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During my trip in Laos, I stopped in the rural mountainous town of Vang Vieng, which used to have an infamous reputation as a party town, and I also stopped in the Lao capital, Vientiane. In southeast Asia, there are three countries that I think are very similar - Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. If Cambodia is Thailand's little brother, then Laos must be Thailand's little sister. I live in Bangkok, Thailand now, and I've been to Cambodia twice in the past. I had never been to Laos before this trip. Disappointingly, I would consider Laos my least favorite of the three countries.
My first stop in Laos was Vang Vieng, which is a three to five hour bus ride from Vientiane. I must say Vang Vieng has undergone a dramatic transformation. This is what Vang Vieng used to be like:
Vang Vieng, Laos: the world's most unlikely party town
However, Vang Vieng is nothing like that these days. Apparently the authorities have done a pretty good job of cleaning the town up. During my four days there, I didn't see any wild parties or chaotic backpackers. The whole town was rather peaceful and calm. Depending upon what you're in Vang Vieng for, that could be either a good or bad thing. I was happy for the changes.
Vang Vieng is very beautiful, and the mountains spreading across the landscape make it a very picturesque little town. I would say landscape of the town is very comparable to Guilin, Guangxi, China. If you love nature and activities like canoeing, tubing, cave exploring, and/or trekking, then you'll love Vang Vieng. I personally don't care too much for those activities, so I found myself quite bored after about 2 days.
There are countless little restaurant/bars around the town that serve food, fruit shakes, alcohol, and they also play endless reruns of Friends, Family Guy, South Park, and/or The Simpsons. Almost all of these little restaurants are identical to the others. They all serve the same food for practically the same prices. Almost all of them have free wi-fi as well. Just pick your favorite one and stick to it the entire time you're in Vang Vieng.
One of the good things about Vang Vieng is it's so small that you can walk pretty much anywhere. There are also many rental bicycles and motorcycles that you can rent for a half day or an entire day. I rented a bicycle for $2 USD/day almost everyday I was there. There's really no point at all in taking the local tuk-tuks unless you're going to one of the faraway caves or something like that. Another thing I liked about Vang Vieng is that even though it's a tourist town, none of the locals really hassle you much to buy something or to take you on a paid tour. That's the complete opposite of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in Cambodia, where you're continuously pestered by aggressive touts anywhere and everywhere you go.
The weather in Vang Vieng was excellent. The entire time I was there, there was a cool breeze throughout the day and night. If you're cold-natured, you might even need to wear a light jacket. But during the daytime it was extremely sunny. Not hot, just sunny. I had to wear sunscreen to prevent myself from getting badly sunburned. Regardless, it was a nice change in climate from the typical year-round blazing hot weather of Bangkok.
On the downside, other than just being bored, I found it really hard to discover the local culture of Vang Vieng. Any interactions with the locals was strictly business, and there were far more restaurants serving foreign food than local Lao cuisine. Foreign tourists strongly outnumber the locals, so you really can only converse with other tourists. There were quite a few hippyish Western tourists as expected, but there were also tons of South Korean tourists. That surprised me a little. There was also a sprinkle of Chinese tourists. Anyways, my point is, if you're going to Vang Vieng for the cultural experience, you'll likely be disappointed, but if you're going to enjoy the scenery and chill out, then you'll be fine for just a few days. Vang Vieng is not the kind of place I'd want to stay for long.
Another downside is that Vang Vieng is quite expensive (from a developing-world perspective), considering it's dynamics and location. Practically everything was more expensive than in Vientiane, and in many cases it was even more expensive than Bangkok. Usually 2-3X higher! Considering Bangkok is a mega-city with tens of millions of people, I'd expect it to be more expensive than Vang Vieng, a rural town in the middle of nowhere in Laos. For example, fried rice in Bangkok is about $1 a plate, but in Vang Vieng it was about $2-3 USD a plate. The only food that was a real bargain were the baguette sandwiches for about $1.50 USD each. You could get egg, chicken, ham, or many other variations of the sandwich, and they were always really delicious. The sandwiches can be found at any one of the hundreds of street stalls that sell pancakes, sandwiches, and burgers. Other than the baguette sandwiches, I didn't like much of the food in Vang Vieng. I'm not fussy at all about food, but I really found the food to be quite bland there.
On the other hand, accommodation was rather cheap. There are countless bungalows you can rent at about $5/night. I was staying at a $15/night guesthouse, which is actually quite expensive by Vang Vieng standards, and I had an awesome view of the river and mountains from my balcony (see the top picture). My room was also spotlessly clean, and had pretty decent cable TV, free wi-fi, and a few free computers to use in the lobby.
All in all, if you're going to Laos, I'd say it's worth staying in Vang Vieng for at least 2-3 days, but don't stay too much longer, or you might find yourself quite bored. Bring a camera, because the whole town is very photogenic. And if you like swimming or boating, bring some swimming trunks. Excluding accommodation, $15 USD/day is more than enough the to cover the expenses each day you're there.
Vientiane is right along the Lao-Thai border in central Laos, so it's more than likely the first place you'll stop if you're coming from Thailand. I intentionally went to Vang Vieng first, and Vientiane second. Even though Vientiane is the capital and largest city in Laos, it's quite small. I would say it's no bigger than a small city back in the United States. According to Wikipedia, Vientiane only has a population of about 750,000 people. It honestly seems much lower than that, and Vientiane doesn't feel crowded at all. A huge change considering I was coming from Bangkok, which feels severely overcrowded. Traffic is also very reasonable, and the drivers aren't aggressive at all. Just like in Vang Vieng, I rented a bicycle almost every day I was Vientiane. The city is small enough that you can easily see everything by riding a bicycle. You can walk many places too, but some places are just a little bit too far to walk to. Just like in Vang Vieng, there are no aggressive touts in Vientiane either. Some tuk-tuk drivers will ask if you need a ride, but as soon as you say no, they go away.
Vientiane claims the title of "the most laid back Asian capital," and I find it very hard to disagree with that. Read this article to understand more:
Vientiane: Asia's most laid-back capital city
People are very slow-paced in everything they do. For example, anytime I ordered food in either Vang Vieng or Vientiane, it would take nearly thirty minutes to be ready. That sounds normal, but the thing is most of the time I was the only customer in the entire restaurant, and all I ordered was maybe some fried rice. I'm a pretty patient person, but thirty minutes to cook some fried rice seemed a little ridiculous to me. If going to Laos, try to be as patient as you can, because nothing is fast in Laos. Laotians walk really slow too (just like the Thais).
The language barrier is also somewhat strong in Laos. Laotians speak kinda crappy English - maybe better than the Thais, but far worse than the Filipinos. I'd say their English level is comparable to the Cambodians. Sometimes I would say something simple like "no sugar" or "mango shake," and the person taking my order would have a look of deep confusion on their face. That's somewhat understandable, but I was at places that cater mostly to foreign tourists, so it's seems like they should at least be able to speak pidgin English. On the other hand, practically anyone in Vang Vieng and Vientiane can speak reasonable Thai. If you can speak any Thai at all, I recommend speaking it over English.
Just like Vang Vieng, I found it extremely hard to discover the local culture and try the local food. Lao culture is extremely timid to say the least. The Laotians don't seem to flaunt their culture like the Thais or many other Asian nationalities. It seems like everywhere you go, all you see is Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, or French-run businesses and restaurants. You have to specifically go out of your way to find Laotian culture and things. Another example is there are hardly any Laotian TV stations or product brands. Turn on the TV and all you see are Thai and Western TV stations. Go to the supermarket, and all you see are Thai and Chinese brands.
I was in Vientiane a total of six days, and I was bored out of my skull by the third day or so. There really is nothing to do in Vientiane. You can easily cover all the tourists sites in only a day or two, and besides the tourist hot spots, all there is to do is eat at restaurants, or sit along the not-so-beautiful riverside. There's almost no places to shop, only a handful of bars to drink at during the night, not much food to try, and the tourist sites are minimal. On the plus side, all the tourist spots are dirt cheap with entrance fees almost never exceeding $2 USD. I think three days are more than enough to explore Vientiane.
Surprisingly, Vientiane is cheaper than Vang Vieng, but it's still more expensive than Bangkok, with the exception of accommodation. I stayed in a really nice and clean guesthouse for only about $18 USD/night. Food and toiletries were much cheaper in Vientiane than Vang Vieng, but still not cheap enough. Expect to pay roughly double for everything in Vientiane than you would in Bangkok. There's really no shopping to be had in Vientiane, with the exception of the rather small Talat Sao shopping mall. And all of the little tourist shops seemed unreasonably expensive. Many of them had some really nice clothes and fabrics made from silk, but most of them were $50+ USD, so I didn't even think twice about purchasing any.
Some of the architecture in Vientiane was pretty cool, but it was all almost identical to the Thai and Cambodian style. Some of the buildings had a French look to them, due to the fact that Laos was once part of French Indochina. I had a pretty good time riding around the city on my bicycle and snapping photos, but it got boring after a short while. The one place you've got to have your photo taken is in front of the cool-looking, but rather small Great Sacred Stupa, which is a national symbol of Laos.
All in all, just like Vang Vieng, Vientiane is worth stopping at for at least a few days, but any longer than that, you'll get bored really quick. If you've never been to Southeast Asia - particularly Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos - I strongly recommend going to Laos first. Why? Because Laos is the least exciting and the most the tame of the three, so it's best to start with the least best, then move on to the bigger and better places. I'd go to Laos first, then Cambodia, and then finally Thailand. The city of Vientiane is somewhat comparable to Phnom Penh, but I actually like Phnom Penh quite a bit more (other than the aggressive touts). It really just depends on what you're looking for. If you're wanting a really relaxed trip to chill out and spend very little money, then Laos should be okay. If you're wanting a very cultural experience with lots of good food and places to see, then Laos certainly won't be that. Just like Vang Vieng, $15 USD/day (excluding accommodation) is more than enough to cover each day's expenses in Vientiane.
Now I'm sure you're all wondering about Laotian women. Well, I should start by saying I spent my entire 10 days in Laos with my significant other, so I really didn't interact too much with the local women. There were quite a few times where I went out on my own, but I didn't notice much attention or interest from the local ladies. For the most part, like I said earlier, Laotians don't interact too much with foreigners unless it's business-related.
Laotian women as a whole weren't all that attractive to me. Sure, there were many cute girls, and they're certainly more attractive than the average American woman, but they really weren't that good-looking to me. Many of them look similar to Thai women or Chinese women from Guangxi province, but much more countryside-ish. One good thing is that many Laotian women wore traditional-style dresses, which is nice, but even then they're not all that appealing to the eyes. Every now and then I would spot a "stunner," but they really weren't that common at all. I also saw very very few fat Laotian women, so that's a plus.
There were a handful of bars in Vientiane that had bar girls you could take back to your hotel room, and some of them looked decent, but none of them looked that great to me. It's also worth mentioning that there was almost no pay-for-play whatsoever in Laos, with the exception of a few bar girls in a handful of bars. So if that's your thing, then there's no point in going to Laos. There's far more of that to be had in Bangkok and Phnom Penh. The bottom line is, I didn't interact that much with Laotian women, but I didn't find myself that attracted to them in the first place. They still looked better than the average American woman nonetheless.
So, I doubt I'll be going back to Laos for the next five to ten years. There's really not much of interest there for me. I never went to Luang Prabang, which I imagine could be decent, but I doubt it's good enough to go all the way back to Laos for. If you're living in southeast Asia, it might be worth taking a week long trip to Laos, but if you're living all the way over in the United States or Europe, it's certainly not worth flying all the way across the world just to see Laos. Unless of course you're also going to Cambodia, Thailand, and/or another Asian country during your trip.
Two words to describe Laos: dull and humble.
Excellent trip report - really gave me a feel for the place. I've been to Nong Khai in Thailand, just over the river from Vientiane, and my Thai gf said it wasn't terribly interesting and there may have been some visa hassles so we didn't go across the bridge.
If you want to sample Laos women in Thailand you can do so in Udon Thani - the Laos hookers there go for 300Bt a pop if you know where to go. I'm sure I read that in Laos itself there's a law that prohibits any foreigner from sleeping with a Laos girl?
"As long as you make an identity for yourself out of the pain, you cannot become free of it." Eckhart Tolle
Stuff in Asia seems quite expensive. Everyone told me China would be really cheap. Well it is for food, hotels or apartments, but general stuff wasn't that cheap. In fact I think Chinese made shoes are cheaper in the UK, I don't know how that works.
I did try advertising my dating site in Laos, but there are so few Internet connected people there that I didn't have much luck. The population of Laos could fit into one small Chinese city.
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Thanks for the trip report Everdred.
Sorry to hear that you didn't like Laos. I'm a big fan of that country and have already been there twice. Am thinking of going again sometime in the near future.
Nightlife: Vang Vieng used to be off the chain, but you're right, they totally cracked down on that - too many deaths - and now the scene is quite different. Plenty of gorgeous places there though. LP: I spent Christmas there a couple years ago, and it was thumping. Good times all around. Most of the people out at night are foreigners, but there are some Laotians thrown into the mix as well.
Laos is about relaxing and being at one with nature. No pulsing metropolises, and that's probably a good thing. But hey, different strokes for different folks, right?