Welcome to Laos - the most bombed nation on earth.
You might've already heard, but in case you haven't - everything in sleepy Laos happens slooooowly. And when we say slowly, we mean that some things can take pretty much indefinitely to happen (we're still waiting for a side order of rice we asked for in a cafe in Luang Prabang in 2007). So if you're planning on paying Laos a visit - you should, it's beautiful - then flick your mobile phone off (it probably won't work anyway), put your watch in your backpack, and just don't worry yourself about that pointless concept we know as 'time'. Time is of no consequence in Laos
Now, we're not ignoring the fact that much of Socialist Laos is gripped by poverty and that day-to-day life can still be a bit of a fight for some Laotians, but it would be plain rude of us not to mention that Laos has perhaps inadvertently earned a reputation for being the fun capital of South East Asia. It's a reputation earned nowhere more than in the stunning surrounds of the town of Vang Vieng, one of a few hotspots nationally where visitors can take part in the official sport of Laos - tubing. Summed up in a few words: truck inner-tube, big river, jaw-dropping scenery, alcohol, rope swings, diving boards, bruises, hangover. Probably the most pleasant bender you'll ever go on, with optional extra dashes of adrenaline/pain for those so inclined.
But shame on you if all you head to Laos for is the tubing and the amazing Beerlao (we prefer the dark ale), because beyond the well-worn backpacker trail, small-by-comparison Laos packs a punch un-matched by its neighbours. We really can't recommend enough taking the time to get well and truly off the beaten track and immersing yourself in what is one of an ever-dwindling number of genuinely authentic cultural experiences in all of South East Asia, where you could still quite easily be one of the only outsiders in town all week, and where you can catch more than a glimpse of what life might've been like elsewhere in South East Asia before the onset of the travel age.
For every Vang Vieng there's a Luang Prabang; for every tubing run there's a dozen monasteries and temples; and for those with more of a sense of adventure there's a remote wilderness well away from the well-worn trail, where wild tigers, elephants and bears still roam. If a trip to Laos doesn't inspire the blogger in you, then go back to where you crossed the border and try again.
Highlights from Laos
- Breezing around the night markets in Luang Prabang
- Kicking back and taking in the amazing views on any slow boat route (take a cushion!)
- Tubing in Vang Vieng
- Spotting the last few highly endangered Irrawaddy Dolphins down in Si Phan Don !aka 4000 Islands)
- Getting lost in the carpet-forested uplands
- Dodging the man-sized rats in surreal Pak Beng
- The people, the nicest, most accommodating locas you'll ever have the pleasure to meet
- Counting jars on the Plain of Jars around Phonsavan
- Renting a motor bike and riding down to the Kong Lo Cave
- Relaxing in sleepy Muang Ngoi Neua
Hints and Tips for Laos
- Despite what you might hear elsewhere, there are now over half a dozen international ATMs dotted around the country, but be warned - they're not the most reliable in the world. Cash advances can be arranged using Visa credit cards at any branch of the Banque Pour Le Commerce Exterieur (2.5ish% fee), and there's a branch in every decent sized town. If you find you're accruing quite a stash of Kip rather than US Dollars, make sure you offload as much as you can before you leave Laos, because Kip is notoriously hard to exchange - even in Laos itself. Politely reject old, worn US Dollars if you're offered them as change - insist on newer looking notes. (Incidentally, Kip means 'to sleep' where us folks at TB Towers come from. Told you everything to do with Laos was sleepy.)