Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang

Dep: 08:30

Arr: 16:00

We are more familiar with overland travel in Laos by now. 

In short:

  • Long delays getting out of town as all the passengers, cargo and the driver’s lunch are rounded up
  • Twisting mountainous roads through breathtaking scenery and small villages

The future of backpacking: Vang Vieng

While scruffy Vang Vieng remains blighted by its unsavoury past, it is visibly charging into the future.

In 2014, popular Korean TV show Youth Over Flowers sent its young, handsome male protagonists to Vang Vieng to explore the breathtaking scenery that originally drew western backpackers after Laos started encouraging tourism in the late nineties.

EditA new army of backpackers duly arrived. 

The Korean tourist boom comes after a government crackdown on Vang Vieng’s infamous Nam Song River tubing adventures. Inner tubes would carry western backpackers between 20-30 riverside bars selling alcohol by the bucket and opium on the side. Rickety ziplines and swings would catapult increasingly wasted tourists back into the muddy river.
Following 27 deaths in 2011 and intense international scrutiny, a maximum of 2 bars are now allowed to open at one time. You’d imagine the one reputedly owned by the Chief of Police would frequently be serving tubers. Drug taking is strictly prohibited. 

Meanwhile, huge hotels are going up all over town to service the new Asian arrivals.

Our own post-crackdown trip on the river isn’t without incident.

“A guy died on the yellow route last week,” says our guide on the reputedly more ‘chilled out’ of the two tubing options. The ten of us, mostly Brits, bounce and sway as the tuk-tuk makes its way to the starting point. He’s very matter-of-fact about it. 

“Norweigan guy. Big black dude.”

“How did he die?” we ask, almost with one voice.

“Oh, motherfucker too drunk to swim. Fell out of the tube. It’s good you take the red route. Have guide. Yellow route don’t have guide to save him.”

We launch into our rubber rings, shock at what we’ve just heard dulled by that instinctive supressant, bravado.

After barely 3 minutes of drifting, we are ensnared by a blue rope tied across the river. We are fished out to flop into the first bar. It’s a floating platform with a high diving board at one end. At the other a girl (who cannot be older than 7) charges over twice as much as in town for Beer Lao, whiskey and so on. Music suddenly booms out of large speakers: Ed bloody Sheeran again.

Our guide heads to the diving board end and pees into the river before slumping onto an inner tube seat. He looks exhausted. Meanwhile, still drinking the free beer we got in return for signing away our right to sue back at the office, we swap travellers tales with the other tubers. 

“Are you cutting your own hair while you travel?” someone asks. 

Over Kaili’s laughter I tell them about my recent trip to a Lao barber.

An early afternoon downpour comes and goes, and finally more tubers appear. A group of 6 lifejacket-sporting Korean girls are proceeding in a chain, each grasping onto another tube. The links are cut as they drift into the blue rope. At the bar they mill around, unsure what they are supposed to be doing here. This is our cue to move on.

A layer of white scum covers the water floating around my swimming shorts on the inside of the tube as we continue down the river, trying to spin each other round and reach over our tubes for a smooch. Meanwhile, Mr Sheeran fades out and jungle sounds take over. Magnificent karst outcrops loom over us.

This being rainy season, the current is purposeful, quietly relentless. It’s barely half an hour before the tubes float round a bend and we spot the second bar. It’s a large wooden structure built high up above the river to our right. A Chainsmokers song fills the air. I’m trying to think of the title when I realise that rapids are taking us to the left away from the bar, towards an unwelcoming island of jagged rocks ahead.

“Paddle paddle!” comes the megaphone amplified shout from the right-hand bank. However, we’ve no chance of defeating the currents and paddling across the wide river. Our tubes pass within a foot of the rocks as the water sweeps to the left. We just keep arms and legs in and hold on. Once we are past the island, a plastic bottle attached to a rope is thrown towards Kaili. It lands about 3 feet away from her.

“Take the bottle!” shouts the man through the megaphone. 

She can’t reach it.

We are swept on, the bar and the Chainsmokers starting to fall behind us. 

A boat pulls up beside us. It’s basically a wooden canoe with an outboard motor attached.

“Hold onto the boat.” says the passenger. I recognise the voice from the bank. “Don’t let go.” We obey, gripping the thin edge of the low vessel tightly. Another kid is at the helm. The water swells and floods my tube as the boat chugs against the current on its way to the bar. We cross the river in this awkward, desperate fashion and finally come to rest in the muddy shallows on the far bank.

“Closer” says Kaili.


“This song. It’s called Closer”.

I need a beer.

The sun comes out, and the guide leads us to a table all set up for beer pong. A steel line travels from a platform over the wooden fence across the river. A horizontal bar is attached to it. Beer pong round 1 ends, so the first to puff out his chest and ride the zipline back into the river climbs up to the platform. 

At length the Korean girls arrive. After a brief wander around, they settle on plastic chairs facing away from the beer pong and the bar. There they stay for the 3 hours it takes our pickup to arrive.
I eventually give in and head up to the platform. The green-brown water gives me a slap as I drop into it. I swallow some, wipe my eyes, and then get on with the swim to shore before they call the coastguard out again. 

“Are you going in?” I ask Kaili, passing the peer pressure around. 

“No way,” she says “that water’s filthy.”

I glance at the Koreans, who are presumably thinking the same thing. Up on the platform, the guide pulls an Irish lad’s swimming shorts down just before he swings out over the river. 

“What would they have to do to make this appeal to Asian tourists?” I ask Kaili. 

“Make it bigger, classier” she says, gesturing to the bar. “Give us something to do. More food options.”

Given we are vastly outnumbered by the Koreans in town and in the surrounding countryside, we’ve concluded that it will only be a matter of time.

Konglor Cave

Konglor village is a one-street collection of wooden shacks and guesthouse buried deep in the Laos countryside. Like all other visitors, we are here for the nearby cave.

The cave, a short stroll from the village, gives visitors the chance to ride a boat underground, past otherworldly subterranean formations and rocky protrusions.

We share the ride with a Belgian called Will who came to Konglor on a motorbike on the Tha Kek Loop. 

“This is the best cave I’ve ever seen!” he enthuses.

It’s atmospheric for sure, but my enduring memory of the experience will be the surrounding countryside:

Vientiane-Konglor Cave

Dep: 07:30

Arr: 14:00

On the way out to the bus station we meet a European backpacker making her own way to Tha Kek, the closest city to our destination Konglor Village. She is going for the famous Tha Kek Motorbike Loop, which includes the cave that has compelled us to visit. We are split on to two different coaches at the bus station. Her’s actually has a motorbike secured to its roof! I suppose it’s too mountainous for low bridges here. 

The 7-hour journey direct to the cave is much smoother than the 12-hour trip to Vientiane. A big coach means room to breathe and spread out and, despite the twisting roads, the contents of everyone’s stomachs stays in everyone’s stomachs.

Neither here nor there in Vientiane

The guidebooks don’t want to say Vientiane isn’t interesting. Words like “incongruous” and “laid-back” lead the summaries of South-East Asia’s smallest capital. But I think that’s what they’re getting at.

To us, Vientiane seems neither one thing nor the other. You couldn’t imagine the swarms of scooters that terrorise other Asian capitals buzzing down its neat French-designed boulevards. While (as in Luang Prabang) there are some great cafes and bakeries, the gastronomic options spoiling Bangkok, Singapore and Hanoi residents are nowhere to be seen either. Kaili and I visit a half-hearted night market: I can’t even see trousers with elephants on for sale! We pass the dribble of BBQ stalls on our way back to last night’s Vietnamese place.

As in other parts of Laos, signs abound boasting of foreign investment. Chinese dams, Korean vehicles, Japanese public buildings. The effect is a patchwork that makes it difficult to understand the country we are in. Sure it’s laid-back and incongruous, but isn’t there anything else?

The COPE Visitor Centre does provide some answers. It reminds us that Laos remains the most bombed country on Earth. The exhibition details COPE’s campaign to clear the countryside of the unexploded bombs that were dropped by the US with so many others that did explode during last century’s Secret War. It also profiles many villagers working on the land who have inadvertently provoked an explosion. COPE’s prosthetic limbs help them to live a better life.

It’s great work, although much of the prosthetics (according to a note buried in the exhibits towards the end of the tour) actually serve victims of road accidents. A more balanced introduction featuring more twisted motorbikes and fewer bomb encasings may have been farer.

But I’ll leave it to the Victory Gate at the end of Lane Xang Avenue, surrounded by a China-funded park, to sum up the…well…I give up: the incongruity. An awkward concrete crown seems too big for the squat arch it adorns. Modelled on the Arc de Triomphe, it has come out as one of those tacky replicas you might find in a Parisian souvenir stall. Maybe if you turned it upside down, confetti would fall on it. There’s more: the concrete was donated by the US, but intended for a runway. If you don’t trust this nonplussed blogger, consider instead the Laos Tourist Board’s own plaque on the underside of the arch:

A family of four: Luang Prabang to Vientiane

Dep: 14:00

Arr: 23:37

The final passengers to board the minivan for the 12 hour journey to Vientiane are a family of four. Carrying nothing but the filthy, inadequate clothes they are wearing, mother, father and two infants take up positions just to Kaili’s right. The van is overfull, as is the practice here.

Quickly, a days old milk smell fills the bus; it is clear the mother has been feeding her daughter but not washing. 

The journey south down Highway 13 is a breakneck, mountainous slalom that leaves 8/20 passengers on board vomiting into thin pink carrier bags distributed by an unmoved conductor. Along with a couple of French lads, we watch on in despair as the sealed bags are, once filled, tossed out of the window onto the road. 

Oh God, the smell on board.

The father, after decorating the panel above a rear wheel arch with spew, curls up into the foetal position on the bus floor with his daughter and rides out the rest of the journey to Vientiane there.

Focussed on survival, he ignores some incredible scenery, lush countryside and karst needles interspersed with countryside villages. 

We pull in an hour north of popular backpacker hangout Vang Vieng for the driver and his mates to eat. Still nauseous or doubting the cleanliness of the food, most passengers just wait. 
“Oh that’s right, take your time to scoff your food and have a coffee, we’re in no rush!” 

A Frenchman complaining?! 

One of the lads is pissed about being stuck in an unhygienic restaurant an hour from his destination after 8 hours on the bus, and gamely persists with his whinging even after learning our destination is another 4 hours further south.

The driver actually makes it in 3. Our fellow Europeans let out a relieved cheer when we reach Vang Vieng and happily pile off the van. Then, tyres screech and the engine groans as it is strained to the limit on the poorly-lit but mercifully straight roads as darkness falls.

We arrive, jilted and frazzled, nostrils clogged with a heady cocktail of curdled breast milk and vomit. 

We’ve got another handful of these trips to come!

A tight fit: Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang

Dep: 09:00

Arr: 14:00

A train from Bangkok runs over the border almost as far as Vientiane, 30km into Laos. Which for now is as far as the rails go. Until foreign investment yields results, a horde of minivans and VIP buses swing passengers around winding mountainous roads between major hubs and tourist sites.

It’s 08:30 and we are safely installed in a battered old minivan at Nong Khiaw’s out of town bus station. The same cannot be said for the late arriving Australian couple stood at the ticket counter however. They are looking at us passengers already packing the van, and we are looking at them. Human Tetris follows; a young boy moves from the front to a plinth that extends from my seat, and one of the Aussies deposits his long legs around the neck of the girl in front. More bags go onto the roof under a tarpaulin sack.

Arrival into Luang Prabang is around five hours of high-speed hilltop corners and risky overtaking later.

An emerging backwater: Nong Khiaw

Nestled between two karst towers on either side of a river bridge, Nong Khiaw is an idyllic backpacker hangout on the brink.

The western owner of Coco House, our first stop for a late lunch straight off the boat, discovered the place 5 years ago.

“I decided that it was paradise; a place I could live. My wife is from a village in the north.”

“Does all this bother you?” I gesture to the numerous guesthouses now occupying the bank on the other side of the bridge. The construction work going on below his terrace provides an apt soundtrack.

“Yes and no. More tourists means more business.”

Scores of travellers dream of being the first to find a place like Nong Khiaw. But alongside the remoteness, they are increasingly demanding high-speed wifi, food options that remind them of home, and air-conditioned accommodation.

Before long, enough infrastructure has been added (inevitably at the expense of the natural environment) so the banana pancake for breakfast brigade can move in and enjoy our lattes in the Lao countryside. Prices skyrocket and locals are faced with a choice of catering for the tourists or leaving. Those that leave take with them the authenticity that persuaded the original travellers to stay, and as soon as the updated Lonely Planet has made it into print, places like Nong Khiaw are dismissed by ‘true’ backpackers as over-touristed. Unworthy of bragging rights, essentially. Guesthouses then get larger and Chinese characters are added to the menus…

“Go to Kazakhstan,” a Serbian traveller once told me. “It’s the new Mongolia.” 

Writing this over a Coca-Cola from the wifi-enabled terrace of Coco House as I am, there is clearly nothing for me to moan about. Especially when the surroundings look like this. 

But if only we’d got here first…

Narrow boat down the Nam Ou: Muang Khua-Nong Khiaw

Dep: 09:30

Arr: 15:00

We board a long wooden desk tidy with an engine, hoping a Year 8 Design / Technology project will be buoyant enough to haul us six hours down the river to Nong Khiaw.

We exchange smiles and ‘sabaidee’s with the local passengers and share worn out seat cushions around. The captain counts his ticket earnings. At last he brings the engine to life with a chug, and sends our craft puttering through currents and around rocks. 

Amélie from Montreal is also a travelling lawyer, so her and Kaili compare jobs for a spell before they both succumb to their Lonely Planets. 

German Tim is one of these devil-may-care types who didn’t know he was taking the boat until it was about to leave. He has about 4 months ish (maybe?) for South-East Asia (somewhere). His one firm plan is to learn to dive in the Southern Thailand island of-

“It’s much better and cheaper in Malaysia.” says Deborah, from Kuala Lumpur. After she has given him the scoop Tim turns to me, gleaming:

“You see, that’s why I never plan anything on my trip.”

Giddy, he bounds up to the comfortable chair at the front of our vessel from which the captain is negotiating us through some particularly shallow whirls and eddys.

“Can I drive the boat sometime?”


The captain never takes his eyes off the water. Good man.

Deborah has a guitar with her, so Ed Sheeran and Imagine Dragons compete with the engine for a bit, as majestic karst spears and stilt houses slide past. 

This sort of random and idyllic adventure is very much my thing, so enjoying the ride is not difficult. S.S. Pencil Case then slips round a bend and we are confronted with stark evidence of Chinese interests in Laos.

Chinese-built damns and hydropower plants on the Mekong and its branches are part of a local government push to become a ‘battery of Asia’. While most of Laos’ electricity is currently shipped to Thailand, the potential here is massive. Environmentalists are meanwhile concerned that due attention to the impact on fishing communities further down the Mekong and the fish stocks they require to survive isn’t being paid.

Shortly after, the trip ends for Deborah, Amélie and Tim at little Muang Ngoi. It’s a one-street collection of residential huts, guest houses and tour agencies. Kaili and I blag a few minutes off the boat to nose about before we are on the way to Nong Khiaw, more purposefully now.