When it comes to Southeast Asia, the countries that are thought of typically in the minds of travelers, are Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. There is no doubt that these countries are havens for backpackers, flashpackers and gap year kids looking for a little adventure and to chase the sun in a region that is considered a rite of passage for westerners first looking to explore a cultural way of life different than their own. And while Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam are still excellent destinations despite being flooded with western travelers in the recent years, there is another country that is perhaps unfairly overlooked in this region. For those looking for more quietness, cultural authenticity and the chance to immerse one’s self in an ancient and spiritual land, this nation is a top candidate in Southeast Asia. Yes, Laos while not completely off the grid nor pretty well unheard of, is a destination for a traveler and explorers looking for more than just a beach vacation, full moon parties and drug and alcohol fueled raves (not saying that those are the only things to do in Thailand, certainly not!).
Back in University during my undergrad studies, I read a book in a religious studies class about the experience of a family from Laos in California. It was my first introduction to this small mysterious nation which later revealed to me how deeply it lives in the shadows of its neighboring countries. I had been planning a trip to SE Asia for some time but the thought of visiting Laos was absent from my mind. This all changed when I was in southern Yunnan, China and finishing up my ethnographic study of the Dai people for the Explorers Club, i became aware of the fact of Laos’s close cultural connection to the Dai people and the once a week, very cheap flight from Jinghong airport to Luang Prabang. I was debating on between going there and going back up to chengdu in Sichuan to hike a Buddhist holy Mountain, Emeishan. After doing more research and having a conversation with an expat German in a downtown cafe in Jinghong, the explorer in me became intrinsically fascinated with the small nation and I opted to buy the the cheaper ticket to Luang Prabang.
When I arrived in Luang Prabang via flight, it didn’t take long for me to become quite glad that I made the decision to come here. Green rolling mountains all around, orange robed monks roaming the streets of a city that despite having modern SUV’s and cars, seemed to be locked in a past era. The whole city conveyed a very calm and spiritual aura. It was defiantly a nice change of pace from the noisy and chaotic cities in China, which I had been travelling for 6 weeks up to this time.
Laos is defiantly a developing nation and is ruled by a Communist government. The history of the nation and the Lao people is a bit tragic and sad at times as it has almost constantly been occupied by foreigners; Chinese, Burmese and most recently the French. It is a tragically little known fact that I did not learn until I came here, that the Americans during the Vietnam war, dropped two million TONS of bombs on Laos, almost matching the two million and a quarter tons they dropped on Europe and Asia combined during World War 2. This is an extremely horrific reality and a fact that as an American myself, I am not proud of. There are still parts of the country that are littered with untouched bombs and many laoation people are crippled, every year. Just an awful happening that awareness needs to be raised of not just in America, but across the world.
The country has a rather small population compared to its neighbors with only a little over 6 and a half million inhabitants and over 50% belonging to the Lao ethnic group and the rest a mix of smaller groups that have along with the Lao, have inhabited the rolling mountains and jungles of this ancient land for a long time. Perhaps the most famous minority group is the Hmong which were made famous in the United States by Clint Eastwood’s popular film, “Gran Torino” and a book by Anne Fadiman that I read at University called, “The Spirit Catches you and you fall down.” The book which I mentioned earlier, chronicles the struggle between two cultures as a young Hmong child in California who suffers from a severe form of epilepsy is caught between western medicine and the traditional beliefs and medicinal practices of her Hmong parents. The book is fascinating for those interested into diving into the minds behind beliefs different than their own and also for examining the interactions between two very different cultures, both attempting to help a young child from the set of totally different philosophies.
After arriving and checking into a local backpacker hostel, I met a fellow traveler, went out to a bar for a few brews and then came back to the hostel to try and catch some zzz’s in yet another humid and poorly air conditioned dorm (one of the worst parts of traveling in Asia in my opinion). After a night of some sketchy “sleep” I got out of bed, went outside and was reminded of how fortunate I was to be spending another beautiful day in SE Asia and to be exploring Laos. While the climate is not ideal for sleeping with out air conditioning, waking up to the sun gleaming down and being able to wear cut off shirts and shorts whenever is energizing and adds to the excitement of exploration. The vibe of Luang Prabang and the surrounding beautiful mountains and jungles truly is invigorating and its clearly understood why the town is a UNESCO world heritage site. I got some breakfast at the famous Utopia Bar and restaurant sitting on the Nam Khan river and then elected to climb the famous Phousi hill in the center of town. The climb is not easy, but is quite manageable in my opinion for seasoned hikers and allows for a fantastic panorama view of the city and the chance to glimpse some fantastic Theravada Buddhist archertecture. If attempted, you most likely will not be alone on this climb and the Lao have taken advantage of its beauty and popularity to charge a few thousand Kip to reach the top but this does not take a way from the value of doing it as the views and cultural aritfacts that one gets to witness are very worthwhile.
After a few days of thoroughly enjoying my time in Luang Prabang, exploring the entirety of the city on a motorbike, making new friends and eating my fill of noodles and croissants (the evidence of the French colonization is strong in the cuisine and architecture of the city) I knew there was one thing I had to do before I moved on; visit the Kuang Si waterfalls. The waterfalls, a true poster child for the beauty of Laos, are a must see while traveling in this country but the trick of making it an even more memorable visit, is to skip taking the Tuk Tuk and to travel the almost 60 min journey there on a personal motorbike. This is a chance to truly experience the beauty of the Laos countryside and the small villages along the way that give one a glimpse into the everyday life of a people who do not have the same conveniences and opportunities as those of us who live in the western world or a more developed nation. The waterfalls themselves are brilliant and the water is absolutely crystal clear. One of the most beautiful sites I saw during my 3 months of travel in Asia, the waterfalls and the motorbike journey there are a must do!
After Luang Prabang, I made my way to the popular destination of Vang Vieng. While I know I remarked about Thailand being a party destination, I must admit and doing any background research will validate this, that Vang Vieng defiantly has a definite party reputation. Unfortunately, westerners have a reputation for getting outlandishly drunk and high while tubing down the Nam Song river that flows through town and unfortunately many have even died in the past few years prompting authorities to shut down many of the bars on the river that catered to backpackers and sold mushroom shakes and other drugs to them. This was viewed as quite a disappointment to many in the backpacking community but to people like me and other travelers/explorers who travel to distant countries with foreign customs and cultures for other purposes other than to get shithouse wasted, I think it was a welcome change. The whole idea of just coming to Vang Vieng for drunk tubing is honestly, completely beyond my understanding because the town and area has so much more to offer. It is literally an outdoorsman’s paradise with a wealth of activities to satisfy any adventure savvy individual. From rock climbing, multiple day treks and hikes, canoeing, spurlunking, and dirt biking all in an area in which the landscape resembles Jurrasic park. I made a lot of friends pretty quickly while I was here and filled my days with hiking the jungle filled mountains, (and nearly getting eaten alive by mosquitos) stuffing myself with banana pancakes, riding a motorbike across the area exploring caves, taking photos and videos and being awe struck by the beautiful landscape. I could have easily spent more than a week in Vang Vieng but I connected with another American as well as a Dutch backpacker and we decided to move on to the Capital, Vientiane.
Vientiane proved to be a very underrated capital in my opinion despite my couple day stay there being not entirely pleasant. I got sick at 2 in the morning the first day I arrived and had to go to the hospital. I was running an extremely high fever and sweating like crazy. The scary thought occurred to me that I may have caught malaria or some other nasty disease while trekking through the mosquito filled jungles in the mountains of Vang Vieng. I was not kidding when I mentioned I nearly was eaten alive, as I lost count of the number of bites I had but after a blood test in the emergency room, I was told that it wasn’t anything serious. I got a shot in the ass, from a needle that I initially refused to have because i feared it was not clean but eventually obliged to have it as I was told my fever was quite high. This was the second time I had to go the hospital during my 3 month stint in Asia and while each time I went, was not pleasant, in retrospect I found it to be just another worthwhile cultural experience. I found it interesting that the hospital in Vientiane to be, while not modern or western in any sense, to be a bit more comfortable than the one I went to in Kunming, China. The doctors here actually spoke a little English which goes a long way in these kinds of situations. While at the hospital in China, I had to use my translator app on my phone to communicate that I was having chronic diarrhea, chills, stomach pain and vomiting, in Vientiane I did not have this trouble.
On October 1, 2017 I departed Laos for Thailand and beyond a doubt, it was a country hard to leave. There were so many stones I left unturned there in terms of places to explore and culture to be experienced. I would have liked to see the Plain of Jars, gone to Luang Namtha and do some more trekking in the scenic mountain town of Nong Khiaw. But I knew I would be back and while I have not yet, I have future plans waiting to be realized and I encourage any traveller and explorer with a sense of wonder and the desire to experience a spiritual and culturally rich land, to make their way to this wonderful nation.