We spent two weeks traveling through Laos on our way from Thailand to Vietnam. Laos has beautiful countryside and friendly people, but don’t go too far off the beaten path: “Laos has the distinction of being the world’s most heavily bombed nation”, and people still die every year from finding unexploded ordnance.
Our first stop was the border city of Huay Xai, where we spent the night before boarding our slow boat. The slow boat is an inexpensive and popular two day float down the Mekong River, taking passengers from the Thai border to Luang Probang. The boats were three rows across of car seats - think the back row of your mom’s minivan - and not much else. What the slow boat lacked in comfort, it made up for in views of the river and the surrounding countryside. You can bring your own food, a book, and, if you plan ahead, a cooler full of beer.
Luang Probang is the most popular destination is Loas and seems surprisingly untouched by modern tourism. The entire area is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, helping it to maintain the charming traditional and French colonial architecture. The city center contains several wats, a shrine on a hill with views of the Mekong, a night market, and plenty of nightlife for tourists.
The surrounding area has several more attractions, including Kuang Si Falls and its bear rescue center. We also hiked to a hidden spring area with a rope swing, a small bar, and a cave full of Buddha statues.
After Luang Prabang, we made our way to Vang Vieng. While the countryside was gorgeous, everything else in town was focused on partying. The number one activity is drunk river tubing, and hostels and bars hand out free shots (and sometimes bottles!) of “lao-lao” (rice whiskey) or laughing gas balloons. Some restaurants even have pot, shrooms, and opium listed on their “happy menus,” served à la carte or baked into your food. This scene was too intense for more than a couple days, so we moved outside of town where we found some hiking, caves, and a hot air balloon ride - an early Christmas present to ourselves!
Our final stop in Laos was an overnight in the capital city of Vientiane before catching a flight to Hanoi, Vietnam. Overall we were a bit underwhelmed by Laos: we found it to be more expensive and lower quality than Thailand, the food was a bit bland, and everyone seemed to go to the same four or five places. We’re glad we went since we were in the region, but it’s a country we probably wouldn’t have gone out of our way to visit otherwise.