As a traveller, there are certain countries that just get under your skin. It’s hard to pinpoint a reason why, it’s just like a kind of love at first sight. For me this was definitely the case with Laos. It’s not as vibrant and exciting as it’s larger neighbours Thailand and Vietnam, and it doesn’t have one defining tourist attraction as Cambodia does, but what it does is leave most visitors to the country gloriously contented and yearning to return.
Our visit to Laos started in Vientiane, which is certainly the quietest and most laidback capital city I have ever visited. Other than the national monument and a few significant wats, there’s not much to interest tourists in Vientiane. The highlight of our single day there was drinking a cold Beerlao in a rooftop bar whilst watching the sunset over the Mekong. As the sun set, the riverside burst into life and colour, as Laotian ladies all appeared from nowhere to take part in the bizarre aerobics and Tai Chi demonstrations that seem to be obligatory in all Indochinese cities.
The next day our visit to Laos really began as we caught a bus from Vientiane to the backpacker mecca of Vang Vieng. Once a sleepy little town 160km north of the capital, Vang Vieng is now an essential stop on the south east Asian backpacker trail. The reason for this surge in popularity is down to one thing; Tubing. For around 10-15 years now young tourists have been floating down the Namg Son river on inner tubes, propelled by cheap booze bought from the riverside bars. These have significantly reduced in numbers in recent years due to a worrying numbers of accidents and even some fatalities occurring on the river. This is clearly a contentious subject. For some this reckless hedonism is unnecessary and has completely changed the character of the once laid back town. However, I prefer to take the viewpoint that this burgeoning industry has created steady and prosperous employment for huge numbers of local people. It should also be the responsibility of the individual to not get so hammered as to endanger their own safety. Our personal tubing experience involved tubing in some water caves in the morning and then heading downriver in the afternoon. Whilst many just tube as far as the final bar and then take a tuk-tuk back to town, we decided to be hardcore and float all the way back to town, with a couple of Beerlao for the journey of course. It really is hard to sum up just how gloriously relaxing this was.
There’s many more exciting activities to experience around Vang Vieng but time constraints unfortunately meant that we had to continue north to Luang Prabang. If ever anybody writes a book about some of the world’s worst bus journeys, then this would certainly be a live contender. For six hours we sat in a cramped minivan with about ten other backpackers, bumping over badly maintained winding mountain roads trying (unsuccessfully in my case) not to be reacquainted with lunch. By the time we arrived at our destination, I felt like I’d gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson. Despite the travails of the journey, Luang Prabang turned out to be an absolute delight. During our time there the city was revelling in a carnival atmosphere, as a golden Buddha that had previously been housed in Vientiane was being brought home to the city. The resultant carnivals, processions and cultural performances were a joy to behold. Outside of the city the Kuang Si waterfalls make an excellent day trip. Swimming in the pools under the falls was extremely refreshing, although I stopped short of throwing myself head first off the top as some fearless local teenagers were doing. Near the falls the Tat Kuang Si bear rescue centre was also a great experience. The bears that live in the centre have all been rescued from captivity and mistreatment and are now extremely well cared for. Seeing these magnificent beasts so close up was a real highlight of the trip.
For the final leg of our Laotian trip, we boarded a slow boat up the Mekong from Luang Prabang to the Thai border at Huay Xai, with an overnight stop at Pak Beng. When researching things to do in Laos I had thought this would also be a highlight. In theory it sounds great, cruising up the mighty Mekong in glorious sunshine, drinking a cold beer or two and maybe even exchanging stories with some other intrepid explorers. Sadly, the reality could not have been further removed from the expectation. The boat was cramped, uncomfortable and seriously cold. Furthermore, the whole thing was dreadfully organised. Despite assurances to the contrary, there was no food available to purchase either at the pier or on the boat, meaning that many travellers spent the day very hungry and rather irked. It’s also pretty boring after a while. Yes the scenery is beautiful but you don’t really need two full days to appreciate it. Full credit must go to the big Indian guy who alleviated the boredom by getting pretty spectacularly drunk day on day one. That night, we arrived in our final destination of Pak Beng well after dark, a situation which was made quite worrying when one of the crew members came down the boat asking if any of the passengers had a flashlight so they could see where they were going! The second day passed more quickly and less stressfully than the first, mainly down to fuller stomachs and more clement weather conditions. The Indian guy restricted himself to only a couple of beers this time, as he was presumably feeling the effects of the previous day’s magnificent effort. It seems churlish to complain about low quality transport in a country as poor as Laos. However, the frustration is that with just a little investment and organisation, that boat trip could be done so much better.
The morning after we arrived in Huay Xai, we crossed the bridge over the river into Thailand and our Laotian odyssey was at an end. On reflection, it’s not an easy place to travel. The poor transport and topography prohibits that, and one week was probably not enough time to fully appreciate the beauty of the country. However, the majesty of Laos lies in just how relaxed and contented all the people seem to be, despite the obvious difficulties of life there. I defy anybody to go there and not fall in love with it.
- In Vang Vieng we stayed at the excellent Phongsavanh resort. A double room was great value at just $20 per night. Neil, the manager was also extremely helpful and hospitable. I highly recommend it.
- Details of the Tat Kuang Si bear rescue centre can be found at http://www.freethebears.org.au/web/Projects/Laos/