Thakaek, I never really got a good vibe from this city. It has a lot of potential along the riverside and the old architecture suggests it may once have been a grand location but it now seems as though not many people are interested in it. The town is usually used as a staging area for those wanting to ride “The Loop” – a few hundred kilometre loop heading up and over a plateau and through some of the most beautiful natural scenery Laos has to offer. Parts of the road aren’t paved yet which only adds to the adventure! Other than that it seems there’s not much more to Thakaek from a traveller’s point of view.
After spending some time chatting to the very well informed Vientiane tourist office we found out there was in fact a direct bus from Vientiane to the little town of Kong Lor and hence the Konglor Cave. The bus leaves the Southern Terminal in Vientiane at 10am everyday.
Our bus made a few informal stops along the way sometimes to pick up passengers, other times let some ladies on the bus selling boiled sweetcorn or green papaya sticks with dipping spices. Or simply just to let everyone out (ladies included) to pee in the bushes next to the road. As you do on long bus journeys in Laos.
We arrived in Kong Lor just as the sun was setting behind the limestone mountains that cut across the landscape in which we found ourselves between 2 of these un-scalable fortress walls. The bus drops you off outside a clean cheap guest-house in town (which is tiny by the way). We’d read that there are local families that offer homestays in the town of Kong Lor but with all the new looking guest-houses along the road we weren’t too sure of finding one nearby and after the long journey we decided to take the easy route and check in to the guest-house.
Making our way down to Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, we weren’t quite sure what to expect but with a population of only around 240,000 people it has a very easy going vibe that we were happily drawn to. We also figured that while we were there we’d apply for longer tourist visa for Thailand that could only be done outside of Thailand. This gave us a couple days to explore this quiet capital and enjoy some chill time along the beautiful riverside promenade.
LP has become one of the must see destinations in Laos for its ancient traditions, beautiful riverside location and UNESCO protected old colonial style housing in and around some glittering temples. This together with the colourful markets and beautiful natural countryside makes the critics absolutely right!
One of the main “Attractions” that Luang Prabang has become famous for is the Tak Bat or Morning Alms giving ceremony. This takes place every morning as the local Laotian people wake up before sunrise to prepare food for the Monks. Around 6am, just as the sun comes up, the saffron-robed monks come out from their temples in single file, from oldest to youngest, to walk along the streets where the locals then give them food (mostly sticky rice) and other gifts, such as incense. This is a sacred and important part of the Buddhist lifestyle and national culture of Theravada Buddhist states such as Laos and Thailand.
By preparing food for the monks, the lay people seek spiritual blessing by way of the monk’s acceptance of their offering. The whole ritual is done in silence as the monks walk in a meditative state and the alms givers respect this by not disturbing the monk’s meditation.
There are 33 temples in and around the old town and nearly 80 altogether in Luang Prabang so this makes for a lot of monks walking around.
Unfortunately, in Luang Prabang this sacred ritual has become a bit a circus!
When looking at the options to get from Chiang Mai in Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos we weren’t keen to spend 2 full days on the Mekong river taking the usual 3 day/2 night option via the busy Chiang Khong/Huay Xai border crossing so when, by chance, we passed a tour operator with a notice of a 2 day/1 night option to get to Luang Prabang which was also slightly cheaper at 1750Bhat (about £30) and only spends one day on the river. This is a new route option which goes through the Thai/Laotian border crossing of Huaikone (or as it’s spelt on Google Maps – Huai Kon) and Muang Nguen (or Nam Ngen on Google). The package included all transfers, private en-suite accommodation and breakfast. OK cool, let’s go!
As with our travel motto from the start we’ve never made plans for where to go next on this journey, we’re still continuing to find new places on the advices from the people we meet on the road. This way of travelling has liberated us from all the pre-planning stress including arranging accommodation/bus/train tickets etc. We just turn up at a bus/train station on the day of travelling and book the next available seats to our next destination. Sure, sometimes this attitude has lead us to not so great transportation/accommodation options due to high season or demand but we have managed OK so far and end up having the most amazing memories regardless. So, the latest of these journeys was our last minute purchase of the train tickets from Bangkok to Chiang Mai which put us on a slow sleeper train that took 18hrs to arrive (instead of 16!). It was a long, exhausting train journey but later we agreed it was well worth the journey for what we experienced in Chiang Mai after our three weeks there…