Solo through Laos: First Impressions

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My head had become foggy and dull. My blog hadn’t been updated for months. A sense of ennui was firmly entrenched in my soul. What better time to take all the vacation time I had and hit the road? On my own, for a change?

This time, it was Laos. It’s been on my travel list for years – the poorest country in Southeast Asia yet, by all accounts, the sweetest. A place at least a decade back in time compared to Thailand or Vietnam. Best of all, few folks knew where it was. “You’re going where?”, “Laos…what’s it?”, “Is it in Asia?”  I was repeatedly asked, till I had to remind people that Google still exists, so please look it up.

Well, I’m back, wanderlust satiated, backpack stashed, Lonely Planet reluctantly back on its shelf. While I rest my aching bones (more on that later), and sift through the tons of photographs I’ve shot, here are some observations:

It’s pronounced ‘Lao’: Laos is easily Indochine’s most Francophone country. Vietnam and Cambodia give, at most, a cursory tip of their hats to their (largely brutal and extortionist)DSC_0512 French past. But Laos somehow remains, as a local said, ‘velly velly Flench’, and the Gallic propensity to add extraneous syllables to the written word extends to the country’s name. The ‘s’ is silent, so call it ‘Lao’ and nobody will know you’re a newbie.

Carry a water bottle: Bottled water is expensive – a dollar a bottle doesn’t seem much but it quickly adds up, especially when you’re trudging around in warm weather. I realised, on my second day in Laos, that I’d spent more on water than on my room! Besides, unlike India, you don’t get free water with your meals. So, pack a good (ideally stainless steel) water bottle and fill it whenever you can.

You don’t really need shoes: Unless you’re planning on a serious trek, or going rock-climbing, shoes are very optional. A pair of sturdy flip-flops, though, is a must. Throughout Laos, it’s customary to enter temples, homes and even many shops barefoot. You’ll be wading to get into boats. And, many of Laos’ thrills are water-based, like kayaking and tubing. Shoes are therefore inconvenient and, given the heat and dust, uncomfortable, too. Mine sat in my backpack and only got used in Bangkok, poor things.

Carry a lock. Or two: Sorry, my MICE-inured friends – except for Luang Prabang and Vientiane, there are no ritzy resorts. Even there, they’re a bloody insipid way of experiencing Laos. In most places, guesthouses run by villagers and backpacker IMG_20150214_102339461hostels are the way to go – readily available, clean, cheap (think Rs.500 a day) and a great way to meet interesting people. However, they often have flimsy inbuilt locks, or require that you use your own. Besides (see next point), while travelling around, your bags are often where you can’t see them. So, carry a couple of sturdy locks with three keys each, so you have two backups. Lock your bags in transit and, when you arrive, use one on your room/locker door.

The boat/bus/whatever-mode-of-transport will leave only when it’s full: And, by full, I mean crammed silly (I strongly suspect that Laos Airlines does the same). Till then, it will wait, or circle the town picking up more people. If you’re lucky, your luggage will be lashed on an already-overloaded roof rack. Otherwise, you’ll be sharing space with it, along with co-passengers’ bags, household DSC_0415possessions, bikes, livestock and, often, what seems to be an entire convenience store on the move.

Everyone’s a millionaire: For a first-timer, the Lao kip can be a maddening currency. The smallest note is 1,000 kip, so you’ll be carrying a seemingly obscene amount of money. The trick is to cut out the ‘000s and remember that it’s roughly 8 to a dollar. You’ll soon feel middle-class again.

The locals are really interested in you: Laos was, till recently, an isolated, war-torn country. Even today, it hasn’t been overrun by tourists like Thailand has. As a result, especially in rural areas, many locals are as mystified by you as you are by them, and make a touchingly genuine effort to know you better. They’ll practice their English on you – it’s a language that increases their employability. They’ll ask detailed questions about you and your country. It isn’t nosiness, or the beginning of a rip-off,  but true curiosity, so relax. Be open and friendly – you’ll give someone a much-wanted knowledge boost, make a friend and see the true Laos.

It can be cold, so carry a jacket: Say ‘Southeast Asia’ and the words warm and balmy come to mind. Not that there aren’t places like that, but much of Laos is mountainous. So, sorry to sound like your mum, but pack warm. Or, pick up a nice Beerlao hoodie. It’s a souvenir that’ll be broken in long before you’re home.

Nights are early, but beware the lao lao: Lao bars shut down by 11.30, with a few exceptions – Samlo in Vientiane, the bowling alley (strange, but true) in Luang Prabang and a couple of watering holes in Vang Vieng. But, while they’re open, resist the temptation to underestimate the local moonshine. Lao lao packs a mean punch, especially the homemade variety. It’s cheap (which is why many bars liberally hand out free shots) goes down real smooth with tonic or juice, and then proceeds to blow you skyward better than any space program. Believe me, I’ve been there!

You will travel by boat on more than one occasion: Landlocked Laos’ backbone is the mighty Mekong. But, numerous other DSC_0409rivers also crisscross it. Without them, there would really be no country; they provide not just food and water, but also form a vital transport network in a land where roads are difficult to build and maintain. I missed entering Laos the classic way – from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, which involves a two-day slow boat down the Mekong. Which, happily, means that I still have a Laos to-do list!

 Laos PDR means Laos Please Don’t Rush: I heard this even before I arrived. The move-only-when-full transport can mean that your 8 am bus leaves close to noon. A 300 km journey can turn into an epic 14-hour adventure. This easy pace also translates to almost every other facet of Laotian life. So, leave your control-freak at home, have a flexible schedule, keep breathing deeply DSC_0304and, in a couple of days, you’ll have become a languid lotus-eater, too.

You keep meeting the same guys in different places: Laos is heaven for a solo traveler. First off, it’s extremely safe, even for single women. But, more than that, it’s a circuit with people crisscrossing the country across different routes. I met the Canadian couple who were on the train from Bangkok in no less than three places. Luke, who I met in Luang Prabang, turned up in Vang Vieng and Don Det. And, these are just two examples out of many. So, you’re never really traveling solo; it feels great to land up in a new place, walk a few steps and meet someone you already know.

Hit Vang Vieng midway and Si Phan Don last: Vang Vieng is Southeast Asia’s justifiably notorious party capital. “Wow, Laos? Go straight to Vang Vieng, man!” many travellers advised me. But, while I spent four hedonistic, full-on nights there, hitting Vang Vieng early on may give you the impression that it’s Laos’ true face. It isn’t. So, save it for midway through your travels – it’s in the middle of the country, anyway. Conversely, Si Phan Don – the 4,000 Islands – are at the extreme south and is the ultimate do-nothing paradise. Finish off there, lounging by the Mekong, or gently floating in it. There’s no better place to rest up after a memorable, enthralling, but exhausting journey.

Because, I can safely assure you, that’s what Laos will be.

Getting There: There are regular flights to Vientiane but, given that I avoid flying whenever possible, I can’t tell you much about them. Going overland is way more fun. Besides the slow boat mentioned above (which is for hardcore backpackers), I strongly recommend taking a train from Bangkok to either Vientiane or Pakse in the south (for the 4,000 Islands). This involves taking an overnight express (clean and plush, unlike the train to Cambodia) to Nong Khai on the Thai border near Vientiane, changing to Laos’ only railway line (a little toy train, really) for the 4 kilometre ride to Thanaleng, then riding a jeep for the last 16 kilometres to Vientiane. Any travel agent in Bangkok will set you up with through tickets, all modes of transport included, so it isn’t as arduous as it sounds.  Getting to Pakse in the south is a similar trip via Ubon Ratchathani. Expect super efficiency on the Thai side, then the endearingly casual, yet chaotic, charm of Lao transport when you cross.

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