Laos offered much more than I expected. I intended on staying for maybe a week or so, but I stayed longer because I wanted to get off the beaten path. My general impressions: super friendly people, amazing sandwiches, the cutest children I’ve ever seen, amazing scenery, and an overall authentic country. Laos is what Thailand was 20-30 years ago. I hope it stays this way.
My first destination in Laos was the border town of Huay Xai. Crossing the border was painless, but was an entire day of traveling by bus. Most people only come here to do the Gibbon Experience (a zip-lining and treehouse living activity which I skipped since I did not want to spend $200-300, though it seemed wonderful). Really nothing to see here, except a temple at the top of a hill.
Luang Prabang is a UNESCO world heritage site with beautiful French colonial architecture and history. I was thrilled to have my first taste of real bread here, not that terrible packaged bread that tastes like air. Sandwiches! Baguettes! Almond croissants! Thank you French people for your bakeries and cuisine. I loved just walking around the town, going into temples and talking to monks, sitting at the cafes, walking along the Mekong river, and visiting the stunning waterfalls nearby. The Kuang Si waterfalls are absolutely worth the trip, as are the other ones. I’ve never seen a prettier waterfall in my life.
The market here was one of the best I’ve seen, and the all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffets for $2 were a delicious steal. I really miss my sandwich lady.
Just a day before leaving Luang Prabang for Vang Vieng, I learned about this village town in the mountains of northern Laos. A group of people I had befriended were going, so I decided to join their caravan. Not many people go here, as it is off the typical backpacker route. It was so worth it. This little town had some of the most stunning scenery I had ever seen. Nestled between enormous mountains, Nong Khiaw is the perfect place to relax and enjoy nature. It doesn’t have much to do here except explore the villages in the countryside by bike, kayak, and hike. The viewpoint hike at sunset was a highlight of the trip, with a glorious view of the river winding through the mountains. Sidenote, the Indian restaurant here had the best chai I’ve ever had in my life.
On the second day, the six of us took motorcycles and drove through the countryside. Instead of doing an organized, commercialized tour, we found and explored the villages ourselves. This was so much better and gave us a much more authentic experience. We stumbled upon a New Year’s party where the villagers were celebrating with music, drinking, dancing and delicious food. Of course, we joined the festivities. They continued to push Laolao, the local rice whisky, and BeerLao in our hands. One Laotian man was very keen on dancing with me, which consisted of walking in a circle, slowly moving your hands. They would be shocked if they saw us back home. The kids were absolutely fascinated with us, always saying hello and following us around. The children in Laos are the cutest I’ve ever seen. So sweet, so happy.
I’ve written an entire blog post on the Secret War and the Plain of Jars in Phonsavan, which was what took me to Eastern Laos. Again, another town off the beaten path. The area was not as pretty as Nong Khiaw or Luang Prabang, but it was beautiful in a different way. War torn, dusty, and very industrial. The land reminded me so much of California, I felt like I was transported back home.
There were so few tourists in this town. My friend and I got the chance to play Snooker with the locals, which took a while to learn but we got the hang of it. MUCH harder than pool. It was definitely the local activity everyone participated in, with lots of BeerLao. None of them spoke English, and we spoke zero Lao, so it was fun trying to communicate with them with broken sentences, hand gestures, and Google translate.
Vang Vieng… beautiful scenery, amazing caves, and adventurous treks, but most travelers don’t come here for that reason. Infamous for drunk tubing down the river, Sakura Bar bro tanks, and happy pizzas, Vang Vieng has developed a huge backpacker party reputation. It’s definitely a problem and I find it very disrespectful. There are signs telling people not to roam around shirtless and in bikinis, but people don’t follow the rules. Many people have died in the past tubing down the river because they got irresponsibly drunk, forcing the town to shut down the majority of the bars. I’ll be honest, I partied one night— it was fun— but I could do no more than that. I didn’t even go tubing, which is the only reason some people even go. Instead I grabbed a bike on two of my days there and explored the outskirts myself. I found a couple caves that were just dazzling and jumped off a tree into an aquamarine lagoon (this was way scarier than I expected, and I stood there paralyzed in fear while a million Chinese tourists were chanting at me to jump). I topped off my stay here with a hot air balloon ride that took me high above the limestone mountains.
The capitol of Laos, but not much to see here. The market and river were nice, but the highlight was really the COPE center. I spent a little more time here just so I could sit and do work, before I headed off to the 4000 islands (which I didn’t end up doing). From here I headed straight to Siem Reap in Cambodia, because the 4000 islands didn’t seem worth the time in the end.