Laos never initially took my liking and I was planning on skipping it all together until I was faced with not really liking Cambodia and having to spend 30 days there to time my Thai visa correctly. So the only solution was to pop up into Laos and find out what that has to offer. I was pleasantly surprised, I expected something that would be almost identical to Cambodia and feared the worst.
The first destination in Laos was Don Det which was a really chilled out backpacker haven, until now I’ve not been to many places where the whole community are backpackers and its definitely strange. From watching The Beach as a teen and being fascinated by the dystopian ideals I get a sense that Laos is probably what Thailand was twenty years ago. Much of the popular tourism in Laos is completely separate to the standard Laos culture, especially so in places such as Vang Vieng. There are hubs for a very particular type of low budget tourist which allows down time with a large supply of alcohol, American TV and marijuana.
Vang Vieng, which I initially intended to pass by has all of this to the max with the added curiosity of tubing. In essence tubing is a river floating pub crawl including slides and zip lines. In theory it is extremely dangerous and people do die, these however are probably 18/19 year olds who have no ability to control themselves or limit their alcohol intake. I was surprised by how much fun tubing was, especially because I had been frowning at it beforehand. I think it is impossible to complete the tubing run without a few bruises and grazes but there is no reason why there should be anything more serious. And for the next day when you are getting over your aches there are bars playing Friends into the wee hours which are like an addictive time warp, you sit down and suddenly it is five hours later. Of course if they had Curb Your Enthusiasm I would be much more content, but no dystopia is perfect.
From my experiences Laos was the most expensive of the three countries I am comparing, because of its strong Chinese communist influence all the busses are government run and this means they are about £15 for each of the 8-11 hour journeys I took, which is quite expensive. Accommodation was a reasonable price often £5 per person. Food was the most expensive (except for in Vang Vieng) as it would be up to £5 for a western dish in a restaurant that would be only £2 in Vietnam. Noodle soups are always available and they were an ideal breakfast at about 80p each. Beer Lao was about the same at 80p and at least here you’re paying for a really good beer. Of course there is still no wine, there is never any wine.
I really liked Luang Prabang and think anyone who enjoys Hoi An will do so. It has a lovely old town feel and a handicraft night market which made me wish I had a suitcase to put things in instead of staring at things in admiration. There were lots of good things in the night market but there were also a fair few things that are ‘made in China’ I know this because I saw them there. The bus journey north to Luang Prabang had some of the best scenery I’ve seen so far and takes your mind off the crazy winding roads.
Vientiane for me was a disappointment, it seemed to lack soul, maybe I was lacking soul at the time and couldn’t see it but anything aimed at westerners seemed really overpriced, which is very annoying when they are dangling chocolate cake in your face.
If I had had longer in Laos I would have headed for the hills but I’m definitely glad I went there, and for the record despite it being equally undeveloped there was so little hassle from beggars and tuk tuk drivers. Vietnam I could live in, Laos I would like to visit for longer and Cambodia… perhaps I would like to go there and try and help if I was doing a tourism project or something, maybe.