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Published: February 1st 2013
HuayXai – Luang Nam Tha – Luang Prabang – Vang Vieng – Vientiane – Tha Khaek – Tad Lo – Champasak – Don Det
We had high expectations for Laos and were overjoyed with the consistent warm welcomes, delicious local cuisine and authentic beauty. We started with a night in a border town (Huay Xai) then continued a ways north to Luang Nam Tha where Rebecca did an amazing jungle trek with our friend Paul (Tyler had injured his foot but is now fully healed). While the trek was beautiful, our guide Xay did a fantastic job making the two days as memorable as they are. The bamboo forests, trees hundreds of years old and minority villages were everything we had hoped, but they took a close second to Xays humour and knowledge.
Luang Prabang was adorable. We were taken back in time and felt like we were in a little piece of France 50 years ago with the colonial architecture on every street. To remind ourselves that we were in Laos we walked through the massive handicraft night market and climbed to the temple on the hill for sunset. The only thing that made our depart from this charming city bearable was the fact that we were heading to Vang Vieng.
We loved everything about Vang Vieng! The cheap bungalows and lazy river created a perfect laid back oasis for a few travellers that had been on-the-go for over a month. It was here we said goodbye to Paul, he had a flight to catch from Vientiane and there was no way we could leave Vang Vieng so soon.
After relaxing in Vang Vieng we continued on to Vientiane where we had an interesting time and ate some of the best food we found in the country, before continuing on to the riverside charm of Tha Khaek.
After a day sitting by the Mekong looking across the river to Thailand and enjoying a bonfire with other travellers at our guesthouse, we continued on to the unknown village near Tad Lo.
We could not have asked for a better place to kick back and enjoy the village life. Tad Lo was more than we could have hoped for and after swimming in waterfalls, eating sticky rice cooked over the bon fire with locals and taking in the gorgeous panorama of the area from Tad Suong we had to carry on to see what else Laos had up it's sleeve.
Champasak can also be considered a charming riverside town but the highlight for us was Wat Phu. Another Angkorian ruin that we would say is a must see for a stopover in Champasak.
Next we were on to Don Det for a few days. Again we found ourselves becoming friends with helpful locals and fellow travellers. We explored nearby islands by canoe, floated around in tubes and hung out in hammocks.
North vs. South
: We saw a big difference between the northern and southern region. The obvious difference is that the north is mountainous with forests and the south is quite the opposite with flat, sparse and dry land as far as the eye can see. The north is home to the capital and the most frequently touristed spots so it tended to be better developed (although after being on some of the roads in the north, it's debatable).
<strong style="font-size: 1.4rem;">The People: We cannot say enough good things about the people. Everywhere we went we found friendly faces looking to share whatever piece of their culture they could. Xay, our guide in Luang Nam Tha, explained that most locals that live in the villages are Animist and took time to explain the religion to us. The young girl (whose name we could never pronounce) in Vang Vieng taught us some helpful Lao phrases. Mama Tia took care of us while Mama Pap fed us in Tad Lo. Loy was a great companion to get advice from or chill out with while we were on Don Det. Every town we came to was full of smiles. Laos is often referred to as “The land of 1 million elephants”. Since we didn't see that many elephants, we consider it “The land of 7 million smiles”.
<strong style="font-size: 1.4rem;">The Food: The local food is great! The fish laap we had in Don Det was absolutely too-die-for. Laap is found all over the country and is usually made with minced beef or fish. It's basically a meat salad but the good ones have fresh herbs and bean sprouts mixed in; it gets served with sticky rice and is an awesome finger food.
<strong style="font-size: 1.4rem;">The Scenery: Laos has extremely diverse scenery. The jungles and mountains around Luang Nam Tha were beautiful to trek through, the karsts of Vang Vieng were one of the best morning views we could have woken up to, the waterfalls of Tad Lo provided a calming sound that put us to sleep every night and the 4,000 islands that are scattered along the ever-present Mekong River is as relaxed as it gets. There isn't an ocean, but there is pretty much anything else you could want (other than snow).
<strong style="font-size: 1.4rem;">Being a Falang
: Tourism isn't necessarily a new industry in Laos but it is definitely growing at an impeccable rate right now. The locals haven't all found a balance of “good for me, good for you” yet. While we had expected Laos to be the cheapest country we travelled through on our trip we were surprised to see how many times we felt we were being over-charged (in comparison to other Asian countries, not Western prices). Prices vary all over the country; sometimes we would be happy with a quoted price, other times we found them completely outrageous. We dealt with it by bartering politely. If we couldn't come to an agreement we would continue on to find another person looking to make a better deal (and there was usually someone else willing to do so).
<strong style="font-size: 1.4rem;">Buses and Tuk-Tuks: We found an interesting bus/tuk-tuk relationship everywhere we went. On our way into Vang Vieng the bus driver stopped 5 minutes before getting into town and told us we would have to pay an extra 10,000 Kip/person (there were at least 12 people on the bus) if we wanted to get dropped off in town rather than at the bus station (that was passed town). The bus made a general agreement and said yes. However, when we got off the bus we just walked away. The driver approached us and asked for the money, when we said we weren't paying it since we paid for a ticket to the city centre he said “okay I will tell my boss” - we could tell there was someone else making him ask for the money and he didn't want an argument. We paid 40,000 Kip to get from Vientiane to Tha Khaek. The bus stopped at the main intersection in town but we (falang) weren't allowed to get off the bus. A couple of kilometers down the road we were dropped at the bus station where the tuk-tuk drivers tried to charge us another 40,000 Kip to get back into town. When we went to Pakse we were only going through so needed to get to the bus station. At one point the bus driver stopped at a place where tuk-tuks were waiting and said “Pakse. Town centre” so all the falang got off. Since we insisted on not getting off the bus (and had been through this sort of thing before) we continued into the actual town centre. The bus made a number of stops letting locals off the bus before taking us to the bus station. There is no reason why a person should have to pay more money than agreed on but the Laos bus drivers and tuk-tuk drivers have figured out another way to take advantage of travellers who are usually too kind to argue or aren't worried about a few extra bucks. We also found the tuk-tuk fees to be fairly expensive as a whole. We can get pretty much anywhere in Cambodia for $1/person, the starting rate in Laos was usually $1.50-$2 and many cities have its own “tuk-tuk mafia” with set prices so you can't find anyone working for less. It was very frustrating for us which is why we rented bicycles so often or just walked a bit more to save some money.
<strong style="font-size: 1.4rem;">Laos compared to neighbour countries: We found the people to be most like Cambodians (extremely welcoming and friendly) but they way they do business was more Thai (hard sellers generally willing to make a good deal without being too pushy). When it came to minority villages or scenery we saw reminders of nearby countries everywhere (depending on the region there was many Chinese, Vietnamese or Thai influences). We could always tell which border we were closest to by signs, clothing and cuisine. Amazingly, Laos has held onto a lot of it's own culture despite being squished between 5 other countries.
In Laos we found ourselves living like the locals. We moved at a snails pace and took each day at a time. We drank with ice cubes in our beer and bought lao lao (cheap local spirit) in a bag from a store/shack. We got covered in dust most days whether we were walking around or on a bus. Looking back there are very few complaints we can make about Laos, for the most part it was a completely spectacular country. We loved it and would recommend that other travellers get there as soon as possible before it changes too much.
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