Destination: A Conversation About Laos

Melanie and her daughter at Kuang Si Waterfall; Christopher at Wat Xiengthong in Luang Prabang.

By Melanie Thomas Armstrong and Christopher Thorjussen

Melanie, an American from northern Virginia, solves cold cases when she’s not circumnavigating the globe (98 TCC by year’s end). Christopher, a Norwegian from Oslo, is a tech geek and deluxe backpacker (122 TCC).

The following is a transcript of a dialogue between Melanie and Christopher who met at the 2022 Malta Conference. Separately, they visited Laos this past July.

M: My daughter and I traveled around Southeast Asia for three weeks and I added Laos to our itinerary. Why were you there?


C: After visiting a friend in Vietnam, Laos made sense as a side trip. I flew to the capital Vientiane and arrived late at night for a stay at the Azela Park View Hotel—cheap and okay. I went for a short walk around the area and had a few beers at the local bar, “Go Dunk.”

M: My daughter and I also flew into Vientiane and then had a pre-booked transfer to Luang Prabang aboard the new high-speed train. (Flight schedules were still limited.) The train station was sterile like a hospital. Only ticket holders could enter, and we lined up as if we were boarding a flight. I highly recommend the train. It was clean, but bring your own water and snacks because there was no service onboard. We arrived 2 1/2 hours later. What did we miss in Vientiane?

C: The next day I walked around temples, the Pha That Luang stupa, national museum, Buddha statues and parks. I jumped on a tuk-tuk back to my hotel to pack for my evening flight to Luang Prabang, but just managed time for a stop at the Patuxai monument. The flight
is short, and cheap (approximately US$30).

Luang Prabang

M: Upon arriving in Luang Prabang, we went to our hotel in the center behind an active monastery. We could hear the monks singing or chanting. It was fantastic.

C: Getting from the airport to my hotel was in a fixed price taxi. I booked the same guy to take me on a full day tour the next day for US$60. Upon arrival, I explored the nearest wat before grabbing a nice local meal and beer.

M: After checking in, we headed straight for the bustling night market. We bought souvenirs and gifts of jewelry made from old bombs, Laotian fabrics, and handicrafts. What did you do during your full day?

C: I explored the center, climbed Mount Phou Si for a great view of the town below and also saw an imprint of Buddha’s foot at Wat Prah Buddhabat. I swung by the morning market buzzing with life and then the national museum, Haw Kham. I was not wearing acceptable clothing to enter (covering my knees), so I decided to head out of the city with my driver.

M: I loved the morning market and the Laotians blew my mind. I saw things there that I have never seen sold as food before … a saran- wrapped plate of bugs, buffalo skin, “leather buffalo” (buffalo jerky?), fried crispy buffalo skin, crispy Mekong river weed, fish innards, wasp nests, and bats! I mean … still? Bats?

C: Haha. Which ones did you try?

M: I’m a pretty adventurous eater but … No!

Kuang Si Waterfall

C: I recommend taking time to go here and see it; you can also say hello to the moon bears at the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Center as you walk up to the different levels of the waterfall. If it hasn’t rained (too much) you should be able to get up to the highest level (they count 4 levels/plateaus) of the waterfall for a view. The water wasn’t cold for this Viking, but bring bathing shoes as the mud is very slippery. I brought my drone to get an aerial view of the falls but in addition to poor spots to take off, the drone had a stable error fault and crashed into some nearby trees. Bye, bye drone. It’s probably still hanging in a tree out on the waterfall hillside.

Pak Ou

M: Oh, no! We took a Mekong cruise to Pak Ou on our first morning. This is the cave full of Buddhas. A typical Laotian longboat boat with a “driver” and guide took about two hours. It was a soothing, calm ride and we also had the opportunity to buy traditional blue Laotian weaving from local artisans. It was a nice pit stop.

C: I did the same. There are two caves on the west side of the Mekong river. One is easily accessible to the water and the other is farther up with a bit of a walk/climb. On our way back, we stopped in the village of Ban Xang Hai. Here I could see the local wat, kids getting haircuts in the street, silk shops and a rice whisky distillery. Of course, I bought a small sample to take home. Some of the whisky bottles contained a snake or a scorpion. Why? I don’t know.

M: I’m pretty sure they’re supposed to be aphrodisiacs but I’m skeptical. We only went to the larger cave. I need to research more about the history of how and why people left Buddha statues in such a remote cave. What did you do between the waterfalls and the caves?

C: I stopped by an elephant camp, a buffalo dairy ice cream shop and local community/village. I would bypass the elephant camp as the elephants didn’t appear to be treated well, but I would recommend the buffalo dairy ice cream. It was nice to stroll through the local village and see normal village life in Laos.

M: The buffalo ice cream sounds a lot more appetizing than “leather buffalo.”

C: Haha! No doubt.
M: We went to Joma Bakery Café — good coffee, clean bathrooms and near an ATM.

C: I, too, was sent there for the best coffee in town, which I’d agree with; they had good carrot cake, too. Before going to the airport in the next day I opted for a slow brunch in town. What did you do on your second day?

Sai Bat (Morning Alms)

M: We started our day at 5:30am to give Sai Bat (morning alms) to the monks. In the early morning, monks walk through town with their
metal bowls. Locals and tourists alike, sit on stools along the sidewalk and traditionally put a handful of rice into each monk’s bowl as they walk past. We bought sticky rice, dressed conservatively, bowed our heads, and silently provided food for the day’s rations. It’s a beautiful tradition that was well worth the early alarm. We spent the rest of the day wandering around on foot and in tuk-tuks. We enjoyed the sunset, ate by the water and tried deep fried bamboo — very tasty! We flew back to Vientiane with three hours to explore the night market.

C: That sounds cool, and it sounds like our itineraries were in reverse order!

M: Pretty much. So let’s summarize Laos:

Our tips for visiting Laos

C: Download maps offline of your new city before going there ( or google maps.) Kuang Si waterfall is worth the visit … Just not with a drone! … and don’t miss Luang Prabang.

M: It is not exactly a secret but everything people say is true. Skip Vientiane and spend more time in Luang Prabang than you think you “need.” It’s a wonderful place to just “be.” The markets. I love the energy, the sights, and the smells. Photos of the unique foods and crafts are my favorites. In the future, I’d also love to visit the Plain of Jars and the gibbon experience where you sleep in treehouses.

C and M: Enjoy!

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