Before my first visit to Laos, I had heard it described as a ‘less developed’ Cambodia. I was soon educated on how woefully wrong that was…
I’d never realy wanted to visit Laos. Despite avid travel in the region, Laos simply never made it onto my bucket list. It didn’t help that anytime Laos came up as a destination, I’d hear the inevitable, “It’s just like Cambodia, but less developed”. A recent trip, though, made me fall in love with the nature of Laos – the land and its people.
It’s usually not difficult to feel the pulse of a city, especially a capital one, through its tangible geographical features and neighborhoods. Who can resist the romance of a slow lunch on Paris’ Rive Gauche or not be energized by the youthful defiance of the unfashionably fashionable girls of Tokyo’s Harajuku district or feel the cheerful outdoorsy vibe of Sydney’s Harbor surrounds?
But Vientiane was palpably different. For an Asian capital, where was the Starbucks next to a 7-11 directly across the street from another 7-11? Where was the constant flow of beggars? Where was the bustling riverside with people selling balloon animals and sugared popcorn? Where was the wall-towall traffic, the incessant honking of horns? Having lived in Phnom Penh, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City, the quietness of Vientiane was deafening.
Then it hit me. The soul of this city wasn’t so much defined by an abundance of something, but rather the absence of it. Frank, a five year expat, says “what makes people love living in Vientiane is exactly why it isn’t the best place to visit. There’s not much to do here. Everything closes down by about 10pm. There’s no loud noise. You can’t walk 50 meters without seeing someone you know. There’s a real small town feel to it”.
The old joke is that Laos PDR stands for “Please Don’t Rush,” and everywhere I looked, that truism was evident in the hammocks that tuk tuk drivers slung in their carriages for a mid-morning nap, entire families walking hand in hand on the expansive yet empty riverfront and drivers routinely, and silently, giving way to each other on Vientiane’s wide streets. So different from Vietnam, I actually had to ask whether it was illegal to honk.
“No, it’s just that we don’t like noise,” explains Khun, a 34-year-old Vientianite. “If you have to honk your horn that means you’re a very poor driver”.
While Vientiane does have its share of trendy cafes, ethnic eateries and high-end crafts shops mainly clustered in the small and very walk-able Nam Phou area, you won’t find many locals there. Keo, a Lao language teacher, often spends his downtime wandering around Pha That Luang instead, the iconic gold-covered third century stupa with its extensive gardens (admission 5,000 kip) and the nearby Patuxai, or Victory Gate, just northeast of the city center. A group of educated young adults I asked couldn’t agree over which victory the Arc de Triomphe-like structure was supposed to celebrate – the Thais, the French or simply WWII in general.
It turns out that the 49m tower, colloquially referred to as the “Vertical Runway” (constructed using US funds earmarked for an airport), celebrates self-rule from France gained in 1949. A climb past kitschy souvenir stalls to the seventh floor opens up to 360° panoramic views of the sprawling but lowlying city, with hardly any buildings over three stories tall. Lao families flock here on weekends to picnic on the manicured grounds and take photos in front of the cooling fountain (admission 3,000 kip).
Situated on a bend on the Mekong River, Vientiane’s riverside with its many parks is a natural draw. Truong, a traveler from Hanoi, remarked as he gleefully removed his shoes, that he couldn’t remember the last time he walked on actual grass. He then pointed to the many birds nests. “You would never see that in Hanoi”.
For visitors seeking to explore the beauty of the Lao countryside just outside of Vientiane, a popular day trip is the Orchid Trek (www.vientianeorchidees.com) involving a hike along small jungle paths accompanied by two village guides and an orchid expert whose job it is to educate visitors on some of the 900 or so different orchid species endemic to Laos, in danger of becoming extinct due to deforestation and poaching for the orchid trade.
An excellent base for any Vientiane stay is the Ansara Hotel (www.ansarahotel.com). Designed and built by its Lao-French owners, Ansara’s cluster of colonial-style buildings house 12 rooms and two suites on a quiet street on the edge of the Nam Phou area and a two minute walk from the river. Doubles start from US$125 including breakfast, complimentary minibar and in-room laptop.
“Tourism isn’t crammed down your throat here. No one pesters you to do anything like in other Asian countries. They almost seem indifferent to your business which is refreshing”
A three hour bus ride north of Vientiane is the small town of Vang Vieng, a convenient rest point on the way to Luang Prabang and an unlikely spot to be known as ‘party central’ of Southeast Asia. Long notorious for activities like tubing down the Nam Song River past a gauntlet of impromptu river bars serving lao-lao whisky and drug-laced milkshakes by the bucket, things came to a head last September when the government shut down two dozen riverside bars after 27 tourists died in 2011, mainly due to accidents on zip wires, death slides and drownings, usually while intoxicated.
Now the town is eerily quiet, harnessing instead its beautiful natural gifts. Kayaking, caving and trekking are popular as is a visit to The Blue Lagoon, 7km from the center of town over a rickety wooden bridge. We giddily go for a swim in the electric turquoise water (blue from limestone minerals) or chill on the grass, sipping a Beerlao before climbing the 100m entrance to a cave with the Sleeping Golden Buddha. Another option is to volunteer at the Organic Farm (www.laofarm.org) 3km north of Vang Vieng where a stay might have you building mudhouses, making goat cheese or mulberry wine or tending the organic garden.
For those looking for a luxe retreat, the Riverside Boutique Resort (www.riversidevangvieng.com) sits directly on the Nam Song River with a stunning view of the limestone Pha Tang Mountains, a sacred site to which the townspeople pray when they lose something like a cow or a motorbike in hopes of a speedy return. Each of the 34 rooms features decor inspired by eight ethnic groups and are set around one of the most picturesque pools I’ve ever seen. The Restaurant du Crabe d’Or has the winning combination of sweeping views and traditional Asian and French cuisine. Doubles start from US$87 including breakfast.
Declared a UNE SCO World Heritage Site in 1995, Luang Prabang is a gorgeous marriage of traditional Lao architecture, on display in its many wats, unchanged wooden houses and a smattering of royal residences, with the gentility of French colonial buildings and their faded yellow walls and white trim, much like those seen in Vietnam. Before the heat of the day, we climb up the 355 steps of Mount Phousi (tickets 20,000 kip) for the stunning sweeping views of the entire city, including where the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers meet. Conveniently located directly across the street is the Royal Palace Museum (admission 10,000 kip) for a glimpse into how the royals once lived.
In the same few blocks are dozens of boutiques, spas, high-end Lao crafts and chic eateries. We stay until evening when a 1km stretch of road is closed down to traffic for the night market to set up. Colorful red tents house every handicraft imaginable and in true Lao laid back fashion, vendors happily show off their wares without even a sigh if nothing is bought.
Akshai, visiting from Mumbai, remarks that “tourism isn’t crammed down your throat here. No one pesters you to do anything like in other Asian countries. They almost seem indifferent to your business which is refreshing.”
On the very west end of the night market, we follow a crowd of people heading onto Food Street, a cramped alley with tables loaded with vegetarian rice and noodle dishes. We hardly believe that we’re able to heap our plates with as much as they can hold for only 10,000 kip and find a spot amongst the friendly vibe of the communal tables.
Tired of embroidered wallets and colorful shawls, the next morning we arrange our own transport to the Kuang Si Falls, 25km out of town, beating out the tour groups by a good two hours. The main waterfall is 60m high but spills over a series of smaller cascades that seem to go on forever. We have a simple meal of grilled chicken and sticky rice by one of the iridescent blue pools, plucking up the courage to swim in the chilly waters (admission 20,000 kip). To keep with the water theme, the next day finds us on a slow boat towards the Pak Ou Caves where over 1,000 Buddha statues are crammed into two limestone grottoes. The trip takes us past women doing the washing or tending to terraced vegetable gardens as they have done for centuries (US$25 with lunch and admission, www.facebook.com/navamekong).
With 12 distinct ethnic groups in Luang Prabang, any tour inevitably stops by a village that does weaving, brews whiskey or makes paper, blatantly transforming itself into one massive souvenir shop. Village children rush to don costumes over tattered t-shirts and muddy faces, while sing-songing some variation of “Buy from me, only 5,000”. For a more authentic experience, we rent motorbikes and head north to the village of Xieng Lek where we watch artisans ply their craft in family-run workshops like Lao Textile Natural Dyes which uses traditional methods of raising silkworms and extracting natural dyes from plants and minerals to craft quality products.
Set on a hill just on the outskirts of town, the 24-room Kiridara (www.kiridara.com) has uninterrupted views of Mount Phousi from its picture perfect infinity pool. The Phu Doi Restaurant serves up elegant versions of Lao cuisine, including the Luang Prabang Sampler (US$7) of sesame seed crusted pork, stuffed lemongrass, and locally made sausage with a petit papaya salad, and the traditionally woody Ohlam stew (US$8) with a menthol kick. Doubles start from US$160 including breakfast.
While my short stay in Laos was barely enough to scratch the surface, I leave humbled by my ignorance of the nature of Laos, reflected in its gentle, peaceful people and rich, blissfully underdeveloped, natural gifts. (Conversion: LAK8,000 is approximately US$1).