Laos: Same, Same..but Different
Sabiadee! We landed in Laos and were immediately in awe of the mountainous landscape. Our small travel group (me, Johnny, Jeff, and Catherine) instantly felt a lift in our energy as we walked off of our plane excited to explore this country we didn’t know much about. Laos exceeded these expectations and catapulted itself to the top of our list of favorite places. We quickly fell in love with the vibe of Laos and couldn’t get enough of it! This vibe was captured in the phrase, “same, same…but different”. This phrase was written on t-shirts and spoken by the locals. It summarizes the Laos way of life, where you get what you get whenever it’s ready (whenever that might be) and in the form that it happens to come in that day. Here are some ways that “same, same…but different” came to life during our time in Laos.
The Country of Laos
Same, Same: Laos had a lot of similar qualities to Thailand and Malaysia: delicious and authentic street food (spicy dishes, lots of rice, noodle soups), streets filled with tuks-tuks and motorbikes, friendly locals eager to help, stray dogs roaming the streets, and small shops with local goods and souvenirs.
Different: The landscape of Laos puts Thailand and Malaysia to shame. Jungle-filled mountains surrounded us with the mighty Mekong flowing through the middle. The architecture of the first city we visited, Luang Prabang, set itself apart from the other Southeast Asian countries we have visited because of its strong French influence with two story buildings complete with painted shutters. Unlike the other countries we’ve visited, the people of Laos love meat, YAY!! We took full advantage of their meat-centric menus by gorging ourselves on bbq pork, chicken fried rice, beef soup, and fish steamed in banana leaves. Also, Luang Prabang and the second city we visited, Nong Khiaw, haven’t been overtaken with tourism…yet. We feel insanely lucky to have made it to both of these cities while they are still very authentic with locals learning English, traditional ceremonies going strong like the Buddhist Alms Giving Ceremony and Lai Heua Fai (you’ll read more about these later in the post), and areas you can visit like Nong Khiaw without seeing any (or at least very few) other tourists.
Same, Same: Much like many of the other countries we have visited, religion is a very present part of daily life with temples dotting Luang Prabang, spirit houses along streets and in hotels, and conservative customs for dress.
Different: The presence of religion was the most apparent in Laos. We constantly observed monks walking with purpose down the street, worshipping in temples, and participating in the daily Buddhist Alms Giving Ceremony during which locals give monks rice and cookies for their one meal of the day. We really enjoyed being approached by a monk at Mont Phousi Temple (which has a GORGEOUS view of Luang Prabang) who wanted to talk to us and help him learn English. We talked about our favorite parts of Laos, the currency used in the U.S., New York City, San Francisco, and Chicago, and the types of crops grown in Illinois. He also asked us to help him find his old English teacher from NYC, “Teacher John” as he has lost his email to keep in touch. So, Teacher John if you’re reading this, your old students in Luang Prabang say hi!!!! While in Loas, we also got to experience our first religious ceremony while traveling, Lai Heua Fai, or Festival of Lights. This festival marks the end of lent for the Lao people. This was one of the most amazing activities of our trip. We watched locals build bright colored boats throughout the week, which were paraded down the main street lit with candles and then floated down the Mekong River. The streets were filled with lanterns, chanting, and music. The excitement of Luang Prabang during this festival was contagious!
Same, Same: All of our cooking classes have been a total blast, we’ve learned a ton about local eats, and received a recipe book to help us recreate the dishes back at home.
Different: Our cooking class at Tamarind in Luang Prabang was different because we took our class in a bungalow in the middle of the jungle, complete with a lily pond and flowing waterfall (is this real life?!?!). We also got to try our hand at cooking over coals. Believe us, that shit is HOT. We made fish steamed in banana leaves (I found a type of fish I actually like!!!), sticky rice, stuffed lemongrass chicken, eggplant and tomato jeow (a spicy dipping sauce), and purple sticky rice with coconut sauce and fresh fruit.
Long Boating to the Caves of a Thousand Buddahs
While boarding the tourist long boats on the Mekong River to spend a day sightseeing with the Cunnings we were put on a different boat than Jeff and Catherine and were told it would be “same, same”. Turns out he forgot to say “….but different”. Read on…
Same, Same: We both had picturesque rides down the smooth Mekong River. We both visited Whiskey Village, which is a sad, sad tourist trap in a small village where locals line the street selling goods. We both got to explore the Pak Ou Caves, which are filled to the brim with Buddhas and worth seeing.
Different: We had to switch to a different boat partway down the Mekong by climbing through several long boats linked together by the drivers because it would be “safer”. Our new boat had a fun quirk where water gushed onto Johnny when our driver took a sharp left. We didn’t arrive at any of the stops the same time as Jeff and Catherine, and as a result, we spent the day apart (separation anxiety!!).
So kind of “same, same”, but mostly different.
Same, Same: All of the waterfalls we have visited have been really peaceful and beautiful. They have been surrounded by jungle landscape and filled with clear, cool water.
Different: The Kuang Si waterfalls outside of Luang Prabang are in a league of their own. The turquoise water and three picturesque levels of pools earn it the award of most breathtaking. We had an amazing day motor biking to the falls, walking through the bear rescue center near the waterfall, taking pictures of the gorgeous waterfall pools, and hiking up steps as the waterfall rushed down them. You win, Kuang Si, you win.
Transportation to Nong Khiaw
We went to the rural village of Nong Khiaw for a night while in Laos, which was a highlight for all of us. The landscape of Nong Khiaw is somehow even more beautiful than Luang Prabang as you are literally staying in the middle of the mountains. A village surrounded us where no tourism infrastructure was in place. There were no western food options, very few cars, very little English spoken, children coming to and from school, and local vendors selling essentials for locals, not tourists. While we would never tell you not to go, we are nervous tourists learning about this hidden gem will soon ruin the charm of Nong Khiaw. Now for our transportation to and from Nong Khiaw, which we were told were all “same, same”…..
Same, Same: Our buses to and from Nong Khiaw got us there and back in one piece. Both buses were filled with tourists and locals. Both buses stopped to pick up random locals throughout the trip, which included me sharing a seat with one for part of the trip and stopping at a roadside stand for a lunch break where we could order fried grasshoppers, yum???
Different: Our first bus was clean, equipped with AC, and had comfortable seats. Our second bus was probably manufactured in the mid-80’s (at best) and had a local passenger with a hand-woven basket that large bugs crawled out of every time we went over a bump (which was every 3 seconds-thank god I wasn’t sitting next to him!!!). Our first bus had a very cautious driver and the trip took 4 ½ hours. The second bus was driven by a death defying dare devil and the trip took 3 hours. Do the math, it was scary.
Turns out, they weren’t “same, same” at all.
Same, Same: In all of the Southeast Asian cities we have visited we have been able to find a room and breakfast for about $30 (or less) a night with a good location and the nicest people in the world running them.
Different: Unlike our disgusting stay at Diva’s Hostel in Chiang Mai, our stay at Lakhangthong Boutique Hotel had gorgeous rooms with dark wood and high ceilings, no toothpaste toes, no critters, a delicious free breakfast in the mornings (their banana pancakes are next level) and a great patio where we could hang out and plan our future travels with Jeff and Catherine.
Learning about Locals
Same, Same: All of the SE Asia countries we’ve visited have been filled with warm, welcoming, and friendly locals.
Different: The Lao people are at a new level of friendly. Locals excitedly waved and called out “sabaidee!!” (or hello) as we explored the towns and everyone goes above and beyond to make sure you’re having the best time possible. For example, Min from Lakhangthong Hotel offered for Jeff to use his shoes to go buy beer and a local on our bus to Nong Khiaw offered me her neck pillow to use while sleeping and worked together with the other locals on our bus to get our driver to slow down for us as he didn’t speak English. Laos was also the first destinations we’ve visited where kids are happily playing everywhere. The kids found greeting us with “sabaidee!” endlessly entertaintaing and we loved watching them as they happily road their bikes with friends, played in the Mekong River, and played games along the streets of Luang Prabang.
We have loved traveling with the Cunnings and have enjoyed comparing our GoPro footage as we discover cities through different lenses, literally.
Same, Same: We have been GoProing the same countries, cities, and activities and are frequently spotted standing side by side with our GoPros obnoxiously recording the same poor local.
Different: We choose different music, take our own creative liberties while editing, and record our experiences in different ways.
They post their videos on their blog, www.thecunningtravels.wordpress.com, so check them out there!!
Laos was “same, same” to the rest of Southeast Asia in a lot of ways, but mostly different. Because of the the “but…different” in Laos, it will always hold a special place in our hearts!!