In Laos, stone karsts stand like grey-green gods, looking over lush rice paddies and the silt-rich Mekong River. Cattle range free. Clouds swallow mountain peaks and time runs as soft and easy as the river’s current. In 2003 when I first landed on the small Luang Prabang tarmac, tourism was a developing industry in Laos. Accommodations were unique experiences and extremely inexpensive. My hotel was a renovated French Colonial home with mahogany wood panels, large ceiling fan, and a footed bathtub, priced at $10 a night. Curfew was strictly upheld at 10pm and the roads were unworn avenues of dust and thin cement.
By our second visit in 2009, commercial tourism had changed some aspects of Laos. We were traveling with a group of friends throughout Southeast Asia. Hotels are bigger than they were in 2003. Roads are wider. Internet cafes dot the roadside and curfew is nothing but a suggestion. The west has discovered Laos. Consequently, prices have increased, even doubled. But, Laos remains a budget-friendly destination. It is a place of beauty and history , where $10 buys you food, drink, and adventure!
In Luang Prabang, temples line the streets, both grand and humble. The architecture of these temples is unique with sweeping roofs, bright colors, and active communities. Monks in saffron robes call for alms. While here, tour the sights and enjoy. Price tags are affordable, making this city a perfect shopping and dining holiday.
For $10, you get:
Two Tropical Fruit Shakes for 12ooo Kip/ $1.80
Tropical fruits are the way to go. Experiment and exercise your taste buds. Order pineapple and papaya. Or pair your breakfast with a fresh watermelon shake. With choices like coconut, rambutan, and mango, blend together any tropical fruits and taste the sweetness behind those charming Lao smiles.
Four Handmade Postcards for 24oooKip/$2.98
In Luang Prabang, artists thrive. Take your time in little shops and look closely. Even if something is wrapped in plastic and looks undisturbed for 5 years, you may find special souvenirs. Painted portraits of wats, depicted scenes of bamboo forests, and facades of monks adorn the delicate paper. Your camera may be an SLR, but these were made by a craftsmen.
One Souvenir T-shirt for 20ooo Kip/$2.48
Once the sun sets behind the mountains, the night market opens for business. Women tout hand fans, purses, and wooden toys. The best souvenirs are the ones that pack well for the long flight home. T-shirts are choice. Anyone who has read Neil’s roller derby posts understands the importance of comfy t-shirts for hardened travelers. When buying more than one item, bargain for bulk. If they ask $3 for one, ask for $2 if you buy 5. Don’t forget to smile. It’s polite and keeps negotiations friendly.
Other travel deals:
Internet: 5ooo Kip/ 62 cents per hour
CDs: 55oo Kip/ 68 cents
Laundry: 30ooo Kip/$3.73 for about 2 kgs or 4.4 pounds
Bottled Water: 5ooo Kip/ 62 cents
From Luang Prabang, I hired a van service that took me through the winding, vertigo-threatening mountains from the northern provinces into the backpacker retreat of Vang Vieng. Price of the 8-hour trip: 110ooo Kip. Technically, it’s not under $10 but with the exchange rate strengthening it probably will be soon!
Vang Vieng’s town encompasses only 10 square blocks of hostels, cafes, and bars. The small city is a stopover for many people on their way to or from Vientiane, the capital. The best hotels sit on the river with commanding views of mystical karsts dotting the landscape. I stayed at the Elephant’s Crossing, a family owned hotel where meals are served on the riverside patio and the grounds are meticulously cared for.
For $10, you get:
Two bottles of water or soda: 15ooo Kip/ $1.87
When on the river, stay hydrated. Use a drysack to keep your money dry and out of the water. Most tubes have a hook that you can latch a drysack to. Float safely and enjoy. Don’t forget sunblock!
One Mountain Bike Rental: 30oooKip/ $3.72
Outside of town, caves are accessible off little roads that branch off the main thoroughfare. Follow bike renter’s map and head out past flooded rice paddies and local homes. Children will wave and sleepy dogs will eye you from their shady nooks under wide trees. The road gets rockier the farther out you go. So get the bikes with suspension systems and bring a pack with water.
One Tham Yang Cave Admission: 15ooo Kip/$1.82
Steep steps lead to the mouth of the Tham Yang Caves. Colored lights bath the different rooms in green, orange and blue. Follow the path into the heart of the main room and wander through craggy corridors into smaller chambers. Water drips from stalactites and echoes off the walls. If you’re visiting during the summer, the cool air is a welcome reprieve.
One Mulberry Tea from the Organic Farm Café: 12ooo Kip/$1.49
Right off the main road, Organic Farm Café offers a full menu for lunch and dinner with ingredients grown locally and made to order. Western style dishes such as sandwiches and salads are available. A Lao menu rounds out the options. Try a smoothie and juice drink to fuel up for the day.
Other travel deals:
Roti Grilled Cake with Chocolate and Banana: 5ooo Kip/ $0.62
Underwater Camera: 60ooo Kip/ $7.45
Beer Lao Dark: 15ooo kip/ $1.86
Whether you’re here for a budget vacation or a history lesson, Laos does not disappoint. In fact, it enchants. From the solemnity of their monks to the hospitality of the people, Laos is a jewel of the Mekong and a special stop along Southeast Asia’s travel route.
In the next few years, tourism in Laos will grow exponentially. Hopefully, the streets and shops won’t have changed too much since I was there last. But then again, it takes much more than a few ice cream shops and six-floor resorts to change what I love most about Laos: the ease of life and the cheap travel.
Rates reflect travel in Summer 2009