The reality of traveling is that we all try to visit the country that most intrigues us. And sometimes those triggers can stem from seeing that country on a travel show, on a movie (New Zealand surpassed the two-million mark the year after the first Lord of The Rings was released, according to Tourism New Zealand) or my personal worse, when your friend comes back from it and demands that you sit through the mandatory 2-hr slideshow. You’ll never forget that country’s name. The worse must be if your friend takes door knob or napkin pictures, because you know that is going to be one amazing slideshow. I know we all have them.
Another reality is that when someone has time to visit South East Asia, about 80% plan on visiting Thailand within that trip. In 2011, Thailand set their own record with over 19 million despite suffering thru the major floods. How many visited Laos? According to JICA Team Project, that number was 2.7 million.
When I first visited Laos (officially Lao People’s Democratic Republic), I was really curious to see what the country had to offer. I didn’t know anything about Laos, and I was ready for a surprise. Here I am going to share with you my Laos experience having led tours in SE Asia for 18 months.
After an overnight train from Bangkok, we got to the border and filled out our visas to get in. And just happens that us Canadians pay the most, a whopping $42 US vs $30 for our Aussie counterparts. From there, we hopped on a van and arrived in the capital, Vientiane. Pronounced Viangchan in Lao, the capital has a small population, about 230,000 in the city, compared to Bangkok’s whopping 10 million. As soon as we went for a walk along one of the main streets in Vientiane, Setthrathirath Road, you will understand why Laos is known as the most relaxed, chilled out country in the region. It seemed like everyone was slowing down and going slower than the already slow pace of Asia, in general. So this gives you the perfect tempo to soak it all in. So put on your flip flops and make sure you visit these places when you go to Laos, you don’t want to miss them.
Being the capital and the cultural and economical centre, you should see the National Museum where they exhibit most of the historical and current state of the country, which will give you an understand on how Laos became what it is today, after the French left here after World War II. You should also not miss seeing Patuxai, the Laos’ version of the Arc de Triomphe, which was built in the 60’s with the cement the US provided for a runway at the local airport.
You can climb Patuxai for less than $1 and get a pretty good view of the Presidential Palace
Vientiane also has a great promenade where you can enjoy the view of the Mekong River and across the way, its neighbour, Thailand. Here you will have some restaurants that will have makeshift outdoor lounges, a simple carpet with cushions for you to admire the sunset while sipping on fruit juice or a La Beer.
Lastly, the most important wat (temple) in Vientiane is the Phra Thatluang (Great Stupa), built sometime between the 9th and 14th century. The gold-covered stupa stands at 45 metres high and it’s the national monument where most Laotians gather on an annual basis to celebrate the festival of the same name.
Phra Thatluang with King Saysetthathirath
A nice little side trip worth the hour tuk tuk journey is to visit the Buddha Park. Yes, a Buddha park. It’s an outdoor park with several large concrete sculptures of both Buddhist and Hindu deities. Here is the largest of them, the Reclining Buddha.
From Vang Vieng, hire a bike for $3-5 and head out to the outdoor swimming hole known as the Blue Lagoon, especially in a super hot day. The bikes range from the coaster, single-gear to well, mountain bike, Laos style.
One of the bridges you’ll cross
The views on the way are spectacular, with limestone formations and loads of chances for amazing pictures.
One of the rest stops
If more adventure is in your blood, then you’ll be pleased to know that you can kayak through different caves, go dirt biking, rock climbing, or hot air ballooning to get a panoramic view of this stunning place.
The last stop in Laos also happens to be my favourite, the stunning city of Luang Prabang.
Upon arriving in this UNESCO World Heritage city, you will see some breathtaking temples tattooing this former French colony. You will see many remains of great colonial architecture along with traditional Lao wooden houses.
Panorama of Luang Prabang
With many things to do, you can easily spend a week here seeing most of this area and still not do it all. One of the highlights is the unavoidable and ever-tempting (nightly) Night Market. Here you will be able to do all your shopping under many roofs. You can buy clothes, jewelry, paintings and loads of unique Laotian handicrafts.
The next day, get on a tuk tuk and take a ride to the ever popular Kuang Si waterfalls. Here you will have an opportunity to swim, have a picnic and meet some Asiatic Black bears who are housed in a conservation center to keep them from being poached.
It is such a memorable trip that really completes the Laos experience. You’ll be surrounded with locals, stay in a off-the beaten track small village, sample some more local cuisine while taking stunning pictures and having chill time to read your book and soaking up life in true Lao style.
When I left South East Asia, I felt a true connection with Laos and its peaceful ways, its culture and its beautiful people. It is the neighbour that doesn’t get all the press, all the attention or all the tourists. But I can assure you that no one leaves this wonderful country disappointed and it is a true gem within this wonderful region. Kob jai lai lai for showing me your beauty and I hope everyone gets a chance to see it for themselves.