Laos: my itinerary's mysterious wildcard. I didn't know what to expect from it when I first set off from the UK and - my head being full of South America - I'd not thought about it too much since. The travellers I'd met who had visited Laos described mountain scenery so beautiful it looked unreal, hordes of backpackers clamouring to tube down the Mekong fuelled only by Beerlao and luck, and a polite culture with plenty of leftovers from its days as a French colony.
Despite a shaky start in Vientiane, by the time I left Laos it would be a strong contender for my favourite country of the trip. Here's why:
Vientiane: The bizarre capital of Laos
I pulled into Vientiane on a public bus I'd been riding for the past 18 hours, having caught it from Bangkok's huge bus station. My journey had been slightly fraught with panic as I was the only English speaker on the bus, and the only person who would have to secure a visa as we crossed the border. Every so often the bus would stop, the lights would flash on and there would be people shouting instructions in Thai, which was slightly disconcerting to a non-Thai speaker.
These stops were mainly to let people off, or for toilet breaks, and I'd have to sleepily disembark and try to work out whether or not we had arrived at the border crossing. I'd also have to be careful not to be left behind, as the driver mistakenly discarded a string of passengers, who ended up running behind the bus, at a number of these stops.
When we finally reached the border crossing at 6am the following day, stiff from sleeping upright on the bus, I was charged 500 baht (around £10) by the Royal Thai Police for overstaying my 30-day visa by a grand total of six hours. As I'd not known when we'd reach the border crossing - it could have been the night before - I'd chanced it, much to my detriment. That said, acquiring a Laos visa turned out to be a pretty simple process, and with a new sticker in my passport we motored on towards Vientiane, the capital.
A lot of people I'd met travelling had told me not to bother with Vientiane, and I'll say the same to you: don't bother with Vientiane. As that was where I'd be disembarking the bus, I'd decided to stay two nights, working on the basis that there must be some interesting stuff to see and do in a capital city. I was sadly mistaken.
Vientiane consists of a labyrinth of bland, sprawling streets punctuated by electronics shops and Western bars filled with Western men who pop to Laos to renew their visas before returning to their Thai lives with Thai brides.
I was staying in a small hostel filled with backpackers congratulating themselves for getting off the beaten path and boasting a dingy swimming pool that no one used. Keen to escape this depressing environment, I caught a public bus to Buddha Park - a collection of sculptures created by a monk keen to mesh the symbolism of Buddhism and Hinduism. Like a lot of things in Vientiane this offbeat attraction was just, well...kind of strange.
The most exciting thing to do at Buddha Park is to climb inside a giant Buddha head and ascend three stone statue-filled storeys in the dark only to emerge at the top slightly traumatised, and with a slightly higher-up view of the weird and wonderful Buddha Park.
The next day I wandered around some of the city's temples before giving up on Vientiane and settling down in the bar for an afternoon with some Beerlao: a seriously delicious, smooth local beer. While there I talked to a number of European expats who now lived in Thailand, and they were all alarmed when I said I had two weeks in Laos. "There's nothing here," one of them warned me. However, out of necessity, they'd only ever been to Vientiane to renew their visas and I was optimistic that my other stops in Laos would not be even remotely similar.
Luckily, they weren't.
Visiting the famed backpacker haven of Vang Vieng
I was glad to clamber aboard another bus to escape Vientiane's strange vibe - and this one was destined for Vang Vieng, which is a town with a reputation to say the least.
Once upon a time Vang Vieng was crammed with backpackers all desperate to partake in that great South-East Asian travelling tradition of getting sloshed and tubing down the Mekong. However, over the past decade this scene has significantly quietened down due to a number of accidental deaths and the subsequent shutting down of the majority of the tubing bars that used to line the Mekong. Make no mistake, however, Vang Vieng is still firmly entrenched on the itinerary of anyone travelling through Laos.
My usual routine when being dropped off in a new place is to look for a taxi, tuk-tuk or motorbike (or to be honest anyone offering any form of transport) to get to my accommodation. However, when the bus dropped us off on the side of a Vang Vieng street, I was slightly disconcerted to see no way to get to my very low-budget hostel, which I'd chosen for its $2-a-night price tag as I was running low on Laotian kip.
So with my 20kg backpack and 10kg hand luggage in tow, I nipped into a nearby travel agency where they gave me a map, and embarked on a half-hour walk to my hostel, which - thanks to my sub-par map reading skills - involved a number of wrong turns. Heaving my luggage along, however, I couldn't help but be blown away by the greenery-covered mountains that tower above Vang Vieng in every direction. I was starting to see why many people describe Laos as "the most beautiful place" they've ever seen.
As its backpacker heyday fades, Vang Vieng is transforming into a town that is perhaps more chilled than it once was. However, there are still a number of bars and clubs that light up at night, attracting swarms of backpackers ready to "act single, see double, drink triple" and buy T-shirts embossed with this boozy mantra.
If this sort of travelling isn't your bag however, Vang Vieng is still worth a visit thanks to its natural beauty and the myriad of trips you can take to explore its surroundings. And if you don't want to while away your evenings downing trebles, you can always pass your time in one of the town's many more chilled bars and restaurants, although authentic Laotian food can be difficult to come by if you're not willing to venture out of the centre.
To tube or not to tube?
Tubing: The practice of floating down a river on a rubber ring.
Tubing in Vang Vieng: The practice of floating down a river on a rubber ring, stopping periodically at riverside bars to take advantage of drinks deals and getting progressively more intoxicated.
Despite past accidents, the majority of travellers stopping by Vang Vieng head straight to the tubing station - and so I had a decision to make. To tube or not to tube? As a solo traveller, the idea of getting drunk while floating down a huge river on a rubber ring did not sound all that appealing (or safe), but I also had a bit of FOMO (fear of missing out) going on.
In the end I compromised. I selected one of the many great day trips available in Vang Vieng, and went sober tubing in a cave outside of the town. We were all given rubber rings and then instructed to pull ourselves around the cave using a rope. This experience could have been lovely, but it ended up being a bit manic as the cave was absolutely packed with tourists, many of whom would splash you or bump their rings into yours, meaning people kept falling off their floatation devices into the cave water, and struggling to find air again due to the sheer number of rings in the cave.
After a lunch of rice and veggie kebab on the lush banks of the river it was time for the main activity of the day. We were to kayak down the Mekong alongside the tubers, stopping at just one tubing bar for a quick beer before carrying on our way. It was a scorching day and the river was moving slowly, meaning that we passed a number of sunburnt tubers drifting listlessly down the Mekong, empty drinks bottles in hand - even giving a few a bit of help by letting them hold onto the back of our kayak. The kayaking was a fantastic way to enjoy the scenery of the Mekong, and I was very glad I'd chosen that over the tubing.
The one thing that let down my time in Vang Vieng was my accommodation. As a backpacker haven, you're hard pressed to find luxury accommodation, and my budget hostel was full of bugs and damp, leading many people to opt to sleep on the bean bags in the outdoor communal area rather than facing the rooms.
I tried one night sleeping in my raincoat, which was extremely hot given the lack of AC and/or fan, before demanding to be moved to a nicer room. At first the hostel workers were reluctant but once the magic words "Tripadvisor review" were mentioned they could not have been more accommodating.
Luang Prabang: Definitely go chasing waterfalls!
Luang Prabang is a gorgeous UNESCO world heritage site on the banks of the Mekong. The roads are lined with quaint wooden guest houses, bakeries and wine bars, and a quick stroll after dark will take you to a superbly colourful night market. It is undoubtedly the most European place I'd been to in Asia, with the French influence heavily felt. However, after over a month of Thai culture, I was more than happy to relax with a glass of dry white wine and a cheese board as I watched the sun set over Luang Prabang.
The must-see while in Luang Prabang is undoubtedly Kuang Si waterfall, which is just a 50-minute drive away. A gentle hike takes you up past a number of breathtaking turquoise pools perfect for swimming in before you reach the waterfall at the top. It's worth putting together a picnic to munch on in these absolutely stunning surrounds as you'll want to spend a good few hours enjoying the scenery and dipping in and out of the natural pools. And on the way up you can explore a bear sanctuary. Kuang Si falls into my category of "favourite things I've seen" on my trip and is certainly not to be missed.
Another day I took a trip out on the Mekong to Whiskey Village, where the locals brew a potent beverage in jars filled with cockroaches, tiger bones, bear paws, geckos, snakes and more, and a trip round their shops allows you to get fairly woozy on free samples. If whiskey isn't your thing you can always go in for some free rice wine, or simply wander round the small village browsing the woven cloths for sale. After that boozy stop we carried on down the river to visit Buddha Cave, which features an upper and lower cave in the rock, all filled with statues of Buddhas in varying sizes. No one is completely clear on how all the Buddhas got there, which gives the cave an element of mystique.
I spent almost a week in Luang Prabang attending yoga classes in the mornings, wandering around its cobbled streets during the day, and enjoying delicious French food and great wine at dusk. Every night meant a trip to the incredible market, which sold everything from handicrafts and homemade cards to colourful umbrellas and woven clothes. This was undoubtedly the most peaceful part of my trip and I revelled in it.
Should you visit Laos?
Yes, absolutely. Like I said, Laos was the wildcard of my trip, but I'm so very glad I didn't leave it off my itinerary. Each of my stops in the beautiful country was very different, and I would happily never return to Vientiane. Travelling to Vang Vieng is a rite of passage for any backpacker passing through the country and I'm so glad I experienced it in my own way. However, it was undoubtedly gorgeous Luang Prabang that was the star of my schedule. While this could have been partially because I was missing European culture, cuisine and vino, I think it was more to do with the peaceful, relaxed atmosphere and the endless prettiness of the town.
I also think Luang Prabang was the perfect place to relax before my next challenge - and what a challenge it will be! I'm about to spend six weeks in Vietnam travelling from north to south via bus, train, boat and motorbike, and I have a feeling that whatever else it may be, it will not be relaxing.