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.
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 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.
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.