From the busy and very tropical city of Kuala Lumpur, we were happy to reach the more temperate climate of Laos on March 9, 2018. The last meters of our approach to Luang Prabang had already looked very promising: green mountains, tiny villages of only a couple houses, rivers, …
Getting off the plane, we breathed in the cool and fresh air – something we had not had in quite some time with all other Asian stops having been quite hot and humid. Visa on arrival worked well and soon we reached the hotel from where we would plan the time in Luang Prabang as well as the entire trip in Laos in more detail.
Here is what we have seen in the ~2 weeks:
- Luang Prabang: visiting the beautiful old French colonial architecture, excellent dining and cooking classes, Kuang Si waterfall, and temples, temples, temples – 3 days
- Mekong river: relaxing on the slow boat on our journey to the north which offers fantastic opportunities to admire the beautiful countryside – 2 days
- Huay Xai: Spend some extra money on the Gibbon Experience and discover the jungle by hiking and zip lining (and sometimes seeing jungle wildlife, too) – 4 days
- Luang Namtha: quaint little town in the north close to the Chinese border, great base for exploring the Nam Ha National Park for multi-day outdoor tours – 3 days
- Vientiane: we mixed up flights and only stayed for a really short time – great cafés and restaurants, though, and the Buddha park seemed like a lot of fun – 1/2 day
Why we loved Laos
Having put Laos on the travel list only while being in South-East Asia, we are. Ow certainly glad that we came as we had a fantastic time. What made our time in Laos special and rewarding were the following 4 aspects:
1. Beautiful nature
Laos struck us as the “green heart of the region” immediately upon arrival – there is jungle and wilderness where ever you look. After doing some research we found that 80% of Laotians are subsistence farmers, yet even they only occupy 4% of the land. While we also saw some of their rice fields it was not the season and, thus, only cows grazed there 🙂 (and it was pretty hot – no wonder that the rice lives rainy season).
Our first natural highlight was the Kuang Si waterfall to which we drive or fancy rented scooter. (Bertram drove there, Anna drove for the return, yeah!) It was really “like a perfectly built waterfall in Disneyland” (quote by Bertram). The waterfall was, however, closely followed by the bears from the nearby bear rescue center – you will certainly agree once you see the pictures below 🙂
The anticipated highlight was the Mekong river, which meanders along much of Laos’ border with Thailand. It’s size is truly impressive and we felt that the slow boat was absolutely the best way to experience it. On the way we saw many fishermen who made their living catching Mekong fish, children playing and bathing, as well as activities seaweed farming. The waters are often really clear and the water looks inviting – an option that many buffaloes clearly chose 🙂
The boats themselves are quite an institution and it’s really easy to buy the tickets in the same day at the pier. We even preferred the local boat which featured discarded mini van seats as their sitting furniture – perfect for moving them around to adjust leg space. And yes, you do want to take a rest during these 9-hour journeys…
A more surprising highlight was Laos’ Northern part. We had gotten a recommendation for the Gibbon Experience from a Nusa Lembongan friend and thought that the highlight were the zip line activities – but the feeling of flying over jungle valleys and into tree houses at some 30 meters above ground was even better than we thought. Detailed accounts of our three days here are in the FindPenguins posts Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3.
Another surprise highlight was the beautiful Nam Ha National Park near Luang Namtha where we went on a 2-day guided kayak trip with Discovering Laos including an overnight homestay a local village. The river was very clear and even though water levels in dry season are low, we made it over the rapids with our kayak 😉
2. Calm-minded Laotians
The calmness permeates Laos almost palpably. Nobody runs, nobody shouts, nobody honks. We were surprised during our first visit to Luang Prabang’s night market that not a single seller – and there were ~80 – tried to hawker anything to us. Everybody simply sat next to their wares and waited.
Maybe it is the Buddhist equanimity that has spread from the hundreds of Wats and thousands of monks to the general population 🙂 we had the pleasure of getting to know a monk in Luang Prabang on our first Sunday, this being his day off. He invited us over to his temple and we came by in the afternoon and attended evening prayer and meditation at his temple. It was a wonderful experience!
Most of the young monks are actually not monks yet but rather novices in temple school. The temple provides religious education as well as general education and English classes to the novices. Upon completing their education, only few of the novices stay on to become monks. Many leave the temple to pursue more secular careers. The novice we got to know explained that he wants to go to university later, further improve his English and eventually work as a tour guide for tourists.
During our trip with the scooter, we also realized that traffic is barely existent outside of cities which made it really pleasant to drive.
We enjoyed driving around with the scooter – it’s a much more open experience and allowed us to stop easily at little restaurants or viewpoints along the way between Luang Prabang and the waterfall.
3. Authentic experiences with the locals
Overall, Laos seemed to be a very “intact” country, where history has not taken as much of a cruel toll on its people. Most villages and towns seem orderly with decent houses, no flimsy slum houses like we saw at the outskirts of towns in Cambodia. GDP-wise Wikipedia told us that it is slightly richer than Cambodia. More importantly, however, Laos seemed a lot more equal and appeared to have fewer gaps between poor and rich, even though statistics such as the Gini coefficient (which measures the inequality of income distribution) do not support this perception.
One experience that we found quite impressive was the minorities festival in Luang Namtha where some 20 out of the 49 minorities living in Laos exhibited their culture. (The majority, ethnic Laotians, make up only ~55% of the country’s population.) The great aspect was that it was from locals for locals and Akha minorities were busy trying on Taidam clothes while Yao people tried Khamu jar whiskey – okay, admittedly we tried, too 🙂 But there were no western tourists at all. This was really for the local minorities to share and interact. It seems a great achievement that Laos can keep such a large diversity of cultures peacefully and authentically in its territory.
Another interesting interaction took place with our kayaking guide Wath who is a Khamu and gave us a lot of information on how Khamu villages organize – starting with chief elections every five years over how school is organized and actually attended to what one eats in the jungle (short answer: everything except cats – seen as holy animals – and butterflies). In Nalan, the village where we spent the night, we could even witness how some of the 1993 EU development budget had been spent: building the local school for 35 children.
4. Food and markets
After “cheap and cheerful” Indonesian food which consisted a lot of times of (ba)mie goreng, nasi goreng, and pisang goreng – fried noodles, rice, and banana, we were longing for more variation again. Lao food proved to fulfill our expectations in this regard. We took another cooking class and prepared 6 dishes which we hope to repeatedly cook back home as well. Similar to Cambodia, Lao food features a lot of fresh ingredients and herbs, is very tasty and if not stopped, the chef will make it spicy, so beware!
Apart from restaurants, markets supply great varieties of snacks and meals, as well as all the fresh ingredients that one can wish for. We were especially fans of fresh spring rolls, freshly mixed juices, and grilled skewers.
Even during our time in the jungle, the food was varied and tasty – of course, always accompanied by Lao sticky rice. During the kayak trip, we even managed the most eco-friendly version of not needing utensils, plates or cutlery of any kind: we cooked bamboo soup in a hollow bamboo, used banana leaves as plates and ate with our hands. Life can be so simple 🙂
Recommendations for travel
We hope that this makes you put Laos on your travel bucket list, too. And at the top section for that 🙂 Following the points above, we think that travel to Laos is best combined with its neighboring country Cambodia, or maybe Vietnam. This will give you the opportunity to enjoy the aforementioned Laotian highlights and also get to know the deep cultural heritage and recent historical events of international interest in the greater area. We would likely plan a total of 3 weeks for such a combined tour – 10 days Laos, 10 days Cambodia, also see our earlier post on the matter here.