Everytime I hear the word Laos I think of a hilarious scene from King of The Hill. An Asian family has just moved next door to Hank Hill. He and his friends approach the family and the following ensues:
Hank: So are you Chinese or Japanese?
Minh: No, we are Laotian.
Bill Dauterive: The ocean? What ocean?
Kahn: From Laos, stupid! It’s a landlocked country in South East Asia between Vietnam and Thailand, population approximately 4.7 million!
Hank Hill: So are you Chinese or Japanese?
The first time I saw this I laughed so hard it hurt and it still cracks me up to this day.
Laos is still not a popular topic in the mainstream media but it’s become a tourist hotspot. Despite this, the infrastructure is seriously lacking in most parts and bus rides are long, often delayed and motion sickness-inducing. However, the country is a rewarding one to travel especially when you are greeted by the cutest, friendliest children on the planet.
Most travellers opt to take a 2-day slow boat to Luang Prabang but I decided to bus up to Luang Nam Tha and look into trekking opportunities. Against my better judgement, I booked a minivan with my guesthouse after enquiring about the public buses and receiving incomplete information. I was promised that it would be faster and more comfortable. The next morning I was awoken by the owner saying that the minivans were full and that I had to go ride the public bus. He said the first bus left at 9:30. So I rushed over to the station, arrived at 9:15 only to find out the bus left at 9 and the next one was at 12:30. I learned my lesson about booking buses with guesthousesâ€¦or so I thought.
The bus to Luang Nam Tha was a tiny, rickety old bus which was filled to capacity. One passenger rode a stool in the middle of the aisle for part of the trip. Partway through the journey our bus broke down and we stopped in a rural village. The houses were simple wooden shacks. The kids were really excited to get their pictures taken and review them on my screen.
The children in Laos are content and happy. However they are raised to be caregivers and nurturers at a very young age. It’s very common to see children carrying their baby siblings around.
In Luang Nam Tha, I opted against trekking and instead went biking with a group of people I met on the bus. The roads were extremely bumpy and to add insut to injury, my bike was a man’s bike ill-fitted for my body. We followed a trail on a map given to us by our bike rental company. We visited a waterfall and a few villages. The countryside consisted of rice paddies, agricultural workers and children playing on the side of the road.
Most of the children were excited to see us and would cry out “Sabaidee!” when we passed by. It was extremely hot and the sun was bothersome. Partway through our biking we reached a river where a trail was marked on the map. We looked around and asked a local how to get across. She motioned to us to walk across the river with our bikes on our shoulders. My friends decided to cross the river. I was hesitant as all I could think about was how diseased the water must be and that I didn’t want to get wet. Screw it! I thought. So I crossed the river and hired a local to carry my bike. Embarassingly, I nearly fell crossing since the current was strong and the local helped me across. After the crossing, the roads got muddier and muddier and by the time we reached town, our bikes were in terrible shape.
There are two rivers, the Mekong and the Nam Tha, that surround the city. The streets are lined with green trees, colonial architecture and old temples. The jewel temple is Wat Xieng Thong.
Approximately an hour out of town there is a park, Kuang Si, with the most beautiful waterfalls/water terraces I have ever seen. The water is a lovely milky turquoise colour and it falls into various pools in which swimming is allowed.
I reluctantly left Luang Prabang and set off for Vang Vieng. The bus was an old Korean bus but it was huge and half full. However, the bus ride was still not comfortable. The roads were winding, bumpy and nauseating. I don’t think a comfortable bus ride exists in Laos. Still, the scenery was the most stunning I’d seen in Laos. Lush green mountains were shrouded in mist rendering a silhouette effect. The roads are at the top of the mountains, so you see valleys and hills below you.
I opted against doing the latter because I am haunted by memories of water up my nose tubing at Wild Water Kingdom and declined. Instead I decided to bike which was a big mistake. It was extremely hot and sunny. I started to bike towards a cave but after a short period I could feel that I was getting heat exhaustion which I also got in Luang Nam Tha so I went back to my hotel. After I felt better, I biked through the streets and passed an elementary school. It was so nice to see children going to school. Most got excited by my presence and waved or yelled out Hello. That made my day.
Next, I was off to the capital of Laos, Vientiane. My Vang Vieng guesthouse convinced me to use the VIP bus but when a minivan arrived, I knew I made a big mistake. The minivan was cramped with tourists and I was given the worst seat: the aisle seat. That is, a foldup chair with no headrest. I kept falling asleep but my head would jerk back and I would awake. Ironically, the VIP bus was the worst ride I had in Laos. I would take a small Russian bus over these Korean minivans any day.
I spent 3 days in Vientiane although there isn’t much to see. Normally I would have spent 1 day but I had to wait for my Vietnam visa. Vientiane actually felt like a proper city, closer to Western standards, In contrast to the rest of Laos which is largely undeveloped. It had amenities, products and services that were not found elsewhere, including ladyboys! I biked around the city, visited the old market and went to a Lao club (it was just karaoke).
I had such a wonderful impression of Laos. I wanted to see more and seriously considered going south to Four Thousand Islands (Si Phan Don). However, I knew that I had to go North to Sapa and Laos has no multi-entry visa so I decided to go straight to Hanoi. To save money I took a bus which was estimated to take 22-24 hours! I think the bus ride deserves a separate post.
A few more photos of the cutest kids on earth: