Why I Fell in Love with Laos After Only Five Days

If you are curious about exactly where I went in Laos and how it all went down, here’s a detailed (might I say too detailed) account of my trip in 2012.
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Laos! A country most people have never heard of or at least could not place on a map. The same was true for me before I lived and worked in Thailand. Once I found myself in southeast Asia, I became aquatinted with small countries that surrounded me as I hoped to explore each of them. Laos had always intrigued me because I heard so very little about it.  I must admit, I did very little research before heading to Laos, which is how I go about most trips (for better or worse), but nothing I read hinted at exactly how beautiful, calm, sleepy, and kind Laos can be to travelers.

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The border crossing was a bit of a mess with every person in line shoving and shouting for passport stamps, but unfortunately that’s quite common in Asia and nothing to really write home about.  Once I entered in Laos, I immediately noticed a change from Vietnam. It was quiet, sparsely populated, it almost seemed like no one was home.. in the entire country. As I moved through Laos over the next week, I had this continuous feeling like the country was my own to explore.  I did skip out on the most popular tourist destination, the capital Vientaine, in pursuit of unspoiled territory, which I found and explored in abundance.

live seasoned spring 16 sarah schu photography travel laos-25I always struggle when it comes to writing travel guides and destination spotlights because the best thing about traveling is figuring it out for yourself. You land in a completely foreign space and you figure out what is right for you at that moment. You discover hidden gems of graffiti in alleyways, beautiful viewpoints around the corner and tasty little street carts that won’t be in the same spot tomorrow and everything works out perfectly.  That’s usually the gist of travel and that’s why it appeals to so many.  Each person has a completely different experience both externally and internally. Instead of suggesting specific spots in Laos, I wanted to share the overall feeling of my experience and encourage you to go have one of the same – or wildly different – as long as it’s equally awesome 🙂

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Laos forces you to take your time. E v e r y t h i n g moves extremely slowly. There is no rush in Laos. Laotians make islanders seem fast paced! Every bus, boat, or van will make five to ten pitstops, which is kind of great because that means snacks and a bathroom break, but remember not to plan too tightly while traveling through Laos. There’s no rushing in Laos, really, never have I ever seen someone in a hurry in Laos.

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You’ll travel back in time. Lazing through Laos is the best way to explore the country.  The streets are wide, the cities are unlike any I’ve ever been to (almost devoid of life) in an eerie yet comforting sort of way.  I felt like I was on the set of a movie. I was surrounded by decaying french-influenced architecture in a large city where I saw almost no pedestrians.  The lack of strangers lurking allows you to drop your usual city guard and explore block by block. The quiet serene nature of the city will baffle and delight you hour after hour.

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The mighty Mekong is never far and you can feel that the river is the lifeblood of the country.  The river is where the action is. You’ll meet fishermen, fruit vendors, water buffalos, and local children near the river every moment of the day.  Dipping your toes (or your entire body) in the river feels almost spiritual since you can clearly see the dependence on these waters. It’s also a harrowing experience since Laos was featured on River Monsters and that thought is never far from your mind.

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Laos is widely unexplored by westerners. Basically just traveling to Laos is an adventure in itself. You are visiting part of the world very few outsiders see. You get an amazing glimpse into hill tribe cultures, the merging of multiple ethnic groups due to war and displacement, simplistic lifestyles and unspoiled nature.

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Laos caters to tourism, but not to the extreme like most other southeast asian countries.  Traveling to Laos is a completely different experience than that of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, or Indonesia, etc. The people of Laos are curious about outsiders because they’ve seen relatively few. Laotians are extremely helpful when it comes to finding transportation or lodging even if it’s midnight, because tourism is a relatively new thing for them. I felt like people were looking out for me in Laos, not looking to make a buck.

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You can choose your own adventure! Any type of excursion you could think of can be planned cheaply in Laos. You might be denied a few times, but keep asking around.  I wanted to be dropped off in the middle of the Mekong with a friend and an inner tube so that I could float downstream for hours and while a handful of people laughed at me, eventually a very nice young man obliged for only $3! Be persistent and optimistic with your plans in Laos and good things will transpire.

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The food is delicious and cheap. You’ll appreciate fresh fruit like you never have before. If you get a chance, eat a meal with locals as you’ll see it’s a completely different experience.  Eating is one of those primal, communal experiences that teaches you multitudes about other cultures so make it count!

liveseasoned spring 16 travel laos bungalowsYou’ll live like royalty. Lodging, food, entertainment, transportation, it’s all unbelievably cheap in Laos. Personal riverside bungalows were only $5-$8 a night without haggling or hassling for a better price. Scroll to the bottom of the post for a detailed description, but in short, I spent about $26 a day in Laos.

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Laos is the stuff Planet Earth, National Geographic and the Discovery Channel is made of. It’s untouched and unspoiled and maybe by increasing tourism things will change a bit, but I’m hoping not. I’m hoping only those in search of a simple more pure lifestyle will journey through Laos. Everywhere you look, there is a breathtaking waterfall or beautiful peak, it’s a sweaty, jungle experience with this raging river at the heart of it. Check out this BBC video near an island where I stayed.

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There is nothing to do, but enjoy the day. Since there is relatively little going on in Laos, it frees up your day to read, write, simply enjoy being.  You’ll find yourself planning your schedule around sunrise and sunset. You’ll notice you walk slower even if it’s pouring down raining.  You’ll swallow a few bugs on a leisurely bike ride and have absolutely no complaints because that may have been the most exciting thing to happen all day.  The beautiful simplicity of life in Laos is one to be admired and enjoyed slowly.

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If you travel to Laos ::

  • Don’t expect western toilets, clean guesthouses and bug-free days. The biggest flying cockroaches I’ve ever seen live in Laos and plentifully.
  • Do drink delicious fruit shakes at every meal.
  • Do borrow or rent bikes (for a buck!) in each town.
  • Don’t do drugs in Laos. You’re fucking shit up and you look like an asshole to most locals. Be smarter than that and leave a good impression on the children and families of Laos.
  • Do enjoy Laos massages for only $5. They’re similar, but gentler than Thai massages.
  • Do talk to locals – you may get invited out to lunch!
  • Don’t have expectations. Museums will be smaller than expected (more on that later), but mountains and rivers will be more amazing than imagined.

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People are always curious about budgets and cost guestimates especially because most Asian countries don’t have prices written on things – it’s a culture that haggles – fortunately I took notes on every.single.thing. that I bought. Below is the 2012 Laoation Kip price (unless otherwise noted) of everything I purchased while traveling in Laos. Keep in mind the guesthouse rates are divided by two as I shared a room with my friend.

$131.54 total for five days in Laos:
Visa $36 USD
Hotel 180 Thai Bhat
Dinner 120 Thai Bhat
Shake 40 Thai Bhat
Bfast 40 Thai Bhat
Water 10,000
Dino museum 5,000
Massage 35,000
Fruit 27,000
Lunch 25,000
Bus from Savannakhet to Pakse 40,000
Eggs 5,000
Breakfast 35,000
Sport 1200
Lunch 2200
Tuktuk 2500
Van from Pakse to Si Phan Don 50,000
Dinner 45,000
Hotel 25,000
Boat from Si Phan Don to Don Khong 40,000
Breakfast 15,000
Bike for the day 10,000
Stupid parking ticket 10,000
Entrance fee 20,000
Drink 16,000
Lunch 10,000
Water 6,000
Dinner 30,000
Breakfast 27,000
Fruit & water 20,000
Tubes 30,000
Bike for the day 10,000
Lunch 25,000
Watermelon 10,000
Bus to cambodia $35 USD
Dinner 30,000
Breakfast 20,000
Hotel 40,000
Laundry 20,000
Tip 2,000
Tuna Sandwich 10,000
Bathroom 4,000

Images of me and the kitten were taken by my dear friend and fellow photographer Saleem Ahmed.
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