Surrounded by Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and China is a peaceful little country you’ve probably never heard of – Laos. While tourism is growing in Laos, travelers haven’t made it a priority destination the way they have its neighbors. On one hand, I absolutely love how under the radar this special land of orange-robed novices and sticky rice is. Part of the basis of its appeal is that it feels wild, yet to be tamed by a Starbucks or shopping mall. On the other hand, I can’t help but feel like it’s a real shame that so many wanderers make their way to party in Phuket and drink coffee in Hanoi (both great things to do) but never make their way to Laos, a place that offers so much to its visitors.
When I first arrived in Laos, I wasn’t even exactly sure where I was on the map. I knew I was near Thailand but hadn’t thought much about the geography of the place when I picked to volunteer there. Honestly, it didn’t matter to me where I was physically located, I had been in a funk. My long-distance relationship of years and years seemed to be in a “will-we-won’t-we” rut and it seemed like immigration visas would ensure it ended with a breakup. I decided to do what I do best: throw myself into traveling to distract myself. However, instead of distraction, I found clarity and comfort at a time when I needed it most.
VOLUNTEER IN LAOS
My first night in Laos, the sunset against the Nam Khan river and my first watermelon juice from a street vendor told me that, while I wasn’t sure if Cambodia was East or South of me, I was in a hidden paradise. I’d dropped myself off in a tiny town, dotted with temples and pagodas shimmering in the Lao sunshine.
For a month, I worked with local children and novice monks to improve access to free education. The enthusiasm and gratitude of every student I encountered left me speechless. I’d walk into the office and find students there waiting for me early in the morning (I was on time, promise) to ask questions about University or to practice their pronunciation of English words. Some wanted me to check over their maths or French homework.
I’d often get invitations to homes in nearby villages and, once, I was given beaded bracelets and necklaces from a class of girls learning income-earning skills. My neck and arms were covered with delicate jewelry made by some of the brightest, funniest, and bravest women I’d ever met. Over the course of those four weeks, I fell in love with Laos and its people. I knew I’d need to return.
WOMEN’S EMPOWERMENT PROJECT COORDINATOR
The next year, I was given the opportunity to take a position with the same organization, working as the Women’s Empowerment Project Coordinator. My aim would be to grow the project so that more women from rural Laos could learn skills that would help them become financially independent. I would also lead volunteer in providing free health workshops and English classes. I left my desk job, once again, and booked a plane ticket to Luang Prabang, Laos.
The job was remarkably rewarding. I can’t remember a job I’ve ever felt more emotionally invested in. The best hours of my day were standing in the doorway of a shabby building watching the young women approach on their bikes with their books in hand.
They’d tell me about the adventures of their day, how hard studying was or which teachers were their favorites. Sometimes, they’d ask to see pictures from my travels. I’d let them ransack my laptop for snaps of me at Machu Picchu looking sweaty and worn from four days of hiking. “I hope I get to go someday,” the older ones would say. I quietly hoped the same. I quietly hoped that each of them would get every opportunity the world could offer them.
It wasn’t just the meaningful work that drew me to Laos. It is, in the words of the late Anthony Bourdain, “unspeakably beautiful”. I found that to be true every day, but my expectations of beauty were blown away that October during the annual Candlelight Festival.
The entire town of Luang Prabang was lit by a candle. The long banks of the Nam Khan and the Mekong were lined with orange candles, wax melting onto its brick border. Every temple was decorated with handmade lanterns in the shapes of stars and hearts, hung in the trees of the surrounding grounds. The tiny UNESCO town glowed and all its residents walked from temple to temple taking in its magic.
Outside of Luang Prabang, I’ve found stunning landscapes and sights leaving me in the same sort of awe. Like maybe, God or the Universe or whatever, spent a little extra time making Laos. The teal waters of Kuang Si Waterfalls have me dreaming of swims every hot day. I often smile to myself when I think of watching the elephants splash around in the river unexpectedly as I ate a picnic on the floor of a bamboo hut not far from Ban Muenna. The UXO center in Nong Khiaw has left a permanent impression in my brain. Laos is the ultimate destination for those looking to get lost in something beautiful or looking to find themselves inside it.
I’m back in Luang Prabang, working as a freelance writer from the cafes in town, spending my evenings strolling along the river. Laos continues to draw me back time and time again. All these years later, no matter how many times I move and travel around and try on new places, Luang Prabang and its locals welcome me with arms wide open.
I am in utter disbelief that a place like this exists, culturally still intact, and manages to fly so completely under the radar. And yet, I enjoy that it still feels like untouched space for the most part. Yes, there is a supermarket now. Time changes most things it seems, but one thing seems to have remained the same: I’m still taking in every Mekong sunset and taste-testing every watermelon juice within reach.
Laos should be on every traveler’s bucket list. Whether it’s the mountains of Nong Khiaw begging to be hiked, a swim in Vang Vieng’s Blue Lagoon, the endless volunteer opportunities that exist, or the stunning temples in Luang Prabang that call your name, I urge you to answer that call and book your ticket to the most underrated country in the region. Who knows, it might just be the trip that changes your life. I know it changed mine.
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