First off, Laos is stunning. I didn’t know too much about it before I visited and when I arrived I was blown away by the scenery. No-one mentioned that!
Landlocked Laos sits between Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam within South East Asia. It’s 6.2million people are hugely ethnically diverse and are largely self-sustaining, through living off their land, earning an average wage of US$2-300 per year.
Arriving in Lac Sao, after crossing the Cambodian border, there was not much to see other than our hotel, the local market and “The Only One” restaurant (named for obvious reasons). Reminiscent of a Cambodian market but even more sparse and with squirrel and lizard on offer, it was a sight for tired eyes. After sampling some deep fried donut style treats we retreated back to the hotel amidst the enquiring and curious stares of the locals.
For dinner we went to the only restaurant in town and received a bizarre dish of macaroni with beef that was supposed to have been broccoli stir fry, (minor menu mis-translation). Anyhow, washed down with a Beer Laos, it was all fine and set us up for our onward trip the following day.
Vientiene, Laos’ Capital, was destroyed by the Siamese (now Thailand) in the 1800s and the French returned it Laos some time later. It is now a thriving city, with a growing expat community and prosperous bar and restaurant scene. We happened to be around for the public holiday and a huge festival lined the banks of the river. The vibrant evening carnival had a great party atmosphere with floats, stalls, games, food stands and whiskey tasting.
One of the main sights in Vientiene is the “Vertical Runway” – a replica of the Arch de Triomphe, so called because it was built with money given to Laos by the US Government to extend the airport runway. Instead, in a two fingered salute to their American pals, they built a huge monument for the people. I liked Laos’ sense of humour.
Vang Vieng was the next stop after a very long and bumpy bus ride. A water front resort home to the infamous “Tubing” i.e. going down the river from bar to bar on a rubber inner tube drinking buckets of vodka and covering yourself in fluorescent spray paint. Immensely popular, great fun and the reason most people visit. There are also loads of other activities including trekking, caving, kayaking and cave tubing from as little as US$15 which are all worth a go.
Luang Prabang was the last main stop before the two day slow boat to Thailand. Absolutely beautiful, quaint and had a lovely vibe. We were lucky enough to join a Laos family for a traditional feast and full blessing from the elders too. There are also plenty of worthwhile projects to get involved with, particularly the book donation scheme which ensures the children of the river boats get a regular supply of educational materials and schooling.
Travelling from A to B is a mission in Laos as the roads are little more than dirt tracks and the major roads wind up and around the many mountains. It takes about 7-8 hours to travel 150km by road and there are no trains, but the scenery more than compensates for the bone shaking.
Laos people are shrewd yet friendly, embracing tourism possibly to the detriment of some towns such as Vang Vieng. Plus, large areas of landscape are being destroyed through logging to provide much needed income. However, without a doubt worth a visit and an unexpected trip highlight.