal are also often used just like in Thai cuisine.

Lao meals typically consist of a soup dish, a grilled dish, a sauce, greens, and a stew or mixed dish (koy or laap).

Dishes are often served alongside a plate of lettuce, mint, coriander, mung-bean sprouts, lime wedges or basil, which are wrapped in the lettuce to accompany the food.

Another distinctive characteristic of Lao food is that food is frequently eaten at room temperature. This may be attributable to the fact that Lao food served with sticky rice is traditionally handled by hand.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Bia Lao

Bia Lao with 5% volume of alcohol is distributed to every part of the country and has a 98% market share. Bottled since 1973 on the outskirts of Vientiane by the Lao Brewery Co., is an arrestingly crisp brew. There's no stinting on quality: Bia Lao is made from Pilsen malt imported from France, Hallertauer Magnum hops and dry yeast from Germany, and local rice and springwater.
These are some of factors that have propelled Bia Lao to the top of Asia's beer league. It is said wherever you are in the world, one sip of Bia Lao and you are instantly transported to a riverside bistro in Vientiane. The long lunches, the French-colonial streets, the wats and murmuring monks or memories of your head down a toilet: it all comes back with exquisite precision.

Breaking News!

Lao Brewing Co, announced on the 29th September the launch of three new products, including Carlsberg brewed in Laos under license and two new forms of Beerlao – a dark and a light beer. Carlsberg will be on sale in the first week of October, the two other beers will hit retail outlets in the middle of October

The price of the new beers is based on their alcoholic content. The dark beer has an alcohol volume of 6.5 percent while the light beer has a much lower alcohol content of 2.9 percent.

Link to full Vientiane Times article

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Getting around by bus

Ordinary buses run between major towns and link provincial hubs with their surrounding districts. Operating out of Vientiane, a fleet of slightly more comfortable blue, government-owned buses caters mostly to the capital's outlying districts, although it does provide a service to Vang Viang and Pakxe.

Buses plying long-distance routes tend to be in worse shape and can be either classic buses or souped-up tourist vans. Throughout the south and along the Vientiane-Louang Prabang route, the transport mainstay is a converted Russian flat-bed truck.

Except for buses out of Vientiane, Savannakhet and Louang Prabang, when you should buy a ticket from the bus station before boarding, it's common practice to pay on board .

Timetables only exist in Vientiane, Louang Prabang and Savannakhet; elsewhere it's best to go to the bus station the night before to find out the schedule for the next day. Where there is no information, you should get to the bus station between 6 and 7am, as that is when most Lao passengers prefer to travel. Very few buses leave after midday . Even though they're scheduled, long-distance buses won't depart if empty. Route 13, however, sees a steady flow of bus traffic and it's usually possible to flag down a vehicle during daylight hours.

VIP or Mini-bus?

Minibuses are more expensive, however that does not mean they are necessarily better. The VIP Bus is just an old bus by Western standards, although it typically does have more leg room which makes a long journey far more pleasant. Both vehicle types are usually air conditioned. A VIP Bus is slower and more prone to breakdowns however.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Money, Money, Money

Looks like I will be spending about 10 days in Laos and 5 days in Thailand. My budget for Thailand is £20 a day (1400 baht) and for Laos about £15 per day ($27). This includes all transport and accommodation and food apart from the two internal flights within Thailand I have already booked. This does not include the $30 Laos visa.

The currency in Laos is the Kip and the exchange rate is currently 20,000 kip to the British Pound or about 10,800 to the US dollar. I will take $300 into Laos and change some into Kip as required as the largest note is 5,000 kip. Most large expenses such as accommodation and transport can be paid for in US dollars. Food and drink will be Kip.

I may have overestimated the costs in Laos some people reckon on about $15 a day but best to have some in reserve.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Alternative Route Louang Prabang to Houay Xai

The more I think about it the more tempted I am to give up one day in Vang Viang and not take the “backpacker express” slow boat from Luang Prabang to Houay Xai.

The alternative is to to take an eight hour slowboat up the Nam Ou river to Nong Kiaow/ Muang Ngoi and then overnight at Nong Kiaow. From there it will be overland to Houay Xai via Udomxai. I would probably need to allow three days for this alternative route hence one day less in Vang Viang.

Places to stay in Nong Kiaow that look interesting are Sunset Guesthouse and Sengdao Bungalows and Restaurant

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Internal flights in Thailand

Have now booked two internal flights within Thailand both using Thai Air Asia. There are an ever increasing number of low cost no-frills airlines operating in South East Asia.

All of them have English language web pages and most allow the use of European or North American issued Visas or Mastercard credit cards for online booking. Most issue e-tickets.


www.airasia.com - AirAsia
www.bangkokair.com - Bangkok Airways
www.nokair.com - Nok Air
www.onetwo-go.com - One-Two-Go
www.orient-thai.com - Orient Thai Airlines
www.pbair.com - PB Air
www.phuketairlines.com - Phuket Airlines
www.thaiair.com - Thai Airways International
www.thaiskyairlines.com - Thai Sky Airlines

www.laoairlines.com - Lao Airlines

The flights I have booked are:

Thu 24 Nov - Air Asia - Bangkok to Udon Thani departs 16:15
499 baht – (1058 baht including taxes)

Wed 07 Dec – Air Asia – Chiang Rai to Bangkok departs 08:20
499 baht – (1058 baht including taxes)

Tuesday, September 06, 2005


This is the first attempt at an itinerary for 15 days in Thailand and Laos during November and December 2005.

I am still in two minds as to whether I should miss out Vang Viang entirely and go by boat from Louang Prabang to Nong Khiaw and then overland to Louang Nam Tha and on to Houayxai.

This would undoubtedly be more fun than the slowboat from Louang Prabang to Houayxai and would take about four days (assuming nothing breaks down and there are no sudden downpours) but I also need make sure that I am back in Thailand on Tuesday 06 December at the latest.

Wed 23 Nov Manchester to Bangkok
Thu 24 Nov Bangkok to Nong Khai
Fri 25 Nov Nong Khai
Sat 26 Nov Nong Khai to Vientiane
Sun 27 Nov Vientiane
Mon 28 Nov Vientiane to Vang Viang
Tue 29 Nov Vang Viang
Wed 30 Nov Vang Viang
Thu 01 Dec Vang Viang toLouang Prabang
Fri 02 Dec Louang Prabang
Sat 03 Dec Louang Prabang
Sun 04 Dec Louang Prabang to Pakbek
Mon 05 Dec Pakbek to Houayxai/Chiang Khong
Tue 06 Dec Chiang Khong to Chiang Rai
Wed 07 Dec Chiang Rai to Bangkok
Thu 08 Dec Bangkok to Manchester

Monday, September 05, 2005

Chiang Rai to Bangkok

If all goes to plan (it wont!) it will be time to get down to Bangkok fo the last couple of days of this trip.

I have booked the 08:15 Air Asia flight from Chiang Rai to Bangkok and made a reservation at the venerable Suk 11 for one night.

This gives me a full two days in Bangkok and hopefully a chance to visit some old haunts or just a bit of flexibility should a bus/boat or two break down. The next thing I need to do bring all these ramblings together into some sort of itiniery.

Chiang Khong to Chiang Rai

Although I have been to Chiang Mai several times I have never made it to its little brother Chiang Rai. So I thought a night here would be fun.

In all probability I will get a bus early morning from Chiang Khong to Chaing Rai . I dont really like arriving places in the evening so I think a night in Chiang Khong is probably the best idea.

Not much idea of guesthouses in Chiang Rai but there are plenty maybe try Baan Warabordee Guesthouse or Jitaree Guesthouse.

Travelfish recently recommended Ben Guest House, 4/4 Chiang Mai-Lamphun Rd. Soi 2, A. Muang, Chiang Mai 50000 Tel. 053 244103

The plan is for one day and night in Chiang Rai then onwards to Bangkok the next day.

Some places I have heard are good arethe Gallery left hand side of the Wiangcome Hotel for the best breakfast and coffee and the Chay Naam next to the river for Thai food in the evening.

Houayxai to Chiang Khong

The plan is to cross over the Laos-Thai border at Houayxai as soon as the slow boat docks and, depending on time, either get a bus straight to Chiang Rai or stay overnight in Chiang Khong.

Accommodation options in Chiang Khong are Baan Rim Ta Ling Guesthouse and Homestay or the Chiang Khong River View Inn.

I need to be back in Bangkok on the 7th December. However it is the kings birthday on the 5th December and I am not sure what the transport situation is going to be like as its a Public Holiday

I may fly from Chiang Rai to BKK with Air Asia.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Louang Prabang to Houayxai

This bit of the trip is causing me some concern. I would really like to take the boat from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw and then overland to Luang Namtha and onwards to Houayxai. Unfortiunately I am just not going to have the time to do this unless I find Vang Vieng to be (pizzas and episodes of Friends etc) so bad that I leave after one day.

So it looks as it may have to be the slowboat from Louang Prabang to Houayxai staying overnight at Pakbeng. The boat leaves from the boat pier behind the Royal Museum tickets cost 88,000 kip to Pakbeng, where onward tickets can be bought for Huay Xai fore about the same price

Accommodation in Pakebeng it looks like a choice between Donevilasack Guesthouse or the Bounmy Guesthouse.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Vang Viang to Louang Prabang

After three or four days in Vang Viang the provisional idea is to head north to Louang Prabang.

This is already starting to look like a mad dash around Laos. I really think another week would have been better but I shouldn’t moan a lot of people never have the chance or money to do this type of thing.

The bus to Louang Prabang takes 6 - 8 hours (bus and road conditions permitting) arriving early afternoon or a minibus taking about 5 hours.

There seems to be no end of accommodation places I am looking at are:

Levady Guesthouse
Sisavangvong Rd Louang Prabang Tel: (071) 254 434, (020)
563 4769
Merry Guest House 1
Central Luang Prabang Louang Prabang Tel: (071) 252 325

Rattana Guesthouse
4/2 Baan Wat That Louang Prabang Tel: (071) 252 255

Plan to stay two or three days here before moving on towards Houayxai

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Vientiane to Vang Viang

The next leg I am considering is from Vientiane to Vang Viang. I am in two minds about Vang Viang as some sites and articles I have read make it out to be well and truly a Kao Sahn Road/Pai scene. However all I have seen on the web and read in the Rough Guide to Laos indicate it is outstandingly beautiful.

I think I will give it a go I can also move on. It would be a pity to miss kayaking and tubing on the Nam Xong river and to do some caving.

The bus leaves from the main bus station in Vientiane by the morning market at about 06:30 – hopefully there is a later one.

Guesthouse wise I am looking at Le Jardin Organique or the Bungalows Riverside and Restaurant. Both these look good on the Travelfish website at around $10.

Nong Khai to Vientiane

Right I think I have finally decided on my route through Laos. I only have about 10 days in Laos to leave myself some time in Chiang Mai and Bangkok however there is always the possibility of flying Bangkok Airways from Luang Prabang to Bangkok if time is running out.

After getting over the jetlag and tiredness at Mutmee Guesthouse in Nong Khai I intend to cross the Friendship Bridge between Thailand and Laos using the Thai-Laos International Bus Service run by the transport company Thailand (30 baht) obtaining a 15 day Visa-on-Arrival at Lao immigration for $30. The journey apparently takes about an hour plus border formalities leaving Nong Khai at either 07:30 or 10:30. This would get me into Vientiane buy lunch time at the latest with plenty of time to find a “get how”.

I have had several recommendations for the Mali Namphu Guesthouse at about $16 for a room it sounds OK and will probably end up being my most expensive accommodation Laos. I plan to spend two or three days in Vientiane