The Following article is written by our guest writer John, a Dutchman, who moved to Thailand several years and has been living there ever since. When he has the time, he likes to travel through Thailand and the surrounding nations. This article is about his trip to Laos.
During my first year of studying in Thailand, my friends convinced me to join them on a one week trip to Thailand’s smaller brother Laos. They told me it would be cheap, fun and relaxing, and I was easily persuaded. Without any concrete travel plan, we hopped on a train from Bangkok to the Nong Khai – Thanaleng border crossing, and from there on a short minibus ride to the capital city of Laos: Vientiane.
The first thing I noticed about Laos was that the prices for food and transportation in general were more expensive than in Thailand, in contradiction of what my friends had told me. Still cheaper than European prices, but still an indication that I should have done some research first. Luckily hotel prices were indeed cheaper than that of Thai hotel prices and the rooms were of good quality.
I was impressed by how clean Vientiane looks and the whole city has this chill-out laid-back attitude with plenty of small clean restaurants. There is also a park next to the river to chill out even further. Besides that, the city is pretty boring. The city is good to relax and enjoy food and drinks, but there is not much else to do, so we decided to stay just one night.
The next morning we went on a terrible long and uncomfortable bus ride to Vang Vieng further to the north in Laos. Regret of coming to Laos sunk in. Before I came to Laos, I imagined rice fields, with farmers and local life style. Vang Vieng is not such a place. The small town is just one big area of bars and loud drunken tourists. There were a few women walking in thongs, which was okay to look at, but then they were outnumbered by grotesque flopping beer bellies from hundreds of male Europeans and Americans.
And then my friends almost bought drugs. There it was right in front of us, a drugs menu in plain sight on the restaurant table where we decided to have our lunch. Sure, the menu items were disguised to say things like; “green coke” and “space pizza”, but it was totally obviously drugs.
I still didn’t have that much Asia experience so the drug menu threw me off-guard. I was still surprised about the plain-in-sight drug references when a drunk Laos man without helmet semi-parked his motorbike on the side, almost stumbled over, shouted something at the restaurant owner and drove off again.
My American friend was laughing and focused his mind again at the drugs menu with a strong desire in his eyes. “I want to order” he said. “NO!” I said.
It’s true that law enforcement in Laos is not that strict and not so much by the book, but taking a risk of being incarcerated for drug usage is just stupid. You don’t want to end up in a Laos prison cell. Some tourists do get arrested and it can be life-ruining.
My friend eventually decided to do the wise thing and ordered fried rice without any additional substances added.
After a drug-free lunch we then went on to explore the city. Vang Vieng is an extremely popular party spot for tourists to get drunk and do water tubing (floating down the river on a rubber band). Granted, the landscape of Vang Vieng is fantastic with rolling hills and forests surrounding the city and has a river right next to it, but I was not in the mood to do water tubing accompanied by dozens of drunken strangers, and just wanted to get out of there. We did so the next morning.
We went further northwards to Luang Prabang, but to get there we needed to take another excruciating bus ride for many hours. The further northward we went, the worse the roads became and sleeping was not possible for me, but the trip was worth it because Luang Prabang is a great city to explore. Just like Vientiane, it has a laid-back atmosphere but there are also many more cultural sightings not far from each other. Our guest house was in a quiet area and just a few minutes walking away from some temples, restaurants, shops, and the river. It was fun to look at the hills across the river while having dinner with my friends.
The next day we stayed in the Luang Prabang area and we visited a Hmong village which was more of an open zoo to watch at minority people selling handicrafts. We also took a boat on the river to visit a cave filled with small Buddha statues. The cave was not that impressive. It was small and many of the statues were definitely not antique, but the boat ride was fun and I had a good time.
Althoug Luang Prabang isn’t that authentic, the laid back atmosphere and the scenic surroundings made me happy to stay for another night.
The next morning, my American friend told us that the trip was already taking too long and he had no intention of being tortured by bus rides any longer. He then decided to take the first flight back to Thailand to get it over with. For the rest of us we took another long bus ride to the border town Houay Xai, where we took a small boat ride across the river to end up back in Thailand.
My overall feeling of the Laos trip was not so positive and that was mainly because of our own bad planning. Looking back at the trip, there were many opportunities that we missed and places that we overlooked. I know for sure that Laos has more to offer than just beer drinking and possibly getting arrested for drug use. Luang Prabang gave me a small glimpse of what could be out there. We just didn’t go to the right places.
Special thanks to John for writing this article.