Before coming to Laos we didn't know where to go or what to do and we certainly didn't plan to stay as long as we did. In fact, we almost skipped Laos entirely because despite the many blog posts we researched in advance, we couldn't get a clear sense of why we should visit or what makes it so different from Cambodia or Vietnam.
Thank god we didn't skip it because it turned out to be our favorite country so far in South East Asia. Thailand is beautiful but it's extremely developed, westernized and crowded. Cambodia is also wonderful but is also growing quickly in western influence and development.
Laos is like the gentler, softer sister of the other SE Asia countries. It is quiet, empty, tranquil and absolutely stunning. Upon arrival you instantly notice the hospitality of the local people, who constantly greet you in their local language saying with a smile, "Sabaidee!" Laos is full of natural beauty such as waterfalls, natural swimming pools, mountains and rice patties surrounded by small villages.
Although Laos is technically a communist country, people are allowed to own private businesses and practice religion. It seems as if life is moving at a slower pace here and that is what we loved the most about Laos. And did we mention the food?! Our favorite in SE Asia so far.
Luang Prabang is a UNESCO world heritage site. It's a joy walking around and admiring the well preserved architecture and religious sites. Even though Luang Prabang is a famous tourist destination, it hasn't lost its charm. The streets are dotted with young monks walking around in their orange robes, bathing in the river and chanting in the many temples throughout the city. The monks are highly respected by the locals and every morning at sunrise the locals gather on a street for Alms, a giving ceremony. Alms is an offering of food for the monks, typically rice and fruit. You can participate in the ceremony as long as you a respectful, which unfortunately many tourist are not. If you want to take a photo please do it quietly, from a distance and without flash!
Daily life in the village seems to be very laid back. It's a place where you can truly enjoy being a visitor because you don't have to worry about being harassed by vendors trying to sell you anything. The city is on a curfew to respect the early rise of the monks, and after midnight, night life is non-existent.
This quaint village is situated by the mighty Mekong and the smaller Nam Khan river. The rivers and the surrounding mountains make this village absolutely stunning. On any day you will see the locals and tourists swimming in the river or watching the sunset.
Laos cuisine is amazing! They are especially famous for their love of sticky rice. Our favorite were the noodle soups, which come with plenty of fresh herbs, lettuce and other veggies. It sounds weird to put lettuce in a bowl of hot soup, but trust us, there is nothing better!
Besides the traditional food, you can also find tasty western dishes here. Laos was a French colony and the baguettes and pastries in Luang Prabang taste just like in France.
Another joy of the French influence are the Bahn Mi-like Laos sandwiches, which are everywhere and absolutely worth trying!
The night market in Luang Prabang is a fun place to visit and try some local cuisine. There are plenty of meats on sticks, grilled fish, sandwiches and noodle dishes. In our opinion the food at the night market wasn't the freshest. We saw the vendors packing all the meats after hours of sitting on a table, and placing in plastic bags to be sold the next day. We were actually shocked that we didn't get sick.
The Tipsy Gypsies Tip: Want the freshest street food? Look outside the night markets and you will find they are cooking smaller, fresher portions, rather than creating mountains of food (which they could never sell in one night) to impress tourists.
If you want to get out of town you can hire a tuk tuk, taxi or rent scooters and drive 30km outside to see the incredible Kuang Si Falls. This place is no secret, and if you want to enjoy swimming in the fresh pools of water you should be there as soon as it opens. We got there about 9 am and there were few other people around, but by noon it was full of tourists and locals.
The Tipsy Gypsies Tip: We highly recommend you go by scooter as you can create your own schedule when visiting Kuang Si Falls. It only costs a little more but the freedom is totally worth it. We read a lot of blogs saying the road and ride out to the falls was dangerous but we found that to be completely untrue.
There are multiple waterfalls and the higher you are willing to hike up the stream, the less people you will see. The water is cool, and it's very hard not to jump into the turquoise water. But don't worry, you can!
There is also a small bear sanctuary on the way to the waterfalls. Most of these bears have been rescued from poachers, who either planned to illegally sell them as pets or kill them. One of the bears was missing a paw, but it was still very playful. The bears played together, cooled off in the pools of water and it was very entertaining to watch them.
Also make sure to stop at the small UXO Museum, which you can read more about here (COMING SOON). There are several of these museums in Laos so if you don't go to this one make sure you stop at one of the others as it's really eye opening and important to learn about the brutal history these people have survived and the problems they still deal with today.
Nong Khiaw is a tiny village a few hours north from Luang Prabang. This place used to be a real off the beaten track place, but it is getting more popular every day. You can start to see the foot print tourism is leaving on this town with numerous restaurants and guest houses popping up.
The Tipsy Gypsies Tip: We scored an awesome river view bungalow for $9 by staying a 10 minute walk outside the main town. There is a small dirt road near the school and down by the river are a handful of awesome cheap bungalows.
There is a nice but strenuous hike you can do to see a spectacular view of the valley and the town below but please, don't go in the middle of the day like we did! It was so hot we barely made it to the top. The trailhead starts about 50 meters past Temple of Ban Sop Houn.
Once you reach the top you are rewarded with a nice viewing hut that offers some shade and even a hammock!
We are only going to mention this town briefly as it's the one place in Laos we really didn't like. And why? Because it was one the town most ruined and destroyed by western influence. Viang Vieng was famous for many years as an insane, year round, Spring Break experience for young backpackers. Eventually it got so bad that backpackers were dying, doing stupid things that stupid backpackers do. So the government eventually shut everything down and now there are only a few bars left. We read the town has since changed and maybe it has, but to us it still reeked of its previous heyday and although there are some nice day trips you can do, we think the town is completely worth skipping.
The Tipsy Gypsies Tip: If you MUST go to Vang Vieng, you might as well score some free drinks. We got pretty hammered completely for FREE thanks to the extremely competitive happy hours, (which is basically free drinks from 6-8) that the few bars in town offer to try and lure you in.
Thakhek and the Thakhek Loop
This town is located between Vientiane and 4000 Islands. The town itself doesn't have much to offer but it is a must stop for the awesome Thakhek Loop which you can read in detail about here.
Don Det is located at 4000 Islands and just getting there was an adventure. We first took an overnight bus that dropped us in the middle of nowhere at 3am where we had to wait until sunrise, and then we traveled for another hour by a small boat to get there. The island itself is lovely. You can do some kayaking, biking, river tubing and read a book in hammocks overlooking the river.
The Tipsy Gypsies Tip: Internet in Don Det sucks but if you seek out the restaurant/café with the fewest customers, you're much more likely to get a faster connection.
We visited Don Det in the middle of March, which was good and bad. March is the hottest month in Laos and the heat was hard to deal with, but on a positive note, the island was empty and rooms were cheap.
If you've never been to South East Asia, it's easy to assume that all these neighboring countries are going to be very much alike. But as we continue to make our way through the region, we are quickly learning and loving how different they all are. And just because we said earlier, that Thailand and Cambodia are more developed, it doesn't meant they aren't worth visiting as well. But again, what set Laos apart, and what made us fall in love, was the lack of urgency. In a world that is dominated by the aggressive pursuit of profits and status, the people of Laos, in the city AND the villages, seemed untroubled by these pursuits. It's truly the land of "it's nap time", when and where ever you want! Restaurants and stores almost always had an employee or two dozing in a corner somewhere.
And although we fell in love with the simplicity and slowness of Laos, we are also well aware of the countries tragic past, and the struggles it deals with today regarding it's extremely corrupt government and massive levels of poverty.
Despite these hurdles, we saw nothing but smiles as we drove through village after village in the countryside. And although we hope for a more honest government and more access to education, healthcare and vital services for it's people, we hope they never forget that it's always the right time to sit back, relax, and take a nap.