Just across the Mekong River from Thailand lies Laos – a poor, less populous, communist version of Thailand. The two are culturally similar. The languages are related, the food is similar, and both have way too many temples. For a long time the territory that is Laos fell under the control of Siam (Thailand), but the histories diverged at one point. Thailand was never colonized by Europeans while Laos (much to their resentment) became a part of French Indochina. Despite coup after coup, Thailand has been a relatively stable, peaceful, and prosperous democratic state (relatively is the key word here). Laos was taken over by communists and suffered greatly during both the Indochina War (against the French) and the Vietnam War (when the North Vietnamese ran their supply lines through Laos prompting the USA to bomb the shit out of the country). Despite all of the bad history, Laos was a pleasant country to visit. The people were mostly friendly (though there were still plenty of shady characters – this is Southeast Asia after all), it was pretty easy to get around, and we had no major mishaps along the way. Woohoo! I travelled with my mate Guy from university. We crossed the border from Thailand – my only land border crossing in Southeast Asia – and proceeded to have three main stops along the way.
A few highlights of my time in Laos:
Slow boat down the Mekong River:
The morning after we crossed the Thai-Lao border we hopped aboard a slow boat down the Mekong River. My friends Della and Eric had done this a few months ago and recommended it. It was two full days of travelling – three if you count the bus from Chiang Mai to get to the Lao border the day before – but I’m glad we worked in the time to sit back and enjoy it. The boats are long with well over a hundred seats (maybe 200 actually?) and – as the name implies – go slowly down the Mekong River allowing you to take in the jungle and village scenery. We started in the town of Huay Xai just across from the Thai border, travelled to the town of Pakbeng on day 1, and then finished the journey to Luang Prabang on day 2. It’s a much cheaper way of traveling than a flight, and much less bumpy and nauseating than a bus (as we later experienced on our bus rides from Luang Prabang to Vang Viang and from Vang Vieng to Vientiane).
If you only have time to visit one place in Laos, Luang Prabang is it. It’s a pleasant little city which reminded me very much of Chiang Mai. Just like in Chiang Mai, we visited a lot of temples in Luang Prabang. We also visited three small museums – one in the old royal palace, a small ethnological museum, and the UXO Visitor Centre. The UXO Visitor Centre was the most interesting and by far the saddest museum we visited. UXO stands for “unexploded ordnance” – remains of bombs that were dropped by the USA but failed to detonate on impact. Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the history of the world thanks to the North Vietnamese running their supply line targets through here, and millions of these leftover bombs remain across the country. We learned that on average one person per day is still killed by unexploded ordnance – which is ridiculous when you think that the Vietnam War ended forty years ago. The UXO Visitor Centre is run by a non-profit which helps to survey the land and remove UXO. Given the amount of UXO left in the country, they sadly have a very, very long road ahead.
Outside of Luang Prabang, we took a day trip to the Kouang Si Waterfall for a nice hike and a dip in the clear (and ridiculously cold) water. The waterfall park also had a bear rescue centre where we learned a bit about the poaching problem that exists in Laos. Back in town, we climbed up Mount Phu Si (right in the centre of town) to watch sunset, but it was overrun with tourists (stupid tourists!) so we aborted and went down to the night market instead. The night market in Luang Prabang is fabulous – it goes on for ages down the main drag in town and sells all sorts of souvenirs. An offshoot down a little alley is the food street with lots of options including the super cheap vegetarian buffets – where you fill up a bowl with as much food as you can possibly choke down for a very reasonable set price. They also have lots of sweets like cakes and coconut pancakes! During the day, the adjacent square has a row of stalls selling baguette sandwiches – also for next to nothing. Luang Prabang gets a gold star for good, cheap eats!
We stayed at the Golden Lotus Guesthouse which was in a prime location and ended up being my favourite guesthouse in Southeast Asia. The guy who ran the place – Bill (but surely that wasn’t his real name!) – was super friendly and super helpful and he even took me to the morning bat (alms ceremony) and set me up with some rice to give to the monks. The breakfast there was also delicious and I highly recommend this place to anyone traveling to Luang Prabang.
A seven hour nauseating bus ride from Luang Prabang lies the little town of Vang Vieng. This town is home to the Nam Song river, famous (or infamous) for its party scene that involves tubing down the river. The area used to be overrun with lots of bars, lots of drugs, and dirty backpackers doing stupid things. After a few too many tourists died, the government decided to put an end to the madness in 2012. The backpacker vibe still remains, but it’s not unpleasant like I’m sure it used to be. Guy and I went tubing down the river. We had such a nice time that we decided to do it twice! We stopped at three different bars for beer along the way – the only three that were open that day (the government limits how many can be open at once) – then slowly floated down the rest of the river back to town. The tubing makes a nice stop to break up the journey between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. Aside from this, there is nothing to see or do in Vang Vieng.
The bustling capital of Laos, Vientiane is… not so bustling. It’s the smallest capital city in Southeast Asia, but despite this, the city has a few nice attractions. The Lao National Museum went through the history of Laos (albeit rather poorly) and reiterated just how much the Lao people hated the Thai imperialists, then the French imperialists, and later the American imperialists. The COPE Visitor Centre complemented the UXO one in Luang Prabang. COPE is a non-profit that helps make prostheses for those who have lost limbs (mainly because of UXO). It was another heartbreaking visit. We saw our fair share of temples in Vientiane – as you do in Southeast Asia – and climbed to the top of the Patuxay Monument (or “victory gate”). The monument is Laos’ Arc de Triomphe and is also called the “vertical runway” because it was constructed with concrete that was donated by the USA to build a runway at the airport. We visited Laos’ first modern shopping mall (which was anything but impressive especially when compared to the malls in Thailand), watched a sunset on the Mekong River, and got told that our feet weren’t beautiful by a lady who would not stop hounding us to get a dodgy pedicure from her. The highlight of Vientiane, however, was a bit outside the city. The Xieng Khuan Buddha Park is a sculpture park full of random Buddhas – some small, some big – which was great for a photo shoot. It isn’t huge, but the park is super interesting and well worth the forty minute journey out of the city to get there.
Laos food is very similar to Thai food and also has a lot of influence from Vietnam and the French. I won’t elaborate too much, but I will say that a restaurant called Makphet (part of a non-profit which trains street kids to run the restaurant) was by far our favourite meal in the country. The restaurant is in Vientiane but they have a sister restaurant in Luang Prabang and several in Cambodia. The food was divine and we ate a LOT. Like, a lot a lot. We had eggplant dip, green mango salad, Mekong fish rolls, and a curry made with mushroom, coconut, peanut, and bean curd, and we had fancy fried bananas for dessert. Superb. Aside from that, Vientiane had a lot of great western restaurants (which was a super exciting surprise) and Vang Vieng had a pretty terrible Mexican restaurant (but decent pizza, surprisingly!)
I was quite happy with the amount of time we spent in Laos. It was just right. Onward to the other communist country in Southeast Asia: Vietnam. But first, let me take a selfie.
To see more photos of my time in Laos, follow this link: