I had never planned to go to Laos. In fact I had only heard about its existence very briefly when I traveled through Thailand in 2013 from a few backpackers who had just arrived from there. To be honest I didn’t even know how to pronounce the name of the country correctly. But I needed to leave the UAE for a while, it offered visa on arrival for most citizens and flights to Vientiane where cheap so off I went with no expectations or much research either.
I was tired when I got to Laos. Tired of the endless amount of administration I had been dealing with in the UAE after losing my job and finding a new one. Tired of the visa drama, of moving into a new place, of having to pack and leave so I could return legally. I booked a flight and flew within a few days (this is very uncharacteristic of me) with no knowledge of the what I was going to do there. I expected I’d rest and figure out what I was going to do. Laos proved to be the perfect place for both those things and more.
But first lets begin with a PPG (Panda’s Progressive Geography) lesson about Laos:
Laos has had a long and complicated history at first being part of what is now known as Thailand and later fell under the rule of French imperialism. Then Laos was occupied by the Japanese during World War II. At the end of the war, in 1945, Laos declared independence from France. However, French troops soon reoccupied the country and took control eventually losing their hold over Laos in 1954. Between independence and 1975, Laos was embroiled in a civil war that overlapped with the Vietnam War making it the most bombed country in the world (between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped two million tons of bombs on Laos). After many years of fighting and intervention from both the United States and the Soviet Union, Laos was taken over and is still ruled by an authoritarian communist party. The currency of Laos is the kip and geographically Laos is bordered by Thailand , Myanmar (Burma), China, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Why should you not skip out on Laos even if you only have a short time in South East Asia? Here are 4 reasons:
Unlike other countries in this part of the world, Laos is not frenetic or saturated with tourism. Yes they’re used to tourists and have developed many things to make life easier for them but it hasn’t taken over the country the way tourism has in Thailand or Indonesia. No one harasses you as you walk down the street or in the markets. Its fairly easy to hail down a tuk-tuk and bargain for a price.
You don’t really have to bargain as much as you do in China or Jordan. With many affordable Lao massages on offer, it’s all rather peaceful. I enjoyed the fact that there were fewer cars, more motorbikes and bikes, smaller buildings and a noticeable impact of the French colonial style in Luang Prabang. The towns “wake up” very slowly, as you can see just a few people on the street in the early morning. There are almost no advertisements on the streets, which gives Laos a relaxing and laid-back quality.
Perhaps this how Thailand was before Leonardo DiCaprio starred in The Beach? It really does allow you breathe and enjoy your trip.
Anchored by the Mekong River, Laos has an array of lush landscapes for any traveler to enjoy. From the rush of water at Kuang Si Falls to the view from the top of Mount Phousi… there’s something for everyone.
I have to say that Kuang Si Falls was supposed to be the highlight of my trip to Laos but turned out to be my epic travel fail. These pristine blue pools turned brown from sliding mud when I was there due to heavy rainfall… I couldn’t hike up to the viewpoint either because the path had slid away. If you’re planning to visit these falls, I highly recommend you go in winter (October- February) and avoid the rainy season (June-August).
While I am a great admirer of temples in Bangkok, I’ve always found it to be a fight for space with the amount of tourists that visit the scared sites. Imagine my surprise when I went to visit temples in Laos only to find that other than a few monks, I was the only person there. That’s when you actually feel the peace and serenity of the temple and can wander around absorbing it all.
My favourite temple in Laos was in Vientiane- Pha That Luang (Great Stupa). Marked by golden prangs reaching towards the sky, Pha That Luang contains many terraced steps that will take you through each stage of Buddhist enlightenment.
Vientiane is also home to this “Lao Arc de Triomphe”.
Although the city seems to be trying to develop into a modern capital, some of the older buildings have kept that French colonial style, sometimes mixed with Lao architecture. One great example of this is Patuxai; it was constructed as a war monument in dedication to those that fought for Laos’ independence. “Patuxai” translates to “Victory Gate” and it definitely resembles the famous Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
On general, places in Laos are a visual feast without the chaos.
Have you ever heard of Lao cuisine? No neither did I. Drawing from influences of their neighbours like Thailand and Vietnam, Lao cuisine is the best of both worlds. Two of my favourite dishes were the green papaya salad. The Lao version of green papaya salad is not like the Thai one. They use pickled baby crabs, lemon basil, dill, lots of chilli, lime juice and fish sauce. This is always eaten with sticky rice. Actually, Khao niaw (‘sticky rice’) is eaten in lieu of steamed rice for nearly every meal.
I liked the Khao Poon soup; it is a very traditional soup in Laos where it is particularly served at all weddings. It consists of pounded or shredded chicken or fish that is seasoned with ingredients such as lime leaves, galangal, garlic, shallots and chili peppers.
Lastly I recommend the national dish of Laos- Laap (also spelled as lahp, larb and several other phonetic variations) which is essentially a salad with a meat base, flavoured with lime, garlic, fish sauce, mint leaves, spring onion and ground toasted rice, which adds a subtle nutty flavour. The meat might be chicken, pork, beef, buffalo, duck or fish, and some restaurants have vegetarian versions made with mushroom or tofu. I opted for fish and was very satisfied!
The people of Laos have endured a volatile history that included French colonization and the Vietnam War just in the last century. Now enjoying a period of relative prosperity, Laotians warmly welcome visitors and are happy to share their culture and traditions with visitors. There are no stand out sights that you couldn’t find elsewhere in the world and there is nothing fancy about this country that could possibly lure well-heeled travellers away from the gloss of cosmopolitan glitz in the neighbouring countries. However this is a country which combines some of the best elements of Southeast Asia in one bite-sized humble and unassuming destination and should not be left off your travel radar!
Is Laos worth a trip on its own?
While Laos is a good place to retreat for a few days, I don’t recommend it for an entire trip on its own. Most people couple it with a visit to Thailand or Vietnam. I teamed it with my trip to Myanmar and Nepal.
How long should I go for?
Unless you’re a digital nomad or backpacker with oodles of free time on your hands, I don’t think you need to spend more than a week in Laos.
Should I purchase a SIM card?
Although many other travel bloggers complained about the slow internet in Laos, I didn’t feel that this was a problem anywhere I went and don’t recommend buying a SIM card especially for short trips in Laos.
Did you apply for a visa beforehand?
No I did not. I paid $30 for a visa on arrival which is available for a long list of nationalities including South Africans. You just need to bring 2 passport photos and the correct amount of US dollars. Find more information on that here.
Have you ever been to Laos? Let me know in the comments below!