The feeling of relaxation brushes over your body and overwhelms your senses the instant you cross the border into Laos. Charting a dug out canoe with an outboard engine and crossing the Mekong River from neighboring Thailand into Huay Xai, is the most enchanting way to enter this country which only opened its borders to tourism in 1989. In the past 18 years, Laos has become an often forgotten stop on the Southeast Asian travelers’ route. However, before word spreads that Laos is the hidden jewel and tourists flock, jump on board and discover the land of Laos. Offering unprecedented scenes of history, culture, and a way of life that can’t help you to feel other than lost in Laos.
The ticket I’d purchased from Nice Sky Travel in Chiang Mai, Thailand would take me back in time on a 2-day slow boat trip down the Mekong River to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Luang Prabang. Travelers are afforded two options: slow boat – a lazy 2-day journey with an overnight stop in Pak Beng or a 6 hour speed boat. For safety reasons and the fact that I was in no rush, I’d chosen the slow boat and comfortably lounged in the back bobbing up and down in the water enjoying a picnic lunch of Beerlao and French baguette smothered in laughing cow cheese.
The passing scenery is impressive with its jagged rocks and rugged black cliffs cutting through the blue skies. Men knee deep in the Mekong, casting nets out over the water and reeling in giant catfish. Women slapping clothes against the rocks wearing nothing but long silk skirts, topless with their breasts flinging through the air with each stroke of the cloth they are cleaning. Children gleefully waving and splashing in the wake left by the passing boat filled with presumably wealthy western tourists.
Every hour or so a fast boat would pass by, its thunderous engine’s roar cutting the silence, with its crammed occupants wearing life jackets and helmets, sitting with their knees up to their chins, and the skin on their faces stretched from speed.
It is Laos-PDR, which stands for People’s Democratic Republic, but better stated for its laid back lifestyle as Laos- Please Don’t Rush, there is no need for a speed boat.
After centuries of war and revolution, Luang Prabang has awakened to become Laos foremost tourist destination. Encircled by rolling mountains and at the confluence of the Khan and Mekong Rivers, the city’s mix of sparkling gold temples, remnants of French colonial architecture, and multiethnic peoples create an awe-inspiring location to relax in a street side café with a super charged cup of Lao coffee or wander the narrow streets hosting lively morning markets boasting fresh produce and poultry.
Orange clad monks and novices occupy just about half of the city’s 62 temples and can be seen daily studying in the shade of temple courtyards or playing checkers with overturned bottle caps. A dusty ride in a tuk-tuk out of town to Kwang Xi waterfall, set amongst a valley of rolling green hills, offers a refreshing retreat with its mint colored pools and misting waterfalls.
Sunset seen from Mt. Phu Si creates striking shades of orange and red skies against the backdrop of river waters. As evening falls, the glow of the night market shines through the city streets where people peddle everything from ornately designed opium pipes to vibrantly colored silk textiles. Remaining a relatively quiet place, most residents are asleep by 10 p.m. and local law states that foreigners must be back in their guesthouses before 12 a.m.
Since being placed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1995, Luang Prabang has been awoken from its comatose to see an upsurge of guesthouses, restaurants, art galleries and handicraft shops opening on every street corner catering to visitors, helping to raise the city’s international profile.
It seemed that after a few days of being lazy in Luang Prabang it was time to twist and turn through the mountains via Route 13 to Vang Vieng, the quintessential backpacker hot spot in Laos. More than 70% of the country is covered in mountains and only 10% of roads are paved, and Route 13 offers firm testament to these statistics. Breathtaking views of mountainous plateaus and highlander populations can be enjoyed whilst dodging enormous pot holes in the road. While Route 13 is paved, it has its moments of sparse pavement between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng.
While the town of Vang Vieng is not much in and of itself, it is a great location for adventure sports including inner tubing down the Nam Song – the pastime that put Vang Vieng on the map. For $4USD you can rent an inflated big rig tyre and catch a tuk tuk 3km upstream to the launch point. Tubing has become so popular in Vang Vieng that bars have been established along the river route to service the need for a refill on Beerlao, the urge for a match of beach volleyball, or the impulse to swing from a bamboo tower like Tarzan of the jungle.
Other activities include kayaking, rafting, rock climbing, and journeys to nearby limestone caves. Guesthouses outnumber each other and since they are putting one another out of business, accommodation here is of the cheapest available in the country. Cuisine caters to westerns and after a day or two, you’ll notice that all menu’s look the same, that is because they have photocopied one and been distributed to other establishments throughout town. Don’t judge this town by its cover; it is situated in a stunning natural atmosphere with rugged mountains and striking gorges, which will inspire even the most jaded traveler.
In order to get lost in Laos, it is important to note a couple aspects of traveling in a country whose tourist infrastructure is behind those of neighboring countries, such as Thailand. Lao currency, the kip, is inconvertible and unstable. The only ATM that will accept foreign ATM cards is in Vientiane. Thai Bhat and USD are widely accepted and are a better option than using Kip. An estimated 1/3 of all cash circulated in Vientiane bears the portrait of the Thai King, while another third celebrates the faces of US Presidents.
The rivers in Laos float as slow as the pace of life, as well as the pace of tour operators, which often do not leave on schedule. In order to let lost in Laos, learn to simply go with the flow.