Thoughts on travel: Visiting Laos
This summer my girlfriend and I took a trip to northern Laos with pit stops in Bangkok and Koh Samui. Being my first trip to southeast Asia (or Asia in general)I was pretty excited to explore this part of the world and see “how the other side lives” kind of. Laos is filled with great outdoor experiences, a troubled but interesting history and most of all, a the most kind and laid back group of people you’ll me anywhere. Laos turned out to be a fantastic experience and I can’t wait to come back.
We flew from Bangkok, Thailand to the former home of royalty and historical capital of Laos, Luang Prabang in Northern Thailand. The city stretches out on a small peninsula surrounded by the mighty Mekong river. Laos’ history as a french colony shines through in the Luang Prabang as a city that combines Asian and western-like (colonial-french i guess) architecture for something really cool and unique. I loved walking through the small streets and marveling at the beautiful woodwork and cozy yards where locals, backpackers and tourists hang out. “The historic part” on the peninsula, where we lived, is obviously the most unique part of town and you can’t easily spend a couple of days here just taking in the atmosphere and rummaging up and down the main streets. Here you’ll find many luxury stores selling woodwork, textiles and furniture. There’s also the usual batch of restaurant and the ones we tried all served great food and pretty cheap. I little ways of the main streets we found a lovely little place that served a simple noodle soup with chickens (and egg if you wanted) for 12.000 kip (1,5$). The soup is served with a vegetables and herbs as well as your choice of condiments (but watch out for the chili! hot!). The soup is delicious, although i did tire of it after a day or two of eating it all the time.
Laos isn’t the cheapest country in southeast Asia and Luang Prabang is probably one of the more expensive cities to visit, but there’s plenty of low-cost food and guest houses to make it possibly for the average backpacker. We spent around 35$ per night at a place located close to the river. We had a balcony and the room was cleaned every day. However, this was in the wet season and the price is probably at other times of the year.
We booked a guide and walked (trekking) to some nearby rural villages. Trekking is a great way to see the countryside in Asia and get a feel for life is outside of the cities. It’s quite amazing how big of a contrast there is to city life and rural life and it’s almost feels like you’re time traveling when you leave the city and come back (Does that sound small minded?). In the rural villages we visited the Hmong and Khmer tribe people who live in simple houses made of bamboo. Often the houses are build on stilts so that pets and animals living in the village can seek shelter from the rain. It was fascinating to see how people lived and how how the older children took care of the younger children. I would love to have spent more time in the villages but as we were only passing through we didn’t want to intrude too much on the villagers way of life.
From Luang Prabang we also to a day trip with a “slow boat” (a long narrow boat) down the river to a cave filled with Buddha statues and another trip to the waterfall of Kuang Si (you can climb it!). All in all Luang Prabang was probably my favorite place on our trip and certainly the most unique.
From Luang Prabang we traveled south to the former rave-crazy town of Vang Vieng. Until 2012, Vang Vieng was known for its toxic party scene and a number of fatal accidents by tourists. However that all changed in 2012 when the unlicensed bars were closed and the city instead refocused on being a place for exercise and outdoor activities. There is still a party scene in Vang Vieng, but the crazy part seems mostly centered around Sakura bar (drink triple, see double, act single is the slogan. Go figure.) and tubing down the river, although that isn’t as crazy as it used to be a few years back (you could buy acid on the river bars apparently). There are also lots of not-so-crazy but excellent bars and restaurant by the riverside where you can relax after a day of mountain-biking, kayaking or exploring the countryside (I recommend the Mint Shake at ‘Otherside’!).
We spent half a day kayaking down the river and although July is the wet season in Laos, the river wasn’t crazy to navigate. I actually kinda wish it had been a bit wilder. It was a beautiful trip down the river though and a great place to marvel at the surrounding mountains.
We also rented mountain bikes and took off into the countryside. Around Vang Vieng there are a number of caves you can visit, although you need a guide to find some of them. We meet a local guide who guided us and even brought headlights which we’d stupidly forgot. The cave we went to had a giant Buddha in it as well as creepy spiders with laser eyes (I swear) and bats. I really recommend going to see the caves, but you might want to think it through if you’re suffering from claustrophobia. Going out on bikes we also found a place where we could climb to the top of one of the mountains. So cool!
From Vang Vieng we found bought cheap minivan tickets to the capital of Laos, Vientiane. We’d heard from other backpackers that there really wasn’t much to see and do in Vientiane. The Lonely Planet book described the city as something like a french-colonial paradise, so when we got there I really felt it could go both ways. Turns out, we spent 1.5 day in Vientiane and in that time I feel like we squeezed everything possible out of the city. Mostly I found the city to be too crowded and with too much traffic to be truly delightful (Perhaps this feeling was further magnified by spending ten days in more relaxed settings in Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang). We spent our full day there wandering around the city to get a feel of it (the best way to see any city I would say). If you go, i’d really recommend checking out the COPE Visitor Center. During the Vietnam War, US planes made 566.000 bombings runs over Laos. Today, many of the unexploded ordinance (UXOs) are still active and unexploded. Because of this there are still many victims of bombs. COPE provides prosthetic limbs, mobility assistance and rehabilitation for Lao people who can’t afford it. Seriously go there!
Wrapping up, Laos is an amazing country that I’m so glad I’ve visited. The friendly people, beautiful nature and relaxed living has made it one of the best trips of my life. I hope to go back someday and explore more of this serene country.