Monday, August 27, 2012

Road Babe Dispatch From Laos

If you're traveling in Southeast Asia, one of the most common get-to-know-you questions from fellow wanderers is about your favourite destination. With surprising frequency, the answer I heard most was Laos.

Thailand has white sand beaches, well known temples, and Bangkok. Cambodia has its symbol of national pride and wonder of the world Angkor Wat. Vietnam offers pho, cheap tailored shirts and the H-cities of Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi and Halong Bay. Yet, what about Laos? Even if you've actually heard of the country, chances are nothing much springs to mind. When a friend from Laos first mentioned the place, I'm not proud to admit I thought Laos was the singular for lice. So, what is it about this relatively unknown nation that has travelers gushing and planning a return trip before they’ve even left?

What's so amazing about Laos are the qualities that make travel writers scratch their heads, qualities like ambiance and atmosphere. It may not check any wonders off a bucket list, but a certain je ne sais quoi will have you coming back for more.

I was only able to spend a short time in Laos, but I did manage to hit up the main attractions.

Luang Prabang

This might be my favourite spot in Southeast Asia. I was a little skeptical when I saw that Lonely Planet rated it a top romantic destination. My idea of travel fun is more dubious street food rather than fancy candle lit dinners. I know couples generally rave about Paris, but ten dollars would barely buy you a coffee there, much less a lovely room with complimentary lizards to keep you company. Now that’s customer service!

The first day my travel buddy and I rented bicycles and rode them around town. Laos used to be a French colony, so the architecture is beautiful. The slightly run-down nature of many structures just adds to the mystique. Luang Prabang is situated between two rivers and wherever you go you end up by the water. A popular way to arrive from Chiang Mai is actually via a two-day boat cruise.

 The Hmong night market, where locals sell clothing, art and touristy items, is worth a visit. I only bought one silk scarf there, but when I tried to buy the same scarf in Siem Reap, it cost triple the amount. Thus, the market is not only an atmospheric place to shop, but you get some of the best deals. Plus, much of the profit actually goes to the people who make the products.

The next day, we headed to Kuang Si falls just outside the town. The water there is so blue it looks like something in a Disney movie. The cascade is so perfectly shaped you’d swear it was constructed. You can swim in some of the pools but be prepared for minor frostbite. I’m Canadian, a breed that’s supposed to emerge from the womb arctic-ready, but even I was cold. On the plus side, there are some flesh-eating fish (ok fine: slightly peckish minnows) that will give you a free pedicure.

Before arriving in Laos, we’d been told to visit something called the Living Land Farm, where you can learn how to farm rice and interact with locals. I loved it. You see rice farms everywhere in Asia, but I had a whole new appreciation for the food after planting it myself and learning about the harvesting process. When you’ve seen how much work goes into each grain of rice, you will never eat it the same way again.

Vang Vieng

If you’ve been anywhere in Southeast Asia, you have seen the omnipresent "tubing in Vang Vieg Laos" shirts (one of which currently serves me as a very comfy pajama shirt). Probably the most popular or most notorious destination in the country, this is the Koh Phangan of Laos, a must visit for all the gap year backpackers who are more interested in finding cheap shots than discovering new cultures. With this in mind, I was skeptical about how much I'd enjoy the destination, but Laos never fails to impress.

Tubing is where you rent a giant, rubber tube and float downstream past many bars that will reel you in whenever you want a break. We were there during the down season, so many bars on the river were closed or empty. Most tubers just stayed and partied all day at the first two. We actually wanted to have the experience of tubing all the way back to town and getting our deposit back. We were virtually the only ones on the water. I got really anxious at one point, worrying we’d already passed the town and were floating into uncharted territory.

The next day, we took a kayaking trip that included venturing deep into caves to check out some temples. It wasn’t the most groundbreaking foray, but it was only ten dollars for the day and included a meal. You can’t argue with that kind of value. Another thing you can’t argue with is Friends Bar, a revolutionary idea that should make its way around the globe. It's a bar where they have little day beds for sitting, eating and watching the hilarious pioneering TV show Friends. Yes, it’s absolutely as amazing as it seems.


This is definitely the most modern place we visited in Laos. That's not exactly surprising, since it’s the capital. Like most other places it has a distinctly French feel. One of the big tourist attractions is a replica of the Arc de Triomphe, which looks quite realistic. However, I’m pretty sure the other Arc de Triomphe doesn’t sell noodles and papaya salad or have Buddha motifs. By the time we got to Vietiene, we were pretty templed out, but we still had room for baked goods. There were so many lovely cafes that we went between them, sampling dishes and marveling at how much cheaper everything was than Starbucks.

I’ve heard people say that Laos is "too slow paced" for them. It definitely isn’t where you go for non-stop action, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At the end of the day, you’re travelling to have new experiences but also to enjoy yourself. Isn’t some R&R a necessary part of that? If you want thrill and exhilaration stick to Bangkok, but if you can enjoy a slower pace, I would suggest meandering over to Laos.

Rebecca Wall-Clarke is a travel writer from Toronto Canada. She spends her time studying business at York University and often reminiscing about her eleven-country travel extravaganza thru Asia. Her inclusion in the Road Babe Dispatches column reflects only the view of Lyn's "editorial staff."

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, Rebecca! It's a part of the world I haven't been to yet.