Laos: Jewel of the Mekong (Part II)

Cheap? Not really…

The trip to Laos was surprisingly expensive relative to other places I’ve visited. Whereas India for 7 days cost a mere USD 1,000 all in, Laos airfare already cost USD 750 for one international and domestic return flight!

Fortunately, living expenses are relatively cheap with us staying at one bed and breakfast for a mere USD25 a night (one traveler we met was staying in a USD 2 shithole so it’s possible to live at USD 20 a day in Laos), but still, I’ve gone way over the budget and spent almost USD 1,370 for a mere 11 day trip.

Nevertheless, it was worth it. Laos is way better than Vietnam in my opinion and is a must-see spot if you wanted to get a holistic view of Southeast Asia. Surprisingly, we bumped into a lot of foreign tourists, but mostly are classified as long-term backpackers. Meaning, they’re those who’s already been traveling to Thailand, China, Vietnam or Cambodia and was just passing through Laos and spending a few weeks there, especially since it’s so conveniently located.

There weren’t a lot of Asian tourists, mostly were from Europe which probably explains why a lot of Taiwanese are still ignorant about Laos’ presence. Come to think of it, most Taiwanese would rather spend NT$40,000 traveling to Japan or spending it on an LV bag than to visit Laos, which for them they still view as relatively unsafe.

Quite the contrary, Laos is probably one of the safer Southeast Asian countries I’ve been to so far. Maybe it’s because population is a mere 5.22 million, growing at a relatively slow 2.44 percent. This means that Laos is 4 times smaller than Taiwan!

At 21 people living in one square kilometer, Laos is also one of the least dense countries in Asia — a huge difference from Taiwan’s who has a population density of 613 people per square kilometer!

It was so uncrowded even in the Laos’ Capital of Vientiane that I newly dub this city as the “Land of No Traffic Lights.” Despite being the center of Laos, I probably only saw 2-3 traffic lights in the whole city! Hence, it was convenient for us to jaywalk, precisely because there were no restrictions other than to look left and right.

Definitely no traffic jams in Laos… don’t even think it was part of their vocabulary! Interestingly, I have to applaud the Lao sense of auto fashion: their scooters were snazzier than that of Taipei’s as they come in multiple cool colors of neon green, bright red, midnight blue among others. Very colorful and hip!

Instead of taxis, there were tuktuks, which cost us rich tourists around 10,000 kip to 15,000 kip to get anywhere.

For those unaware, our regular rate was around 9,300 kip to USD 1. Some of them would overcharge us by asking for 30,000 kip to 70,000 kip to travel to the more famous places, but never take their first offer. Negotiate and prove foreigners aren’t as stupid as they think!

What I do hate about tuktuks are that some of the drivers would try to fleece you out of more money.

Say you’ve already agreed on the price. As you’re traveling to your destination, they’ll sometimes stop the car and try to re-negotiate a higher charge. I’m usually an even-tempered person but this sort of attitude blows me to the roof! I am happy to provide a tip for the service but totally hate it when a person goes against the agreed price and threatens to drop you at a God-forsaken area! Aaaargh.

If you want to charge 30,000 kip, say so. If you can’t take the offer I give you, then decline. Don’t accept and then change your mind afterwards. That’s just unprofessional and causes tourists to leave Laos with a bad taste in their mouth.

Aside from that, Laos is terrific.

How to get to Laos

To get to Laos, we had to stop-over two separate airports before arriving at Vientiane’s own Wattay airports. There was the highly international Ho Chih Minh airport where we stopped-over for around 3 hours:

This was where I grabbed a nap and ate the first meal of my trip — the yummy two-colored fried rice which cost a reasonably-priced USD6, but seemed super expensive upon our arrival in Laos…

The Phnom Penh International airport which was quite impressive. It’s just too bad that we didn’t have time to stop and travel to Phnom Penh, my last Siem Reap trip was a real trip, it would’ve been nice to also visit Cambodia’s capital.

Oh well, maybe next time. Their duty free was pretty special though, just loved their interior. Check out the Cambodian spices up on display:

Finally, we arrived at the Laos’ Wattai International airport in the late afternoon (after departing Taipei at around 7:00 am!).Given the many interesting stop-overs, we were excited to finally get to check in our hotel which my friend says has a pool and a nice spa. But first, we change money — At 9,359 kip a dollar, check it out, Raven’s a millionaire after changing USD 120!

Proof that I was once a millionaire, a fact that I fervently wish is now true especially after this expensive Laos trip!

Vientiane, Laos’ Capital

Gladly, my friend arranged for our driver to pick us up. It turns out that we’re booked at one of Vientiane’s most expensive hotels — the Laos Plaza Hotel at USD 110 a night!

Check out the huge Christmas tree outside our hotel, which btw is made up of plastic bottles and light bulbs! Ingenious, ey?

Aaargh, next time, I’ll do the research and hotel booking! That’s just too pricey for words as decent place in Laos can cost as cheap as USD 30-50! Anyway, the great thing about our hotel was that it’s at a centralized convenient location.

It’s less than a 5-minute walk from the town’s center fountain which is surrounded by the city’s best restaurant, pubs and bakeries, the little of what it had.

Who would’ve known that in the next few days, we’ll be spending a bit of time having breakfast at Joma Cafe, sipping the coffee from the popular Scandinavian bakery, and spending New Year’s Eve partying it up in one of the more popular restaurant/pubs nearby!

For our first night dinner, we took a walk beside the mighty Mekong river, which courses in multiple countries but mostly through Laos. At its widest, the Mekong measures 14 kilometers across during the rainy season! In the morning however, we realized that December was the dry season so it wasn’t as “mighty” as we’ve expected, much to my friend’s disappointed.

Anyway, back to the story… there, we chose one of the many food stall/restaurants right beside the river where mosquitoes feast on you as you feast on freshly-made meals:

For dinner, we feasted on some delicious grilled fish, tam som or spicy papaya salad (a Laos specialty) and green chicken curry.

And of course, we both shared a big bottle of Beer Lao which was hailed by Time as the best Asian beer. When chilled, Beer Lao is delish:

The taste itself isn’t too bitter and goes down the throat easily.

I like it. The taste doesn’t overpower and is a perfect complement for the spicier, heavily-flavored food in Laos.

The meal itself was extremely satisfying and cost us around USD 7 for everything. Now, that’s what I call a value meal! 🙂

Afterwards, I couldn’t resist. I had to taste one of the pancake rottis from a vendor along the street beside the Mekong River. Costing around 7,000 kip, the pancake is made out of plain flour and fried in tons and tons of oil and butter (not very healthy am afraid) and filled with newly-cut fresh bananas, and drizzled with a lot of sweetened condensed milk:

The bananas tasted like langka (jackfruit) and was simply heavenly. Despite the loads of cholesterol and calories in this dessert, I just couldn’t resist. My traveling companion insists the Thai pancakes were better, but who cares? I liked it and it was the perfect end to a great first day in Laos.

To be continued…

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3 thoughts on “Laos: Jewel of the Mekong (Part II)

  1. Wow…interesting story again.
    As the number of tourists to Laos increased, many Tuktuk drivers, especially in big cities, try to make more benefits by overcharge the foreigners. On the other hands, many backpackers also try to cheat Tuk tuk drivers by pretending that they don’t have enough money. In about 2 years time from now, all Tuk Tuk will be out of the streets in Laos by 2010, as the Lao government will substitute those transport with other type of buses and trains.

    I am looking forward to reading your next chapters about Laos very soon.


    P.S I will travel to Taiwan this coming February (1st-4th Feb. 2008). It would be nice if you could suggest me some of the must-to-see places from Taipei down to the south using new Taiwan Shin Kan Sen

  2. Drop me a line if you’re in Taipei. Would be my pleasure to at least take you out for a meal or so. Will this be your first time to Taipei? 🙂

    As for the South, there’s the Kenting beach. Would recommend you visit the Islands (Green Island, Orchid Island), but it may be too chilly. The night markets in Kaohsiung as well as the Love River should be interesting.

    Personally, prefer to go to the East, specifically Hualien. You can also try and stay overnight at Alishan Mountain which can be relaxing. I like the North (Yeliu, Jiufen) better though, and love the Jeelung night market. Yummy!

  3. Hi Raven,

    Bad news! I could not get a visa to Taiwan. I called the Taiwanese embassy in Tokyo yesterday for a VISA. They said, “sorry, but we could not issue a tourist visa to Lao citizen”? I continued ask them, “why?”, they said “it is a rule like China case”. I continued my curious: “How about if I apply for a business trip visa?” . “Business visa for Laotian can be use only for 1 day”…said the staff. I continue my question, “..but I will be there for 3 days”. The staff reply:” sorry sir, there is no way you can stay in Taiwan more than 1 day”. Finally I gave up and cancelled my trip to Taiwan. I set up my new plan and called to Korean embassy to ask for VISA, and they treated me real well and I can have my visa to Korea for 3 months. Now I understand the relationship between Taiwan and China, and how it affect the small country like Laos.

    samakom lao

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