After a long overnight train ride from Bangkok, and a bleary eyed tuk tuk ride to the border, the passage of many young travellers into Laos is likely their first introduction to the third world. This isn’t meant as an insult, but entering from quasi-modern Thailand, things tend to slow down. Quite. A. Bit.
Your border guard, unhurried by the shifting feet of restless backpackers behind you, takes his sweet time flipping through your passport and assessing your visa before finally stamping you into this rustic, yet relaxed country. The perpetual phone checkers and internet addicts will be driven to the point of meltdown, only to discover in the next moment that there’s an amazing world out there beyond their 21st century cyber cocoon. Laos tends to do that to people, with its bucolic, gentle beauty, a lifestyle that would make a house cat’s seem stressful, and scenery and activities that finish the job, casting a spell on you and dragging you inside, freeing you from the clutches of modern society.
Welcome to Laos, the antidote for the self-made neuroses and ailments that plague us all in the 21st century. Let this country’s charms win you over as we detail the highlights of this tiny, landlocked country, wedged between Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Just be sure to copy this over to your phone/computer’s hard drive before you go, of course!
Currency: Lao Kip
What To Do
The vast majority of travelers entering Laos do so near Vientiane, the nation’s capital, so let’s start here, yes? The capital, while being one of Southeast Asia’s most chilled out seats of government, tends to lack in major monuments to see or things to do. We recommend that you take 2-3 days to eat some French food at a fraction of the cost of the Western World (Le Central has a 3 course set lunch on for 75,000 kip, or $9 USD), and to chill out by the Mekong, and have a few sundowner drinks, while you recover from the rough overnight train ride you just endured.
Following this, your first major destination heading north should be the much quieter river town of Vang Vieng. As recently as 3 years ago, the tubing scene was a party far out of control, with alcohol and drug consumption embarrassing the locals, and upwards of 20+ deaths per year due to head trauma further wrecking this town’s reputation. About a year and a half ago though, the government stepped in and shut everything down, leaving only a few bars left open on the riverside, operating under stricter government supervision. You can still tube on the river these days, but it wasn’t the scene that existed a few short years ago. This may be preferable for you though, as it allows you to actually focus on enjoying the natural environment you are floating through! If tubing isn’t your thing, you can also go caving in limestone caverns in the area, and there is a blue lagoon where you can while away the afternoon with some BBQ chicken and sticky rice, jumping in to only cool off … sounds like heaven!
Continue your journey north through dramatic scenic mountains of Northern Laos to the UNECSO protected city of Luang Prabang. Used by the French as a colonial base of operations in the Laotian North in the 19th century, they left behind an incredible architectural and culinary legacy. Impressive mansions and equally impressive French-influenced shophouses make this town a dream to stroll, with the petals of red flowers floating on the breeze completing your perfect day in this compact town. Before leaving, be sure to sample the breakfast baguette with butter and Nutella – pure ecstasy!
The next leg of your journey will take you a long way to the south, with some travellers spending an agonizing amount of time of a bus (24+ hours!) to get to the 4000 Islands. We recommend you break up your trip in Tha Khek, where great caving opportunities can be had.
Once you arrive in the 4000 Islands though, the order of the day mainly is to just … relax. Lay around in a hammock, play guitar, eat great food, and maybe ride a bicycle around the area, checking out how the locals live their humble, yet happy lives. As far as sights go, the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia is a 45 minute bike ride away, so book in some times between naps to go check it out!
What To Eat
Laotian food, while it doesn’t quite compare to Thai food, still has some notable standouts in its repertoire. Laab is the Lao national dish, which is minced meat (pork, beef or chicken), heavily seasoned with herbs, spices, lime juices and pile of chilies. Tam maak hung is essentially the Lao version of the Northeastern Thai dish Som Tam, which is a papaya salad, also laced with many chilies for heat, and fish sauce and fermented crab for added flavour. Wash it all down with Beer Lao, often the only alcoholic option available, but one of the best beers in the world, by virtue of its long history of winning awards in international competitions.