By the end of my month in Thailand, all I could look forward to was Vietnam. However, I still had about a week before my Visa would let me into the country. I decided to chill in Laos to kill time, but I was not expecting to love the country as much as I did.
My time in Laos started off and ended a bit rough, but with each passing day, I began to love the country more. I took the slow boat into Luang Prabang, taking up two days of travel. While it was indeed a very slow boat, it gave me some time to chill and take in the incredible views that the Mekong River had to offer. By the end of my time in Laos, I was sitting in a cafe in Vientiane, battered and bruised and just trying to kill five hours before a 24-hour bus ride into Hanoi.
You know that scene in The Force Awakens when Rey flies over Takodana after living on Jakku her whole life?
“I didn’t know there was this much green in the whole galaxy.”
That’s exactly how I felt about Laos. I have never been to a country so ubiquitously covered in forests and greenery. The scenery is incredible. It’s worth going to Laos just to be surrounded by such pure, untouched nature.
Of all the countries on my South East Asian trip, Laos left me the most conflicted. I had 38 hours to reflect on my time in Laos thanks to that hellish bus ride from Vientiane to Hanoi. It definitely did not help Laos’ case that my journey out of Laos took 14 hours longer than advertised.
I struggled a lot in Laos. Yet for every struggle, Laos had a rebuttal. I crashed my moped and took a nasty spill that left me covered in mud and blood. A restaurant owner took me to get washed up and cleaned. Shortly after I went on my merry way, I got a flat tire. A family helped me get my moped off the highway and fixed it up for me. They even washed it for me so the lady I rented it from wouldn’t know that I crashed.
With my luck, I got a flat tire again a little further down the road. I ended up walking a few miles back to Vang Vieng to tell the rental lady that her scooter was kind of just chilling on the highway. She drove us back out there, helped me roll it to the nearest mechanic, and chatted and shared rambutans with me over her broken English. She didn’t charge me for anything. Maybe it was because I looked like I had a terrible day, which I did.
The Laotian people showed me human decency and hospitality that I had not experienced in South East Asia thus far. In many places I had been to, you couldn’t ask a local for anything without having to pay them.
I feel like it’s a recurring theme in my blog to the point that it is cliché, but usually, the best part about going to a new country is meeting the people and connecting with them not through language but through your shared humanity.
Laos is great for a number of reasons, but a few years from now, I’ll remember the amazing experiences I had with the local Laotians more than the free whiskey. Don’t get me wrong, the free whiskey was great, too.
Now that I’ve bored with you with some cheesiness, let’s talk about Laos.
Most people know Laos as that long country separating them from their next destination. Whether you’re going from Vietnam to Thailand or vice versa, the question of whether or not you should go to Laos always comes up at some point. Whatever the reason, it always seems like Laos is just an afterthought. Hardly anybody ever goes to South East Asia just to go to Laos, but quite a few people go to Laos just because it’s in South East Asia.
No one really seems to wholeheartedly want to go to Laos. Here’s why you should.
The Insane Natural Beauty
Laos has some incredible nature. Those karsts and mountains that people go nuts about seeing in Thailand and Vietnam? Yeah, Laos has those too. Laos has a lot of them.
Clearly, I’m no Walt Whitman so I’ll just show you some pictures. Sorry for the iPhone 5 quality.
The stunning Kuang Si Falls.
Endless rice fields.
The color of the river does not deter drunk people from willingly diving in.
The view of Luang Prabang from Mount Phousi.
Vang Vieng’s scenery.
The Extra Lax Vibes
Laos is about as chill a place as you can imagine. It always feels like everyone is doing absolutely nothing all the time. Life in Laos is relaxing and calm. It’s the perfect place to take it slow in between your more packed itineraries in Thailand and Vietnam.
The Parties Are Cool Too
Laos’ party scene is interesting, to say the least. Some cities, like Luang Prabang, have a lot to offer but few people taking advantage of it. Others, like Vang Vieng, are just a free-for-all. In Luang Prabang, a bowling alley was typically where the parties would end once the bars shut down at the criminally early time of 11:30 PM. Vang Vieng wasn’t that much better, but at least the whiskey was constantly flowing and usually free.
Laos’ party scene isn’t quite as good as Thailand’s, but it does have some highlights. Vang Vieng’s answer to the Full Moon Party is the ridiculously reckless bar crawl on the river. You float in a tube down a river, stopping at a few different bars and getting drunker and drunker as the day goes on. They’ve actually had to tone the whole thing down significantly due to the number of deaths. I was lucky to have just lost my GoPro. It was a fun time, and one of those things that you just have to take advantage of because there’s no way that would be legal where you’re from.
Oh, a side note, Beerlao is probably one of the better beers in South East Asia. The 333s from Vietnam and Singhas in Thailand round out my top 3 along with Beerlao.
The People Are Awesome
Like I mentioned earlier, I met a lot of great people in my short time in Laos. I couldn’t understand a word from half of them, but the local Laotians I met were friendly and hospitable. Pictured below is me getting my butt saved by a friendly Laotian family.
Significantly Fewer Tourists
If Vietnam is New York and Thailand is L.A., then Laos is the vast midwest in between. Few travelers will find it worth going to, making it a lot less touristy than the other South East Asian countries. Laos has its fair share of backpacker hubs and tourist hotspots, but even in peak season, none of those compare to Thailand or Vietnam’s popular spots.
Fewer tourists mean you get a more intimate experience with the country. You won’t be mingling entirely with other travelers. Laos also isn’t quite as developed as Thailand or Vietnam. Some towns didn’t even have 24-hour electricity until recently, let alone Wi-Fi. If you were to unironically “find yourself” in South East Asia, Laos is probably where it will happen.
The Unique Culture
When you’re traveling through South East Asia, it’s pretty easy to clump all of the different cultures together. Another Buddhist country with cool nature and cheap alcohol? You might skip Laos just because you think it will be too similar to Thailand. While Laos is a predominantly Buddhist country, it does have a lot of differences from neighboring Thailand and Cambodia. Each city I went to in Laos felt different like each one was almost an entirely new country. Luang Prabang is consistently ranked as one of the most historic and cultural cities in the world by UNESCO. Vang Vieng has small town, rural charm about it. Vientiane is chaotic, hectic, and hot, but like every other South East Asian capital city, it has a lot to offer for those willing to combat the chaos.
Besides, who can get tired of wandering through the extravagant Wats and gaping in awe at all of the intricate details?
To Sum It Up…
Laos deserves to be on your itinerary just as much as any of the other South East Asian countries. It is as lush of a country as you can find anywhere in the world, with welcoming people and a rich culture. It has yet to be beaten down by the tourist trail, so it provides a more authentic experience than you will find in the more popular South East Asian countries. Thinking about going to Laos? I say go for it.
Going to Vietnam next? Check out my Vietnam itinerary for backpackers.