No, this column isn’t about Thailand, India or Africa, where elephants abound. Land of a Million Elephants, or Lan Xang in the local lingo, does not refer to the Land of Smiles as readers familiar with South-East Asia will know, but to Thailand’s northern and north-eastern neighbour Laos. Strangely enough, I’ve never seen a single elephant in Laos. In this article, I’ll give a brief account of my recent trip to this landlocked country which is far less travelled not as well-known as its Thai neighbour.
Laos, officially called Lao People’s Democratic Republic, is about half the size of Thailand - or roughly the same size of the United Kingdom - but has only 6 million inhabitants, which is only a tenth of the population of the two previously mentioned countries. It is basically one of the last remaining communist countries in the world, although various forms of free enterprise seem to be allowed nowadays. The economy is mainly based on agriculture, forestry, mining and tourism.
Contrary to visiting Thailand, which is only a package tour away for most international tourists, holidaying in Laos takes some more time and planning. Also, it isn’t (and will hopefully never be) the ideal destination for tourists seeking to stay exclusively in four or five star hotels, to have themselves pampered by masseuses on white beaches or to pursue the personal services of local ‘business’ girls, be it bar, beer, karaoke or go-go girls.
For more detailed information on this beautiful country, I suggest you just use Google and surf to the most appropriate webpage among the 3.5 million search results. I’ll limit myself here to giving information that might be useful for a short trip to Vientiane, the Laotian – or Lao – capital and Vang Vieng, a rustic rural town some 160 clicks north of Vientiane.
For would-be tourists based in Bangkok, there are a few different ways to get to Laos. With budget airlines such as Nokair and Thai AirAsia, flying to Udon Tani in the upper North-East of Thailand is now within anyone’s budget. Promotional tickets start at 3 baht (10c), but with taxes and surcharges such as fuel, weight, height, luggage, check-in, nationality and gender surcharge, cost an average of 1,500 baht (1 US dollar = 34 baht; 1 euro = 49 baht; 1 pound = 70 baht). It’s still cheap though considering they take you to Udon Tani, located about 550 km north of Bangkok and 50 km south of the Lao border. Although direct flights to Vientiane exist, flying within Thailand saves significantly on airfare, airport taxes and service charges.
From the Udon Tani airport, either use the ‘limousine service’ to the Friendship Bridge in Nong Kai (basically a small air-conditioned bus; fare 150 baht) or take a van to the local bus station to catch the convenient international bus Udon Tani – Vientiane (fare 80 baht; only do this if you have a Lao visa in advance as the bus doesn’t wait at the border). Visas can be obtained either beforehand from any Lao embassy or consulate or on arrival; visas usually grant a stay of up to 30 days and can be extended. The visa on arrival will take approximately 20 minutes to process at the border checkpoint and cost between 20 and 42 US dollar. The Chinese are happy campers while Canadians have the right to look sour-faced. Most other nationalities pay between 30 and 35 dollars (or the equivalent in baht). Make sure to have a passport photo handy.
Another straightforward, but less comfortable way to get to Vientiane is taking an overnight bus to the Thai border town of Nong Kai. Buses departing from Morchit bus station cost between 350 baht for a second-class A/C bus to 700 baht for a 24-seater VIP bus. It’s always a good idea to pay a little bit extra to make the 8 to 10 hour journey more agreeable. Alternatively, people with lots of spare time might ‘city-hop’ to the border, visiting the main tourist attractions of - in my opinion - rather dull cities such as Nakon Ratchasima, Kon Kaen and Udon Tani along the way.
For more detailed travel information, just visit one of the thousands of travel forums or tourist websites available online – or go with the flow, as travel should be partly a personal discovery, instead of just retracing someone else’s footsteps.
Once you’ve crossed into Laos, you are still twenty odd kilometres away from the capital. If you came without using the international bus, dilapidated, metre-less taxis, private or public tuk-tuks (the smaller ones are called jumbos, the bigger ones Skylabs) or public buses can get you there. Don’t be afraid to bargain, but remember that the price of petrol has gone up markedly lately. Don’t think that because Laos is poorer than Thailand, it will consequently be cheaper to travel. Like Cambodia, it’s not; it’s even slightly more expensive (less cheap is actually more appropriate).
Accommodation in the Lao capital ranges from the very cheap to the expensive. Five dollars might still get you a dorm bed or sleazy room in a grotty guest house, while credit cards are probably a must in Don Chan Palace, the one and only five-star hotel in the country. There are lots of options in between these two extremes; just walk around the small city centre and look around.
Now what is there to see and do once you’re in Vientiane? Actually, the capital of Laos is a very laidback place, quite the opposite form the hustle and bustle of mega-Bangkok. It is similar to a provincial Thai city and lacks high-rise buildings. Traffic jams are also an unknown phenomenon in this city. Although Laotians do enjoy the comfort of a modern car, many cannot afford one and get around by motorbike. When travelling in Vientiane, there is always a whiff of a two-stroke engine’s exhaust in the air. Similar to their Thai neighbours, locals don’t seem to enjoy the pleasure of pedalling a bicycle, although the absence of heavy traffic makes for fair and enjoyable riding conditions.
Bicycles as well as motorbikes can be rented along the Mekong River and are ideal to explore the fringes of the city. For sightseeing in the city centre, all one needs is a good pair of walking shoes. Compared to five years ago, most roads are now nicely paved and even sport pavements and a bunch of new traffic signs. Potholes no longer threaten the lives of bikers and hikers alike.
The main attractions of Vientiane are its temples and its unhurried atmosphere. Just walk or cycle around the city centre to discover these hidden beauties. Wat Si Saket and Ho Pra Kaew are probably the most interesting temples within the small city centre. Admission price is a mere 5,000 kip for foreigners (1 US dollar = 9500 kip, 1 euro = 13000 kip, 1 pound = 18000 kip). Apart from these, there are plenty more where entrance is free.
Other interesting sites in Vientiane include Patuxai, the Lao version of the French Arc de Triomphe and That Luang, the most important national temple and pride of the country. Just rent a bicycle or put on your walking boots to get there. Take a tuk-tuk if it’s a hot day or if you’re handicapped. When temple-fatigue sets in, just wander along the banks of the Mekong River and indulge in some local food and drink. Beer Lao, fruit shakes or fresh coconut juice as well as nice local food can be found anywhere at very moderate prices.
Nightlife in Laos isn’t particularly exciting, but that has never bothered me or stopped me from visiting. With a midnight closing time for all entertainment venues, there are no opportunities for all-night drinking sessions or other debauchery, which is exactly what the Lao government intended when they implemented this so-called curfew. The most popular tourist haunts still seem to be Kobchai Deu Bar & Restaurant near Namphu Fountain, Samlor Pub which offers live football and the string of restaurants and beer gardens along the Mekong. There are a number of discos and nightclubs on the road to the airport, but these are primarily a deafening Lao affair.
Seeing Vientiane can be done in just one or two days. If you’re fed up quickly, the most interesting site outside the city is probably Buddha Park, a green area full of Buddha statues and sculptures near the Friendship Bridge, some 25 kilometres east of Vientiane. Take either a local bus from the Morning Market bus station or rent a motorbike to get there. Don’t forget to take your camera if you’re a photo aficionado. Laos offers plenty of marvellous photo opportunities. In Vientiane however, you sometimes just have to go the extra mile to find them. Remember that the best time to take great pictures is usually early morning or late afternoon, when the sunlight isn’t too harsh, so even late or hung-over risers need not despair.
If you’re not into city trips, Vientiane can be the stepping stone to a relaxing stay in Vang Vieng, a small town 160 kilometres north of the capital which is on every backpacker’s itinerary. The main draws of this insignificant town are probably the fact that it’s fairly far from modern civilisation (although there are several Internet cafes), the abundant possibilities it offers for relaxation and its laidback – even dormant – atmosphere.
What most people do when they end up in Vang Vieng, which lies at the banks of the small Nam Song River and is surrounded by breathtaking mountains, is going tubing, kayaking, caving, cycling, hiking, sunbathing or swimming in the fast-streaming and shallow river. Other less adventurous options include just sitting along the banks of the river drinking Beer Lao, watching endless reruns of Friends in one of the ubiquitous restaurants or getting high on illegal substances (remember that penalties are harsh when caught).
Accommodation in this small town is cheap and plentiful. Guesthouses are everywhere and charge as little as 3 dollars per night. Better rooms with A/C and hot water (depending on the season you might need either or both) cost a fistful of dollars more. My premium room at the Gran View Hotel on the riverbank came with A/C, hot water and a splendid vista of the river and mountains, and set me back fifteen greenbacks (only ten dollars for similar rooms without the view).
Getting to Vang Vieng is quite straightforward. Just book a ticket for a tourist bus or van at a guest house or travel agent (6 dollars, 4 hours); go to the Morning Market bus station and take a public bus (2.5 dollars, 28 hours); go to the pickup (songtaew or shared taxi) station west of the airport (2.5 dollars, 4 hours); or rent a dirt bike near Mekong River and design their own road trip.
Although this article only focused on Vientiane and Vang Vieng, there are many more interesting places to visit in this welcoming country. Quiet and colonial Luang Prabang (with airport) in the North and remote and relaxing Si Pan Don or Four Thousand Islands (fortunately without airport), in the South are rapidly becoming tourist hotspots. Although they are not exactly off the beaten track anymore, these places are still relatively unspoilt and definitely merit a visit before they become overrun by hordes of airborne tourists. Don’t forget to enjoy the serenity and beauty of the country and turn of your phone for a really relaxing stay. Also, even though the most rural places now seem to offer Internet access, checking your email account twice a day or updating your blog, or Facebook webpage with stories and pictures can really wait a couple of days. Stress and rat race are words which aren’t part of the Lao vocabulary.