Beautiful landlocked Laos; a land of abundant natural wonder and arguably the most relaxed country on the planet. Many visitors have found that long suffering ailments like muscle aches, asthma and stress related illnesses have all been cured here, and when you visit you’ll understand why. No one’s in a rush! If you order food in a restaurant here, don’t expect it to come on time, and definitely don’t expect a group order to come all at once! It’s the little things like this which make Laos all the more charming. And with stunning limestone karst geography, wide free-flowing rivers, the most bizarre party town imaginable and arguably one of the world’s most beautifully preserved colonial cities, it’s easy to see why so many backpackers rave about the country.
Last week we introduced the varied charms of Northern Thailand. Now head to Pai, Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai and book that border crossing slow boat onto the Mekong while we show you all the delights Laos has to offer.
The slow boat
The two day slow boat from the Thai border is probably the most atmospheric and easily the most scenic way to enter Laos. Cruising along the mighty Mekong River you’ll not pass a single technological settlement, but instead drift through pristine rainforest with bamboo houses dotted sporadically. After staying overnight in the hill town of Pakbeng you’ll arrive in Luang Prubang the next day. Ok, you might not understand what all the fuss is about, it’s just a small city! But as soon as you walk into town it’ll click: row after row of beautifully preserved, yet crumbling, French colonial buildings. Complete with colourful awnings and wooden signs, this UNESCO listed city is a treat.
The colonial town
It’s laid back charms hit you almost straight away, where tuk tuk drivers sleep in hammocks inside their machines, street vendors fry sweet rotis at all hours of the day and market vendors sell colourful collections of silk goodies, silver jewellery and beautifully handcrafted ornaments. While many hotels now cater to upmarket travellers, there’s still heaps of cheap digs like Bougnasouk Guesthouse. In low season it’s very easy to get a room for £4 on the banks of the Nam Khan river.
Nightlife and waterfalls
Although most of Laos has an 11 o’clock curfew meaning bars shut up shop on the dot, there is still a laid back nightlife in Luang Prubang. Utopia is a stunning bar perched over forest with high views of the Nam Khan. It serves local delicacies like buffalo skin alongside more mainstream dishes. There’s a volleyball court too!
Book a tuk tuk and head out to Kouang Si Waterfall, a collection of freezing cold aquamarine falls over smooth rock. The little village at the bottom is great for snacking on Laotian dumplings and refreshing sugar cane juice. After a few days in this magical town, you really won’t want to leave!
Where to begin when talking about Vang Vieng? Let’s just say it’s mad and nothing like you’ll ever experience. Once a small town nestled among limestone karsts on the Nam Song River, over the past five years it’s changed into a heaving party town of epic proportions. Completely geared for backpackers, everywhere you’ll see buckets of whisky and coke advertised for £2, little cafes serving western food and open air cinemas playing American comedies. It is easy to get away from this though if you want to, and there are some lovely little family restaurants serving local dishes like lok lak – a very spicy meat and rice dish originating in Cambodia. Tonnes of backpacker digs line the streets of Vang Vieng and you can easily find a room for under £5. Q Bar and Bucket Bars are good for a drink or two after tubing...
What the town is now famous for is tubing. For around £5 you get an inflatable inner tractor tyre and a taxi ride to the river. Then you get in the tyre and float down the river. Although that might sound odd enough, it gets even stranger. A small number of wooden, riverside bars throw out water bottles tied to rope. You hold onto the bottle and young boys drag you in so you party for as long as you like! Try a few rice wine shots infused with wasp or scorpion, play drinking games, or swing 50ft up in the air from zip lines and ropes before splashing into the water below. Although it is a lot of fun, don’t drink too much as the wet season rivers can be quite strong. Lifejackets are available.
Sometimes when tubing it’s hard to forget you’re in one of the most stunning locations on earth. Huge limestone mountains rise up everywhere and the landscape is peppered with temples and rice paddies. Rock climbing, kayaking and caving are all top options. But before you head off, make sure you visit the Organic Farm and take a tour of the tea plantations, vineyard and dairy farm.
Laos is not all party towns and colonial wonders though. In the far north bordering China some of the best eco-trekking is springing up, while around the capital Vientiane ancient wonders and unusual monument parks stand surrounded by natural beauty. So join us next week for more Laotian adventures in this most laid back of countries.