So you've visited most of South-East Asia? Well, I bet you forgot about LAOS.
Ask anyone to list down the South East Asian countries they'd like to visit and more often than not, they're the usual few suspects.
Without thinking too hard, the taglines adopted by each country easily come to mind. For instance; "Amazing Thailand or Mystical Myanmar". Many travelers would describe Indonesia as "Adventurous", Vietnam as "Charming" or the Philippines as "fun or beautiful", and even Singapore would be described as "it's a FINE city"
But Laos? Well.....it's forgotten.
The Nam Song River flowing through Vang Vieng, Laos
Seldom marketed as a tourist destination (other than in Korea probably, which is why heaps of Koreans are seen in Laos) and almost non existent in history textbooks or in movies (what was Laos's role in the Vietnam war? or WWII? Ha, bet you didn't know. Because I didn't either), Laos almost never appears in the news; Forgotten.
Where is Laos? / Getting There
Sandwiched between larger neighbors, it's no surprise most Singaporeans are ignorant about the whereabouts and wonders of South East Asia's only landlocked country (well to be fair, everyone forgets about Laos, not just Singaporeans). Bordered by Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia, why would anyone even bother visiting Laos? Based on the typical Singaporean logic, "if no one queues, it can't be good." Likewise, "if no one goes, go for what?"
Laos is a 3 hour flight away from Singapore (or 1hour from Bangkok) and the only direct flight is offered by Silk Air (which basically means throwing money away) On this trip, "The Girl" and I decided to combine Laos together with Myanmar and Cambodia, this way, we had access to direct flights (via budget airline) for every leg of the trip.
Singapore - Yangon -> Vientiane (by road to Luang Prabang via Vang Vieng), Luang Prabang -> Siem Reap -> Singapore
The main attractions in Laos are pretty far apart. (see map above)
Transport is an issue and getting around can be pretty annoying in Laos. Expect long drives (4 hours minimum) from one attraction to the other. The other main attraction not on the map (because there was no space) is Four Thousand Island in Pakse, Southern Laos. It's almost impossible to cram all the main stuff in Laos within a week so whatever you see circled on the map above should suffice for a 1 week vacation.
Whats There To See / Do?
"The Girl" taking a refreshing dip at the Kuang Si Waterfalls, Luang Prabang
A vacation in here is as laid back as it gets and Laos is by far the most relaxed, slow paced country in South East Asia. No one should be in a hurry to get anywhere; not you, not the locals, no one. Half of the "to do" stuff in Laos are all about "taking your own sweet time". And the other half? Well, heart pumping adrenaline rushing activities of course.
Thanks to plenty of rain (3 days of torrential rain we had while we where there), rivers and mountainous terrain, some of Asia's most impressive waterfalls are found in Laos.
Most tourists visit the Kuang Si Waterfalls (above), easily recognizable by a series of cascading waterfalls with pools of crystal clear water to swim in. Check the weather forecast and plan your trip to the waterfalls on the hottest day possible. The water is really cold, you won't want to visit on a cold rainy day; unfortunately, that's what happened to us. It was bright and sunny when we first arrived, 45 mins later, it was pouring; and I mean crazy volumes of rain.
There are a good many waterfalls in Laos, but the Kuang Si Waterfall is easily the most accessible (and Instagram worthy; that's important to Singaporeans). If all you have is a week, just go for this one. You can book a tuk tuk and go at it alone, but I'd suggest booking a day tour instead. It doesn't cost much more, and unlike package tours in Singapore, tour operators in Laos will leave you ample time to spend at each attraction.
2. Tubing, Kayaking, Caving, Zip-lining
Tubing, the Number 1 "to do" activity (not attraction) in Vang Vieng, Laos.
Rent a tube and float down the spectacular Nam Song river while chugging down bottles of cheap alcohol. Think of it as a pub crawl on a float. The river is lined with bars (not as many as there used to be) overflowing with beer and backpackers. As you float down the river, pick out a bar you like, they throw you a rope and you haul yourself in. Grab your drink, have a smoke and perhaps chat with whoever is there. 30mins later, off you go, floating down to the next bar with your new found friend (press repeat).
It sounds really silly I know, but if you visit Vang Vieng, it's "The Thing" to do. In all honesty, it's overrated, but just do it all the same. Just watch your alcohol intake as rivers and getting drunk aren't exactly the best combination. People drown every year while tubing and drinking their way down the Nam Song.
If you're in the mood of something less "laid back", make your way down the river by kayak instead. In Vang Vieng, zipline's, driving ATVs, and caving are the main "adrenaline pumping" activities to experience.
3. Magnificent Sunsets (but a little overrated)
Tourists "reserving" their seats to witness the country's most popular sunset at Mount Phousi, Luang Prabang
With Laos being the "laid back" travel destination that it is, watching the sun go down actually happens to be one of the top activities. For the most "iconic" Laotian sunset, head straight to Mount Phousi, Luang Prabang.
Hordes of tourists (with their expensive cameras) make the 30min climb (over 300 steps) just to watch the sunset. The result? An sweaty odour of perspiration, sticky arms, tourists jostling and bumping into each other.
See? We're not kidding about the sticky perspiration soaked tourists and their sweaty odour
The "easier" way to enjoy the Laotian sunset when you're in Luang Prabang is to simply head to one of the restaurants by the Mekong River and treat yourself to what is arguably one of Asia's greatest most worthwhile BBQ buffets (Riverside BBQ Restaurant Luang Prabang) under $15 SGD.
Don't get me wrong, you shouldn't skip the views over Mount Phousi for a mere riverside view. It's just that cheap beer and great food make for a better sunset watching experience than roughing it out after battling your way up 300 steps. Your holiday, you decide.
4. Sail along the Mekong River
Cruising along the Mekong River via slowboat is one of the "should try" experiences to have in Laos. Some travelers we met spent two days on a slowboat, from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang. Singaporeans shouldn't try that though, we'd go crazy. 2 hours, rather than days is all we can probably stomach.
If your planning on visiting one of Luang Prabang's most popular caves, the Pak Ou, choose to travel by slowboat rather than tuk tuk for a quick taste of the Mekong without actually spending the night on one.
5. Visit Temples. (expect entrance fees though)
View of the Pak Ou Caves Temple from a slowboat
Frankly, we're not really that fascinated by temples in general, much less the fact that most (if not all) temples in Laos charge (tourists) an entrance fee. But the entrance fee and our lack of interest in temples aside, the Pak Ou Caves (above) are as interesting as temples could possibly be.
The inside of the "lower caves", with over 4000 Buddhist figurines.
Do note that most temples are closed during the day. If you'd like an authentic "Laotian temple experience", visit in the early morning or evening; that's when the monks are up and about chanting scriptures.
6. Hot Air Ballooning (the cheapest ever!!)
We (or rather I, the Bald Guy) were rather apprehensive about taking to the skies on the "worlds cheapest hot air balloon". I mean, "the girl" and I are known for traveling the world without splurging and throwing money about; but at the expense of safety? I don't think so.
Even the overpriced, much vaunted touristy hot air balloons in Cappadocia, Turkey experience crash landings way more often than they should. And we're trying a budget balloon now? You've got to be kidding.
There is only one hot air balloon company in Vang Vieng and it'll cost you $90 USD for around an hour's worth of "flight time". The balloon flies twice a day, offering the option of either a morning or evening flight. We suggest you do the morning flight for supposedly clearer skies (they might cancel it though depending on the weather the night before).
Don't expect a pre flight safety briefing though. The truck picks you up from your hotel, deposits you where the balloon is, bundles you into the basket, and off you go.
Before you know it, you're up and away, and there's no one but you and the clouds (plus the other people sharing your basket).
In all honesty, I (The Bald Guy) have a genuine fear of heights. But as the mountains, rivers and the lush greenery of the Laotian landscape opened up before me, the fear I felt disappeared (untill it was time to land), and I gradually began to soak up the beauty beneath me.
Would I recommend an experience on the worlds cheapest hot air balloon? Yes, it was certainly worth every dollar; just remember to pray though.
7. Shopping & Drinking (Night Markets/Bars)
When I say shopping, I mean night bazaar kind of shopping. With the exception of its capital Vientiane, there no "real" shopping malls in Laos. Shopaholics don't have to worry though, a good number of shops line the streets, selling stuff even typical Singaporean tourists would buy.
The night market in Luang Prabang is somewhat similar to those in Bangkok (minus the replica watches and bags); street food, clothes, local crafts and souvenirs. In Vang Vieng, the night market is more about "street food", BBQ fish, BBQ chicken, pork, pretty much BBQ everything.
The Sakura Bar is the "coolest" spot in Vang Vieng, probably because they offer free drinks from 19:00 to 20:00 (yes, free drinks). Almost everyone gathers at the Sakura Bar; backpackers, desperate men, wild women, and Koreans. Yes Koreans. Those of you Singaporean addicted to K Pop and all things Korean, Vang Vieng is where you want to be, not Seoul. That's right, bus loads of Koreans visit Vang Vieng for a week of fun.
Not lucky enough to score a Korean hunk/babe? No worries, there are good many prostitutes around offering cheap sex for as low as $30 SGD (sorry ladies, I don't think we came across any gigolo bars). And drugs, let's not forget those, available almost everywhere. In short, Vang Vieng is a party town. It's time to let your hair down.
Warning: Prostitution and drugs are illegal in Laos though readily available. If you get caught, the bribe for either is the equivalent of $600 USD
8. Soak up the culture
Handicrafts, weaving and sculpture/woodworking is not really our kind of thing, but if you're already in Laos, you might as well hang around for half a day at one of the local villages. Sign up for one of those "cultural tours" and experience the "traditional Laos way of life".
And don't forget to try "Lao Lao". No, not the expensive frozen yogurt chain in Singapore (which is supposedly from Spain but I never saw any while I was there) but "Lao Lao Snake Whisky", a local staple together with BeerLao.
How long should I stay
Vientiane is a waste of time, but you'll need at the bare minimum 4 days (2 days each) just for Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng alone. I'd suggest a week in Laos so you can travel Laos the "right way"; the slow chill-ax way. But I know, us Singaporeans, we're always in a hurry. With a week though, you'll be able to add the UNESCO World Herritage Site, "Plain of Jars" to your itinerary comfortably enough.
Accommodation is really cheap in Laos. We paid $30 USD ($15 USD each, walk in price) in total for each night in a good quality hotel (above) with a lounge and swimming pool right outside your room like we did.
How much should I budget?
Laos in general is NOT cheap. I have no idea why some travel blogs portray Laos a typical Asian country where one could live like a king (maybe on their salary, certainly not mine).
Being a landlocked country, almost everything is imported. The locals earn next to nothing that's for sure. Food and transport costs are pretty much similar to that in Singapore (maybe marginally cheaper, say 15% less), but definitely way more expensive than Thailand, Cambodia, and even Malaysia.
Food and transport aside though, tours are really cheap. If you look at the picture above under point 1. A tour to both the Pak Ou caves and the Kuang Si Waterfalls inclusive of water, lunch (and it was an awesome lunch for what we paid. See 4 pictures below under "Who Should Go"), transport right from hotels doorstep plus the slowboat experience costs the equivlent of $25 SGD! For an all inclusive full day tour! If this isn't cheap I don't know what is.
A day of tubing costs less than $15 SGD, with the average day tour costing $20 SGD. And you already know the hot air balloon costs just $90 USD.
The huge BBQ fish costs around $7 SGD, a couple of chicken wings $3 SGD and a bottle of local beer for $1.50.
Wide selection of BBQ meat. This was already one of the cheapest BBQ stalls in Luang Prabang, more of a hawker than anything else.
A proper Laos sandwich (with 2 kinds of meat and eggs) costs as much as $5 SGD! Still think Laos is cheap? So you can relate better, the average salaried local, say a policeman, earns the equivalent of $850 SGD in a YEAR. That's how ridiculous the cost of living is in Laos as opposed to what they earn.
Then again, they don't spend $5 SGD on sandwiches of course.
A close up of what $5 SGD gets you. Delicious though.
Who Should go?
I know that regardless of what I write, Singaporeans will still continue with their Bangkok and Taiwan trips. Even Myanmar and Cambodia would be higher up the typical Singaporeans bucket list than Laos would. And that doesn't surprise me at all because Singaporeans will always be Singaporeans, and that says it all.
Laos is a great travel destination for families, couples, groups of friends, men looking for cheap sex, and of course, K-pop crazy Singaporeans desperate to hook up with Koreans.
The region of South East Asia actually falls into the part of the world "The Girl" and I would least like to travel to (because Singapore is so close).
And while Laos might not feature in our "favorite country list", but it certainly doesn't deserve to be "Forgotten" or ranked behind Thailand, Cambodia, or Myanmar on anyone's bucket list.
So if your reading this, and you're about to click "confirm" on a ticket to Cambodia or Thailand, press the "X" at the top right of your screen and perhaps you'd might like to rethink your travel plans again.