Laos:PDR is officially known as “Laos: Peoples Democratic Republic” but better known as Laos: Please do not rush, as the pace of life in the country is extremely laid back. Laos is the only landlocked country in SE Asia, leaving an abundance of mountains, rivers, and animals. Due to the lack of seaport, the trading was primarily silk and silver, leaving Lao less affluent than the surrounding countries. The majority of people are Lao, with 55% of the country speaking Lao. 40% of tribes live in the foothills and in the mountains, making up the Hmong and Khmer people. There are only 7 Universities in all of Laos, and the majority of people do not go to university. Over 80% of children go to primary school, but that number drops to below 50% for secondary school. Tourism is less prevalent in Laos compared to it’s surrounding SE Asia countries, but it still exists as a major source of income for the country, especially in the larger towns. Tourism allows for jobs as tour guides, servers, market merchandise, guest-stay housekeeping and spa work. Yet, 66% of the population live on $2 a day, with 26% of citizens are underweight. As Matt and I explored Lao, I slowly fell in love with everything about it. The people I had the opportunity to interact with are the kindest, most interesting souls. The cuisine was delicious, the activities we saw were genuine and creative. The people of Lao were inclusive, generous, and loads of fun. The children were friendly and eager to interact with us. So many people we came into contact with were willing to attempt to communicate with us, and let us in on a bits and pieces of their lives. Lao was a daydream for outdoor adventurers like us. Mountains, caves, hiking, climbing, swimming, rafting and an abundance of wildlife, the terrain itself made for days of adventure and excitement. While we had only mapped out 7 days to spend in Laos, we dropped days off Thailand and Vietnam in our itinerary in order to spend more time in this amazing country.
We arrived in Laos on May 2nd. The plane touched down in Luang Prabang just as the sun was setting over the miles of mountains that fill landlocked Laos.
Luang Prabang is the second largest city in Laos, and was the capital until 1975. The city is located between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and is known for it’s many Buddhist temples, as well as Mt. Phusi, which is a sacred mountain located in the Center of Luang Prabang.
After dancing to the tunes playing and finishing our sandwiches from our LaoAir flight, we waited in the customs line to pay for a visa in what felt like a sauna. Dripping in sweat and holding everything to our name we had with us, we paid for our Visas, and decided to opt for a shared taxi. The trip to our guesthouse was a hot and bumpy ride, with never ending breathtaking mountain views out the window.
The taxi pulled up outside of a home made of cylinder block and wood, with pigs and dogs running around on the gravel street outside. We hesitated, getting out of the cab fumbling to communicate to ensure that we were at the correct guesthouse. Sa Sa Lao the driver kept repeating, and nodded. We grabbed our backpacks and walked down the gravel road to our guesthouse along the Mekong River. We were greeted by a lovely french man, who chose to move to Luang Prabang a few years ago and open a gueststay based on French influence of the city. He showed us to our “room” which was situated beautifully along the river with an outdoor bathroom and porch.
We unpacked and eagerly made our way on foot into town. We had read about utopia, a popular hangout recommended in multiple guides. Utopia holds drink specials, yoga classes, serves local cuisine, with the restaurant and bar located along the river just before reaching the heart of the city. Utopia was filled with a myriad of cultures, languages and people from all over the world. The tables were lit by candlelight, and we sat on mats on the ground as we ate our dinner. After downing a few mojitos and ta quick bite, we decided to head back to Sa Sa Lao. Utopia was worth checking out, but it was definitely almost all filled with tourists and visitors.
We awoke early the next morning soaked in sweat, the sun was seeping through the cracks in our bamboo and straw built room. We had a quick French breakfast, including some of the best coffee I have ever had (very important detail), and headed into town- bring on the sweat! We rented a moped explored the small town of Luang Prabang rather quickly, learning the layout and structure of the city. I highly recommend renting a moped, as you can get a much more accurate glimpse into the lives of those who live in LP, the overall layout, what the community structure looks like, as well as culture. It also allows for more time spent exploring locations in the city, as transportation time is shorter. However, we did find ourselves parking and walking quite a bit. We even parked and walked to go work out in the local gym- never had we so turned so many heads (talk about looking misplaced)- but it was so much fun!
Buddhist monks walked barefoot through the town in orange robes, while others scattered about praying in front of Wats or meditating in covered temples. Small locally owned stores lined the streets, with restaurants, shops, spas and markets occupying the middle of the town. The layout is one large loop, with the river lining the city. In the first 2 days we spent in Luang Prabang, I fell absolutely in love. Pictures can paint a much better image than words, (as well as much more entertaining to look at if you are interested in LP or deciding what to do there) so I am using primarily pictures with small descriptions to better illustrate the experience I had in LP. It is an absolutely enriching town, with so much culture and personality to offer. The night market that lines the main road at the bottom of Mount Phousi provides a glimpse into how much tourism plays a role in the financial dependency and quality of life in locals. We ended our stay in LP with a 2 day trek into the mountains to a Hmong village- more on that (here), before catching a bus south to Vang Vieng.
We stopped along our loop around town to cross the rickety bamboo bridge over the river.
One of the best nights we spent in LP was watching the sunset over Mount Phousi. The night market was being set up below us, and we made the trip up the mountain just in time for the sun to set. It is said to be good luck to take a bird to the top, make a wish and let it go as the sun is setting. We ascended about 100-150meters up stairs with our birds. At the top, you can enter Wat Chom Si and enjoy a 360 degree view of the city.
The top was crowded with tourists so I highly recommended leaving early to get a good spot! The sun set over the hills, reflecting on the river, leaving an amazing sunset (and us about 10 degrees cooler!).
Tourists took turns letting their birds out, but of course, I was freaking out about the bird peckking my fingers, and letting them go was a serious struggle. Matt got some good footage of me panicking and skittishly letting out the birds. We made a wish each, and headed down to the night market to grab some dinner (we were hooked on the curbside smoothie and juice stands) and do some shopping.
The night market was fairly crowded, though it closed rather early. There were trinkets and clothing, gorgeous paintings of animals and famous structures of the city, as well as silverware made out of bomb material.
We visited a war museum in Vientiane, that demonstrated the horrific bombing that went on all over Laos during the Vietnam War, with more bombs dropped on Laos than many of the other indochina countries. Years later, many young children looking for metal scraps encounter unexploded Ordnances, and get severely injured or killed. It is absolutely devastating to read about and hear the stories. Over 20,000 people in Laos have encountered UXOs since the ending of the Vietnam war in the 1970’s. more information about this, here. We came across at tent where a little girl and her mother were selling kitchen supplies using the metal scraps from bombies to make it. Next to their tent was a sign that read “you brought them here- please take them back”- referring to the bombs. We bought a few stirring spoons, but it does not even begin touch the damage of what has been done to so many through the war- though it did make the cute little girl smile.
We spent the majority of our time in LP exploring, relaxing with massage and spas, drinking beerlao, trying local food and soaking in as much as we could!
Clearly I am a better writer than I am narrator, but I had to throw it in for kicks!