Laos was wonderful. We only spent 8 days in the country, visiting just 2 towns, but we thoroughly enjoyed the easy going nature and slow pace of the Lao people. Nick thinks it might even be his favorite country we’ve visited. It was hard to believe that Laos holds the unfortunate title of being the most bombed country in the world, and apparently 50% of the country is still littered with unexploded bombs. They have Americans to thank for this, as we dropped 260 million bombs on Laos during the Vietnam War, more than all of WWII! You can see many of the old bomb casings around the towns, now being used for things like flower posts and table legs. Despite the fact that we mercilessly bombed their country, the Lao people do not seem to hold this against us and we felt no ill will while enjoying their beautiful country.
We started our adventure when we arrived at the Lao/Thai border after a 20 hour ride on an overnight train from Bangkok. The closest city was Vientiene, the capital, but we decided to forge ahead to Vang Vieng instead of staying in Vientiene, as we’d heard there wasn’t much to it. We’re lucky we made this decision, because we made friends with the travelers we shared the minibus to Vang Vieng with and spent all of our time in Vang Vieng and part of Luang Prabang with our new friends. We’d heard that Vang Vieng was a backpacker retreat and that there was a lot of partying going on in the town but we were not at all prepared for what awaited us.
The most popular thing to do in Vang Vieng is tubing down the Nam Song River which runs right through the middle of the town. We’d been told there were little bars along the river which you can swim up to and have a beer along the way, however they were not “little bars to have a beer” but wannabe Spring Break style wooden shacks blasting music at nightclub volume. The big draw at these bars are liquor buckets with homemade Lao Lao (whiskey), zip lines, slides, drinking games, and dancing. It was startling to be in this beautiful town hearing Jay Z blasting along the river and watching 20 year olds taking shots and dancing around in bikinis. I realize I sound like some old killjoy but it was just really, really odd and out of place and very offensive to the local people.
The town is apparently really split over the reputation- after all it’s a major tourist draw and brings in a lot of cash for the town, but the Lao people are Buddhist and very conservative, and this behavior is more appropriate for Cancun than Laos. There are signs all over the town demonstrating how to behave in Laos but in Vang Vieng they are mostly ignored. Kids run around the streets half dressed, drunk and shouting at each other with absolutely no concern for how this impacts the locals. It was a weird and embarrassing thing to witness. It was weird because it just seemed so out of place there, and embarrassing because the locals’ disgust was tangible and we felt they would naturally lump us in with everyone else. There are nicer areas of the town where you can get away from the Bucket Bars and restaurants blasting South Park all day long, but they were out of our price range. We did of course go tubing, and we did go to the bars along the river all the while feeling a little guilty, but we had a good time.
Besides tubing, we went on an interesting bike ride to some caves and a blue lagoon near the town. I say interesting because we had cruisers and the road was meant for mountain bikes but we managed anyway, though we finished the day with really sore butts from riding all over the rocks. This was a great experience because we got to ride through the villages and beautiful scenery.
We said goodbye to Vang Vieng and traveled north to Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The town is a charming little hamlet in the middle of the country, and great for spending a few days eating, drinking, cooking, and just hanging out. Many travelers make their way to LP and find themselves staying longer than they intended (ourselves included). The town has a French feel, full of little cafes and streets meandering along the Mekong River.
We took an evening cooking class with Tamnak Lao, a restaurant and cooking school, visited the Kuang Si waterfalls and watched a local hip hop breakdance show at the restaurant Utopia. The cooking class was pretty quick and basic, and we’re hoping to try something with more depth in India. Still a fun experience for our first time.
The Kuang Si Falls were absolutely beautiful- we’ve actually been to quite a few falls around the world on our trip and found these to be the most stunning in terms of color. The water was COLD but worth it to swim in the little cave behind the falls.
I think for Nick and I, the coolest part of our visit to LP was going to a free English class held by the SMILE Project for novice monks (monks-in-training between 12 and 20 years old). Our friend Monica convinced us to tag along with her one night and we had a really fun time talking with the novices. The class meets every night at one of the temples, and is run by Michael Sebastian, an American from San Francisco. Michael teaches these classes and runs the SMILE Project completely for free. Just talking to them and asking questions helps improve their English, and they are so eager and grateful to have the opportunity to learn, plus we got to learn about life as a novice Buddhist monk.
After leaving Luang Prabang, I think we had our worst bus ride yet- a 28 hour winding journey into Vietnam. It was the weirdest sleeper bus I’ve ever seen and extremely uncomfortable. The seats were big enough for the average Asian person, not so much for people over 5’4″. The bus drivers and their assistants were Vietnamese and there was a lot of harsh grumbling and unfriendliness going on- none of the peaceful bowed greetings we were used to-which made us nervous about what lay ahead in Vietnam, but I am glad to report that was a one time experience and is not how we’ve been treated since we’ve arrived. Vietnam is really cool so far, and we’ll be posting about our time in and around Hanoi soon!