The official Buddhist New year is the three days following the first full moon in April, however in some towns the celebrations can last up to a week. The main symbol of renewal is water with the tradition of washing the buddha statues and cleaning your house, ready for a fresh start. In more recent years the water tradition still stands but has also taken on the form of water fights. Every year over the new year period everyone comes together for water fights in the streets. Fully clothed, baring water guns, buckets, hoses and water bombs, the streets are full of people – there’s no escape from the festivities.
As most places were closed over the new year period, we decided to split our time up to try and avoid one place getting too repetitive. We spent the first three nights in Vang Vieng, then moved onto Vientiane for a night, before finally heading down to Thakhek for 2 nights.
Vang Vieng has a reputation of being the backpacker central of Laos all down to its famous tubing experience. For those unsure of what tubing is, I’ll give you a brief explanation – you float down a river on an inflatable tube, stopping at bars along the way. The experience became famous for its numerous bars, free drinks, zip lines and slides but it wasn’t long before these caused more harm than good. In 2011 most of the bars were closed down a number of people died whilst taking part in the activity after accidents were caused after the result of drugs and alcohol consumption. While tubing does still exist it is now on on a much smaller scale with only 2 bars and an hour and half float down the river in between. To say we weren’t disappointed would be a lie. While I’m glad a number of things have closed due to being unsafe, what remains seems to be more of a money making scheme for backpackers. It is made out to be the same as it was before, but the bars aren’t really bars just plastic chairs along the river and the drinks are nearly three times the price of those in the town. That said, we still enjoyed our time because we were with a great group of people. Whilst in Vang Vieng we also decided to take a walk to a cave nearby once again following the instructions of Maps.me. What could have been an easy stroll along the main road was actually a long walk leading us through private land, climbing over fences and trudging through the lake bare foot, it was an experience in itself! Another famous element of Vang Vieng is the continuous showing of friends in bars throughout the town. Nearly every bar has friends on the tv 24/7 with back to back episodes giving you a perfect excuse to leave the hostel when hungover. We stayed at Vang Vieng Backpackers the whole time and I’d really recommend it. They had free whiskey every night, free breakfast every day, a pool table and organised daily activities – well worth staying at.
After Vang Vieng we caught a minibus down to the capital city of Vientiane. We only stayed one night due to all reviews and blog posts online saying it was worth missing altogether and they were right. Granted it didn’t help we arrived in the centre of their new year celebrations as everything was closed, but even then, there was nothing to do. We spent the day wandering around the Patuxai trying to avoid all the water fights on the way there and back. The views from the top made the walk worthwhile and it was a good way to see a small part of the city. However, other than that, there wasn’t much for us to do – even all the fast food and restaurants were closed! We stayed at Backpacker Garden hostel and I cannot warn you enough not to stay here. The windows in our room were non existent, in its places was cardboard, the food was horrible, the staff were extremely rude and unhelpful, there was no electricity in the room and on top of that Mikey had his shoes stolen (ok so not the hotels fault but still annoying).
Our final stop over the new year period was Thakhek. The only reason we stopped in this town was because we had read online that you could visit the Kong Lor Caves from here and while that was true, it came at at very high cost. The only company offering a trio to the caves was Green Discovery and they were charging $150 each – far too expensive. I was really disappointed at this as the caves were one of the main things I wanted to in Laos but I couldn’t justify the cost. Instead we spent the day wandering around the town and checking out the little cafes on offer. The Mekong river runs down the side of the town which borders Thailand making beautiful views at night when all the temples are lit up. Unless you are heading off to do the motorbike route from Thakhek to Kong Lor, there really isn’t much to do in Thakhek and is probably worth passing. We stayed at two hotels while in Thakhek the first one was Non Kham Guesthouse however we checked out first thing in the morning after the location was more than an hours walk into the town, noone spoke any English, there was loud music playing all night and the restaurant wasn’t open so there was no where to eat. When we arrived we decided to head for a walk into the town to look for food but didn’t realise just how far away it was. After an unsuccessful 3 hour search we headed back to our hotel but it wasn’t without being soaked with water along the way. We ended up being dragged into a family party with no choice, then covered in talcum powder every 10 minutes whilst constantly being soaked with the hose and force fed questionable food for over 4 hours. It was great fun, an eye opening experience and we felt very welcome the only problem was no one spoke English. So after 4 hours of dancing whilst soaking wet it was time to head back. We then moved to a hotel in the town the next day where the staff we felt really extremely friendly, the room was beautiful and we we could do our washing for free – a real blessing, trust me!
Our time during the Laos new year period was great fun, eye opening and wet and I’m so glad we were able to share the experience.