More than its neighbors, Laos is a land of the backpackers. You won’t be running into too many giant tour groups or luxury resorts, mostly because poor little Laos is still sort of a mess (but in a charming, relaxing sort of way) and lacks a blockbuster attraction like Angkor Wat. So rejoice, you are entering a place where most travelers are just as cheap as you and probably within 5 years of your age!
Naturally you should begin your travels in Laos like a good little backpacker: the two day slow boat from the Thai border to Luang Prabang. You have prepared for the worst. People (ok mostly the internet and Lonely Planet) have told you horror stories of overcrowding, the odd smells of hippies and whatever mystery cargo the locals cram aboard, gross toilets and butt-numbing seats. To your pleasant surprise, none of this is true. In fact, you are treated to soft upholstered seats stolen from minivans and a western style toilet with toilet paper. Welcome to Laos!
Hoi An effect – a place you’ve never heard of before you start traveling but hear ridiculous praise of once you’re in the region. You will likely spend a lot more time in Luang Prabang than you planned and when people ask you what you’ve been doing, your mind will go blank. Why? You’re high on Luang Prabang. Most likely you have just been wandering blissfully between cute cafés and markets and picturesque temples and riverside sunsets and noodle stalls on the street. But have you done anything? Not really.
Continue South to Vang Vieng, quite possibly the weirdest place in South East Asia and one of the most famous backpacker attractions in Laos. You will have heard plenty about it from other travelers and seen many, many people running around in the souvenir tank tops with incorrect grammar: “In The Tubing Vang Vieng.”
Understand, when people go “in the tubing” they usually don’t mean riding an inner tube down the river. They mean taking tubes between Vang Vieng's riverside bars which feature ridiculously high swings/slides into the river. Think Spring Break on a muddy brown river: buckets of booze, flip cup, spray painted tattoos, and puppies to play with. Stick around long enough and you'll see at least one injury from the swings, thanks to bold, wasted foreigners and the casual Lao attitude towards safety.
The tubing scene generally runs from about 11 to 6 pm each day, and ends with a parade of barefoot foreigners wandering around the center of Vang Vieng in swimsuits and their brand new “In the Tubing” shirts. When these bruised and battered survivors arrive back from the river, Vang Vieng has just the thing to make them feel better: restaurants with low tables, pillows, and an endless loop of Friends (and occasionally Family Guy) playing on the TV.
Not surprisingly, this scene isn't for everyone. Vang Vieng acts as a sort of litmus test among backpackers, dividing them into roughly 3 groups. 1) Those who feel too grown up for tubing and go to Vang Vieng for its natural beauty and outdoor activities (rock climbing/caving/kayaking). 2) Those who give tubing a chance and decide they have had enough after a day or so. 3) Those who think tubing is THE BEST THING EVER and stay for over a week. So, Vang Vieng is quite handy because you can bring it up early in conversation to figure out if you want to travel with someone.
After some time in a village that has completely whored itself out to the whims of foreigners, try out a place that couldn’t care less: Four Thousand Islands. These islands are nestled in the Mekong, way down south on the border with Cambodia, and now feature luxuries like 24 hours of electricity and several internet cafes.
Even after weeks in laid-back Laos, the islands will amaze/frustrate you with the incredibly slow pace of life. There's not much to do. You rent a bungalow with a hammock on the porch and a shared bathroom across the street. You lay in the hammock and read and nap and chat with your hammock neighbors. You consider your hammock your home and watch sunset everyday. Relax and love every moment.
You will spend a lot of time trying to eat. See, most restaurants are owned and run by a family that also lives there. Whoever is around will take your order and cook, but they might be busy or not really feel like working. Sometimes they don’t have key ingredients of the dish you ordered, so you’ll see the 12 yr old daughter hop on a bike and come back with a couple baguettes and eggs…20 minutes after you order. Or sometimes the 3 year old will steal some of the spring rolls intended for you, so they’ll have to start over, and then a neighbor will come over and start a tickle fight with the cook that will add another 10 minute delay. Or sometimes the owner is watching Muay Thai on TV and will forget to tell his wife that you ordered food at all.
Oh, and the slow service might have something to do with another unusual feature of restaurants in Four Thousand Islands: weed. Besides the expected dishes of chicken laap, noodle soup, and muesli with yogurt, you can order a happy shake, happy mashed potatoes,"Spliff, Large," or "takeaway bag of happiness." But you can't be sure if this is just a part of island life or the result of years on the backpacking trail.
If you are (shockingly) a little bored of your hammock, you can rent a bike and ride to another island in search of waterfalls, villages and wildlife. You will find yourself saying "why did the chicken cross the road?" in a non-jokey way, because you have to swerve around chickens, piglets, geese, water buffalo, and puppies who are wandering freely around the islands. And if you're lucky, you'll stumble upon a bit of cross species interaction:
But a monkey and a kitten are not the most exotic animals in Four Thousand Islands. You are supposed to see the rare and famous Irawaddy dolphins. Hire a boat from the old pier on Don Khon to take you out to look for them just across the Cambodian border. A lot of people are disappointed when they don't see them, but if they do show up there's equal cause for disappointment. They're actually quite hideous:
|No, you can't get this close. This is straight up google images|
But more than any of these lovely places or freakish animals, you’ll remember Laos for the genuinely nice Lao people. People who are not yet jaded by the tourism industry. Kids who are innocently excited to see foreigners and scream hello from the river bank or their school yard. People who take naps in the night market instead of running after you with a calculator and a better price. So please Laos, stay laid-back and sleepy and don’t turn into Thailand, ok? And also, please don't let China cut down all your trees. There must be another way to get your roads paved.
In closing, enjoy my favorite monk photo yet:
|Monks collecting alms in Nong Khiaw|