Tubing:Yes, I know it got a lot of bad publicity a few years ago and due to that publicity it was closed down for quite a while and has recently started up again. When I visited Vang Vieng (May, 2013) the tubing was “like a Sunday session” in the words of one of my backpacker buddies. It was a nice float down the river in a rubber tube, stopping at bars along the way for a beer and maybe taking one with you for the onwards journey. There was even one woman who lived along the river and would sell you beer for takeaway! She was in the perfect spot for when you’d finished your last beer and wanted a new one as well (smart entrepreneurship is one of the Lao people’s best traits!) Because it was the big thing to do in that town, most people were on the river during the day. It was also the easiest way to see the most beautiful views in Laos!
Sampling local food: Although this is something you should be doing everywhere to experience the culture and to save money, it’s something extra special in Laos! Never have I had a meal so good as the one eaten with my hands bought from a local market in Laos (this isn’t even exaggeration!)
Caving: All one needs to do is look at me to know that I’m not overly athletic. I’m a little round from all the food and beer loving I do but even for me these caves were accessible. Some are just a short walk from the Vang Vieng town, other more popular caves are at the Blue Lagoon. You can explore all the caves without shoes (best way if you don’t have proper footwear and didn’t come prepared like me) or you can wear sneakers. The caves even have small shrines in them for you to place incense if you are so inclined. A beautiful place for a Buddhist shrine!
Kayaking in Luang Num Ta: I loved my experience Kayaking in Luang Num Ta. The township itself was small and more multicultural than other places in Laos. Being in the far north with many visitors from Vietnam, China and Thailand passing through you could have conversations with people from these countries at the pub rather than just the usual backpacker crowd (who were nowhere to be seen when I was there!) I signed up for a kayaking trip on my first day in town with an American guy I’d met on the bus and it was amazing!
We had a local guide who spoke seven or eight languages (he was very modest about it considering) and who had a great sense of humour. He’d encourage us to jump from our kayak into the river for a refreshing dip. He also enjoyed encouraging the tribal children to use our kayak as a dive board when we arrived in their villages.
Luang Num Ta was not frequented by many tourists, and the kayaking had even fewer tourists, so when we met tribes they were not tourist tribes who’s primary income came from white people. They were tribes who were as curious about us as we were them (the children even more so!)
This is something I’d encourage someone to do at least once in their lives. If you’re as lucky as I was too, you’ll get a gym junkie who doesn’t mind you rowing half as much as he does!
Waterfalls: This is something you must do! I’ve swum in many waterfalls, but the one’s in Laos (accessible from Luang Probang is the most frequented by travellers, don’t worry about working out how to get there tuk tuk drivers see you wondering Luang Prabang town and ask you if want to go to the waterfalls for a dip all the time) these waterfalls were my favourite in Laos. I loved the cool water on my skin, how you could just climb the waterfall and jump right in and the fact that there were so many new people there to talk to. There are also little cleaner fish who will give your skin a clean if you stand still long enough, a free extra for those who need to exfoliate!
Motorbiking from town to town: Something I didn’t do but would like to in the future, maybe biking for charity to raise awareness about the cluster bomb crisis in Laos. I was lucky enough to meet a couple who were motorbiking Asia and they’d told me Lao’s was their favourite place to morotbike so far. Sounded better than catching a minibus like most backpackers, so I added it to this list! Learn from my mistakes, guys.
Exploring “Asia’s Stonehenge” the Plain of Jars: This is something I absolutely recommend for everyone. Although a little out of the way I would say everyone should see the Plain of Jars! I visited Stone Henge while in England and enjoyed myself but this is just as old and as curious as stone henge and no-one is there. Get to it before the plain of jars is overrun by tourists!
COPE centre in Vientine: My visit to the COPE centre in Vientine opened my eyes about what horrors the Lao has been through during America’s Secret War on Laos.
During the Vietnam war American aircraft were sent to bomb Laos with small cluster bombs. A bomb about the size of a cricket ball that would explode upon impact into a bunch of shrapnel, killing people nearby and damaging infrastructure. Upon being asked about American movements within the country, Nixon was quoted as saying, “There are no American troops stationed in Laos” (because they weren’t stationed there, right? They were flying over the country bombing it). The American people had no idea what was happening. Ask an American today about the war and they just shrug, not knowing it happened.
Although the reasons for the bombings were to stop the spread of communism into Laos from surrounding countries (which failed) and to damage the Ho Chi Min trail which was supplying weapons to the North Vietnamese who were fighting the Americans in the South of Vietnam, aircraft would often dump their bombs anywhere if they couldn’t find their target as they weren’t allowed to return to base with any bombs.
The devastation of the war can be seen in the COPE centre, as well as what is being done to help those affected by the XO still littering the Lao landscape.
Lao’s unexpected drinking culture: Hordes of backpackers hanging off tuk tuks at 2am on the way to the bowling alley : I wanted to finish on a lighter note after mentioning the emotionally-heavy COPE centre. I thought that mentioning lao’s drinking culture was a good finish as it’s a little quirky and I haven’t come across similar anywhere else.
Although in Vang Vieng there are jungle parties (which are fun, you should go if you are wondering down the road and a tuk tuk driver offers you a free ride there as one did me) Luang Prabang has the famous bowling alley.
Laos had a curfew. People are to be indoors between midnight and five am daily and anyone found walking the streets is questioned (never heard of it happening to a tourist). For this reason, all of the bars close at 11.30pm, which is an early time for everyone who’s not English (London pub’s close at the same time, there’s someone who needs to be questioned!).
The Lao are an entrepreneurial people. They saw a gap in the market and filled it. A bowling ally that sit’s outside of town in Luang Prabang takes in all of the drunks from 11.30pm until 3am, allows them to throw balls at pins and supplies them with the best local whisky money can buy (be careful with this stuff, it’s strong!)
It’s worth going to the bowling ally for the novelty even if you don’t drink but if you do like a drink and want to keep going, the tuk tuk’s are waiting…
If you’re interested in finding out more about Lao, you might want to pay my new destination guides section a visit, for free tips and travel advice.