So we rushed out of Vietnam in order to have a few extra days added on to our already short amount of time in Laos. We heard such amazing things about the country - it's ruggidness, kind locals, great trekking, and all around relaxed place; however, we soon realized that the country for us wasn't as amazing as it was made out to be. While I do admit, we stuck pretty close to the well-trodden path, I still feel that a longer period of time wouldn't have altered our perception much. Vientiene, the capital city, didn't have much to offer in terms of attractions. The food was nice as well as the sunsets, but only a day there easily sufficed. On the way towards the highly famed Luang Prabang province, we stopped through Vieng Vang for a day to participate in the tubing extravaganza. We knew it was going to be extremely touristy, but it was an activity I was told about literally a year ago and had always been something that sounded pretty entertaining. Obviously after the amount of time that's passed since an Australian girl told me about it back in Italy, it no longer sounded too appealing to me, but we still gave it a shot since it was on our way. To be honest, the drinking, swinging, and tubing that draws the most tourists to this area of Laos, as well as its beautiful scenery of limestone cliffs, was much more fun then the full moon party, and better than we expected. The one drawback is that the entire town is completely geared for this activity and the tourism it brings, so expect mainly western restaurants, all playing episodes of Friends or Family Guy on repeat. Also, don't be alarmed while eating to see numerous drunk Westerners stumbling back from a hard day of drinking making fools of themselves. Unfortunately it's hard to criticize when you're that same way the following day. Before we went tubing we rented bikes and rode to a cave and blue lagoon which was a nice way to see the scenery, away from the hussle. There's a monopoly for renting large inner tubes and paying a hefty fee to be driven 4km north to the first bamboo bar. Or you can rent a small blow-up tube from a guesthouse and pay them a nominal fee to drive you up there, overall costing about a quarter of the price.
We left the following day for Luang Prabang, which we were highly anticipating. And unfortunately, were a bit dissapointed. The old part of the city wasn't as well-kept as other heritage sites we'd been to. And this little "oasis" of a place, trapped in time, was teaming with tourists walking around, and the streets were lined with restuarants, bars, accomodation, and markets geared towards foreigners. So it definitely didn't maintain that 'charmed' feeling you hope to get in these types of places. We stayed for a few days, visited the waterfalls outside the town, which was nice, but we got stuck in a massive downpour on the way back down. The falls were pretty similar to the ones we visited in Erawan National Park all the way back in Thailand, I think Jessie preferred the one in Laos, but I liked Thailand's better. We did take a really good cooking class our last day in LP. I can't remember their name, but for $30 you got an entire day's worth of cooking and eating, and all really good food.
Our original plan was to take the slow boat from Luang Prabang, eventually heading back into Thailand, in order to fly to Beijing from Bangkok. However, we realized that it would be much cheaper to cross into China overland from northern Laos and catch a flight from Kunming, the closest major transport hub of Yunan, to Beijing. So for that reason we continued up north to the "trekking mecca" of Luang Namtha and Muang Sing. Muang Sing is a little bit farther north then Namtha, so we figured the trekking experience would be even more legitimate since less people go there. We were one of ten tourists in the entire town (we only know this because we ran into the different groups multiple times), and the morning market we visited was pretty interesting, but nothing incredible or must-see. As for the village treks, they all turned out to seem more touristy then expected, and while we didn't mind that part, the expense of hiking for a few days in Laos was much more expensive then we expected. For two days the cost was close to $60 and even more expensive in Luang Namtha. We were a bit taken back by the price and with the itinerary offered we didn't feel it was worth the cost. A bit dissapointed since we gave up hiking in Sapa for this, we settled on a one-day hike to at least do some walking in the national park and see one village. Laos' trekking is world-renowned due to the numerous ethnic tribes living in the national park, so on any given two or three day hike, numerous tribes can be visited. It was interesting to see the difference in gender roles here. The women do all the manual labor, while the men stay at home with the kids. So it was typical to see large groups of women climbing down hills with large baskets around their back filled to the top with wood or rice, while men sat around drinking and hanging out - interesting.
The hike we did was nice. We hiked around the forest for a good while, got to spend some time at one of the local villages, which did retain an "untouched" sense about them, which was very important, had some good food, and got our leech experience. The leeches were everywhere! We must have picked off a dozen from our pants throughout the hike, and that doesn't include the ones that actually broke the skin. On the way back, Jessie and I both had leeches on the bottoms of our feet and didn't realize until they had already plumped up and released. As you know, leeches release an agent that disables the body's blood-clotting mechanisms, so we lost a decent amount of blood from those guys, but nothing major. After the hike we spent one more night in the town and headed out to Jinghong China the following morning.
When people asked us what we thought of Laos, we weren't able to respond too quickly. It was tough to tell. Our answer typically involved should shrugging and drawn out sentences. Nothing bad happened, but nothing spectacular occured either. It was just fine, and that was pretty much all we could say. There were some nice aspects to the country, but it was hard to tell why we had a different outook from most people. Maybe it's because we just came from our favorite country Vietnam, or that most people come to Laos straight from Thailand, which would create two different perspectives on Laos. Either way, it was a fine country, but by no means a highlight as there's really not that much offered. It's main appeal is the relaxed nature of the locals, and finding places where few tourists are present. But while in South America this type of place is appealing, in an area where you don't speak the language, if you can't really interact with the locals and get a sense of their day-to-day lives, then you're just spending time with yourself, which is ok, not ideal. We also just simply hyped up the country way too much in our minds. We expected Laos to be what people told us. More rugged, really cheap, amazing trekking, etc. and I guess compared to Thailand, Laos is all of these things, but saving the country for last really didn't provide us with the things we hopes. But by all means, give it a try!