OK. So you've decided to go to Laos for your next holiday. It's not your typical destination but you've done your research. You're either taking a quick flight from Kunming Changshui International Airport or a bus from the city's South Bus Station. You've probably bookmarked a few things to do — from kayaking to elephant rides to cave exploring to visiting more temples than you can shake your mala beads at.
But what about souvenirs? Do you need another 'Same Same' t-shirt or elephant print pants that only look good when you're on a vacation? No, you don't. So here's some advice from someone whose been there, done that and worn it, too. The best way to remember a Laos holiday that's off the beaten track is with a souvenir that is off the beaten rack.
Buying a leg
A mobile of replica landmines dangles overhead. A pyramid of antiquated prosthetic legs is next to a book display. A fake hand holds open the guest book. It's not another temple. It's the Cope Visitor Center in Vientiane. You'll get an eye-opening look at the problem of unidentified explosive objects (UXOs), millions of which still litter the countryside, making Robert Frost's advice about "taking the road less taken" something to ignore while exploring the Laos countryside. The Cop Center intertwines artful displays, facts and moving testimonies about victims of land mines. A 475 yuan donation in the gift shop can buy a leg for a kid. Admission is free and it's open daily.
Waterproof passport carrier
By the smells pouring out of the coffee shops, Vang Vieng is still a party town, and still totally illegal. But you can enjoy the sunset on a couch perched on a mountain cliff after a morning of kayaking on the Nam Song River. But before you pick up that paddle, purchase a waterproof passport and phone pouch available on any street corner for about fifteen yuan. They really do work, as long as you follow the directions on how to close them properly. Then, after you pack up your bungalow or lower-end grunge-alow, save the waterproof bag. It'll come in handy later back in Kunming.
An email from a monk
Luang Prabang, the old capital of Laos, literally means 'Royal Buddha Image'. So, when in Royal Buddha, do as the Royal Buddhas do — serve. I did my duty at the Big Brother Mouse Language School teaching conversational English. Within moments, I was surrounded by Buddhist novices, boys dwarfed in their saffron orange robes with heads clean shaven heads and yes, cell phones in their mustard-colored satchels.
Conversation classes can be difficult as many subjects are taboo — no talking about girls, Star Wars movies or Minecraft. And just a note to the ladies, remember that you cannot touch a monk or even hand one a pen. You'll leave it on the table. But you can talk about dogs, especially the ones novices care for at their temples. Other non-novice students will be there eager to practice English, and many will want to exchange email addresses as a few did with me. It's definitely worthwhile for both you and the students.
I survived the night bus from Luang Prabang to Vientiane and all I got was this lousy t-shirt
No one warned me. But I'm warning you. If you take the long-haul bus in Laos, pack three things — nerves of steel, motion sickness medicine, and that waterproof bag you bought in Vang Vieng, just in case your motion sickness medicine doesn't kick in.
The roads in Laos are treacherous, dusty and some sections resemble construction sites more than tarmac. Many stretches have potholes that could swallow an elephant. But at least on the sleeper bus, you can't see anything out the window.
You will get a few surprises, including free water, a coupon for midnight noodles at a roadside stand and the biggest surprise of all, a bunkmate. I strapped myself to the curtain rod with a rock climbing carabiner to keep from tumbling over the edge like a barrel over Niagara Falls. The ten-hour trip was closer to 13. But once you're in Vientiane, you can check into your hostel or hotel and count the money you saved. One-way bus fare is about 150 yuan.
Get a free copy of your passport
Vientiane has an outstanding selection of restaurants to please every palate. French bistros and bakeries with buttery croissants, classic Laos cuisine with larb, coffee shops with decadent desserts, Italian, Indian, even a French and Laos bistro featuring poached duck eggs in Burgundy wine sauce. So where do I go in a city with so many world class choices?
The surprising answer is City Photocopy and Restaurant. It's the only place in Vientiane where can you get a copy of your passport with your stir-fried pig livers and morning glory. The place is a bit off the beaten track. More precisely, it's located on the I'm-lost-and-hungry-so-I'll-eat-here section of town. The copy of my passport was better than my meal, but I got to recharge my phone and use the 4G network to find my way back to my hotel. Lesson learned? Explore Vientiane cuisine with gusto and get a SIM card, which are available at many places on the tourist track.
Other ideas? You might want to pick up a bottle opener made from bomb remains sold at any Laos night market. Or snacks made from Mekong River weeds. Other than that, if you stick to the list above, you won't have much to declare going through customs or bad fashion moments once you return. After all, there's no limit to the memories you can bring back.
Bus image: AllieMark
All other images: Ginger MacDonald