Laos is similar to Thailand in many respects, but also quite different. Laos is calmer, quieter, more peaceful. It’s also much more rural, less developed. Laos is a country too often overlooked on many people’s trips to Southeast Asia, and it ended up being one of the highlights of our adventure.
After crossing the Friendship Bridge and going through immigration, we spent the rest of our first day in the village of Huay Xai, right on the Mekong River. Our plan was to then embark on the two-day slow boat cruise up to Luang Prabang, but since the boat left the next morning, we spent the rest of the day in Huay Xai. I’m glad it happened this way, because it ended up being a wonderful place to spend some time.
Huay Xai is small, quiet, and there isn’t much going on as far as activities, but don’t let that deter you from going there, and staying for a bit; if anything, it would have been nice to spend even longer there. The village is right across the river from Thailand, and while it’s definitely a border-town-in-the-way-that-border-towns-are-always-border-towns, it’s also wonderfully real, honest, and down to earth. There’s a lot of warmth to be found in Huay Xai, if you know where to look for it.
We ate dinner at the Daauw Village, a guest house and restaurant that doubles as the base of operations for the Kajsiab Intiative, an organization which provides women from Lao villages with a shop to sell their handmade products. Kadsiab also takes on interns from the local mountain villages, letting them work for the restaurant, and providing a place of shelter for any villagers in need, or for families of patients at the hospital. Visitors to the restaurant are also greeted with a pamphlet describing the many tribes in Laos, and the various cultures, in great detail. You can learn more about the Daauw Village here.
Unsurprisingly, the Daauw Village is a truly fantastic place. Immediately upon approaching, the stairs were covered with playing children. As the night went on, and we enjoyed a homemade pizza with some Beerlao, the families gathered around the firepit and hung out, traded jokes with one another, played instruments, and so on. These sorts of multicultural experiences are the thing that makes traveling so important. Cultural exchange. Human capital, instead of cold capitalism. Next time we make it out to Huay Xai, we’ll definitely want to stay at the Daauw Village for longer.
The next morning, we set sail on the slow boat, a long wooden vessel that would be our bus for the next two days. The slow boat is the perfect illustration of both the wonder and the hilarity that intertwine themselves when one embarks on these journeys into other countries. While one might picture a luxurious affair, the reality is that the slow boat’s seats are actually just re-purposed car seats, and the boat itself was so overbooked and crowded that the next day, the passengers were split into two boats.
Don’t let this deter you: it’s a one of a kind experience, that every traveler should absolutely embark on. Seriously, it’s a blast. Everyone’s in it together. After a few hours of absorbing the jungle scenery around you, the musicians on board start playing, you start enjoying a Beerlao or two, and you end up with more stories than you could ever count.
What was additionally interesting to see is the way that the slow boat stopped every now and again at these tiny Lao villages in the middle of the jungle, where it would pick up a family, or a few individuals, and bring them to their destination further down the Mekong River. Very cool experience.
The boat docked at the town of Pakbeng for the first night, where we got dinner, got drinks at the “Happy Bar,” and then crashed, in order to get up early the next morning. The next day on the boat was similar to the first, though a further sense of peacefulness began to truly sink in. There’s something magical about having those hours of time to be alone with your thoughts, in a sense; able to journal, think, watch nature around you.
Finally, we stopped in Luang Prabang, where we spent the rest of our time in Laos. Luang Prabang is the cultural capitol of the country, though not the official capitol, and it’s certainly a city that everyone should take a chance to see. It’s small and more rural, like Laos itself, but possesses a certain unique charm that’s hard to describe. The art, culture, and surroundings are unmistakably Lao, in a way where when you are there, you know you’re not anywhere else in the world.
Of course, we had to stop and get coffee along the way, as is often the case when a certain coffee-obsessed writer goes traveling. The drink in the following image is called a Gibraltar, made with rice milk. Highly recommended.
We also went up to the Kuang Si waterfall, a place of such unmistakable beauty and such dazzling waters that it feels like a different world.
Our time in Laos was truly a highlight of the whole trip, in a huge way, but since we had other stops to make, it eventually had to come to an end. After that, we picked up a plane ticket to Siem Reap, Cambodia, where we would soon see the magnificent sights of Angkor Wat.