Don’t follow the tourist trail in Laos. Instead, why don’t you try learning the local lingo, giving a bit back and visiting a local wedding?
Get Off the Banana Pancake Trail
Most first-timers to Laos follow a very well trodden route: Enter from Thailand in the north, take a two-day boat trip to Luang Prabang, then head to Vang Vieng for tubing, and then on to Vientiane and either return to Thailand, or fly to Vietnam. Luckily it’s easy to get off the beaten track. In the north, head to Luang Nam Tha or Muang Sing for trekking and village walks; Phonsavan for the Plain of Jars; Nong Kiaow for some laidback scenery. Or, in the south, check out the massive Kong Lo cave near Tha Khaek; try an island homestay near Champassak; or for the really intrepid try out the volcano lake out past Attapeu.
Give a Bit Back
It’s all too easy to cruise through Laos without meeting barely a single Lao person – don’t let it be this way. Laos remains one of the poorest countries in the world and all assistance is welcome. Try your hand at volunteering while you’re there – there are loads of opportunities in both Luang Prabang and Vientiane for this. Vientiane even has a monkchat – you can find them at Wat Ong Theu.
Well, not you yourself, but don’t be shy when a complete stranger buttonholes you into a Lao wedding. You will expect to dance, eat, drink and drink some more. It is a great experience and one of those uniquely Lao memories.
Learn Some of the Lingo
Getting a full grasp of the Lao language is quite a challenge, but the rudiments are, well, rudimentary. Counting, hello and thank you are all easy to learn and can be picked up in a few hours. World Nomads has a handy Laos Language app to help you along the way. Numbers will especially help in bargaining. And don’t forget “Bor Pen Nyang” it means “never mind” or “you’re welcome”.
Stay in Control
Beer is cheap in Laos. Lao Lao (locally made ricewine) is even cheaper – and really carries a kick. Laos is a hot country and drinking a lot, in a short period of time will go to your head quicker than you may be used to. Laos is overall a very safe country, but if you start to really lose control, others may take advantage. Note that in Vang Vieng, where there is a, let’s say, liberal policy on drugs, anything marked as “happy” refers to what is in the food – not the attitude of the waiters – so don’t buy a “happy shake” for the kids.
Laos is a small country but the infrastructure is very poor. Don’t be surprised when your 200km bus trip takes 10+ hours. In wet season, landslides and breakdowns can further hamper getting around. The best antidote to this is to try and see fewer places in more time. To do the country top to tail requires at least three weeks, yet people routinely do it in one. Slow down, and, if your time is limited, save the South for the next trip!
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