When I put together the itinerary for our vacation in Asia, I had some difficult decisions to make. We knew we wanted to return to Bangkok; it’s one of our favorite cities and a few days in the Thai capital sounded perfect. But we also wanted to visit some new places and after a lot of waffling, the two finalists were Laos and Cambodia. In the end we chose to travel to Laos with the sole intention of relaxing. I knew if we went to Cambodia I would push us to see ruins and World Heritage sites from dawn to dusk but in Laos we could take it easy and enjoy more of our vacation. So armed with very little information, I booked a flight on Bangkok Airways to Luang Prabang.
When I told people we were going to Laos the most common response was confusion. Most people have at least heard of the country, but that’s usually where the awareness ends. Laos hasn’t exactly bent over backwards to promote itself and, as a result, many people have never gone or even considered visiting. Tourism is slowly coming into its own in Luang Prabang, a World Heritage city, but still most of the tourists are backpackers in search of cheap travel. Laos, like Vietnam, is a communist country and foreign direct investment in the nation is limited and still a bit of a novelty, at least where we were. In Luang Prabang, where we spent all of our time, there are only a couple of hotels that I would consider patronizing, the best being the Orient Express property La Residence Phou Vao, my hotel partner for the stay.
But that’s also one reason why life is slower in Laos and why we ultimately decided to visit. I don’t think I was prepared though for just how slow life really is in Laos.
Our first exposure to the center of town in Luang Prabang was at the night market. Night markets are great, they’re fantastic places to find interesting food and trinkets of every size and shape. We selected a restaurant and sat outside in the unusually hot evening and just watched everyone walk by. It was clear that this was the touristy part of town, just about everyone who walked by was foreign, mostly European with a few American and Australian backpackers in the bunch.
Over the course of a few days I got to meet more of the city as we walked through countless temples and got lost in residential neighborhoods. The temperatures were the hottest of the year and combined with palpably thick humidity, we restricted our sightseeing to short bursts. But luckily there’s not that much to see or do in Luang Prabang, not really. There are temples, a palace and a couple small museums, but the real draw to Luang Prabang is the city itself, more than any single attraction. That was fine with me, as we were indeed able to relax and take things slow.
La Residence Phou Vao was the perfect place to stay to realize our goal of doing little. Every day I spent some time at the tranquil infinity pool and walked around the grounds which seems like a little private heaven in the sea of chaos that fills so much of the town. It was nice to sleep in, have some coffee on the veranda and listen to the sounds of the city as people went about their daily lives.
On our last evening, we finished dinner and decided to walk the length of the night market so I could enjoy one last Oreo milkshake when all of a sudden the lights went out. Everywhere in town all power had been lost. It was strange, one doesn’t usually see blackouts that are citywide and with the assistance of our phones we navigated the market to return to our hotel, which enjoyed the benefit of a generator.
I noticed though that during the blackout no one was panicked or even worried really. I asked a shopkeeper how long the power would be out and she said “Oh usually it comes back in the morning,” spoken with such calm confidence that I had to grin. Instead of sirens, alarms going off and people yelling, the entire city was just quiet, except for the occasional motorbike. No one was worried and instead just waited for the lights to come back on. Ultimately, I think that’s why I enjoyed our time in Laos so much, that attitude of taking things as they come is infectious and for the first time in a long time allowed me to actually relax while on vacation.
I have lots more to say about our time in Laos, the good, bad and ugly, but wanted to offer the reason for our visit and my initial thoughts which I also touched upon briefly in this post about my traveler’s guilt. There are a lot of sensitive issues concerned with visiting Laos, and I look forward to exploring them all with you.
Have you ever been to Laos? What did you think?