Settled snugly between three of the most hectic, fast-paced countries in South East Asia, Laos offers a relaxing break from its boisterous neighbours Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. When I first arrived in Laos, crossing over the border from Cambodia, it was clear to me immediately that I was going to love this country. The crowded Cambodian border, complete with hecklers and more litter than a landfill site, contrasted greatly to the dense jungle and sleepy, rural villages on the Laos side of the border. A small van drove me and an Italian couple to Dondet, an island in the Mekong river, less than an hour away from the border. I vividly remember seeing more hues of green than I have ever set eyes on in that short drive, as yet unspoiled by tourism, Laos is still hugely populated by jungle. I was also told by the driver that the road we were driving on was in fact the only main road in Laos, and ran the whole way across the country.
I spent a week in Dondet, but I probably could have stayed there much longer. Time seemed to somehow elapse when I was there. Dondet is a tiny little village with no electricity, where the main activities appeared to be riding around on water buffalo and lying in hammocks. The guesthouses there are pretty basic, and I stayed in a room that was essentially just a wooden box above a chicken shed. I was even warned to watch out for scorpions in my room, as apparently the previous occupant was stung by one! My days mainly consisted of walking around being amazed at the simple, happy lifestyles of the people living in Dondet: children played outdoors, women sat chattering whilst sewing stuff or preparing food together, men built things, continually drinking whisky and smoking cigarettes. I spent my evenings playing cards by candlelight and drinking Lao-Lao, a potent Lao whisky that tastes a little like how I imagine ethanol would taste. Most days I washed in the Mekong River, Lao style – which involves a crafty sarong trick that all the women there use. Apparently there is also rare river dolphins called irrawaddy dolphins around Dondet, but I never saw any. I looked them up when I got home and I am glad I never saw any because they are just about the ugliest dolphins I have ever seen! Check them out here.
After I left Dondet, I travelled up North, spending in a night in Pakse, a small town not worth mentioning, where I got an overnight bus to Vientiane, Laos’ capital. If you ever visit Laos, I thoroughly advice you take an overnight bus, because it was an amazing experience. I’ve never seen a bus with beds in it before or since, and Laos’ sleeper buses are an awe-inspiring sight in themselves. They are huge, colourful beasts with double beds in them. The only problem is that it is two people per bed, and as a single traveller, this was something that perplexed me. What if they put me next to a man? What if I woke up cuddling my bed-partner by accident in the morning? These questions raced through my mind as I boarded the spotlessly clean and, quite frankly, highly-impressive bus. I was lucky however, the bus filled up, but no one took the place next to me in my bed, and as the bus moved away from Pakse and onto Vientiane I basked in the glory of having a double bed all to myself. I fell asleep almost immediately. The bed was clean and comfy and I had plenty of space. I was also used to trying to sleep on overnight buses sitting upright and trying to ignore the loud Asian horror movies that always seem to be playing on South East Asian coaches. About halfway through the night, however, I woke up as someone pushed me sharply against the window and climbed into bed with me! It was the bus conductor (a woman, thank goodness) who had obviously seen the opportunity for a real bed and taken it. She whispered “good night” in my ear, and then rolled over and fell asleep. Needless to say, I was unable to sleep for the rest of the night.
I only spent a few days in Vientiane. I found it a little dull. The pretence of citylife was there: neat restaurants lined roads, bars boasted drinks specials, and sterile looking shops sold endless amounts of ‘In the tubing: Vang Vieng’ T-shirts, but it just seemed like a ghost town. Laos only has a population of about five million and for a country only a little smaller than England, it can appear pretty empty when you are in the cities. I decided to retreat back to rural life, and so I headed to the legendary town of Vang Vieng.
I had heard a lot about Vang Vieng before I visited. Infamous for being tourism-oriented, and almost always synonymous with tubing, I wondered whether or not I would enjoy this South East Asian traveller’s rite of passage, or if the saturation of tourists might be a little much for me. Vang Vieng was both everything I had hoped it would be and everything I hoped it wouldn’t. I found it to be a town that is a complete paradox. Relaxed but crowded, cultural but tourist-ridden, rural but in some ways verging on urban.
It was in Vang Vieng, surrounded by westerners, that I somehow managed to find myself completely integrated in Laos culture for the first time in my trip. I worked a couple of shifts in a bar in exchange for food whilst I was there and made great friends with the owners, who took me for a family meal of some of the best food I ate during my entire stay in Laos. We ate sticky rice with our hands, accompanied by tangy fish soup, spicy bamboo shoots and sweet rice. The whole experience was amazing, and gave me a taste (literally) of Laos culture that I was not expecting to find in Vang Vieng. It just goes to show how unpredictable travelling can be.
I spent just over a week in Vang Vieng, and if you would like to know more about my thoughts on it, please read my blog post on it here.
From Vang Vieng, I moved further North to Luang Prabang, an exciting and animated city, full of things to do. Monks dressed in vivid hues of orange seemed to continually weave through the city, on foot (usually carrying sun umbrellas), or riding side-saddle on motorbikes. The night market was full of ornate bits and pieces that I instantly fell in love with: silk cushions, lamps made of paper flecked with real flowers, antique opium pipes, and bottles of whiskey containing snakes and scorpions, amongst other things. The Mekong River running through Luang Prabang seemed to flow at a faster rate than its tributaries in which I had swum in Dondet. Everything in Luang Prabang seemed to have life, a tangible pulse, a rhythm.
I could talk for hours about Luang Prabang, so I will try and keep it short and simple and just sum up my two favourite things to do there. The first of these was taking a bicycle and riding it around the town. The town of Luang Prabang isn’t exactly big, and its roads, whilst a little busier than the roads of Vientiane, are still fairly scant of traffic and so I felt completely at ease riding my bicycle around the city, taking in all the interesting sights, and stopping to eat at a nice café by the water’s edge. My second favourite thing in Luang Prabang was the waterfalls. Technically the waterfalls of Luang Prabang are not actually in Luang Prabang itself, but Luang Prabang province, and they actually take an hour to get to from the city. There are many ways to get there, but somehow I found myself kayaking there, urged along by an American duo I had met the night before. The hour-long kayak down the river in the boiling heat had me sweating like crazy. I had also forgotten to wear suntan lotion, so by the time I arrived at the waterfalls I was like some swollen lobster. I could not have been met by a more amazing sight. The waterfalls fell onto bright blue pools of deliciously cold water, and the overhanging jungle framed them like a postcard of paradise. We spent almost three hours swimming in the pools, and every moment of it was bliss.
Sadly once I left Luang Prabang I had run out of time to explore any more of Laos, but I plan on going back one day and spending more time there. I left feeling positive, relaxed, and completely refreshed. It had an amazing effect on me and my my newly laid-back attitude towards the rest of my travels. Anyone travelling through Laos on the South East Asian circuit should put aside several weeks to visit. Laos is not the place for rushing things, and it is an amazing country in its own rights, and is somewhere that should be savored.