“In honor” of me being super behind on writing about my travels, and lest I forget things, I am going to first write this summary post about what I enjoyed most during my time in Laos, and then elaborate more on these places at a later date.
A small word on my feelings on Laos. Laos was the second country I went through on this solo backpacking journey. It came on the heels of savoring one glorious month in Cambodia, a country I’d been drawn to for years before I had the chance to visit. Cambodia was all I expected and more, so Laos had a lot to live up to.
Was traveling through Laos similar to traveling through Cambodia? Not really. Cambodia felt like it offered more options in terms of what to see and how to see them, whereas Laos’, er, longitudinally inclined geography meant that all tourists were pretty much traveling the same north-to-south or south-to-north path–between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, with the option to stop in Vang Vieng. So Laos is still desperately poor, but with these well-established pockets of mature tourism that felt less like I was exploring and was also more of a drain on my wallet.
While Laos and I didn’t make an immediate connection, I still managed to find some parts about it, both on and off the tourist path, that I enjoyed. Here are my top five experiences in Laos!
1. Muang Ngoi Neua, Northern Laos
What’s to love: A small riverside village accessible only by boat, Muang Ngoi Neua was where I actually got to live right in the midst of Lao village life. Imagine waking up to the roosters, walking outside of your guesthouse and seeing the ladies working on their weaving looms and old men mending delicate fishing nets. Uniformed children laugh and skitter down the street to school, chased by roaming village puppies. Just before sunset, men and women alike take quick baths in the icy mountain river, the men soaping up and plunging in with only their underwear on, the women more demurely wrapped in sarongs. It was easy to wander off by myself and explore the lands around the village on foot–and at that point near the end of my time in Laos, I was missing having the opportunity to wander away from other people.
2. Kuang Si Falls, Luang Prabang
What’s to love: One of the most beautiful waterfalls I have ever seen, and one of the most accessible and, shall we say, interactive, too. I dare you to see that milky blue water after a sweaty hike up to and back from the top of the falls and not jump in. Bonus: Luang Prabang is a pretty nice place to stay for a few days as well.
3. The Nong Khiaw viewpoint in Nong Khiaw, Northern Laos
What’s to love: Viewpoint chaser that I am, I had been dreaming of climbing this since I was researching places in Laos before my trip. Upon my return to Nong Khiaw from Muang Ngoi Neua, the weather was finally clear enough to merit the hike. Who could forget the 360-degree view from the top?! I could’ve sat there all day.
4. Climbing Pha Poak in Vang Vieng
What’s to love: More viewpoint chasing, although this one’s more subdued. BUT, in some ways, more fun!! This small hill juts up out of the flat rice fields just a short walk away from the town of Vang Vieng. Getting to the flag planted at the top required some scrambling on all fours over boulders. Extra fun added to the pure delight of the view. My favorite thing about this otherwise unremarkable and tourist-ridden town.
5. Si Phan Don (4000 Islands)
What’s to love: Enough of climbing things. When you just want to relax and bum around, the 4000 Islands in the way way southern tip of Laos, just a few minutes from the border with Cambodia, is your ticket. This was my first stop in Laos after a frustrating border crossing experience (to be expounded upon at a later date) and I just crashed on Don Det for almost a week, doing little more than reading in my own personal riverside hammock. The rest of Laos is actually quite dusty and mountainous, so Si Phan Don is as close as this landlocked country will come to tropical water delights.
What I Wish I Had Done
Obviously, despite having spent 3.5 weeks in Laos, I by no means saw all that Laos had to offer. I wish I had done some motorbike loops (such as the Tha Khaek loop) around the Bolaven Plateau, but I was too amateur of a driver and too alone. I wanted to go to the northeast, to Sam Neua, but it would’ve been a whole day away by bus.
In many ways, I had one experience of Laos this time around, and the country is calling me back to experience it again in a different way. I think it would be awesome to tackle the length of the country on motorbike, stopping on those winding mountain roads to take in the view wherever I want, venturing away from the crowds to find the spots that will be special for me.
The verdict? Laos grew on me. The country runs on a more lethargic pace than Cambodia, which threw me off at first, until I got used to it. The more of Laos I explored, the more I appreciated it for what it was.