Laos is a land-locked country and former protectorate of France and is currently strongly economically influenced by China and Vietnam. Politically Laos is a one-party socialist state ruled by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP). When I was discussing the politics of his country with our tour guide he conveyed a genuine optimism about its future because apparently the former prime minister, Choummaly Sayasone, who was very corrupt and had ruled for the last 10 years was recently replaced by another member of the party, Bounnhang Vorachit, who has strived to rule out government corruption and become a champion of the people. But ultimately Laos people have very little say in their leadership and it is confusing to discuss the concept of “elections” with them in a one-party state. Laos is also the land of Laap (minced-meat spicy dish), sticky rice and the local currency of Kip. I felt like a millionaire when I drew 1 million kip but it only lasted for spending money for about 5 days. We travelled the length of Laos stopping over in: Houay Xi, Ban Pak Nguey, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane (capital), Kong Lor, Tha Khek, Xe Champone, Pakse and Don Det. I loved the country, its natural beauty and its people but the prevalence of squat toilets everywhere (which I am proud to say that I mastered) … not so much.
TOP 10 OF LAOS:
1. Slow boat down the Mekong River
After our first night in Laos in the Thai/Laos border town of Houay Xi, we boarded a two-day slow boat down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang. There were only 15 of us on a boat built to transport 80 people so it was very comfortable and spacious. I loved being on the river, with the green fields and mountains rolling by, and the feeling of complete space and isolation from cities, people and traffic. We read, napped, played cards, danced to music, ate delicious meals and the experience generally brought a feeling of relaxation and contentment to the entire group.
2. Swimming in waterfalls and rivers
I had a reputation in my travel group for being an enthusiastic swimmer and always the first to ask our tour guide if there was a swim spot (big surprise). So we ended up swimming at sunset on the Mekong River with its ridiculously strong currents proving to be challenging. But, as we had no place to shower that night, a cool refreshing swim was a welcome respite. Apparently none of the other tour groups had swum in the river but obviously some-one in our group made a special request to swim.
Despite Laos being land-locked it has a number of rivers, lakes and waterfalls. We swam in the beautiful Kuang Si waterfalls in Luang Prabang in two spots. A challenging hike up a seriously crumbling and slippery path was rewarded by a crystal clear pool with a swing at the top behind the main falls where people were taking all sorts of drugs and where we were offered something to “smoke”. I felt a bit like Leo DiCaprio in the movie, “The Beach”.
We also swam in the beautiful Tad Yueng falls in the Champasak province in Southern Laos. It was an overcast day and the spray from the waterfalls made it a bit misty, but, being a fish, I was determined to swim and convinced the rest of my group to join me. The sheer force of the waterfalls made it difficult to get close and it was far easier to swim backwards but the experience was breathtaking.
3. Exploring the Koh Lor caves
We were treated to 2 days of blissful relaxation at the Crystal Pools accommodation near the Koh Lor caves. The Koh Lor caving experience involves boating down a 7km pitch-black cave with headlamps including getting out the boat at times to walk along the side or through the water over rocks (when the boat needs to be lighter to get over the shallow parts). Being enclosed in absolute darkness in the cave was the only time I experienced anxiety on my trip because I found it incredibly claustrophobic and kept on planning how I would swim my way out of the situation in the dark. But as terrifying as it was, it was also somewhat exhilarating and I felt like a proper explorer.
4. Canoeing down the crystal river
In addition to our adventurous caving activity, we borrowed traditional wooden canoes and paddled down the crystal river over rocks and trees to a beautiful swimming spot. It proved to be rather challenging as there was a large amount of debris in the river and my canoe buddy, Richard, and I regularly found ourselves getting stuck on objects causing a great deal of frustration and laughter. Our canoe teamwork was much smoother on the return journey and I realized that as the front-seat canoe member of the team, I had to be much more proactive in spotting and calling out hazardous objects and navigating us. Richard said it was a vast improvement from when I had previously called out the hazardous object right before we hit it.
5. Bicycle riding in Don Det & Don Khon
Don Det and Don Khon are two islands in the middle of the Mekong Rover in the 4000 islands of the Si Phan Don in Southern Laos. We stayed on the main island of Don Det and hired bicycles to cycle through to the waterfalls and nature park in Don Kohn. The bicycles were the bare minimum without gears or even breaks. But cycling through the rural roads around the island, back through rice paddies, next to the setting sun on the river, was incredibly magical.
6. Tubing in Vang Vieng
The infamous party scene and tubing in Vang Vieng involved hiring tubes and floating down a river while stopping off at bars on either side to drink. The bars have men who would throw out lines attached to empty plastic bottles to pull you in on your tube from the river. There were also a number of dubious platforms and ropes for jumping off into the river. But the bars of Vang Vieng were completely shut down after a few tourists’ deaths and Vang Vieng has only recently re-opened three bars for a substantially subdued party scene. This did not prevent some of us from enjoying a drink at each bar (the drinks were aptly labelled “cheap and strong”) and finding ourselves a bit tipsy by the end.
7. Homestay in Ban Pak Nguey
While we were cruising down the Mekong river, we stopped off for a night to stay in a house in the local village of Ban Pak Nguey. Our homestay included a visit to a school, dinner, a blessing ceremony and some drinking games. The entire community poured into the host house for our ceremony and blessed us by each tying white strings to both our wrists so that we ended up with about 20 white-wrist-bracelets on each wrist. As for the drinking games, I wasn’t familiar with the two we played (some hand clapping thing and another one where we counted to 21 with a number of rules) but adequately equipped myself not to get drunk unlike some other members of our group. But apparently getting drunk was the preferred strategy to cope with spending a night on the floor under mosquito nets, with no fans in the oppressive heart, ridiculously close to two other girls and with only an outdoor squat toilet for an ablution facility (even to brush our teeth). After a long night, we were awoken by the sounds of crowing roosters and the very communisque-sounding loud speaker announcement over the entire village at 5:45am which was apparently about water consumption and traffic. In addition to a sincere appreciation for the kindness of the villagers for such a warm welcome, the homestay inevitably helped to remind us to be grateful for all the modern amenities that we may have grown accustomed to but are very privileged to have as part of our day-to-day lives back home.
The Laos Buddhist religion and philosophy is similar to Thailand and we saw some interesting and beautiful temples including the iconic golden Pha That Luang stupa in Vientiane which is the emblem on the Laos flag, a Buddha footprint at Wat Phabath-Phonsan and the ancient temples of Wat Pho which provided spectacular views after climbing many many steps. But by the end of all of it I was definitely templed-out.
The mountains in Laos were pretty dramatic and we were graced with some spectacular scenery and panoramic views on our trip between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng and before Koh Lor. The mountains looked somewhat steep, spiky and inhospitable but also very beautiful.
10. City life and markets
A lot of the Laos cities such as Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Pakse were quite large and modern with all the modern amenities (including French bakeries, manicurists and massages) and vibrant night markets with tempting purchases. We were also able to buy delicious and cheap food at these markets including a vegetarian buffet dinner of 10,000 kip (R17 or £1). My travel buddy, Richard, from England just could not believe his luck and kept on converting everything into pounds.