This post is about my experience of backpacking travel in Laos over three separate trips.
I first traveled to Laos in 2006, then again in 2013 (I compare the changes here) and then 2015 for trekking in Luang Nam Tha.
My minivan driver cursed in Thai as we rolled to a stop somewhere between Chiang Mai and Vientiane, Laos.
The engine gave up halfway through our miserable 14-hour journey. There we sat in the dark, hostages of some unnamed place where only mosquitoes and their food lived. We waited drearily for our rescue vehicle as rain splashed off the windows and temperatures inside the minibus began to rise.
Getting Stuck in Vientiane, Laos
Many red-eyed hours later, I was forking over my passport at the Thai embassy in Vientiane, Laos, which then subsequently closed without warning for the Buddhist Lent holiday.
I wasn’t going anywhere for the next five days, which in reality is four more days than necessary for hanging around Laos’ beaten-up capital city. So I decided to give Vientiane another chance—there weren’t many options.
I probably gained five pounds just eating great travel food and sitting around French cafes for a week like some introspective colonist. For some unexplained reason, I even began reading newspapers again. What else was there to do?
My first visit to Vientiane back in 2006 was spent in less-than-ideal conditions. I spent three days in bed while sweating and barely surviving my worst case of food poisoning. The only other time I felt that way was while deathly sick in India.
But I’ll own up to this one. It was my poor decision to eat a spoiled BBQ bat on a stick from a market when I first arrived. I should have sought out something less poisonous than a winged rodent instead of trying to be an intrepid backpacking traveler.
Finding the Charm in Laos
Had Vientiane become “charming” as a certain popular guidebook tried to claim?
“Charm” is a very loose, subjective term tossed around by lazy travel writers. I’m not sure if I ever found and charm while enjoying backpacking travel in Laos.
What I did find was some pretty decent food and fewer red hammer-and-sickle flags that once adorned every large building the first time that I was there in 2006. Even the number of teenage policemen on patrol with spray-n-pray submachine guns had dwindled down to a small handful.
Was Laos turning soft on me? Time to investigate.
Where Backpackers Go in Laos
Anywhere they want!
A lot of travelers stick to the so-called backpacker Banana Pancake Trail slice of Laos which typically includes going straight up Highway 13 (Vientiane → Vang Vieng → Luang Prabang).
A few backpackers also go all the way south to Si Phan Don, the “4,000 Islands” delta on the Mekhong River. Sadly, the Irrawaddy Dolphins travelers once went to see in the 4,000 Islands are all but extinct now.
If you have time and want to expand the trail a little, consider going farther to Luang Nam Tha and/or the strange Plain of Jars.
But as a slow backpacking traveler in Laos, I went to the following places across three separate trips:
- Vientiane, the capital
- Xieng Khuan, the bizarre Buddha Park near Vientiane
- Vang Vieng
- Luang Prabang
- Luang Nam Tha
- The Plain of Jars
Just because of the hair-raising reputation, I took the infamous fast boat from Laos to Thailand. It was all they claimed!
Laos on the Banana Pancake Trail
Laos’ first vulnerability is that it sits squarely on the “Banana Pancake Trail” for backpacking travelers in Southeast Asia.
It’s far too close to Thailand to avoid the onslaught of mass tourism. Travelers grow bored of Thailand, want to try somewhere slightly more intrepid, and cross the border. Others, like myself, come over on visa runs.
How Backpacking Travel in Laos Changed
My quick visa run from Thailand to Laos turned more or less into a three-week visa marathon as nostalgia took over and I decided to have a proper look around a country that I loved seven years ago.
I was wondering what parts of backpacking travel in Laos had changed. Spoiler: a lot.
Southeast Asia’s poor, landlocked country unexpectedly turned into a time capsule for me. I could hardly believe my eyes as I splashed through puddles on those same streets my worn flip-flops carried me on my first backpacking trip to Southeast Asia in 2006.
Was I in the right place? I had to check my passport again to make sure it was a Lao P.D.R. stamp that I had paid for.
Every traveler knows that places change. And every smart traveler knows to receive a place in the raw rather than comparing it to the first time they visited. Falling into the sticky web of comparison is a sure recipe for moody grumblings.
I became entangled, but fortunately, still managed to sprinkle in some enjoyment while backpacking in Laos. There were still plenty of crotchety, well-back-in-the-old-days complaints grumbled.
No return visit to a country can match up to the initial honeymoon feeling of your first time. I expected the excitement and good people I enjoyed in 2006. Instead, I found a nagging, hair-in-rollers country planted in front of a soap opera with cigarette dangling from lips telling me to take out the trash. Oh, and pay $2 for the opportunity to do so.
Yep, the honeymoon was over.
Backpacking in Vang Vieng
I wasn’t sure what to expect when returning to Vang Vieng after seven years.
Vang Vieng in the center of Laos is a favorite for many backpackers. The old CIA “Air America” airstrip has changed a lot, but somehow, there’s still an anything-goes atmosphere around town.
The mountainous Highway 13 from Vientiane to Vang Vieng has improved drastically. Even short-time, higher-budget travelers now manage to make the trip up to Vang Vieng. People still enjoy tubing; although, it’s not nearly as boisterous as it once was.
Tubing in Vang Vieng
Up until a government crackdown in November 2012, Vang Vieng was a circus of drugs, debauchery, and drunk, vomiting tubers who managed to survive rope swings along the Nam Song River.
Some didn’t survive, hence the shudown by the government. Numerous tubing fatalities in Vang Vieng every year used to get covered up.
But don’t worry: There’s still some revelry. Marijuana is still advertised as a pizza topping, if that tells you anything. That said, Central Laos has tamed down quite a bit.
Rather than get into the very muddy, very swift river this time, I hired a mountain bike and explored the region in pouring rain all day. I also enjoyed some climbing around a massive, wild cave for hours. I may or may not have wandered in circles.
As Daniel Boone, a famous American wilderness pioneer, once said:
“I was never lost, but I’ve been turned around for three weeks before.”
We’ll just leave it at that.
Price Increases in Vang Vieng
Any cave, bridge, hill, waterfall, parking lot, or footpath that was once free, now costs a disproportionate amount of money to experience. Even taking a piss in the most nightmarish hole-in-the-ground toilet imaginable will cost you at least a quarter.
Small fees indeed, however, not a single penny is being put back into the site/attraction. A lion’s share of the money goes to make an entrepreneur’s nephew’s Mercedes payment. Meanwhile, Laos remains poor.
I wouldn’t mind paying these fees if it helped the people who are suffering, but it doesn’t.
Alcohol Prices in Vang Vieng
What hasn’t inflated in price is booze in Vang Vieng. Why is it that so many of the oppressed, indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities around the world often have access to cheap, tax-free booze?
To say that drinking in Laos is cheap is a grave understatement. Beer is cheaper than potable water in some places. I saw the same thing in Kampot, Cambodia: Beer (sometimes given free with meal) was cheaper than bottled water.
Same as travelers paid in 2006, a 640ml (big) bottle of beer costs around US $1 and a 750ml bottle of Lao Lao whiskey—essentially moonshine made from fermented sticky rice—costs exactly US $2.
The prices for alcohol haven’t increased in seven years. And those are tourists prices; the locals can go blind for even cheaper than backpackers can.
Backpacking in Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang, once one of my favorite places in all of Southeast Asia, is still nice, but families dragging suitcases full of cash and guidebooks have greatly inflated prices.
Renting a motorbike in 2006 cost me around US $5. Now the price was a whopping $15. Even without a discount, you can still hire a motorbike in Thailand for $5 per day; it costs only $3 in Pai.
All the usual sights and activities that were once free, no matter how small, now have ramshackle entrance booths staffed by bored people who demand money. Climbing to the top of Phou Si hill to watch a sunset, once free, now costs $3 for the 20-minute walk.
Any place with a route as popular and scenic as the stomach-twisting Highway 13 from Vientiane to Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang is bound to culturally mutate faster than average.
Laos is no exception, and I’m afraid the coup de grâce came when the European Council on Tourism named Laos as the best tourism destination for 2013. Damn it.
Western Europeans were paying attention, immediately changed their plans from Phuket (Thailand) to Luang Prabang, and were now munching on baguettes all around me. The cries in Dutch and French from snot-nosed kids in Batman shirts could be heard all over the city.
Backpacking in Luang Prabang was nothing like it was when I enjoyed staying there in 2006.
I had very enjoyable moments on this trip to Luang Prabang, but the general vibe and prices have sadly gone in the wrong direction. Prices in Luang Prabang quickly outpaced those in other parts of the country.
In fact, I would argue that Laos is now more expensive for backpackers than Thailand.
The Bowling Alley in Luang Prabang
Aside from the exorbitant price increases and friendly attitude decreases, I did manage to meet some interesting long-term travelers and made a foray to the famous Bowling Alley in Luang Prabang—the only place to party after communist curfew of 11:30 p.m.
Watching drunk backpackers sling heavy balls down the wrong lanes then argue about who gets the points is still as entertaining as it was in 2006.
Some things never change.
Trekking in Luang Nam Tha Protected Area
A couple years later, I returned to Luang Prabang a third time before going up to enjoy some trekking in the Luang Nam Tha Protected Area.
I enjoyed this remote part of Laos, but getting there was one of the roughest, stickiest bus rides I’ve ever suffered. Numerous bodily fluids were involved.
Worse, I left there with a serious parasite after removing leeches and going for a swim in a jungle river. They began as my friends but nearly ate me alive as I explored Hsipaw, Burma, later.
Visiting the Plain of Jars in Laos
Even with hordes of berserker tourists sacking places faster than drunken Vikings, Laos is an extremely poor country.
Surviving as a landlocked country is challenging anyway, but Laos has a unique problem: They have the highest number of UXOs (unexploded ordinance) left over from wars per capita than any other country.
That’s not a very good claim to fame. Tourists generally don’t care for bombs.
Laos is blessed with an abundance of unused land, but who wants to risk arms and legs to plant a handful of white rice? A brave few do anyway. Hunger can turn farmers into heroes, but the UXOs have stifled development outside of all tourist areas.
I diverted an extra eight hours on the most winding mountain road devised by humans to look around the mysterious Plain of Jars.
Phonsavan (the base for exploring the Plain of Jars) was a depressing place, but what did I expect. Pieces of munitions such as giant shells are used functionally in construction and as decoration around town. Missing limbs on residents is a somewhat common sight.
I did attend an excellent lecture and documentary screening by charity organizations who are doing what they can to remove UXOs. I left there with a burden and highly suggest you make time to watch one of the screenings.
After hiring a motorbike, I rode out to the strange Plain of Jars site. It’s like Laos’ version of a weird Stonehenge. Some of the prehistoric jars had perfect shrapnel holes through their thick, stone walls. Others were completely broken apart by Rolling Thunder bombing campaigns during the American-Vietnam War.
UXOs at the Plain of Jars
The walking paths at the Plain of Jars were marked with red-and-white flags, indicating safe places that had been cleared of UXOs. Other areas, just feet away, had flags marking them as unsafe because an unexploded object had been discovered! The annoying problem is that these munitions actually move around as heavy rains dislodge them.
Giant craters dotted the landscape. Some were full of water. Others still potentially contained explosive devices. I served in an artillery unit in the U.S. Army, so I’ve been around unexploded ordinance before. Still, this place made my skin crawl.
There weren’t any other backpacking travelers around while I explored the Plain of Jars, adding to the mystique. The place is interesting, indeed, and knowing that a misstep could actually blow your legs off (or worse) added to the adventure.
Exploring the Plain of Jars
The Plain of Jars is a collection of sites that still have archaeologists baffled. People guess that the giant stone jars there are at least 2,000 years old. No one really knows where they came from or how they were used. Theories range from the jars being used as sarcophagi to giant containers for making beer or collecting water.
The entire plain is dotted with enormous bomb craters. Undoubtedly, many stubborn unexploded objects remain, and tourists who aren’t prosthetics enthusiasts should really to stick to the trails. Not a bad idea.
Some jars near to big craters were split apart, and others had perfectly round entrance holes from shrapnel with sizable exit wounds on the other side. Creepy stuff, and sad that these millennia-old artifacts were nonchalantly bombed. The equivalent could be compared to dropping bombs on Stonehenge in the 60s and 70s.
Seeing that there are hundreds of the jars, and each had to be made in the scorching, Southeast Asian sun with crude tools, I’m leaning toward the beer theory.
The Buddha Park (Xieng Khuan) Near Vientiane
I did use some of my extra time in Vientiane to finally make it out to the Buddha Park (Xieng Khuan)—a bizarre place constructed by a shaman who mixed Hindu and Buddhist lore to create one interesting, somewhat-spooky garden.
Words can barely do this wacky place justice, so I’ll just leave you with a bunch of photos.
After Backpacking in Laos
I happily made it back to Chiang Mai a few days ago, and despite the complaints, I’m glad that I got to see an old sweetheart of a country from years back. Even if I barely recognized her.
Luckily, time somehow shines a positive light on memories. We tend to embellish experiences. I’ll probably be in love with Laos once again in a few years. Laos…see you again in seven years.