The first post in my See It, Or Skip It? series focused on Vietnam. More specifically, inspired by one of my Facebook friends, I used my pictures and experiences to explain why Vietnam should be on any traveler’s itinerary. This week, it’s time to turn a critical eye on Laos. As before, I’ll start with a brief list of places in Laos, and, for each place, I’ll give my unblemished (obviously biased) opinion as to whether someone should see it and skip it. Read on, and tell me what you think!
Vientiane? Skip it. Don’t get me wrong–despite the craziness at my hostel, I loved Vientiane. It was very chill, and I LOVED eating at Joma Bakery Café. Furthermore, I enjoyed visiting Buddha Park, That Luang, and the other handful of sights as well as just strolling around the city. That being said, there just isn’t much to see in Vientiane. I think that I read somewhere that Vientiane is one of the sleepiest capital cities in the world, and this assessment is not far from the truth. Basically, if you want to add Vientiane to your itinerary, I would do it over two days, for a total of 36 hours; that way, you have time to get out of town to Buddha Park, get breakfast at Joma the next day, and see the remaining sights in the afternoon before heading onwards. Otherwise, be prepared to just lay back and relax!
Vang Vieng? See it. There is a caveat here, though. Do NOT join the boozy, tubing scene on the Nam Song River. While it’s fun to watch for short periods of time, it’s over-the-top, more than a little bit gross, and actually quite dangerous. No, if you’re going to do Vang Vieng, you need to do it right. I did an amazing, full-day guided tour with Green Discovery that included trekking, caving, tubing, swimming, and kayaking (not to mention a break for a delicious and filling lunch!).
The kayaking was last, so, on the way back into town, our group got to paddle past the wacky antics happening on the river (to the beat of ear-bustingly-loud American pop and rap music) while still managing to stay safe and not get involved in the main action–a good compromise in my book. During the rest of my time in Vang Vieng (not enough–I wish that I had spent more time here as opposed to Luang Prabang (see below)!), I mostly passed my time admiring the beautiful karst scenery, wandering around the town, and eating delicious items ranging from the flavorful larb (a kind of spicy, minced meat salad) to the infamously tasty mulberry pancakes. Vang Vieng is definitely my favorite city in Laos, and I would go again in a heartbeat. In short, I highly recommend a visit!
Luang Prabang? Too close to call. I know, I know. Everyone else LOVES this place–in fact, if you search the Internet, I’m sure that you will find hundreds of people waxing rhapsodic about their time in this city. I have to admit that I dislike Luang Prabang less now than I did immediately after visiting. The town was picturesque, the food (especially the smoothies and crepes) definitely hit the spot (and there were also really good high-end food options, too), and the night market was colorful. Also, I did feel relaxed after my traditional Lao massage–even though I got bitten to death by mosquitos before the massage therapist brought in a Citronella candle, and even though the massage felt like someone was politely but decidedly beating the bejesus out of me.
That being said, overall, I found the sights a little boring. The main drag in town is absolutely stuffed with wats (Buddhist temples), and, after awhile, they all start to blend together. The out-of-town excursion to the Pak Ou Caves (and the nearby Whiskey and Weaving Villages) was generally lackluster. The visit to the Kouang Si Waterfall was quite scenic (and, to be fair, there was a cool, if somewhat distressing, nearby enclosure featuring Asiatic black bears), but it was not very interesting beyond that. Based on the aforementioned positive reviews, I had scheduled almost a week in Luang Prabang; frankly, I could have done with half that so that I could have spent more time in Vang Vieng.
You can see why this is too close to call. In short, on this one, you’re going to have to decide for yourself; I admit that my view is contrarian, but there it is. If you do decide to go, I would probably keep it short (not Vientiane short, though) unless you plan to either totally zen out and eat the delicious food or rent a bike and go farther afield. Good luck on making this tough decision!
So, the big question: should you see Laos, or skip it? SEE IT! The country has such a laidback vibe that it’s perfect for a vacation or even for a break from a longer, more hectic trip. The prices are generally good, and, though the transportation connections can sometimes be a little on the less-safe side, it is all good-natured and relaxed. If you’re a solo traveler, you should expect to keep to yourself (or, alternatively, join the less-than-desirable Vang Vieng party scene), as I didn’t find Laos to be as sociable as Vietnam. That being said, Laotians are especially kind and helpful, and are generally very accepting of (read: less pointing and staring at) travelers who do not fit the image of the typical, Caucasian, Western backpacker. Basically, when you’re ready to slow down for a bit while enjoying the outdoors and savoring a myriad of culinary delights, you should make your way over (at a leisurely pace, of course) to Laos!
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For those of you who have not been to Laos, I hope that the information above helps you make an informed decision about whether to visit!
For those of you who have been to Laos, feel free to let me know whether you agree or disagree with my assessment!