2018 is self-declared Visit Laos Year, as well the country topping the Guardian’s recommendation for travel destinations in Asia. Spurred on by unrelated reasons, my family and I undertook a short trip to Luang Prabang in the first few days of the New Year, just an inexpensive 3 hour flight from our home in Kuala Lumpur. This seldom-mentioned country in the international press is perhaps the most underrated destination in Southeast Asia, I think this unique and interesting country absolutely deserves your tourism – its people rely on it.
Luang Prabang is an ideal destination for a brief visit. It is geared up for tourists – there are Western themed bars and cafes, fancy hotels, spas, hostels, travel agencies, and shops selling elephant-print trousers everywhere. The hilltop temple, although a must for visitors, is always heaving at sunset as everyone clamours for selfies. Few locals live in the town centre any more.
However, local culture and charm has not been diluted for those wanting to step outside of these inauthentic luxuries. The Buddhist temples and colonial-era buildings have earned UNESCO World Heritage Site Status. Galleries, cooking classes and the new research-pioneering Phad Tad Ke botanical gardens are no more than a 20 minute’s walk from accommodation. The food is inexpensive, simple and delicious. National dish laap is a unique spicy salad of mint, coriander, lime and minced meat or tofu. Beerlaos is pretty self-explanatory, best enjoyed at a street cafe along the Mekong. Bike hire is cheap and you can leave the centre of town to see a truer face of the country.
Laos was a Kingdom for centuries which was overthrown by a communist revolution in 1975, following upheaval in neighbouring Vietnam and Cambodia. The royal family were exiled from their palace, spending the remainder of their lives in a building that is now a hotel where we stayed. Hammer and sickle flags fly all over town, and imposing Soviet-style statues of President Souphanouvong and former King Sisavang Vong donated by China and the then-USSR can be found in Luang Prabang.
The National Museum is the former palace, which is absolutely worth visiting. The opulence of the Kingdom era are on show with a ridiculous car collection, countless golden statues, artefacts, and state gifts from nations all over the world. Incredibly, you can see a moon rock and a Kingdom of Laos flag taken to the moon by Apollo 17 astronauts from then US President Richard Nixon, with a plaque underneath explaining its representation of the ‘human endeavour for peace’, at the same time as the US was carpet bombing vast swathes of the country.
Leaving the centre of town on a bike or visiting a rural village, where 80% of the population live, is a must. Although Laos is developing fast, it remains one of the poorest in Asia. When we cycled outside the city centre we saw a market flooded with cheap Chinese goods (a reflection of China’s increasing investment here), a power line on fire and the roads turn from asphalt to dirt almost immediately. Power cuts are widespread, even in relatively developed areas.
Laotians are great. You will hear sebai di from most passers by, the greeting in the Lao language. Even if they weren’t genuinely welcoming and accommodating people, they have to be – 1 in 11 jobs and 10% of the country’s GDP relate to tourism. Locals are genuinely happy to see, interact with, and even accommodate tourists. There are ample opportunities for homestaying in rural areas.
Our jovial and enthusiastic guide who led us on a short hike to Kuang Si Waterfalls was a perfect example of this. He was constantly asking us about new tongue twisters to learn, what life was like in European cities and whether the German couple who came with us knew any nice German girls. There is a language cafe in Luang Prabang called Big Brother Mouse where locals and foreigners can go to have a chat over a hot drink (the story behind its founding is very heartening). Our guide said he used to go there every day to practise his English. I found ambitious young Laotians like him with such enterprise and drive to succeed very inspiring.
The most heavily bombed country in the history of warfare
The free Unexploded Ordinance (UXO) Museum is a short but essential stop off for understanding the struggles of the country. Laos was involved in the Vietnam War as North Vietnamese soldiers used jungles in neighbouring Laos and Cambodia to access US-backed South Vietnam without crossing the fortified border. This was known as the Ho Chi Minh trail. Although a CIA ‘Secret War‘ did occur, US troops could not enter Laos, but the then King did request air support. This bombing campaign constituted the highest tonnage and highest number of bombs per capita dropped in history. More explosives were dropped on Laos in than the entirety of World War II by all sides. 30% of the bombs, around 80 million explosives, did not detonate on impact, and still litter the country.
Although UXO Lao and other organisations clear thousands of bombs annually, this only amounts to a small fraction of the total. A person is killed or permanently disfigured almost daily. Guidebooks will tell you that wandering off into the jungles, if there are no paths, can be fatal. Cluster bombs, coloquially called ‘bombies’, are often mistaken by children for toys due to their small size. With a lot of land still too dangerous to walk on, economic development has been stunted by this problem in rural areas which still rely on farming.
Despite the hardships Laos has and continues to face, its beauty, unique history and mean it has so much to offer as a tourist. Whether you’re looking for an adventure or a relaxing trip, there are few places in the world where locals will be as happy to help you.