Why You Should Save Laos for Last
The classic Southeast Asia backpacker loop consists of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Having visited 3/4 of these countries, I’ve obviously decided that I’m three-quarters qualified to throw in my two cents. When I planned my first trip to SEA, my research department was pretty lacking. I envisioned rolling rice paddies, turquoise beaches, and enough noodles to bump me up a few pant sizes. What I didn’t take time to consider is that although all four countries are generally clumped into one big trip, each has it’s own energy and attractions that draw in tourists from around the world. All of my trips to Southeast Asia have been absolutely incredible and I wouldn’t change them for anything, but whenever someone asks me for advice on the area, I have one major tip for them.
SAVE LAOS FOR LAST!
Laos was actually my first destination before I set off for the hustle and bustle of Vietnam and the stunning beaches of Thailand. Maybe it was just the timing or circumstances, but I absolutely fell head over heels for this country. My visit was definitely too short, but left a lasting impact of me and changed how I looked at every other country. So whether you’re planning your first big haul to SEA or coming back for seconds, maybe this ramble will change the way you plan your journey.
1. All About the Kip
Southeast Asia is pretty well-known for being easy on the traveller’s wallet, as long as you play your cards right and sniff out the deals. So when we arrived in Luang Prabang and paid next to nothing in Laotian Kip to sleep on the stunning riverside, eat three (five) delicious meals per day, and travel by tuk-tuk to all of the local attractions, I began to think that this was the norm. You will definitely find killer deals wherever you go in Southeast Asia, and maybe it’s just the Scottish in me, but after visiting Laos you may feel yourself tightening those purse strings a little more.
Like anywhere, this has it’s limitations. Towns like Vang Vieng are obviously going to be catering towards the flocks of tourists that come to party like it’s 1999, and will lose their charm in the process. But the endless sleepy riverside villages will provide any tourist the chance to feel like they’re visiting the real Laos and trust me, it is spectacular. One of my favourite spots on earth is the more popular Nong Khiaw, which is nestled between looming limestone karsts alongside the Ou River. This spot is about four hours out of Luang Prabang and a few days here will you give the chance to adapt to a slower-paced way of life and walk the streets of this charming town to watch local life. In a region that is so popular with tourists, this kind of authenticity can be lost of the average backpacker trail, and is definitely a welcome change.
3. Get Off the Party Train
Let’s say that you read this article and actually did decide to save Laos for last. First of all, don’t tell me that because someone actually following my advice would really inflate my ego. At this point, you probably would have covered your body in glow in the dark paint and gotten rowdy on the beaches of Koh Phangan, succumbed to the 20 cent draft beer on the streets of Hanoi, and had a few rounds to celebrate your amazing day at Angkor Wat on Siem Reap’s pub street. If you are not burnt out by now, you are a champion. Keep doing you. But if you are a normal person like myself, your body is slowly starting to rebel against your hedonism and begging you to pump the brakes. Well my friends, you came to the right place. There are plenty of pubs to let your hair down and Beer Lao is a godsend, but the party atmosphere is definitely not the same as in other major hotspots. You may find yourself instead spending your nights wandering the lit-up river streets of Luang Prabang, or just hanging out in your hammock and listening to the life happening around you. You won’t feel like you’re missing out on what your hostel mates will deem the BEST NIGHT EVER! And trust me, that is a good thing.
4. Unexpected Delicious-Ness
One of the biggest draws for a visit to Southeast Asia is the food. Not only is it cheaper than Macdonald’s but when done right, it can bring a tear to any foodies eyes. A lot of the most popular dishes come from Thailand and Vietnam like red and green curries, pad thai, pho, spring rolls, banh mi, etc. But what a lot of people don’t realize is that Lao has it’s own arsenal of signature dishes that are insanely delicious and completely different from the popular eats of its surrounding countries. I started every day with local tea and Khao Piak Sen, a rice soup that is one of the most popular breakfasts in the area. My ultimate favourite was Larb (also spelled Laap, Larp or Lahb), which is a ground meat of your choice marinated in lime juice and fish sauce, almost like ceviche. I lived on this stuff until I had serious meat sweats and zero regrets. If you find yourself in Luang Prabang, try Tamarind for some of the more unique Lao niblets.
5. Loving Locals
My first impression of this country was that everyone was so incredibly friendly. The locals here are extremely laid-back and seem genuinely content to share their amazing country with you. The country has also been through significant cultural and political changes and many of the locals have had unreal experiences because of it. If you get the chance to share a meal or drink with one of them , you are likely to hear some incredible stories and get some insight on the combination of communist politics and buddhist culture that makes Laos so incredibly fascinating. Odds are, you will leave with a way better knowledge of the country’s past, and about fifty new Facebook friends.
6. Unbeatable Natural Beauty
A lot of people seem surprised when I talk about how much I love Laos.
“Isn’t that country land-locked? What’s even in Laos?”
I then launch into my unnecessarily sarcastic rant.
Oh I don’t know. Do you guys even like cascading waterfalls and natural pools? Or jungle covered mountains? Hikes into the clouds? Boat rides down endless rivers? I don’t know, maybe that’s just me.
See? So unnecessary. But I honestly cannot get over how beautiful and lush this country is. Even the average tuk-tuk or van ride is likely to show you something breathtaking. One of the obvious must-sees is Kuang Si Falls, which will impress even the most avid TLC supporter. A boat trip down the Ou river was also one of my favourite moments of the entire trip. Pro tip: make sure it’s a return trip. Obvious, but I’ve been burned before.
So Laos, this is my official love letter to you. Thank you for rocking my world. Seriously guys, you can never go wrong with a visit to Laos, no matter what order you visit in. But, I really do think Laos is the perfect final impression to any Southeast Asia trip, and probably home to the most genuine experiences you will have there.
All you Laos lovers out there, what do you think? Save it for the sweetest goodbye, or get there as soon as humanly possible?