Wow, where to start? Out of the thirty five foreign countries I have visited, Laos ranks in the top four. There is a seductively zen energy about this place, coupled with an idyllic backdrop of saw-tooth karst, lush, tropical greenery, expansive river basins, and exceptionally friendly people. Its no wonder everybody raves about this land-locked nation in Southeast Asia. We were in Laos for seventeen days - not nearly enough. Here's a summary of the main attractions:
Si Phan Don (4000 Islands)
A stone's throw from the Cambodian border is the famed Si Phan Don (4000 islands), a collection of thousands of islands in the enormous Mekong River. We stayed on Don Dhet, one of three or so larger islands with several guesthouses - stay in one on the sunset side. Visitors can rent bikes, traverse the French bridge to Don Kong in search of the rare, freshwater dolphin, take boat trips, kayak, and lounge about in riverfront hammocks. If you're lucky like we were, you'll get pulled into a Lao family's barbeque (literally, they pulled us into their front yard) where you'll sang karaoke and learn traditional Lao dance!
We arrived here after three hours in a songtau, which is basically a pickup truck with benches in the bed. We were only here for one night and in our short time walked along the river, through the fruit market, and had dinner with fellow globe-trotters Cissy and Niet, who we met in Chiang Mai! Oh, Ryan also made friends with a group of locals, who plucked him off the sidewalk for a shot of moonshine.
We arrived in downtown Vientiane on a grand, tree-lined avenue - a reminder of this country's French colonial history. During our 4 days and 3 nights here, we visited lots of wats; the Royal Palace; the dilapidated National Museum; hung out along the Mekong Riverfront at sunset where locals come to run, bike and play badminton; and wandered through the huge night market. Also in Vientiane is the famous Wat Luang, which is featured on Lao money, and the Cope Center, a museum dedicated to survivors of landmine and other UXO tragedies.
Most importantly, we had the good fortune of meeting up with an old co-worker of mine, from my Washington, DC days. Phetdala very kindly took us out for dinner, not once but twice! We had the joy of sharing Lao food paired with full-bodied Cotes-de-Rhone (my absolute favorite red wine) one night, and the pleasure of meeting his beautiful family over hot pot on Christmas Eve. It was a special occasion and a Christmas to remember. Thank you, Phetdala, for your hospitality and I hope our paths cross again.
This tiny town is one of the most touristy we've seen yet! But, the melodramatic mountains and snaking river make it easy to overlook the droves of foreigners passing through town. Unfortunately, it was raining while we were here so that put a damper on our kayaking and river tubing plans. We were able to rent bicycles, pedal through rice paddys and tour dark, underground caves. VV is also bursting at the seams with street food vendors hawking $1 fruit smoothies, baguette sandwiches, and crepes. Delicious.
This town was one of my favorite places I have ever visited. Ever. EVER. It is quaint, full of old-style French architecture, clean, and very chilled-out. Luang Prabang is renowned for its wats and monks, and the entire city is a UNESCO World-Heritage site. Here, we saw Wat Xieng Thong, celebrated Ryan's birthday with fancy cocktails at Ikon Klub, watched the morning monk procession, indulged in the colorful vegetarian buffet stalls at the expansive night market, watched sunset from Mount Phousi, where we also chatted with several friendly novice monks, and enjoyed several pints of Beer Lao along the Mekong. Everything about this place was peaceful, calm, and satisfying for all of the senses.
Phonsavanh is where you stay when you visit the Plain of Jars, which is weird. There is no scientifically-accepted explanation for their existence, and nobody really knows how the plain came to exist. The most likely explanation is that jars were funerary urns, although legend has it that giants once inhabited the area and used them to store their whisky. Which story do you like?
Getting here is tough, but worth every hour spent sitting in a squat position on a bus jump-seat. Vieng Xai's main attraction is a network of caves that was a safe haven for the Prathet Lao during the Secret War. The caves also became a refuge for nearly 20,000 villagers in the area and housed a school, hospital, and a theatre. Today, you can tour seven of the caves and learn about the resiliency of the Lao people during this dark time. The scenery around here is paradoxically pastoral and serene!