I didn't know much about Laos before heading there, other than that it's less touristy than Vietnam, very scenic and hosts a notoriously dangerous but incredibly fun activity called tubing. As I now expect at all border crossings in South-east Asia, my friend Dena's UAE passport was scrutinised and discussed when we reached the remote border town of Lac Sao. I was prepared this time, armed with a photo I had taken of a world map at a Vietnam museum. A few moments later, we were finally allowed to step over into Laos. Mashallah.
The distinct lack of noise pollution was the first thing I noticed upon reaching the capital Vientiane. I offered US$1 to the first person who heard a car, tuk-tuk or motorbike horn. It wasn't until three days later that I owed my German friend that dollar. Like Vietnam, the French colonial influence was evident. Bakeries, architecture and French road signs were everywhere. The Mali Namphu Guest House on Pangkham Road is an inn close to the main roads, shops and cafes. It also has a quaint little courtyard to relax in and also provides American pancakes in the morning ($18 per person, per night including breakfast and free Wi-Fi).
On the same road as Mali Namphu, I stumbled across a few places offering traditional massage. I had been sampling local cuisine in every country and I couldn't miss this. I headed into White Lotus, a spa, and some 60 minutes later, I could barely walk, and I mean in a good way. By using your own body and body weight to relax your muscles, the skilled Lao masseuse then combines this with reflexology (70,000 Laos kip; Dh31). It was the best decision I made in Laos and my first undisturbed night's sleep in weeks. Do not leave Laos without trying one.
I picked up a packed lunch from the Scandinavian Bakery, a slightly pricey but delicious chain throughout Laos and took a bus to Vang Vieng. Like the Las Vegas of Indochina, the town revolves around one main street full of cafes playing Friends on repeat, shops selling fake branded slogan t-shirts for $1-2 and outdoor adventure tour operators. Many locals complain about the foreigners in Vang Vieng but our group experienced nothing but kindness from the Lao people. Unfortunately, it's a few tourists who walk around wearing barely anything, despite being warned against it, that give other travellers a bad name.
Tubing, as it turned out, had a similarly unfair reputation for being a dangerous watersport. The few deaths that happen each year are generally the result of travellers climbing into the rubber tube and heading down a rapid river under the influence of alcohol or drugs, which makes them crash into rocks. Not my idea of fun. My plan was much more sedate. If you like the outdoors and have a sense of adventure and like water, Vang Vieng will not disappoint. Be sure to do some price shopping along the strip as prices for the various activities on offer vary greatly, as do safety and hygiene standards. In my experience, you pay more for good reason. The five girls I was travelling with decided on Riverside Tours for a full day of kayaking, caving, tubing and rope swinging (80,000 Laos kip [Dh37] including a guide, equipment and lunch).
I had a thrilling day out exploring caves and kayaking along Vang Vieng's Nam Song River. Then came the 15-metre-high rope trapeze into the river. As there was a chance that I could dive in at the wrong angle and sprain my ankle or break my leg, I couldn't risk it with Kilimanjaro a month away. I climbed down the ladder and took photos of my brave friend Meetal, who spurred on the others. Rationality got the better of me that afternoon. From the look of thrill and excitement on the girls' faces, I'm going to have to go back and have a go.
While kayaking, I met a lady in her sixties from Canada who had been travelling around the world for 18 months and shared the news that she had just become a grandmother. With the help of her laptop, she keeps a blog (www.getjealous.com/travellingemu). With no plans to stop soon and no next destination, just armed with a passion to discover and explore, she was a truly inspiring woman, making our trapezing and white-water rafting seem tame in comparison.
View On the road in a larger map
My final city to visit in Laos was Luang Prabang. Again, the city was full of charming pedestrian-only streets and French colonial architecture, which I never seem to tire of. The night market is the best I've seen so far, full of local art and handicrafts. With just two nights in the city, I went on a gift-buying frenzy. The haggling was such a fun sport in Laos, or perhaps I've just become a champion haggler. I'm now getting the price cut in at least half, every time. This should be useful in Beijing.
My final day in Luang Prabang was spent on an elephant trek and a visit to the region's stunning three-tier Kuang Si waterfalls (280,000 Laos kip [Dh125] including lunch). It was bit on the steep side but a price I was willing to pay to ride an elephant and see the most beautiful waterfall I have ever seen. Laos' limestone hills, outdoor activities, laid-back attitude and kind-natured locals has made it a firm favourite with me. It was also (with the exception of Vang Vieng) the least tourist-ridden place I had seen. Every country I'd visited so far had an unexpected nation-wide brand. Vietnam had Laughing Cow cheese, Cambodia had Manchester United and Laos had an abundance of Ovaltine products. I was curious as to what Thailand's would be.
Locals described Laos as "Thailand 20 years ago" and I can somewhat relate to that idea; it's like when people talk about Abu Dhabi 20 years ago. Quieter, fewer tourists, less congestion, a greater sense of community, less cosmopolitan, and cheaper. I'm writing this having boarded a junk boat with a Lao family of six and my friends. The eldest son-in-law is our guide and the father is the captain. For the next two days, this boat will be my bedroom and the window view will be the banks of the Mekong River, until I reach Thailand.