Laos is the only land-locked country in Southeast Asia, and the most easy-going. There is a reason that this placid nation has a reputation as “Laid-back Lao” – most everything is very peaceful and slow, with very little hassle from vendors or touts. Most of the populace are Buddhist, with about 60% of them being Theravada Buddhists, who stress the doctrine of anatta: the principle that there is no part of our changing, impermanent world that can be said to be me or you or God; it is all interrelated.
“Baw pen nyang” – or “no problem” – could easily be the national motto here in Laos. Nothing seems to faze the Lao people, and they can make Thais and Cambodians (themselves very calm and peaceful) look almost hyper. As the Lonely Planet Guide to Laos states, the Lao people commonly express the notion that “too much work is bad for your brain;” it is a cultural norm to avoid any and all stress. And for the traveler to this stunning country, this can make for one incredible experience.
Luang Prabang, where I began my time in Laos, is a particularly calm city. It’s not a party place; it’s quiet, and everything shuts down tight by 10 pm. There is quite literally a wat on every corner, sometimes several on a block or right next-door to each other. Bicycling is a terrific way to get around the town, which has retained its French-Asian charm despite the vastly increasing number of tourists here. Biking along while stopping at wats along the way is an exceedingly pleasant way to pass a morning. And one of the most memorable, magical experiences of all is Binthabhat, the dawn procession of monks along the streets of Luang Prabang, receiving their daily alms of rice, fruit, and other food from their neighbors. Travelers should make sure to respect this holy ritual by remaining silent, being unobtrusive, and taking photos only from a little distance. There is a board posted at Wat Sensoukaram that gives some tips on how to witness, and even photograph, the morning monks procession for alms in a way that does not offend or infringe on this religious ceremony.
Besides the enchantment of the monks and wats in Luang Prabang, don’t miss a ride up the Mekong River in a longboat to see the Pak Ou cliffside caves, filled with hundreds of Buddha statues old and new, large and tiny. The two-hour ride is as interesting as the caves. For shopping, Luang Prabang is home to a nightly market that springs up along the main street, and many quality antique and artisan shops line the streets.
The capital city of Vientiane also has the definite Lao vibe, but it’s much more crowded and bustling than Luang Prabang. A bicycle still offers the best way to get around town, though you will have to circumnavigate much more traffic. Wat Si Saket has been impeccably restored in a way that I really liked; it wasn’t “glitzed” over, but rather underwent a 2011 restoration of complete integrity that doesn’t mar the original architectural wonder. The Patuxai Arch is an interesting “Arc de Triomphe” sort of thing in the middle of a roundabout; it was built in the 1960s with cement purchased from the U.S. that was supposed to have been used for a new airport. The views from the top are quite nice, and the arch is an interesting counterpoint to the more traditional Asian architecture. For shopping, head to the Talat Sao Market; it looks like an ugly 1960s mall, but if you go to the third and fourth floors you will find booths selling quality jewelry and local textiles.
This is the place to dive into a cooking class — especially those that include a trip to the local market. Lao cuisine has many similarities to surrounding Southeast Asian food, yet with its own unique touches; it’s less spicy than Thai food, and Laos is the only country in Asia where sticky rice is eaten with every meal. Strolling over cobblestone lanes between Buddhist temples at the Luang Prabang morning market, you can check out delicacies on offer such as freshly-gutted tadpoles, live wriggling larvae, water buffalo ears, and live snakes. Shopping the market with Somroj Mepiern, Executive Chef of Hotel de la Paix, this is what was going through my mind: Just what does one cook with honeycomb filled with larvae, duck feet, or dried squid?
As part of the Culinary Experience offered by Hotel de la Paix, Chef Somroj and I then returned to the beautiful hotel facility to commence our cooking lessons and whip up four different fabulous recipes. “Most people have yet to discover Lao cooking,” Chef said.
For two hours he taught me how to make Mok Pak (veggies steamed in banana leaf), Lao soup, Panang Gai (red curry), and the Lao specialty Naam Kaow – delicate rice crepes stuffed with meat and vegetables. “Just like an artist who sees his paintings in his mind first,” Somroj says, “I see the food, I see the dish and all its ingredients in my mind first, before it comes together on the plate.”
The Kuang Si Falls make for a fantastic half-day trip from Luang Prabang. The three-tiered waterfalls cascade down the mountain, with lush paths and bridges to several swimming holes, or all the way to the top if you wish. It’s a great place to have a picnic lunch and enjoy the turquoise water of the pools. As you start into the park there is also a cool bear sanctuary run by a nonprofit group. There is a small entrance fee (20,000 kip – $3USD), but the best way to get there is via one of the many half-day tours leaving from Luang Prabang, at around $12-15USD per person that includes transportation. A heads-up, however — I took this tour, which was great except for a very weird stop on the way back at a “cultural village” for shopping. It was a strange 15-minute stop that felt as if loads of tourists were being let off to snap photos of the locals. You might want to skip that part.
In Vientiane, my favorite way to “play” is to indulge in a Lao massage and herbal sauna. My absolute favorite was called the Herbal Sauna just off Chao Anou. Here I got a one-hour body scrub, an absolutely wonderful one-hour massage, and in between I sat in the herbal sauna, which not only felt wonderful and detoxifying on my skin, but the herbs used are so aromatically delightful that they really make the experience. Total cost for this three-hour splurge of relaxation? $15. There is also a wat that offers herbal sauna and massage, interestingly enough — Wat Sok Pa Luang, a little on the outskirts of the main part of town.
Besides learning how to cook your own food, Laos offers some wonderful culinary experiences — with both Southeast Asian and French food. Although Lao cuisine is quite delicious (especially the crepes and Laap salad), the French influence here also means that there is some damn fine French food to be found; and possibly nowhere else in the world can you eat fine French cuisine more cheaply.Lunch is an especially good deal at places like Le Vendome in Vientiane, tucked away in an old house. Daily lunch (and dinner) menus are priced extremely reasonably, but you can’t beat the revolving weekday lunch special, three courses for only 22,000K — about $3USD.
Several others are also highly recommended, such as Chez Philippe and Le Silapa. In Luang Prabang, many open-air restaurants are located along the river and make for a scenic place to eat or even just relax with a fresh fruit smoothie, a Lao specialty. My favorite places to eat in Luang Prabang include Tamarind Café, which moved not too long ago into bigger quarters due to its high popularity and demand. Tamarind also offers cooking classes. My other top recommendation is Dyen Sabai, a chill place across the river; you walk across a bamboo bridge to reach it. It’s a completely open-air place with floor seating, games and coffee, and a groovy music soundtrack. Their specialty is Lao fondue, which is an entire experience where you grill your own meats and veggies on your table. Fun and delicious.
Luang Prabang has two noteworthy upper-end offers: sister hotels 3 Nagas, located in the center of town in a charming restored building; and Hotel de la Paix, a more modern getaway on the fringes of town but still easily accessible. Both properties have every modern amenity combined with a decidedly Lao atmosphere and culture. Rates start at around $165. On the budget end, Luang Prabang does not lack for well-situated, comfortable, and clean guest houses in the range of $15-30USD per night. Most have A/C and wi-fi, and unless you are traveling at a very peak time, the best thing is to just go to a few and check out their rooms before making a decision.
In Vientiane, I recommend the Salana Boutique Hotel. It was voted one of Asia’s best new boutique hotels by Budget Traveler Magazine — small, beautifully and impeccably decorated, very comfortable, and with excellent service. The location is simply superb; within walking distance to restaurants, the riverfront, Wat Si Saket, and Herbal Sauna. Our room was quite nice, they have wi-fi, a restaurant, and bar — really all the modern conveniences you might want. And the rates are still very reasonable, running between $80-150USD depending on the time of year and the room.
One of the top issues in any developing country is literacy, and particularly that of young people learning English to be able to open the door to more opportunities in their futures. In Luang Prabang, check out Big Brother Mouse, an excellent program that makes literacy fun for Lao kids. Located on a quiet street next to several guest houses, the organization both accepts book donations as well as volunteers who would like to come in the evening and help locals practice their conversational English skills.
“Do you remember the excitement of rushing home to read the next chapter in a book that you hoped would never end?” asks the Big Brother website. “Many Lao children have no such memories. Until recently, few books were published in the Lao Language. Many people in Lao villages never saw a book. We sometimes have to explain how books work: ‘Look, if you turn the page, there’s more!’”
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