By Courtney Ridgel
One of the hardest parts of planning any trip is choosing between dozens of wonderful options among destinations, activities, tours, temples, and even restaurants. I tend to have a very difficult time narrowing down my own wish list to a feasible itinerary – there are only so many hours in a day after all! This blog stems from having that conversation with myself – if I was to go back to either Laos or Northern Thailand – two similar destinations, which would I choose and why?
I love Thailand – the culture, the food, the friendly people, the elephants, the scenery, the temples, and of course, the unbelievable beaches. As it turns out, so does everyone else – Thailand was ranked the most visited country in the world in 2016, and even when it doesn’t top the charts at number one, it is consistently listed among the world’s most popular destinations. Bangkok, Thailand’s capital, was also ranked as the most visited city in the world for 2016.
What does this mean? I found that parts of Thailand, for all of its charms, can be crowded (especially over high season). While I’ve met many people (including my stepdad) who visited Thailand 10 – 20 years ago, and spoke of having a grand adventure, in person, I must confess that although I had a lovely time, I found that Thailand felt developed, modern and packaged when compared to some of the neighboring countries. None of these are attributes are bad, and all are reasons why many of our guests prefer to travel to Thailand on their first trip to Asia – it can be a more user-friendly experience for new travelers. However, while our guests who travel to Thailand very much enjoy their trips, the feedback we consistently receive from our guests is that Laos was the highlight of their tour, and was the one place they wished they could have spent more time. Here are my list of reasons why I would choose to head to Laos rather than Northern Thailand on my next trip:
Availability: Thailand welcomed over 30 million visitors in 2016, and Laos, by contrast, welcomed 4.3 million in 2015, which with a modest increase in 2016 – roughly a sixth of Thailand’s tourism traffic. If peak season, (I.e. – the weeks immediately surrounding the winter holidays) is the only time you can get away, finding rooms available in Thailand that fit your taste and budget can be a challenge, especially if you find yourself planning a last-minute trip. Laos doesn’t receive the same press that Thailand does or the hordes of other travelers to match, so you may have better luck finding accommodations. If you find yourself traveling during the shoulder season, you’re also likely to find low season promotional deals in Laos. Hotels in Thailand are less likely to offer deals because they have no trouble filling their rooms.
Elephant Experiences – Many people flock to Northern Thailand in order to fulfill the bucket list goal of spending time with elephants, and the best centers can become booked months in advance. Travelers can also have incredible elephant experiences in Laos – check out our blog about the Elephant Conservation Center in Sayaboury, where you can witness and interact with elephants in their natural environment.
The scenery: Thailand is famous for being picturesque but Laos is stunning – there is no getting around it. Steep mountains covered in mist plunge into the mighty rivers carving their way through the jungle, and a wide variety of flower species and native butterflies call Laos home. You’ll also find beautiful sunsets, small wooden villages, golden temples, verdant rice paddies and orange-robed monks.
The Food: If your taste buds are craving an adventure, Laos may hold surprises in store for you including delicious local delicacies such as stuffed bamboo shoots or the famous Luang Prabang sausage. As a legacy from their time as French colony, Laotians have retained a love of coffee shops and amazing French pasties, and I can never resist a good ‘pain au chocolat’. Our favorite cooking class in Luang Prabang is the Tamarind Cooking School. We always offer our guests a list of our favorite restaurants to provide a delicious and stress-free sampling of Laos’s culinary delights.
Markets & Shopping: If you love to shop, you’ll love Luang Prabang. The Night Market here is legendary and you can find excellent deals on incredible hand-made jewelry, fabrics, clothes, bowls, lamps, etc. Laos is also renowned for the skill of the local master weavers. Be sure not to miss a trip to Ock Pop Tok, where you can learn how silk is made and watch the local artisans at work, creating their incredible pieces. On my last trip, most of the gifts and souvenirs that I brought home for family, co-workers and friends came from Laos – this was where I found the most unique and meaningful gifts for the best prices.
The Festivals – If Loi Krathong has long graced your bucket list, you may be interested to learn that Laos has its own version – Awk Phansa, or the Festival of Lights. Monks decorate the temple grounds with handmade paper lanterns, lights and candles, and local families do the same outside their homes. The second day of the Festival of Light is more celebratory with costumes, and fire boat processions. The locals make ’Khatongs’, or little boats, out of banana leaves, flowers, candles and incense and release them in the evening to float down the Mekong River. There are other Festivals throughout the year as well – check out our Festivals page for more information.
Spirituality – While you can find orange-robed monks and beautiful temples throughout Southeast Asia, Luang Prabang is particularly famous for having numerous historic temples, decorated with beautiful glass mosaics. At dawn you can witness the ritual of alms-giving or you can partake in our Evening Chanting and Meditation tour.
The local people – I’ve found the locals in Laos to be very warm and friendly, and I really felt that personal connection that the guide books boast of. Everyone I met greeted me with a smile and a ‘Sabadee’ (hello). I don’t speak more than two words of Laotian and I found that ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ was enough to make many new friends, and I never felt stressed or worried. One example of the warmth I experienced here, was the impromptu Mekong Sunset Cruise and BBQ dinner I enjoyed with Onkeo, Anan, James and Pet.