I’ve started to lose count of countries now that I’m older than 30, but Laos should be #216. It’s a place I’ve skirted around, having visited all the other south east Asian countries, and never known much about, but it felt familiar when I finally arrived. It has a lot of Vietnamese influence, a language related to Thai, and a revived buddhist culture that reminded me of Myanmar. There’s plenty of Chinese and Indian money, as is everywhere else in the ASEAN countries. And comfortingly enough, there were plenty of solo female travellers too.
It’s a $32-42 visa on arrival for most European passports, and I was threatened deportation for not wanting to use the same passport as I had used in Vietnam. Even though I had flown from Hanoi to Luang Prabang, it was impossible I had arrived on a clean passport page since landlocked Laos is nearly always arrived to thru a neighbouring country.
Luang Prabang was a breath of fresh air, literally and figuratively. The days were hot, but the air clean, and getting up at 5 am was actually cool. Monks would start shuffling through the streets as early as 5, to collect alms and make it to temple by sunrise. The procession was a silent, mesmerising sight, one you couldn’t help but photograph and follow through the streets, but still felt strange for staring at something that’s not meant to be a spectacle, but a way of life.
The city was beyond charming – a colonial town filled with temples and the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers weaving around its many banks. It was clean, safe, peaceful and friendly, the smiles of the locals even bigger than the content tourists. Everyone goest to see the Kuang Si waterfalls and “freethebears” sanctuary (aka Tat Kuang Si Bear rescue center), which is well worth a visit. Make sure you swim in the turqouise blue water for a free foot scrub, or munch, rather, from the Garra rufa ‘pedicure’ fish.
I visited a whiskey village and a buddhist cave during my day on the river, and spent the rest of my time walking in crooked circles to try and find as many monks and temples as I could, getting tired enough to deserve a Laos massage. Its more like a physiotherapy session – no oil, but a lot of pressure and bending, grunts and groans, as the masseuse crawls all over you and stretches you out.
I overlanded to Vientiane through Vang Vieng, a small riverside town I hadn’t heard much about, except that it was famous spot for tubing with drugged, drunk backpackers. I found the tubing shop and 3 incredibly kind (and sober) backpackers to share an early cruise down the river, and either the bars have shut down from safety crack downs, or we were just too early to see the party crowds. I was grateful, since the road from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng was thrilling enough – a 5 hour journey not even the safest bus driver could manage without stressing out all the foreign passangers. At one point, there wasn’t even a road, but piles of rockes from a landslide, and the edges cliff-hanging turns seemed just a bit too narrow for us to make, even without oncoming traffic.
I ate some traditonal Laos food, my favourite being the Larb spicy salad. There were also similar versions of Pad Thai and pho soup, but I was most impressed by their craft beers. Beer Lao had lagers, whites, ambers, dark ales and even a black rice beer. The rice wine however, or rice whisky as they incorrectly called it, was regrettably bad.
I ended my trip in Vientiane, at Ali Backpackers where I could literally see Thailand across the river. I spent the day and night alone, doing some yoga, walking around the little city that looked more like Hanoi than Luang Prabang, and window shopping at the night market. I took a local bus to the airport, which was only a few kilometers away, and changed my last kip for some baht. I was on my way to Bangkok to meet a group of twelve Americans and discover what Travr life meant.