Of the main South East Asia backpacker zone (Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam), Laos is certainly the least modernised. Crossing the border from Hanoi into Laos’ capital of Vientaine, my bus followed what appeared to be a single dusty country lane for the entire journey – and the blurry scenery that passed was almost entirely uninterrupted jungle, with a handful of villages scattered in for good measure. With wooden houses built on stilts, and their people dressed in far more traditional clothing than I had seen elsewhere in Asia, Laos was a welcomed step back in time; living proof of time stood still. As a land-locked, Communist country, modesty and religion are incredibly important values to the Laos people.
This reputation that Laos had for years has gradually been tarnished by the increase in tourism and their struggle to keep up with the times. Hundreds of thousands of backpackers flooded to the country for cheap booze and day trips “tubing” down rivers in old tractor inner tubes whilst off their faces on the drugs plentifully found in Laos – particularly its very own Opium. As the attraction to Vung Vieng, the home place of tubing, grew, bars popped up all along the river – along with unfortunately named “death slides”.
The values of modesty were thrown out of the window by travellers who wanted to party in the town dressed in bikinis whilst knocking back whiskey buckets for £2. With some 30 people dying every year as a result of this drug-fuelled tubing, the government had to take notice and inforced a curfew of 11:30PM for bars and venues. As well as this, they shut down almost every bar along the river, and removed the added extras such as the slides. A few years later and bars offer free drinks all night (or at least on arrival) and tubing is still shoved in your face – but Vung Vieng feels like somewhat of a ghost town, unsure of what move to make next to ensure the tourists keep on coming. My boyfriend (who I assure you is not actually 10 years old), described it as being like the town from Cars after its fall from grace…
Personally, I’ve come to Asia for more than partying, yet found that the majority of Laos had little else to offer. A two week calendar could just about be filled with some stunning sights, hair-raising activities and strolls around temples – so here’s a little list of things to do.
FIND CALM AND CHAT WITH MONKS IN LUANG PRABANG
The sparkling gem of Laos is Luang Prabang, a stunning town at the North of the country filled with incredible architecture and lots of orange robes. A big monastery and school for novice monks sits at the bottom of a big hill in the town, so you’re never far from spotting a monk. Amongst classes, these novice monks are encouraged to make their way to a pagoda halfway up the hill, where they spend time doing extra study – as well as practicing their English with any travellers who are keen to ask any questions or just have a natter. If you’re shy with conversation starters, here’s a tip: just bring up football. Yi and Mi (below) were Manchester and Chelsea supporters.
CYCLE AROUND THE TOWN AND VISIT THE COPE VISITOR CENTRE IN VIENTIENE
In all honesty, unless you’ve got plenty of time I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to visit the capital. Other than a few nice cafes and temples, only one thing stood out to me: the COPE Visitor Centre. Hire a bike for a few dollars to save the walk, but do not miss it. I was horrified to discover that Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the World, as a result of America unleashing the equivalent of a plane-load of bombs on the country every 9 minutes for 6 years during the Vietnam War. A huge proportion of these never exploded and are still lying beneath the ground until they’re moved, leading to the loss of lives or limbs for thousands. COPE is a remarkable charity which provides prosthetics, rehabilitation and mental healthcare to those caught up in the affects of UXOs (unexploded ordinances) and their centre teaches you all about this hushed history. It is well worth making a visit for free but I hugely encourage you to make whatever donation you can, too. Your cycle can take you around the town in a few hours – I’d recommend you checking out the main park along the Mekong for a pretty journey.
JOIN IN WITH A ZUMBA CLASS IN VIENTIENE
As the sun starts to set, Zumba Classes pop up in the park, with hoards of locals donning their sweat bands and flailing their limbs to bassy pop music. With Justin Bieber blasting and a hundred people doing (almost) synchronised sexy circles in front of you, it’s impossible not to want to get your groove on with them.
SPLASH AROUND AT THE KUANG SI WATERFALL AND BLUE LAGOONS
Everywhere you go in Laos, you’ll be followed by the blazing sunshine. If you’re in Luang Prabang and in need of a cool down, the waterfalls are unmissable. Simply book a minibus at one of the many tour agencies along the main road, and hop in. The waterfall is remarkable – and it just goes on, and on, and on! All the way up are stunning, turquoise blue pools in which you can swim around or jump off logs into. Keep your feet moving fast, though, as there are lots of little fish which will nibble your feet at every opportunity! You’ll also luck out on the way in, as there is a Bear Sanctuary with free entry – meaning you can watch the black bears sunning themselves, snoozing and being mischievous before you reach the waterfall. Be warned: as gorgeous as the place is, it’s packed with tourists with selfie sticks!
GIVE OFFERINGS OF STICKY RICE TO MONKS IN THE HOLY ‘GIVING OF THE ALMS CEREMONY’
Luang Prabang hosts an ancient traditional ceremony which brings hundreds of monks out onto the Main Street at 6am every morning, to receive offerings from locals and travellers who want to join in respectfully. The monks weave down the road carrying pots which you then fill up with your donations. It’s an incredibly beautiful and humbling experience – but please follow local guidelines. If you wish to take pictures, stand at a distance and be respectful. We saw so many tourists taking flash photographs in the monks’ faces and it completely ruins the experience. Have a read up on how you are asked to behave and you’ll have an amazing time – you’ll need the coffee sold on the streets if you’re up at 5am like we were!
SCOUR THE NIGHT MARKET AND EAT AMAZING STREET FOOD FOR $2 IN LUANG PRABANG
We hit the jackpot when we discovered the food section of Luang Probang’s amazing night market. All you can eat vegetarian buffets are on offer for less than $2 a head – and they are gorgeous! You can add meat at an extra cost if that’s what floats your boat, but you’ll never leave with room in your stomach if you are skilled in the art of the buffet. Food aside, the market is absolutely packed with lovely clothes, accessories and just anything you could think of! Haggling hats on, and you’ll score yourself many a bargain.
ZIPLINE THROUGH THE JUNGLE AND EXPLORE THE THAM PHU KHAM CAVE BY TORCHLIGHT
We hired a moped in Vung Vieng and headed to the famous Blue Lagoon. Tours all over the town offer to take you there – but at a high price. We managed to save money by doing the trip ourselves, but found that, aside from an amazing tree to jump off, the lagoon was pretty underwhelming. Packed with tourists in life jackets, and actually more of a blue-ish hole in the ground, we focused more on the amazing zip lining offered in the area and got lured in immediately! It is quite pricey but we couldn’t say no to 12 lines up in the tree canopies, which we got to do on our own with two guides. Soaring above the trees is amazing and I cannot recommend it more – despite the guides tricking me into a vertical jump to the ground at the end! Once you’re back on two feet, the cave is well worth an explore if you’re not worried about getting lost! Pack your head torch as it’s pitch black so it’s quite the adventure!
RECOVER FROM YOUR HANGOVER AT A FRIENDS BAR
The highlight of Vung Vieng for us was that they have ‘Friends bars’ that literally play back to back episodes of Friends all day, every day. It is of course the slobbiest thing to do in the world as you lie around on cushions and let your eyes glaze over, but it’s a perfect way to waste a day! Heads up: get yourself an Oreo Milkshake at the biggest Friends bar on the main road. Mmmmm.
So, with the darker history of Laos tourism aside, you really can find some lovely things to do around the country. If you’re limited on time, skip the rest and head straight to Luang Prabang which is just gorgeous, even if you just fancy sipping a smoothie and people watching. Don’t expect Laos to be too fast-paced, and enjoy the relaxing little ride.