This is guaranteed to be somewhat controversial since most reports and opinions I’d read before visiting Laos were incredibly positive. That’s one of the reasons we were so looking forward to visiting the country but perhaps our expectations were too high. Of course, our experience was unique and others will be completely different.
We visited Laos after spending three months in Thailand and decided to enter the country by taking the slow boat to Luang Prabang. As it happens, the boat journey into Laos turned out to be the highlight of our stay.
Here’s why I won’t go back to Laos…
Laos is a landlocked country in South East Asia. It borders Myanmar and China to the north, Thailand to the west, Vietnam to the east and Cambodia to the south. The country was under French control from the 1890s until the 1950s and there’s plenty of French influence leftover today.
Since the 1950s, Laos has remained an independent and communist state. During the Vietnam War, the Ho Chi Minh Trail ran through Eastern Laos connecting North and South Vietnam. The US bombed the area so heavily that Laos is the most bombed country in history.
Of all the bombs dropped, around 80 million failed to explode which continue to affect daily life in the country. Clearing the unexploded ordnance (UXO) could take hundreds of years and millions of dollars.
On the whole, everyone we met in South East Asia was welcoming to tourists. The same applied to the general population of Laos. However, anyone providing a service seemed to be more aggressive or persistent than in the neighbouring countries.
Although we encountered many pushy tuk tuk drivers and tour operators in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, there was something about the ones in Laos that just seemed worse. It was like the word “no” was completely ignored in all circumstances especially when it came to drivers.
I can appreciate an element of wanting business from tourists and it’s certainly competitive in any service but being forceful doesn’t work. When you do secure a driver for anything, it’s quick to realise that they are probably some of the worst in Asia.
The roads in Laos are sometimes non-existent, occasionally wash away in the wet season and crashes are quite common. Drivers always seem to take unnecessary risks to overtake other road users even if a huge articulated lorry is heading in the opposite direction. Timing and spatial awareness are not really strong points.
Before visiting, I was under the impression that Laotians lived a more relaxed lifestyle than the other countries in South East Asia. However, our experience seemed to be that everyone was always in a hurry or didn’t have time for others.
It seems that Laos attracts a lot of younger tourists looking to party. Of course, I have no problems with that but it’s not what we’re looking for when we travel. In Luang Prabang, the party travellers all wanted to visit the famous Kuang Si Falls and spend the day there drinking. This really put us off the idea of going.
This party tourism only intensified when we reached Vang Vieng and we did our best to avoid it entirely. In Laos, there appears to be an above-average number of French tourists. Given the history between the two countries, it makes sense and French is still somewhat spoken and understood.
However, and not wanting to stereotype, it seemed the majority of the French tourists we saw explored Laos with an attitude of superiority. Perhaps not dissimilar to a British person visiting a former British colony. There was something in the way they acted and spoke to locals that showed they felt better than them or that they still ran the country.
Perhaps it was a coincidence but four of the ten worst tourists we encountered in South East Asia were all in Laos. The worst of them was an older Frenchman at the Lao New Year Parade who had absolutely no care or respect for the locals. I appreciate that this isn’t the fault of Laos but it didn’t help with our enjoyment.
We had badly timed our travels to Northern Thailand and Laos so that they coincided with the burning season. This meant during our entire stay in Chiang Mai through to Luang Prabang we didn’t get to enjoy much of the outside due to the smog. Of course, this negative aspect isn’t unique to Laos but it isn’t my main issue.
In many of the countries in South East Asia, you’ll come across rubbish on the streets and no clear evidence of anyone looking after the environment. But in Laos, the attitude towards it was either more careless or simply more evident.
When taking the slow boat down the Mekong River, locals would simply throw their used plastic bottles, cans and all litter into the water. The river was full of floating rubbish at the same time as local village kids using the water to play and bathe.
There seemed to be a lack of pride when it came to the standards within Laos. I appreciate that, given the amount of poverty and issues with UXO, they have bigger issues to think about but it was noticeably worse than the surrounding nations. Although we both felt Cambodia was the dirtiest country, it still seemed the attitude towards it was worse in Laos.
Cost of Visiting
Perhaps this is an unfair thing to call Laos out on considering how much cheaper it is than any western country. However, after spending six months travelling through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, Laos sits in my mind as the most expensive. Perhaps it’s not the most expensive but worse value for money.
The quality of guesthouses and food in Laos was worse than those in Thailand and Vietnam. I personally found the food better than in Cambodia but still not above average. This is mainly in regard to the everyday family-run street restaurants. However, there was one huge exception in Luang Prabang.
If you do visit the city, there is an excellent restaurant called Tamarind alongside the Nam Khan River. It’s aimed at tourists wanting to experience high-quality traditional Laos food so it isn’t cheap. That being said, it was worth every penny (or Kip) that it cost.
Aside from that overly positive restaurant experience, everywhere else seemed similarly priced to restaurants in Thailand with vastly reduced quality. Those places that did offer higher quality food were considerably more expensive.
The World’s Worst Guesthouse
There’s no way I could write this post without mentioning Vang Vieng. The town used to be a hugely popular stop for backpackers with everyone going tubing and drinking along the river. After a large number of deaths due to alcohol and drugs, the tubing game has died down a bit. It still exists but it’s not the same party scene it used to be.
For me, that’s good news. We’re not boring but we don’t like the overly in-your-face party atmosphere especially if it’s full of Brits abroad. Vang Vieng itself isn’t actually too bad. It’s quite nice to walk around the town and there is some amazing scenery, easily the best we saw in Laos.
However, Vang Vieng was the moment where I decided to give up on trusting generic online reviews and now I only trust other blogs. For our three nights in the town, we had chosen to stay in the ironically named Bliss Guesthouse which had all-round positive reviews. At the time we visited, it had an incredible 9.5/10 on Booking.com – fortunately, this scores looks to be dropping.
The floorboards of our ground floor room had gaps between them so you could see the mud floor below. For three nights, we experienced an abundance of flying ants, mosquitos and cockroaches in both the bedroom and bathroom.
On top of this, a man we believe was the owner was always sitting outside drinking or drunk. One night we listened to him trying to chat up some of the young female guests clearly making them uncomfortable.
If you do stay at Bliss and don’t enjoy it, be prepared if you decide to leave a bad review. Chances are, you’ll get a scathing reply from the owner telling you why you’re wrong and your review is a lie. A very professional approach to guesthouse management.
The cherry on the cake was that our visit to Vang Vieng was over my birthday. My birthday present was a cockroach in the bathroom sink at 2am. On the whole, Vang Vieng town was better than I expected and we loved the nature (when it wasn’t in our bedroom) but we couldn’t wait to leave the world’s worst guesthouse.
Unfortunately, this is one of the biggest reasons why I won’t go back to Laos. We visited during the Lao New Year celebrations so we got to enjoy the water festivities and traditional parades. The one that marred the experience was the elephant parade. We stumbled upon this early-morning parade by accident but stayed to document how bad it was.
The parade takes place along the main street in Luang Prabang with the elephants being ridden from one end to the other. Throughout the route, there is no crowd control. Bystanders are free and seemingly encouraged to approach the elephants, get in their way, take selfies and somewhat smother them.
Their handlers and riders would also beat them and kick them to make sure they went in the right direction and didn’t go too slow or too fast. I am aware that animal rights are not as prevalent in Laos but I was surprised at the number of westerners ignoring the blatant abuse and enjoying the ‘festivities’.
Although more and more ethical elephant sanctuaries are springing up across Asia, it’s disappointing to see this sort of tradition is allowed to continue. Seeing this was probably the most disturbing thing we saw in all of Asia and nothing less than heartbreaking.
Verdict on Laos
Laos was easily our least favourite country in mainland South East Asia and somewhere that we had just had enough of by the time we left. As mentioned, a lot of tourists love the place but we just couldn’t enjoy it despite trying.
If you’ve ever planned on going there, I wouldn’t want to turn you against that idea at all. I’m glad we took the time to visit Laos but it didn’t live up to our expectations especially after loving the months we’d spent in Thailand. Despite only spending 15 days in Laos, we came away feeling we’d seen all we wanted to see and would much rather revisit Thailand or Vietnam.
Related Laos Posts:
How To Take the Slow Boat to Luang Prabang, Laos
Heartbreaking Elephant Abuse – Lao New Year Tradition
How To Climb to the Pha Poak Viewpoint in Vang Vieng
Taking a Minibus from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng
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