Visit Laos – Listen to the rice grow!
The first thing that struck me about Laos were the trees, as we flew in from Thailand there were trees, trees everywhere, an unbroken canopy of beautiful trees. I had a powerful sense that we had gone back in time to a simpler place. away from the problems of the modern world.
The French Colonialists used to say; “The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grown and the Lao listen to it grow.”
We found the Lao people some of the gentlest people we had met in Asia, they did everything in a calm collected way. Everything worked and we didn’t experience the usual hassles of travelling that we did in other Asian countries. The longer we spent in Laos the more calm we became and the more time we spent just sitting and watching, I loved watching the beautiful landscape and especially the wide slow flowing rivers that are the main transportation arteries in this mountainous country.
If you only go to one place in Laos then it has to be the chilled out ancient royal capital of Luang Prabang. Situated at the sacred confluence of the Nam Khan and mighty Mekong River it is a world heritage site with no less than 33 gilded Wats or Buddhist monasteries.. Home to the last king of Northern Laos, it is a wonderfully relaxed place, full of Wats, lovely boutique hotels and laid back restaurants serving delicious food. The best thing is that it is small, compact and has very little traffic.
We loved cycling round the back streets, looking at the beautiful faded old French colonial architecture and the wats. We’d stop at one of the many cafes on the bank of the Mekong for a delicious iced coffee and maybe a patisserie and watch the small boats bobbing along the wide brown river. It is definitely an oasis for travellers, especially after you’ve spent time in some of the more remote areas.
Every morning we would get up at dawn to see the Tak Bat, processions of monks silently emerging from their monasteries and walking through town, collecting Alms from the pious townsfolk. It was a very moving experience and definitely one I would recommend that everyone gets up for, at least once during their stay.
Northern Laos has an amazing landscape of limestone karsts, hillsides covered by natural woodlands and wide rivers. It looks particularly seductive when the low mist and cloud fleet across the hillsides, occasionally revealing hidden peaks. Nowhere is the landscape more photogenic than in Nong Khiaw in Northern Laos, a 4 hour bumpy minibus ride North of Luang Prabang. Nong Khiaw is a centre for outdoor pursuits such as Kayaking and hiking to nearby villages.
But to get truly away from civilisation, to immerse yourself in the pristine jungle and experience big swarms of beautiful butterflies I recommend you take the 90 minute boat ride up river from Nong Khiaw to Muang Ngoi. Muang Ngoi is a small village nestled on the banks of the Nam Ou River. It is inaccessible by road so has no traffic, it has an unpaved Main Street, full of chickens with their chicks and ducks with their ducklings all foraging for food. The main activity here in to immerse yourself in nature, there are two nearby viewpoints to climb as well as a few nearby villages to go and find if you are feeling energetic.
Unbelievably this small serene place used to be a regional centre before it was heavily bombed by the Americans during the Vietnam War. The only sign of this that now remains is a cave on the hillside above where the people used to hide during bombing raids. The cave has a large hole in it’s roof caused by a large bomb that was dropped onto it.
The official currency of Laos is the Lao Kip, although Thai Baht and to a lesser degree US dollars are widely accepted alternative currencies. At the time of writing there were just over 11,000 Lao Kip to the British Pound, 9,500 Kip to the Euro & 8,500 kip to the US dollar.
Laos being off the main tourist track is still unspoilt and the costs are amongst the cheapest in South East Asia. This either means that you can live on a shoestring or rather, as we would heartily recommend, you can enjoy a touch of luxury that you can’t usually afford for less than you would send staying in a Travelodge in the UK..
Saying that in Luang Prabang the costs are definitely rising and there are many expensive restaurants, but there are still many cheap ones,, you just need to look around, try along the Mekong Riverside.
You can bargain in the markets but it is always good to have an idea of how much things should cost. The Lao being a very calm people are very laid back sales people and can seem rather indifferent at times to whether you buy their goods or not. They will bargain a little but prices are mostly pretty reasonable, always remember the few kip that you knock the traders down is worth a lot more to them than it is to you. The average wage in Vientiane is around 250 US dollars a month, craft producers in small towns will earn far less.
When to Go
Laos is best visited between October and April, when the weather is warm and dry throughout the country. Saying that we visited in July and August, during the wet season and we only had one very wet day during our two week stay, but I think we were lucky, I am told that sometimes during the wet season it can rain all day every day for a week, which would rather ruin a trip, as most places in Laos that you would visit are outside.