national park

Sri Lanka: 5 Reasons Why It's The Perfect Destination For The First-Time Backpacker

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Tipped as the top travel destination for 2019 by Lonely Planet, Sri Lanka has it all for the outdoorsy traveller. From turtle sanctuaries and stunning white sanded beaches in the south, to the world famous tea plantations sprawled across the countries mountainous centre. 


If you are into animal watching, then you can spend your days bouncing around in an open topped jeep on safari, trying to spot wild elephants, crocodiles and leopards in the lusciously green national parks.  Mountain trekkers can head to a number of well know ranges, and can hike up some of the nations favourite peaks such as the steep and sacred Adams Peak at sunrise.  Head to the bustling and rugged city of Jaffna to soak up the culture of every day Sri Lankan life.  There are ancient temples, historical sights and plenty of religious ceremonies to attend. 

A climb to the sacred Adam’s Peak is well worth the reward….

A climb to the sacred Adam’s Peak is well worth the reward….


Whatever you choose to do in this diverse country, you really won't be disappointed because the standards are high and the quality of your experience is valued and welcomed by the locals.  Tourism is integral to the country's economy and in recent years they have seen a significant boom.  So for the first time backpacker, you have the peace of mind that the route is well trodden and the Sri Lankan people will treat you like family.  

Here are 5 reasons why we think Sri Lanka should be on the top of your to-visit list for the first time backpacker....

  1. The Friendly People

Not all people you meet on your travels will greet you with open arms, but the Sri Lankan’s are some of them.  After travelling in 16 countries over 10 months, we decided that the Sri Lankan's are some of the warmest and most welcoming folk that we've ever met.  Men would buy us coffee in the street, hosts would spend hours making us the most delicious home-cooked food from scratch, people are always on hand to help you get on the right buses, locals will share their food (and seat) with you on the train, and sometimes people will even walk down the street with you just to have a chat! You can’t get much friendlier than that.

Locals on the train to Nuwara Eliya who shared their food with us

Locals on the train to Nuwara Eliya who shared their food with us


Obviously there will always be the odd few rotten apples that are trying to get something for nothing, but on the whole we found the Sri Lankan's very trustworthy and helpful.  Impressively, nearly everyone speaks English due the empire, so if you are ever in need of help then just ask the person next to you and I'm sure they will do their best.  The hospitality in hostels and guest houses is next level, and hosts will really go out of their way to make your experience the best that it can possibly be.  We really don't have a bad thing to say about anyone we met!

2. It's Just So Cheap!

Sri Lanka is very well priced to travel around and on some days we would spend around £12 per day between us, that's with eating in the 'hotels' which are actually restaurants where the locals eat.  It's possible to find accommodation for around £6 for a double room per night on booking.com, and if you are happy to eat like the locals then a couple of kottu's (a Sri Lankan street food of chopped roti bread, vegetables and meat gravy fried on a hot plate) would set you back between £1.50 to £3.00 for 2 portions. That's a whole lot of bang for your buck!  A beer at an off-licence will be around 300 rupees (£1.50) which isn’t so bad. 

Well-priced produce at a local store

Well-priced produce at a local store


Travelling by bus is very cheap indeed, ranging from about 50p to £4 per journey (the £4 journeys would be if you were travelling for 5 hours across the country), and the train can be even cheaper but slower and far more crowded.  A train ticket to Colombo from Kandy is around 100 rupees for 2nd or 3rd class, or you can travel in 1st for only 500 rupees (£2.50)!  A rickshaw in the capital is around 50 rupees per kilometre, which isn’t too shabby.  


Visits to the national parks can however be pricy (they have to make their money somewhere right?) so if you are trying to keep your costs down then just choose to visit only one or two of them on your trip.  For example, a visit to the Kaudulla National Park on an elephant safari set us back £50 per person, and a trek in the knuckles mountain range with a guide and driver was £50 between us.  Compared with the costs of food, travel and accommodation, these prices seem extremely high, but if you acknowledge that you are paying for one or two people’s time and consider it a once in a lifetime experience then the costs aren't so bad after all.  I mean, you get to see elephants in the wild!  If you are happier eating in tourist restaurants for peace of mind of hygiene then there are many to choose from, and prices will be more like £3 to £6 for a main meal.  We ate at the local restaurants 3 times a day and never got sick, so if you want to taste real Sri Lankan food and pay cheap prices then find the nearest 'hotel’.

Kaudulla National Park on an elephant safari!

Kaudulla National Park on an elephant safari!


3. Easy To Get Around

Transport in Sri Lanka is great for the backpacker.  You can pretty much get anywhere by bus, or if you want to travel at a slower pace then taking a train is a good option.  If you don’t want any hassle with transport and money is no option then just take a cab or tuk tuk.  Remember to negotiate hard because most likely the first price will be far too high. 

We took several local buses to get to the base of Adam’s Peak in central Sri Lanka

We took several local buses to get to the base of Adam’s Peak in central Sri Lanka


The buses are the best way to get around though, and they’re are hilarious!  Travelling on one is such an experience, and in some ways they are the funniest part of the trip.  These are the local buses where the driver blasts out Sri Lankan bhangra for 4 hours straight, everyone is stuck to the sweaty leather seats, there is a line of people standing all the way down the isle clinging on for dear life, whilst the driver over-takes at full speed like a maniac.  So obviously the speedy dangerous driving is not a plus side of travelling by bus, but you will be guaranteed to get there quickly.  We would recommend sitting towards the back for safety, and not looking out the front (for obvious reasons).  Ignorance is bliss they say.  The bus assistant will be the one taking ticket money, and will tell you where to put your oversized bags.  The benches on the buses are made for small bottoms, so you will most likely be squashed up against the person next to you.  But for a couple of pounds per journey, who really cares?!  The buses are clearly marked in English where they are headed for, and there is always an assistant on board to ask if you are unsure.  Sri Lanka is the perfect sized country, because you can pretty much travel across the whole of it within a day.  

Local kids waving the train on by…

Local kids waving the train on by…


4. Diverse

Sri Lanka is a unique country with so much to offer.  Depending on what you’re into, every traveller can have a completely different experience.  If you like tropical beach breaks, sun bathing, surfing, turtle conservations and whale watching, then head to one of the many beaches that sprawl the lengthy coastline.  Along with beachy vibes brings chill out bars with like-minded travellers, parties and fun times.  

A beautiful sunset at Negombo beach near Colombo

A beautiful sunset at Negombo beach near Colombo


Looking for more of a nature-inspired trip? Well this is the place for you.  Never have we seen so many exotic animals in one country before… elephants, eagles, monkeys, crocodiles, mongoose, leopards, giant squirrels and wild boars.  The list is literally insane.  Each national park has a different focus, some are the home to the leopard whilst others of the elephant, so choose which one you visit thoughtfully.  It’s worth noting that entry to these national parks is in the form of a jeep safari, so don’t think you will be able to trek in there to enjoy the nature! 

The middle of the country is more mountainous and hilly, so for nature lovers and those into trekking you can head to the likes of the Knuckles Range, Sigiriya, Horton Plains, Adam’s Peak, Ella, Haputale and Lipton’s Seat.  There are plenty of walks to do without paying for entry to the National Parks, and luckily there are lots of local buses to get you away from the main towns and cities to start your route from.  The tea plantations are spectacular, and are free to roam around for the enthusiastic walker.

The view from our guesthouse at Nuwara Eliya, surrounded by leafy tea plantations

The view from our guesthouse at Nuwara Eliya, surrounded by leafy tea plantations


If history, culture and religion is your thing then this a country rich in all of these areas.  With Portugese and Dutch attempted invasions, British actual invasion, and civil war between the Tamils and Sinhalese lasting several decades, it’s hard to hide the very recent wounds of history, particularly in hard-hit areas like Jaffna where bullet holes are visible in the crumbing buildings.  The majority of the Sri Lankan people are of Buddhist religion, with a small proportion of Hindu’s, Christian’s and Muslims.  There are many incredible temples and places of worship to visit along with religious sights such as the ancient Mihintale and Polonnaruwa ruins.  One of our favourite moments was experiencing a Hindu ceremony at the decorative Nallur Kovil temple where men took their shirts off with the sound of live percussion instruments playing.

Nallur Kovil Hindu temple in Jaffna

Nallur Kovil Hindu temple in Jaffna


5. The Food

If you’re a foodie like us then you will probably be salivating right now at the thought of eating delicious Sri Lankan food.  Imagine coconut milk curry with an explosion of spices, beautifully balanced with chunks of sweet butternut squash, and spicy beetroot curry with home-made coconut rotis… it’s just too delicious!  The coconut milk is freshly made and my god does it taste like it.  Rice and curry is the staple, but really when you order it you end up with about 6 components including daal and fresh vegetables too.  No one goes hungry in Sri Lanka!

Fresh fruits at a homestay in Kandy

Fresh fruits at a homestay in Kandy

The kottu is incredible, it’s a street food of fried roti bread, vegetables and sometimes egg covered in meat gravy.  It’s one of the cheapest dishes you can get and it’s probably the tastiest because it’s so god damn naughty.  One of the funnest things is choosing between the surplus of fried street snacks, the Sri Lankan’s do love a deep fried snack!  Nearly anywhere, you can pick up vegetable rotis (that look like a vegetable samosa), dosa (fermented pancake), egg hoppers (crunchy pancake in the shape of a bowl), string hoppers (well-seasoned stringy noodles you eat for breakfast with your fingers), jackfruit balls… the list is endless.  And then there’s all the sweet stuff too… coconut pancakes, buffalo curd with plant nectar (like honey), and all the fresh fruits.  It’s worth going to Sri Lanka just for the food alone, we were so excited to be eating it every day that sometimes we just worked our schedule around the food!

The legendary Kottu street food. We had definitely put on a few pounds after 4 weeks of eating this bad boy.

The legendary Kottu street food. We had definitely put on a few pounds after 4 weeks of eating this bad boy.


We Dig It!

I feel like I could go on and on about all the great things that Sri Lanka has to offer, but really it would be better for you to just go and experience it for yourself.  For the first-time backpacker, this really is a fantastic country to visit because as far as travelling goes; it is relatively easy, the people are lovely, it’s got so much to offer and it’s cheap.  I would say that 2 weeks is probably the minimum amount of time to spend there, we went for 4 weeks and in that time we only went to 2 beaches!  So if you do want to visit then I would strongly suggest not trying to cram everything in and rushing around to much.  It’s a relaxed country to be in, and it’s all the small moments that make this place so special; like sharing a dinner of home-cooked food, or watching the sunrise up on Pidurangala Rock. 

For the first-time backpacker, you really won’t regret a trip to the incredible Sri Lanka….

A tranquil sunrise on the top of Pidurangala Rock, just watch out for the sneaky monkeys!

A tranquil sunrise on the top of Pidurangala Rock, just watch out for the sneaky monkeys!



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Jordan: The Backpackers Guide To Saving Money

Jordan is a country packed with outstanding natural beauty, some of the oldest and most wonderous sights on this planet, and not forgetting the friendliest people.  A visit to Petra will make you feel as though you’re discovering a forgotten city for the first time, and a trip to the Wadi Rum desert will make you want to live like a Bedouin local.  

As a backpacker, Jordan comes with a price tag and unless you have a healthy budget it’s very easy to overspend.  We spent 2 weeks in this incredible country, and came up with these money-saving tips to help you on your adventure....

The Treasury, Petra

The Treasury, Petra

 

Get A Jordan Pass

Few travellers know of the Jordan Pass (we discovered it by reading a blog) but after finding out about this money saving tip we were feeling pretty smug.  The Jordan Pass works like this, you can choose to buy either 1, 2 or 3 day passes to Petra, along with free entry to 40 other attractions and the visa price included.  A Jordan Pass with 1 day entry to Petra will cost you 70 JD (£70), a 2 day pass is 75 JD (£75), and for the full 3 days in Petra the pass is 80 JD (£80).  Now that’s pretty good considering a day ticket to Petra is 50 JD (£50) and the visa costs 40 JD (£40), so you are saving at least 20 JD (£20) just by having one.  We had a few awkward conversations with other travellers that didn’t know about the pass and had paid 3 days entry to Petra and of course the visa.... ouch.  The pass also includes free entry to some of Jordans top sights, such as the Roman Amphitheatre and Citadel in Amman, the famous ruins of Jerash in the north and many castles scattered around the country.  If you want to get a pass then make sure you book it online before entering the country, otherwise you will be paying for a visa on arrival.  You can find all info on what it includes here….

www.jordanpass.jo

 

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Bring Your Own Food To The Hotels & Camps

Places like Dana village and Wadi Rum are just tourist towns, and the lack of convenience stores, restaurants and public transport leaves you in the hands of the money-making hotel owners.  So unless you have a secret stash of hummus and flatbreads in your backpack, you will most probably have to splash out on 7-10 JD buffet dinners every night.  The food at these places is actually very good, most hotels and camps prepare a full spread of middle eastern dishes including slow cooked meats, fresh salads, dips, vegetables and breads, but eating at these hotels every night can blow the budget, so make sure you have a few dinners up your sleeve.  Breakfasts are mostly included in the room price, but check beforehand because some can be an extra 5 JD (£5) and lunch up to 10 JD (£10)! 

We always made sure we had supplies of flat breads from the local bakery, spreadable triangle cheese (the Jordanians love this and for some reason never keep it in the fridge), hummus in a can, fresh lemon to put on the dry hummus, tomatoes, apples & oranges, instant noodles and some overly sweet treats from the bakery.  That covered us for all meals of the day, and rarely did we need to buy any meals from the hotels.  I’m sure all the hotel owners hated us because we were the worst customers ever. Try to buy fruits from the local market, especially in Wadi Musa near Petra because the shop owners try to charge you 3 times the actual price.  As an example, you can get 6 oranges for 1 JD (£1) at the market, so when the shop owners try to charge you 3 JD (£3) for 6 you can confidently tell them where to go.

Stock up on cheap baked goods from the local bakery

Stock up on cheap baked goods from the local bakery

 

Purify The Tap Water

Rarely do we spend money on bottled water.  We have recently discovered aquatabs, or water purifying tablets, and use them every day to clean the water that we drink whilst travelling.  Aquatabs are only a couple of pounds for a pack of 50, and so you immediately save money by using them instead of buying bottled water.  If you have a bit more money to spend and are travelling for a long time, then you may want to invest in a fancier option such as a water filter flask for around £60 or a UV cleaning wand for around the same price.  The benefits of cleaning your own tap water means that you can fill up from anywhere, whether it be from the sink in the airport, or in a cafe in the city.  Also think of all the plastic bottles you are going to stop going into landfill, or being burnt for that matter!  Then you can really call yourself the environmentally aware traveller, well more aware then you were before anyway.  They say that it’s generally safe to drink the tap water in Jordan, but maybe best to purify it if you are on a short trip.  Buying bottled water in Petra can cost up to 2 JD (£2) for a 2 litre bottle, so get purifying to save some JD!

 

 

Hitch Hike & Bus It

Jordan is the first country that we’ve travelled to where people will go out of their way to offer you a ride.  Many times were we walking down the main roads, we prefer to walk where possible. Pretty much every time we have been offered a lift by a friendly local within minutes, people are keen to share their story and hear yours, making it the perfect way to learn about Jordan. What’s more, hitchhiking in Jordan is really safe, the drivers don’t drive like crazy people, the roads are in good condition and the people are friendly.  It’s worth confirming at the beginning of the ride whether the driver wants any money from you, sometimes they want a few JD and other times they just want your company.  Once you know the price you can then decide whether to go for it, or wait for the next offer.  We managed to hitchhike from the Dead Sea all the way back to Madaba for free, and from Dana Nature Reserve to Wadi Rum. 

Unfortunately, the public transport leaves a lot to be desired in Jordan.  There are very few buses that run to the key tourist attractions, for instance there is only one bus that runs daily to the Dead Sea from Amman and there isn’t a return bus.  The one daily bus we took from Amman to Dana Nature Reserve took 3 hours to fill up before leaving, and we had to make a change in Al-Tafilah because it didn’t even go the whole way.  JETT buses cover some of the main tourist sights, and are marketed more as luxury coaches for tourists and locals.  JETT buses can cost up to 9 JD (£9) per journey, whereas local buses should be no more than 4 JD (£4).  For short distances local buses only cost 1 JD (£1), so make sure the bus driver doesn’t try to rip you off.  Sometimes they charge you for ‘extra baggage’, just a made up fee to try and make more money.  This should never be more than 1 JD (£1) though.  Funnily enough, it’s still legal to smoke on the local buses so you’ll leave smelling like an ashtray.

Hitchhiking from the Dead Sea

Hitchhiking from the Dead Sea

 

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Count Your Change

How many times did we hand over money and not get the right change, or any change for that matter.  A bus driver charged us 2 JD (£2), we gave him a 5 JD (£5) note and oh look, no change.  When we pulled him up on it, he rolled his eyes and drip fed us 1 JD (£1) at a time until we had the right change, it was a slow and annoying conversation.  This does tend to be the norm in Jordan, and so if your not on the ball then you will likely be a few JD out of pocket.  It’s also a good idea to confirm all prices of things before you buy them.  Even a dish that was priced on a menu in a nice restaurant magically increased by 2 JD (£2) when the bill came, and we had to argue that it was clearly printed on the menu in black and white.  It’s a funny game but make sure you stand your ground otherwise the deceptive vendors will be laughing.

 

Book Accommodation In Advance

In high season, so around April time, lots of the accommodation can be taken by other travellers and so it’s advisable to book at least a few days in advance to get a good deal.  Even though we were booking 3-4 days beforehand on booking.com, many of the cheaper rooms had already gone and so sometimes we were having to spend up to 25 JD (£25) on a room for 1 night!  This is not good for the budget traveller.  Dana, Wadi Musa and Wadi Rum are particularly expensive, and there aren’t many cheaper options available.  Even walking into the hotels and trying to negotiate cheaper prices didn’t seem to help, and in some cases the room prices were double that on booking.com. Amman however has many cheaper options starting from around 8 JD (£8) for a double room, and so you don’t necessarily need to book in advance.  Thinking of staying by the Dead Sea? Maybe think again as some of the resorts charge up to 600 JD (£600) per night!

 

Spend Less Time & Hire A Car

Jordan is a really small country to travel around, the public transport isn’t great and cars are cheap to hire.  After visiting for 2 weeks, we came to the conclusion that it would be better to spend less time there and just hire a car to get around (if you have a bit more budget that is).  For example, we spent 8 hours getting from Amman to Dana by public bus which is only a couple of hundred kilometres away!  That’s basically a whole day spent on the bus for 10 JD (£10) between us, and then another 20 JD (£20) for a nights accommodation, so really it might have just worked out cheaper to hire a car and have the rest of the day to do stuff.  We spoke to a traveller that had rented a car for a mere 21 JD (£21) a day, which is amazing value considering that most rentals cost around 40 JD (£40) per day.  If you spent a week in Jordan, you could cover most of the key sights and spend 150 JD (£150) on a car rental, maybe even splitting the cost with some other travellers.  The roads are in good nick, the drivers are respectful and safe, and the country really isn’t that big to drive around.  If you have the budget then we think renting a car is the way to go, and you will save some money by cutting down on the travel time.

 

Swim In The Dead Sea For Free

Most online blogs and guides will tell you that you need to pay to visit the Dead Sea, 25-30 JD (£25-30) to be precise, but after visiting for ourselves we found that you don’t really need to.  There are some open sections of fence where the locals visit around Herodus Spring and the waterfall on the north east side.  You can relax there along with a handful of Jordanians, and enjoy a peaceful bob in the salty waters.  The rest of the sea however is fenced off, or blocked by fancy resorts, so make sure you head to the open section to save some money.  If you go a bit south of Herodus Spring, even 1 km down the road, it is much quieter of tourists.  Remember to rub yourself in the oily mud from the bed of the sea, whilst you smirk at your mega saving!

Mark floating in the Dead Sea

Mark floating in the Dead Sea

 

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Make Sure The Taxi Is On The Meter

Jordanian taxi drivers can be a bit sneaky and some try to overcharge you for your journey.  The easiest way for them to do this is to negotiate a price in advance.  If you are travelling in and around Amman, then putting it on the meter will be the cheapest way to travel and should cost no more than 2-3 JD (£2-3), and that’s to go to the bus terminals on the edge of town.  Little journeys in central will cost around 1 JD (£1) or less, so make sure they put it on the meter at the beginning of the journey.  The taxi guys that hang around the bus terminals usually try to rip you off and give you silly prices, so it’s a good idea to step away and hail one from the main road.  The meter should read 0.25 JD by day, and 0.35 by night at the start of your trip, if it’s been put on the correct rate.  Good luck!

 

Make Sure The Taxi Is On The Meter

(Except Going To The Airport!)

There are always exceptions to the rule, and we found this out the hard way.  We were originally offered 20 JD (£20) to go to the airport from Amman city centre by one taxi driver and refused because we thought he was trying to rip us off.  Instead we insisted on travelling by a different cab on the meter thinking it would be cheaper.  28 JD (£28) later, we realised it was probably better to have gone with the fixed price after all!  Even better than that, it’s possible to get an Uber for around 15 JD (£15) from Amman to the airport.

 

Use Uber

Many drivers use Uber around Amman so it’s never hard to find a ride, and if you are looking for a fixed price before travelling then this is a good way to do it.  For a short distance, ie a few km, it would probably be cheaper to opt for a local cab on the meter, but anything over 6km we would say go for an Uber.  We got an Uber from Madaba to the Fort Of Macherus near the Dead Sea which was about 40km away, and were billed only 8 JD (£8)!  That’s so much cheaper than a local cab would have been.  If you don’t have internet on your phone, then it is possible to hail the Uber using wifi at your hotel/hostel and then complete the journey without internet.

 

Prepare For Friday Holiday

Friday is the Jordanian’s day off, and so across many parts of the country you can expect the locals to be resting and shops to be shut.  This includes many of the grocery stores and bakeries, so unless you have planned well you may be walking around for some time to find that hummus.  If options are limited then you may end up spending more in overpriced convenience stores.  It’s also worth noting that some of the restaurants had shut for the day outside of the capital.

Cheap eats in the capital, Amman

Cheap eats in the capital, Amman

 

We hope our tips will help you save money in Jordan, and if there is anything else we can help you with then let us know in the comments box below.

 

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Jordan - The Backpackers Guide To Saving Money, by Studio Mali
 

 

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Laos: The Ultimate 2 Week Travel Itinerary For Backpackers

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Laos, the popular backpackers destination in South East Asia, well trodden since the late 90s.  A country of mountainous jungles, locals in traditional dress and cities so chilled out you may never want to leave.  The country is landlocked, making it slightly more expensive than its neighbours, but it’s still a great place to travel to if you are on a budget. 

Laos

We spent 3 weeks there, covering the 2 main cities Luang Prabang and Vientiane, and then moving onto the hilly countryside in the trekking capital Luang Namtha, the jungles of the Nam Ha National Park, the mountainous Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi village.  We have put this itinerary together for a 2 week trip, but if you have more time then you can definitely space it out over a 3 week trip like we did.  We hope you enjoy our itinerary and let us know if you use it! We would love to hear how it went.

 

Day 1-2

Vientiane 

It’s likely that your flight will come into Vientiane as it’s the capital of Laos.  However, we wouldn’t recommend spending much time there, especially if you are planning to head to Luang Prabang which is a lot more scenic.  Vientiane is known as one of the most chilled out and least populated capital cities in Southeast Asia, and that it is, but it’s also pretty unloved, very touristy and we didn’t find it particularly interesting.  

One of the nicer bits!

One of the nicer bits!

Get your hostel to book your sleeper bus to Luang Prabang on the evening of day 2 so you arrive in the morning of day 3.  Tickets cost around 180,000 kip (£15.50) per person for a VIP bus which is a lot comfier than the regular bus.  There's no point in slumming it when you can go VIP for a couple of pounds more!

 

What To Do There

We have written up the bits that we did enjoy in the article below in case you do find yourself mooching round Vientiane…..

Laos: Top Things To Do In Vientiane

Our favourite things were learning to weave in the Houey Hong Vocational Centre For Women, drinking the delicious Laotian coffee, and exploring the city on bikes.  There are quite a few markets you can visit, with the most famous one for tourists being set up every evening by the Mekong river.  The Mekong River is also known for its stunning sunsets, so make sure you get down there one evening with a beer in hand.

Mark learning to weave at the Houey Hong Vocational Centre For Women

Mark learning to weave at the Houey Hong Vocational Centre For Women

 

Where To Stay

We stayed in Ali Backpackers which was perfectly fine, basic and very cheap compared to other hostels.  The location was where most of the touristy cafes and bars are situated.  It cost 133,000 kip (£11.40) per night with breakfast included.  The staff are friendly and can arrange your onward journey but boat or bus.  It wasn't the most inspiring of hostels, but a cheap find in the capital.

 

Where To Eat

We ate in Phakhao restaurant which specialises in traditional Laotian and Thai food.  All dishes were really tasty and actually the stand-out one was a cooked Laotian sausage served with raw garlic, chilli and ginger slices!  We would never munch on raw garlic at home but when teamed with sausage it really was a dream. There are loads of French-style bakeries to grab a coffee and fresh croissant in, and we stopped off in Le Banneton which did delicious pastries.  For true Laotian coffee, just look out for the condensed milk cans stacked up on the street vendors stalls and you will find yourself a punch-packing cup of sweetened coffee.

Croissants in Le Banneton French cafe

Croissants in Le Banneton French cafe

 

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Day 3

Luang Prabang

Take an overnight sleeper bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang on day 2 so you arrive in the morning of day 3.  The overnight bus takes around 10-12 hours.  The journey is pretty tough for those prone to travel sickness, the roads are incredibly windy and we had a driver that was heavy on the accelerator and break pedals.  If you opt for the VIP bus then you get your own sleeping chair/pod and it’s 3 people spaced out across the width of the bus.  Check out the neon lights on this bus!

The jazzy VIP sleeper bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang

The jazzy VIP sleeper bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang

Have a hostel booked for when you arrive in Luang Prabang so you can head straight there early in the morning.  There are lots of tuk tuks outside of the bus station ferrying people into town, but we decided to walk because it was only a few kilometres away from our hostel.  Remember to haggle if you choose to catch a ride.  Before you leave the bus station, try to book a minibus for the next morning going to Luang Namtha.

Luang Prabang is a really popular city with expats and tourists and it’s easy to see why.  It’s chilled out vibe and location next to the scenic Mekong river is a clear pull for lots of travellers, and it has something for everyone.  Those wanting to enjoy a bucket or two will find lots of cool hang-out bars tucked away in the side streets, and for the more adventurous it’s possible to trek straight into the jungle from the city.  Although we thought Luang Prabang had a nice feel to it, we found it very touristy and in places it was difficult to see any local culture because it’s so developed with western-style bars.  We would still recommend going though, and it’s a much nicer place to be over it’s ugly sister city Vientiane.  For now just spend one night in Luang Prabang because you will be coming back here at the end of the trip.  If you weren’t able to book a mini van to Luang Namtha whilst you were at the bus station then get your hostel to book it for you. They will take a bit of a commission but a tuk tuk will be included to get you to the bus station.

View of Luang Prabang

View of Luang Prabang

 

What To Do

There are loads of things to do in and around Luang Prabang depending on what your interests are and how much time you have.  We were happy not to do much when we were there other than to just soak up the atmosphere and wonder around a bit.  You can do jungle trekking from here on organised tours, trips down the Mekong river by kayak or boat, cookery classes, visit numerous exquisite Buddhist temples, mountain biking, a trip over the rickety bamboo bridge, visiting the handicraft night market.  You could easily spend a week there exploring what it has to offer and relaxing.  There is also the nearby Kuang Si waterfalls which is a lovely trip for a morning or afternoon.  The turquoise coloured waters are absolutely stunning and if you bring your costume you can go for a dip!  Again your hostel should be able to arrange transport for you, expect to pay around 40,000 kip (£3.40) for a minivan return journey.  Entry to the waterfall is an additional 20,000 kip (£1.70).

The stunning Kuang Si waterfalls

The stunning Kuang Si waterfalls

 

Where To Stay

We stayed in ThaViSouk hostel which was ok.  The staff are really friendly and helpful, but our dorm room wasn’t the most comfortable because it was baking hot at night.  It cost 54,000 kip (£4.65) for a dorm bed per person per night, and that seemed to be the cheapest we could find online, and double rooms in Luang Prabang were generally much more expensive.  When we came back to Luang Prabang later on in the trip, we opted to splash out for a few nights over Christmas in a place called Frangipani.  This guesthouse is wonderful, the staff are really sweet and the room we stayed in was very pimping with its own balcony and view of the Mekong.  This set us back 332,000 kip (£28.50) per night, but that was an inflated price over the festive period.  We would 100% recommend staying there!

 

Where to Eat

There is honestly hundreds of restaurants and cafes you can eat in, so choosing a good one would not be so difficult.  We opted for quite a few meals in local Laotian noodles kitchens, and other outdoor eateries where you can pick up a Thai curry with rice for as little as 25,000 kip (£2.15).  At the west end of the night market, there are lots of food stalls selling pre-plated dishes for the bargain price of 10,000 kip (85p) each, and you can choose from fried rice, noodles, spring rolls and also bbq’ed goods on sticks which cost a bit more.  There are lots of fresh juice and smoothy stalls for 10,000 kip (85p) a drink, and the Redbull Bar (sports bar) offers 2 draught beers for 15,000 kip (£1.50) which was the cheapest we saw.  Our favourite cheap eat however was a Chinese noodle kitchen we found on Khem Khonsu road at the Kitsalat road crossover where you could get a delicious tasting bowl of noodles, meat and fresh vegetables for only 20,000 kip (£1.70).  We must say that the Chinese noodles are a lot tastier than the Laotian equivalent! For a bit of a splash out meal, we would recommend the local Riverside BBQ Restaurant on Khem Khong road which is an all you can eat buffet and cook it yourself restaurant.  The food was incredibly fresh and you could opt for a whole array of ingredients from fresh prawns to 4 types of mushroom. It was 65,000 kip £5.60 per person which is an amazing price when you think about it!

All you can eat BBQ for 65,000 kyat!

All you can eat BBQ for 65,000 kyat!

 

Day 4

Luang Namtha

On the morning of day 4 take a minibus out of Luang Prabang and head for Luang Namtha, the trekking capital of Laos.  Again the roads are pretty tough, winding round hills and the surface can be pretty bad.  It takes approx 8 hours with a fast driver and costs 130,000 kip (£11.15) when booked through a hostel.

Luang Namtha has just one main strip of shops, hotels and tour operators, so when you arrive late afternoon just head to one of the tour operators to look into treks. 

 

What To Do

Luang Namtha itself isn’t anything special, but it is the gateway to jungle treks in the stunning Nam Ha National Park and lots of other outdoorsy activities such as kayaking, zip lining, mountain biking etc.  Depending on how many days you want to trek for and what your budget is, you will be able to find a tour that suits you.  After doing some research online we heard that you really get what you pay for and it’s not worth going dirt cheap.  We chose to do a 3 day tour with Laos Forest Retreat because their reviews were the best on Trip Advisor and we would say from experience that they did deliver.  On signing up for the tour, we didn’t know if anyone else would be joining us, but luckily another 3 people signed on and we were ready to go the next morning with 5 people.  It cost $105 each for 3 days including everything from food to kayaking, to guides and accommodation.  There are definitely tours cheaper than this available with other companies, and the more people that sign up the cheaper it is.  A good thing to do is to visit each of the operators and find out what tours people have already signed up for.

Jungle trekking in the Nam Ha National Park

Jungle trekking in the Nam Ha National Park

 

Where To Stay

There are loads of places to stay in Luang Namtha and we would advise just turning up and booking it there and then for the best deal.  Prices of rooms can be negotiated down and we managed to get a double room with our own bathroom and aircon for 60,000 kip (£5.15) per night down from the first price of 80,000 kip (£6.85).

 

Where To Eat

The best place we found to eat for budget travellers was at the night market, where you can find a bowl of Laotian noodles for 10,000 kip (85p).  The eateries at the front closest by the entrance seem to be the most expensive and the cheaper ones are at the back.  They also have stalls for bbq’ed banana with coconut inside and crepes, but we found both of them dry and a bit disappointing!  The food however on the jungle trek was so amazing, fresh and tasty.  It was probably some of the best food we ate in Laos!

Jungle food on our 3 day trek

Jungle food on our 3 day trek

Hand-crafted pieces, delivered to your door… 

Day 5-8

Nam Ha National Park

We opted for a 3 day trek through the national park with a morning of kayaking through one of the rivers.  On the morning of day 5, we headed to our tour operators office first thing for breakfast and then they drove us an hour out to start our trek in the national park. Trekking in the jungle is amazing and is very different to all the other treks we have done previously in mountainous regions and countryside.  It feels really wild and is a lot of fun! 

Day 1 one of the tour was mostly trekking and eating some delicious food our guides had prepared.  That night we stayed in a homestay at a village in the middle of the jungle and got a glimpse into jungle life.  

Day 2 of the tour was a morning of kayaking down a river, tackling a few rapids and stopping off at some remote villages along the way.  We would thoroughly recommend a bit of kayaking in your tour package.  The afternoon was spent trekking up to a viewpoint and then back down to our next village for a nights rest. We watched the guides cook some food on the fire including frogs they had caught from the river! 

A froggy breakfast in the Nam Ha National Park

A froggy breakfast in the Nam Ha National Park

Day 3 was the most challenging of treks and we walked for quite a few hours until we got to picked up and taken back to Luang Namtha by our guides.  We have written up our experience of the jungle which you may helpful...

Laos: 3 Wild Days In The Nam Ha Jungle, by Studio Mali

When you get back from the tour, spend one more night in Luang Namtha before heading to Nong Khiaw the next morning.  You can book your minibus ticket to Nong Khiaw from one of the tour operators on the high street.  It costs around 65,000 kip (£5.60) per person with a transfer to the bus station included.

Kayaking in the Nam Ha National Park

Kayaking in the Nam Ha National Park

 

Day 9-10

Nong Khiaw

On day 9, take a minibus early to Nong Khiaw which is 6 hours drive away.  Nong Khiaw is a beautiful sleepy town set on the Nam Ou River with the backdrop of the lusciously green limestone mountains.  It is the perfect place to unwind for a few days, with the option of exploring the area by boat or foot.  It doesn’t feel as touristy as Luang Prabang or Vientiane, but there are enough small restaurants and cafes that cater to western tastes.

The relaxing Nong Khiaw

The relaxing Nong Khiaw

 

What To Do

There are many organised treks that you can do from here including the popular 100 Waterfalls Trek which is a day trip.  We booked this through Tiger Trail for 200,000 kip (£17.20) per person and there was 6 people in our group.  We had a fun time doing the 100 Waterfalls trek, and ended up facing some fears after getting a bit piddled on jungle juice.  Read about our experience here...

Laos - Jungle Juice, Waterfalls And Facing Fears In Nong Khiaw, By Studio Mali

Our personal highlight in Nong Khiaw was climbing up to the 360 degree viewpoint which overlooks the town and landscape.  It’s a 40 minute accent if you are fit and used to trekking, and we would highly recommend heading there for sunset.  We heard that the steam room and massage place on the way to the viewpoint was good, but unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit, maybe next time!  You can also do a trip out by boat to another small town called Muang Ngoi which we will chat about later.

The viewpoint in Nong Khiaw

The viewpoint in Nong Khiaw

 

Where To Stay

There is loads of accommodation in Nong Khiaw and some can be found at very good prices.  We would say just turn up and find something there and then.  We chose to stay about a ten minute walk from the station in our first guesthouse which was nice because we got a river view bamboo hut overlooking the town on the other side of the water.  The hut had its own balcony which caught the afternoon rays. The second place we stayed at was on the other side of the bridge, again close to the water but the view wasn’t quite as good and it didn’t get the afternoon sun.  Both rooms cost 60,000 kip (£5.15) per night and were basic bamboo huts with WiFi and a hot shower.

 

Where To Eat

You must eat at Delilah’s for breakfast.  They have an incredible menu to choose from of pancakes, porridge, cooked breakfasts, baguettes, granola and nearly everything is homemade including the bread.  Breakfast range from 20,000 kip (£1.70) to 35,000 kip (£3.00).  They also have some very tasty homemade cakes that are served all day till 11pm including apple crumble with coconut ice cream and banoffee pie.  For dinner, we would recommend eating at Coco’s, the food is fresh and tasty and the setting is nice.  We opted for river weed, river fish and yellow curry all of which were very good, but the stand out dishes were the papaya salad and mango coconut sticky rice for pudding.  There is also a tasty Indian restaurant on the other side of the bridge on the left hand side which is worth a visit.  

A Delilah's breakfast - porridge with banana, milk, maple syrup, sugar and cinnamon

A Delilah's breakfast - porridge with banana, milk, maple syrup, sugar and cinnamon

 

Day 11

Muang Ngoi

Catch the 10.30am boat to Muang Ngoi from Nong Khiaw boat station.  The trip takes about 1 hour 20 mins on a local boat and costs 25,000 kip (£2.15).  The boat ride isn’t so comfortable, but the views make up for it.  Mango Ngoi is a scenic little town further along the river, and is much less developed than Nong Khiaw.  There aren’t any cars there, only bikes, and so it’s a very peaceful place to walk around.  Again, it’s set against the backdrop of the stunning limestone cliffs, and the dirt roads running through the village make you feel as though you’re stepping back in time.  We stayed for only one night here, but really it is probably better to stay for 2, because you only really get a half day to explore the surrounding area.  When you awake the next morning, you need to get down to the boat station for 8am sharp to make sure you book your tickets that morning for the return boat to Nong Khiaw.  It was really busy at 8am when it opens and you don’t want to risk getting stuck in Muang Ngoi.  The boat leaves at 9.30am, and is 1 hour 20 mins back to Nong Khiaw.

Muang Ngoi

Muang Ngoi

 

What To Do

There are plenty of walks to do from the village.  A popular one is to head towards Tham Kang Cave which takes 40 minutes, and then onto a much more remote village called Bana where you will be greeted by smiling locals (a further 30 minutes).  The walk takes around 3 hours total there and back with some time spent in the cave and village, so will take up most of the afternoon.  There is a viewpoint you can ascend which is a sweaty 1.5 hours up, we didn’t get a chance to do it but we heard it was a stunner.  You can also hire bikes to explore more of the surrounding villages, including Bana, Huay Bo and Huay Sen.  Muang Ngoi is a quiet village, but there are plenty of restaurants and bars catering to westerners, so if you are happy to relax in a bar for a few hows enjoying the sunshine then you will have a great time here.  The locals are a little unfriendly but hey, you can’t have everything!

 

Where To Sleep

As soon as you get off the boat you will be approached by many locals trying to offer you a room for the night.  You can either follow one of them, or you can continue walking straight ahead into town to try and find your own place to stay.  We weren’t really that fussed where we were sleeping (as long as it was cheap) so we followed one of the local ladies to Aloune Guesthouse where we stayed in a wooden bungalow for 60,000 kip (£5.15) per night with a river view.  You can’t get much better than that!  We also read online that if you are after an even cheaper room for the night then if you ask around to the owners of restaurants then sometimes you can bag yourself a double room for 20,000 kip (£1.70). When looking for a room, you just need to find out if they have hot showers, electricity, a mosquito net and wifi if you want it.

Chilling in a hammock at Aloune Guesthouse

Chilling in a hammock at Aloune Guesthouse

 

Where To Eat

The Bee Tree Restaurant at the very end of the highstreet does amazing food and cocktails, and every day from 5pm they do a happy hour.  The setting is really lovely, they have a cool hang out space in the garden and they get a fire going later on when it gets a bit chilly.  We opted for the Laos Laos Sours, which were 2 for 25,000 kip (£2.15), and a few hours down the line we had gotten through 5 each, recorded a Christmas quiz for our friends at home, and had munched on some Laotian curries which went done a bit too well!  We wish every town had a Bee Tree restaurant.  We also saw a place on the main strip that did wood fired pizzas but it wasn’t open that evening for whatever reason.  Breakfast in Riverside Bar and Restaurant was also nice, we opted for a fruit porridge made of rice, pineapple, banana and coconut, and we think condensed milk because it tasted so naughty!  We saw there was an all you can eat breakfast for 20,000 kip (£1.83) if you book the night before just on the main strip, but didn’t get a chance to visit.

 

 

Unique designs, that you can’t find on the highstreet….

Day 12

Nong Khiaw 

Take the 9.30am boat back to Nong Khiaw which will take around 1 hour 20 mins.  Enjoy the last boat ride down the very scenic Nam Ou river, it’s very James Bond in places.  If you want to at this point, you can head straight to the bus station and take a minivan or tuk tuk back to Luang Prabang, but we chose to stay another day in the chilled out Nong Khiaw.

Mark chilling on a boat ride from Nong Khiaw

Mark chilling on a boat ride from Nong Khiaw

 

Day 13-14

Luang Prabang

First thing in the morning, make your way over to the bus station in Nong Khiaw.  Your options are to either get a 4 hour ride crammed in a tuk tuk back to Luang Prabang (which sounds like our idea of hell), or to get one of the mini vans which take only 3 hours in much more comfortable seats.  The first minivan starts at around 7.30am, and everything gets booked up pretty fast! As soon as a tuk tuk or van gets filled, it will just leave regardless of what time it was scheduled in for.  So the last minivan for the day was scheduled in for 1.30pm, but actually it left at 11.30am!  Both cost between 40,000/50,000 kip (£3.66-£4.57) and sometimes they may make you pay for empty seats if you want to leave earlier then the scheduled time.  

Whatever you fancy doing on your last couple of days in Laos you will be able to find it in the chilled out traveller haven of Luang Prabang.  

A Luang Prabang sunset

A Luang Prabang sunset

 

Other Things To Note:

Chilly Nights

It can get really cold in Laos at night times, especially out in the countryside, so make sure you take some warm clothing and maybe a sleeping bag if you tend to get very cold at night.  Many nights it was around 3 degrees when we were sleeping in bamboo huts and in the jungle, so make sure you aren’t freezing like we were!

 

Land Mines

Laos is surprisingly the most bombed country in the world and there are still thousands of unexploded land mines scattered across the landscape.  It’s not necessarily something to worry about but something that you should be aware of.  Just make sure that you always stick to the trekking paths and always go with a local guide.

It's fine to trek, just always make sure you are with a local guide

It's fine to trek, just always make sure you are with a local guide

 

Grub

We wouldn’t say that the Laotian food is the tastiest ever but there are plenty of authentic Thai dishes to choose from at tourists restaurants.  You can’t go wrong with a Thai curry!

 

Tourist Central

If you are looking for somewhere to travel to that is quiet of tourists then this isn’t the place for you.  There is such a traveller hub in the cities that sometimes it can be hard to see the local way of life.  Although we liked Laos and thought that the countryside was very stunning, we have preferred travelling around other neighbouring countries such as China and Thailand. It sometimes feels as though the Laotian way of life has stopped for the tourists, which is a bit sad.  

 

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Laos - The Ultimate 2 Week Travel Itinerary For Backpackers, by Studio Mali
 

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Laos: 3 Wild Days In The Nam Ha Jungle

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Nam Ha - At A Glance

  • Tours can be booked from Luang Namtha, there are many firms to book with so make sure you ask questions about which part of the park you'll visit, food, drink, sleeping, mosquito net etc.
  • Be wary of the cheaper tours because we read many poor reviews from groups who weren't even taken into the national park, even though they had paid to.
  • Prices range depend on how long you wish to tour for and with how many people, as a rough guide we paid 956,242 kip (£90) pp on a 6 person tour for 3 days, with the highest rated tour operator in town!
  • Make sure you pack sunscreen, insect repellent, sun hat, warm clothes, swimwear, sandals and walking (or bamboo) poles for the muddy paths.
  • No showers over the three days but you can wash in the rivers, bring a quick dry towel.
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VIDEO

Watch the highlights of our 3 day tour where we trekked, kayaked and frog munched our way through the Nam Ha national park in Laos.

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Tropical Un-paradise 

Upon reaching the tropical paradise of Laos we were surprised to find that it wasn’t that tropical nor a paradise. Our arrival into the underwhelming capital of Vientiane greeted us with the rubbish covered Mekong River, more tourists than locals and a dirty hazy environment.  We weren’t impressed. Vowing to escape this Vientiane for some nature, we hedged our bets on the Nam Ha National Park near Luang Namtha, in the very north of the country.  It took two days to get there and we hoped the extensive travel would be worth it. It cost 135,000kip (£12) pp for a sleeper minibus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. Next, a 130,000kip (£11.5) pp minibus for 8 winding hours ride from Luang Prabang to Luang Namtha. The upside down stomach and mild hangover was only partly to blame for the travel sickness, the rest lies with the driver (who drove like Damon Hill!)

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Booking A Tour Into Nam Ha

We had emailed the company Laos Forest Retreats based on their great reviews to discuss the different tours they offered and they sounded very organised. In contrast, one of their competitors took a tour group to the edge of the park, not even in it, and walked them in a circle with no views. So do some research before booking! We signed up for the next morning and luckily 4 others grabbed the bait too, which brought the price down considerably to around 956,242 kip (£90) pp for three days of trekking, kayaking, food, accommodation and a range of guides for different activities. Accommodation at Luang Namtha was cheap too, we were told 80,000 kip (£7.2) pp for double room but got another 2,000 kip off with no real haggling. Always ask if they can do a better deal. We hit the Luang Namtha night market for noodles and pancakes before resting up for the trek ahead.

Trekking through the jungle in the Nam Ha national park near Luang Prabang, Laos. by Studio Mali

Every Shade Of Green

The Forest Retreat tour company beckoned us across for an eggy breakfast and coffees at 8am so we could chat with our fellow explorers. We had a solid crew with a Dutch contingent in Sebastian, Evelyn and Evie, and Australian Mark all of which were super friendly and wanted to vacate the busy cities of Laos too. Breakfast devoured, we hit the road for an hour before jumping out the tuk tuk at an army checkpoint, we think they were checking locals for poaching from the park. A small path off the road is our starting point and before us stands a huge lush jungle that is so green we could hardly see which way the path goes. It’s wet too, for the first few minutes we slip around on the muddy ground before adjusting. Everyone knows this will be quite an adventure!

frogs on the bbq in Laos

Bugs, Caterpillars And Chickens 

Jungles are incredible places. The Nam Ha national park has incredible eco systems with trees hijacking and killing other trees, snakes shedding their skins, frogs, stick insect, flying crickets, goats, monkeys, ducks, dogs, cats, the biggest spiders we’ve ever seen, leeches and oh so many chickens. For facebook sharing small animal lovers they might have found heaven with abundance of tiny piglets. Our guide told us scare stories of poisonous caterpillars that would leave you numbed for weeks if it touches you, wolf packs also roam in the park and you might be lucky enough to find huge snakes that only feed 4 times a year! We were never scared as long as Pengh our guide and Australian Mark were happy, nothing seemed to spook them. Although Mark did find the scary furry caterpillar on his towel on the last day, by this point he was as jungle savvy as Bear Grylls and hit it off with a bamboo stick!

Mark, Sebastian, Evelyn, Ali, Evie and Mark 

Mark, Sebastian, Evelyn, Ali, Evie and Mark 

Walking On Clay

Our first day of trekking consisted of 5 slippery hours on an undulating path that sank deep into wet jungle clay and up into the arid mountains peaks. Although finding a view on the peaks with such an overgrown expanse of green was not so easy. The jungle has huge palm, banana and elephant leaves and long jungle vines that our guide could climb easily. The day passes in a sweaty montage and we reach the Khmu village of Ban Nalan where every cabin is made from bamboo, on stilts above the ground. In days long past, families kept livestock under their houses which made malaria far more of a menace. Now their animals are kept miles away as a precaution. It’s a simple existence here where families sit around fires and children run by with no shoes, playing with bamboo toys. A family sets up beds for us in their lodge and prepare dinner, whilst we bath in the freezing river that the village relies on. Fire is lit and beers are drunk before squeezing into a mosquito net for the night, the villagers were all asleep by 8pm as it’s unusually cold for the time of year.

Village life

Village life

Old lady smoking tobacco by a fire.  They say the smoke keeps the mozzies away.

Old lady smoking tobacco by a fire.  They say the smoke keeps the mozzies away.

The Village People

Here are some of the rules of the village. People get married at 16 by trying to find partners from theirs or other villages but sometimes they marry family. One of the villages are inhabited by the Khmu people, once married they still live with their parents until family gets too big. The man must provides for his wedding and look after his family financially, saving lots of money to invite as many as 2000 people to their special day. Children attend a tiny school where all ages are taught by just one teacher and the school is one of the biggest buildings in the village. All the folk wash themselves and their clothes in the river, it looks a bit like a herbal essences advert when the young women wash their hair together in the evenings. We try and spend some money in each village by buying some of their handicrafts, hand sewn bracelets and bags, not forgetting their warm beer Lao.

Nam Ha Rapids With Bamboo Spiders

An old chap with 3 inflatable kayaks turns up the next morning, he inflates them as we dine on noodle soup made by Pengh. The rapids we are about to tackle are quite fast, advice is given on the technique needed for some of the big turns. The strongest person should sit in the rear to direct the steering, luckily for Ali, Mark sits in the back in a pool of water and has a wet bum. We are warned about hitting the bamboo plants at the rivers edge as they hold families of spiders. As you can imagine our fellow travellers pass the bends with textbook ease but we speed directly into a spiders nest, apparently ignoring the warning 5 minutes before! We make a quick recovery turning the boat around into the downstream current. It looked like we had escaped until we notice the refugees! 20 spiders about the size of large coins! We grapple with ejecting the imposters while trying to chart a straight course, luckily the buggers don’t bite. Eventually we brush off the last one and we manage the rest of the day with no more disasters, visiting two ethnic villages on the way. Although our counterparts did face some danger, Sebastian, Evelyn, Evie and Australian Mark all got knocked out of their kayaks by hitting trees and rocks. The guides were laughing a lot at this.

A jungle dinner.... fresh foods served on banana leaves during our jungle trek through the Nam Ha national park in Laos. by Studio Mali

Dining Off Banana Leaves

It should be noted just how good the jungle food was. At every meal time our guide would cut down huge banana leaves and spread them across the floor to create a natural table cloth. Our food was then poured onto the leaves where we would grab mouthfuls of freshly prepared food with our hands. These were some of the things we dined on over the 3 days: sticky rice, banana, morning glory, squash, courgette, chicken, stink bugs with chilli garlic and ginger, green beans, frogs, sour fruits, scrambled egg with tomato and parsley, fruit, noodle soup, fried egg and baguette. Check the photos. Our guide also spotted nuts and sour fruits that he found in jungle whilst trekking. You’ll need to be a bit open minded to enjoy the food on a trek like this. One of the frogs was full of frogspawn, which didn’t taste so good.

The moody villager

The moody villager

The Only Way Is Up

Our guide with the kayaks waves us goodbye as he takes the river down to the last camp, we’ll meet him later. We would climb a mountain with the best view point of the tour. It was a sunny day and a sweaty climb but the view at the top was pretty special. A vista of jungle that stretched as far as we could see, we spend some time taking it in. Next it’s navigating the jungle down to the fisherman’s village where we will camp. It’s a secluded spot where frogs sing loudly all night. We have a dip in the river and enjoy a night around the fire that our Dutch friends started earlier. Everything in this camp is built from bamboo: cups, tables, seats, steaming apparatus. A piece is left on the fire which sounds like a shotgun when it explodes from the heat, we think we are being attacked by the Viet Cong when one blows!

A view from the top of the jungle

A view from the top of the jungle

8 Hour Exit

Day 3 of the tour is a simple but lengthy trek out of the Nam Ha Park to our tuk tuk driver.  The walk could be broken down into three parts; a steep and slippery first climb, a short flat plateau and a mild climb at the end. The higher you get the drier it becomes and as result the climb is easier. The view at the top is not as clear as the previous days, and weather is generally poorer too, but being in the jungle is always interesting. Australian Mark knows lots about the different trees and explains how they grow extra vines to support their weight at higher altitudes, nature’s engineering is impressive. We run into the super poisonous caterpillars three times on the way down, one is at hand height on an easily grabbed branch. Luckily Pengh spots this and warns us, even he seems a bit concerned about it. We finish with a final bit of kayaking down some rapids to meet our driver and then 45 mins back to Luang Namtha.  I wish we’d changed out of our wet swim trunks because we were freezing in the open windy tuk tuk. Our 3 days in the jungle will be remembered; great friends, amazing scenery and the jungle is, truly, massive!

We booked with Forest Retreat Laos who were great, run by a really helpful Dutch chap called Sandor. We would definitely recommend paying a bit more for a well organised tour.

http://forestretreatlaos.com/3-day-jungle-treks-laos/

 

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Laos - 3 Wild Days In The Nam Ha Jungle, by Studio Mali
 

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Man Flu, Monkey Ambush And An Expensive Mistake

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This Ain’t No Holiday

We are both sick, really really sick, from 4 months of travelling and not taking a day off.  Most of you will think that travelling is a constant jolly, one of those relaxing beach holidays that goes on forever, but for those of you that have been long term travelling before you will know what we mean when we say you need to take a break.  Travelling for a long time can be really shit, incredibly tiring and when you are run down everything annoys you to the point of wanting to go home. Usually we are those jammy people you meet that never get colds, are always healthy, happy and full of energy.  But today, we are feeling like utter crap.  2 weeks of unshakeable illness and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.  What more can we do then stay in bed for 3 days?!  

 

Escaping The Flu

Enough is enough, we need to move on.  We escape our buggy pit of a hostel and make our way over to the Zhangjiajie mountains, one of China’s highest rated national parks that Avatar was supposedly based on.  The pictures for this place look amazing, so we are excited to see it in the flesh.  We make a brave escape from our sickness room and start a nightmare journey to the national park.  We sit on a train with hard seats for the whole day with everyone on the carriage standing up to stare at us, shouting in conversation, hocking and blaring out loud music.  Next we have to take a crappy mini-bus on dirt roads for the next 2 hours, bouncing around in the back seats.  This is hellish considering we haven’t been out in 3 days and our heads are pounding.  Finally we get to the entrance, try to leave our bags in storage but the locker doesn’t work without a phone.  Great, on top it all we now have to trek into one of Chinas biggest national parks carrying 20kg of bag each and a carrier bag of food.  We really don’t have the energy or the head for this right now!

 

Planet Of The Apes

As soon as we get inside everything seems a bit better.  From the entrance you get a glimpse of the ginormous floating rock formations that make up the national park and as far as we can see it doesn’t look nearly as touristy as other places in China.  We head for our hostel, the Tongfu Inn, we just need to get a bus, walk a bit, get another bus, get a cable car and walk a bit more and then we are there.  Sounds a bit much for a sick person to comprehend so we are just taking it one step at a time.  We jump off the first bus and make our way up, clambering slowly up a stair path on the mountain.  One of the tourists walks past us with a nervous face and gestures up the path… ‘monkeys’ he says in broken English.  This is super exciting as neither of us have seen monkeys before, and they are just ahead making their way down either side of the handrails coming towards us.  Man there are a lot of them… 20? 30?  They are passing at head height which is a bit unnearving and there isn’t anywhere else to go other than up or down this boardwalk.  Mark continues on and tries to pass the first one, he is the biggest and the alpha male of the group.  He is about half the size of a person with big balls and a flaming red face.  Before Mark can even get past, the alpha monkey swipes the food bag and rips open the front with his claws.  He snatches a blueberry bread roll and shoves it in his mouth in one go.  At this point we are freaking out.  We look around and realise that NO ONE except us has bags of food, and people start laughing as more monkeys run down the handrails towards us.  We have been ambushed.  

 
Our big balled friend....

Our big balled friend....

 

 

The Chase

‘Run!’, Ali cries from the back, but Mark’s trying other tactics…. hissing at the monkeys as he clings on tight to his food bag of overpriced snacks.  The monkeys take this as a threat and start hissing back at him, flashing their enormous teeth as we pass.  We look back and see the alpha male sprinting on all fours back up the handrail towards us,  blueberry bread spluttering from his mouth as he runs.  He’s back on us and looking for his next snack.  There are monkeys everywhere, from all angles.  We are running up this mountain as fast as we can with the biggest backpacks you have ever seen, clinging onto our snack bags for dear life.  As monkeys pass we are hissing and shouting, trying to scare them off.  The Chinese tourists haven’t seen anything like it and are killing themselves laughing.  The bigger monkeys are still hissing back at us and look like they are going to kill us and steal our food, our legs are hurting so much from the bag weight but we keep on going.  We are red in the face by the time we reach the top and throw down one more blueberry bread as a distraction whilst we make our get away.  We can’t believe it.  Our first encounter with monkeys and we were well and truly screwed!  Those damn monkeys.

 

To Make Matters Worse

We catch our breath on the next bus and make our way up to the chairlift, not long to go now…. nearly there.  The chairlift is an excessive 150 yuan (£15) for a few minutes ride which we are pretty annoyed about, but if it makes us closer to getting into bed then so be it.  We get to the top and try to find the hostel and we can’t, because it’s not there.  Turns out the bloody hostel is just where we had come from, at the bottom of the chairlift.  We try to explain what’s happened to the ticket lady and she couldn’t care less.  Buy another ticket or get lost.  300 yuan (£30) on chairlifts that we weren’t supposed to get is ridiculous!  We are so pissed off.  300 yuan is one persons budget for the day when travelling.  We have no other choice other than to pay the money and get the stupid chairlift again.  We are so angry.

 

Blueberry Nightmares

We arrive in the hostel, flustered, poorer, and can’t believe what has just happened.  The crappy journey we did to get there, the crazy monkeys stealing our food, the annoying expensive chairlift mistake.  Its too much for our fuzzy heads to take right now, but in a couple of days when we feel better again it will be very funny indeed.  We sleep that night with terrifying images of wide-eyed salivating monkeys chasing us with blueberry bread hanging out their mouths. They were chanting…. ‘GIMME….. MORE…… BLUEBERRY…… BREAD.’

 

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Man Flu, Monkey Ambush And An Expensive Mistake
 

 

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