I really had no idea what to expect from Laos.
I’d read quite a lot about the infamous, hedonistic tubing spot Vang Vieng, where tourists used to die at alarming rates from chucking themselves into shallow waters, drugs overdoses, drowning having consumed a skinful of alcohol or any combination of the above.
And I knew that it had been colonised by the French. But other than that it was a bit of an enigma.
I’ve since educated myself on its fascinating and complicated history, found the people to be open and extremely friendly and come to realise it is stunningly beautiful, laid back and more than a little bit bonkers.
What You Need to Know About Laos
1. The Money in Laos is Nuts
Firstly the exchange rate is very favourable to the British traveller, you’ll get over 10,000 Laotian kip for a single pound.
That means you’ll most probably become a millionaire overnight and, because there are no coins and the notes go as small as 500 kip, you’ll be dishing out wads of cash the size of your fist just to pay for a coffee.
The notes are also crazy confusing, so much so even Laotian natives admitted to me they get caught out by them at times.
If you can’t read Laos numerals you’ll have to search for the Roman numbers as they’re only printed on one side, hidden away in the bottom corner on most notes. Also, there’s seemingly more than one version of each note meaning even if two are the same denomination, that number may not be in the same corner on both.
Add to this the fact that the 50,000 is the same colour as the 5,000 and the 500 and the 10,000 is a similar shade to the 1,000 and the 2,000 and you’ll start to understand the world of confusion this brings.
See for yourself
I spent many awkward minutes looking at wads of change in shops, desperately trying to figure out if I’d been stiffed or not.
This invariably resulted in the shopkeeper patiently telling me what each note was as I sweated profusely, embarrassed as I struggled to add them up with my C grade GCSE level mathematics skills.
2. Time is Fluid in Laos
In many instances it’s not even actually a thing.
Really, I mean you may as well throw your watch in the bin as you cross the border to go to Laos, that’s how little regard there is for timekeeping.
Some people have billed Laos as “the land that time forgot”. The reverse would be more accurate.
Booked a 9am bus? Don’t bank on leaving before midday.
Museum opening hours are from 10-4? Erm you may be waiting outside the doors for a while if you arrive on time and likely find yourself booted at 3.30.
Hired a bike that needs to be returned before 7.30 with the threat of losing your passport which they’ve kept as a security deposit? Prepare for the owner not to turn up until 8 ‘o’ clock, sleepy eyed and unapologetic.
It’s best to not sweat it and just embrace the chilled out lifestyle. That or leave. But your bus or flight out will probably be late.
3. The Internet in Laos is Shash
There’s no two ways about it, when you go to Laos, the Internet is just really, really slooooooow.
We got decent (not amazing) speeds in Vientiane, the capital, but everywhere else it was like going back to dial up (if you’re under the age of 20, kids, then google it).
I mean the photos on websites literally load in juddering sections like you’re playing an infuriating, back to front game of Catchphrase where you’ve already provided the answer.
Forget about keeping in touch with your folks at home via Skype because it just won’t work and if there’s a storm it will often put the whole thing down for hours.
Thought these had died out along with the Y2K bug and Ask Jeeves
For us, blogging proved to be a pretty difficult task and we even resorted to using an Internet cafe (if you’re under the age of 20, kids, then google it) for the first time since the turn of the millennium!
4. Spicy Means Spicy in Laos
Now this might sound like I’m stating the bleedin’ obvious, but in many parts of South East Asia there’s 3 options – no spicy, farang spicy and then spicy spicy.
In a guesthouse we stayed at on Koh Phangan, I was trying to convince the owner that I could take “Thai spicy” but he insisted on me having “farang spicy” and adding chilli to it if I wanted it hotter because he didn’t want to be responsible for me not enjoying my dinner (in case you’re wondering, I added chilli. I’m a heat fiend).
When you go to Laos there is only one question “spicy?” and if you say yes, prepare yourself for a Johnny Cash bum (burning ring of fire) the next morning.
There will be whole chillies liberally chucked in like they’re seasoning – it’s not some cruel, sadistic joke they’re playing on you, this is Laos spicy.
This innocent looking plate of noodles was laced with whole chillis
Your gullet will feel like someone has dragged a razor down it as you try to extinguish what you’re certain is an actual fire starting to smoulder on your lips, by simultaneously hyperventilating whilst chucking beer over your mouth like you’re Leslie Ash learning to drink again after the Botox. If you can’t take real spicy, JUST SAY NO!
5. Whisky is Cheaper Than Beer, is Cheaper Than Water
Ok the cheaper than water bit may be an exaggeration as that’s not the case as standard, but I have paid more for a bottle of water at touristy places than the average price of a bottle of the Laos produced whisky.
In money terms, you can get a bottle of Laos Whisky (and I’m not even talking about the even cheaper moonshine that’s widely available) for 8,000 kip, which is less than 80 pence. That’s not a typo, and no I’ve not been mistakenly handing over 100,000 kip notes thinking they were 10,000s.
In contrast, a large bottle of Beer Lao will set you back around 10,000 kip or 1 British Pound. Go figure.
A selection of the finest 80 pence whisky on the planet
As a scotch whisky fan, I’m not attesting to the quality or flavour of these brews, but if you drink it with a mixer, squeeze a bit of fresh lime juice in and pretend it’s not whisky you’re drinking but some other nameless local spirit, then it’s actually quite palatable.
Laos is a beautiful country full of surprises, some more pleasant than others. And whilst it’s not the most glamorous destination in Asia, it certainly has many unique things to offer.
If you’re heading out that way, be sure to go to Laos, it’s an underrated gem and you won’t be disappointed.
Have you ever been to Laos? Do any of these observations ring true for you? Are you planning to go to Laos? Let us know in the comments below.
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Travel lover, professional writer and football (soccer) obsessive, James loves nothing more than getting outside and exploring little known corners of the globe. He’s also very partial to a drop of Guinness.