Feb 27

What’s the fuss?

Laos: Karst Mountains near Vang VienLaos 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?

Laos: Stupa in VientianeIt’s still mainly backpacker’s territory, with very few ‘real’ hotels in the whole country. You mainly have small hostels, homestays or private parties renting out rooms.

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?

Laos: Arc de Triumphe in Vientiane, the concrete was actually donated by the Americans to build an airstrip. ;-)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.

Vientiane will get you into the mood for the whole country already, things are going slowly here; it’s easy to explore and you will find signs of forgotten times and its easy-going people.

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. :-)

Vang Vien

Laos: Vang Vien at the Nam Song River, what a spectacular sight!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.

Laos: Karst Mountains and Rice Paddies near Vang VienBesides 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.

Laos: Kuang Si Waterfall near Luang PrabangLuang 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’.

Laos: Plain of Jars in the North-East of the countryPlain 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

Laos: Boating the Mekong River upstream from Luang PrabangBack 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? :-)

Laos: Passing a Village at the Mekong RiverThe 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.

ianmack over from BraveNewTraveler has a most inspiring Video from his last Laos trip.

Definitely check out his cool clip here!


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written by Chris

15 Responses to “Wondering how Thailand was 20 years ago? Look no further…visit Laos!”

  1. NealeNo Gravatar UNITED STATES Says:

    Thanks I’m Planning on doing 4 countries next year laos been one so i will be sure to check out Luang Prabang as that souns like what I’m looking for.

  2. DaveNo Gravatar UNITED STATES Says:

    Chris – great piece. I had heard so little of Laos, I figured I’d skip it and stick to Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, however after reading your post, I realized it was exactly because I haven’t heard much about Laos that it may deserve my time while in SE Asia. Thanks!

    PS – great headline too

  3. IsabelNo Gravatar UNITED STATES Says:

    Hey Chris,
    thanks for a great post. After reading it and looking at the photos(beautiful pics by the way- but I wasnt expecting anything less ;-P), I’m defenitely sold as to why I should visit Laos.


  4. dodong floresNo Gravatar PHILIPPINES Says:

    Nice write up, Chris. The deliveration is infectious :)

    I found myself reading the sub topic The Mighty Mekong River over and over again.

    Also, thanx for the link to the film that Ian created. It does help a lot…

  5. ianmackNo Gravatar CANADA Says:

    hey glad you like the film! i hope it offers a small taste of the amazing time we had in Laos. i must offer a warning though…stay away from the “magic shakes” in vang viang. they’re magic alright, but it can be very difficult to get off that ride once it starts… better to avoid them altogether.

  6. TravMonkeyNo Gravatar AUSTRALIA Says:

    Shhhh don’t tell everyone about Laos!

    Just kidding, Laos is an amazing place. So laid back and relaxed. The scenery is amazing, no guide book ever described how beautiful it really is. I was gob-smacked. It is well worth putting in the extra effort to get off the tourist trail in Laos.

  7. YearinthelifeNo Gravatar UNITED KINGDOM Says:

    Interesting to read that “Almost every major airline in Asia is now flying to Laos, mainly to its capital Vientiane.” When I was there – two years ago now :O – flights into Laos were very limited, being mainly Lao Air flights, which had a tendency to lose their wheels on landing. But it’s reassuring to hear that you can get into Laos on airlines with less shoddy planes; certainly beats a hellish 2 day slow-boat ride down the Mekong, beautiful as it is :)

  8. Thailand: 6 Months After Coup - Little To Show | nomad4ever UNITED STATES Says:

    […] Wondering how Thailand was 20 years ago? Look no further…visit Laos! […]

  9. tutubiNo Gravatar PHILIPPINES Says:

    the road less travelled…
    the kind of places I wanted to visit :)

    nice site you have here

  10. Laos: Coup Attempt Prevented | nomad4ever UNITED STATES Says:

    […] Sort of Thailand 20 years ago, as some things are pretty similar and most Lao people can speak Thai and even have Thai ancestors or relatives. You can even pay with the Thai Baht almost everywhere. […]

  11. The Ancient Mystery of the ‘Plain Of Jars’ | nomad4ever UNITED STATES Says:

    […] Maybe you noticed already, that I’m a fan of Laos. This has a number of reasons, one being, that Laos is today, what Thailand was 20 years ago. It’s a laid-back secluded country, with lot’s of mysteries, unique activities and quirky originalities. […]

  12. lilooNo Gravatar FRANCE Says:

    hey, I’m planning to go to Laos on my own, is it dangerous for a girl to travel on her own in Laos? are there many hostels there? thxx

  13. ChrisNo Gravatar INDONESIA Says:

    liloo, you should be fine. It’s not more dangerous than any place else on the planet. Laos is actually quite easy to travel, even when going alone. There are plenty of hostels and guest houses nowadays, at least in the main towns like Vientianne, Luang Prabang and so on. The people are generally friendly and helpful.

  14. KristinaNo Gravatar UNITED STATES Says:

    Hi there! How much time should I spend in Laos? Right now I only have 7 days scheduled, but I’m not sure if that is sufficient? I know it’s kind of a subjective question…this summary was very helpful by the way! Thanks so much!

    I will be traveling to China, Tibet, Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand (and others…in that order).


  15. ChrisNo Gravatar INDONESIA Says:

    Kristina, 7 days is really not that much. I spent 4 days alone in Vang Vien, just sitting at and watching the river. But your mileage will vary, depending also how much you consume of the available temptations there…. :D

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