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Alternate Routes · Asia · laos · Laos · Mārtiņš Grauds

Land of Infinite Courtesy

Author: Mārtiņš Grauds0 COMMENTS

Land of Infinite Courtesy

By the end of a first day our face muscles are almost aching from smiling - nonstop sabaidii, sabaidii (hello!) and smiling so much as never before. Young Buddhist monks, wishing to practice English or just out of kindness, amaze us with numerous questions and are pretty talkative. Moreover, listening to them makes one think that the word "anger" can be crossed out of a vocabulary for ever.
Laos - a country located in Indochina peninsula - is just starting to unfold to the rest of the 21st century's community. Although, judging by its people, it seems possessing great potential. Everything here goes on with no rush and with genuine kindness and politeness. Buddhist teaching is quite straightforward and practical in its essence - you should not do anything that might harm your karma.
Traveling around Laos - a country with more than 6 million inhabitants - is physically exhausting. Almost none of modern conveniences are available and one has to adapt to the most different situations. Local roads, surrounded by rice fields, are muddy and drenched during rainy season, but the intensity of green all around is almost dazzling. An old woman offers us a spiciest soup ever - big drops of sweat come out on our faces and it feels like eating fire. Quite often we get surrounded by kids, avid for sweets - just like in any other poor country. But in town of Phonsavan is looming a derelict Russian tank - standing next to two thousand years old stone barrels.

Khaosan Road

Foto: Land of Infinite Courtesy

For a European traveler journey to Laos most probably will start from Bangkok, the capital of Thailand or its second biggest city - Chiang Mai. Bangkok meets its guests with hot and humid air - temperature during summer easily reaches +38ºC. Whatever your final destination might be, you can not avoid stopping at Khaosan Road - a tangle of bigger and smaller streets. It is located about an hour's drive from the airport (the quickest way of getting there is by taxi for $15). Khaosan Road has become a hub for tourists and backpackers, starting a journey into the peninsula, and any self-respectful local citizen would be able to tell how to get there. To be on the safe side, however, you might enquire at the airport's information centre as well. Khaosan Road offers a vast choice of guesthouses for more that agreeable prices (400 baths or about 5 LVL per night). Just trust your intuition and you will make the best choice - maybe a room with a small balcony, immersing in Asian sunset...
Here, in quite a compact area you would be able find absolutely anything you might need for your journey - shops, drugstores, banks and travel agencies providing visa support - to Laos, too. An average cost of a 15 day visa is about 1000 baths or 25 USD. Two to three days - and all the required documents are obtained. Exactly that much time is needed for your body to get used to local climate and your sensitive stomach - to local food.

Foto: Land of Infinite CourtesyFoto: Land of Infinite CourtesyFoto: Land of Infinite Courtesy

From Bangkok to Laos goes a train, with the first class compartments being furnished with water taps. Any journey into Indochina requires a lot of patience. No European-type buses are available there and trucks, accommodated with some seats at the back, do not observe any proper schedule. To be more exact - a schedule is adjusted to those passengers, who arrive last, even if it means being couple of hours late. With no hurry and never fading smile on their faces people moves closer, giving space to a sack of rice, some bags and cases and even a few hens. When it seems that a truck is filled to the utmost, one more flushing passenger would emerge from a crowd.
Slow motion along a mountain road in the north of Laos requires even more patience. During rainy season the roads are almost impassable and for weaker nerves - intolerable. Rainfalls that soak Asian land every single day turn roads into a muddy mess - making a slow journey almost endless. It is not so bad at all if you manage to cover 100 km in four hours. Passengers, being packed like sardines, pretty often have to endure up to ten hours. Laotians would find a way out of the most hopeless situations. Behind a sharp turn a big stone slide comes into sight, cutting the further way off. Efforts of clearing the road using a prehistoric excavator seem too time-consuming, if not futile. Then, without any haste, buss passengers, with their kids and chicken, bags and parcels just cross the unwanted obstacle and continue their way in a truck on the other side of the hindrance. Oh, and needless to remind a sickly feeling, caused by winding serpentine roads...
Coming into the country from the side of Chiang Mai city, the most suitable seems to be a waterway along the river - leading from a small Huay Xai village downs to Luang Prabang and making a short stop at Pakbeng. The advice is not to make haste by taking a motor-boat. It is loud and cramped - no place to stretch your legs and uncomfortable helmets are obligatory too. A slow boat, in its turn, getting up speed of no more then 20 - 30 km/h, offers enough space, no helmets are needed and traveling down the river turns into a genuine pleasure.

Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang

Foto: Land of Infinite CourtesyFoto: Land of Infinite CourtesyFoto: Land of Infinite Courtesy

Vang Vieng - a town of a Vietnamese province on the way to the Laos's city of temples - Luang Prabang. It is much favored by students, plunging into the river on inner tubes to watch series of The Simpsons and Friends, shown on a big screen whole day long. Yet, no mountain-climbing in the north of the country is possible as every single corner of the land is used for growing rice or other crops. However, you can explore some stalactite caves in stead - and pretty often you will see Buddha image at the cave's entrance.
Luang Prabang - a gem of Laos and a landmark of the traditional local architecture. 32 of 66 temples, built before French annexation, are located there. For a symbolic fee, leaving dusty footwear outside, one can admire pictures and sculptures of Buddha. Take a note that posing next to them would be a display of bad taste and disrespect towards the country and its culture. Here, as in other temples, it would be appropriate to put on some clothes to cover your bare legs and arms.
Although it is possible to crisscross Luang Prabang just in one day, it is worth staying there at least five days. Excellent herbal saunas are just waiting to be enjoyed - built from bamboo they are filled with hot steam coming from a big vessel stuffed with various herbs. Nearby waterfalls fascinate traveler as much as not far off small village and even a very own local homebrew is made there or - lao lao whisky - as locals proudly call it. Along with nightfall a main street of the city is closed down and traders from far and near display their goods - and the trade may start!
Also here - like in Vang Vieng village - you can rent a motorcycle that seems to be the most comfortable mean of transportation in Laos. Elsewhere in the country, where no rent is available, you may try to strike a bargain with some locals. And those, who are tired of crammed truck trailers, will rejoice at finding out that Luang Prabang has an airport too.


A small city close to the Chinese and Vietnamese border pleases with fresh mountain air and - electricity. Like at Pakbeng village, a generator is turned on around 7 in the evening and, when a couple of happy hours are over, a basketball match or favored by locals soap opera are cut short, too. However, no grumbling or display of irritation - people just get up and disperse onto their homes.
A room at Phongsali costs about two lats per night and no extras can be found either - just a bed, a mosquito net, and a whirring ventilator. In the morning people from Akhu, Hmong, Junan and Lolo villages are coming together. They speak different dialects and might even not understand each other, yet, it does not hamper trading. Sellers are not as pushy as the ones at Moroccan market labyrinth and bargaining is not as active either. Yet, a purchase might be quite an exotic one - a bottle of local whisky with an elegant addition - a snake or another reptile floating in it.

Muang Sing

Muang Sing is a town located just 7 kilometers off the Chinese border. In former times it managed to become the biggest opium trading place in the north of the country. An intoxicating substance is still produced and smuggled there. Women of uncertain age and cladded in colorful skirts are muttering their Opi...opi, disguising it under selling some embroidery. Just there - on the opposite side of the street a barber, armed with a comb, a pair of scissors, a hair clipper and a tiny mirror, does his job, in the end smacking heads with already familiar lao lao.

Useful Information

- Visa can be obtained before going to Laos, too, however not in the most comfortable way - a passport has to be sent to Stockholm and it costs much more expensive then visa formalities in Bangkok or Chiang Mai. If you have a Thailand's visa for two weeks, it might be enough to reach Laos; yet, if a visa has expired by returning back, it cannot be prolonged on the border. It is advisable to consider a required amount of time and maybe acquire a monthly visa.

- The best time for traveling to Laos is between November and February - it does not rain so much and the heat is pretty tolerable.

- No extra things should to be taken from home - you can buy anything you might need cheaply at Khaosan Road or another place. Yet, a good footwear is indispensable and an extra pillowcase may become handy too (there is no guaranty that guest houses of small villages change bed linen often enough).

- 100 USD is enough for two-week stay in Laos.

- Adding some sugar to local food makes it seem less spicy.

- It is advisable to keep money in several different places and a copy of a passport might become useful too.

- In tourist-oriented restaurants even banana pancakes and burgers can be found.

- 1 USD = 10 000 LAK (kips).

- 1000 baths (Thailand's currency) - approximately 30 USD.


Posted in 2007.

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