Published: April 11th 2012April 11th 2012
Hypnotic line of Buddhas
Still off the beaten track (as much as I hate this term), Laos is still an underdog to Western and Asian travelers alike. Westerners because they never heard of the place and Asians BECAUSE they have heard of it. At least this is what I thought before visiting the land of the milion elephants myself. Oh, I have to mention that actually I didn't see an elephant during my 3 weeks of stay.
I took the chance to see a little more of Laos when I was invited to a research conference in Savannakhet, the countries second biggest city, and considering the relatively high cost for an entrance visa I got an even bigger input for exploring as much as I could.
My first contact with Laos, crossing the border from Vietnam at Lao Bao, was not really impressive. An 8 hour bus ride from the East to the West passing only endless flat jungle-landscape with some very rare micro-sized villages along the road. The contrast to Vietnam was radical: First, it gets immediately clear that Laos is much poorer (most of the houses I have seen were simple stilt houses) and second, the noise level I was used
Wats in the suburbs
to in Vietnam (honking, music, people shouting) was lowered to almost zero.
Finally arrived in Savannakhet I could hardly believe my eyes. What is claimed to be the countries second biggest city could hardly be considered a medium sized village in most other nations. Deserted streets, smell of jasmin-flowers and for me most unusual: deadly silence. The cities main attractions are a couple of plastic dinosaurs on a roundabout (dinosaur bones were found in Savannakhet and so they became kind of a regional mascot), a decent looking wat in the suburbs and a promenade along the Mekong river with a look on a near (and much more lively, even from the distance) Thailand. It doesn't help that the communist government is responsible for an 23.30 curfew with the exception of a few (mostly dodgy) bars, which magically stay open all over the country.
Finally my work in Savannakhet was done and I took the chance to go up north, passing the backpacker haven Vang Vieng (I do not wish to comment on that and i did NOT go for the tubing:)), the eastern provincial capital Phonsavan and the archeological 'Plain of Jars' site (its actually a plain.. and
It feels somehow.... backwards
its full of jars), Luangprabang, the jewel of Laos, and its countless Buddhist wats and finally the sleepy, French-inspired capital, Vientiane. Worthwhile to mention that Laos is the only country that actually managed to give me motion sickness, considering the swiss-cheese shaped roads and rough landscape.
Except the landscape which up North changes into somehow more wild (mined) and mountainous, I found the country pretty uniform in what I have seen. Most of the Laotian cities (if you can call them so), are not much more than a small conglomerate of houses, mostly with a dusty main road and hardly anything happening. The honking of the countless motorbikes of Vietnam is replaced by the rare passing of a pick up truck or one of the local tuc-tucs. Luangprabang, Laos' most famous tourist spot, adds some Buddhist charm to this concept. Worth to mention that going outside the urban areas can be dangerous, because Laos is currently the most mined and bombed country on this planet. Look up what happened to them during the Vietnam war for details...
Furthermore, most of the important places in the country are directly at, or at least near the mighty Mekong river, separating
Lao during the day.. free chairs along the Mekong for the nap
the country from the more developed and democratic cultural cousin Thailand. This, unfortunately, is hardly a substitute for the amazing beaches which can be found in most of Lao's neighboring destinations.
All in all, I have to say that for me Laos was not really impressive or unique in any feature (mediocre food, the Laap is just minced meat really!, relatively high prices, architecture similar to Thailand and French colonial-style, landscape not very different from their neighbors and no really impressive attractions). What really distinguishes Laos is what most travellers seem to seek when they visit the country: almost no sound can be heared, hardly any people on the street and in general, Laos seems to be the most lethargic place on earth! The Chinese and Australian run gold mines, spoiling the country of its natural resources, seem to be one of the consequences of the Laotian saying 'if its not fun, don't do it'.
I was happy I gave Laos a try, but what I have seen and done in those two weeks was more than enough for me. Maybe I got spoiled by my long time living in Vietnam but i find the country too touristy
(the population is small so the places to stay are a few, and you will always run into the same people), highly overpricend, and unfortunately highly overrated as the hidden gem of south east Asia... Luckily, being a natural bridge between Thailand and Vietnam will help the place to sustain its tourist numbers and who doesnt want to go 'off the beaten track', as suggested by Lonely Planet...
There are more photos below