An offbeat journey of an offbeat traveler in an offbeat country
. . .
2019 was here, and I wanted to move to a new country.
I picked Laos, the landlocked country squeezed between Thailand (west border), Vietnam (east border), Cambodia (south border), and China (north border).
Interestingly, Laos is the only landlocked country in South East Asia.
And this doesn’t make it boring — at all.
But it helps to get the beach-bum travelers out of the way. And less tourism means more opportunity to go local, go slow, and go offbeat.
P.S. I love beaches too! And since I’d spent a month (Dec 2018) in South Thailand, I was happy to take a short break from them to explore local Laos.
Table of Contents
How offbeat is Laos?
Well, talking about ‘offbeat’, Laos as a destination is pretty much offbeat in itself.
Here are some stats:
“In 2017, total tourist arrivals declined by an annual 10%, for the second consecutive year.”
This may not be the best news for the communist state’s tourism campaign, but great news for me.
Because I still go by the rule: Everything popular is wrong. If you want a real taste of local culture and life, you have to go where the tourists aren’t.
Here’s another interesting data point:
35.38 million tourists arrived in Thailand in 2017 compared to only 3.86 million in Laos in the same year. Further, 1.19 million Indians arrived in Thailand in 2016 compared to just 8249 Indians in Laos in the same year.
So, Laos was a clearly offbeat choice considering both my people (Indians) and all my people (Everyone).
I chose to head South.
That being said, the explorer I am, I decided to go even more offbeat and head South as most tourists head to the North.
I had just 3 weeks in Laos (which could sound like a lot of many) and since I travel slow, I wanted to pick one direction.
And as with most of my travels, I picked South.
The sleepiest capital ever.
I landed in the capital of Laos (pronounced Lao), called Vientiane (pronounced Vienchang) which, as I discovered, was the sleepiest capital I’ve ever been to.
P.S. Blame the French for the different pronunciation and spellings.
I have always felt the ‘speed of life’ increase when I arrive at any capital but not at this one. Not at all.
The fastest Visa on Arrival ever.
This was the fastest I got a VoA ever. There were just 5 people in the queue and probably 50 people in the entire airport apart from the staff.
The VoA fee is $40 for Indians (and other developing / under-developed countries) and cheaper for most developed countries (Americans and Europeans pay around $30) except Canada which is $42.
They didn’t need a hotel booking, return ticket or onward ticket. Just the fee and a passport size photo.
Mobile Internet (4G) in Laos
There is no contest on the fact that Unitel is the best mobile network in Laos. They have the best only-data plans.
You can walk-in to any general store and ask for the ‘net-only’ SIM.
The other thing you need is a motorbike.
Motorbike Rental in Laos
There are 3 kinds of motorbikes in Laos:
- The Good Brands (Honda, Suzuki, TVS — reliable)
- The Korean (Kolao — the middle way)
- The Chinese (cheap, fake, unreliable)
And yes, I mentioned TVS! TVS, our own Chennai company, has a good presence in Laos. Unfortunately, I couldn’t communicate with them before arriving in Vientiane and I was looking for a budget option so I went with the middle way — The Kolao Venus.
Venus seems like a lower-quality version of the Honda Click and it wasn’t the best option. I would recommend going with something from option 1 instead.
So, let’s start the trip..
. . .
DAY 1-3: Living in Vientiane
Vientiane usually just acts as a ‘transit’ for most travelers as they just arrive there and move to the North Laos.
I decided to live in Vientiane like a local for the next 3 days.
This included buying fresh vegetables from the local market and cooking my own meals.
I had taken an apartment with a kitchen a little away from the city centre where I can cook!
My meals were mostly Thai-inspired as I’d eaten so much Thai food over the last 2 months and wanted to try cooking it (based on what I’d eaten).
And Jogging around the local lake.
Yes, this was a beautiful part of my mornings.
As well as my evenings..
The reclining Buddha in Vientiane is quite the beauty.
And so is the temple..
There was no plan. I had none. I just decided to take the motorbike and head south.
I took the ‘Route 13’ which is the road connecting Vientiane to the Southern parts of Laos.
The river Mekong runs along a major part of the route assisting you with beautiful sunsets over Thailand 🙂
The river acts as a natural border between Laos and Thailand — which doesn’t really matter for the locals as they can just go to Thailand by boat without any VISA requirements! (The benefits of being ASEAN).
I feel kind of limited because I’m just ASIAN but not ASEAN. I would prefer the latter.
. . .
DAY 4–5: Houy Siat, Paksan
This was my first stop. I stayed here for 2 nights.
Houy Siat is a region in the small town of Paksan, which is marked by a big reservoir.
I found a nice guesthouse near the reservoir and my morning runs were based in the forest surrounding the area.
You can also spot my motorbike parked inside the house!
And my sunsets..
They were based along the Mekong river.
Those boats would cross quite often, taking Laotians to Thailand and back.
Paksan is an unexplored gem, and I saw absolutely NO tourists here.
The only foreigners I saw were Chinese and Thai — and they aren’t foreigners to Laos really. They’re now part of Laos.
At least, they’re not ‘Falang’. But then, neither am I.
Staying away from Falangs was the best hack to discover offbeat destinations.
Speaking of the Chinese, I discovered an amazing riverside Chinese restaurant that would cook vegan meals for me every day in Paksan.
Before continuing my journey South, I decided to give my motorbike a shower.
And what’s the Laos way of bathing your motorbike? — Of course, the Mekong.
And those beautiful array of lights on the other side is, of course, Thailand.
The Thai charm never fails, even on Laos side!
. . .
DAY 6–7: Pak Kading
My second stop on the trip was Pak Kading, the meeting place of rivers.
The Nam Kading rivers comes and joins the Mekong here at a point in Pak Kading.
And people don’t have any clue about the Pak Kading region apart from this.
Which is why when a fellow-explorer like myself asked about Pak Kading on a forum, someone replied: “There is no real reason to stop at Pak Kading”.
Though I’m not sure exactly what comprises a ‘real’ reason. But for me, and for you..
Here are 5 reasons to stop at Pak Kading (+ 2 days itinerary):
- Watch the scenic Mekong streams
2. Take a swim break!
3. Play with the local kids
4. Drive along the limestone hills
5. Catch a unique sunset everyday!
Find a new, private river beach everyday!
And just chill — Laos style.
You can do much more in Pak Kading and explore the side roads talking you to new villages based along the rivers.
My dinners at Pak Kading were simple veggies, rice, and egg.
After 2 days in Pak Kading, it was time to move further South.
. . .
DAY 8: Ban Nakham
I headed to Ban Nakham from Pak Kading.
‘Ban’ means village in Thai and Laos and this was a small village stay. I had chosen this village as it was a good stop between Pak Kading and Konglor (which was my next destination).
Another reason to pick this village was the river!
The Namsanam river passes along this village and I spent most of my day around the Nam Hai Bridge where the river offers stunning sunset views.
. . .
DAY 9–10: Tham Kong Lo
It was time to explore ‘Tham Kong Lo’, more popularly known as the Kong Lor Cave.
I spend 2 days exploring the cave, the river, and the stunning scenery around the region. Here are some of the highlights from this region.
The beautiful paddy fields on the way to the cave..
The mouth of the cave..
You can hire a motorboat from here and go to the other side of the river. The total distance of the river inside the cave is 7kms! This is a must do in Laos 🙂
Once you’re inside the cave and as you get away from the mouth of the cave, it is pitch dark and you need a headlight to see around.
Inside the cave, you can stop and walk around the limestone formations.
The formations are lighted up so you can appreciate their beauty.
You might also want to pose with some..
After an adventurous 7 km boat ride, you come back to the light..
At this moment, you cannot help but appreciate the landscape around you.
On the other side, there is are local huts where you can eat as part of the eco-tourism Laos.
There’s also some local handicraft work you can witness.
Whenever you’re ready, you can head back to the boat.
It’s also possible to stay back in one of the homestays in the village on the other side of the cave or hike back along the hills to where you started.
Not my usual self, but this time the cave was so stunning that I just took the boat back 🙂
Once I was back, it was time to experience the river with a swim.
This was one of my best Laos experiences. This swim was a deep meditation for me.
It’s something that cannot be explained in words but can only be experienced.
I could feel the great draughts of space within me. The east, the west, the north, the south — all with me.
I felt limitless.
My feeling is best summarised in this short taken from my favorite poem.
From this hour, I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me. I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.
That swim meant everything to me at that moment. And that’s what makes life.
The next day, I spend a while exploring the river outside the cave.
And spotted some beautiful landscapes.
On the way back, I spent a while in the small hut in the paddy fields with the farmers and some local ‘Lao Lao’ (Find out what that means).
And not to miss the amazing meal I ate this day!
And those were my amazing 10 days in Laos.
Thanks for reading!
Writing from Vieng Kham, Laos.
P.S. I’ve decided to stay in Laos for the next 10 days (yes, 10 more days!). Let’s see what new experiences await me next! Cheers 🙂