Laos is different. It took me a while to put my finger on it. When in Vientiane, I couldn’t describe how I felt there. At long last, at about 10:32 PM into a sleepless bus ride away from the city, it finally dawned on me. Laos made me feel involved.
When I travel, I hate the “through the glass” feeling when you see this foreign world around you. You’re on the outside, looking in. You’re not living.
I’ve become accustomed to looking through the glass at these places and peoples and cultures. I’ve traveled long and far enough. Also, I often travel alone—which means I often stick to group tours for the sake of my budget and my safety.
Laos, has woken me up. I’ve been reminded of how I began traveling in the first place. When I took off to the Philippines 4 years ago, I was completely inexperienced and blissfully unaware of how many things could go wrong. Which is why I didn’t do anything touristy. I had quite the opposite experience, in fact. During my week in the Las Pinas City, I lived with a local family and got to know them and their live-in workers. I lived where they lived, I went where they went, I worked where they worked, I ate what they ate, I took the pedicabs and tricycles they took, I hand-washed my clothes on the rooftop in the same way they washed their clothes, and I even at times slept where they slept. (Sleepover!!!)
That was my first time ever traveling abroad. Since I was so inexperienced at the time, I didn’t know what I know now: I was doing it right.
Tourists come in all packages, and I’m talking about the ones shuttled en masse from location to location. We’ve all been there, and I know I will be again.
But these places that you’re “exploring” have turned out to be nothing extraordinary. In Vientiane, though, there’s quite a few different free or low-cost activities you can enjoy that keep you involved in true Laotian life. One thing’s for sure. No one will have had the experience you did.
What makes tourism in Laos unique among its neighbors
On Cat Ba Island (and many other locations) in Vietnam, it’s no challenge to find a tour that takes you far out of the way, shows you a good time, and feeds you decent food. Thailand is much the same in Krabi, Phi Phi, Chiang Mai, and other locations.
Laos, by contrast, forces you to step outside the comfort of a tour bus. I only found one cheap day tour—it was only 20 bucks, but also only in the vicinity of Luang Prabang.
Thanks to Laos’ expensive travel industry, there is more “off-the-track” area than “beaten track” to be covered. You have few options besides booking a private tour, hiring transportation of some kind, or driving yourself around. Thus, you’re forced into taking the hands-on approach.
Suppose you book a private tour or hire a driver. Either way, you’ll have the opportunity to develop more of a friendship with your guide than you would if you were in a group of 30. When you read reviews of their tours and those of other local travel agent companies, you see that the same names pop up over and over—names of the awesome tour guide that customers got to know pretty well and really enjoyed spending time with. It goes the same for local cooking classes.
Speaking of cooking classes….Companies offer tours that are more hands-on than your typical Southeast Asian tour. Tuk Tuk Safari, for one, offers a day of traditional Lao farming. The tour concludes with a lunch that you cooked yourself, using the freshly harvested.
What to do in Vientiane
If you find yourself stuck in Vientiane for a few days—it could be worse. Don’t be one of those tourists who sees the glass as half empty. Vientiane is by far the MOST CHILL capital city I’ve ever been to—which makes it the ideal Thailand visa run. You’re sure to enjoy your stay once you kick back!
I was extremely satisfied with my decision to let Vientiane shape my trip plans itself. Having given up on day tours, I just focused on getting to know the town, interacting with the people, and enjoying the plentiful peace and quiet at my hotel. Here’s a few ways you can do just that:
- Cycle around the city. You needn’t bother with a group tour—the city is small enough that you can find all the temples on your own.
- Find live music. I even felt personally involved by the band at Namphu Fountain.They were posing for my camera and telling me I was cute via microphone. If I’d stuck around long enough, and danced hard enough, I’m pretty sure they would have let me perform with them. Mental note for next time…
- Eat street food, which I cannot recommend enough in Vientiane. In fact, one of my fondest memories is eating the most delicious somtam I’ve ever had at a small family’s stand tucked around the corner of where the foreigners rarely stray. I smiled at their little girl, and I felt a bond with them when I returned two days later. They remembered me, probably because I had told them that the somtam was better than Thai style. And it was—way better!!
- Join the free aerobics and dance lessons at the park by the riverside. It’s something all the locals do, so its a true Lao experience. View Vientiane as your health retreat and go for it!
- Slap tamarind on your face for a spa day at a traditional herbal sauna, and follow up your steam room session with a true Lao massage. I like this sauna off Chau Anou and highly recommend the massage! The quality was consistent.
- And of course you must go to the night market by the river. All the locals go, and it’s fantastic for cheap clothes. Tip: keep an eye out for cute sweaters. There are some very unique styles you won’t find anywhere else but at the Vientiane river market.
A few other unique things the locals do in Vientiane, as I noticed:
- Play badminton or soccer on the sandbar in the river
- Wait out the sunset to take photos (Tip: Go early, allow about a half hour extra to capture the best colors.)
- Fish in the Mekong River
- Cycle or motorbike around
- Get a quick pedicure while at the bus station
- Take your water buffalo for a walk…while on a bicycle if you want (No lie, I actually saw a guy doing this!)
- Make coconut donuts or try your hand at hacking a coconut. At one streetfood shop, I saw one girl helping to cook her own food….So why not ask to try making something yourself? I know it may feel a little awkward, but you’ll be surprised how such a request is received differently outside of your culture.