By Seb Schleicher , Tyson Carroll
Are you looking for a vacation spot that combines the friendliest people in the world with inexpensive accommodations, fantastic cuisine and a beautiful landscape full of outdoor activities? Welcome to Laos. Pronounced Lao (drop the s, it was a gift from French colonialization), this is a sliver of a country sharing borders with Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Roads tend to be very bumpy here, making bus rides seemingly twice as long as expected, but you can always fly in. Vientiane, the capital city, is the only real major transportation hub. The most relaxed way of traveling-also the slowest way-is by ferry along the Mekong and other large tributary rivers that flow into the Mekong Delta.
Visas are easily acquired upon arrival for about $26USD and are good for up to 60 days. We started in the north and crossed from Chang Kong, Thailand, into Laos. From the border you have two choices to get to the city of Luang Probang. The first option is to take a slow boat down the Mekong for $2USD which takes about 2 days. Or, you can pay a bit extra and take a speed boat, which is literally a Laotian long boat with a car engine attached, that makes the journey in a bone-jarring 8 hours (helmet and life jacket included). On the slow boat you have a stop-over in a small village whose economy depends exclusively on these ferry stops and accommodations are easily found. We stayed for the low, low, low price of $1.25USD in a modest guesthouse. For a few dollars more, accommodations get better and are just as easy to find.
After a second full-day cruise down the scenic and muddy brown Mekong, you arrive in Luang Probang. The city is a well maintained French Colonial town, scattered with traditional Buddhist temples and Laotian buildings. Hotels and guest house agents are just waiting for you to step off the boat. Barter early and often and you can find relatively nice accommodations for $2-$5USD per person, plus a free taxi ride. Keep in mind that the further you move away from the waterfront the cheaper the accommodation become. Once checking in and showering up, head straight for the night market in the town’s center. The ubiquitous T-shirt, jewelry, handmade crafts, snake wine and paintings vendors are all present.
The best and least expensive food is found along one of the alleys of the main street market. Among the vendor stalls, a three-course meal of soup, BBQ fish/chicken/pork/frog, sticky rice and dessert will run you a max of $2-$3 USD. The food is not only cheap, but absolutely amazing. The bars and restaurants in Laos close at midnight on the dot, because of government rules. So if you are still thirsty head to Luang Probang’s . . . bowling alley!? Strange as it may seem, the bowling alley is a bit outside of town yet packed with late night drinkers and rollers.
Other things to do in Luang Probang include getting up at the crack of dawn to watch the troops of Buddhist monks in flowing orange gowns receiving alms. Too early? You can also go trekking through the jungle, swim in some spectacular waterfalls, or sit on the banks of the Mekong with a good book and simply enjoy the scenery.
Next, head south by boat or bus and get ready to have fun, lots of it! Vang Viene is an epic and legendary stop in backpacker folklore. This once sleepy little town has been converted to a party spot, with every restaurant airing endless episodes of Friends, Family Guy or The Simpsons. During the day you rent an inner tube for $7USD, hop a tuk-tuk (a kind of auto rickshaw for the uninitiated) and head upstream to start your adventures. Sounds simple, right? The river is lined with bars and each bar has its own massive zipline, swing, slide or other contraption built specifically to heave drunken masses into the river. At night head to the Bucket Bar, for cheap buckets of Lao whiskey and Coke, and a massive party. If this isn’t your scene, there are many other outdoor activities such as kayaking, rock climbing and trekking. Even after reading this you are still skeptical, please let me recommend going tubing or at least people watching; it is a circus.
The next major stop is Vientiane, which you can get to via a bumpy bus ride south, leaving the mountains to the flatter sections of Laos, or head there by kayak. The capital is a major jumping point for entering or leaving the country from Thailand. Foreign money is being invested in the region and there is a large expat community. There’s not a lot to see, but it’s a good place to stop and plan further travels. From here is a direct, albeit psychotic, bus to Vietnam in case you’ve had enough of Laos. If you’re not finished with the Laotian experience, there is still plenty of country to the south to see. These areas are less touristy and harder to access, which either draws people to these hidden areas or keeps them away. At the farthest southern reaches are the 4,000 Islands which entail a delta, beautiful beaches and hardly a soul in sight. If you’re looking to truly get away, this is the place to realize that dream.
Laos is a country with much to offer; beautifully secluded outdoors, an ever-changing capital or the experience of getting inebriated on a tube. Next time you’re in the area or if you just want a trip with a change of pace, don’t miss Laos!