“Laos? Where is that?” That’s the usual reaction we get when we tell people where we went on honeymoon. With exciting destinations like Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia flanking this tiny, landlocked country, who can blame most people for forgetting this little paradise exists?
But it does – and its ‘where is that?’ status even within Southeast Asia can be seen as a huge plus point. Despite its natural beauty and warm, friendly people, Laos is largely unblemished by rampant tourism. No giant lumbering coach tours and mediocre restaurants adjusted for ‘falang’ (foreign) taste buds. In this article I’m excited to show you what makes Laos such a special destination!
Take the advice of the friendly Laotian folk we met – skip Vientiane and fly straight to the charming UNESCO protected town of Luang Prabang. Situated at the confluence of two rivers, including the mighty Mekong, Luang Prabang has preserved heritage buildings harking back to the days of French Indochina and has been known to enthusiastic young backpackers for years.
The pretty buildings, flanked by a river and green hills, have been converted to quality restaurants, hip cafes, lively bars, and a colourful night market. There are five-star accommodations such as Sofitel and AVANI+, as well as quality backpacker guesthouses, but the best bang for your buck is the little mid-range hotels such as Burasari Heritage, which take up a complex of vintage converted shophouses. Breakfast is served in the open air right beside the river, or you can wander out for French pastries and drip coffee at one of the many cafes.
But I’m not writing this to tell you to visit the night market (you’ll do it anyway), swim at Kuang Si waterfall (please do, it’s gorgeous), or take photos at the Pak Ou caves (I was brought up Buddhist, so this was frankly forgettable to me). I’m here to tell you – try to find a homestay.
Laos is several decades behind most countries in Southeast Asia, and this is one of the last places in the region you can live in a genuine fishing village. No electricity, minimal plumbing, mosquitoes, and oppressive heat. Young children work the fields after school, harvesting cassava, and other vegetables, or go net fishing in the river. You’ll need a guide – nobody speaks any language other than Lao, and sometimes just a dialect.
WELCOME TO SOPJAM
We were the only visitors at Sopjam village, a picturesque little place clinging to the steep river banks of the Nam Ou, surrounded by limestone cliffs. Sopjam is not far from the more popular village of Nong Khiaw, and if you like your creature comforts, you can also opt to stay at Nong Khiaw and make a day trip to Sopjam, on a slow, sleepy riverboat.
Sopjam is a weaving village; every woman has a traditional loom out in front of her house, weaving scarves and table runners of striking colour and detail. The families also engage in subsistence farming, but the village chief explained that the farms were all anything between half an hour to two hours’ trek away from the village itself. The village was too hilly for proper farming. So the men of the village, with their lunch wrapped in cotton cloth and strapped over their heads or shoulders, woke up early every day to begin the walk to their farmland, spent the day taking care of it, and returned at night.
Our guide took us on a winding walk around the nearby villages; we had a chat with the blacksmith, whose forge was just a small charcoal fire no bigger than something you’d barbecue your sausages on! With that fire and basic tools, he created and mended farm tools and pots and pans.
The village midwife had fascinating stories to tell, as she sat out in front of her house chopping vegetables for her pigs. A hearty lady in her sixties, she has lost count of the number of babies she has brought into the world, whose mothers can be as young as seventeen (in the old days, they could be as young as fourteen). She is also the closest thing the village has to a doctor, and we were astonished to hear she has to personally buy the basic medicines she dispenses. There is no government body regulating medical care in Laos for these villages.
She directed us to a nearby house up the hill, where she had just midwifed the birth of a son some two days ago. The mother, twenty years old, was in a special hut that was kept very warm, in keeping with tradition. The new mother smiled shyly at us from within; she was not allowed to step out into the open air yet.
A DIFFERENT WAY TO FISH
That afternoon, the village chief took us out net fishing at the nearest hydroelectric dam. He explained, through our guide, that these dams have been built across quite a number of Laos’ previously untouched river gorges. Laotians have had to adapt to the inevitable environmental changes, including fishing by the dam instead of further down the river. It was quite a sight watching this jolly middle-aged man plunge fearlessly into such rushing water, catching fish as they went hurtling past!
We had the fish for dinner, along with bamboo shoots and sticky rice, a staple of the Laotian diet. The meal was cooked by the village chief’s wife, delicious and filling. We retired to our small hut for bed, beneath a mosquito net. It was hot without air conditioning or an electric fan, so we just listened to the crickets and the rushing river nearby til we fell asleep.
ALSMGIVING AT SUNRISE
Returning to Luang Prabang after an adventure like Sopjam, it seemed appropriate to make some gesture of appreciation, apart from spending money in the Sisavangvong night market and Phosi food shops. So for our last adventure, we woke up very early in the morning, dressed very carefully and modestly, and made our way with our guide to the street where the monks would pass by, in a daily procession to collect alms.
We were given a basket of sticky rice and low stools to sit on (Laotians kneel – the stools are for us less flexible foreigners!). At dawn, the monks emerged from the various temples, aged nine to sixty, wrapped in bright orange robes, silently marching down the street with woven baskets. As they passed us, they opened their baskets, and we placed a handful of sticky rice in each basket.
I was raised Buddhist in Singapore – but Singapore is a teeming, commercial metropolis, and Buddhism is a spiritual practice of compassion and quiet acceptance. The silent monks proceeding down the street, the local folk placing sweets and rice in their baskets, the rainy sunrise – I have never appreciated Buddhism more than on that day. It was a beautiful, meaningful ceremony, and a fitting tribute and thank you to Laos, the hidden treasure of Southeast Asia.
IF YOU GO
- Connect to Luang Prabang via Thailand or Singapore on AirAsia.
- Book a tour to visit local villages or book a homestay.
- Take an extra day to go for a massage.
- Stay in a heritage colonial building.
We hope that this article has inspired you to visit Laos. If you have any questions about the destination please leave these in the comments below.
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- Maison Dalabua
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- Crowne Plaza Vientiane
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