A tuk tuk in Luang Prabang
I spent 21 days in Laos and an average of $25 per day. I have been slowing down considerably, largely due to travel fatigue as well as budget constraints. I only saw four places in Laos: Luang Prabang, Vientiane, the Kong Lor Cave, and the 4,000 Islands. Highlights include learning about the Secret War, taking a cooking class, and simply relaxing and not worrying too much about my next steps.
I had some difficulties in Laos, most notably losing my ATM card on my very first day in the country. Entirely my fault, I simply forgot to take my card out of the machine after withdrawing money. The experience wasn’t too terrible, though, as it gave me an excuse to linger in Luang Prabang longer than I might have otherwise, visiting sights like the Tad Thong waterfalls. I also had my faith restored in Schwab (the only bank you should use if you are traveling abroad) and FedEx, miraculously receiving a new card less than two weeks after I lost it, virtually halfway around the world.
Sunset viewed from Don Det, 4,000 Islands
The 4,000 islands at the southern tip of Laos on the Mekong are known for sucking travelers in and holding them far longer than they’d anticipated. The easy lifestyle, good food, and gorgeous sunsets account for this, as well as the beautiful scenery and friendly locals (both Lao and expat). I spent nearly a week here, enjoying some long walks on Don Det and Don Khon as well as fishing and kayaking trips. There are some impressive waterfalls in the area, too.
The biggest attraction, though, is probably the sunsets. Every night I saw colors that are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, even rivaling Iceland’s summer sky. Grabbing a hammock in front of a bungalow on the sunset side of Don Det, lemonade in hand, was the best part of my day.
Boarding the boat to begin the trip down the cave
I’d heard from several people that the Kong Lor cave in central Laos was a highlight of their trip in Southeast Asia, so I knew I had to make it a priority. For a place that is on so many “must see” lists, I was surprised on how truly rural and undeveloped the area around the cave is. The town of Kong Lor is just one long street that has a handful of guesthouses and restaurants, no internet access, and hardly anybody who speaks English. It was a very pleasant and peaceful place to spend a few days.
It wasn’t too difficult to get to, as I took a direct tourist bus from Vientiane that I booked through my hostel. The bus dropped me and the four other westerners off in front of a guesthouse about a kilometer away from the cave.
Some larger bombs on display outside the UXO Laos visitor center in Luang Prabang
One of the reasons I enjoy traveling so much is that I learn so much about history and politics that I would never understand just reading out of a book or listening to a lecture. Laos was a particularly educational country as I honestly had very little knowledge of the realities there or the country’s role in the Vietnam War, and the lasting legacy that the war has left.
In an attempt to destroy the Ho Chi Minh trail that ran down Laos, the United States dropped more than 2 million tons of explosives between 1964 and 1973. This makes Laos the most heavily bombed country in the world. Worse yet, 30% of those bombs did not explode on impact and there are still millions upon millions of unexploded ordnances (UXO) littering the countryside. Every other day somebody is killed or injured by a UXO, most often a child who is hunting for scrap metal to sell on the black market.
At Tamarind’s cooking school, decked out in an apron
Cooking classes are extremely popular in Southeast Asia and I made it a goal to take at least a few while I’m in the region. While I didn’t do one in Vietnam, I did take advantage of a cooking class in Luang Prabang with Tamarind, a Lao-Australian owned restaurant. It was not the cheapest day, as the course cost $35, but it was well worth it as I learned a lot about Lao food and eating customs.
The day started with a visit to the market, where we sampled some local snacks and learned about the produce we’d be using throughout the day. Then we were taken to Tamarind’s cooking school just outside the city, which was a peaceful garden with ponds and flowers.
We cooked three main dishes – chicken, fish, and buffalo meat – as well as sticky rice and an eggplant dip. We also made amazing purple sticky rice with coconut for dessert. I met some great fellow travelers, although as usual I was the only one going solo, and tested my culinary skills with some brand new ingredients. Learning how to stuff lemongrass with chicken was particularly challenging!
A woman and her grandson at Ban Houay Thong Village
One of the best days I spent in Luang Prabang was visiting the Tad Thong Waterfalls and National Park. The trip is less popular than Kuang Si, but just as enjoyable and far more tranquil. It’s only 6km outside of the town center and is easily reached by bicycle.
The main draw here is a circular jungle trek which passes several small waterfalls and interesting trees and flowers. However, the best part of the area is the village of Ban Houay Thong, which is uphill from the jungle trek on a narrow, dirt path. There you will find friendly locals and lots of puppies. I wish I had brought some books from Big Brother Mouse to give the children, but unfortunately I was unprepared.
Vat Nong in Luang Prabang
The main draw of the UNESCO town of Luang Prabang is the dozens of colorful, gilded vats (or temples) that surround the area. I was a bit hesitant to take lots of pictures while visiting the temples as there are cultural sensitivities regarding the monks, especially as a woman. There are far too many tourists who intrude upon the monks’ daily lives and invade their personal space, meanwhile disrespecting ancient customs. I always make the most conscious effort to not be one of those travelers!
However, the gorgeous architecture was too enticing to resist taking photos entirely, so here are a handful as a taste of what the town has to offer.