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8 Things You Can Only Experience in Laos

Laos Insider Guides Budget Travel
by Joe Batruny Aug 20, 2014
1. Getting locked out of your hostel at 11:30pm

If you don’t do the necessary research prior to your arrival, you’ll likely be unaware of the fact that Luang Prabang shuts down early. Before midnight early.

In turn, if your bus drops you off in Luang Prabang at 2am, you’d better hope your bags are rather comfortable — you’ll be using them as pillows on the sidewalk. And if you’re lucky, a friendly traveler will be outside his or her hostel smoking a cigarette. Hopefully they’ll be kind enough to give you the hostel’s wifi password. If you’re not quite so lucky, at least the stray dogs roaming the town will keep you entertained.

Just keep your fingers crossed that you don’t need a restroom before Luang Prabang wakes up.

2. Feeling morally torn about the alms ceremony

Every morning around 6am in Luang Prabang, nearly 200 Buddhist monks collect alms (typically food) given by locals in a revered ritual. Respectful visitors are encouraged to join, but therein lies the issue. The event has devolved into something of a spectacle, with tourists flashing cameras in the faces of the monks, some going as far as giving alms while taking pictures.

The ritual in its original form would have been something special to observe, but you probably won’t be sure how to feel about it anymore.

3. Drinking lao-Lao

Lao-Lao is a Laotian rice whiskey, one of the cheapest alcohols in the world. Yes, the world. A bottle of lao-Lao costs less than a dollar. The taste may be slightly acquired, but it’s just as effective as Jack Daniels. Due to its “cost-effectiveness,” you might end up drinking more (and forgetting much more of the evening) than you’d planned.

Lao-Lao is served and sold in restaurants, bars, and shops. Drink it straight. Mix it with whatever. At least this blackout won’t be too expensive.

4. Exploring tourist-trap caves

As you mountain bike around Vang Vieng, you’ll come across signs leading you to small caves within the limestone karsts. A nearby guide will pass headlamps to you and your friends without saying much — if you’re part of a big group, you may not even notice who provided them. You venture through the dark cave, scaling ladders and crossing slippery wooden “bridges,” eventually making it to the end.

After backtracking your way to the cave’s entrance, the guide might ask you for an unreasonable sum of currency as “money for guide.” You’ll start to argue for a second before deciding the hassle isn’t worth it.

5. Having a seven-course prix-fixe meal for less than $15

At Tamarind in Luang Prabang, you’ll find a set menu of well-prepared Laotian cuisine for the sum of 120,000 kip (around $14.90 USD). You’ll be served soups, Lao sausages, dips, steamed fish, chicken-stuffed lemongrass, sweet sticky rice, and more. Even beer and coffee/tea are included.

A more adventurous menu is available for ₭150,000. Not such a bad deal. Oh, and if you feel like splurging, sip on a basil gin and tonic. Get your money’s worth, because you won’t be finding this type of bargain back home.

6. Alternatively, experiencing an “AYCE” meal for $1

During your time in Laos, at least one traveler will tell you about the “all-you-can-eat” meal at Luang Prabang’s night market. You’ll probably forget about it until the moment you’re roaming the market, looking down an alleyway to your right before smelling fragrant spices and seeing a mass of people. You’ll walk over and remember the advice you were given.

You’ll see heaping bowls of noodles, grilled meats pressed between sticks over the flames, and an assortment of soups. You’ll gorge yourself to the point of discomfort before trudging back to your hostel, belly bulging, to lie down.

7. Going “Tubing in the Vang Vieng”

You’ll see the cheap t-shirts reading “Tubing in the Vang Vieng” (which will replace many of the shirts you “misplaced” throughout your trip). But the river isn’t named the Vang Vieng — it’s actually the Nam Song. The Nam Song flows through the town of Vang Vieng.

Picture tubing around a natural “lazy river” surrounded by towering limestone karsts on all sides. It’s not the party it once was, so you’ll actually have the chance to look around. Sure, it’s shallow and rocky and you’ll have to be careful, but you’ll also meet friendly locals during your journey. Some enterprising eight-year-olds might even cut you off at the pass before the end of the river, latching onto your tube to commandeer you towards their “exit” before asking for a tip.

8. Seeing the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia

Close to Laos’ border with Cambodia, you’ll find the Khone Phapheng Falls, the largest by volume in Southeast Asia, with a flow reaching 49,000 cubic meters during the rainy season. The water cascades 21 meters at its highest point.

While the falls may not be as beautiful as those in other parts of the region or even those elsewhere in Laos, they attract thousands of tourists annually due to their sheer size.

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