The official title of Laos is Lao PDR (the Lao People’s Democratic Republic) although colloquially the PDR is said to stand for “Please Don’t Rush”. Perhaps because of the prevalence of Buddhism (and specifically, Theraveda Buddhism which emphasises the cooling of human passions), this is indeed a chilled and laid back country although to be fair transport and tours do seem to depart or start pretty near the scheduled time (ok, not precisely but sufficiently in the ballpark so you don’t start worrying). Arrival time on the other hand is far more fluid and is anyone’s guess.
The main way of getting around Laos is by road. Buses (of every size, shape and level of comfort) ply the major routes. Luggage can go inside the vehicle, in luggage compartments underneath on bigger buses or on the roof allegedly covered by a tarpaulin cover, but that’s not always fool proof (let alone waterproof) and is not always ideal when travelling in the rainy season!
While the depressing weather forecasts were far worse than the reality of the situation (thank goodness!), we did however experience a few torrential downpours
On shorter routes, sorngtaaou (pick-up trucks with a couple of bench seats down the side in the back) pile people in or you can hire the 3 wheeler tuk tuks in town.
One of the best ways, however, to get around the country though seems to be by motorbike. This gives you more flexibility and the freedom to stop and admire some picturesque rural scenes. There are also certain 2 to 4 day “loops” that seem to be very geared towards motorbikes, but this was not something we explored. Neither of us have ridden a motorbike before nor were we exactly convinced that Laos was the place to learn (although surely better here than in Vietnam where the population is approaching 100 million and there seems to be at least 1 motorbike per person all on the roads at the same time.)
The population of Laos is small. The country is about the same size as Great Britain but with only 7 million people. This all contributes to its relaxed and friendly feel. It’s way less touty than India (or than Thailand although it’s a few years since I was last in Thailand), but that’s not to say there isn’t a tried and tested tourist route nor that everything isn’t completely set up for the traveller. As in Thailand, it’s all given to you on a plate: as soon as you arrive at a guesthouse you can book your onward transport and any excursions from there letting the guesthouse do all the work and take a little commission (who said communism should get in the way of an opportunity to make a buck or two!). And of course wifi is available everywhere (imagine the panic that would set in if the “year off” backpackers couldn’t get seamless wifi on their smartphones while supping a cappuccino in an air conditioned café and “finding themselves”). But perhaps I shouldn’t mock – especially when I’ve had more than my fair share of good coffee and baguettes – am grateful to the country’s French heritage for that!
Unlike other countries we’ve visited, there aren’t so many “big ticket” items in Laos and although distances weren’t that great between places, it did take a while to get around. Perhaps we were influenced by the country’s relaxed style as we certainly slowed the speed of our travel a notch or two during our 4 weeks in Laos, relaxing a little more while enjoying the rural scenery, especially the rice planting in the paddy fields and the beautiful limestone karsts. Given its small population, it doesn’t take long to get out into the rural areas or into the jungle and we enjoyed our time exploring on foot (on a few day hikes), on bikes and also (in the south of the country) by boat on the Mekong River.
Houses on stilts in villages in L: Nam Ha National Protected Area and R: Bolaven Plateau
The 2 main cities we visited were the capital, Vientiane, with its beautiful Pha That Luang, the country’s most important national monument: a symbol of Buddhist religion and Lao sovereignty, and Luang Prabang which the guide book declared would be a place we would be reluctant to leave and it was absolutely right although it’s hard to explain why really: it just had a really nice ambiance. Here, if you’re prepared to get up early enough, it’s also pretty easy to catch the dawn call to alms (tak bat procession) when the saffron clad monks pace barefoot through the streets collecting food donations from the townspeople and then redistributing to the poor. Unfortunately, some of the tourists watching can get in the way somewhat but everyone seemed to be pretty well behaved the morning we got up so that was good. This also takes place in other towns – we saw some monks pacing down the main street in Phonsovan on our way to catch an early bus out of there.
Luang Prabang: Alms giving and Wat Xieng Thong
Then there’s the adrenaline fuelled Vang Vieng where you can hang out with all the backpacker kids (or when we visited, large groups of Koreans following their K pop idols who have visited here) and do ziplining, kayaking, abseiling and tubing. In fact, we opted for a more sedate approach and did some hiking and tubing which essentially consists of sitting in a huge inflatable tyre and pulling yourself along a rope in a cave which is aptly named “Water Cave”. This was all fine until Peter’s torch fell off his head and we had a bit of a scrabble around trying to find it (miraculously, it floated): but for a moment or two, the cave (in which we were completely alone) felt very dark indeed! In fact caves are quite a big thing in Laos and we saw a fair few during our visit. And waterfalls too – both in the Bolaven Plateau as well as the amazingly beautiful Kuang-Si waterfalls just outside Luang Prabang.
L:: Limestone karsts, Vang Vieng: M: Kuang-Si Waterfalls; R: Tad Lo Waterfall, Bolaven Plateau
One very positive thing about Laos is the way it is trying to embrace ecotourism, for example it limits both numbers of people and routes in the jungle in an attempt not to let the area get over-run. Also, in pretty much all hotels and restaurants, you can refill your water bottle with purified water for free or a nominal fee and are heavily encouraged to do this rather than buy yet more plastic bottles that are hard to dispose of. This is a hugely positive step: we’ve been conscious of the plastic bottle issue while we’ve been travelling around and have frequently used water purification tablets but not universally and so we were very pleased we could do easy refills in Laos.