Happy New Year! We’ve just clocked over into 2019 and we’re still going strong. Since we started travelling full time in the middle of October last year, we’ve visited four countries in total. In December we ticked off another two countries, Laos and Cambodia.
Both of these countries are quite poor but are developing rapidly, with a lot of investment and tourism coming from both China and South Korea. Apart from a little of their history, we didn’t know too much about them before arriving, so we went in with open minds.
December was certainly action packed. We managed to …
- take an incredible slow boat ride down the mighty Mekong river in Laos
- chat with novice monks in a temple in Luang Prabang
- be bear keepers for a day at the Free The Bears sanctuary in Phnom Penh
- hire a scooter and drive around the Cambodian countryside for a week, dodging potholes and crazy drivers.
- spend an amazingly chilled out Christmas and New Years Eve by the river in Kampot.
… and much, much more. Read on to learn all about our December!
Our First Impressions of Laos
Taking a slow boat trip down the mighty Mekong river was our introduction to Laos and it made a pretty good first impression, at least visually! While the ride was a bit cramped, the views of the surrounding countryside were amazing and we really enjoyed the entire experience. You can read our full account of our slow boat trip here.
Our slow boat journey ended in the lovely town of Luang Prabang, where we stayed for 8 nights. With its beautiful river views and wonderful French colonial style architecture, Luang Prabang has a lot to offer tourists. The town is becoming very popular with tourists but it’s not yet overrun with them, so you can still escape the crowds.
Vang Vieng, to love or to hate?
It’s fair to say that we spent the better part of a week in Luang Prabang debating how we should travel onwards to Vang Vieng. To get to Vang Vieng you must first go up and over the mountains next to Luang Prabang. You can do that either in a minivan or a coach.
We couldn’t seem to find any consensus online for which was the best option, just a lot of horror stories for both! In the end we went with the minivan and the journey went smoothly and very quickly. After all of our worrying, it was a total anti-climax!
Vang Vieng was an interesting place. Like many parts of Laos it has some amazing scenery, including plenty of towering limestone karsts. The town heavily caters to Chinese and South Korean tourists, much more so than westerners.
The town itself is pretty unexciting and you certainly wouldn’t have a reason to visit if not for the beautiful countryside. We also didn’t enjoy our guesthouse experience there. While the room was nice and had great views across the rice paddies, the staff were very cold and unwelcoming. It was probably one of the weirdest hotel experiences we’ve had to date. After a while we just stopped trying to be nice or to get a smile out of them.
Are people in Laos unfriendly?
That level of rudeness is not typical of Laos but you’ll find mixed reviews from travellers about how friendly people in Laos are. Some think that they’re the loveliest people on earth, while others find them a bit cold and distant or simply disinterested.
In such a short time in a country it’s really hard to gauge something like this with just personal anecdotes. We certainly found that a lot of the staff in the restaurants and shops we visited seemed rather uninterested in serving us. They were usually young teenagers engulfed in their mobile phones. But I suspect that a lot of those businesses were family run and the kids just weren’t that excited about being stuck there having to serve people.
When we actually had a chance to chat one on one with young men and women in Laos, they were all lovely and very happy to talk with us and share intimate details of their lives (more on that later).
Vientiane – meh!
After Vang Vieng, we took another bumpy minivan ride to the capital of Laos, Vientiane. Apparently Vientiane is one of those cities that doesn’t grab you straight away but instead slowly grows on you. We only had a couple of days there but we could kind of see how that might be the case.
But to be honest Vientiane seemed a pretty uninspiring place. It’s probably a nice, cheap city to live in as an expat and it does seem to be growing rapidly. But as a tourist, there’s not a lot there to get excited about. The top attraction in Vientiane is Buddha Park, a collection of weird Buddha statues and other concrete sculptures that took us less time to visit than it took to get there by local bus!
It probably didn’t help my opinion of Vientiane that I came down with food poisoning on my first night there. Fortunately I recovered enough for our flight out of there and on to Cambodia.
Our Favourite Experiences in Laos
Our Slow Boat Trip
As I mentioned earlier, this was a highlight of our trip through Laos. If we were to do it again though we’d probably spend bit more money and take a fancier boat! You can read all about our experience in detail here.
Talking with Young Locals in Luang Prabang
This was probably my favourite experience in Laos. One night we were walking back to our guesthouse and saw a couple of novice monks playing with some temple dogs. They beckoned us in and we chatted with them for over an hour, helping them practice their English. We learned a lot about their life as novices. Their enthusiasm was contagious.
A couple of days later we visited Big Brother Mouse which is an organisation setup to help young adults practice their conversational English. We chatted with a young man and woman about their life and the problems they face and that they see coming for Laos. It was amazing how much they were willing to share freely and we really enjoyed talking with them.
I managed to teach the young man a few new words such as organic and genetics. Why those two words you ask? Well he was explaining how his family were farmers and how they didn’t use pesticides. So I introduced him to the concept of organic vegetables.
He was from one of the Hmong clans, an indigenous group who live just outside Luang Prabang. He explained that there are only a dozen clans and that you can’t marry anyone who has the same clan name. This is to prevent in breeding. So I told him about genetics! Yes, Cindy is right – I am a bit of a know it all but sometime it helps!
It also helped that his English was already very good; otherwise I would have struggled to explain those concepts to him, since my Khmer vocabulary consists of only two words!
Drinking North Korean Blueberry Liqueur
In Vang Vieng we took a day tour which included some kayaking and caving. While parts of it were fun, it was spoiled a bit by the fact that a bunch of the South Koreans on our tour really just wanted to get drunk with the tour guides!
Still those South Koreans were really friendly and generous, so it was hard to be too mad at them. Plus, thanks to them I did get to try North Korean Blueberry Liqueur!
Moving On To Cambodia
We spent the last ten days of December in Cambodia. We flew in to Phnom Penh and spent four nights there.
We didn’t really know what to expect from Phnom Penh but we actually quite liked it. It’s a pretty easy city to walk around and there’s always something interesting going on. In a lot of ways it reminded me of Hanoi. I enjoyed just being in the city and watching daily life much more than I enjoyed the tourist attractions such as the royal palace.
As much as we enjoyed Phnom Penh, our visits to the Killing Fields and to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum affected us deeply and were a very sobering reminder of Cambodia’s horrific recent history. It’s important to visit these museums in order to understand what happened under the Khmer Rouge but they are both extremely disturbing.
It was very evident that Phnom Penh is developing very quickly. There is a huge amount of money pouring into the city, in particular from China. There are plenty of Lexus, Mercedes Benz and even Bentleys and Ferraris driving around town. Hopefully all of that development won’t spoil the city but time will tell.
Bear Keepers for the Day!
While in Phnom Penh we had a chance to visit the Free the Bears sanctuary. Free The Bears is an organisation that rescues the several types of Asian bears from either the horrible bile farm industry or from exotic animal collectors.
During our visit we learned all about what the organisation does as well as learning about the bears themselves and what they’ve been through. We had a chance to help make some treats for the bears, to keep them entertained in between meals.
This has been one of the highlights for us in Cambodia. It’s heartening to see the fantastic work that Free The Bears is doing.
Chilling out in Kampot
From Phnom Penh we moved on to Kampot where we spent Christmas and New Years Eve. We really loved Kampot. It has a great location right next to a beautiful river, with a beautiful mountain backdrop over which the sun sets each evening. It has wonderful old French Colonial style buildings which are gradually being restored to their former glory.
We hired a scooter for a week and did trips to the nearby salt fields, out to one of the famous Kampot Pepper plantations and across to the beachside town of Kep.
We also took a lovely sunset booze cruise down the river and we pulled in close to shore to watch the Fireflys come to life in the trees that line the river.
We stayed in a fantastic little guesthouse on the edge of Kampot’s old town. Kampot has a great mix of cafes and restaurants offering a mix of local and western food. We could easily see ourselves heading back to Kampot to spend a few weeks just chilling out.
But unfortunately, just like Phnom Penh and other parts of Cambodia, investment money is slowly pouring into Kampot. Hopefully it won’t ruin it.
At the end of the year we still had a couple of weeks left in Cambodia. But that’s for next month’s update. Stay tuned!