Laos is the oft-forgotten step-child of SouthEast Asia. Maybe that’s too harsh? Many people with limited time in SE Asia skip it entirely. It doesn’t have the beaches or islands of Thailand. Nor temples nearly as famous as Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Few people are heard saying “I LOVE Lao food!” like they might before slurping down some Vietnamese Pho.
So here’s the “skinny” as they say. Did we like it? Is it a hidden gem? Should Laos be on your SE Asia itinerary? Well, read on, dear reader(s)!
Luang Prabang is the “jewel” of Laos, according to Lonely Planet and several travel bloggers. Liars! Assuming your hometown doesn’t fly direct to Luang Prabang (we’re willing to wager a week’s pay to say it doesn’t – keeping in mind we’re unemployed!), this is probably not anyone’s first stop in SE Asia. That means, by the time someone gets here, they’ve seen countless temples, eaten a lot of noodles, likely some fried rice, and bought their requisite pair of ‘elephant pants’ in a night market somewhere.
Same, Same…but different? Not Really
Well, visitors can get ready for some more of the same. This time, surrounded by more westerners than locals. The food in Luang Prabang (save for some mediocre crepes and french baguettes that you can buy everywhere) is similar to Thailand, just not nearly as good. The Khao Soi here doesn’t even deserve to share the same name as the amazing soup we had in Thailand. Prices for everything are quite a bit steeper than Chiang Mai, Thailand (the previous stop for us and most people who make it to Luang Prabang).
But there’s a waterfall, we hear people say! Yes, yes there is. The Kuang Si waterfall is apparently beautiful. But it’s all relative. When there’s not much else to see or do, the one local tourist attraction will seem AWESOME!
So finally we get to the “skinny”. The main street is pretty cool. Colonial French architecture. Plenty of restaurants and bars and tour companies. The night market sets up in the late afternoon and is worth a wander around. We enjoyed the restaurants overlooking the Mekong, preferring them to the ones on the main street. We got there early to enjoy a drink and stake out a great spot along the railing to have dinner and watch the sunset.
In our opinion, Luang Prabang is probably worth 2 days out of anyone’s time. It’s cool to walk along the main streets, check out the night market, and have dinner alongside the Mekong. The city will also give you an introduction to Laos – even from touristy Luang Prabang, you can immediately see that Laos is much more rustic and undeveloped than its popular neighbour, Thailand. Walk over the bamboo bridge to the other side of the Nam Khan river to see how the locals live.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss, at least for a second, how to get to Luang Prabang. From Chiang Mai, the backpacker route includes a 6-8 hr bus ride to the border (maybe including a stop in Chiang Rai). Then a 2 day trip down the Mekong River on a “slow boat”. Sounds great, right? Romantic, peaceful, scenic? Well, the buses are notoriously uncomfortable, so that wasn’t enticing. Even the boat trip is rife with scams (i.e. your “luxury boat” turns out to be a run-down tramp steamer). We know several people who have done this trip, and not a single one of them has said this is a “must-do” experience in SE Asia. So the alternatives are: 1hr direct flight or 3 days on a bus/tuktuk/boat/tuktuk. We made our decision to fly and never regretted it.
If you know Laos, we bet you were expecting to see Vang Vieng, right? Now that the booze and drug-fueled revelry in the infamous town has apparently quietened down, it seems like there are less reasons for backpackers to go. Maybe to risk getting shot at on the bus ride down (see an article here)? Maybe because it’s half-way to Vientiane? Well, there’s a much better option: Nong Khiaw.
A 3 hour minivan ride north of Luang Prabang brought us to this little slice of peacefulness. Many backpackers use it just as a transit point to the smaller village of Muang Ngoi further up the river. We hung around for a few days, enjoying the gorgeous mountain scenery, the hiking, and the good food. The mountains and the river are much more scenic than Luang Prabang. The steep (but not too long) hike up to the popular viewpoint is very much worth the panoramic views.
The town is way sleepier and less crowded than Luang Prabang – there are tourists for sure, but they are definitely far outnumbered by the locals. The town feels very much like ‘authentic’ Laos. Locals (adults and small children alike) riding their scooters down dirt roads, children playing outside their little houses with no indoor plumbing, local women washing their clothes and hair from a trickling stream on the roadside.
While most locals are friendly, we found very few speak good English. On the plus side, that meant there was no one in town bugging us to buy any souvenirs or come into your restaurant, which was refreshing. Nong Khiaw is also much cheaper than Luang Prabang. We stayed at a top-rated guesthouse in a room with a killer view, very basic but with some key amenities (no squatter toilet, hot water! – yes these are “features” in Laos), and it cost us about $15/night.
The food in town was by far the best we had in Laos. Every place we went to was great (especially the Alex Restaurant), although service can be a little slow because everything is cooked-to-order at these small restaurants.
Other Stuff To Do
The viewpoint hike is the only “must do”, but the Patok Caves is the other main local attraction. They were okay. To be honest, we weren’t too impressed because we’ve seen some awesome caves in our travels (shout out to Slovenia in particular, see our post here). But other backpackers we talked to liked them and we found it was a good way to kill a couple of hours, including the walk there and back. And that walk did allow us to discover an amazing swimming pool at a campground just outside of town, which we made sure to take advantage of before we left.
We really wanted to take a boat trip up the scenic and winding Nam Ou river. Here is our only real complaint about Nong Khiaw. Why are all the excursions so expensive? There is only one daily ferry so you can’t visit Muang Ngoi on your own as a day trip. All the excursions are full-day tours and start at 250,000 kip/person (about US$30). If you want to take a boat up the river and back, without all the extra add-ons of a full tour, it starts at 500,000 kip to charter a boat. Ridiculous! So we gave that a miss in favour of kayaking.
Kayaking on the river is worthwhile. A few of the tour companies offer kayaks when they’re not being used for excursions, but they still start at 120,000 kip (US$14) for a day. We took one out for an hour, so negotiated to pay half-price. It was quite the arm workout so an hour was plenty!
If we were true budget backpackers, we would have taken the 10-14 hour bus (or vomet comet) from Luang Prabang on some rough roads down to the capital of Laos, Vientiane. But why?? Note the range of time there. Instead, we flew there in 45 minutes.
Vientiane is the big city, as far as there are big cities in Laos. By comparison to the rest of Laos, Vientiane is modern and busy. Every cuisine is available in the restaurants. There is some shopping outside of local markets. There are temples (of course).
COPE Visitor Centre
One interesting site is the COPE Visitor Centre. The museum is put together by COPE, which is a provider of prosthetics, orthotics and rehabilitation in Laos. The museum describes the ongoing risk of unexploded munitions from the U.S. bombing of Laos during the Vietnam War. Did you know that over 80 million unexploded “bombies” (small, orange-sized explosives released by cluster bombs) are still believed to be scattered around Laos? That’s about a third of all bombs dropped. Laos is the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history. An average of one plane load of bombs was dropped every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. Let that sink in for a moment.
The museum is not big, but is very well done and worth 45 minutes of any visitor’s time.
The Buddha Park
The other common destination is the Buddha Park. A site with, you guessed it, a lot of Buddha statues. Plus some Hindu monuments. It’s about a 40 minute drive out of Vientiane, by tuktuk or local bus. We wouldn’t say this is a “must do”, but it was a decent way to spend an hour and taking the local bus was a fun experience.
Overall, we’d have to say that Vientiane is missable if you’re looking for a lot of “attractions”. But we enjoyed our two days there – it was a good place to relax and stroll around and catch up on some errands. But it wasn’t overly interesting and the riverfront bordering Thailand isn’t particularly scenic. The food scene is ok, but not as good as other places we’ve been.
If We Were to Visit Laos Again
We’d go back to Nong Khiaw, absolutely. We might even come back to Laos just to go to Nong Khiaw again. We’d also make the time to head up the river to stay in Muang Ngoi for a few nights as well. And maybe, if we had the time, we’d check out southern Laos, around Pakse and further south, as we didn’t make it there this trip.