Nothing in the world could have prepared me for the magic that would ensue on my month-long journey of Laos. I have memories sitting in Pai, Thailand last year talking to one of the most vibrant guys I’ve ever met by the bonfire at Don’t Cry bar and being completely captivated by his stories of pink freshwater dolphins and sunset cruises along the Mekong River. At the time, I was on a three-week Asian holiday and simply didn’t have the ability to explore anything more, but I promised myself that when I next ventured to this area of the world that Laos would be on my list. I entered the country one girl, and left someone completely different; a more peaceful version of myself and full to the brim with love for the people and places I had visited. Here’s my best attempt at conveying why Laos should be on everyone’s ‘must travel’ list.
To start, the Laotian people are pure magic. There’s no ulterior motive to the overwhelming kindness I felt from everyone I met, it’s just who they are. . . and it’s incredibly inspiring and beautiful to be a part of. I’ve never felt so well-taken care of on local buses (where I was the only foreign person, let alone foreign girl), and although I protested, I always had my bags carried for me by the most genuinely nice locals. I can’t recall one single moment in any part of the entire country that I felt anything but completely safe while walking at any hour of the day or night.
Like most Asian countries, nobody rushes for anything and an hour late is considered on time in Laos (a very good off-the-mat practice of patience). But I suppose when you have all the time in the world, whats the need to rush?! One thing I must admit is that there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of work going on … ever. It was not uncommon to see groups of locals enjoying a cold BeerLao at 8am (still sitting in the same spot, laughing together with a pile of empty bottles at 8pm!). I imagine these people are onto something; could it be true that less work makes more happy? Regardless of how they spend their days, there always seemed to be endless infectious smiles from every single adult and child I met (especially as I practiced speaking in their native tongue).
The YOGA culture is out-of-this-world amazing. For those that do venture into Laos and love yoga as much as I do, Luang Pranang Yoga runs a retreat in Nong Khiaw that is worth the investment. The four day experience was filled with so much beauty and it will be something I hold dearly in my heart for years to come.
Each morning at 6am I woke up in my gorgeous villa (complete with a private stargazing lounge upstairs), silently walked through the lush Mandala Resort grounds to the yoga shala situated overlooking the river and enjoyed a beautiful three and a half hour yoga/meditation practice lit by tiny candles.
Warm tea created from the citrus trees on site was readily available, and, (as much as I try to eat local in each country) after a few weeks of repetitive Laotian noodles and rice, the diversity of food at the resort was much appreciated. Breakfast consisted of freshly baked bread and croissants, homemade jams and peanut butter spreads, eggs, fruit and museli, freshly squeezed juices and famous Laos coffee. Dinners were equally as delicious and a different theme every day; Mediterranean, Thai, Indian and one night of local cuisine. Most amazing of all, the ingredients were harvested from the organic resort gardens the same day we ate them! It doesn’t get much fresher than that.
Each day there was free time to enjoy the infinity pool overlooking the river, limestone cliffs jetted from the emerald green water to tower high above head as I floated in the sunshine.
Hammocks were set up in the shala along the river and a shelf of donated books proved to have some very informative and awakening reads.
Afternoon yoga alignment workshops were all included in the retreat program, and, I was fortunate enough to get to teach a few of these sessions! Being surrounded by so many like-minded people really inspired me; we were all different ages, ethnicities, religions, yet we shared the same love for books, yoga, and music. I get tears of joy in my eyes now as I think back to nights spent together with the ukulele singing together to ‘Piano Man’ and ‘I’m Yours’ as a group. On the last evening of the retreat, a blessing ceremony was held (complete with bracelets and mantras) to celebrate the beauty in ourselves and each other. It was such a special moment that really bonded us together as a yoga family.
And the next day, as we squished in a van for the grueling three-hour switchback ride to Luang Prabang, I could feel only positive vibes as the ukuleles came out and the vehicle came alive with singing and laughing about special moments from the four previous days. Magic.
The early bird really does get the worm in northern Laos. I had heard it was a beautiful ‘walk’ from locals (that hike in flip flops) up what I discovered was a pretty much vertical incline for one and a half hours straight! But when I say the pain is worth it, I mean it in every sense of the word. The lookout at the top over Nong Khiaw one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen and if you go for sunrise it’s even more special. Having had a little too much ‘fun’ at a hand of cards the night before, I wasn’t able to peel myself out from under my mosquito net in time to see the sun rise that beautiful November morning. However, my friends who did got the view of a lifetime (literally above the clouds and resembling what I can only imagine heaven to be like). My slower-moving group went after breakfast, which was a very hot choice! I don’t think I’ve ever sweat so much in my life… however, when I reached the apex and saw the river and green lush forests surrounding me, I was washed over by a feeling of gratefulness. Gratefulness for my strong, healthy body in getting me all the way up there and gratefulness for the ability to see and experience such exquisite things in my life.
Luang Prabang is such an unbelievably vibrant city. The night market is the best I’ve visited in Asia so far; chalked full of fresh fruit, baked desserts, and the best vegetarian smorgasbords (fill your bowl as full as you can with home cooked dishes for less than $2). Being the foodie that I am, I would look forward to dinner as soon as I opened my eyes to the beautiful world each morning (some thing never change! lol). The entertainment in the evening is just perfect, and truth be told, the moment I stepped into Utopia restaurant and bar I had an overwhelming feeling of bliss (‘so happy I could cry’ kind of thing that happens to me oh so often these days). The place is amazing! It’s an indoor/outdoor garden oasis with a no-shoe policy, live music, large cushions to lounge on, a volleyball court, and a bamboo platform overlooking the river to stargaze. Best of all, every sunrise and sunset they offer yoga classes on a bamboo deck atop the river; I started my days saluting the sun with the sound of calm rolling water below. It’s without question the best place in town to relax, meet people, get active, have drinks, have dinner – honestly, it’s just everything.
People have told me that there comes a point when you’ve been travelling for a while and have seen SO many waterfalls that they begin to blend together and have slightly less ‘wow-factor’ than they once did. I have to admit, as much as I didn’t believe it possible, it’s true. . . that was until I visited Kuang Si Falls in Luang Prabang. This place is from another world, and I suspect if fairies and unicorns existed, this is where they would choose to live.
We spent a whole afternoon swimming, capturing photos, and jumping from limestone cliffs. But most of all we just took it all in, because this is a once in a lifetime kind of place and, truthfully, I’ve never seen anything like it before. The water was the most brilliant turquoise blue/green and the tiered falls cascaded elegantly into one another for kilometres.
It was a place of beauty and peace, and even the 40 minute tuk-tuk drive through local village rice patties to reach it was breath-taking. I couldn’t help but laugh as local children biked past our tuk-tuk on their way home from school with big, gorgeous smiles on their faces and so many happy waves for our cameras.
Vang Vien was probably the biggest surprise out of all the places I visit in Laos. The town has a terrible reputation for intoxicated backpackers doing harm to themselves and others while they visit and once I arrived I could totally understand why. The free whiskey at hostels and bars combined with the infamous ‘happy shakes’ and nitrous balloons are a breeding ground for bad decisions and last nights’ regrets. And as fun as it was to spend the night dancing at Sakura bar (and sport their tank top like hundreds of other traveller’s do), this town has so much more to offer.
Air balloons line the vibrant sky at sunset; a beautiful accessory to the jagged limestone cliff backdrop.
The blue lagoon is a short scooter ride outside of town and can only be described as ‘mother nature’s water park’. A large tree covered in ropes, ladders and swings for getting some air before splashing into the cool indigo waters below.
Cabanas line the property, swimming holes are just about everywhere and a short (steep) walk will bring you to the mouth of a cave. We walked with torches a good twenty minutes past shrines and natural rock formations before turning around; I’m not going to lie, the darkness and smell reminded me often that this wasn’t my favourite thing in the world.
My second attempt at cave exploration was done sitting atop a tube in an grotto-style cavern. Headlamps, a rope and a guide were all we needed as we travelled close to a kilometer in the darkness. We gave ourselves mud-baths with the silky soil on the floor of the cave before floating alongside the rope and returning to the lightened world.
Up until a few days before my arrival to Vang Vieng, one of the most known things for visitors to do while in town involved tubing downstream the bar-lined river. From what I heard it was a lot of fun, until it wasn’t. . . accidental deaths occur somewhat frequently and the bars were forced to close for public safety. So as a result, my experience floating the river was much quieter. The views were stunning and it was peacefully quiet; the only sounds heard were the rolling river and local children laughing as they paddled upstream with homemade paddles (flip flops tied to a stick).
By far, my favourite place in Laos (and Asia to date) is 4000 islands. It’s a series of thousands of tiny islands in the most southern part of the country, some so small they disappear when the river is at its highest. I visited two of the largest and most inhabited islands, Don Det and Don Khon for a few days turned into a week. Maybe it was the long, quiet bike rides to visit waterfalls, the tiny Reggae bars that make their own ginger ale and pumpkin burgers, or maybe it was the breathtaking sunrises followed by the equally beautiful sunsets that kept me here – either way, I just couldn’t bring myself to leave.
I rented a bungalow overlooking the river on the ‘sunset’ side of the island for a few dollars a night (complete with a hammock and absolutely no wifi!) and just fully allowed myself to relax.
I’d read on the beach, eat fresh spring rolls and play Yahtzee with friends all day. There are no vehicles on the islands, so the only form of transportation is your legs; walking or a peddle bike (which could be rented for less than $1 a day).
In the evening, everyone heads to the ‘sunset’ side to relax on a cushion in one of the family-run restaurants for a cocktail and stunning view of the locals fishing with a bright red/orange sunset backdrop. It’s the epitome of peace and serenity. Nights were spent in tiny bars where we played games and the boys made beautiful music on the communal guitar (didn’t much matter to anyone that it was missing a string!).
On the northern tip of Don Khon, kayak trips set off daily to enjoy the calm waters that are home to the rare Irrawaddy dolphins. This island is also home to another of Laos’ most beautiful waterfalls; the Khone Phaphang falls are a 13km stretch of powerful rapids with several sets of cascades.
I biked twice to visit them; enjoying the oddly peaceful sound of the crashing waters from above and the eerie stillness of the river from the beach below.
It’s something that is so hard for me to put into words, but even as I write about it now I get goosebumps. Simply put, I have countless memories from those islands that I consider to be some of the most fulfilling moments of my life.
I’m not sure I fully realized just how special every little thing about this country was until it had past and I had moved along to begin a new adventure in Vietnam. Someone magic had once told me about this concept as it rang true to him; that he often didn’t realize how much he loved a place until he had left. And only now do I fully understand it.
So it is with the happiest of hearts I say ‘see you later Laos’ … I will be back to enjoy your unspoiled nature, gorgeous people and peaceful vibes as soon as my soul needs a reminder of your beautiful ways.