It must be pretty tough for Laos, being sandwiched between the SE Asian giants of Thailand and Vietnam; then there’s Cambodia coming up the rear, stealing any chance of a coastline. As a result, landlocked Laos has instead drawn backpackers to her rivers, particularly the Nam Song in the small town of Vang Vieng- tubing, anyone? But, with great popularity comes great tourist-pandering: the end result is endless bars showing American shows (you will see more ‘Friends’ episodes here than on television, and that’s saying something), and local Lao delicacies being listed under ‘World Food’.
“That restaurant is great,” I was assured by a young Australian backpacker as we stepped off the bus into this surreal town. “The carbonara is to die for.”
Now, don’t get me wrong- I love carbonara as much as the next carb-addict- but it should not be the highlight of a Lao restaurant. Drinking BeerLao while floating down the river on a big rubber ring is a lot of fun, but it was just a fantastic experience- not necessarily a brilliant experience of Laos itself.
Don’t think that I am trying to be miserable, or taking on that awful ‘backpacker snobbery’ where I want nothing that seems touristy, just the ‘authentic experience, darling’. I just believe that Laos is incredibly underrated for the beautiful, kind and gentle country that she is, and deserves recognition for some of her other attractions. Below, I have listed four of my personal favourites.
Located in Southern Laos, the twin islands of Don Det and Don Khon, part of Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands), undoubtedly provided the best experiences of my whole trip. While daily boat trips to and from the mainland suggest a great demand for tourists, both the islands have a more relaxed, rugged edge than your average backpacker destination. No cars or roads grace either island: just trodden mud tracks and creaky (though surprisingly stable) bicycles. We found our accommodation- riverside bungalows for a mere 20,000 kip ($2 USD) a night, by following a wooden sign with the red-painted words ‘Mr. Noi’s Bungalows, This Way à’; we found an incredible ‘noodle soup’ place (10,000 kip per bowl) from a similarly crude sign. I remember lying in our hammock, gazing at a sky blushing fifty shades of pink into a calm river, and thinking ‘yep, this is pretty close to perfection’.
These humble islands also hide a wonderful secret: a rare type of dolphin, the Irrawaddy variety, reside in the Mekong area between Don Khon and Cambodia. Catching sight of a dolphin was obviously the aim of the boat ride into this part of the Mekong, but it was the boat ride itself in a thin motorised canoe that proved the real highlight of the whole trip. Zipping through the reeds while trying to hold on to my ragged Vietnamese style hat (lent to me by the boat owner), so close to the water I felt like I was gliding supernaturally: that’s what made the whole experience truly memorable. Oh, and another group of travellers floating a little too close to the Cambodian border for comfort, and getting chased away by border officials.
It may not have the buzz of Bangkok, or the quaint backstreets of Hanoi, but Vientiane may just be the most chilled-out capital city you will ever visit. After a stroll down the un-crowded riverside promenade, while enjoying a ham and cream cheese baguette from the main market, you just cannot help but relish Vientiane’s serene simplicity, and distinct lack of skyscrapers. The baguette is not the only element of ‘la cuisine française’ found in Laos’ capital: a great café culture pervades the main strip, as well as countless ‘patisseries’ serving up fantastically flaky pastries.
Spicy chicken mince with sticky rice might not sound the most appealing meal on paper, but trust me- one taste of this incredible Lao salad and you will be hooked. The fusion of mint, coriander, fish sauce and tongue-tingling spices make for a unique and tangy taste, especially when served on a lettuce leaf to cool your tongue. Though sticky rice sounds like a synonym for ‘overcooked rice’ (something, as a negligent cook, I am very familiar with), the two could not be further apart. Made using ‘sweeter rice’ and cooked over a longer period of time, sticky rice is not an accompaniment created on a whim: you will begin to feel truly privileged when a restaurant has it in stock. Prepare to fall in love with the gorgeous bamboo weaved baskets in which the sticky rice is served; if you’re anything like me, you might even end up with one from a street vendor for a cheap 10,000 kip (only $1 USD).
‘Sabaidee!’ the locals would often call, in a voice as leisurely and friendly as their attitude. Even the most uptight traveller will soon find themselves dawdling, dreaming, and drawling to the beat of ‘Laos time’, and wondering why on earth they were always rushing back home. Genuine smiles from the locals, combined with less tourist-savvy than their SE Asian counterparts, will ensure that you feel truly lucky to have met these great people.
It is these four memories of Laos that I hold particularly dear, as well as the four reasons why I would love to return to this extraordinary country. Visit Vang Vieng if you must- tubing is genuinely good fun for a day or two, and it might be a nice break if you’re beginning feel exhausted from those continual culture shocks. However, it should not be treated as the number one highlight of Laos, when this fabulous country has so much more natural beauty, tasty gastronomy and wonderful hospitality to offer.
Alec has recently been working hard on his website Need Pizza. We will have a few established guest bloggers on the site for the next month or so.