Laos is a deceptively large country – it’s actually bigger than the UK. However it goes without saying that it’s way less developed. Consequently, although there’s a lot of land between Vientiane and the border with Cambodia, there aren’t too many tourist attractions worth seeing along the way. This meant our next stop after the capital was the rather distant Si Phan Don, also known as the 4000 Islands. To get there, we opted to catch an overnight bus from Vientiane to take us the 500 miles south.
The bus ride was actually one of the most comfortable we’ve ever had, because instead of seats we had bunk beds – that fit 2 people each… just. Obviously being in close quarters with each other wasn’t a problem for us cus we know each other pretty well. But there were many solo travellers who had to pal up with complete strangers for the night and make the best of it, which was pretty hilarious. We heard many awkward conversations going on around us! The journey was supposed to take around 14 hours. But of course, our bus broke down several times throughout the journey, meaning it actually took us closer to 17… weirdly it wasn’t that bad. We both slept fairly well and weren’t grumpy when we arrived at all (for a change).
Si Phan Don is the name given to a stretch of the Mekong River where the water passes between thousands of small islands. The largest group of these are inhabited, and have become a bit of a tourist hotspot due to their remoteness, cheapness and beauty. The only thing to do here is rent a bungalow or room for about 80,000K a night (£7), eat cheap food, drink cheap beer, watch the water lazily flow past and pet the myriad cats and dogs that wander around. It’s a bit of a stoner’s paradise cus you can buy weed and mushrooms everywhere (there is no police presence whatsoever) although it seems as if the locals are trying to make tourism more about kayaking and tubing than getting wasted (a welcome change after Vang Vieng). Because we were staying on the islands outside of the peak season, it really was quiet, with no partying to be found and only a scattering of annoying and obnoxious tourists 😉
We achieved exceptionally little while here. We stuck to our rather nice room mostly, avoiding the day’s humidity as much as possible. We had some great barbecue from an Australian restaurant that reminded Jake of home, and many fruit shakes while watching Friends. We watched a sunset or two and walked round the island a bit. That’s it. Not much else to do though so we hardly missed out! We stayed till we ran out of money because it would be impossible to convert Laotian Kip once we arrived in Cambodia. Then we headed for the border which concluded our time in Laos.
Our opinions of the country differed. Jake decided Laos had been his least favourite country so far. He had despised the inconvenience of travelling around and constantly being made to pay extra to get from the bus station into town. The food had been average and comparatively expensive (to Thailand), although the sandwiches and French pastries had been great. The country does have a lot of natural beauty but the awful infrastructure, depressing towns and irritating tourists all made it quite hard to appreciate.
Although I agreed with him entirely on all that, I wasn’t quite so quick to condemn the country. I felt that Laos had a special kind of allure. The soft hazy light and ethereal landscapes had been extraordinarily beautiful and quite spellbinding. Luang Prabang had been my favourite city and place, due to its timeless ambience and extremely bewitching feel. It stands out as a unique destination in the whole of south east asia and I’m glad I went to Laos to see it, even if the rest of the country had been somewhat forgettable.
Consequently we weren’t too sad to be leaving, and were looking forward to our next destination; Siem Reap in Cambodia.