What to see in Laos (and why go there).
Updated: Oct 6, 2020
My first ‘taste’ of Laos was a tiny airport in Pakse, in the very south of the country. I had a two-hour layover before the connecting flight to the Lao capital, Vientiane. While we were queueing for our visa-on-arrival, some girl in the front apparently did not have enough cash to buy a visa, and there was no ATM in the airport. What to do? After a short consultation among themselves, the customs officials came up with a solution: they asked her to leave the airport, go a couple blocks away to find an ATM, and bring back the money for the visa. Meanwhile, they would retain her passport. Easy. It made me chuckle. There are not many countries where improvisation like that would be passable, but it kind of represents Laos. A bit wild, untamed, authentic and (yet) unspoiled by mass tourism, the "Land of a Million Elephants" (as it was named in 1354 AD by King Fa Ngum) is definitely worth visiting.
Laos has had it pretty harsh in the period between 1964 and 1973 when, during the Vietnam war, the USA simultaneously conducted the “Secret war” on Lao territory which was used by Vietnamese troops for shelter. According to available information, the US military dropped 260 million cluster bombs on Lao territory over the course of 580.000 bombing missions. This is (supposedly) equivalent to a planeload of bombs being dropped every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for nine years. For better or for worse, it has turned Laos in the unique place it is today. While there is still a high danger of UXO (unexploded ordnance) while traversing Lao countryside, the latter has had the unexpected consequence of helping to preserve the natural environment of Laos from being exploited by greed. You wouldn”t really want to go into the woods and illegally chop down trees or hunt wild animals if you are in constant danger of your balls - or worse - being blown off by a forgotten cluster bomb. Consequently, 70% of the Lao forest is still in its original primal state, i.e. untouched and unmanaged by man.
Laos possesses a special allure of authenticity. It is in Laos that the smiles of the locals feel the warmest and most sincere, and their interest in you and where you are from, feels most genuine. Laos is the land of painstakingly slow, winding and bumpy roads, where overland transport takes forever. Boats which roam the mighty Mekong river, are no faster (with a few very risky exceptions). Laos offers a lot in terms of nature and adventures. Trekking, zip-lining, kayaking, mountainbiking, volunteering, rice planting, etc. The choices are aplenty. Alternatively, you can wave off all the above and pamper yourself in spas with massages while munching on delicious Lao dishes. All of this, and much more, is available (and for very decent prices) in Laos.
The capital city of Laos is....well, not much to talk about. Granted, I was only there for a very short time and did not explore it in depths. Aside from the few main sights, temples, the arch on the main roundabout imitating the french Arc de Triomphe, exploring the night market and the Buddha park, I did not find much to see there. I visited Vientiane for a total of three days, one of which I spent enjoying cold drinks and a chic terrace pool all to myself (Lao Plaza hotel - day entrance 120.000kip, a bit pricey but worth it).
The UNESCO superstar (thank you Lonely Planet) Luang Prabang is situated on a small peninsula, squeezed between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. A charming, picturesque city, with clearly visible heritage of french colonialism architecture, and culture is a super cool place to kick back and relax. Put your feet up and do nothing, just chill out and enjoy tasty drinks and tapas all day at Utopia bar, overlooking the river while slowly getting tipsy. As the night falls and the zen transforms into the groove, you are joyfully waving the middle finger at all the activities and other stuff you were initially planning to do. Best of all: you don't even care.
LP is definitely worth spending a couple days (which may unexpectedly stretch into additional days, while you are seduced by the LP charm). A short and scenic motorbike ride away from LP are the Kuang Si waterfalls. Fucking amazing. I mean like, wow, really stunning. Consequently, also quite crowded, but if you're lucky, you can find a spot to yourself. In the numerous cascades and waterfalls, gathering water in small pools, I managed to find one which I had all to myself for 10 minutes (water is cold, so you probably won’t be in there much longer anyway).
LP has a bunch of excellent restaurants, as well as superb and varied street food (try the delicious coconut pancakes!) Fresh fruit shakes are offered at every corner. Every evening, an impressive night market is erected on the main street where all sorts of products are being sold. A small hill is protruding from the center of town, with a nice view of the surroundings and totally overrated sunsets. If you are in need of a bit of pampering, there are a lot of high-quality spas and massage centers. Not the best place for night owls, Luang Prabang has only one place which is open after 11:30 pm and it is where everybody goes who want to continue their night out after the bars close. The place is actually a bowling alley and they only serve two kinds of alcohol: beer and bottles (!) of local whisky (which is actually decent with a mixer).
It is very easy to fall in love with the Luang Prabang charm and prolonge your stay a few days. In Luang Prabang, "going with the flow" is cherished above all.
This little snippet of a town, perched on the bank of the Mekong river up north, on the border with Thailand, is not much to look at. In fact, the only two types of visitors it gets are the people traveling overland coming from or going to northern Thailand, and others (like me) who come here for the Gibbon Experience adventure. Getting to Huay Xai and back (from Luang Prabang) is time consuming, so I would not advise it if you are on a tight schedule. The sleeper night bus is awful - the road is ridden with potholes and sharp curves, so it is impossible to sleep as you keep sliding left and right on the slippery bunk beds. I was in the very last row of beds, where there was a big berth stretching across the width of the bus, intended for 5 people, with no guardrails between individual bunks. I presume it was not designed with European-sized people in mind. We were crammed like sardines back there and I kept bumping into the guy next to me. At least I was by the window, and eventually I managed to somehow anchor myself to the window rail using my belt, so I didn't gracefully slide - ass first - straight into my neighbour's lap every time the bus made a right turn. They dropped us off at a completely deserted bus station 5 km out of Huay Xai at 4am in the morning, without a tuk-tuk in sight. I had too much luggage to walk to the center, so I had no choice but to wait. Me and a couple of other unfortunate passengers stood there shivering (it was around 11 degrees Celsius and I had no warm clothes to speak of) for 1,5 hours before some eager tuk-tuk driver blessed us with his arrival. We drove alongside completely dark alleys, populated only by suspicious-looking dogs. After we dropped off two locals, I was alone in the tuk-tuk and I couldn't help myself but to keep peeking on my phone to check if we're going in the right direction. After a short and slightly anxious ride, I arrived safe and sound to the main street of Huay Xai. It was 6 am and it was more or less deserted. Fortunately, my guesthouse just opened and my room was free, so I even managed to squeeze in a few hours of sleep before starting the day for real. A hot shower has never felt so good.
The Gibbon Experience is a result of a successful mating of eco-conservation efforts and adventure tourism. I won’t explain it here in detail, Google knows it very well. Essentially it is a 2-3 day trek in the jungle of the Nam Kan national park, combined with adrenaline-pumping zip lining over the forest canopy, spotting wildlife and spending the night(s) in the world’s highest treehouses. Suspended 50 meters above the ground, they are held by massive trees. The only way in or out is via a zip line. No stairs, no ladders. When it comes to tree houses, they are actually rather luxurious. Comfy mattresses, electricity and lukewarm shower (if you’re quick enough!) The forest guides prepare a delicious dinner and breakfast. Taking a shower on the terrace, standing butt-naked 50 meters above the ground, gazing over the forest canopy below you and admiring the sunset while the mist slowly begins to ooze from the deep forest, is a breathtaking sight and a very unique experience. I read about the Gibbon Experience in a travel guide and I was skeptical at first - it seemed like a highly overrated and overpriced trek (it is between 200-300 USD). But after doing it (I choose the 2-day Express tour), I was very glad I did. It is fun, exhilirating and quite unique. If you can afford it, it is worth it. YOLO. Just do it :)
For my return journey from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, I chose the 2-day slow boat cruise on the Mekong river. The cruise offers a wonderful insight into the beautiful scenery and village life alongside the banks of the Mekong. You spend the night in a small village half-way to LP where you can observe the elephants taking a morning bath. It takes more time, but it is infinitely more comfortable and enjoyable than the bus. If you are feeling more adventurous, you can take one of the speedboats which bring you to LP in a few hours instead of two days. They are very noisy and come with a certain degree of risk - the boats are small and the river is full of hidden rocks and floating debris. Accidents and even deaths are not uncommon. The fact that passengers are usually wearing full-face motorcycle helmets, speaks for itself.