I finally had to do the dreaded thing that a lot of visitors to this area have to do– make the Laos visa run. The trip is usually avoided at all costs, because it costs more than it should, and involves a lot of waiting around and annoying bureaucracy. But, I decided to make the most of it by exploring the country a bit while I was there.
The trip there was arduous. Bussing it from town to town, crossing Thailand horizontally and then up into Laos, took me about 19 hours in total.
I just have to say that this was a very mixed trip, but my overall impression of Laos itself was not very good. I’ll try to keep my complaints succinct. I thought that Laos was very similar to Thailand in terms of scenery, food, language, and culture. The biggest differences were that people were cold and everything was dirty, less developed, less delicious/plentiful, and cost a fortune (comparatively, based on my Thai salary). I don’t think I could recommend visiting Laos, but for the experience of a new country.
All of these judgments could be summed up by one experience. I broke my flip flop on my last day in Laos, and was walking around with only one shoe because I couldn’t find replacements. People responded by pointing me out and sneering, and two tried to take advantage of my situation by selling me shoes at outrageous, unaffordable prices. Meanwhile, as soon as I made it back to Thailand, the first person who saw me walking down the street with one shoe immediately picked me up, gave me a ride home, and shared half of their breakfast with me.
Now that’s my official pitch in favor of giving Laos a miss, and it’s over. Other than those things, there were some real highlights to the trip. I really enjoyed the social aspect of the trip. The other travelers I met there were awesome. I’d compare the Laos hostel scene to that which I’ve seen in South America– really chill, with interesting people who do fun stuff together. That’s something I haven’t seen yet in SE-Asia. Let’s look at the full recap and some of the more positive aspects of Laos.
My first stop was Vientiane. I spent my first day wandering around here. I really liked the French feel of certain sections in this city. Many signs were in French, and a couple of people spoke French to me when I couldn’t understand their Lao. I stopped in at a nice French bakery and had a baguette topped with spinach and bechamel sauce- delish! There was a nice evening market by the Mekong river, which was nice to relax by before starting the night. I had the weirdest drink ever– I pointed to something that looked good, and then watched in horror as the vendor poured a bag half full of oil and half full of the drink I had pointed to. I wish I hadn’t seen how they made it…
Back at the hostel, we drank Lao moonshine, which is probably the most potent alcohol I’ve ever tried. It was comparable in strength to those gasoline shots I mentioned before. There wasn’t much to do in terms of nightlife, but we kept ourselves busy dancing and playing cards in the hostel. It was all chill, except for the Scottish guy who was going around asking every girl to stay behind and sleep with him… there always has to be one of those guys. We ended by buying banana pancakes on the street. The pancakes here (and in Thailand) are thin, almost like crepes, but then they are folded up with egg and bananas inside, and then drizzled with sweetened condensed milk. Now these were actually pretty cheap- the cheapest food I saw in Laos. I guess it’s no wonder, then, that the super thrifty backpacker’s route through SE-Asia is called the “banana pancake trail”.
Next day, more biking through the city. There are some interesting landmarks in the city, like a pretty, French monument (called Patouxay) and an all-gold temple (called That Luang).
There’s also a section (near the all-gold wat) with a lot of dark, wooden buildings that makes it look kind of like an old western town. It was a bit eery, especially since there was a storm rolling in and the place was all but deserted.
Back at the hostel after my day of biking, a very strange night was about to start. I and a group of people were sitting around drinking beer and playing cards, and eating a massive grilled fish we had got at the market. This old guy who was staying at the hostel decided to sit down at our table. Slowly, a throng of katoeys (transgender prostitutes) started to surround our group. They started massaging all the dudes, and trying to kiss their necks… it was getting really heated at that table. Even though everyone in our group made it clear that they weren’t interested, I guess there were no other takers in the area either, so they decided to stick around and hope someone here would change their mind. So there we were, stuck in our awkward stalemate with the katoeys for the rest of the night… it turns out that the old guy had hooked up with some of them before, and tonight would be no different. Thanks a lot for mentioning that sooner, old dude!