I’ve always had a stigma about returning to places I’ve already been to and Laos, to some extent, reinforces that point. My 10 days in Laos 3.5 years ago were some of the most memorable moments of my previous 5 months in Southeast Asia, hence my desire to return. I loved Laos, and I still do. But this country has undergone profound changes in the relatively short time since my previous visit.
The single biggest thing that has changed is that tourism has gone through the roof. Last time I was here, it felt like Laos was some decently well kept secret. I encountered few other Westerners, traveled primarily by songthaew and ended up in completely random towns drinking Beerlao’s with some non-English speaking Lao teenagers.
Suddenly, travel in Laos isn’t so hard any more. There are agencies geared towards backpackers everywhere! I mentioned about my bus ride between Luang Nam Tha and Luang Prabang that last time around, there were maybe 3 other Westerners on the bus. This time it was more like 75% Westerners. “VIP” buses and minivans now ply between towns, making trips to the bus station totally unnecessary.
With the influx of tourists, prices have also greatly increased. While last time I was able to get by on under US$15 per day, now it’s a bit closer to US$20. Don’t get me wrong, Laos is still quite cheap and this time around I never spent more than 50,000 kip on a room, or almost US$6 (where as last time it was US$4). The Lao kip is suddenly the currency of choice over the US dollar, though I think that has more to do with the dollar losing value.
The tourist trail in Laos is so pronounced that you continually run into the same people! I returned to my bungalow on Don Khone only to find a Canadian lying in the hammock who asked, “Didn’t I see you in a tuk tuk somewhere?” Turns out she had, a week earlier in Luang Prabang! This isn’t terribly uncommon for this trip, as even the fellow I shared a room with in Don Khone and Champasak I had encountered in a tuk tuk in Vang Vieng, and there was a French woman I kept running into on buses all over the place!
Despite all this, I have had another wonderful time in Laos. My experiences down south have just been fantastic, and what I really enjoyed about Laos last time, which is banding together with fellow travelers, still holds true. This is my first night alone in a week! I’ve met some really fascinating people this time around and had some wonderful conversations with fellow travelers from every corner of the globe!
On the van from Si Phan Don to Pakse, I found myself sitting next to a German guide book author who specialized in Southern and Central Laos. We talked the entire 2 hour trip about the changes that had occurred here in the past few years and about how the tumultuous political situation in neighboring Thailand could have profound effects on tourism and potentially the political situation here (particularly once the much revered, 82 year-old Thai King passes away. If you’re following that ongoing situation, most of the “red shirts” currently protesting are from North and Eastern Thailand and many are ethnically Lao). It was a fascinating conversation that echoed many of the thoughts I’ve expressed here.
After my immediate return to Laos, I told myself I didn’t want to return again for fear of what it might look like in another three years. But once I set foot inside that songthaew between Pakse and Champasak, my love for Laos was rekindled. This was the Lao experience I remembered and I realize what I would need to do if I returned would be to get off that freaking tourist trail and head to the eastern part of the country where few Western travelers venture.
As I prepare to venture west to Thailand, I am sad to be leaving Laos. For the second time, I don’t really feel like I’ve given it the time it deserves. I had hopes of perhaps doing a one day trip to the Bolaven Plateau, but every agency offers the exact same tour of ferrying people around from one demonstration village to another. Just the kind of travel I hate, so I decided to pass. I like to see real life, not some show put on for tourists.
So from here I say adieu to an old friend. Perhaps I will see you again someday. And now, it is off to a relative homecoming for me…back to Bangkok where I’ve spent many a day. In just three short days, I will be joined by my immediate family and in less than one week, we will be in the tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan.