It's undeniable that Tim and I have favorite towns, cities, and countries around the world. It's also undeniable that we have some least favorite places. And then there's the handful of in-betweeners, the ones who because of circumstances beyond their control get the short end of the stick in my memory.
Spain was like that for me. We had spent a wonderful 6 months in South America, eating the food, speaking the language, soaking up the culture of that magical continent. And then we headed to Spain: not only was Madrid the most affordable European destination from Ecuador, but it also meant we would have one more month of speaking Spanish.
Although culturally it’s a bit different than South America, we saw our Spain visit almost as an extension of our South America trip. If you think about it, Spain is really South America except it also has some fabulously old castles dotted throughout the countryside. (I'm sure Spain might argue there are a few more differences, but I know the truth.)
The problem is that Spain also has the Euro, aka The Currency Which Will Make You Cry Whenever You Go To Pay For Something. So after 6 months in South America, it was a bit confusing to still be speaking Spanish but be paying 10 times more for a bottle of water. Spain also is home to an extremely mean lady who we met in Madrid (and have yet to share the story about) and an extremely evil little boy who we met in Sevilla (and have yet to share the story about). So, you know, Spain gets the short end of the stick in my memory.
Don't get me wrong: we had a great visit there and we have some really fond memories of our time in Spain. It's just not one of my favorites. But really, not everything can be a favorite, right? Right.
Fast forward to Southeast Asia: After a few weeks in Bangkok and some time on the island of Ko Chang, Tim and I had our magical month in Cambodia. Cambodia leapt past Turkey, Ecuador, and (yes, it's true) even our beloved Argentina to become our favorite country. We created memories in Cambodia that could not have been planned and could never be recreated. In fact, after our day with Sam and the monk we actually told one another that we didn't even need to visit Angkor Wat anymore. We were that happy. (But, of course, we still visited Angkor Wat too. We were happy, not insane.)
We were also wiped out. We're generally pretty slow travelers, but in 28 days (the maximum amount of time a tourist can be in Cambodia) we had traveled to seven different destinations (and ate some tarantulas along the way too). Seven places may not sound like a lot, but remember we once spent 17 days in one place in Fethiye, Turkey doing virtually nothing (well, save for getting engaged, of course).
So it was inevitable, maybe, that the next country on our "To Do" list was going to get the short end of the stick through no fault of its own.
Almost every traveler we have ever met who has been to Southeast Asia has said that Laos is their favorite country in that region. (The only ones who haven’t said that, for the most part, are the travelers who have been to Burma.) Laos is peaceful, tranquil even, and the people are lovely. There’s even a saying the French coined when they were in this part of the world describing the differences between Laos and two of its neighbors: “The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Laos listen to it.”
And it’s difficult not to have a soft spot in your heart for the country given Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world. Whereas Cambodia has its landmines, Laos has those as well as thousands of pounds of unexploded ordinance (UXO) which were dropped on it during the Vietnam War and then some. The Americans, the French, the Vietnamese…everyone has dropped bombs on little Laos while fighting wars that had nothing to do with Laos.
It was only in 1989 that Laos started allowing tourists in. (And, really, after what everyone has done to them, who can blame them for wanting to keep people out?) And so it’s a bit surprising that in the short amount of time they’ve had there, backpackers have already been very successful at beating down a well-trodden tourist path through the country, particularly in the north.
And by well-trodden I mean there is a small town in the north of Laos that has dozens of “TV bars” which will be blaring different reruns of Friends. We once stood on a corner and counted no less than four different Friends episodes being shown at the same time. It’s really an amusing site to behold.
So, yes, it’s a well-trodden path. And we saw no reason not to join it. (Although we never did get around to watching an entire Friends episode.)
Laos has two choices for tourist visas: 15 days or 30 days. The 15 day visa costs $30 and can be gotten at any border crossing. The 30 day visa costs only $5 more, but you have to arrange for it ahead of time at a Laos embassy.
Tim, Klaus, and I opted for the 15 day visa. Klaus was due to fly home to Germany in three weeks and we only planned to visit northern Laos, so the 15 day visa fit better with our schedules.
Fifteen days is a decent amount of time in a country. We spent only 10 days in Uruguay, after all, and we loved it. But Uruguay was at the very beginning of our trip, before Tim and I discovered we like to meander slowly through a country. Since then we’ve usually spent at least a month (sometimes two or even three) in a country. (The exception being Greece at 5 days since we only went to Athens.)
So when it was decided we would only have 15 days in Laos, I felt like we were under the gun. We had three places we wanted to visit in northern Laos and we only had 15 days to do it. Factor in travel time and the border crossing back into Thailand at the end of our visit, and it was really only around 13 days. I mean, this was pressure. (I realize for those of you reading this at work that you might want to strangle me about right now.)
Looking back, I almost think Tim and I should have opted for the 30 day visa. Even if we hadn’t used any of the extra 15 days it would have given us, I think I would have been able to relax more during our time in Laos. Instead of always thinking something along the lines of, “Ok, we have to leave for the next town in 2 days because we have to leave the country in 5 days, so we should go check out the bus station now, and that means we shouldn’t have many beers tomorrow night because we’ll have to pack, etc, etc.” (It’s a tough life we’re leading right now, I know.)
In the end, we used our entire 15 day visa in Laos (and left really wanting a few extra days because we loved their capitol, Vientiane). And although it’s not one of my favorite countries, we still had a wonderful time in Laos (which we’ll be talking about more in the next few posts).
But just to make sure any future traveler to Laos doesn’t walk away from this post thinking it’s not a great country, let me give you a little taste right now: we saw possibly the most gorgeous waterfalls we ever will see while we were in Laos. We had two of the best hotel rooms we’ve ever had in the world with views of some of the most stunning scenery. We shopped at a night market that was not only ridiculously affordable, but rather fun to shop at too. And, I’m willing to say on record, my favorite Southeast Asian food is from Laos too. (It’s called beef laap and it comes with sticky rice that you roll up into little sticky balls with your hands. You use the sticky rice balls to dip into the laap – which has some wonderful spices in it – and then you fight for hours to get the rest of the sticky rice off your hands and your lap and wherever else it’s decided to stick to. It’s good fun.)
I think our choice to visit Laos directly after Cambodia, on a relatively short visa (given our travel style), and sticking only to the northern backpacker route created some high hurdles for the little country. And I wouldn’t mind going back to Laos on another trip so it could get a fair turn. Not only would I love to visit the capitol again, but I particularly want to see the less-trodden southern portion of the country.
Luckily I know many people who already love Laos just as much as Tim and I love Cambodia. So in the meantime, between now and my next visit to it, I know Laos is in pretty good hands.
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