WHAT IS LAOS BEST KNOWN FOR?
When we think of Laos, the first things that come to our mind are sticky rice, the mighty Mekong river and a countless number of Buddhist monasteries. On the other hand, It's well-known neighbor Vietnam is mostly associated with the Vietnam war, pain and suffering. Most people do not know that during those dreadful times, Laos was the country that suffered the most. Some people say that Laos might be the most bombed country on planet Earth. On average bombs were dropped here every 8 minutes for 9 years. What can I say? Those three weeks in South East Asia have been mind-blowing and eye-opening at the same time! (We even got infected with parasites!)
PIGEON SHIT IN HIS COFFEE
Some of you might think,- "Oh my! Another dumb 'unicorns and rainbows' type of story, written by some kind of mamma's boy, whose biggest struggle during his trip was most likely caused by a pigeon shit in his coffee! Is there any reason why I should read this till the end?" The short answer is yes. I will not only share my own experiences but also answer some commonly asked questions and ignite your imagination by sharing a few interesting facts. What is more, I will reveal the secret of how and where my girlfriend and I got infected with parasites!
Long story short, four weeks in Laos were a part of our 11-month journey across Europe, Asia and Australia. For those of you who are not familiar with what I usually write about, I would like to recommend checking out my previous posts: "30 days in Iran: The land of misleading stereotypes!" and "30 days in Nepal: Is it as extraordinary as they say?". Despite the fact they only cover two countries, these two articles are a great introduction to an overall story.
Traveling on a tight budget can be tough. In a relatively short period of time, we lost a great deal of weight. I've lessened by 15 kilos in the first 6 months. It was about time to escape the bustle of Asia's crowded cities and regain some strength. Back then, Laos had a reputation of being one of the most laid-back countries in the world. It sounded like a perfect place to recover. Do you have a feeling that sometime in the future you might decide to visit Laos too? Probably it would be a good idea to read this till the end.
THE LEGENDARY ANCIENT CITY OF LUANG PRABANG
IF YOU FAIL TO PLAN THEN YOUR PLAN IS TO FAIL!
I always say,- "The best plan one can have is no plan at all!" Improvisation is my thing indeed. However, this time this kind of thinking led us to some trouble. Some of you already know, that the first part of our journey was hitchhiking from Lithuania all the way to Persia, which is now known as Iran. The second part was volunteering in Nepal, which was my third favorite country. The third part consisted of traveling across Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia (Sumatra, Java and Bali islands). Once we reached Bali, things started to get crazy.
Kamile and I bought two tickets from Bali to Australia. I guess we thought it would be smart to earn some money there and continue our travels with some cash in our pockets, but this plan was doomed to fail. Who would have known Kamile won't get a visa when I've got mine in 20 minutes? It was naive to buy the tickets before getting visas and it was even more naive to believe that I should go to the land of kangaroos alone and Kamile would come in a few days. Long story short, we were separated by the Indian Ocean for a few weeks. This led to many adventures as I found a job in Western Australia and my future wife got one in Kuala Lumpur, which is the capital city of Malaysia.
Once we reunited, Kamile and I realized that we had enough funds to travel to South America, but we would have been broke once we reached it. What we needed was a cheaper alternative to continue our trip. This was the moment when we decided to head towards the region of South East Asia, which is the budget travelers paradise. Now I believe it was written in our destiny. What we found in Laos was truly magnificent! This is one of those countries which might be hated or loved, but they never leave you indifferent. This is how we reached the ancient city of Luang Prabang.
THE ALMS GIVING CEREMONY: WHY IT FELT SO WRONG?
The first thing I've noticed once we reached the old town of Luang Prabang was the mixture of traditional Laotian and 19th-century French architecture. Some guy told us that Laos once was a French protectorate. This explains why there were hordes of French could be seen in every single restaurant in Luang Prabang. All of those guys were chatting about the glorious days of the French Colonial Empire. Those were interesting times indeed, but I am not sure if Laotians are happy to remember those days as much as the French.
There are many things to see and do in Luang Prabang. The most popular tourist attractions are the Mount Phousi, the Wat Xieng Thong temple and Kwang Si Falls. Those of you who enjoy shopping more than anything else might find some unique pieces of clothing and jewellery if they decide to visit the world-famous Luang Prabang's Night Market. The vendors here are extremely friendly and keen to have a good laugh. If you are a beginner at haggling this is honestly the perfect place to practice your skills!
Despite the fact Luang Prabang has much to offer, this ancient city is best-known for the Alms giving ceremony. This ceremony is a longstanding tradition in Laos Buddhist culture and a sacred event for the locals and the monks, who depend on these offerings for sustenance during the day. It happens every single morning, but in order to see it you must wake up early.
During the alms-giving Buddhist monks dressed in vivid saffron-colored robes quietly line up and collect offerings from devout Buddhists along the streets. The alms-giving ceremony is a longstanding tradition in Laos Buddhist culture and a sacred ceremony for the locals and the monks. While it is possible to observe the ceremony, doing it might make you feel like there is something wrong about it. Especially when so many of the tourists disrupt and disrespect this ancient tradition in many ways.
THEY DO NOT GET AS MUCH RESPECT AS THEY DESERVE!
I did some research about this once sacred event and what I've discovered was that some time ago some of the monks told the government of Luang Prabang that they wanted to stop the alms giving ceremony due to disrespectful tourists, but they got an answer that in this case, the government would hire some actors to continue the show since thousands of tourists craved to see it. No wonder this happened as the alms giving ceremony is a huge source of income for some of the local businesses.
Of course, this ceremony is both traditional and spiritual, but due to all the tourists participating, it is being converted into a cheap performance. Most of the rice tourists buy for the monks is not prepared according to what they can eat so at the end of the day they end up throwing it away. It's a sad sight to see all the tourists trying to come as close as possible so that the pictures of their faces could be taken. It feels even worse when the flashlights are being used. I can only imagine how disgraceful it should feel.
Don't get me wrong. Luang Prabang is an absolutely astonishing place to spend a few days or even a few years if you want. All I want to say is that in my humble opinion the monks do not get as much respect as they deserve. Once you are in Luang Prabang, you can not escape from seeing this injustice as there are over 30 religious temples and hundreds of Buddhist monks within this small city. They are helpless against thousands of annoying tourists following them everywhere like crazy.
All in all, spending a few days in Luang Prabang was a very enriching experience. Since the moment of arrival, we understood that Laos was a totally different country from what we had ever seen before. A couple of days in this town were enough to regain some strength, but we decided to leave hitchhiking for the near future. Local tourism infrastructure was well developed so taking a bus to another town seemed like a good idea. The next destination in our itinerary was Vang Vieng, which is often called Entertainment capital of Laos.
VANG VIENG: THE ENTERTAINMENT CAPITAL OF LAOS
If somebody told me I'm gonna find this kind of jewel in the middle of Laos, I would not have believed him! When we came to Vang Vieng, the center of the town was thriving with boutique hotels and high-end restaurants replacing some of the backpacker bars that used to pack the waterfront in the past. It's not a secret that Vang Vieng is also called the Entertainment capital of Laos. Those who are interested in crazy outdoor activities find heaven here. Rock climbing, hot air balloon riding, ziplining or hiking - you name it. Vang Vieng is a land of possibilities for those who seek adventure.
The bus ride from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng took more than 5 hours. If every other country in Asia punished us with unbearable heat and a lack of oxygen, Laos was quite a different story. It welcomed its visitors with fresh air and clear sky, soothing silence and absence of annoying smells. The only scent that was present in the air was Godsent aroma of banana pancakes with peanut butter and condensed milk, which are so adored by western tourists. This majestic land provided a perfect refreshment for my body and soul, which had been crying for help for quite some time.
Five weeks without my dearest one looked like ages. I was thanking God and all the forces of the universe for letting me be with my girl again. Travel excitement is a feeling which multiplies once you share it with someone you love. Vang Vieng was a place where we finally had a chance to bring our tent to the sunlight. While staying there for quite some time we lost the count of the days and having a watch had as little as no meaning. My sweetheart, our lovely green tent and teddy bear Kevin, named after our favorite comedian Kevin Heart: this is what I call a blessing!
DECIDED TO TRAVEL FOR THE REST OF HIS LIFE
"I can not do this anymore! One more night and I will go insane!",- German guy shouted while he was walking out of the most popular backpacker hostel in Vang Vieng. "Chill Lao" is not a perfect choice for those who seek for tranquillity and silence as it is well known as a fun-seekers gathering place, where every night a party was held and where a few $ could buy you the right to consume as much alcohol as your body can handle. A few years ago both of us would have called it a paradise, but a lot has changed since then and we felt lucky to stay in a quiet and cozy campsite.
10.000 Lao kips or 1€ per night was the price we had to pay for camping in a place called "Riverside Garden Bungalows". The price would have been higher if we didn't have our own tent. Kamile and I were trying to take a "family picture" when one light-hearted guy approached. "Hey! I'm a circus artist from France. A few days ago I decided to leave my country and travel the world for the rest of my life. Would you like to do some tightrope walking?" His announcement came as a complete surprise, but once we realized this man was real and not a fruit of our imagination, Kamile and I accepted the offer.
Who would have thought that tightrope walking for the first time could be that difficult? Once we finally managed to keep the balance, both of us started to feel like we were equal to Philippe Petit - world-famous tightrope walking star. For those who do not know, Philippe Petit got famous when he performed a tightrope walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, back in August 1974. "The walk" directed by Robert Zemeckis was one of my favorite movies of 2015.
10 INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT LAOS!
- The oldest modern human fossil in the world was found in a cave in North Laos. Some scientists believe it's 46,000 yrs old.
- Many tourists avoid visiting Laos since there is no sea. However, you still can swim here thanks to hundreds of waterfalls.
- There is one mysterious place in Laos, called The Plain of Jars. There are dozens of stone jars spread across the valley. The mystery of how the megaliths of such a curious shape got here remains unsolved within 2,500 years.
- Its neighbors are Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Myanmar and Thailand, which makes for some great travel opportunities.
- Laos translates to the ‘Land of a Million Elephants’ The symbol of an elephant was used by the kingdom of Lan Xang.
- The Laotians are the biggest consumers of sticky rice in the world. They call themselves “children of glutinous rice”.
- The mighty Mekong river that runs through the country is also known as “Mae Nam Khong” - “mother of all rivers”.
- The world’s longest poisonous snake, the mighty King Cobra, lives in the wilderness in this country.
- Theravada Buddhism accounts for 67% of the population. About 30% also practice animism.
What do Cinderalla and the Laotian soccer team have in common?
Both keep running away from the ball.
BEST PLACES TO VISIT IN VIENTIANE
Vientiane is the capital city of the Lao People's Democratic Republic. If Wikipedia is not lying, Vientiane has a population of 820.000 residents. The city is located on the banks of the Mekong River near the border with Thailand. Beautiful French-influenced architecture, countless Buddhist temples and fabulous natural beauty make Vientiane a must-see stop for those who decided to visit Lao People's Democratic Republic. Would you like to know what are the best places to visit in Vientiane? I will tell you in a moment.
PATUXAI MONUMENT: A MASSIVE VICTORY ARCH
Patuxai monument is a massive Victory arch resembling Paris’ Arc de Triomphe. It is certainly one of Vientiane’s most noticeable landmarks. The impressive arch is found in the center of Vientiane on the end of Lane Xang Avenue, the road that leads to the Presidential Palace. Construction of Patuxai was finished in 1968 and now visitors can pay a nominal entry fee and climb to the top for a first-rate view of Vientiane.
THE BUDDHA PARK: A PLACE WHERE BUDDHISM AND HINDUISM CO-EXIST TOGETHER
Buddha Park is located about 26 km outside of Vientiane. The riverside park contains more than 200 Buddhist and Hindu concrete statues. They were built in 1958 by Luang Phu Bounleua Soulilat, who fled to Thailand in 1975 when the Communist party took over the government. Later in his life, Soulilat built another sculpture park, Sala Keoku. Both parks are located right next to the Thai-Lao border. They are only a few kilometers apart from each other, and the tallest structures of the Buddha Park can actually be seen from the Thai side of Mekong. For more travel ideas check out "15 Must-Visit Attractions in Vientiane".
LAOS: IS IT REALLY THE MOST BOMBED COUNTRY IN THE WORLD?
Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped two million tons of bombs on Laos, nearly equal to the 2.1 million tons of bombs the U.S. dropped on Europe and Asia during all of World War II, making Laos the most heavily bombed country in history relative to the size of its population. The New York Times noted this was "nearly a ton for every person". About 80 million bombs failed to explode and remain scattered throughout the country, rendering vast swathes of land impossible to cultivate and killing or injuring 50 Laotians every year.
Those who are curious about this part of Laos' history, might be interested in visiting co-called COPE Visitor Center. Why is it on our "must visit in Vientiane" places list? COPE means 'The Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise' and it provides artificial limbs and rehabilitation for people, many of them children, who have lost limbs due to unexploded ordinances. COPE museum shows the dark history of the Lao Civil War.
I must tell you guys that I'm not a fan of thinking of the past too much. Please, correct me if I am wrong, but according to my primitive ape-like logic, we live in the present and our actions in the present have an influence on our lives in the future. We can learn from the past, but there is probably not much meaning in using too much of our brain processing power for thinking about all the terrific things that had happened many years ago. However, when it comes to the history of Laos, I highly recommend watching one video filmed by CBS Evening News. It is called "Laos still feeling the effects of the Vietnam War". What should you do after watching it? Let's not grieve for too long and just focus on the here and now and try to make the present a better place.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT LAOS
Is it safe to visit Laos? What vaccinations do I need? What is the best time of the year to go there? What is the currency in Laos? Are dollars or euros accepted too? How to get Laos visa and what else do I need to know when traveling to Laos? Your humble servant is ready to answer all your questions one by one! Remember guys, if you need any help or if you have any other question about Iran, Nepal, Laos or other countries, hitchhiking and couchsurfing, volunteering and budgeteering, feel free to text me on Facebook. I will be happy to help you! Why? Because you are my second family.
WHAT IS THE CURRENCY IN LAOS?
Lao currency is called kip (LAK). The exchange rate is around 8,000-9,000 to US$1. Although Lao kip (LAK) is the official currency, many merchants and restaurants will accept and sometimes even prefer US dollars or Thai baht. I am not sure if they would agree to take euros or pounds, but you can definitely exchange them in currency exchange kiosks located in every bigger town or city. If you have some Lao kips left, do not forget to exchange them before leaving the country, because it will be almost impossible to do it anywhere else in the world.
HOW TO GET LAOS VISA?
To enter Laos with a tourist visa you’ll need a passport with at least 6 months validity and a blank page for the stamp, two photos in passport format, tourist visa application sheet, which you can get right at the border, or download from the Laos embassy website and 30 American dollars to pay your visa "on arrival" fee. Lastly, and very importantly, remember to save the slip that serves as an exit form, to be filled out and turned in upon leaving Laos. If I remember it right, I lost mine and had to fill some additional form, but it would be less stressful if you do not lose it. Since then I made a habit of handing all my documents to my woman. Trust me, it is much safer this way!
HITCHHIKING TO 4000 ISLANDS
Laos is the only landlocked country in the whole of Southeast Asia. Historically, being landlocked has been regarded as a disadvantageous position. Landlocked countries are cut off from sea resources such as fishing, and more importantly, have no access to seaborne trade, which makes up a large percentage of international trade. Despite the fact Laos is a country with no coastline at all, it has more than 4000 beautiful islands. How is this possible? Those islands are located in the middle of the Mekong river.
Who said hitchhiking in Laos was easy? I guess no one did. Why? Because it isn't. My crazy woman and I have done lots of hitchhiking in the past. It was not a new thing for us. However, hitchhiking in Laos was our first ever hitchhiking experience in South East Asia. The first day was successful. One of the drivers was Chinese. All of them were driving the Toyota Hilux. It might be one of the most popular vehicles in this country. The second day was not as successful. After a few hours of waiting, we had to catch a bus as our time in Laos was limited.
Some of you already know I am originated from Lithuania. It's a small country located in the center of Europe. Some of the people I met all around the world thought that Lithuanians speak Russian. We do have our own language, which is called Lithuanian. In fact, it is one of the oldest languages in the world. However, some of us do know Russian since the old days when Lithuania was a part of the Soviet Union.
Why did I mention those things? It was a bit strange that most of the Laotian elders knew Lithuania very well. One of them explained, that many years ago, when Laos didn't have high level universities, young people used to study in foreign countries. For instance, in Soviet union. This was the same reason why some of them spoke Russian quite well. Right now those ex-Soviet union students are rich entrepreneurs or have high government positions. One of those guys invited us to have lunch with him and his family.
SOME OF THEM DECIDE TO STAY THERE FOR YEARS
4000 islands or Si Phan Don is located in the Champasak Region. The name is derived from the mega Mekong River that spreads itself out, choosing hundreds of routes and forming a vast area of river islands, possibly 4000 or more. Some of them are as little as a few square meters. The most touristic ones are Don Khong, Don Det, and Don Khon. All of them are so similar and so different at the same time. If you plan your trip to 4000 thousand islands, all the information needed can be found in a "Guide to the 4000 Islands of Laos: Don Khong, Don Det, Don Khon".
No wonder why hundreds of westerners decide to stay there for a few months or longer. It's a perfect spot to write a book, to learn the local culture or to take a rest from the ruthless Western rhythm of life. You can get a double room with fan for as little as 30,000 Kip ($3.75) per night. A double room with air-con will cost about 50,000 Kip ($6.24). You can also find a volunteering position in one of many local restaurants and guest houses. For a few hours of work per day, you might be offered some food and accommodation.
Would you like to experience something unique? When I came to Laos it was the first time when I heard of mystical creatures that live in the Mekong river. I am talking about Irrawaddy dolphins. They are incredibly rare animals and in order to see them, you'll have to hire a local boatman, who could take you to the Laos-Cambodia border. Even then you can never be 100% sure that you find them. I have not seen them myself, but Irrawaddy dolphins and the Plain of Jars are two things that are on the top of my bucket list for the next time I'll be in South East Asia.
LAST BUT NOT LEAST: THE BOLAVEN PLATEAU
Our stay in Laos was coming to an end. Kamile and I decided to leave Cambodia for the future and head to Vietnam as soon as possible, as we were running out of funds. To do that we needed to get a Vietnam Visa. The nearest Vietnam Consulate was located in Pakse. Once we arrived at the Vietnam consulate in Pakse and filled all the forms needed, we were told that our Visas will be ready in a few days. One Italian cyclist advised us to visit the Bolaven Plateau. He also said,- "It is by far my favorite place in this country. Just do not take this route, because at this spot a few days ago one Western traveler got beaten by locals. They knocked out his front teeth."
The Bolaven Plateau is an elevated region in Southern Laos. The plateau's elevation ranges approximately from 1,000 to 1,350 meters above sea level. The plateau is crossed by several rivers and has many scenic waterfalls. The name Bolaven makes reference to the Laven ethnic group which has historically dominated the region. Tourism has taken hold in the Bolaven Plateau because of the unique aspects of the region that have triggered great intrigue. The most popular places visited by tourists are the waterfalls, the villages of the ethnic minorities and other geopolitical areas of interest.
What I enjoyed the most was that the Bolaven Plateau is possibly the coolest place in Laos. All of this happened in February and the temperature was perfect. On the other hand, heat lovers should remember that in December it might get colder than a witches’ tit. Well, at least that's what famous traveler "Indie Traveler" says in his article "Exploring the Bolaven Plateau". Anyways, this is how we ended up in Tad Lo village, which is located in the center of this magical place.
TAD LO VILLAGE: IS LAOS SAFE TO TRAVEL?
The journey from Pakse to the Bolaven Plateau took us all day. Firstly, we took a local bus to Paksong. Then we hitchhiked all the way to Tad Lo village. Tad lo village is famous for its three spectacular waterfalls: Tad Suong, Tad Hang and Tad Lo. We've seen them all, but Tad Lo is the one that I will never forget. Why? It's because I wanted to look cool in front of the camera and felt too confident while taking a swim under it. What happened next can be seen in "How I fell and my head bounced off the rock".
Is Laos safe to travel? Laos is a relatively safe country for travelers, although certain areas remain off-limits because of unexploded ordnance left over from decades of warfare. For those who prefer traveling alone, I could say that, as with just about anywhere in the world, you are safer traveling with others, but as long as you use your common sense, traveling alone in Laos is generally perfectly safe as tens of thousands of people do it every year.
Places like Tad Lo are extremely safe. Of course, there is always some tiny chance of getting pickpocketed or to get deceived by an unfair seller. It looks like there is a small chance that some locals will knock out a few of your teeth, but it might happen pretty much everywhere. Also, it is also extremely important to show respect to locals and their culture. I've seen some guys who come to South East Asia because it's relatively cheap and act if they are some kind of Royal family members. I'm a huge believer that if you are respectful to the local community, there is a 99% chance that everything will be just fine.
HOW WE GOT INFECTED WITH SCABIES?
"A gram of prevention is worth a kilo of cure." At least this is what our elders used to say. They also used to say,- "You live, you learn but you die stupid!" There is always another lesson to be learned and there is always another mistake to be done. My dear girlfriend and I learned it the hard way: while traveling Laos we got infested with scabies.
It happened in the famous Tad Lo village. As you may or may not know, Tad Lo is known for its low prices. It is possible to get a nice bungalow for less than 4$ or less. However, we were stupid enough and tried to save even more. Mama Pap hostel offered us a double bed in the attic for 2.5$. We thought,- "Why not?" The place was swarming with tourists. Most of them were chilling in the Mama Paps' Restaurant, which is famous for its humongous portions. Most of them were staying in the attic too.
The fun part started at night. I started to feel itching all over my feet. My guess was it was because of that suspicious soap that I bought in a local store. In the morning the feeling of itchy feet disappeared. However, it came back again the next time. This time Kamile was scratching too. So were our other roommates. I've noticed small spots on my legs and other places of my body. Later, it got only worse and worse. I told Kamile that we are leaving this place first thing in the morning and that's what we did.
The only pharmacy we could find was located a few kilometers away. The woman working there did not look surprised. "These are probably scabies. When the skin reacts to the mite, an extremely itchy rash develops. This mite can travel from the infected person to another person. Most people get scabies from direct, skin-to-skin contact. Less often, people pick up mites from infested items such as bedding, clothes, and furniture",- she explained and gave us a few small containers of some kind of medical ointment.
Scabies is highly infectious. This is why we decided to postpone our trip to Vietnam and to avoid contact with other people for a few days. This time we rented a nice and clean Bungalow and it cost us only twice as much as the bed in the attic. The ointment was very effective and in couple of days, the rash started to disappear. However, we kept using it for a few weeks just to make sure all the mites are dead. The last thing we wanted was to spread the infestation.
It is easy to avoid this kind of situations when you are on your one or two week holiday. It's much more difficult when the road is your home for a few months or even more. We lost our caution and it led us to this unpleasant experience. You know how they say: "You must learn from the mistakes of others. You can't possibly live long enough to make them all yourself". Well, this time a mistake of our own. This reminds me another saying: "A man should never be ashamed to own he has been in the wrong, which is but saying... that he is wiser today than he was yesterday".
Despite the fact there was some difficulties, 30 days in Laos have been a perfect recovery. After regaining our strength we were finally ready to continue our journey. Next destination - Vietnam - one of Southeast Asia's most beautiful countries, attracting travelers to its lush mountains, bustling cities and golden sand beaches. Vietnam was one of those countries that I was dreaming about since I was a child. What kind of unexpected adventures waited for us in Vietnam? "Follow" to find out.
As you previously heard me say, Laos is one of those countries which might be hated or loved, but they never leave you indifferent. Do you have plans to go to Laos? Would you like to ask me something? Feel free to text me on Facebook. I will be more than happy to help you!
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