Southeast Asia is a backpacker´s paradise: safe, cheap and full of natural and cultural wonders. From countries as touristy as Thailand or Indonesia to others that go unnoticed and often remain off the beaten path, such as Laos and Myanmar.
Laos wasn´t on my itinerary of my trip to the Southeast in 2016. I planned to fly from the Philippines to Vietnam, go overland down to Cambodia and make my way to Thailand.
As luck would have it, 8 days after landing in Vietnam, I found myself on a 24h bus journey from Sapa to Luang Prabang. Although I didn’t make it to that city and ended up staying halfway, in Nong Khiaw, my starting point for my three-week tour of Laos, one of the most beautiful countries I have been lucky enough to travel through.
Little I know about this country, known as the land of a million elephants, its abundant mountains, rainforest, tribal settlements, natural wonders, Buddhist temples and French colonial architecture.
10. The people
Yes, I know it is such a redundant thing to say, especially when we talk about the people of Southeast Asia. But if we take into account that barely four decades have passed since the end of the Vietnam War and the level of development they have, the people of Laos show their resilience with their positive attitude and eternal smile. Their Buddhist philosophy of life is palpable in their way of being with foreigners: kind, simple, smiling, generous people.
An example of this we experienced on our first night in Laos, when walking through the unpaved streets of Nong Khiaw we saw light and heard music in one of the houses next to the road. We approached and saw a group of locals. One of them told us that they were celebrating the visit of a relative who lives in the capital and with gestures and very basic English they invited us to have a beer with them. We were exhausted after 20 hours on the bus and 5 hours on the boat, but we stayed a while, toasting, laughing and dancing.
From the owners of the small guesthouses and local restaurants, to the Buddhist monks lighting up the streets in their orange robes, the people we crossed paths with in Laos made us feel welcome and brought a smile to our faces at any time of the day.
9. The Mekong
This mighty river originates in Tibet and flows for almost 5 thousand kilometres accross east Asia, acting as a natural border in several sections of countries such as China, Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.
The journey along this river is especially impressive in Laos, where it flows surrounded by jungle, mountains and blurs into plains such as the area of the four thousand islands. To the spectacle of seeing the life of the local people and water buffaloes on the banks of the river, joins the possibility of seeing pink dolphins.
8. Nong Khiaw
This small village in the northeast of the country is surrounded by mountains, rice fields and caves. The view from the viewpoint is one of the most spectacular in Laos. It is worth a stop for a couple of days to enjoy the simplicity of rural life and get lost in the surroundings of the village.
7. Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang is possibly the most beautiful city in Southeast Asia. This oasis of peace located at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers is popular for its Buddhist temples and colonial buildings from the time when the country was part of French Indochina (1893-1946). There are several French bakeries and pastry shops where you can get the most authentic baguettes of the continent.
6. The Buddhism
Almost 70% of the population of Laos is Buddhist and this philosophy of life plays an important role in their daily lives. It is common to see monks walking the streets, asking for offerings at dawn and tourists are allowed to visit the temples even during prayer.
5. Vang Vieng
A backpackers tailor-made village. It offers parties every day, the Nam Song river tubing circuit and open-air restaurants where you can watch friends on a loop. A place to have fun and enjoy the surrounding nature: caves, lagoons and mountains surrounded by tropical jungle.
4. Luang Prabang´s night market
Luang Prabang’s night market offers delicious street food and tropical fruit stalls where you can dine for very little money. Add to this the many street stalls selling handicrafts, clothes and other bazaar goods, and you will find it hard to leave the place empty-handed.
3. Motorbike rides
With just over 7 million inhabitants, Laos is a very sparsely populated country compared to its Asian neighbors, which makes it a good place for scenery motorcycle tours without crowds or chaotic traffic. However, be careful because of the state of the roads and unpaved roads.
2. The Kuang Si Falls
This waterfall of 50 meters and three levels is a natural wonder of turquoise waters that rivals in beauty with Semuc Champey in Guatemala or the Kawasan waterfall in the Philippines. It is located a few kilometers from Luang Prabang, you can bath in the natural pools, climb to the viewpoint or visit the Pak Ou cave.
1. The buddhist temples
Luang Prabang is the historical heart of Laos and a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its fifty Buddhist temples and French colonial architecture.
In my opinion, they are the most beautiful and authentic Buddhist temples of the subcontinent, being my favorites Wat Xieng Thong (XVI century), for its crystal mosaics; Wat Mai (XIX century) for its wood carvings and gold leaf; and Wat Visoun (XVI century) with its spherical stupa.