History of Laos
The history of this communist nation now is both tumultuous and tragic. The Lao people today are among the poorest in Southeast Asia, having seen Japanese occupation, French colonization, three decades of conflict and, during the Vietnam War, a barrage of U.S. bombs on their soil (almost as many as the total dropped by all countries during World War II). Yet, they’re also considered to be some of the warmest and most genuine people on the continent.
What has become of this once isolated backwater? I wanted to find out, so I travelled to Laos last month from Chiang Mai not only to renew my Thai visa, but to explore this country so often overlooked by travelers to Southeast Asia.
Vientiane, the largest city (and location of the Thai embassy), was my first stop and, apart from the food scene, uneventful.
The twisting, pot-holed roads in Laos, on the other hand, make for an interesting adventure (or unbearable, depending on your stomach). One of my bus journeys was the worst I’ve endured — ever. It was seven grueling hours of non-existent air conditioning in 35°C heat on an old, shoddy vehicle with long cracks in the windshield and windows that, of course, didn’t open (I’m from Canada, remember). In one way, I was lucky on this particular journey (not on my first Lao bus ride, however) — no one vomited. Take this as a warning: the “VIP” buses here are sometimes nothing like the name implies and will test your limits. The Lao bus system is among the most abysmal, if not the most abysmal, in Southeast Asia.
After a bumpy, four-hour bus ride from Vientiane on a winding route through mountains (this ride was actually tolerable, but not for one poor passenger who ended up spewing her last meal into a bag), I arrived in the sleepy town of Vang Vieng.
Once party central for young backpackers who would tube down Nam Song River while indulging in opium, magic mushrooms, and buckets filled with lao-lao whiskey and potent cocktails at riverside bars along the way, Vang Vieng has, to some extent, reclaimed its tranquil vibe. Alarmed by the number of alcohol-related injuries and deaths in and around the water, measures have been taken in recent years to transform the town’s reputation for drunk hedonism to one of outdoor adventure. Now, visitors come for hiking, caving and kayaking. As for tubing, rules have been implemented to deter drinking before floating down the river.
With towering limestone cliffs, Vang Vieng has become a hotspot for rock climbers too.
Add the river, lush rice fields and picturesque mountains, and this town offers one of the most pristine, scenic landscapes in Laos.
Vang Vieng is also a convenient pit stop to break up the long overland journey from Vientiane to Luang Prabang.
Laos’ quieter, second largest city is the well-preserved, cultural heart of the north. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 largely for its architecture — a rich blend of traditional Lao wooden houses and French colonial buildings — Luang Prabang would be the city I’d visit if I could squeeze only one place in Laos into my itinerary.
Situated on the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, it would be remiss to skip a slow boat ride on the Mekong at sunset. As the tangerine sun lazily disappears behind the mountains, it’s a peaceful experience to float along the body of water that is a lifeline to Southeast Asia.
While on land, I didn’t stray far from the Mekong. Meals at the riverside provided a serene view of the boats floating by.
The city is also filled with the aroma of coffee and freshly baked baguettes from the quaint French cafes and restaurants that line streets.
Of course, I spent a few hours discovering the Buddhist temples too. Wat Xieng Thong (or Vat Xieng Toung) is the most significant and most beautiful of them all. Highly ornate with sparkling golds, reds and greens, the details of this monastery are splendid.
In the evenings, I biked to the night market (many guest houses conveniently offer bicycles for guests’ use), where I picked up a few small crafts as I bounced from one colourful stall to another.