Prepaid GSM
Getting around

Part 1: Vientiane, Phonsavan (Plane of Jars)


23-24.12: Munich-> Bangkok
25.12: Bangkok->Vientiane
26.12: Vientiane->Phonsavan
27.12: Phonsavan -> Luang Prabang
28.12: Luang Prabang
29.12: Luang Prabang
30.12: Luang Prabang -> Vientiane
31.12: Vientiane -> Pakse -> Bolaven plateau
01.01: Bolaven plateau -> Pakse -> Champasak
02.01: Champasak -> Don Khong island
03.01: Don Khong island
04.01: Don Khong -> Ubon Ratchathani -> Bangkok

Overview and overall impression
Vientiane has changed a lot since my last visit in March 2000. There are more cars in the streets (but still very few for a capital city), but mostly you can feel that the economy is speeding up. There is more dynamism in the streets, more activity, especially in the tourist sector. Mobile phones are now relatively widespread.

Actually the whole of Laos has changed over the past five years. The country is much more developed now and is developing very rapidly. But this also means that those idyllic villages with wooden houses with tree leaves roofs are being replaced by concrete houses or houses with corrugated metal roofs. Some villages are now heavily commercialised and totally geared towards tourists.

Pre-departure plan
Leaving Munich on December 23rd in the evening, we'll be in Bangkok on December 24th. Shirley will continue with the baby to Malaysia, while on December 25th I'm joining Timothy Tye with his AsiaExplorers group for a pre-arranged trip to northern Laos. The advantage of the pre-arranged trip is that everything is already booked and I don't have to organise anything by myself.

Will then leave the AsiaExplorers trip a couple of days early on the evening of December 30th, flying to Vientiane and the next day in the morning to Pakse. The idea is to spend 4-5 days exploring the south of Laos (Pakse, Bolaven plateau, 4000 islands region), before joining Shirley in Malaysia for the second part of the holiday (a few days in Malaysia, then some beach holiday in Koh Samui, Thailand).

Laos is still a very cheap country to travel. You can have a meal for less than 10000 Kip (1 USD), although for our meals we spent on average between 10000 and 20000 Kip. It is possible to find decent guest houses for less than 10 USD (personally I stayed in places in the 6-20 USD range).

I spent a total of USD 1432 on this trip, inclusive of the flights to and from Bangkok and one overnight stay in Bangkok. Of these 1432 USD the bulk consisted of transportation costs (total: 805 USD):
  • USD 305 (100+15+60+130) for car+driver hiring in Southern Laos,
  • USD 239 for the flights BKK-VTE and UBP-BKK (Thailand-Laos),
  • USD 161 for the flights LPQ-VTE and VTE-PKZ (within Laos) and
  • USD 100 as the (estimated) transportation component of the Laos AsiaExplorers package (USD 310).
That leaves 627 USD for accomodation (12 nights in hotels/guest houses), food (12 days of meals), entry tickets in Southern Laos and other expenses.

The transportation expense of 805 USD is indeed a bit high, but flying and renting a car+driver was the only way to see so many places in such a short time. Buses are a much cheaper way of travelling, but you lose a lot of time and can't see all places you want to see.

The 4 1/2 days trip to Southern Laos (not covered by the AsiaExplorers Laos package) cost 574 USD, most of which were transportation expenses (flights, car).

Money  / Exchange rate (December 2005)
1 Euro = 12500 Kip
1 USD = 10700 Kip (was 7500 Kip in the year 2000)
For current exchange rates check the Universal Currency Converter.

Mobile phones / Prepaid GSM
The two Tango prepaid cards I tried in the morning market in Vientiane were both defective, so I opted for a Lao GSM prepaid card (50000 Kip for the card, which includes 25000 Kip of calls; I also bought five recharges for 10000 Kip each. With the Lao GSM card calls to Malaysia and Europe are a very cheap 2000 Kip per minute. Lao GSM has coverage in all places I've been (including the remote Si Pa Don area).

Internet access
Internet cafes are everywhere, for prices mostly in the 100-200 Kip/minute range. The only Internet cafe I found on Don Khong island charged a relatively pricey 1000 Kip/minute.

Initially we had not so good weather in the north of Laos. It was cool and mostly overcast in Vientiane, cold and overcast in the Plain of Jars and fresh in Luang Prabang. The weather then improved and in southern Laos it was mostly hot, but still many clouds in the sky. December and January are the dry season in Laos and it actually should be dry with blue skies.

Health / Vaccinations
I had the usual set of vaccinations for tropical countries (tetanus, diphtheria, polio, Hep A+B), but no typhoid protection because the risk was not so high.

Concerning malaria, since I was only staying a few days in a risk area (southern Laos) I relied on plenty of mosquito repellent. I used Autan and it worked  very well, because I can only remember one mosquito bite on the right hand, on a spot where I actually had washed away the mosquito repellent when washing my hands. To be  on the safe side I applied Autan on arms and legs twice a day (in the morning and in the evening).

I had no intestinal upsets, probably because I'm used to the local bacteria, but I heard that some AsiaExplorers group members got diarrhea from a pumpkin soup they had in Luang Prabang.

VISA / Entry requirements
Visa upon arrival is available in Laos at most international entry point (photo required + 30 USD fee). Nationals of ASEAN countries do not need a visa for Laos.

I'd rate Laos as a safe country with a low crime level. The Hmong insurgency in the north of Laos has lost a lot of momentum, especially because of the surrender of 700 Hmong fighters in 2004. The only problem is that the Plain of Jars site is littered with mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) dating back to the Vietnam war period, so you have to be careful not to walk outside of marked areas.

Getting around
In the north of Laos we had our own bus and used one flight from Vientiane to Phonsavan to save time. Due to limited time I used flights to get quickly into the south of Laos, and once there I hired a car + driver to get around. This increased considerably the cost of travelling (see above), but was the only way to see all the places I wanted to see in a short time. Most other travellers I met in the south used buses to get around, but lost a lot of time in the process and didn't manage to see even half of the places I visited.

By the way, Laos has no train network. In the north of Laos road travelling takes a lot of time, due to the mountainous terrain and all those narrow winding roads. In the south of Laos the slopes are more gentle and the roads straighter, so that road travel speeds of up to 110 km/h are possible.

23.12-24.12:  Munich -> Bangkok
Asia Airport Hotel Bangkok, 99/2 Moo 8 Phaholyothin Road, Lamlukka Pathumthanee, Bangkok 12130. 190 RM (booked through a Malaysian travel agency) for a room. The hotel is old and not as elegant as the Rama Gardens, although the rooms are ok (nothing is missing, the rooms have TV, fridge, phone, decent furniture, bath+shower, controllable A/C). The hotel is in a huge shopping complex, where they sell exclusively computer stuff, including notebook computers for 10000 Baht (= 210 Euro). This place is ideal, if you want to shop for computer stuff.
Weather: Still snowing when we leave Munich, although with increasing temperatures (+3°C in the evening). In Bangkok the sky is overcast and it is surprisingly fresh. No rain.

We manage to reach the check-in counter at terminal 2 of the Munich airport at 7:43pm, a bit later than what I was planning to. This time check-in is really speedy and we just have to wait 12 minutes in the queue. Initially they put us (Shirley, baby and me) on non-contiguous seats in different rows, but after Shirley complains at the gate (she can be very persuasive "... pleeease please, see my baby, very difficult to take care, I NEED my hubby...") we are put into contiguous seats. There is not too much time left and we just have a small thing in a cafe in the international gate area. Very unfriendly, even rude guy in this cafe.

The TG 925 flight MUC-BKK leaves on time for Bangkok. The flight is completely full, with not a single empty seat available anymore. They even upgrade people from the economy class to the business class, because the economy class is overbooked.

I was planning to do some computer work on the plane, but with the baby this turns out to be almost impossible. It's a very active baby, which constantly has to be taken care of. She doesn't want to sit down, so you have to company her while she walks around the plane. Alissia sleeps for a few hours between 1am and 4am. Approximately during the same time I also sleep 2-3 hours, while Alissia is sleeping in Shirley's arms. Shirley doesn't get any sleep.

At about 4:30am I wake up and the day starts for me. Alissia is also awake and active again. But she is too tired to do the walking herself, so she insists that I carry her around the plane. But she still manages to climb up herself the staircase to the first class (plane is a Boeing 747-400 double decker).

Around 6am (CET) the whole plane wakes up and breakfast is served. The plane then lands in Bangkok on time at 2pm Thai time. By the time I get through immigration, retrieve the luggage, withdraw cash from an ATM, check with the Thai airlines ticket office if my electronic tickets to/from Laos are ok, it is almost 3:30pm (Thai time). I then head to the information counter and ask for the shuttle service to the Asia Airport Bangkok hotel. They tell me to wait and I wait, wait and wait. Finally at 4pm the shuttle leaves for the hotel. It takes longer than expected to get to the hotel, at least 25 minutes. I guess the hotel is further away than 3km from the airport.

After checking in I don't do much. I basically explore the shopping complex and have some food.

Tomorrow the wake up call is at 5:30am and the shuttle bus leaves at 6:30am to the airport. I go sleeping at 9:30pm.

25.12:  Bangkok -> Vientiane
Mali Namphu guest house, Vientiane, 114 Pangkham road, Tel. 215093. USD 15 for a relatively simple but adequate room with two beds, A/C, fan, own bath with shower, TV, some furniture, but no phone. Breakfast included. Actually the guest house is not too bad and in fact I stayed again there.
Weather: still a bit overcast in Bangkok, but the sun shines through. In Vientiane it's a mix of overcast and blue sky, with the cloud cover opening up considerably every now and then, just to close again after 20-30 minutes. Not that hot, actually not hot at all. A/C might not be necessary, except for the bus, when the sun comes out. A few drops of rain in the evening around 8pm.

I wake up around 3am and since I can't fall asleep again, I just get up, take a shower and pack my things. Then I do some editing on my website (am currently redesigning the user interface of the site) until about 5:30am, when the phone rings and I get the wake up call. Shortly after that I go down to the reception and have breakfast. Breakfast is a buffet with many choices (not too bad, actually quite decent). Still no trace of Tim and his group, with whom I'll do the Laos trip.

After breakfast, around 6:10am I check out and wait in the lobby for the group. Around 6:25am I meet the first member, Wong, a Malaysian Chinese who arrived from Australia to join the trip. Then after that in short succession the other members of the "AsiaExplorers Laos team" show up and we introduce ourselves to each other. They are all Malaysian Chinese, except for Mani, a Malaysian Indian lady. We are a total of 14 people.

A bit after 6:30am we leave the hotel with the minibus and drive towards the airport. This time the drive is much shorter. After checking in at the airport, I briefly check my emails.

The plane leaves on time at 8:15am and lands also on time at 9:20am. At the airport I manage to be one of the first in the visa-on-arrival queue (USD 30 + one passport photo required), so the visa process is relatively speedy. But then I end up choosing the wrong immigration queue, where a sleepy immigration officer sits, who carefully reads every single page of each passport.

It takes for ever to get through immigration and in the end I only manage to get through and retrieve my luggage after 10am. Outside Tim & Co. are already anxiously waiting for me (they got all through the speedy ASEAN queue, where no visa is required). We have a relatively big bus, which will drive us around in Vientiane.

Vientiane has changed since my last visit in March 2000. There are more cars in the streets (but still very few for a capital city), but mostly you can feel that the economy is speeding up. There is more dynamism in the streets, more activity, especially in the tourist sector. Mobile phones are now relatively widespread.

The bus drives us first to a place where we can change some money. One Euro is 12000 Kip and the biggest bill is only 20000 Kip, so for $100 I get a big bundle of bills. Then the bus brings us to the Mali Namphu guest house, where we will spend the night. After checking in and depositing the things into the room, we start our sightseeing with the Wat Sisaket at 11:15am. This wat is actually quite nice (the inner corridor contains lots of Buddha statues). We spend half an hour in this wat, then proceed to the next wat, Wat Ho Phrakeo. This wat is nice, but less interesting, as it appears that it was rebuilt quite recently.

We spend another 20-30 minutes in this wat, then at 12:15pm drive by bus to the restaurant. There Tim or the tour guide have arranged for us a meal with several courses. Since it is too spicy for me, I order some fried rice for myself. The bill (for me) is 43000 Kip and it includes a freshly squeezed pineapple juice.

After lunch we drive to the Pha That Luang, which we reach at 1:55pm. We end up staying almost one hour there. It's a very nice complex. but unfortunately initially the sky is overcast. After some time the sky opens up and I get some good shots.

At 3pm we drive to the Patuxai, which today is full of people and activity. Five years ago it was a relatively peaceful place. At 3:40pm we drive to the Morning Market, which despite the name is still open. There I buy a SIM card for my GSM phone. I initially ask for a Tango card, but the first two I try are defective, so I opt for a Lao GSM card (50000 Kip for the card, which includes 25000 Kip of calls; I also buy five recharges for 10000 Kip each; calls to Malaysia and Europe are a very cheap 2000 Kip per minute).

At 4:35pm we are back in the hotel, where we relax for a while. At 5:30pm we drive to the Mekong river for sunset and dinner (why do we always drive - it's a very short distance from the hotel to the Mekong), but there is no sunset due to the clouds cover. It gets dark pretty fast after 6pm. Dinner is not bad and very cheap - 18000 Kip for a rice with mushrooms and chicken.

After dinner we go to the Patuxai for some night shots, arriving there at 8pm. In the evening I don't do much - it has been a pretty long day today.

26.12:  Vientiane -> Phonsavan
Kongkeo guest house, Phonsavan. Very spartan conditions, as the rooms are quite basic and there is no hot water (how to take a shower?). Not recommended.
Weather: essentially overcast the whole day in Vientiane, not a single spot of blue sky, just every now and then the sun pokes through a bit. Overcast and surprisingly cold in Xieng Khouang (17°C when we arrive, less at night). It rains a bit.

I wake up at 4am and can't sleep anymore. At 5am I start processing yesterday's photos until about 7am. Then I take a shower, get shaved and finally Kuan, my room fellow, wakes up and has a shower. At 7:50am I have breakfast, then at 8:20am I walk to the nearby Internet cafe (200 Kip/minute, where I check my emails and browse the web until 8:50am.

At 9:10am we leave by bus for the Xiengkuane Buddha park, sort of a park set up in 1958 with many Buddha statues. On the way we briefly stop for some photos at a rice paddy. We reach the park at about 10am.

The park itself is nothing special. It contains a number of statues of Buddha and of the Rama epic, all built in 1958 in cement. Not really a "must see" destination, only go there if you have nothing better to do. We stay at the park until about 11am.

After the park we drive back towards Vientiane. On the way, at 11:15am we stop at the Friendship bridge for some photo shooting. There is a Chinese-Vietnamese-Lao crew, which is building a pumping station for an irrigation channel.

At 11:40am we drive to a roadside restaurant, where we have lunch (I take two dishes for a total of 16000 kip). Around 1pm we drive back to the guest house. Tim tells us that we are late, so we all rush to get the bags.

We reach the airport a bit before 2pm, too early for the flight which only leaves at 3:30pm (counter is still closed).  The flight is boarded from Vientiane international airport (Vientiane only has one airport), from the domestic terminal.

The flight leaves on time at 3:30pm from Vientiane and arrives 40 minutes later in Phonsavan (Xieng Khouang province). It is quite cold and it even starts raining a bit. There we meet the new guide and get into the bus. By the time we arrive in the town it is almost 5pm and getting dark. We spend half an hour visiting the market, which is kind of interesting.

Around 5:30pm we are transferred to the guest house. In the evening we have a dinner in a local restaurant, which our guide Sai has arranged. Very overpriced at 50000 Kip and not so good food. Perhaps Sai, our guide,  has a deal with the restaurant.

27.12:  Phonsavan -> Luang Prabang
Khun Savan guest house, Luang Prabang. Double room with just one bed for two people (imagine two grown up guys fighting for the blanket). Simple room with A/C, some furniture, private bath. No TV, no phone. Not enough hot water - if somebody in the guest house took a shower before you, there is no hot water anymore. Not recommended, but central location.
Weather: essentially overcast the whole day, at night the cloud cover opens up (the stars are visible). Every now and then some blue sky, but it also rains briefly. Quite fresh, actuallly cold

I get the frst night of decent sleep and wake up at 6am. A bit before 7am I have breakfast, and at 7:20am we leave the guest house and drive to the Plain of Jars. It turns out that the guide told us nonsense yesterday, because all three jar sites are easily reachable.

Until 11:20am we visit all three jar sites (the first one being the most interesting), then at 11:30am we have a lunch at a smalll restaurant at the jar site Nr. 3.

At 12:15pm we start our drive to Luang Prabang. What happens is that essentially every few minutes we stop for about 10 minutes of photo shooting (scenery etc.). I'm a photo fanatic myself, but these guys are even more obsessed with photography than I am. This is essentially a bus full of obsessed photographers. We don't care about money, we don't care about sex - just give us our good photos.

We are in the stop-and-go mode until after sunset at 6pm. Then the photography stops, as there is no light anymore. I end up shooting over 300 photos. By the way, many of them are really nice - Laos is a very scenic country.

At 8:30pm we stop for an hour in a small town, where we have dinner. We finally reach the guest house in Luang Prabang at 11:45pm - quite late. The next morning we are supposed to leave the guest house at 9am. By the way, the weather probably is improving. Over large stretches of the road you could see the stars.

Copyright 2006 Alfred Molon