Of all the countries we’ve visited, Laos is the one I had the fewest preconceptions about. I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce it, although after some googling I’m sticking with Laos (rhyming with blouse) rather than Lao (which some travellers use) although it is the Lao people, the Lao language and so on. I very vaguely recalled that it was bombed by the US during the Vietnam War, although my memory was not commensurate with the extent of the bombardment it suffered. I knew there were no trains for us to travel on – although construction of a Chinese railway is underway and we saw the evidence of this from our boat – and that it was the only country on our travels (apart from Singapore, weirdly) where my global data roaming would not work. So all in all, Laos seemed like a rather mysterious bridge we were passing through between Thailand and Vietnam so as not to break our circle around Southeast Asia.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, with little expectations, we have really enjoyed our time here. It’s an annoying cliché for tourists to announce that they have found “less touristy” places, and the places we have visited are not actually “less touristy” than Thailand in terms of how local people make a living. Indeed, according to our AirBnb host in Luang Prabang, the entire economy of this city is based on tourism so it’s worrying that visitor numbers have dropped off in the last few years, most likely due to the Chinese economic slowdown. But Laos is considerably less busy than Thailand. The pace is calmer and more relaxed. There’s even a nationwide curfew at midnight to protect the early-morning giving of alms to monks, and as the sun goes down the relative lack of street lighting contributes to this peaceful mood. Wandering through the night market of Luang Prabang is worlds away from Bangkok or Chiang Mai. At one point in our planning we considered skipping Laos – I’m so glad we didn’t.
Our little minivan of travellers was playing techno music at a subdued volume as we drove to the Thai border at 8 in the morning, got our exit stamps and then crossed from left-hand-side to right-hand-side driving as we made it over the Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge. The process for purchasing your visa on arrival is somewhat strange. After filling out multiple forms with the same information (which, as usual, are never used and never seen again) they take your passport to stick in a full-page visa and then pass it to someone else for them to try and recognise your face and match it up with the right passport photo. Understandably they do not always get this right, so there is a lot of “nope, that’s someone else” until you get your passport back and are free to enter the country.
From here we took a slow boat along the Mekong River for two days to Luang Prabang, stopping for the night at the small town of Pak Beng. On the first day our group was a little late to the boat and the only seats left were the sideways benches at the front, which were not hugely comfortable. Randi and I spent a lot of the journey sitting on the floor instead, but the atmosphere was nice and we worked hard to convince two young children to keep poking our noses for our mutual entertainment.
Pak Beng may be small but we found a wonderful restaurant for dinner after eschewing the bar and wandering along its main (and only?) road, lit by two small bonfires and minimal electricity. The bread for sale, on the other hand, is truly the worst bread. It tasted like it came from a children’s plastic play set. All of the other food we’ve had in Laos has been exceptionally good – and the fish which Randi ordered last night might be the best fish I’ve ever tasted – so if you’re visiting, please just eat anything other than a baguette.
We arrived into Luang Prabang the following afternoon after a less crowded boat ride. Remarkably, I could even read my Kindle on it without getting a headache, which is very rare for me and boats. Luang Prabang is surprisingly small. You’re spared a paragraph in this post about the public transport around town because there’s no need: everything was easily walkable from our AirBnb by the river. In the centre is a small hill, Phou Si, which is common to walk up (there are stairs) to watch the sunset from the temple at the summit. It’s the one time in Laos where it did feel a little crowded, but the sun was full of colour in a way which is never quite captured on photos. (This is true even in those photos where people pose ‘holding’ the sun, which I have now seen done sixty thousand times during our travels.)
Yesterday we ventured out of town early to get to the Kuang Si Falls before the crowds. We began with the trek to the top of the waterfall where we discovered that the disadvantage of getting there early is that you get to be the ones to break a lot of spider’s webs. On the other hand, the whole place is beautiful and peaceful enough to sit and read by the main waterfall before getting changed and going for a quick dip around some of the lower falls. We did not go to investigate the “secret falls” described on some travel blogs, which always include a quick confession that they had to get past a locked gate and fencing to get there. I’m not sure everyone understands the difference between “secret” and “closed”.
Tonight we’re leaving Laos and flying to Hanoi. I feel a little bad about this. I had wanted to get across Southeast Asia with no short-hop flights, but (as mentioned) there are no trains and we chickened out of our original plans to take the 24-hour bus. (This trip is mostly described online as the ‘Journey from Hell’ although one British blog summed it up as ‘Not So Bad’ which British people will recognise as meaning roughly the same thing.) But I can totally see why some people – including our AirBnb host – visit Laos and then end up staying for years. If you are in the region, don’t miss it out!