Imagine a sleepy French village on a drowsy afternoon at the end of summer. That is how Laos feels. Only less vibrant.
The land of crawling broadband and dawdling monks shatters – or at least quietly snuffs – the myth that southeast Asia is all tiger economy hustle and bustle. Every time a ripple of thunder breaks the stillness of the former French colony sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam, the electricity goes down. Forget that fruit shake you ordered, which requires a blender’s input. Better make it a Beer Lao.
Careful how you handle the currency, as Kip are next to worthless, meaning that it’s necessary to keep track of lots of zeros.
All these surplus circles mean it’s easy to get confused and tender an insultingly small amount or a fortune, then only realise the gaffe because of the look on the cashier’s face. It’s easy to feel rich with all those zeroes in your pocket, but beware, you may not notice that you accidentally blew a billion, until you don’t have the million or so necessary to buy a packet of chewing gum.
Relax. Spend a while in Laos and you may find that you start to adopt the dreamy expression worn by many of the inhabitants. Aside from the non-too-insistent pestering of hawkers and tuk-tuk drivers, pressure scarcely exists. Time elapses at the speed of a lolloping ox.
Thank or blame Communism. No reason for rush exists in a state where enterprise is vaguely frowned upon. Just like sex outside marriage. It is illegal for a man to sleep with a woman who is not his wife in this, the highly regulated People’s Democratic Republic, which even has a midnight curfew. Not that you would necessarily notice, because the curfew is enforced ever so softly and by the subtlest of soldieries.
Many travellers return repeatedly, hooked on a country that regularly wins prizes for being so laidback and enchanting, the epitome of oriental charm. Few observers have a bad word to say about Laos.
The so-called Jewel of the Mekong may, however, seem a bit constricted, given that it has a smaller population than urban Paris and few places to visit. Tourists flock to three main towns: Vientiane, the temple-infested cultural capital with the strange rhyming name, Luang Prabang, and Vang Vieng. First-class accommodation can be obtained in only the first two of these destinations – see the listings sections on page xxx for hotels, food, spas and nightlife.
While Vientiane and Luang Prabang ooze style and atmosphere, Vang Vieng is rather ramshackle. If you miss the TV show ‘Friends’ and like it broadcast louder than the thunder that regularly deafens the village, this is the place for you. Younger and/or boozier travellers will enjoy its wildly popular signature activity, ‘tubing’, which entails drifting drunkenly downriver, slotted inside a tractor tube. Tubing is worth trying once, even if you are t-total, just for the peacefully panoramic views of the mountain-lined Mekong tributary, the Nam Som. Also for the amusement of watching the antics of the young and foolish, who swing from ropes across the river and do all sorts of inadvisable and dangerously daft things with ropes and ladders.
Alternatively, board the plane to Luang Prabang and be spellbound by the radiant temples and their saffron-clad incumbents. Watch the Mekong go by between drowsy spells half-reading a book in a river-bank restaurant, or just wander the streets absorbing the unspoiled antiquity.
Laos ranks as one of the world’s poorest countries. What a pity it is not easier to throw money around, there being a limit to the number of silk scarves, stone Buddhas and bottles of snake wine you want to stuff in your luggage. Unlike most of southeast Asia, this place makes you want to spend your money.
The biggest draws are the charm of the people, the French colonial influence on the architecture and the mystique that enshrouds the old Indochinese outpost.
Laos’ landmarks, for example Buddha Park, Vientiane’s twisted sculpture theatre, are hard to fathom. Then there is the Plain of Jars. Laos’ answer to Stonehenge, this Highlands plain is peppered with giant stone urns that defy conclusive explanation but serve as vehicles for informed speculation and fanciful guesswork. Be warned that this area contains a large amount of unexploded ordinance.
Laos has been conquered and occupied by pretty much every country on the planet except Monaco, in a history almost as blood-soaked as neighbouring Vietnam’s. After the communist Pathet Lao finally took complete control of the country in 1975 and sent the last King and Queen of Laos on a terminal visit to a re-education camp in a cave in the northeast of the country, they enforced a rigid closed-door policy that was to last more than a decade. The country has only recently opened up to tourism, so the inhabitants have yet to start to think of the visitor as no more than a mobile ATM. Laos is one of Asia’s last tourism frontiers, a country with a fascinating and largely intact cultural heritage, peopled by mostly friendly, funny and gentle folk. It can not be more highly recommended as a rewarding and relaxing destination for all travellers, regardless of the depth of their pockets.
Laos has great adventure sports possibilities, with fantastic rafting, mountain-biking, kayaking, trekking, rock-climbing and motor-biking available on www.greendiscoverylaos.com. Laos’ newest and greenest eco-adventure is at the Gibbon Experience, where guests stay in tree-top bungalows and use zip line cables to glide through the canopy of Bokeo Nature Reserve, in search of the elusive and playful Black Gibbon.
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