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Discovering Laos

I never thought I’d ever step foot in a communist country until Christmas of 2015. Somehow, the term communism conjures negative images in my mind that I had totally dismissed the thought of ever visiting a communist country. Indeed, China and Hong Kong are not even part of our family’s travel plans. It was only upon coming to Laos that I realized my family and I was actually in one.

I remember feeling nervous when we reached the border separating Thailand and Laos. The sight of seeing uniformed soldiers walking around the area, with army trucks parked on one side of the road was enough to remind me of scenes from the movie Schindler’s List. It’s mandatory that all travelers get off the bus (or their respective vehicles) with their belongings and undergo the necessary checks at the immigration booths of both countries, one after the other. Seriously, I still have not confirmed that I was in a communist country at this point; I just had the feeling that I was in one!

I never saw any sign of hostility though. I must be paranoid or probably just tired from traveling and from lack of sleep. Or, maybe it was watching Schindler’s List at an age when I was not really supposed to that did it. (Indeed, we should pay attention to MTRCB ratings and not lie about our age just to be allowed in the movie house!) Hmm, now that I think about it, that must be part of the reason I have developed this fear of communism, regardless of what I have learned from a political science class in school about this form of government…

So, how did I end up traveling to Laos without any idea about the place? Well, for once, I decided to just let go of all the planning, since we were to travel with relatives, who had been there several times. In short, I trusted my companions completely, entrusting everything to them from transportation to accommodations, etc. The only things I did prior to our vacation, aside from making sure I pronounce the name of this country properly, was look up weather reports so I’d know what kind of clothes to bring, pack them too, of course, and secure every member of our family’s travel documents. Besides, we’re visiting a close relative who happens to hold a high office at the Philippine Embassy in Vientiane, Laos, and that fact alone made me complacent, I suppose.

When did I learn that I was in a communist country? After seeing red flags with a sickle, hammer, and star on the porches of several homes and offices on our way to our host’s residence.

By the way, Laos rhymes with cow, bow (v.), and sow (n.). Don’t ever make the mistake of saying it with two syllables! And yes, that’s a silent s at the end of its nameNow let me share with you the things you need to expect if you ever decide to visit Laos.

Going to Laos

To get to Laos, we took a plane to Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand, then a cab to Mochit Bus Terminal. Even if buses to Vientiane from Bangkok only leave in the evening, we came to Mochit Bus Terminal in the morning, the soonest we could. Apparently, tickets get sold out pretty fast–most of the time, before noon–with only 1–3 buses for that particular trip. Bus tickets cost 900 Thai baht each and come with meal tickets. However, once on board, bus drivers collect extra money from each (adult) passenger for some reason. Unfortunately, I could not recall exactly how much they asked for; it could be 5–50 Thai baht per head. Sorry.

I heard you could now also take a sleeper train from Thailand to Laos, but we may have to try that next time we get the chance to visit the place. Anyway, the bus ride from Bangkok to Vientiane takes about 11 hours. Blankets and snacks composed of instant coffee, bottled water, fruit juice in tetra packs, a small box of mini muffins, as well as a packet of wet tissues are provided before the bus leaves the terminal. There’s also a thermos filled with hot water on the bus, by the way, so you may have your coffee anytime you want.

We took the double decker bus and had seats reserved on the upper deck, so we could enjoy the view. However, there’s really not much to see during the trip except for the lit facades of some temples and the silhouette of the Mekong River, especially that we were traveling at night. It has been a pleasant trip nevertheless, and my companions were asleep on most part of the journey.

 

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Mekong River at sunrise, and unfortunately, this photo doesn’t do much justice to its beauty

 

I tried to get some sleep too, but I just kept waking up every 30 minutes or so. Maybe because I’m not really into the habit of sleeping while on the road, especially when traveling in an unfamiliar place, though you may also blame it on the loud snoring of the other passengers. It’s a good thing I had ebooks stored on my mobile phones, so I was able to do some reading, especially that my iPod only contained three songs and some voice recordings (looks like something went wrong the last time I downloaded an update).

Halfway through the trip, the bus would stop at another bus station, where you may get off to stretch or have some warm food and/or drink–just don’t lose your meal ticket. Although the bus has its own toilet, you may also use the one at the bus terminal, but may have to pay 5 Thai baht upon entrance.

By the way, air transportation from Bangkok to Vientiane is also available, but is much more expensive than traveling by bus. I seem to remember the Ambassador lamenting that her relatives seldom visit her because there’s no direct flight yet from the Philippines, and a plane ticket from Bangkok to Vientiane alone could cost USD250.00 to USD350.00. (You may have to verify that info.)

Currency

Laos’ local currency is called kip, which is only available in bills or bank notes, with 1,000.00 kip as the lowest denomination and 1,000,000.00 kip as the highest. If you think about it, that practically makes every person in Laos a millionaire, right?

When in Laos, you may purchase products in either Laos kip or Thai baht, although certain establishments also accept US dollars. There are many ATMs in Vientiane though, where you can withdraw money in Laos kip. You’d easily find them near the Philippine Embassy, across the Night Market, or at their modern shopping mall(s). Just make sure that the logo (e.g., Visa or MasterCard) on your ATM card or credit card matches the one advertised on the automated teller machine itself.

Philippine Embassy in Vientiane.jpg

Take note that not many shops in Vientiane accept credit cards. Generally, these plastics are only accepted at hotel restaurants (or those serving international cuisines and are frequented by foreign businessmen or tourists), as well as at certain establishments at the mall. It’s always best to have Laos kip then, or at least Thai baht, when traveling to Laos.

SAHMotsari_ATM in Vientiane.jpgSAHMotsari_ATM in Laos.jpg

Language

I had the impression that very few Laotians can understand and speak English. Most shops at the malls and cafés have staff who can understand and speak (a little) English though; after all, most of their customers are foreigners, Europeans in particular.

On the other hand, Thai is the most widely spoken foreign language in Laos, which is no surprise since Thailand and Laos are situated next to each other. Moreover, Laotians tend to go to Bangkok to shop and unwind, particularly on holidays, and to seek medical treatments, especially when a second or third opinion calls for it.

I do remember seeing several language centers in Vientiane offering English courses though. I guess that means Laos is starting to welcome English into their land. Apparently, (Filipino) English teachers who are employed by colleges or universities get paid so much more than those working at language institutions or English tutorial centers, by the way.

Public safety

Based on what I have seen and heard, Laos is a peaceful country. I was told that crime rates are rather low and the crimes committed are mostly petty–nothing compared to the ones we see on our local news programs at all. According to a fellow Filipino who had been there for a couple of years now, the common criminals you would encounter in Laos are those who would try to get your fancy cell phone and cash, and they usually victimize tourists at the bus terminal by offering to take them to their destinations.

In our case, we did encounter a few individuals in motorcycles offering to take us to our next destination when we arrived at the bus terminal in Vientiane. Anyway, if you encounter one, just ignore and move away. It appears that they don’t really like to create a scene either and are also afraid of getting apprehended by their own police.

Although Laotians are generally affable, you must take note, however, that they do not tolerate people, especially foreigners, who violate their laws–and I don’t think anyone should. I was once told that if you happen to be a foreigner in their land and you got into a fight with a local, do not expect another Laotian to testify for you even if you’re apparently the one on the right side of the law and the latter had witnessed what happened. They protect their own. (Somehow, I wish the same could be said of Filipinos instead of being known for crab mentality.)

 

friendly Laotian.jpg

One of the friendliest Laotians–and probably one of the most hardworking too– I’ve met

 

The Laotians (and their women, in particular)

The Laotians I have met are friendly and unpretentious, and that’s also the general impression I have of the people of Laos. Laotians look a lot like Filipinos too, i.e., most of them are morena and of average (Filipino) built and height, although they seem to have smaller eyes.

Despite the fact that divorce is legal and career women are now being recognized in their country, Laotians still appear to be very conservative. For example, women are supposed to serve the men, let them walk ahead of them, etc.

I also don’t remember seeing a Laotian woman walk in the streets of Laos wearing jeans or shorts, sleeveless shirts, and any other piece of clothing that reveals more flesh than necessary. I gathered though that they may wear those clothes only when they’re in the comfort of their own homes or in the company of their family and close friends (most likely females too), but they’re not supposed to be seen parading in it.

Women also tend to wear their national dress both when going to work and at formal occasions. Our dear friend Miimii particularly look lovely in one! The style of female students’ school uniform also seems to be inspired by their national dress.

Climate and transportation

Laos reminds me of Tagaytay in terms of appearance and climate. It could get very hot in the middle of the day, and really cold at night until mid-morning the following day. Further, I heard that the temperature could drop to 10º C toward the end of January and early February, when the snow in China is supposed to be melting. During our stay, we experienced a temperature of 19–22ºC in the early mornings and 28–32ºC by midday.

On the other hand, I don’t suppose that hot weather bothers the Laotians much. Most houses, if not every house, particularly in Vientiane, are not only high-ceilinged, but also have air conditioning units. Moreover, every household seems to have a car, a pickup truck, or a motorcycle/scooter, at least.

Laos traffic.jpg

Nevertheless, in Laos, you won’t experience the same kind of heavy traffic that can be expected here daily, especially along EDSA. Traffic lights are everywhere, particularly in Vientiane, and I had the impression that most of their denizens abide by their traffic rules. (They practice left-hand driving, by the way.)

Tuk-tuk is the primary public transportation in Laos. A tuk-tuk looks like a combination of our local jeepney and tricycle. Apparently, they are commonly used by tourists, who have not rented a car for the duration of their stay, as well as by household helpers.

Religion

The primary religion in Laos is Buddhism, and they even have a Buddha Park, where Buddha is depicted in statues of different forms and sizes. In the same way that you would see Catholic church buildings all over the Philippines, Buddhist temples are also all over Laos. Altars, where one could light an incense anytime, also dot the streets. There are temples, however, that are considered tourist attractions and one may freely enter anytime during the day. I understand that there are Christians in Laos, but they tend to meet at certain houses or small chapels; some even worship secretly. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to attend any church service while we were there.

Food and diet

I’m afraid I can’t really say much about their food, save for their noodle soups. We tend to eat Filipino food at our host’s place, and whenever we went out to dine, most of the time, our host would bring us to restaurants that served international cuisines. I think I only had their famous sticky rice (Khao niaw) once or twice.

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Trying out one of their famous street foods – slightly roasted plantains that are cut in half and filled with bukayo

street food to go.jpg

 

Their local restaurants commonly serve rice noodle soups or pho, however, which are very distinct from the Japanese ramen, even from Chinese noodle soups. Theirs are tasty, but definitely not oily, and has lots and lots and lots of leafy green vegetables and herbs on the side, including mint. I don’t remember ever having so many fresh vegetables served before me to accompany a bowl of soup!

Now, be warned: note that their small bowl must fill 2–3 cups of broth. If you ask for a large bowl, you’d be practically eating from a basin of approximately 10–12 inches in diameter. In addition, they serve pho with a small dish of peanut sauce–the best I’ve ever tasted! At first, I thought Singapore has the best peanut sauce, but I changed my mind; it’s actually Laos. Various condiments are also provided, and if you prefer your soup spicy, you may say so upon ordering, although chilis and chili sauce are normally available to each table.

I remember craving for their noodle soup when we got back home–that’s how good it is! Unfortunately, the closest restaurant I saw that serves noodle soups was a Filipino-Chinese fast food restaurant. I was given a tiny bowl (meaning, it’s much smaller compared to the small bowl I used to have in Laos) of the soup, with only a single pechay leaf and probably no more than three small slices of beef. More, even the supposedly Vietnamese restaurant we visited a few weeks later couldn’t give us the same kind of pho we had in Laos! I wanted to cry out of frustration, of wanting something I could never have again unless I get on a plane and travel back to Laos, it seemed.

fresh vegetables

You’ll find just about all kinds of (Asian) leafy vegetables and fresh herbs at a flea market in Vientiane at a very cheap price. No wonder they can afford to serve tons of veggies along with their pho!

SAHMotsari_tomatoes.jpg

Come to think of it, I don’t remember seeing an obese person when we were in Laos. Slightly overweight, yes, but none that you would actually call fat, especially outrageously fat. It must have something to do with their diet. I don’t recall seeing fast food restaurants either, such as KFC, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Domino’s, or even 7-Eleven.

Of course, you must know that my family and I love pizza and we can’t go on for weeks without having one. I probably saw one or two local pizza restaurants in Vientiane, but they’re a far cry from the pizza parlors we have here–they’re rather tiny and do not have the same kind of vibe that Shakey’s, Pizza Hut, or Yellow Cab exude. Further, my husband’s aunt warned us that their pizza isn’t the same as the ones we have here, i.e., in terms of taste. Although that would not have kept me from trying their pizza, I still failed at it because food delivery is still not common in Laos. And, no one was willing to go out with me and try their infamous pizza in the middle of a hot sunny day.

 

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Because I couldn’t have pizza, my husband’s aunt just brought me to a neighborhood store that allowed me to choose any kind of fruits for my fruit shake

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Fruit shakes to go: the freshest, tastiest, best-est fruit shake I ever had

 

The community in general

Since Laos is considered an agricultural rather than an industrialized country, you can expect to see farm lands, especially as you move farther from the capital, Vientiane. They also have lots of flea markets or what we locally refer to as talipapa as well as perya or a small-town circus, and yes, even karinderia and sari-sari stores within the city itself.

 

typical neighborhood.jpg

This restaurant apparently serves one of the meanest ice cream bowls you’ll find in Vientiane. And, it’s just a stone throw away from our host’s place. 

 

Interestingly, in the very same area or neighborhood, I should say, you can also expect to find cafés that not only serve mouthwatering desserts and sandwiches, but also coffee that would put the biggest chain of coffee shops around the world to shame. No offense, Starbucks, but you can’t compete with Joma Bakery Café or Amazon Café, not just in terms of food and coffee, but also in ambiance, not to mention they are more affordable too!

Moreover, fancy European cars are a normal sight in the streets, and you may expect the person you meet in the market to live in a huge fully air-conditioned house, even if he is dressed in tattered clothes. Surely, this is one place where the saying, “Never judge a book by its cover” really comes alive!

I don’t think there are any gated subdivisions in Laos, too, except for one that belongs to the elite Chinese community. I was told that no one, not even the locals or the high-ranking officials, is allowed there; the security is very tight and anyone, who is not part of that community, attempts to enter would be shot.

SAHMotsari in Laos

Our host’s home in Laos – a rather typical house in Vientiane, really, but already a mansion to us

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On shopping and entertainment

High-end clubs, pubs, and fancy restaurants can also be found in Laos, particularly in Vientiane. Super fast internet connection is also not a problem, even for a prepaid mobile account, not to mention latest mobile phones are also widely available there.

On the other hand, judging from the fact that you won’t see popular foreign brands or establishments, except for soft drinks, car makes, mobile phones and other gadgets, it appears that Laos is not very accommodating when it comes to foreign investors.  I suppose that must also be one reason Laotians remain nationalistic and rather conservative.

I was always on the lookout for familiar food and beverage brands while we were there, but aside from soft drinks, such as Pepsi, the only other brand I noticed was Dairy Queen. When it comes to imported clothing brands and accessories, you may find a few at the malls, but don’t expect to see the latest collection or get them at a cheaper price.

We only got to explore two malls in Vientiane: Talat Sao Shopping Mall and Vientiane Center. Talat Sao Shopping Mall reminds me of 168 Mall in Divisoria. It’s more like a fully air conditioned marketplace that houses numerous stalls selling all kinds of goods, but once you step out, you’ll find yourself in another marketplace, i.e., a traditional market, which is also known as the Morning or Day Market.

I was able to buy a battery pack for my Nikon D5100 (unfortunately, I brought my camera but forgot to bring its battery along. Lol.) at a reasonable price at Talat Sao Shopping Mall. You’ll find different electronic gadgets there, jewelry, as well as Lao traditional clothes, cheap bags, accessories, shoes, and toys. More local goods, however, including delicacies, as well as souvenir items are available at the Day Market.

Vientiane Center, on the other hand, looks more like the big malls we have here in the Philippines; it’s quite modern compared to Talat Sao Shopping Mall and is still rather new. If you’re in Divisoria, this one’s more like the Lucky Chinatown Mall. That’s where I got my Oakley Crosslink (prescription) glasses, but it was a bit pricier than the same pair my husband got for himself in Singapore. This mall also houses restaurants and food stalls that serve both local and international cuisines. I heard their cinemas are impressive too, but they only show English films once a week.

If you’re looking for souvenirs, however, I would recommend the Night Market. You may find there much of the same stuff they sell at the Day Market, but it’s definitely more fun to go there. This is also where the foreigners tend to flock to shop. It’s an open air market and it could get really crowded and noisy–much like Divisoria–but definitely much cleaner. All sorts of wares are sold there, from children’s toys and clothes, to jewelries, perfume, men’s and women’s clothes, shoes and accessories, to various artworks such as paintings, as well as books, herbal medicines, and even kitchenware. Just like in Talat Sao and at Day Market, you can also haggle or ask for discounts when shopping at the Night Market.

If you think about it, Laos may not be the best destination for shopaholics, particularly the brand-conscious ones. Even our fashionable Laotian friend said that she normally shops for new clothes in Thailand and at some little-known shops in Vientiane that sell imported brands, as well as online. Online shopping, however, is just starting to become popular in Laos.

Did you know that mining is the leading industry in Laos? I believe their jewelries are more affordable and superior in quality too compared to the ones sold at the malls here. My brother-in-law brought us to Vientiane’s famous jewelry shop and got a silver bracelet for each of us as a Christmas present/souvenir. It’s been months since we’ve had them and we still don’t have a reason to have them cleaned. They have retained their color no matter how many times we’ve worn them. They may not be as shiny as when we got them, but they certainly didn’t turn brownish like the ones we have bought here and seldom wear. That being said, Laos can be a haven for those who like gold and silver jewelries.

From what I have observed, the primary forms of relaxation–and entertainment, if you would call it that–in Laos would be going to the spas, biking or walking down the parks, hanging out at the cafés, videoke singing, and going to the Night Market. The area opposite the Night Market is where you would find most foreigners hanging out, especially those who are fond of drinking, where many pubs and restaurants serving international cuisines are located.

Laos, the perfect place

If you think about it, Laos is actually the perfect place for those who want to relax, immerse in another culture, and experience rural life without having to say goodbye to technology and certain luxuries in life. And, yes, it’s definitely a must-visit-country for coffee aficionados too. Would I go back to Laos, if given another chance? Certainly, especially that their coffee and pho taste like no other.

I think this is all you need to know for now. Next time, I’ll share with you the places you should see and activities you should try when you’re in Laos, especially at Christmas time. Only, pray that the external drive where I have saved all our photos would finally work again. The ones you see here are just some of the few I was able to save in one of my Facebook albums. This is also the reason I was not able to publish this article way sooner than I should. Anyways, stay tuned, okay? ❤

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