A Journey Through Southeast Asia: Laos

May 9, 2024

Of the people that we told we were going to Laos, we had one completely enthusiastic response (Ann Ahmed, a nationally known Lao chef who had just recently returned from Luang Prabang), about 10 who pretended to be interested and had maybe heard of Laos, and the rest who didn’t even pretend to know where it is.

Is that a country? Is that in Africa? Asia, I assume, never heard of it? Did you completely run out of new places to go?

Why Laos?

It has some similarities to Thailand in Buddhism, but otherwise, the people and culture are completely unique in SE Asia. Yes, it’s in SE Asia and is sandwiched in between Vietnam to the east, Thailand to the west, Burma and China to the north, and Cambodia to the south. (Maps are cool, look at a map).

Laos is long, narrow and completely landlocked with many large and important rivers running through it.  Luang Prabang is a UNESCO world heritage site, the north of Laos looks like a mini-Switzerland and the capital city of Vientiane is an important port city on the Mekong River.  Laos was our primary destination, but considering the long flights and travel to SE Asia, we decided to spend more time with a repeat visit to Vietnam.

And it has a different pace than the rest of SE Asia. Vietnam is frenetic and active, Thailand is sweet and welcoming and friendly and hardworking, Cambodia carries the burden of atrocities and sadness within its beauty and people, and Burma scared the shit out of us (I actually kinda hated it). 

Laos is completely laid back, unaware of schedules and rushing, and filled with some of the warmest, kindest people we’ve ever met. They could be on their way to where they needed to be, yet they’d stop and give you all the time and help you need. You could be waiting for a tuk-tuk back the hotel and the busy restaurant owner offers you a ride in the back of her truck (yes, we took it). The light pollution is low, and the stars are celebrated every night. And the food is fresh and flavorful, although it did get a bit redundant after 10 days. And a bit of advice, even as good as it sounds, don’t order a pizza in Laos. 

If you want to go to Laos:

  • Spend at least 4-5 nights in Luang Prabang, both in the heart of the city and on the outskirts. The Rosewood and Amantaka are the best choices.
  • See the Buddha cave (Pak Ou) near the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Ou rivers, not far outside the city.
  • Give an elephant a bath at the elephant sanctuary (don’t ride them; feed them or bathe them and make sure you’re visiting the sanctuary, like the Elephant Village and Sanctuary. There is a difference.)
  • Spend a few days north near Nong Khiaw and hike to the highest viewpoint, the Pha Daeng Peak. It’s exceedingly hard but worth it.
  • Cruise down the Mekong or the Nam Ou River. Better yet, pair your trip to Laos with a cruise down the Mekong, maybe even to the Mekong Delta.
  • Visit the Kuang Si Falls outside of Luang Prabang. If you want some great exercise, bicycle there from town.
  • Don’t miss the morning market and the night market in Luang Prabang. Try the food, don’t be afraid (but we always make sure it’s cooked…good rule of thumb for travel and life in general).
  • Wake early to be part of the offerings to the monks. Everyone recommends sticky rice, but we saw a lot of candy in the little guys’ baskets (and they didn’t seem unhappy about that).
  • Meet the people. Ask them where and how they grew up, ask them about their families and for pictures of their beautiful kids. They’re amazing people and the highlight of visiting this special country.  

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