Tuk-tuks and Buddhas: Laid-back Laos offers peace and beauty in Asia
The land-locked Asian country of Laos may seem very far away from Texas, but Southeast Asia is increasingly becoming a hot spot for travelers.
Particularly with rising prices and a weaker dollar making other international destinations like Europe and South America very expensive, Southeast Asia has come onto the radar in a big way, with its exotic beauty, peaceful charm and the fact that your money can go much farther.
Countries like Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam scoop up most of the American travel market to the region, but take a look at less-traveled Laos for a more authentic Asian experience. Laos is the only land-locked country in Southeast Asia, wedged between China, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam — and is by far the most easy-going. There's a reason that this placid nation has a reputation as “Laid-back Laos”: most everything is peaceful and slow, with very little hassle from vendors or touts.
Although Lao cuisine is quite delicious (especially the crepes and Laap salad), there is some damn fine French food to be found. Possibly nowhere else in the world can you eat fine French cuisine more cheaply.
The majority of the populace are Buddhist; as the Lonely Planet Guide to Laos states, the Lao people commonly express the notion that “too much work is bad for your brain.” It is a cultural norm to avoid any and all stress, and the phrase “Baw pen nyang” (no problem) could easily be the national motto. Nothing seems to faze the Lao people, and they can make Thais and Cambodians (themselves very calm and peaceful) look almost hyper.
All of this combined with the fact that there are far fewer tourists can make for one incredible experience for the traveler to this stunning country. Here are some tips from my recent journey to Laos, to whet your appetite and help you plan a trip to this spectacular place.
This quiet World Heritage city with a decidedly French-Asian vibe is the most popular destination in Laos. It’s not a party place: it’s quiet, and everything shuts down tight by 10 p.m. There is quite literally a wat on every corner, sometimes several on a block or right next door to each other. Bicycling is a terrific way to get around the town, which has retained its French-Asian charm despite the vastly increasing number of tourists here.
Biking, while stopping at wats along the way, is an exceedingly pleasant way to pass a morning. And one of the most memorable, magical experiences of all is Binthabhat, the dawn procession of monks along the streets of Luang Prabang, receiving their daily alms of rice, fruit and other food from their neighbors.
Travelers should respect this holy ritual by remaining silent, being unobtrusive, and taking photos only from a little distance. At Wat Sensoukaram, there is a board posted that gives some tips on how to witness, and even photograph, the morning monks procession for alms in a way that does not offend or infringe on this religious ceremony.
Dyen Sabai is a chill place across the river, which you walk across a bamboo bridge to reach. It’s completely open-air, with floor seating, games, coffee and a groovy music soundtrack.
Although Lao cuisine is quite delicious (especially the crepes and Laap salad), the French influence here also means that there is some damn fine French food to be found. Possibly nowhere else in the world can you eat fine French cuisine more cheaply. Le Café Ban Vat Sene, located in an open-air colonial house, offers top-notch coffee, croissants and other bakery items, as well as excellent local food.
There are also many open-air restaurants located along the river that make for a scenic place to eat or even just relax with a fresh fruit smoothie, a Lao specialty. Tamarind Café was one of my favorites, moving recently into bigger quarters due to its high popularity and demand.
My other top recommendation is Dyen Sabai, a chill place across the river, which you walk across a bamboo bridge to reach. It’s completely open-air, with floor seating, games, coffee and a groovy music soundtrack. Their specialty is Lao fondue, which is an entire experience where you grill your own meats and veggies on your table.
For shopping, Luang Prabang is home to a nightly market that springs up along the main street; many quality antique and artisan shops line the streets. The morning food market also makes for a terrifically interesting stroll, where you can check out delicacies with offers such as freshly-gutted tadpoles, live wriggling larvae, water buffalo ears and live snakes.
Outside Luang Prabang
Besides the enchantment of the monks and wats in Luang Prabang, don’t miss a ride up the Mekong River in a longboat to see the Pak Ou cliff side temple caves, filled with hundreds of Buddha statues — old, new, large and tiny. The two-hour ride is just as interesting as the caves.
The Kuang Si Falls make for a fantastic half-day trip from Luang Prabang. The three-tiered waterfalls cascade down the mountain, with lush paths and bridges to several swimming holes or all the way to the top, if you wish. It’s a great place to have a picnic lunch and enjoy the turquoise water of the pools.
As you start into the park there is also a cool bear sanctuary run by a nonprofit group. There is a small entrance fee (20,000 kip), but the best way to get there is via one of the many half-day tours leaving from Luang Prabang, at around $12-15 USD per person that includes transportation.
The capital city of Vientiane also has the definite Lao vibe, but it’s much more crowded and bustling than Luang Prabang. Your international flight to Laos may well come through Vientiane, and if you have the time it is well worth adding an extra day or two to explore here.
Bicycling still offers a great way to get around town, though you will have to circumnavigate much more traffic. Wat Si Saket has been impeccably restored in a way that I really liked: It wasn’t “glitzed” over, but underwent a 2011 restoration of complete integrity that doesn’t mar the original architectural wonder.
The Patuxai Arch is an interesting “Arc de Triomphe” sort of thing in the middle of a roundabout; it was built in the 1960s with cement purchased from the U.S. that was supposed to have been used for a new airport. The views from the top are quite nice, and the arch is an interesting counterpoint to the more traditional Asian architecture.
In Vientiane, there is no better way to detox and relax than by indulging in a Lao massage and herbal sauna. My favorite place was called the Herbal Sauna just off Chao Anou. Here I got a one-hour body scrub, an absolutely wonderful one-hour massage, and in between I sat in the herbal sauna, which not only felt wonderful and detoxifying on my skin, but the herbs used are so aromatically delightful that they really make the experience.
Total cost for this three-hour splurge of relaxation? $15. There is also a wat that offers herbal sauna and massage, interestingly enough — Wat Sok Pa Luang, a little on the outskirts of the main part of town.
When it comes to eating, Le Banneton is a terrific French café for breakfast or lunch. Many French restaurants, in fact, offer an especially good deal at lunch. Le Vendome, for example, is tucked away in an old house with a great patio. Daily lunch (and dinner) menus are priced extremely reasonably, but you can’t beat the revolving weekday lunch special of three courses for only 22,000 K — about $3 USD.
For local Lao cuisine, you can't go wrong at any of the open-air restaurants along the street on Chao Anou, just off the Mekong River which separates Laos from Thailand.
In Luang Prabang, sister hotels 3 Nagas and Hotel de la Paix offer two great choices for staying in the middle of town, or just outside it in a peaceful setting. Both properties have every modern amenity combined with a decidedly Lao atmosphere and culture. 3 Nagas is a traditional, restored building, while Hotel de la Paix offers a stylish, more modern getaway. Rates start at around $165 USD.
In Vientiane, the Salana Boutique Hotel was voted one of Asia’s best new boutique hotels by Budget Traveler Magazine — small, beautifully and impeccably decorated and very comfortable with excellent service. The location is superb, within walking distance to restaurants, the riverfront and many attractions. Rates run between $80-150 USD.