In Love With Laos: Six Reasons Why You Should Visit Laos This Year
History has not been kind to Laos: Intermingling kingdoms and empires have wrestled for control of the country since recorded history began, forging a rather stoic national identity. In recent times, the modern nation of Laos has transformed from a buffer-fringe of French colonialism with limited importance, to an inadvertent target in the superpower rivalries of the Cold War, to one of the most eco-responsible and pleasurable of all the Southeast Asian destinations.
We need to admit something. We’d never even heard of Laos before travelling. The very name seemed alien and unfamiliar, overshadowed by the bigger and more famous Thailand and Vietnam. And most people still tend to think of Laos as a corridor between one and the other, but it deserves more recognition. To us, Laos is the unsung gem of Southeast Asia. Here are six reasons why you should visit Laos this year:
- Luang Prabang
Laos’s answer to Vietnam’s Hoi An and Thailand’s Chiang Mai, little Luang Prabang is located at one of the most idyllic areas in all of Southeast Asia. A short walk to the summit of Mount Phou Si is a great start for first impressions: presenting a tranquil view of the white and brown and gold houses that make up the town and its natural fortifications—the Namkhan and Mekong rivers.
We hardly need to sell Luang Prabang. In 1995 it was designated a World Heritage Site. Take a short walk through the town and your eyes will feast on centuries of cultural and religious heritage, ranging from monks gathering alms, ancient temple complexes, to the more familiar (colonial European) architecture; frolic over the Namkhan on a wonderful bamboo bridge in the sun, or treat yourself to an insanely cheap spa day. One of our favourite things about the town is the food: a blend of Gallic cuisine and local. There’s buffet-style street food and a wonderful night bazaar draped in fairy lights to keep you occupied all afternoon. Late at night, everyone congregates in a bar called ‘Utopia’, leaving their sandals at the door for cheap drinks, tasty snacks, and a few games of beach volleyball. Even later at night and the party moves on to the local bowling alley, because that’s just how travellers do it in Luang Prabang.
- Vang Vieng
In fitting with the motif of Laos, Vang Vieng has had its fair share of tumultuous history. The town was transmogrified from a sleepy hollow into an airfield by US forces during the Vietnam War. Now, it’s a regular checkpoint on the Southeast Asian trail, and something like a permanent spring break for young westerners. The town’s once non-existent health and safety regulations meant partying on the Nam Song river was dangerous and often fatal—claiming the lives of 27 backpackers in 2011 alone—and forcing government intervention.
Vang Vieng has come a long way since 2011 and, thankfully, largely cleaned up its act. There is still great fun to be had. Taking a rubber ring (“tubing”) down the river and stopping off at the bars on the riverside is still an unforgettable experience. More fun is to be had, though, in the wealth of natural beauty from the surrounding countryside. A hot air balloon will give you an optimal view of the mountains. The blue lagoon is the place to be if you want to safely swing into refreshing water, near a network of caves to explore. And there’s plenty of opportunities for kayaking, cycling, and chasing fireflies. It’s this party/scenic juxtaposition that’s stolen our hearts and kept it very much in Vang Vieng.
- The slow boat
The slow boat is the most popular route into Luang Prabang from the Thai/Laotian border and sharply divides opinion: Some people simply don’t like it, for the rest, it’s positively unforgettable. As the name implies, the boat drifts, gently, down the placid Mekong river, taking the better part of two days to reach its destination. There’s an overnight stay in the quaint village of Pakbeng at the halfway point, where we ate some of the most delicious food we’ve experienced in Asia, washed down with a couple of Beer Laos, for prices not even worth thinking about. The views from Pakbeng in the early morning, over the Mekong, with a rolling fog after a late night of thunderstorms, are nothing short of spectacular.
Just remember to pack snacks and water for almost two entire days of sitting on the slow boat—and get on early, otherwise someone will almost certainly move their chair back and hog your legroom. You won’t get bored, there’s just too much going on: Controlled fires shaping the landscape, young Laotians learning to fish—even the occasional place of worship—are all waiting to be gawked at from the boat.
- Kuang Si Falls
The lovely Kuang Si Falls are only a couple of rocky, pot-holed roads away from the centre of Luang Prabang, where it’s easy enough and dirt cheap to book a day trip. The Falls easily count as one of the most photogenic scenescapes we’ve experienced travelling, where countless years of erosion have sculpted the rock into a sort of giant’s staircase. As a result, there are dozens of little waterfalls, each with their own plunge pools of a delectable green—meaning you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding one to yourself.
More adventurous travellers will climb the main event itself—though we’d recommend extreme caution beforehand. Once you’re finished, there are plenty of restaurants to fill up on and gifts to buy near the shuttle drop-off. At the entrance, there’s the added bonus of a miniature zoo to enjoy, with a collection of black bears mostly napping or playing in the midday heat.
- The COPE Visitor Centre
There is no greater microcosm for the enduring Laotian spirit than the COPE Visitor Centre, located in Vientiane, the capital city. ‘COPE’, which stands for (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise), in a non-profit museum and organisation that manufactures prosthetic limbs for Laotians suffering the legacy of war. Laos, even though it remained neutral and the US never actually declared war on it, is the most heavily bombed country on earth. In ten years during the Vietnam conflict, US forces orchestrated approximately 580, 000 bombing campaigns (yes really, more than half-a-million) over the country. Even today, thousands of them still litter the countryside, known as unexploded ordnances, often with deadly consequences.
The story of COPE is one of remarkable endurance; of the handmade limbs, wheelchairs, and tools the locals have used from recycling bomb metals, and of the terrible consequences of war. It’s not to be missed.
- Si Phan Don
Known colloquially among Lonely Planet readers as the “hammock capital” of Laos, Si Phan Don is where the Mekong confronts and occasionally submerges islets that have defied the centuries and somehow withstood the river’s hydraulic forces. The result is an almost idyllic setting of imperturbable, viridescent waters. The name gives some indication of the scale of the place—with Si Phan Don literally translating into “Four Thousand Islands” in Lao.
Si Phan Don is located to the far south and is slightly off the beaten track, even for most westerners on the Southeast trail—especially if they’re “just passing through” from Thailand into Vietnam, or vice versa. If you don’t have the time for a significant detour (Laos is roughly the size of Great Britain and has no railroads or motorways, meaning almost all travel is on rocky, pot-holed roads), then the best way to see Si Phan Don would be to enter Laos again through Cambodia.
Laos was one of our absolute favourites on the Southeast Asia trail. It has a rugged and, simultaneously, serene charm, emboldened in comparison to its bigger and richer neighboring brothers. Visit Laos and we’re sure it’ll win you over, too.