Ah, Laos. Land of all the French Indochine mystique I've ever dreamed of. And to think I almost wrote you off as some played-out backpacker party paradise. Because you weren't those things, not in the slightest. Instead I found your landscape stunning, your people kind, and your to-do's more centered on culture and natural beauty than on raging the night away.
To be fair, I'm travelling at this point during the real low season -- much of Southeast Asia is supposed to be rainy at this time of year, but I seem to have brought the California drought with me as it's unseasonably unrainy. This might make a huge difference in the vibe of Laos -- I'd imagine that during the height of the Northern Hemisphere's winter, there's loads more people in a lot of the places I've been in the past two months. Whatever, better for me! I show up in places and they feel just barely half full (or I'm seeing them as half empty) and best of all, the temperatures have dropped by at least ten degrees from what they were when I arrived in Southeast Asia on April 1. (Note to future SE Asia travellers: April and May are the hottest months of the year here.)
I have to be honest, while I've liked Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, I didn't find the people there to be overwhelmingly warm and welcoming as a people. I found individuals to be really sweet or helpful or nice, but there's also been a lot of hassle in these place more than others (although there is a huge difference in Thailand between the islands/South and the North).
For this reason, I didn't go into Laos with a lot of high expectations. I had heard great things about how beautiful it was, which got me excited, and it definitely lived up to, if not surpassed, those claims. Sadly, I only got to spend about 10 days in Laos, and there's way more to see -- especially the Four Thousand Islands in the south near the border of Cambodia. But, live and learn. Still, I think I got a great feel for the country: really nice, lowkey, friendly people, laidback vibe, awesome (and delicious!) remnants of their past ties to France, and, like I said already, gorgeous mountains awash in thick jungle. And, sure, it had some of the hassle you'll find in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos when it comes to things like tuk tuk drivers, but I found they were much more playful and upbeat about negotiating (as opposed to Cambodia where they could be kind of mean and aggressive, or Vietnam where they were more inclined to just try to sneakily rip you off). Getting around is easy, getting a good meal is easy, talking to people is easy, relaxing is easy ... I think that is a good description of Laos: easy.
Where I went
Chiang Kong/Huay Xai/2-Day Slow Boat to Luang Prabang
A girl I met in Saigon told me about how she'd taken the slow boat down the Mekong from the Thai border all the way to Luang Prabang, and I was immediately enticed. My original plans were to spend a night in Chiang Rai, then embark on the journey the next day, but when I tried to buy a ticket to Chiang Rai in Pai, they were all sold out. Instead, I bought a combined ticket that had me drive one night from Pai to Chiang Kong (on the Laos Border), spend the night in Chiang Kong, then bus it the next day across the border and get on the boat. The boat alights at Pak Beng, which is about halfway from the border of Thailand and Luang Prabang if you look at a map of the Mekong. It took about seven hours the first day and six the second.
Bus/boat combo ticket, $53 (included bus from Pai to Chiang Kong, overnight accomodation in Chiang Khong, bus from Chiang Khong to Huay Xai, Huay Xai to boat jetty and two days on the boat)
Tuk tuk into Luang Prabang, 20,000 kip (I'm including this because it is a set price now)
Ah, quite possibly the loveliest place in Southeast Asia. This place is on par with, like, Sausalito. It's that nice. (OK, maybe I'm exaggerating a tiny bit and maybe I'm also totally skewed because I've been in Southeast Asia now for almost four months and would think any place with gleaming, even, useable sidewalks felt like Sausalito. But seriously, it's pretty nice.) French bakeries, wine shops, relaxed cafés opening out on to the street perfect for a drink or two. I stayed here for four nights and three days, savoring the laidback life of luxury (luxury = sidewalks).
Shared tuk tuk to Tat Kuang Si Waterfalls, 30,000 kip
Entrance to Tat Kuang Si Waterfalls, 30,000 kip
Minibus ticket to Phonsavan, $15
This is the jumping off point for exploring the Plain of Jars sites, prehistoric giant limestone jars believed to be funery urns. There's something like 153 sites but only a handful have been clearned from the unexplored ordances (UXOs) left behind from the U.S.'s "Secret War" in Laos. The town basically completely bombed (and, sadly, supposedly it looked like Luang Prabang) and the residents have stoically decorated their shops and restaurants with deactivated devices, making for a surreal site. I stayed here two nights, giving myself one day to explore the jars (which is probably all you need).
Day trip to 3 of the Plains of Jars sites: $23 (including guide, minivan, entrance fees and lunch)
Minibus ticket to Vang Vieng, $10
I didn't know what to expect since this town has a lot of hype surrounding it, making it out to be either the center of the party universe (it wasn't) or totally dead (it wasn't). The real reason people come here (and should come here) is to mellow out and float in an innertube down a river. There's also kayaking, climbing, caving and some beautiful lagoon I couldn't motivate myself to see because I've been travelling for a while and am starting to run out of steam. There's also good food (I had the world's best schnitzel and a French meal sure to delight even the pickiest gourmand), a ton of cafés that play Friends nonstop, and a random mix of families, couples, Korean students and backpackers. I ended up liking this town way more than I thought I would because the setting is drop-dead gorgeous and the scene is completely random.
Minibus to Vientiane, $5
Only here for one night before heading out the next afternoon to cross the border back into Thailand and catch a sleeper train to Bangkok. I got to Vientiane around noon and spent the afternoon wandering around, including a visit to the COPE Visitor Center, a non-profit that provides resources for people impacted by losing a limb (particularly from UXOs, although they help with all limb-related injuries) as well as training for locals to learn to manufacture prosthetics and aid in rehabilitation efforts. Really moving displays about the impact of UXOs and the dangers faced by people in the country, especially children.
Bus to Nong Khai, 15,000 kip
Overnight train from Nong Khai to Bangkok, $33 (upper berth in a first class sleeper train)
Where I stayed
Pak Beng: whatever was reco'd by the jetty people This, I do not recommend. Mold coming through the walls, dirty, etc. I think you can get something for a better price if you arrive and shop around. ($12/night)
Luang Prabang: Pangkham Lodge After many nights of grotty accomodation (and I'm including Myanmar in that because much of Myanmar was a little rough, with the exception of Manaw Thukha which was quite nice), I was relieved when I opened the door to this place and found it to be perfect. OK, no, it's not a 5-star luxury hotel but after a lot of what I've seen, I'm relieved if the bed is on a bed and you can't feel the springs poking through the mattress. This place was spotless and well kept, and you could tell certain things had been renovated somewhat recently, like the stone tiles in the bathroom. It was like a little slice of heaven after so many nights of not-so-nice places, and up there with Baan Taveesri in Krabi and Teahouse Asian Urban Hotel in Phnom Penh as one of the nicer places I've stayed this whole trip. The only downside (and it was a real downside) was that the WiFi here was the worst of any place I've stayed this entire trip. ($19/night)
Phonsavan: Nice Guesthouse Simple accomodation, but totally sufficient. Things were a little bit dated (or not so nice to begin with), but everything was in good condition (e.g., there was a lid on the toilet tank). Really nice (ha!) staff who were super helpful organizing my tour to the Plain of Jars sites, onward bus ticket to Vang Vieng and they even surprisingly met my bus from Luang Prabang to give me a lift to the hotel. This place is well-located on the main drag of Phonsavan so walking to get food, water, etc., was not an issue. ($12/night)
Vang Vieng: Laos Haven Hotel and Spa Another Southeast Asia winner. Clean, comfortable, modern. Again, I'm not staying at super swank places, but if there's fresh, nice sheets on the bed and the walls aren't covered in grime, I'm a pretty happy camper. Located a few minutes' walk from the heart of the 'action' in Vang Vieng (if you can call it that) and definitely away from any bars thumping loud music into the wee hours of the night. Also very nice desk staff and some of the best Wifi I've had the entire trip. ($20 night/including breakfast)
Vientiane: Souphaphone Hotel I really liked this hotel, too. Met all of my fundamental needs (like not being poisoned by mold, good bed, clean, etc.) and was well-located in the heart of the 'tourist' area of Vientiane so there were loads of great restaurants everywhere. ($20/night)