Laos: The Old & The New

Our 20 hour coach from Chang Mai to Luang Prabang arrived a few hours ahead of schedule. Although that initially sounds like a good thing, we were already due to arrive very early in the morning – so this advance meant that we were there at around 4 am. With the hostel door locked, the streets deserted and no cafés open, we sat on the steps of the building and tried to fall asleep.

Passing the Grand Palace at night

Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of Luang Prabang Province in northern Laos, lies in a valley where the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers meet. The ancient town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 and is considered by many travellers and writers as being the heart of Laotian culture. It’s a more popular destination than the country’s capital Vientiane and displays crumbling French architecture, glistening temples and extensive natural beauty. The town’s entire historical section is dedicated to tourism, with everything from former royal palaces to over 33 Wats (temples) on the tourist trail.

You see a very distinct change as soon as you cross the border from Thailand into Laos. It has under half the GDP and the roads and infrastructure reflect that. It was easy to see why the coach journey time has such a large tolerance when we were crawling up mountain roads or getting stuck behind cattle being herded. A far cry from the smooth highways that took us out of Thailand, but a far more beautiful view.

Sleeping on the steps of our hostel, we noticed small groups of tourists passing. These groups grew larger as the morning got later – and we eventually gave up on our nap to see where they were all headed. We eventually stumbled across one of the most sacred Lao traditions, the Buddhist Alms Giving Ceremony – which happens every day in Lang Prabang before sunrise. (It happens across Laos as a whole, but to a much lesser extent). Locals and tourists alike buy offerings (usually food) for the monks and then wait quietly in a long line as the procession of monks pass and collect the gifts. This tradition is how the Monks have been provided their one meal a day for hundreds of years. It starts on the main street, before spreading out to all the side streets. Our vantage point was from the main street, but my advice would be to observe from one of the quieter side streets. This tradition is supposed to be a very humble and respectful exchange, but the magic is somewhat spoilt on the main street when it’s busy with tourists trying to take selfies with the monks.

Life moves at a slow pace here, and the majority of our time was spent sitting at cafes overlooking the Mekong, or wandering through the night markets. The French influence has led to availability of good coffee and interesting food – in particular you can find baguettes being sold on practically every street. They’re cheap, fresh and have a variety of sweet and savoury fillings. When it comes to booze, the clear winner is Beerlao. This beer made from Jasmine rice is famous across South East Asia and can be found cheap and abundant across Laos.

Across the road from the Royal Palace in the old town, you will find the stairs leading up to the peak of Mount Phousi. At only 150 meters tall, it’s not an intimidating climb but still manages to offer a 360 degree outlook across the city and its many temples. It’s a very popular spot to watch the sunset across the Mekong and Nam Kham rivers, so much so that we were almost squeezed shoulder to shoulder at the top. There are no opening or closing times for the route up so I’d recommend getting up early to catch the sunrise, and miss the crowds and the heat of the day!

The View from Mt. Phousi

Laos has a rich history stretching back 10,000 years, steeped in ancient traditions and Buddhist teachings. Its more recent history is unfortunately much more turbulent as it holds the unwanted accolade as being the most bombed country in the world. During the Vietnam War, from 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years. This obviously devastated the country at the time, but still cripples the growth of its infrastructure to this day because up to a third of those bombs dropped didn’t explode. The massive cost of recovering the Unexploded Ordnance (UXO), as well as the cost of education programmes (new farming techniques to limit the risk of ploughing up a bomb, or how to properly report anything that’s been found) and the massive delays to construction whenever UXO is discovered holds the country back financially. There is also a constant threat to life for rural communities, with inquisitive children and farmers being the majority of the victims.

The scrap metal left behind from the campaign is utilized by necessity, not choice.

The UXO Information Centre is the HQ of the local team who map, locate and disarm the bombs in the area. There is a small museum there which runs through the history and impact of the problem. They have displays of deactivated ordinance and videos detailing the work they are doing. It’s a free museum (donations welcome) and well worth a couple of hours.

Our next destination in Laos was Vang Vieng, which lies in a perfect location – halfway between Vientiane (the capital) and Luang Prabang. Sitting on the banks of the Nam Song River, the rural town might seem serene now, but Vang Vieng has seen a hectic 15 years. It evolved from an agricultural community to a backpacker party capital when it was “discovered” by Western travelers in the late 1990s. After a series of unfortunate accidents and deaths (due largely to drugs and alcohol), Vang Vieng’s narrative changed completely when the government shut down most of the problematic bars and activities and repositioned the town as an eco-paradise. The party scene is still there, but only in small pockets – with the majority of the activities revolving around exploring the incredible landscape.

The majority of the excursions we got involved in were water based. There is a big draw to the large, slow moving Nam Song River. It snakes through the jungles, mountains and villages in such an effortlessly beautiful way that any trip down it is almost guaranteed to be a good time. We enjoyed an afternoon kayaking down a portion of it, but by far and away the best way to experience the river is tubing.

At some point in the late 90s Vang Vieng was introduced to tubing, and this has now become the most popular activity in the town. The set-up consists of tourists renting inflated tractor inner tubes, being driven up-river to a designated starting point and then spend the majority of the day floating downstream. Originally, the route was lined with riverside bars which coaxed the tubers in with cheap drinks, making the whole trip effectively an aquatic bar crawl. This, combined with the inclusion of zip-lines, raised platforms and slides to the water, eventually led to the aforementioned accidents and deaths. Since the government crackdown only two bars are allowed to be opened on the route at a time – which, to be honest, was more than enough – and also pushes everyone into the same places, which means it’s a lot more social. We started at the top of the river as a group of two, but by the time we reached the beach party at the finish line we were a group of about 30 from nearly as many countries. It’s not exactly a traditional slice of Laotian life, but it’s a lot of fun.

If you are going Tubing:

The main tubing office is located east of the main road in town, right across the street (to the north) from Hally’s Coffee. It costs 60,000 kip (£5.41) to rent the inner tube (some places also charge a deposit). It will also cost you around 5,000 kip for the tuk tuk ride up to the starting point. Bring suncream! You will be set in a rubber ring in the sun for most of the day. Also bring a dry bag for money, valuables etc. (They are sold all over Vang Vieng due to the abundance of water activities). Also bring a top to wear for when you head back to town, because regardless of how touris-focused this city has become, the Laotians find men walking around topless (or ladies in bikinis) disrespectful. 

Dotted around Vang Vieng are a number of natural cave networks which you can book tours to. These range from tall, but shallow, with statues and shrines inside, to the one that we visited, Tham Nam. This is a network of tunnels which feed into a base of a mountain, and are part submerged in water. The locals have strung rope through sections of this labyrinth, and now make a living by renting out inner tubes (working on a theme) and letting groups of tourists head into the caves by pulling themselves along the rope in a rubber ring.

Standing in the shallows. The mouth of the cave behind us.

It was only a couple of months before that the news was filled with the stories of the Thai football youth-team who had got trapped in a underwater cave network – so heading into Tham Nam across the border was terrifying. It was pitch black once you got into the cave properly (although you are given a cheap Chinese head-torch), and the icy water’s depth ranged from too-deep-to-touch-the-bottom, to so shallow that you had to stand and work your way forward on foot, crouching down to squeeze in below the roof. At one point our local guide prompted us to leave the rings behind and follow him down a tight side cave. He led us into an open chamber that he referred to as one of the two ‘Elephant Caves’, so called because of a group of stalagmites which resemble an elephant. On our way out of the water I spotted bats flying low over us – and suddenly became aware of the amount of other wildlife that must make these caves their home. We didn’t hang about.

The second ‘Elephant Cave’ was a lot more accessible. See the shape of the

I could have easily spent more time in Laos. In truth, we were meant to spend longer but a cancelled bus from Thailand took a bite out of our stay. It’s a country that in spite of immense hardship has still got a welcoming and friendly attitude. The locals seem to enjoy a party as much as the backpackers and the landscape seems to be beautifully untouched – especially when compared to its more developed neighbours.    


FoodBaguettes. As common as Gregs – but 10x
Coconut cookie balls!
DrinkBeerlaoBeerlao Dark (Same
same, but different)
PeopleThe bar staff who
drink more than the
Our day trip guide
who spoke three
words of English
PlaceThe UXO Visitor center Old town streets in L.P
Experience Tubing!Canoeing down the
Nam Song River
Culture ShockUsing UXO to decorate
restaurants, bars etc.
The craziest, most
unsafe bus drivers
Any otherLots of guest houses
have pools. None fit
for use.
The amount of
Buddhist monks in the streets of Laos.
Interestingly, they
have separate waiting areas, separate spaces on buses and even
separate toilets!

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