Laos – What You Need to Know – Breaking the Myths

I guess this one might cause a stir. As I, unlike many of those who were describing the country to me before I got here, don’t think it is “cheap, not touristy and with the loveliest people in the world”.

Prices and Tourists

So, really, it is NOT cheap. It may get cheaper in certain regions, but forget about “cheap” in Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, the capital of Vientiane and other popular destinations. Alright, you get a beer for 10,000 or 15,000 Kip, but a fruit shake would cost you around 15,000 or even 20,000. You will find it hard to eat for less than 2 dollars, rather 3, which again, is not really cheap for South East Asia. Some clothes and souvenirs might be friendly-priced but e.g. a fridge magnet won´t be sold for cheaper than 15,000, usually 20,000. Medicine, bandages, plasters would cost you pretty much the same as in Europe. A juice in a box in a supermarket costs around 18,000, water around 10,000, a chocolate bar or a local ice cream around 10,000 too.

Tuk tuks tend to be rather expensive, often not taking less than 20,000 regardless the distance, and wherever you go you pay some money for the entrance fee or parking – or both. So even every viewpoint that you need to hike up, would ask you for a payment of 10,000, the same is true for waterfalls, lagoons etc. The only thing you do not pay for is swimming in the rivers…

A scooter for a day won´t be less than 50,000, a bike not less than 25,000 – that is more than in Thailand or Cambodia. Day tours to places of interests cost around 220,000 Kip. In Luang Prabang the prices go even higher…

So far for the “cheap”! I wish travellers would not to compare the prices in their country with the prices in the place they travel too, but perhaps rather the prices in the place they travel too with the prices of the neighbouring countries or countries at a similar economic level…

As for “there are almost no tourists in Laos” – there are. Many. For the Chinese, Laos is a favoured destination, just like e.g. Cambodia. They love the comfort of the hotels in Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang and Vientiane. And then, of course, there are visitors from Australia, Europe and the US. True, somehow the tourists seem to spread around, even in the most popular places, you don’t really get a suffocating feeling you might get at Cambodian Angkor Wat for instance. But forget about the “no people anywhere” snaps of e.g. Kuang Si waterfall in Luang Prabang you get to see online…

Local People and the Absence of the Sea

Laos is landlocked, so no sea or ocean, but people have adapted and live along the rivers which are plentiful, including Mekong and Nam Song, popular in the area of Vang Vieng. The locals do everything in the river, wash their cars, the dishes, the clothes, catch fish, swim, eat, drink, party… yes, they sit in the river while they are partying on the bank…

The locals can be nice, friendly and smiling as well as negligent, frowning and unfair. Just like in any other country, the coin has got two sides.

Sometimes the staff in restaurants surprises you with their overall kindness and loving attitude, sometimes you feel like you bother them just by coming as they actually need to serve you. I like to get my mango shake in a local place where the woman never smiles and always seems upset when I walk in do get one. But the shake is surprisingly good – which I believe must be thanks to the fruit she uses which was planted with love.

Sometimes you know the locals are trying to rip you off: at the airport, I paid more than 8 dollars to get a taxi to a bus station (about 4 km drive). At the bus station, the driver of a van tried to charge me twice the amount of money I was supposed to pay, saying I had a big luggage. I went to the information desk and got the person working there to deal with it. He got me onto a different van, and I was ready to pay my 50, 000 to get from Vientiane to Vang Vieng, when suddenly the guy started saying that perhaps I should pay 55 or rather 60,000. I gave him the money before he could continue to put the price higher and higher as I knew none of the locals would stand up for me. Thus the office worker gained his 10,000 and I gained my seat on a van.

But then there were other moments, like the one when I saw a sewing machine in the local restaurant where I like to take my dinners and agreed with the wife of the waiter (owner) to have my bikini fixed by her. When it was done and I wanted to pay, she refused to accept anything, saying she did it for me and it was a small repair only. I insisted but she only took a thousand from the money I was giving her.

Another time, I saw a guy rolling a joint in his supermarket. I asked him out of interest whether he had it for himself or whether he was selling it. Officially, cannabis is illegal here and when seen with a joint you could end up in prison, unless you smoke it in officially designated “happy” restaurants (similar to Cambodia) which allegedly pay the government to leave them alone. In those restaurants, you can also buy mushroom shakes or mushroom pizzas or pure mushrooms. The shake or pizza is worth 100,000 and the joint 30,000.

Now, the guy in the supermarket did not speak a word in English and had no idea what I was saying, but basically thought I was interested in getting a joint, so he just passed it to me, or rather into my bag, not wanting – or rather refusing – any money.

Yet another time, I was swimming in the river like I love to and as I let myself float on the water surface, a mild current brought me to a group of locals I saw from the bank before. They invited me to join their little feast of various local food and beers and I did not refuse, though their English was as non-existing as my Laotian. One man there had a brother who once studied in the Czech Republic and whose Czech was still pretty good. He was not present but on the phone he became the interpreter for the people and me… It was cool. Really cool.

So, you get different people, different situations. Sometimes you feel you have been cheated on, sometimes you feel grateful. And it´s like that wherever you go…

Haggling is not a huge thing here. Sometimes you might try at the markets, but usually the vendors are not willing to change the price too much.

Most of the local people are Buddhists in religion. But the shrines are often neglected and you don’t see many people in the temples either, unless there is a special ceremony or religious holiday happening. I go regularly, as I like the atmosphere and observing the daily life of the monks, and I barely see more than a dozen women or women and men around…

Transport

Getting around Laos is quite easy, but make sure you have enough time and cash before you use any means of transport here. The buses can be late and the collective vans can never come in low season – and if they do, they might be desperate to pick people on the way, which adds extra hours to the ride. Credit cards are not used commonly here though in the bigger towns you find plenty of ATMs.

The main, international airport is in the capital of Vientiane. There is one also in Luan Prabang.

There are VIP buses running in between towns in the high season, and vans (collective taxis) running even in low season. These are safe, usually take several hours and they are reasonably priced. As mentioned above, just have time and money on your hands…

You can get taxis (but they are expensive), tuk tuks (also quite expensive) or rent bikes, scooters and buggies to get around the area in which you are.

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