Welcome to Laos
Laos is a small country in Southeast Asia. To understand the culture of Laos and its strong remaining traditions, you have to look back into the country’s long and colourful history. The modern Laos emerged from the French Colonial Empire as an independent country in 1953. Being colonised by the French and the country’s embroilment in World War II and the Indochina Wars infused Laos with a European cultural element that you can still feel today.
Laos is mostly rural and agricultural. The villages and cities are mostly located close to rivers and depend on them for food, commerce, irrigation, transportation and drinking water. The five largest cities of Laos, except Louangphrabang, are located near the famous Mekong river. As most families are involved in farming and fishing, you can experience a timeless quality of rural life throughout the country. Culture lovers can experience the urban living and explore the historical part of the country in the capital of Laos- Vientiane.
Most travellers will discover Laos unaffected by mass tourism. Although the neighbouring country Thailand puts a significant impact on the Laos tourism industry by making travellers apply for visas out of their country. As Laos is only a short flight away from Bangkok, the majority of travellers go there and use the opportunity to explore this beautiful country along with the formal procedures. This is precisely what we did a month ago and I’m about to tell you all about it.
Getting Your Thai Visa in Laos
It doesn’t matter on what terms you are getting your new Thai visa, the procedure is the same for everyone. With prepared documents, you have to come to the Thailand embassy in Vientiane to apply for a new visa. Usually, documents are ready to be picked up the next day. Because Vientiane is a very popular destination for visa runs, the embassy is packed with travellers that arrived from Thailand by bus or by the plane. From our experience we have learnt three things:
1) Before planning on what day you are going to apply for the visa, it is best to check and make sure it is not a Thai holiday. We had to extend our visit to Laos and lose our return tickets, as the Thai embassy was closed for a public holiday that we had no idea about.
2) Come nice and early if you don’t want to waste all day waiting in a huge line. The embassy opens its doors at 8 am, but people come as soon as 6 am to reserve their spots in the front.
3) If you are like us and are travelling with a baby or you want to be done with the whole thing as quick as possible and without unnecessary delay, you could the use services of the agency outside the embassy. If you are worried about how will you find them, don’t worry, they will see you! At first sight, it might look suspicious if a random man approaches you and offers his services for cash. In reality, those people make the whole process super easy by preparing the right copies and filling all the documents without mistakes, also by putting you first in the line. This all comes at a cost of course. In our situation it was the best decision, the application process only took us about three hours, instead of the whole day with a chance of us making a mistake and being sent back. All we had to do is to come the next day to pick up the documents. We could justify the price of their services by watching other people struggle filling out the forms and waiting all day in the line.
S Park Design Hotel in Vientiane
While in Laos we stayed at this brand new industrial style hotel. We chose this hotel because of its convenient location. The place is only 10 min away from the airport and minutes away from the Mekong riverside park. The hotel itself was immaculate and nicely styled. Lovely comfortable beds, gym and a beautiful outside pool which was our main attraction for our two-week stay in Laos.
Being so close to the city centre, you might think it would be straightforward to walk anywhere you want. It could be the case for solo travellers or couples without children. We found that the footpaths were tiny and almost impossible to walk on with a stroller and a baby without being pushed onto the road. The traffic in Vientiane is hectic, so to stay on the safe side we were moving around town in a taxi. The taxies were usually organised by a hotel, or we could jump in one of the many Tuk Tuks parked outside, but we thought those are only convenient for very short trips.
Things to do in Laos
Laos has many famous tourist spots and destinations. Many of those attractions are situated in rural areas and are not suitable for a fun day out with a baby. We decided to stay in the central city to find out what it had to offer. I have come up with a list of activities you can do and places to visit in Vientiane. As we had a lot of time on our hands, we stretched it out, but If you are there only for a short period, I’m sure you’ll be able to do it all in 2-3 days!
Mekong Riverside Park
Mekong Riverside Park is famous for its nightly markets where big crowds of locals and tourists gather together to shop, eat and relax. You can walk park side or walk on the streets that get blocked by cars and regulated for people every night from 6 pm. No doubt, this location is a favourite place for locals entertainment after work hours. There you can find a different selection of street food or enjoy a meal at one of the riverside restaurants. If you are into some real activities, join local outdoors Zumba classes. It’s an enjoyable experience and one of the best ways to spend the night. Personally, coming to this area for a casual dinner out and family sunset watching by the Mekong river was my favourite thing to do on this trip. Right next to the night market you can find a big children’s playground. It’s not as fancy as in Kuala Lumpur but my son absolutely loved it. The whole waterfront area felt safe and family friendly. I definitely recommend visiting for at least a night to experience the local vibes.
Patuxai Victory Monument
If you are out and about the city, it would be hard to avoid the central piece of historical architecture situated right in the heart of the Vientiane. Patuxai Monument is dedicated to Laotian people who were killed in the war with France. The arch has a strong resemblance with the Arch of Triumph in Paris. The place is worth a visit. Either you will want to admire the design or take a stroll and enjoy the beauty of the fountains nearby. You won’t many cafes in the area, so don’t expect to spend the whole day here, especially during the summer.
Pha That Luang Temple
Golden Stupa Pha That Luang is the national symbol and the most important national monument in Laos. Standing 148 feet tall and covered in real gold leaf, this sacred monument is the oldest archaeology in Vientiane and the country. Locals say that if you haven’t visited Pha That Luang, you haven’t indeed visited Laos. If you are planning on going there make sure you follow the conservative dress code and have use sun protection. If you don’t have too much time on your hands, you can easily manage to visit both Patuxai and Pha That Luang Temple on the same day.
Before visiting Laos, I already knew of and was excited to visit their famous Buddha Sculpture Park with more than 200 religious statues. This attraction definitely is the most fun to visit in Vientiane. The park includes a massive 40- metre high reclining Buddha image that is used as a temple. Also, the most photographed pumpkin look-alike statue with a demon’s mouth with a stone ladder inside leading to a viewing spot of the entire park. I wouldn’t recommend coming here during the hot hours of the day as the park doesn’t have any shade. The best time to come would be in the afternoon or early morning. Bring sunscreen and make sure your camera is fully charged as you will take a lot of photos!
Tha Ngon floating restaurants
Even though we talk about Vientiane, the next attraction is situated only an hour away. Tha Ngon is a small town in Vientiane Prefecture and can be easily reached by a paved road. Its situated right by Nam Ngum river that has a bunch of restaurants that serving a fresh river fish farmed right there on the spot. Most of them are floating restaurants that will go up and down the river while you eat, drink and entertain yourself singing karaoke. I would recommend visiting this place with a group of people as the boat provided to you is quite spacious so can comfortably fit a big family. The minimum time you can book the boat for is one hour, but you can easily extend it any time you want. While on the river, you can hear other people singing and having a good time which makes the whole experience even more entertaining. We only found out about this place from our taxi driver that advised us to go there for a family day out. As we figured that the whole point of this experience is the boat trip we decided to leave my mum and my son in Vientiane and go there just two of us. It worked out very well as we had a romantic day together even though our boat was very quiet and almost empty. The food was not my cup of tea, as most of the dishes contained meat. For the sake of the experience, I tried their traditional baked whole river fish which was quite enjoyable. If I were going to Laos again, I would definitely visit this place with my friends or family, just this time we would be blasting karaoke and having a dance!
Places to eat in Vientiane
Food in Laos is something they should be proud of as I haven’t seen many small countries having such a diversity of cousins. As I explained earlier, Laos was embroiled in numerous wars over the years, and this rich history has lefts its mark on the countries cuisine. Food is undoubtedly the most noticeable factor of how multicultural that country is. In Vientiane, you can find delicious food of French, Thai, Laotian, Chinese, Russian cuisines and many more. As I am not a fan of the street food that seems to be a huge thing in Asia I had to skip this experiment and only go for food at the local cafes and restaurants. We have visited a lot of places, but some left the best impression, so I thought I would share them with you.
Pricco Cafe was one of the first French bakeries we visited in Vientiane and made us come back for more. The place is situated very close to the night market, like a number of the best restaurants here are. I liked their thoughtful but simple designs. You can see that the place is trendy as you notice a lot of people coming through to pick up some delicious bakery goods to take away. Our choice was their famous French baguettes which didn’t disappoint. I recommend you to visit this place for a breakfast or an afternoon tea, as in my opinion it’s not the most healthy dinner option.
Aria restaurant offers delicious Italian food at an excellent price. The place runs some combo deals so even if you get the most expensive pasta or pizza it won’t break the bank. It’s only when it comes to food though and not wine. All wine in Laos is costly due to Import Duties and Taxes. So maybe if you are feeling like Italian don’t go hard on drinks but go hard on carbs of your choice, and you won’t be disappointed.
Privet Russian restaurant was the highlight of our trip. If you are one of the many borj lovers, vareniki addicts and enjoy occasional drink of cranberry-infused vodka, then this place is for you. The restaurant has a vast selection of best Russian food from blini with sour cream to vegetarian kotleti. You name it! Only writing about this place makes my mouth water. So if you are up to a short road trip to the nearest suburb in town then give this place a visit and don’t forget to take a photo wearing a Russian hat!
From my experience with Laos, I can only share positive feelings as the country is truly unique in its way. As much as everything seemed too hard to understand at first, it soon became a normal way of existing. Waking up every morning watching the sun goe up over The Mekong River and Laotian people in their traditional clothing carrying around homemade food for sale. Walking at night on the dark streets trying to find a dairy shop and watching locals hanging in-front of their houses playing games or having a quiet beer gave us a safe and content feeling. The locals are still living in a very simple modest way which was a dramatic contrast after Thailand. This country carries so much history and appreciation of freedom it almost feels like they live their own beautiful world where community is genuinely respected. I’m glad I had a chance to open myself to this Asian gem!