What’s the fuss?
Laos is still a mysterious country, dominated by sheer nature, dense jungles, vast empty spaces and remote villages, ‘Karst’ mountains, waterfalls, hot springs, bat swarms, endless muddy rivers and rice paddies. It only opened up from communist isolation in recent years in the 1990’s.
Through Laos runs the mighty river Mekong, which is one of Asia’s largest and longest rivers. It starts in higher Tibet and is finding its way through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Ready to go backpacking in time?
That doesn’t mean, that it’s unpleasant to travel – just be aware that you can’t expect all the comforts and amenities of full-blown tourist destinations.
Things are changing fast though. Most prices as published in the Lonely Planet guidebooks have doubled or tripled in just a few years, but still Laos is very affordable.
Where to start?
Most people either start their trip flying into the capital Vientiane or coming from Thailand’s north down the Mekong River, in direction to Luang Prabang, the second major city in Laos. Another popular way is crossing the border, coming from Vietnam.
Almost every major airline in Asia is now flying to Laos, mainly to its capital Vientiane.
Vientiane is really laid back and directly at the river Mekong. Most countries can get a Visa-on-Arrival (VOA) nowadays for a fistful of dollars; but better check before arriving.
If you start your Laos trip in Vientiane it helps as well to stock up here on the local currency ‘Kip’, as most ATM’s in the whole country are found here. Rumours have it, there are ATM’s in Luang Prabang as well, but some say they don’t work with international bank cards. Don’t worry – Thai Baht or US Dollar are accepted everywhere, so just bring enough cash.
Or just sit back at the banks of the Mekong River, that’s where you can have a great dinner in the evenings and try your first (of many) Beer Lao, the tasty local brew.
Vientiane is a travel hub as well, from here you can easily take a bus to the northern part of the country or the southern part (Pakse). Most transportation is done by mini bus, which isn’t too bad, as usually you have your own seat. :-)
From Vientiane you can reach Vang Vien by mini bus within about 6-8 hours. Vang Vien is a village at the Nam Song River, which is now famous with young travelers. I described it first in my post here.
People sit for days and nights at the river and just watch the changing colours of the clouds hanging around the mountains here. You can’t get enough of it.
Besides that, you can rent a bike here, to explore the mountains, rice paddies and river beds, float in truck wheel tubes down the river, or just sit around and watch TV (mainly old ‘Friends’ or ‘Simpsons’ shows).
A truly surreal scene!
Maybe the special tobacco you can buy here for cheap money (300g for USD 3-5) is doing its part as well.
From Vang Vien, you can reach Luang Prabang, a truly Indochine city in another 6-8 hours per mini bus. You will find again your friend the River Mekong, which meets another river here, the Nam Khan River.
Luang Prabang is a sleepy city, with a blend of Asian and French influences, ancient temples, the smell of baguettes in the air and busy, colourful day and night markets. You still have lots of bicycles here, ox carts and slow moving boats on the river. Scenes from the movie “The Lover” with Tony Leung and Jane March come to mind (no, not those! :-) ). It’s like a time warp!
Luang Prabang should be your base, if you want to see other magic places, like the famous ‘Plain of Jars’.
Those are ancient handmade giant stone jars – thousands of years old – which are scattered artifacts on a 1.000m high plateau. There are more than 60 sites with more than 300 jars. Nobody know how they got there and who made them. Magnificent! The largest jars are 8m high and they are all made of single stones! Sounds unbelievable, right?
Mighty Mekong River
Back in Luang Prabang, sitting on the river banks slurping a beer or enjoying some satey or strawberry or Duck Pâté Baguette (just watch out for MSG), you will have developed a fascination with the Mekong River by now.
What’s better to do than taking a slow boat from here upstream to the Thai Border? Of course it will take you 2 days and you will have to spend the night in a village without electricity – but hey – who said Indiana Jones had it easy? :-)
The slow boats on the Mekong make you feel how unimportant the bustly and hectic life in our developed cities is, you will enjoy true nature, pass lonely villages with only a few people, see wild deer and lonely water buffalos, hear monkeys and birds chattering in the forests and will wonder about the meaning of life and time.
From time to time other boats will pass you and you will wonder, if the life here is any different than in ancient times.
After 2 days, you will reach Huay Xai, close to the Thai Border. Your trip is at its end, you will take a small long-tail boat to cross to Chiang Khong, the Thai side of the Mekong; here you will show your passport, get stamped and there you go…
Civilization finally has got you back!
Want to see more pictures of Laos? Click here for my Flickr pictures.
Definitely check out his cool clip here!
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