Cat Ba Island

Cat Ba Island is, in my opinion, the highlight of Ha Long Bay. The island has one smallish port town with numerous hotels, hostels, bars, markets, and restaurants. I suggest spending at least two days on the island in order to really see what it has hidden. Staying in town is a fantastic base, where you can rest and relax, but also rent a motorbike or scooter to explore the inland areas of the island. The main town area houses some fantastic markets where a traveler can pick up a large amount of pearl based jewelry for a very small cost. You can also find numerous floating restaurants throughout the harbor serving fantastic food.  Inland on the island, the first real item of note is a small hidden stairway just off of the main road, leading to a cave. Inside the cave, you will find a secret medical facility built beneath the earth during the Vietnam War. When I happened to visit, the cave was completely empty, so I was the only person there making it an extremely creepy experience. The atmosphere inside of the facility is haunting, especially knowing that numerous people died within its walls from their sustained wounds. The complete silence and dim lighting add even further to the already creepy atmosphere. I definitely suggest checking it out even if you find it a little unsettling. The next and probably main attraction on the island for me is Cat Ba National Park which you can find in the center of the island. Whether or not I took the correct route is unclear, but for me to get there I had to park my bike and walk through an abandoned village, whose only inhabitants were wild dogs and deer. This setting was also somewhat creepy, but after visiting the hospital cave, not so much. The hike to Ngu Lam Peak, an excellent observation point located in the park should not take more than an hour or so each way. The view from the peak was fantastic and looked over the landscape in every direction, showing nothing but jungle covered peaks for the most part. My only piece of advice would be to cover your body head to toe in insect repellant and to make sure that you are taking malaria tablets because mosquitos will eat you alive on this hike, more so than any other hike I have ever been on. Apart from the inland attractions, make sure to explore the town’s markets and bars for a very enjoyable experience. Also, make sure to try horse show crab and mantis shrimp if you have a chance, both are delicious. Cat Ba makes for a fantastic few days if you have the time.

 

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The Plain Of Jars

The Plain of Jars is an archaeological wonderland. Throughout the region are hundreds of enormous stone jars thought to be used for burials. The jars are believed to have been created during the iron age, around 2000-2500 years ago. Their origins and purpose are still unknown as there are no markings or other remains to give us any clues. There are 90 jar sites in total, each containing between 1 and 400 jars. The best place to visit the jar sites from is Phonsavan, the regional hub. Many of the jar sites are damaged from US bombing runs during the Vietnam War. Sadly many of the sites are still regarded as dangerous, due to unexploded bombs scattered throughout the region, so take care when exploring them. You will most likely require a guide to transport you between sites and to tell you which areas are safe and which are not.   These jars are an incredible piece of history and are part of a major archaeological mystery and should definitely be seen by everyone.

 

Phonsavan

Phonsavan is the last major eastern town/city in Laos before reaching the Vietnamese border. The city is a rural hub, mostly consisting of farmers and those who sell to farmers. The city is also the closest location to the Plain of Jars which will be covered in my next article. I felt that Phonsavan deserved its own separate article. You can find stunning scenery, traditional culture and cuisine and amazing history in the part of Laos. Spread throughout the region are countless craters from US bombing rounds, as well as countless unexploded bombs and grenades. The locals have made an industry of converting this war era scrap metal into useful items and sellable wares through smelting. You should definitely try to visit one such workshop if you can and watch the locals meltdown bombs to create everything from keychains to silverware, to jewelry, all of which is available for purchase. The scenery alone should attract you, with rolling hills covered in and surrounded by rice fields and water buffalo. Make sure to spend at least a day here, especially if you are passing through on your way to North Western Vietnam. Prices here are also extremely low as it is not a tourism based town. The Plain of Jars is, in my opinion, an ancient wonder of the world and is not to be missed.

 

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is a famous temple town in the northern mountainous area of Laos. The city is a UNESCO world heritage site due to its historical and cultural importance. You will not find anywhere else quite like this city. The city is known not just for its temples, but also its large population of monks who can be seen streaming through the streets in the early morning to collect food from the town’s people. I highly suggest spending a few days relaxing in Luang Prabang, exploring the town, the surrounding areas, relaxing on the river, soaking in the culture and getting more of a vibe of what Laos historically has been. The small city is also famous for its night market, which takes place down the main street of town, in front of the highly iconic temple, Wat Xieng Thong. If you get a chance, I highly recommend trying the local rice wine or scorpion/snake/lizard infused whiskey. The city has a fantastic communal pool, with a built in bar, so on those hot days that is where you are going to want to relax and unwind. Make sure to climb the hill in the center of town for some stunning views, while there is a small cost to climb it, it is definitely worth paying. Also be sure to visit the towns ethnographic museum to be able to learn about local unique cultural and ethnic groups living in Northern Laos. Make sure to also wake up early enough to be able to buy and give food to the local monks as it is a crucial part of the whole experience and almost feels like something that you need to do.

 

Pakse

Pakse is a small city in the south of Laos and makes a great stopping point if traveling from the 4000 Islands to Vientiane. While there isn’t much to do in the city, it makes a relaxing rest stop and gives you a glimpse into everyday life in Laos. In the city, you will find some fantastic temples and a very large market complex that stocks everything from watches, phones, and clothes to snacks and hot food. Outside of the city, you will find peaceful country roads and small towns to visit for some fresh produce. Also located near the city is a hike up to a large golden Buddha statue, which overlooks the city and the surrounding area. There are also plenty of great restaurants located throughout the city where you can get cheap but delicious traditional Laotian food. If you are making the trip North or South, then I advise spending a day in Pakse, just to unwind and split up your travel time.

 

Four Thousand Islands/Don Det

 

The Four Thousand Islands is a large island group located in the Mekong River near the Laotian border. These islands primarily house farmland and small villages but are also home to some fantastic hostels and bars. I suggest spending at least a day or two on these islands, the largest and most tourist-friendly of which is Don Det. There are several places to eat and some great bars in the main town area on the island. My favourite of all of these was Adam’s Bar, a restaurant/ bar where you can spend the day relaxing, watching the latest pirated movies or playing Xbox, or watching turtles swim in their encolsure. The bar was also famous for selling other, non-standard edible and smokable items. The two main things worth doing on the island are cycling around and between islands, and tubing. Sadly for me tubing was not possible a the time of year that I visited, due to the water levels of the Mekong being dangerously high. As far as the cycling side of it goes, I suggest just renting a bicycle and going off down one of the island paths ad seeing where they take you, you will find some very cool locations. Just make sure to relax, enjoy and explore the natural beauty of the islands and the relatively cheap cost of everything compared to the larger cities.

https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g1082249-d4354676-Reviews-Adam_s-Don_Det_Champasak_Province.html

 

Kratié

Kratie is a small town in the northeast of the Cambodian countryside, situated right on the banks of Mekong, the town is primarily farming and fishing based. The outskirts of town are home to numerous villages which give you a glimpse of daily village life in Cambodia. In the town center, is a large marketplace and several restaurants looking onto the river. There are also numerous temples throughout and surrounding the town worth visiting. The town is a great place to see local wildlife, some of which is extremely rare, such as the soft-shelled turtle and the irrawaddy dolphin, both of which are critically endangered. If you’re looking to get out of the city and see how a great number of average Cambodians live, Kratie is a great way to experience this. The locals are also extremely friendly, with my tour guide inviting me to his house for lunch to meet his beautiful family after the tour ended.

 

 

Temples

The town and surrounding area is home to some fantastic temples and temple complexes. These include depictions of the road to heaven and the path to hell and are adorned with incredible paintings and sculptures.

 

Mekong/Wildlife

The Mekong is teeming with life and if you decide to spend time on and around it, you will see plenty of it. Kratie is famous for its local dolphin population, the Irrawaddy dolphin is extremely endangered, but can easily be seen swimming in the Mekong right outside of Kratie. Make sure to take a boat ride out onto the river and go dolphin spotting, I managed to see at least four in the span of 30 minutes. Located near the town is an amphibian rescue center, housing numerous species of frogs and turtles, including the endangered soft shelled turtle.