I’m going to tell you about one of the most shameful and embarrassing things I’ve ever said out loud. You ready? My husband (then boyfriend) and I were planning our first big trip together. I had been out of the country only once, so southeast freaking Asia seemed like the best course of action. Next, we just had to pick which countries. Thailand, of course. Even Cambodia sounded cool.
Then, Arthur suggested Laos, and I said the following. “Um, no. We can skip that. What the hell does Laos have to offer? Who goes to Laos.” I know that anyone who has been, or is a real traveler wants to punch me after reading that. However, back then I hadn’t been and was not yet a real traveler. But, even I want to punch myself when I remember saying that. Why? Because Laos is my favorite country that I have ever visited. We did visit Laos, and we decided to go via a group travel company – Contiki – which made it all the better.
Love At First Sight
We arrived to Laos via slow by way of the Mekong River. From the first time I saw Laos, I loved it. Its dirt roads, humble people, palm trees, brown waterway, and lush terrain. It’s earthiness and authenticity enchanted me from the get-go. It is no wonder how Laos won my love.
A Wake Up Call in Pakbeng
The opportunity to take a private slow boat down the Mekong River to Laos was a once in a lifetime opportunity. The trip takes two days, so we spent one day and night in Pakbeng as a rest stop. If you need a lesson in staying humble, Pakbeng is a place that you most definitely should visit.
I wrote an entire post on Pak Beng, so I will only give a gist here. Pakbeng is poor – like really, really poor. After we exited the boat, I stood in the grass waiting for Arthur to grab our luggage. I had a family size bag of Goldfish crackers in hand that I had been slowly working on finishing throughout our trip. Without warning, I felt them leave my hand, and at first assumed I had dropped them. I looked to my left, and saw a child running off with them.
He had stolen them out of my hand! “Hey!” I shouted, completely caught off guard by this tiny thief. “That doesn’t belong to you!” The boy turned around, and with the most sad face rubbed his stomach to communicate that he was very hungry – perhaps even starving. I immediately realized how utterly stupid my fat ass looked, yelling at a starving child for stealing my snack and felt embarrassed. You see, I wasn’t actually mad he had stolen them, it was just a reaction, perhaps because I am a teacher to correct his behavior.
My emotions fell into complete shock. I had never been exposed to legitimate poverty – I had never seen it, or interacted with it. Perhaps the occasional homeless person on the street, but that was the extent. This child was so hungry that he brazenly stole food out of my hands. I couldn’t imagine the level of hunger that would embolden anyone to do that. I gave him a thumbs up, he exchanged the signal, and took off running – showing his other friends his score. This one instance forced me to consider my privilege in a way that I never otherwise would have.
It would seem to me that many of the residents of Pakbeng had food situations that to me personally did not seem ideal. On an evening stroll, Arthur and I passed a family barbecuing what appeared to be gerbils or guinea pigs – some type of rodent and invited us to participate, to which we politely declined.
I had never eaten with so much gratitude as when our guest house served us our evening meal. We had rice, spring rolls, soup, and of course larb. As I ate, I continuously heard a buzzing sound over my head. I looked up at the light which hung ahead and illuminated our dinner in the dark. Hundreds of giant bugs were flocking to the source of illumination. I have a severe phobia of bugs. So much so, that I’ve vomited, gotten the chills, and refused food for an entire day when seeing swarms of them or a particularly large bug.
I was so nervous that one would drop into my food, but I knew I had to be grateful and eat regardless. Bugs were everywhere in Pakbeng. They were in our bed, our shower, anywhere imaginable. I was grateful to have had this experience, but was SO grateful when we left. In fact, I nearly ran down the hill to the boat in excitement. I’ll be honest – I could barely walk a day in the shoes of the people who live in Pakbeng, let alone live like them. Pakbeng was a stepping stone into my journey toward gratitude for the absolute abundance that I am blessed with in my life.
Aside from Pakbeng, I became acquainted with a few other parts of Laos.
Vientiane – The Capitol City
The capital city has plenty to offer its visitors. As much as I love gritty cities, I was pleasantly surprised that Vientiane was not bustling and chaotic. A few memories that stand out:
Kong View bar & Restaurant: A really modern restaurant that is perfect for a date night or slinging back drinks with friends. The views from the back deck and the classic southeast Asian string lights add a nice touch.
Cope Visitor Center: This is not to be missed on a trip to Vientiane. It’s a center dedicated to victims of UXO explosions. The organization ensures that victims do not pay a penny for necessary treatment or rehabilitation and provides prosthetic limbs for those who have been maimed. Check out my post about the center here!
Vat That Khao: Be sure to tread quietly here, as to not disturb the giant “sleeping Buddha.”
Vang Vieng – Nature Abound
Vang Vieng has plenty of outdoors activities surrounded by jaw dropping nature.
One morning in particular, we were awakened at 8am by trucks blasting loud music. We boarded them for a fun day of going caving, not before beers being thrust into our hands in the wee hours of the morning. Drinks so early? It’s no wonder how Laos won my love
Kayaking down the river in the rain was also a ton of fun – the views are unparalleled.
Vang Vieng has long had a reputation for hosting partying backpackers. There was a time when many of them would rent inflatable tubes and float down river, hoping to be pulled by rope into riverside bars. Some of the riverside bars still exist, and they are fun – but tubing has fallen to the wayside. However, there are still great places to party!
I cannot recommend enough Kangaroo Sunset Bar. We had a damn fun time playing beer pong and drinking buckets upon buckets of rum drinks – sopping up the booze with great burgers and fries.
Some Lao locals stopped in to bless us by lighting a pyre, giving us a shot of rattlesnake whiskey, and tying an orange band around our wrists. This was not to be taken off by force, or else bad luck would fall upon us. This entire set up was exciting and the huge quantities of booze only added to the excitement.
Towards the end of the night, a thunderstorm broke out. The only logical next step was to sloppily dance in the rain together and make out.
Luang Prabang – Postcard Perfect
There are few places as beautiful in my mind as Luang Prabang. It reminds me of Hawaii in terms of its landscape. I saw my fair share of rainbows in the sky in my time there. The wind blows gently and rustles the palm trees back and forth. The fields and dirt roads sometimes seem to go on forever. No one is in a rush. The town entirely reminds me of those friendly, happy cities one might see on a child’s play mat. Everyone seems to be in good spirits and ready to be helpful.
Kuang Si Waterfalls are slippery and terrifying, but terribly fun and a must see!
There are opportunities to jump in from way high up. Don’t get too close to the rapids – or you’ll get pulled in!
Night market – The Luang Prabang night market is full of good fun and great finds. We bought our very own bottle of rattle snake whiskey as a souvenir for my dad. There are rows and rows of illuminated red tents selling flowers, gifts, and delicious treats.
All the Views
Aside from Greece, Laos has the best views of any country I have visited.
How do I define best views?
They are views that are vast and seem to go on forever.
Views that really take your breath away.
Views that make you pinch the skin on your forearm or thigh and say, “am I dreaming?”
They are views you would think only exist while watching National Geographic
Eat, Pray, Love Moments
There are a multitude of ways to demonstrate your love and gratitude and get right with your soul.
One of the most popular and bucket list worthy activities for tourists and locals alike is giving alms to monks. You must awake as early as 3AM to be ready to meet the monks on their procession through town. Monks may only eat what is given to them throughout the course of the day, and thus depend on the alms given. Givers can line up with food, in our case rice, to hand out to the procession. It was one of the best reasons ever to wake up early.
Another incredible opportunity was the honor of spending the day tutoring students at Big Brother Mouse. (explanation) My husband and I were so moved by our experience and wanted to give back. In lieu of favors at our wedding, we made a contribution to the organization on behalf of our friends and family. We made placards for each table that told our guests of all of the wonderful work that they do.
In addition, there are plenty of ways to fall in love with your partner all over again. Laos has no shortage of amazing ways to go out on dates. A few of my favorites include:
Climbing Mount Phousi
Exploring Luang Prabang
Enjoying a bougie dinner that would cost beacoup bucks back home
Laos has no shortages of places to worship. The wats are some of the most beautiful in all of southeast Asia – and the most memorable!
Laos is also home to “spirit houses.” Spirit houses are homes to protective spirits and can be outside of both residences and businesses.
Interested in eating? There are plenty of places to grab some typical Laotian grub, as well as some more ‘Western’ options for food. Utopia eatery has some of the most romantic and exciting views. Picture eating in a magical tree house, Indian style on colorful pillows and mats as the sun goes down over the water. There are tropical trees all around and dancing light from candles illuminating the scene. Utopia doubles as a yoga studio during the day. It definitely reminds me of the Green Room in Costa Rica for sure. Fond of decadent French cuisine? See below.
I’m mildly obsessed with French culture. Therefore, it was a pleasant surprise to see how much French influence was leftover from the days of colonialism. I’m really interested in seeing the effect that countries have over one another. Laos was no exception. If you are a a Francophile, you may very well enjoy this country! In particular, Luang Prabang seems to have a ton of French influence.
There are a host of French style bakeries that serve decadent fresh pastries and deliciously made coffee.
Much of the street food serves French influenced such as sweet and savory crepes. The ones we bought were small little pockets full of delicious filling. We split a ham and cheese as well as a chocolate Nutella one. I was never so happy as when I saw a woman selling pancake puffs. They were full with some kind of sugary, liquidy, goodness and were ridiculously cheap. With so much amazing food, it’s no wonder that Laos won my love
The height of any French culinary experience is of course, wine and cheese. In Paris, this might set you back a hundred dollars or more. In Laos, take advantage of the ridiculously cheap prices and order bottle after bottle of wine with platters of French cheese at Chez Matt! We had a double date night with our new friends from Vancouver doing this, and we were so full that we didn’t need actual dinner. It was a surreal experience – sitting in a modern and chic cafe in a beautiful and arsty corner of Luange Prabang. We sipped, ate, laughed, and shared stories until all hours of the night. To date, this is one of my fondest travel memories ever. Looking back, I can totally see how Laos won my love.
What I Learned
The reason that I love Laos? It refuses to change. My whole life I’ve been told I need to change. I’ve been called “too opinionated, too loud, and not lady like enough.” After a lifetime of shame at the expense of these remarks, I also refuse to change. Laos reminds me of the value of being true to oneself. Tourists have come and gone, but it still feels as though you’ve traveled back in time. I’ve not seen a single part of Laos that is kitschy, tacky, or disingenuine. I hope it always stays true itself. Have you ever been to Laos?