Travel to Northern Laos and travel back in time…
Envision yourself living in a country that wasn’t readily accessible by road until almost the 21st century. Imagine living in a hut without running water or electricity. Visualize yourself living off of whatever you can grow in the fields near your hut, or searching the jungle for metal scraps to sell to help support the livelihood of your family. Imagine living on a few US dollars per day. Does it seem like another world? Can you even fathom the idea of functioning without your iPhone, your tablet, wifi, or cable for an entire lifetime (let alone a mere hour)? Two thirds of the people in Laos live in rural areas and villages and don’t have many of the everyday “necessities” that we have as Westerners.
Now that you have gained some insight as to what daily life looks like for most of the Lao people, it’s time for me to a little bragging on their behalf. First off, I must admit that I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t even heard of Laos until we started planning our trip. When we crossed the border from Thailand into Laos, I’m going to be honest – I had absolutely no idea what to expect and boy was I immediately blown away!
While Laos is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, it has more natural beauty than one can fully appreciate! With the Mekong River in the west, the mountains in the north, and the lush jungle with lively wildlife everywhere in between, it’s hard to find a reason not to love Laos!
After the Gibbon Experience, we headed to the city of Luang Prabang in one of the most unique rides I’ve ever had the privilege of taking – a slow boat! We cruised along the Mekong River for two full days and stopped at a small village along the way to sleep for a night. As we were riding along the river, we spotted several water buffalo and wild pigs running along the beaches! Who needs a speed boat when you can have a slow boat?
Fantastic Fusion of Southeast Asian + French Cuisine
Luang Prabang is a quaint and quiet city that is known for its charming French influences. The French ruled Laos until the 1950s and as a result, French influences can be found just about everywhere. French style cafes, bakeries, and restaurants can be spotted along the street as well as the riverbank. We welcomed the sweet assortment of pastries, European style coffee, crepes and baguette sandwiches with open arms! A girl can only function on some variation of noodle soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner for so long…
If You’re a Bowling Pro, You’ve Come to the Right Place
An interesting fact about Laos is that the country has a national curfew of midnight so if you are looking for nightlife in Luang Prabang you should probably continue south to Vang Vieng. Big Brother seems to enforce the curfew a little less strictly there (we also recently discovered apparently you can party until 3am during the Chinese New Year). Perhaps Big Brother is earning a couple million kip (1,000,000 kip = $125) by looking the other way come midnight?
We quickly learned about the curfew when we were grabbing drinks with a few Argentinean friends. At 11 PM sharp, our server came over to announce “last call.” The Argentineans, who spoke very good English, had very confused expressions on their faces as they had never heard of the term, last call, before. Brian and I couldn’t help but laugh! The Argentinean culture is probably the stark opposite of Luang Prabang’s culture seeing as that they don’t eat dinner until 10 or 11 PM in Argentina and on the weekends, they explained to us that they don’t make their way to the bars until 3 or 4 AM.
In Luang Prabang everything literally shuts down at 11:30 PM so people can make it back to their homes by midnight. Are we in high school again? Am I getting my car taken away if I break curfew? Apparently the bowling alley is the only place open past midnight. Why? Your guess is as good as mine. We’ve heard Lao people have an affinity for bowling. They would probably scoff at my celebration when I break 100. I guess no funny business can happen late night at a bowling alley?
All joking aside, if your travels ever take you to Luang Prabang, be sure to check out Kuang Si Waterfall, go to Mount Phousi to catch a gorgeous sunset over the Mekong River from the temple (it doesn’t beat the sunset view from the treehouse but it’s still quite gorgeous) and be sure to rent a bike for an afternoon so you can do your own exploring and see more of the city than you would be able to by foot.
Former Tubing Capital of the World
If you are a backpacker and you are traveling in Laos, your travels will likely take you to Vang Vieng. Up until a few years ago, Vang Vieng was THE tubing and party destination in Laos and perhaps all of Southeast Asia outside of Koh Pha Ngan’s full moon party. However, this prestigious title didn’t come without a price. Young backpackers would flock from all over the world to show off their drinking skills while tubing and ziplining in and around the Nam Song River and its jagged rocks. Well, we all can anticipate how this story ends – mixing drinking, swimming, and crazy antics is a toxic combination. When Vang Vieng was bringing in major tourist dollars, the city was packed with adventure seeking backpackers looking for a good time and the river was lined with more bars than it could handle. We’ve been told that the bars would entice you with promises of free shots of Lao Lao Whiskey or a wild zip line ride from their bar into the river.
The Fun and Games Are Over
In 2011, the crazy tubing shenanigans were quickly put to an end when tubing incidents cost 22 lives in a single year. Yes, unfortunately you heard that number correctly. The Australian government in partnership with Laos, closed all but 3 bars along the river and shut down the zip lines. As a result, you can now find a calmer tubing experience and fun is still had by all! Since the city isn’t bringing in nearly as many tourist dollars as it once did, Vang Vieng has become a bit of a ghost town as Brian appropriately described it. There are far more guesthouses, hostels, restaurants and bars than travelers. I will say that if you find yourself in Vang Vieng missing the luxuries of home (take cable, for instance) you can head to a restaurant in town that plays Friends and Family Guy episodes ALL DAY EVERY DAY!
The Running of the Bulls
We are the Kohns and we’ve been chased by an angry bull. No, this isn’t some tradition that Lao people adopted from Spain. This. Is. Real. Life.
On our second day in Vang Vieng, we opted to do a little exploring. In the afternoon, the sun was beating down so we decided to check out the Blue Lagoon which happens to be a popular tourist destination. It’s just outside the “downtown” area in the city and you can get there a number of ways – bike, motorbike or tuk tuk. Considering our options, we decided in our best Olivia Newton-John voice, “Let’s get physical, physical” and went for the bikes to get some physical activity in for the day.
Going with the bikes was hands down the worst decision we have made on our entire trip thus far. I know, I know – you are thinking really? Let me begin by saying the 4-5 mile bike ride to the Blue Lagoon and the 4-5 mile bike ride back into town was on the bumpiest “road” known to man and the mountain bikes that we rented for the day did anything but absorb any of the shock.
Ladies, if you ever head to the Blue Lagoon, which is a great spot by the way, and you want to keep your lady parts intact then I suggest you opt for another mode of transportation. Three days later, I was still suffering from the “joy ride.”
On our way back from the lagoon, we came across several herds of cattle roaming around on the gravel road as if they owned it (all “domestic” animals as we know them roam wild and free everywhere around here). We saw a herd of cattle in the fields and I decided it was a good photo op. I got out my camera and snapped a quick picture and we continued on down the road.
All of the sudden we heard the quick loud sounds of cow hooves behind us. We both immediately turned around to see a bull charging directly at us from only 50 yards away. Without even communicating, we both go into a fight or flight response and you better believe we chose the latter. If only I had thought to take a selfie on the bike while we were being charged to really capture for you exactly how much we were fearing for our lives at that point!
After being charged for a solid couple of minutes, we eventually reached a bridge and made it to safety. You win, bull, you win. After our near death experience, we felt it was only right to treat ourselves to a nice dinner. Thankfully, it wasn’t our last supper.
Vientiane is the capital city of Laos and it’s probably one of the smallest capital cities we’ve ever visited. The highlight (lowlight?) of our two days in Vientiane was visiting the COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) center, which is probably the only must-see place in the city. I’ll spare you of the long, drawn out history lesson and give you the abridged version. During the Vietnam War there was a Secret War going on as well in Laos. The United States had more than 580,000 bombing missions over Laos which adds up to 1 bombing mission every 8 minutes for 24 hours a day for 9 years. Laos in actually the heaviest bombed country in the world per capita.
During the war, the US bombing raids were done primarily along the Ho Chi Minh trail in effort to stop the manpower and supplies that were being channeled along the trail to and from South Vietnam. Unfortunately, 30% of the bombs dropped during this period failed to detonate and as a result, over 50,000 Lao people have been killed or injured as a result of incidences with unexploded bombs from 1964-2011. The COPE center works to provide rehabilitation services to the local Lao people physically affected by the bombs. It was heart wrenching to see how people’s lives are significantly impacted even today by the bombs dropped over forty years ago.
You learn something new every day, right?
On a lighter note, we’re now heading to southern Laos to see how many hammocks we can find in the 4,000 islands…