By: Peter Biggs
How different can strings of markets and shiny gold wats (temples) really be? To overlook Laos on this basis would be a mistake. When you do set aside a week or two to cross the Mekong, you’ll look back and ask yourself why you took so long to book the trip in the first place.
Our itinerary was simple enough: a week in Luang Prabang over Christmas, a week in Vang Vieng over New Year, and a few days in Vientiane. My preliminary research about Laos left me with some trepidation on the flight over. Did you know, for instance, that this is the world’s most heavily bombed country per capita? Between 1964 and 1973, an average of one B-52 bomb-load was dropped on Lao territory every eight minutes. The US flew half a million bombing missions over those nine years, all in an attempt to block the flow of North Vietnamese arms and troops.
It is estimated that 30 percent of these bombs failed to explode. As a consequence, large areas of Laos are left contaminated by “UXO” (unexploded ordnance). One could be forgiven for expecting to arrive in a crater-scarred landscape strewn with discarded shells. While this is sadly a reality in the eastern and more rural regions of the country, Luang Prabang escaped that fate.
Laidback Luang Prabang
Here’s a city recognised in 1995 as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its fusion of traditional architecture and buildings erected by European colonists in the 19th and 20th centuries.
It doesn’t disappoint. Wandering on foot through town, the French influence is easily recognisable. Cafés, terraces, shuttered windows and balconies – all have the unmistakable charm of a true Paris of the East.
What soon becomes more evident, however, is how much chaos is missing from Luang Prabang compared with other cities of Southeast Asia. Where’s the barrage of traffic, the congested pavement, the constant blaring of tuk-tuks or taxi horns, and the road stalls squashed together with barely room to breathe amid the dust and fumes?
Luang Prabang is spacious. You’re free to wander or browse without being propositioned, free to cross the road without risking life and limb, and free to sit down to lunch or a beer without any harassment.
The open-air night market was a particular highlight. The cool December air was a refreshing change from the tropics and we wandered peacefully among the array of lamps, linen and silver trinkets, stopping for freshly brewed Lao coffee and a view of the stars in the clear night sky.
Bikes and Beerlao
As charming as this sounds, our days were nevertheless spent exploring beyond the main streets, capitalising on the country’s reputation as an adventure-packed destination. We managed half-day excursions to the Pak Ou caves and Kung Si waterfall, we pushed our bodies on a gruelling one-day mountain-bike trek across the Mekong, winding from village to village, and we did a wonderful overnight trip cycling, kayaking and elephant-riding with Tiger Trails to XL Lodge.
Tiger Trails is a community-based tourism adventure company that provides socially responsible, sustainable and rewarding experiences for both foreigners and Lao people. The elephant programme, for instance, offers a relaxing venture out of Luang Prabang, with an opportunity to appreciate the picturesque villages while watching traditional net-casting and goggle-diving.
The gentle but dusty 15-kilometre mountain-bike ride to XL Lodge gave us a chance to shake off the cobwebs and counteract our increasing consumption of Beerlao, stopping en route to explore silver and textile craft shops. Once at the lodge, we spent the day riding, feeding and washing elephants. Later, we still had time to venture upriver by dugout and cool off at yet another beautiful waterfall, recharging our bodies in anticipation of the return by kayak to Luang Prabang.
The ritual procession of Tak Bat is a unique cultural experience in Luang Prabang. This sunrise offering of rice by the laypeople of the town, kneeling on a mat before a procession of 400-plus monks, is an expression of generosity. The monks take the rice to share at the monastery, eating their first meal of the day in silence.
A word of warning: you won’t be the only tourist watching the ritual. Crowds now stand three-deep barely a metre from the monks’ procession. As deeply moved as one can be by this tradition of a functioning Buddhist community, it’s undeniable that camera flashes and packaged tours detract from the scene.
The local government has already issued leaflets with dos and don’ts for onlookers, and notices are plastered along the main street. But as Laos grows and becomes a more family-friendly and even upmarket destination, rituals like this seem destined for even greater tourist saturation.
Next we headed south to Vang Vieng. The six-hour bus ride passed through jagged peaks and cloud-covered plateaus, calling to mind Peru’s highlands. It is breathtaking, but also a challenge for anyone suffering from motion sickness.
Vang Vieng has earned cult status as a backpacking retreat, but at first it’s hard to work out why. The three-road circuit is lined with tour operators, internet cafés, massage parlours and guesthouses.
Then we discovered the river. Here, as many as three hundred backpackers sign up each day for an afternoon on a tractor tube. This involves floating along in your tube, crossing from riverside bar to riverside bar, jumping onto the timber platforms that have been constructed on the banks, swinging from high wires or somersaulting from zip lines – just about any river activity you can think of. Opt for a peaceful afternoon floating downstream, or for an orgy of Beerlao and music, swapping travel tips and stories with the throng of backpackers.
The river has it all, and Vang Vieng’s reputation as a rite of passage on the Asian backpacking circuit seems firmly intact. Comparable to Cusco’s Cuba Libre-infused nightlife, Rio’s street parties or Koh Phangan’s full moon party, tubing on the Vang Vieng offers a little something for everyone, regardless of age or nationality.
Rafting south from Vang Vieng we opted for a full-day excursion to Vientiane by tuk-tuk and kayak, lunch being the by now familiar riverside barbecue of kebabs and baguettes. At Vientiane, the Mekong reveals its massive expanse. Even with sandbars extending hundreds of metres in the dry season, there is still something undeniably special about this stretch of water that each evening draws both tourists and locals alike to the riverside cafés for a Beerlao as the sun sets.
Another highlight of Vientiane is its diverse selection of restaurants, particularly in the grid of streets set back from the river. Naturally, there’s no shortage of French restaurants. Food aside, Vientiane is blessed with countless wats, each with a rich history and all easily reached by foot or bicycle.
For something different, we visited the office of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a humanitarian organisation that has been clearing UXO in Laos since 1994. There we learned more about the impact of UXO on rural communities and the vital clearing operations currently taking place.
On a lighter note, Lao Mountain Coffee is a perfect place to discover Laos’s formidable reputation for specialty grade coffee. Welcomed by owner Steve Feldschneider, we were invited to taste the freshest blends, wander the villa and play with Coffee, the cutest cocker spaniel in all Asia. We also took the chance to fill our suitcases with a huge selection of freshly roasted and packaged beans.
A few days in Vientiane proved the perfect end to our Laos adventure.
Despite having only opened to tourism in 1989, the country is a blessing to explore, with accommodation and tours catering to all needs. While we barely scratched the surface in two-and-a-half weeks, we left feeling that we’d found a truly exemplary pocket of Southeast Asia.
Where to Eat
Luang Prabang: Blue Lagoon Café & Restaurant; Brasserie L’Elephant
Vang Vieng: Organic Mulberry Farm
Vientiane: Le Côte D’Azur
Where to Stay
Luang Prabang: The Ramayana Boutique Hotel and Spa; The Apsara
Vang Vieng: Thavonsouk Resort
What to Do
Mines Advisory Group (MAG)