Livin' La Vida- Laos!
When you picture a holiday in South-East Asia, you would likely conjure up an image of crashing waves, beach cafes, throngs of tourists, glinting skyscrapers and lunch menus dominated by seafood.
Laos on the other hand, is land-locked, not overcrowded by tourists, wears a charming old-world filter, and supports a booming vegan food scene.
Present day Laos, dates back to the 14th century kingdom Lan Xang, or the land of a million elephants. Laotian history and culture are intertwined with the Mekong. Home to one of the world’s largest fisheries, the mighty river is Asia’s most important river, that binds as much as it divides (figuratively and geographically) the countries that are dependent on it.
Much like the temperamental river that ebbs and flows with changing seasons, the Laos experience can vary based on when you visit. September to February is ideal, if you want fair weather, a friendly sun and deliciously green rice fields, ripe for harvest.
June to August is uncomfortably humid, and hot. March-April is crop burning season in Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand –An omnipresent, sepia smog severely impacts visibility. The air and earth are thick with crumbling crisps of charred crop stubble. It’s also a health hazard - you will have to call upon the old faithful N-95 mask to breathe normally.
The Laotian capital is home to an astounding number of temples, in bright hues of gold and silver. Fortunately for the confused tourist, they are concentrated within a 3 km radius. For a quick circuit, visit Pha That, with its spectacular golden dome, Wat Si Saket, and Wat Xieng Thong. Sunsets in Vientiane are best experienced at Patuxay, a war memorial built in memory of fallen WWII soldiers and commemorating independence from France (Eerily enough, it bears resemblance to the Arc Du Triomphe).
Food in Vientiane is an experience by itself. As a well-connected and affordable capital city there are unlimited options. Downtown Vientiane has cafes, juice bars, bakeries, hole-in-the-wall places and fine dining
For simple local food, you must head to the Night Market. The long-winding market runs right along the shimmering Mekong. If you sit down to catch your breath ( and calculate how much you spent on shopping in the market), you will see the soft lights of Laos on one side, and right across the river, the twinkling lights of Thailand.
Travel between the main cities of Laos is now much simpler. The new Laos China Railway pierces straight through the heart of the mountains of Laos, slicing down travel time between Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. At the time of our visit in early 2023, booking tickets online was not possible, check with your hotel if you need help booking.
The poster child for backpacking, this town was once notorious for tubing. You would rent a tube to cruise down the Nam Song River, except that the cruise had a very specific purpose. The banks of the river were exploding with make-shift bars, and by late evening the river would turn into a liberal, dynamic pub crawl. A mounting number of accidents prompted stricter regulations since the 2010s, and this scene is much more muted now.
Fortunately, there is a lot more to experience in Vang Vieng. The city is a quirky maze, rickety bridges masquerade as roads. Each neighbourhood hums along with its own peculiar energy. The city boasts of some legendary restaurants. Stop by Viman – an eclectic German/Thai/Laotian café. This one-man show serves up a Thai green curry that's better than anything we've had in Thailand. Then there's Crab ‘d’Or - a fine dining experience by the river bank- unassuming during day time, and magical at night. If you want lunch on the go, grab a sandwich from the scores of pushcarts – soft, fluffy bread, with a filling of everything scrumptious – heaps of fresh butter, eggs, avocado, lettuce, tomatoes, meat... you name it!
Steer clear of the four much-advertised secret lagoons – unrealistically turquoise-hued, water bodies (I call them unrealistic for good reason, three of them are man-made). Instead rent a bike and make a beeline for the villages around the city. Vang Vieng is the gateway to Laotian countryside - A postcard-like blanket of rice fields etched with graceful curvy rivulets, and carelessly strewn limestone mountains. The Nam Xay viewpoint is wonderful for a sunset vista. The hike to reach the top is not easy, but in the end the view makes up for it.
The city is popular for hot-air balloon rides, but you don’t necessarily have to shell out big bucks and be in the balloon to enjoy the experience.
At dusk, scores of hot-air balloons come home to roost. The bright, frolicking balloons float towards the grassy banks of the river, and a tired setting sun illuminates the mountains in the background. The entire scene is a delightful slow-moving tapestry in hues of gold and dusty red, visible from the streets of the city, or the comfort of your hotel room.
Luang Prabang is deeply rooted in Laotian history, as its erstwhile capital and eternal cultural hub. Laotian mythology is richly storied; the trees, mountains, land, and every turn of the river has a fascinating origin-story. We discovered this in an unusual manner. After a long day, we were walking through the by-lanes of oldtown in Luang Prabang, when a modest poster caught our eye. A storytelling session was due to begin in five minutes, covering a selection of Laotian legends. What’s more, it was in English, cost a nominal admission fee and was accompanied by traditional musical instruments. If love all things two parts magical and one part historical, put this on your agenda.
When in Luang Prabang, you can drop by the elephant camps that rehabilitate injured and rescued elephants or visit the picturesque village of Ban Xang Hai. This tiny village is fueled by its weaving looms and backyard whiskey distilleries. While the experience appears a little staged with meticulously arranged liquor, bottled with snakes and scorpions, the village by itself is non-synthetically picturesque. Particularly noteworthy is the local temple with its elegant three-headed Naga (serpent) statues.
Pak Ou caves have grown into a religious site over the years. The caves are home to hundreds of Buddha statues, left by visitors and worshippers. The narrow, steep pathways leading up to the caves are always packed with tourists, and if you have to prioritize, you can give this one a miss.
If you want to experience local culture, make a stop at the Traditional Arts and Ethnology center. Laotian weaving is unique - the end products of centuries-old craft find its way into the boutiques across the world and here is where you can see how they are made.
The alms giving ceremony is another unique experience. Every morning at dawn Buddhist monks from monasteries walk through the city’s roads in silence, accepting food offerings from locals.
Luang Prabang’s night market is unmissable, especially if you want to indulge in the best of local food. Creamy custard filled rice dumplings, coconut pancakes, crispy shitake mushroom tempura, and hearty soups. The market is a lively affair, with many of the stalls run by small families. Pack light and shop heavy!
One of Laos’ most popular hotspots, Kaung Si waterfalls, is a half day trip from Luang Prabang. It is advisable to get there by 8 am if you want the place to yourself, for a peaceful experience (read uninterrupted picture taking). The park is beautifully maintained, and access to the waters is well-organized without disturbing the natural surroundings. Visiting in the dry season is the best, to witness the milky, turquoise pools in their full glory.
Laos is perfect for a 5 - day holiday. If you have more time, consider adding a visit to Si Phan Don- the 4000-island archipelago for a really offbeat getaway.
Cheerful, affordable, and well-connected, planning a trip to Laos quite easy. Visa on arrival takes only a few minutes, and e-visas are convenient too. The country has enough to offer for everyone, whether you prefer to cocoon yourself in nature and go on adventurous hikes, or if you want to explore the legends behind concrete cities. Whatever you choose, don’t forget to try a cocktail that has a generous splash of Lao Lao. Thank us later!