WHY LAOS WAS NOT AS LAOS-Y AS THAILAND

Howdy howdy HEY reader!

I’m back.

I mean I was never really away, I’ve just been sooooo lazy busy that I’ve got many topics to write, send off and haven’t actually had the time to get around to it.

UPDATE TIME MUM – Poor Mum. I managed to catch her on FaceTime when I was writing this article, and she told me she didn’t have a clue where I was (despite the fact I do actually occasionally tell her) and when people ask her she replies like “Erm.. I think she’s in Vietnam..?”

Incorrect Mother. I set foot in Vietnam for one minute before quickly flying home. I also never remembered telling her I’d even arrived in Vietnam because for the last few weeks I’ve been having a ball in Cambodia.

That’s right Mum, Cambodia, NEXT to Vietnam, not IN Vietnam.

Here I am not in Vietnam

Just to confuse her further, I’ve actually decided to completely change my travel plans around! Originally, having started in Thailand and realising Asia (if you don’t make an effort to actually get OFF the Backpacker pancake route) is like the Pied Piper Trail of Binge Drinking and Shagging galore and not so much see the actual country from top to bottom. Now, I’m not adhere to either of them, in fact I love them! I get extremely persuaded by good energies to party and dance the night away – as I fancy myself as a Salsa/HipHop/Strictly Come Dancing Professional when I’m slightly intoxicated (and also sober) – but Thailand showed me two months of how it was really the only thing people seemed to care about. Of course, it’s easy to backpack Asia, there’s a very obvious route with cities dotted on there that people go to, the same hostels that are recommended and the same activities you can participate in. And then at night, you see how absolutely “mortal” you can get. I don’t have a problem with any of that, there’s a reason things are popular and full of tourists and I love going out, but that wasn’t just the WHOLE point of the trip. I wanted to do and see a lot more than just the typical, expensive things. For me, it wasn’t just about visiting an elephant sanctuary, or climbing the same viewpoint .. or shagging the exact, same person that seemingly everyone shags accidentally. It was to BREAK AWAY and get to know a culture, a country, see elephants in a peaceful sanctuary AND roaming around by themselves .. and cows and chickens and goats and turkeys in villages you just venture across. I wanted to find viewpoints that no one knew about and see Asia from ALL undiscovered angles and I wanted to meet guys and girls alike whose roaming eye didn’t distract themselves from listening and appreciating what I was saying. To me, the classic backpacker route not just limited to Thailand but it seems like Asia is based on the bare minimum and is like saying you’ve travelled England because you’ve visited the London Eye, Camden Market, maybe Oxford if you’ve got time and Cambridge. There’s nothing wrong with it, it just wasn’t enough. I needed MORE.

So I went exploring. And let me tell you what the last few months have brought.

After leaving Chiang Rai – where I met up with Chris and Lisa (my two dorm mates from Bali two years ago, who got together on our trip and now we are the three best friends) myself and a Dutch girl called Lola decided against spending £20 on a slow boat (not including accommodation) which would take us into the main tourist hub of Luang Prabang over two days. You see beautiful views of the river and spend two days drinking with a group of people but a) I couldn’t be bothered for two days on a river, I would have got bored I KNOW this and b) nor did I want to turn up hungover. Also what if I hated the group and I was stuck on a two day cramped boat with them? Nightmare. Anyway, we were planning on visiting Luang Prabang after we’d explored the North and saved a bunch of money with our three buses. I love crossing borders, there’s just something really cool about it for me, knowing one invisible line separates one entire country/culture/language/traditions from another, despite how long it takes – especially when you think the Lao Visa man tells you you owe him a 1 dollar fee for working on a Sunday and you laugh and wink and think he’s totally joking (until he says it’s a fourth time and you realise he’s being serious).

We arrive/get dumped in Luang Namtha, and because Lola and I are the clever, stingy people we are, we don’t own a SIM card, and therefore walk around like headless chickens in the middle of no where with no way of finding out how to get to our Guesthouse. There are no Tuk Tuks, and we eventually get a rip off taxi for ten minutes, arriving at Thoulasith Guesthouse where we delight in our twin PRIVATE ROOM with an EN-SUITE ALL TO OURSELVES. It really is the small things travelling, that paying £7 for a private thing can do for you after being used to dorms the majority of the time.

The following day we rent bicycles and attempt to cycle to the waterfall. Now, when I was a kid, I used to cycle the whooleee time, FEARLESS. Then I stopped, and then I forgot how to cycle. I forced myself on a bike ages ago and then fell in love with it again, cycling around the Peak District – and then stopped and got scared again. Do you see an emerging pattern here? So, four years since I’d picked up a bike, I completely forgot how gears worked and struggled to balance and stick out my hand to signal BUT despite the fact I have never and still can’t not fall over indicating (so I just take a deep breath and attempt to do a corner without bothering , not good I know) all my gear memory came flooding back to me and I was cycling standing up LOVING LIFE.

We’re THIS close to the waterfalls, pause to buy water down this dirt village road and set off again. And then I hear a weird crunch and suddenly have no control over my gears – I am officially cycling air.

The positive of befriending Dutch people is that they’re obviously born on a bicycle (probably quite literally, cycling straight out of there) and therefore, Lola became my personal bike mechanic, using her incredible Dutch knowledge to push wheels, remove chains and clutch gears. Meanwhile, there I am staring gormless because all I really know is how to fix someone a great cup of tea. (Haha sterotype joke haha).

About 30 minutes later, Lola admits defeat because the bike is just a load of trash and completely unfixable. We are now stranded very far away from the Guesthouse in some random dusty village. I see an old man who’s been watching us and ask in Lao/attempt to speak Lao using hand movements and fixing bike imitations, if he can help. Two other men join and now it’s a group mission to fix my bike but they have as much of a clue what they’re doing as I do so aren’t much use. Despite the fact we’re near the waterfalls, Lola and I decide to head back in the sweltering heat to try and get a motorbike back out. She tells me she’ll ride the gearless bike back because I am useless and we eventually make it. Trying to explain to the shop their bikes suck and we want a free moped for wasting our day, he gets lovely and rude and shoves our money back in our face and tells us to leave so that’s that.

We find a NICER man, rent a moped and go exploring on it, coming across villages at tops of mountains near temples who invite us in for rice wine. I attempt and fail to ride a moped for more than two seconds and then we head back and find a fantastic food night market and stuff ourselves – and I mean everything. Fried and fresh spring rolls, coconut cake balls x 6, fried banana cakes x 2 and a Lab salad – typical Lao spicy meat salad dish.

The following day, we jumped on an early bus to Nong Khiaw, a quaint, BEAUTIFUL, authentic village full of smiley children bounding up to us waving and beautiful views. Lola and I decided to choose the cheapest option which was staying in a tent in a “Swimmimg Pool campsite” because it looked fun and we both love camping. It was awesome. The swimming pool was dirty as hell, but listening to the sounds of the animals outside of us as we lay next to eachother in the tent was so great, and only £3 for a night!

We decided to go hiking, a sign warned us to keep on the path. Before I came to Laos, I’d heard about the Second Indochina War (otherwise known as the Vietnam War) but didn’t know it has affected Laos in the slightest. Turns out between the years of 1964-1973, the USA in their quest to defeat the Vietkong and the spread of communism ensured that a bombing mission took place every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day for 9 years. It is estimated that more bombs were dropped in Laos than in the entirety of World World Two. Unexplored ordnance (UXO) are explosive weapons such as bombs, bullets, shells, grenades, land mines etc that did not explode during the war and remain dangerously behind in peace time.

All 17 provinces in Laos suffer UXO contamination but Xieng Khouang is the second most bombed province. The UXO contributes to a cycle of poverty and innocent people are killed and injured regularly when they go off or children accidentally come across them and play with them.

Walking past the sign, we climbed and climbed until we reached the top and the whole of Laos shone brightly in the sun to us. Upon reaching the bottom, feeling exhilarated we walked across the river and around villages waving to children who would yell SUBADIIIII (hello in Lao) grinning wildly at us as we passed, and watching school kids play some foot volley ball game.

As we walked back, I took in the simple yet resourceful life surrounding us.

I’ve seen it a lot now, but I’m still in awe as to how families live such a simple, carefree easy life and look so happy. They have their essentials – animals for milk and meat, small shops for toiletries and markers for fresh fruit – and they don’t need grandeur, because why do any of us need anything more? Why do we need massive supermarket chains, and packaged fruits and giant businesses that charge us so much money? Really, we don’t need a lot to survive when we think about it. I also loved seeing how whole families seemingly live together, from super old looking grandmother (or indeed great grandmother) to small babies with their puppies playing around.

We discovered an incredible restaurant called Mama Alex’s which serves fantastic, flavoursome home made food and went to bed, excited for the following day’s tour. I’d manage to encourage a huge bunch of Israelis to join Lola and I and the next morning we got up early to start the day. We all climbed hours to viewpoints, waterfalls, caves and then took a boat to explore Mnong Nwaw tribal village, finally kayaking back which I made up for uselessness in by singing endless Karaoke. You can’t karaoke in a kayak – said no one EVER.

Luang Prabang

The next stop for us was a six hour bus to Luang Prabang. I was excited to meet new faces and have some drinks but left a small piece of my heart in Nong Khiaw. We ‘d been told the majority of people stay at a place called Sunrise Hostel for the party but checked into Vonprachchan Backpackers, which was cheaper, included breakfast and also meant we could party at Sunrise whilst getting sleep. The hostel itself wasn’t just chilled – it was completely empty, which was disappointing. It had a rooftop with a pool table that would have surely enticed people in but it is low season/maybe everybody was staying at Sunrise!? Also, there was no soap in the toilets. That thing always gets me a little, I mean come on, soap is nothing to buy for a hostel.. apparantely I could buy one from him stated the person at Reception whilst his rat looking dog took a poo by the Reception desk.

We got ready to go out and went to Sunrise which was, as expected, HEAVING with people. Lola and I hadn’t seen so many backpackers in about three weeks so it was great to get chatting and find out where everyone was from. Then, I saw my friend ANNA from Chiang Mai, who’d I’d met a few days before I left Thailand. It was SO good to see her.

There are two things I love about the human body, one is how much our stomach lets us eat and the second is a gut feeling or an indescribable connection you have with someone. You know when you just KNOW you’re going to get on super well, and fit like little friendship puzzle pieces? Well I was a little gutted I didn’t have long to spend with Anna back in Thailand, because I knew our conversations were going to be awesome the minute we started talking. Upon introducing her to Lola, we went out bowling, drinking and planned our next few days together as a group. Anna and I decided to visit Kuang Si Waterfalls together the following day and we discussed our similar feelings on our experiences South America VS Asia.

Kuang Si Waterfalls

Do you guys ever have the feeling, especially when you’ve been travelling a while of slight disappointment when something doesn’t top something you’ve seen which is similar? It’s kinda greedy and lame, but I’ve definitely had it. When I was in the Amazon, I saw some of the most incredible waterfalls in my life, huge and incredibly powerful. Anna as well has seen Niagra Falls and we discussed that despite the fact sometimes you have the feeling of shrugging shoulders at doing or seeing similar things, we’re priveledhed to be seeing everything. Therefore, entering these falls, we were both pleasantly surprised to be extremely surprised at how incredible these waterfalls were. Like literally, spellbound. Just goes to show you can’t judge something without experiencing it! Theeeeeen something bad happened.

“I think I’m having a heart attack”

We’d just climbed for about ten minutes, but it was very steep and I’m not at my fittest so I was sweating. We saw different angles of the waterfalls and came back down for something to eat. Whilst I waited for my salad, I had a black Americano (only my second of the day) ate and then downed the last few drops before we headed to the water to swim. Then something weird happened. I’d agreed to watch Anna’s things whilst she got into the water and as she was talking to me I almost stopped hearing anything. My heart suddenly jolted and I was absolutely covered in sweat, still completely out of it. I almost felt high because I felt like I wasn’t there, my arms started going completely numb and I began to feel like I’m going to black out.

“Anna I’m really not feeling good” I tried to say, despite the fact I felt like she was a million miles away and my chest was starting to really hurt.

“Are you okay? Do you need to sit down?”

She replied.

“No I really don’t think something is okay. My heart is hurting and beating really fast, my chest is hurting, my arms are numb, I don’t feel like I’m in the same zone as you because you feel far away and my jaw is getting numb too”.

I was trying to take comfort in the fact that Anna is a qualified nurse but as she helped me out of the park looking for anyone to take me to the hospital, my heart which felt like it was going nuts and the fact my left arm had lost all feeling was starting to freak me out. I was going to have a heart attack in the middle of a car park on the other side of the world and they’re not going to have a clue how to treat me. It was either that or my salad or coffee was drugged – neither was a great thought.

Here’s a great piece of travel advice for you. If ever you’re choosing to have some form of heart scare, make sure it’s in the middle of a tourist attraction because taxi drivers will refuse to take you to hospital unless you pay them about £50 for a ten minute journey. It makes it really fun and eventful to use all your energy on trying to find someone honest who actually wants to help you. I know for a fact that if I saw a tourist in, say, Madame Tussaud’s who was having severe chest pain, sweating profusely and had numb arms, I would take them to the hospital without even charging them a penny but unfortunately, that’s not the case for Laos. I started arguing with the taxi drivers that their price was ridiculous and if I was to have a heart attack in their car, they’d have to take me for FREE to the hospital because I’d not be in a fit enough state to pay them and eventually a nice man took us there for a decent price.

I guess it’s only when you’re scared and relying on hospitals and medical staff in foreign countries that you really appreciate how lucky we are to have an NHS system which is so fantastic. I get shown down a few corridors before being placed in a room and waiting for ages for a doctor. There are actually “trauma surgeons” who are sitting outside on a desk playing on their phones, who are obviously qualified to do my stats quickly and verify the “is Emily having a heart attack” situation we’re in, but they tell Anna many times they’re trauma surgeons and therefore cannot help in the SLIGHTEST, or in Laos, they just tell “can not” when you ask them for any advice or help.

Eventually a doctor that speaks a little English comes in, and listens to Anna describing my symptoms. Anna tells me later that at this point, she’s aware of how pale I’ve got and is getting a little worried. Meanwhile I’m just focusing on trying to not panic which obviously suffering from Anxiety is not the easiest in the world. Even telling this story is making me panic remembering the incident.

Anna explains that I’ve had a coffee after hiking a little and the doctor thinks that it’s an electrolyte imbalance – which I guess would make sense if I didn’t realise how dehydrated I was and then had a liquid to dehydrate me further. She hooks me up to an IV of electrolytes and another to stop the numbness in my arms and jaw – I have no idea what medication stops random bursts of numbness so don’t ask. I’m so grateful that Anna is staying with me because I always feel guilty that I’m impacting their day, even though it would be second nature to me – and it’s great that we’re similar in that sense because Anna assured me it’s fine and is checking on me constantly.

My Dad was once on an IV drip which went too fast and fluid got caught in his lungs which nearly caused drowning so I’m VERY nervous about IV drips. I was constantly asking Anna to check the rate of it but slowly slowly, the numbness and shaking stopped, my heart rate felt back to normal after their ECG and the sweats started to ease. Hours late we were well enough to try and find a random guy to help us get back to the city, eat some food at the night market and meet Lola to fill her in on our horrible adventures.

** TRAVEL TIP – make sure you eat the fried coconut balls from the market and the coconut pancakes. I can’t eat gluten or lactose so finding desserts that are made purely out of rice flour and coconut milk was a dream. I thought that the coconut milk was melting in the middle but turns out they’re just not cooked properly but STILL so good.

Vang Vieng

The following day, Anna, Lola and our Aussie buddy Owen visit Mount Phousi, a really nice place to watch the viewpoint before grabbing a bus to our next tourist destination of Vang Vieng. Following the crowd and all the recommendations, we decided to stay at Nana’s, which is the most well known hostel there complete with a pool, and free drinks between 7 and 9pm and further had a good time.

Our time in Vang Vieng consisted of lagoons and hiking to two INCREDIBLE viewpoints – one being the well known Nam Xay motorbike point and the other lesser known Pha Ngern viewpoint. Anna and I completed this two hours quicker than we thought, and we chilled at the top chatting and looking out on the view with One Republic on repeat for a couple of hours. We arrived back to our Tuk Tuk exactly 2 minutes before he said he’d leave us there and ONE MINUTE BEFORE THE THUNDERSTORM. We were so lucky not to be caught in that, and we slipped our way through the jungle on the path back. Beware, these paths are steep and rocky – Make sure you take regular breaks, bring a ton of Mosquito spray/water and good hiking shoes. Do NOT be like George who thought hiking in his Birkenstock’s was handy.

As a group, we started to separate after Van Vieng and I decided to visit a place called Phonsavan, an off the beat city which has a huge history of leftover bombs from the Second Indochina War, as I wrote earlier, dropped by the USA.

I stayed in a nice guesthouse where I was really happy to have my own private room and the got a manicure and pedicure for 1 DOLLAR. Poor woman, having to sort my manky feet out – she tried her best for sure but at this point they’re a lost cause.

The following day, a British couple and I had a pretty much private tour to the around the incredibly mysterious sights of The Plain of Jars. We visited museums to try and figure out the timeline of when these jars were supposedly built and how on earth they’re still standing despite the fact the entire area was bombed for so long. The Vietcong were using the area as a place for supplies and underground caves, and in their quest to defeat Communism, America continuously bombarded the village and the surrounding border.

We met a random Australian in the museum who overhead me and my 100000 questions and gave us really good information, as well as our tour guide who told me that his parents survived by hiding in a cave. Every 8 minutes the States dropped a bomb and they could eat once or twice over three or four days because they couldn’t leave. The jars left from over thousands of years ago, still standing through this time were originally thought to have held bodies to make them easier to cremate. Nowadays, people believe that’s not true and they were in fact used to make alcohol. I’m still none the wiser, I just thought the landscape complete with the history was wonderful.

Vientiane and its creepy men

From Phonsovan, I took a long ass 8 hour bus to the main city of Vientiane where I planned on staying one night before taking a night bus to 4000 Islands, the most southern part of Laos and my ultimate destination. I’m happy to say that Vientiane was an absolute nightmare and I never want to visit again.

Why? Well I’ll list it, it’ll be easier.

1. You think Bangkok is bad for creepy old men leering at young girls? You think Bangkok is bad for having old, creepy, stary men in general? You’ve not been to Vientiane. I stayed at a hostel called “Lucky Hostel” where Agoda – as Agoda usually does – fails to mention you’ll be lucky if you share a room with anyone particularly normal or closer in age to you than 48 – 88 years old. I’m not an ageist, in fact I spend an obscene amount of time with people actually over the age of 100 at my Grandma’s old age home (you go Albert, over 100 years old this year! Love you long time). So I feel like I’m totally legit in saying, having a room with a creepy man who wouldn’t stop staring at me, an old man who was at least 80 if I’m being kind walking around naked and talking to himself plus two other people who definitely shouldn’t have been there was not my thing. I was really glad when I convinced some friends of mine to stay with me in the dorm and felt slightly safer.

2. My hostel was located right by the market which is convenient on any day that isn’t a day where there’s some kind of selling you products by screaming in microphones opposite other people screaming in microphones kind of day. It was like watching those annoying 24 hour programmes on TV that sell you things you don’t want – but louder and packed with people.

3. I asked for a Papaya salad at a market stall, not too spicy. I ate three bites and realised she had clearly mistaken “not too spicy” with “let’s give her the entire chilli pepper” and couldn’t talk because my eyes streaming and I was dribbling. I pointed at water and the lady past me three bottles which I downed. I told her I needed another salad and I was unable to even look at it without feeling the burn, to which she made me one – and then charged me twice.

4. The following day, decided with one day spare in Vientiane, to explore the city and take a local bus to Buddha Park – yes, a park full of Buddhas. I walked to what I thought was the bus stop, and waited for a bus that never came. I hailed a Tuk Tuk and showed him where I wanted to go. I was happy that he quoted me a cheap price and was keen to get moving because I needed to get a night bus and a boat to my ultimate destination of 4000 Islands. 30 minutes passed, and as I gazed at Google maps I was slightly confused as to why we were going in completely the wrong direction. As I tried to explain that the Buddha Park was now actually further away than before, he nodded in agreement and continued driving me to …. the airport. That’s right. He’d driven me to the airport and couldn’t understand that I was RUNNING OUT OF TIME TO CATCH A BUS AND I DID NOT NEED TO GET TO AN AIRPORT. Do I have luggage with me? Have I asked for the airport? NO. The most annoying thing about this was the fact that due to the language barrier he couldn’t understand that I didn’t need to be there and I wasn’t going to pay for this journey. So, I ran into the airport to try and find someone who spoke English. Me and said Tuk Tuk driver found a coffee shop and spent ten minutes with the Barista trying to have a conversation. Eventually he understood, took me to the Patuxai Monument where I walked around in the blistering heat gazing at its beauty. It looks very similar to the Arc de Triomphe with the only difference being that on a Sunday, I’m sure there are still restaurants and cafes open around it for the tourists. In Vientiane? Clearly Sunday is a day of rest for their stomachs because NOTHING IS OPEN. I walked for nearly two hours to try and find food, on the way to a museum dedicated to the rehabilitation of UXO survivors – which if you’d read my other posts, you know are unexploded bombs that still exist in Laos and Cambodia, which continuously go off and hurt innocent people.

After my day out, I finally returned to the hostel to gather my belongings and take the night bus and boat to 4000 Islands, the most southern part of Laos. I met two lovely Argentinans who I practised my Spanish with and together with a German girl, we watched “First They Killed My Father” ahead of our journey onto Cambodia, focusing on the genocide in the 1970s. I was originally nervous to take this nightbus as you have to share a bed with a randomer – and I hoped it was with a traveller and not an old creepy man. I was grateful to meet this new group of friends, and when the German girl left us, the boys and I continued our journey onwards to the Islands.

The 4000 Islands were beautiful. Split into two sides, where on one you can view the sun rise and the other you can view the sun set, we stayed in Don Det. Coincidentally my friend Lola also happened to be in 4000 Islands and we decided to find a log cabin, overlooking the river, watching the sunsets go down in hammocks. The name of our accommodation was called “River Guesthouse” and I would absolutely recommend it. There is a restaurant attached and a room will cost you £5 each a night, split between two people.

The next few days were spent trying and failing to kayak on rivers (Lola and I got stuck within the first 5 seconds in a plant) and then kayaked into a tree and fell in. We were actually told to separate by our instructors and sit with them because we were so useless 😂 We visited other villages, beautiful waterfalls and spent our evening eating a wonderful Indian.

Cycling through forests (which we quickly realised was stupid when we got stuck in mud and surrounded POTENTIALLY by UXO) we all bonded from countries around the world – England, Holland, Argentina, USA and Israel – and arrived at viewpoints where we could even see the outskirts of Cambodia.

We joined a “boat party” which was not really any kind of party other than a great group of people getting a boat to another island and listening to music, drinking and laughing together. We took the boat back and watched perhaps the most amazing sunset I’ve ever seen, before Lola and I continued on our trip to Cambodia.

Thank you to those I met – locals, children and travellers alike – who I spent my month in Laos with. You changed my entire view in Asia completely and for that I am grateful.


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