Inevitably these days if you’re heading to South East Asia you will end up in more than one of the countries in the region. With ease of movement and cheap options through airlines such as Air Asia, it’s relatively pointless going for only one country when you could see two or three in your time there. One country that is becoming the next big tourist hot spot aside from Thailand is its quiet neighbour to the north – Laos. There are a few things you should know about Laos before you go, so here they are, before we get into what there is to do aside from getting drunk.
A Quick Note To Say…
Laos is not Thailand. In that sense, it’s a lot stricter than Thailand with regards to partying and all night shindigs. While some places such as Vang Vieng used to be known for having island parties on the river that stretched into the wee hours, this is no longer the case thanks to the influx of backpackers who made too much of a good thing an inherently bad thing and so all the parties were shut down – along with most of the bars in the town.
A curfew is in effect throughout the country. Yes, you read that right – a curfew is in effect throughout the country. This is partially due to the communist government still in place (but trust me, you can’t really tell), and partially due to the Laotian way of life – getting up at the crack of dawn to give alms to the monks. You might get away with staying out past curfew (around 11pm in most places) in the countryside villages, but to be honest you won’t really want to as you will likely be one of, if not the only, person out.
What’s There To Do Then?
In a word, tons. There are two main strips of Laos depending on what your preferences are and what you’re after: the north route from Vientiane to Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang and further north if you’re so inclined to Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi; or the South route from Vientiane to Kong Lor (if you’re so inclined) to Savannahket to Pakse, and then the Bolaven Loop/further south to the 4000 Islands and the Cambodian border. For informative purposes I will tell you what there is to see and do on both of these loops to help you gauge whether it’s the loop for you.
The Northern Route
From the capital Vientiane you can easily get a shuttle bus to take you up to Vang Vieng, former party town, now mostly quiet village with a few 18 year old backpackers determined to keep the party alive. These days it’s a quiet place, ideal for relaxing, checking out some nearby caves and waterfalls and renting a motorbike to go exploring the valley of beautiful karst limestone mountains. A few bars cater to specific musical preferences such as psy-trance (again, perhaps in an effort to keep the party alive), but on the whole this place has more of a homey, village, family feel to it these days with quiet evenings spent stargazing on the riverbank.
Heading further north to Luang Prabang – a UNESCO World Heritage city thanks in part to its numerous temple complexes and fantastic French Quarter with its beautiful colonial structures set amid the lush jungle greenery and dusty roads filled with passers by. This is a hot spot for travellers of all kind – from backpackers to luxury travellers, Luang Prabang has become a bit of a Laotian mecca for everyone. Check out the night market in the city centre for some truly unique finds. There are likewise street stalls selling fruit shakes and baguette sandwiches throughout as well as the full blown food market that serves all manner of delicious items from fish on sticks, chicken on sticks, to various noodle side dishes and fresh vegetable spring rolls. You can get a banquet for 2 people for around $5 here.
If you’re a bit adventurous and don’t mind going a bit further, you can go to Nong Khiaw and then further onto Muang Ngoi, which is a village set in a valley similar to that of Vang Vieng, surrounded by beautiful karst limestone mountains. For the truly adventurous and travel hardened, you can try getting to Hanoi, Vietnam from Luang Prabang – but be warned that it’s around 30 hours on winding country mountain roads and has been dubbed the “nightmare journey”. You’re probably best to split it up into chunks, or just fly – Luang Prabang has a well serviced, well connected international airport.
There are a lot of other really interesting things to do up in the northern parts of the country, such as Vang Xai – an intricate cave city that was used for shelter during the Vietnam war to protect residents from the bombings and also the Gibbon Experience – where you can spend a few days in the tree tops like the Gibbons, an experience which has been coined as being “living like an Ewok”.
There are a lot of bars and potential party spots along the way – particularly these days in Luang Prabang you will find more bars that cater to a party kind of atmosphere, but also cater to quieter laid back atmospheres as well. If you want a bit more in the way of excitement restaurants, bars, music wise this is probably the route for you.
The Southern Route
From Vientiane you can opt to take a bus to the village of Kong Lor, home of one of the longest underground rivers in the world. The village is a dusty, very remote little thing, everything you could imagine from rural Laos. The best guest house in town is Chantha House – on the edge of the village, right on top of rice paddies. Most of the accommodation in town is in the form of home stays with locals, and there are only a handful of places to eat – if even. Chantha house almost operates as the local restaurant and watering hole – best food in town by far.
If you’re feeling adventurous you can head to Thakek and rent a motorbike, doing the “Kong Lor Loop” which takes you around several of the small backwaters and to the village of Kong Lor eventually – a great experience for anyone in the area.
Further south is the city of Savannahket. Admittedly, there is not much in the way of things to do in Savannahket and it’s more a stopping off point to break up the journey between Kong Lor and Pakse – 12 to 14 hours by bus, but with a stop in Savannahket it breaks it up into a larger portion of about 8 and a smaller portion of 3-4. Great for a night, but not really much more, Savannahket features a French colonial quarter which is missing out on some much needed TLC, featuring nearly derelict buildings and some even riddled with bullet holes – a prominent, yet unfortunate feature reminder of the Vietnam war. Savannahket is also home to a strange but beautiful combination of Buddhist and Taoist temples as well as Christian churches.
Further south you come to the municipality of Pakse – a well equipped city with many fantastic amenities including tours available, motorbike rentals, supermarkets, cafes with great internet, and numerous guesthouses. It’s also where you can renew your Laos visa if you want to extend your stay. Here you can rent a motorbike as well and do the Bolaven Plateau Loop – a favourite amongst travellers to the region which again takes you around the many backwater villages of the loop and eventually back to Pakse.
The loop also takes you through fertile coffee plantations, tea plantations, and alongside beautiful waterfalls and tribal villages where children run after you waving hello. One village along the loop, a beautiful little village called Tad Lo is a perfect place to set down for a couple of days and take a load off – only recently having gotten power and internet, connection to the outside world here is still confined to few guest houses. Most of the accommodation here is likewise in the form of home stays, some even home stay dorms (such as at Mama &Pap’s). Regardless, you won’t struggle to find a place to stay here – there’s even a resort on top of the large waterfall a bit away from the main strip.
Further south from Tad Lo and Pakse you will find the Mekong River begins to widen and towards the border with Cambodia is a number of islands on which you can stay – generally referred to as the Four Thousand Islands. Don Det is the typical backpacker haunt here, but other great islands offer a quieter more relaxed locale in which to stay. Don Khong is perfect – with motorbike rentals available to head out and bike around the island. We recommend Kong View Guest house – it has a balcony that overlooks the Mekong out back with commanding views and is a great place to relax with a Beer Lao and watch afternoon thunderstorms roll in.
So there you have the numerous things to do throughout Laos aside from partying and drinking. After the relative hectic atmosphere that can be had in Thailand, Laos will seem like a welcome break – so pick your route – travel adventure or slightly more party hardy – the choice is yours although it doesn’t have to be. Overnight buses are available from Pakse to Luang Prabang, so you could have it all.