Laos: Worth the Ride

Survival in Laos. Stacy Dixon photos.
Survival in Laos. Stacy Dixon photos.

A Taste of Laos

By Stacy K. Dixon

Monks in India
Monks in Vietnam

Traveling to Laos from Vietnam is an interesting journey to say the least. You have three travel options, depending on where you are coming from: bus, plane, or boat. There are no trains in Laos.

I recommend taking a VIP sleeper bus. It’s more expensive, but you'll be on the bus for at least 24 hours no matter which border crossing you choose; and the sleeper car is worth it. The roads in Laos are very dangerous and paying extra for a VIP bus usually means you are going to have a more comfortable experience, with an experienced driver.

Trust me, I took the local bus, and enjoyed the experience of integrating with the locals and saving money, but I will never, ever do that again.

A Near Death Experience

It was a near death experience; in fact some of my fellow passengers decided to fly out of Luang Prabang, rather than get back onto the bus! The highway 13 route from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang has a reputation for being dangerous: between government corruption, check points, and road construction, you are at risk the entire journey.

This is especially true when you reach the mountains. We were on a local bus with a careless driver, no shocks, a crew who was drinking alcohol, on a road that was still under construction, through a mountain pass (it was an 8-10 hour trip); and there was no barrier protecting us from the sheer drop next to the road. The scenery was amazing, but just as I got comfortable with the level of risk, the driver decided to pass a tractor trailer on a sharp bend at a high rate of speed. The wheels of the bus were literally on the edge of a cliff.

My fellow travelers were breathing heavily, some of them closed their eyes; others, scrunched into a ball with their faces covered. My heart was pounding; palms sweating, and yes – I prayed hard.

I thought of my family back home, and the death rate statistics of foreigners in Southeast Asia on transport. Finally, I thought to myself: “This is all part of the journey”.

Another thing that calmed me down, was looking at the locals and their children laughing and sitting right in the front of the bus as if they were on an amusement park ride!

A monkey sits in the evening sun
A monkey sits in the evening sun

Worth the Ride

We finally made it to Luang Prabang and the ride was worth it – it's a beautiful, and peaceful place. I couldn’t help thinking: “I have to do that again to go south, as it’s the only option with my budget!”

I spent five days exploring and when it was time to go, I found a more reputable bus company for the return trip – a VIP sleeper bus. It was more expensive (about twelve dollars more), but worth it! You will find links at the bottom of the page with more information.

Generally, buses don’t have toilets and don’t stop often. I learned a trick, which is dishonest but, you have to look after yourself. I had to go to the toilet so badly that I was in pain – but they wouldn’t stop. So, pretended that I was going to vomit, and it worked. The bus stopped instantly. Luckily, it was dark and I could hide but it worked!

Book your ticket from the local bus station, you will get the fair price there. Travel agencies add fees and you’ll lose money. The prices change often, so even if you look online, when you arrive at the station you may pay more or less than you anticipated.

Advice About Visas

Always add time to your journeys in Asia! As warned before, the road (route 13) from Vientiane to Luang Prabang is very dangerous at times, and they are essentially building it as you are traveling on it. It’s bumpy, winding, and scary. But very beautiful.

If you fly to Laos, you can get a visa upon arrival. Prices vary according to your nationality. It’s currently $45 for US citizens for 30 days (make sure you have US dollars). If you cross the border from Thailand, Cambodia, or Vietnam you should arrange a visa prior to the crossing to save time and money, but you can get one at the border. Prices vary and you will have to pay whatever they ask for as you have no other option. They will leave you at the border if you refuse their rate.

Monk in Kuang Si Falls Laos
Monk in Kuang Si Falls Laos

Arriving in Laos

Coming into Laos is beautiful, it was sunset and we were driving through villages that border the Vietnamese/ Laos’s country line. They were clearly impoverished, yet they had healthy, free range animals, beautifully built stilted houses, and warm and captivating smiles. Children were running in the sunlight among the water buffalo in worn out clothes and a layer of dirt on their skin, they exuded happiness.
Within hours of arriving, I already loved Laos. It felt different than Vietnam. It’s difficult to explain how. I think it’s more wholesome; the people live among nature, by the rivers, with the animals, and in the mountains-all of the houses are wooden, there are no street lamps and, barely any electrical wires or cables. The land is sparsely populated and undeveloped. The clothes are less flashy and most look homemade. Overall, less of a consumer society at first glance.

As you go further into Laos, you start to feel the energy of the country –- a contagious and relaxed existence. Time doesn't matter, structure barely exists, and small problems aren't a big deal: Bo pen nyang (Laotian for "no problem"). People live for the moment. It's a resourceful society, where everything is makeshift and temporary: at times, it's an example of ingenuity.

While you're there, you'll learn patience, adaptability, and monetary responsibility. Not because you’ll be robbed, but because the denominations are entirely confusing.

The people are honest and open. You can see it in their eyes and feel it in the interactions with them. They're incredibly hospitable; it's vibrant social atmosphere where people stop to talk with no agenda, and generally want to learn about you and share your time, food, and good vibes.

It’s refreshing, to say the least.

Reading the Newspaper Kerala India
Reading the Newspaper

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is a vibrant, clean, and peaceful city, that is integrated with nature. It's the backdrop of a peaceful, clean, Buddhist, and temple defining community. One wakes up to bird song from the many beautiful tropical species of birds, and the fresh smell of fleur de frangipani (a flower).

Within the city locals mingle, farmers come to sell their harvest, and tourists integrate in a balance that has not yet contaminated the culture of the Laos people. The focal points of the city are the night market, the Mekong River, and the Namseung River. These areas are where most people congregate and spend their time.

As you leave the city by Tuk Tuk, motorbike, or bicycle, you pass through suburbs; and within five minutes, you are surrounded by nature – beautiful forested mountains and local villages rich in culture. The further you go, the more interesting it becomes.

You can stop to witness the Hmong villages, observe monks in the temples and pagoda’s, enjoy breathtaking waterfalls, play with local children, or have a beer with the locals.

There’s no formal invitation, you just know when you are welcome.

Luang Prabang seemed to pull me: the longer I stayed, the more relaxed and peaceful I became. I was afforded time to reflect, and melted into the unique society that isn't caught in the rush of a consumerist existence. This was a nice reminder to me, to slow down and appreciate life for what it is, in the present moment.

Vang Vieng

Traveling south, you can stop in Vang Vieng: Another beautiful town encapsulated by nature. Beautiful mountains, caves, and rivers shape this town and its activities. There’s a surplus of outdoor activities to enjoy; such as rock climbing, hiking, swimming in the lagoons and waterfalls, caving, kayaking, and of course the famous tubing.

People are nice here, but there is a distorted view of tourists, which is understandable when you witness the disrespectful way people dress and act; however, if you stay long enough, you form bonds with the locals and learn to navigate around the negative influences of tourism. I saw a few displays of disrespect that made me feel almost embarrassed to be associated as a foreigner.

Whatever activities you choose, practice safety first, and don’t become complacent to the local customs or the illegal activity that surrounds you – and please ladies, cover yourselves!

Bo and My Vang Viang Laos
Bo and My Vang Viang Laos

Please Be Respectful

I spoke to local women who said the locals are shocked by what they witness, and feel insulted. There are even signs that politely request women to cover their bodies out of respect for the culture.

Laos opened itself to tourism in 1989, and since then, there has been a rapid transition into the tourism scene – the transition has been smooth in some places; however, Vang Vieng has had trouble adapting. So,please be aware, and educate yourself on local customs so that you can responsibly enjoy the beautiful people, and the places that inspired us to become travelers in the first place.

The Blue Lagoon

I was fortunate to balance being a tourist, and meeting locals; I saw it all. The highlight was when my friends and I took a motorbike out to the blue lagoon and met two local Hmong girls while swimming.

They saw that we had a tube and we offered it to them; they took it to the river and we swam. That was the beginning of our friendship. Little did we know that these young girls, 7 and 10 would be our personal tour guides to a spectacular cave inside the mountain.

We shared food, bought them new shoes – I had my hair braided by them, and took turns taking photos together. Bo and Mi are two beautiful young girls, clearly impoverished with no formal education, but incredibly happy and intelligent.

They learned from nature, and could easily navigate down dirt roads, through mountains, and over the rivers that surrounded their village. They didn't beg either; instead, they simply shared their knowledge, and silently waited to be compensated.

It was refreshing to see children who didn't need or want technology to entertain – children who could measure risks, and fend for themselves –and who were happy with just the basics.

Stacy K. Dixon was born into a global family which set the foundation for her passion for culture, travel, and photography. Originally from Western Massachusetts, Stacy has lived in five continents and currently resides in South East Asia where she continues to live a nomadic lifestyle seeking deep cultural immersion in rural and wilderness locations.