A Trip To Laos From Udon Thani
The northern Thai city of Udon Thani lies just 50 km from the border with Laos (pronounced Lao), and is the gateway to a country few people take the time to get to know. While Thailand is now attracting 40 million visitors annually, Laos receives only a tenth of that number, so if you're looking to experience Southeast Asia away from the crowds, Laos should definitely be on your radar.
Starting out from the Centara Hotel & Convention Centre Udon Thani, the journey north takes you first to the Thai city of Nong Khai and on to the Friendship Bridge across the Mekong River which marks the international border. The first stop on the Laotian side of the river is the capital, Vientiane, but before we look at things to see and do in Laos, let's first of all take care of the practicalities involved in getting there.
Before You Go
The first thing to know is that if you don't hold a passport from Japan, Switzerland, Russia, South Korea, or an ASEAN nation, you'll need a visa, which can be obtained on arrival at the border at a cost varying from USD $30 to USD $42 depending on nationality. Prepare photos and a photocopy of your passport.
Alternatively, you can apply for an e-visa in advance, but the fees are slightly higher and it can take up to three days -- however, the big advantage lies in the time saved at the border crossing. For money, it is a good idea to carry either US dollars in small denominations, or Thai baht, either of which are widely accepted or can be exchanged for Lao kip.
Crossing the Border
To get to Laos from Udon Thani, there are eight daily direct buses which cross the border and continue on to Vientiane. The price of a ticket in either direction is typically under 100 baht, as of December 2019, but the buses won't wait long enough at the border for you to join the queue to obtain the visa on arrival, so obtaining the visa in advance is advisable. Alternatively, it is possible to take a taxi to the border, either from Udon Thani or Nong Khai, followed by another minibus or taxi to Vientiane after crossing the bridge.
Vientiane is one of the world's most laid-back capital cities -- a place where life slows down, especially during the hottest part of the day. It does have a few sights to keep you occupied, as well as a number of coffee shops in which to relax and watch the world slowly go by, while the French influence ensures that high quality bread is readily available.
The first architectural attraction is Patuxai, which is a triumphal arch not dissimilar to the more famous one in Paris, although the Vientiane version is a little taller and gives a nice view of the city if you climb to the top. Also worthy of note is the Pha That Luang stupa, which is a gorgeous golden temple dating back almost 2,000 years. It is now a national symbol, and is especially photogenic just before sunset, or when illuminated at night.
The Mekong is another attraction in the city, with the riverside area offering views across the water by day, and a night bazaar when the sun goes down. You could also get a traditional massage, which won't break the bank anywhere in the city.
One final stop on your itinerary should be the COPE visitor centre. (http://copelaos.org/) COPE is an organization which helps those maimed by the bombing campaign waged by the US during the Vietnam War, when Laos was the target of an estimated 2 million tons of ordnance, much of which initially failed to detonate and claimed its victims later on.
One Laotian destination which should certainly not be missed is Luang Prabang, a town which has been added to the UNESCO World Heritage list. With no fewer than 33 Buddhist temples, Luang Prabang now offers a number of high-end accommodation and dining options in addition to the cheaper digs favoured by backpackers.
One reason why the town has not yet become overrun with visitors, however, is that it is not really easily accessible. Buses from Vientiane can take up to 11 hours on ill-maintained roads, although overnight options are available which have short lie-flat seats. It may be better to fly, with domestic flights being relatively inexpensive.
Many visitors appreciate the chance to see monks from the numerous temples receiving alms as they walk around the town in the morning, although you'll have to be up very early to catch them. Other attractions include the local countryside, with waterfalls and animal sanctuaries which can be visited by boat along the river. There's no need to be overly active though -- one of the best things to do in Laos is simply slow down and take things easy for a few days.
Plain of Jars
Close to the town of Phonsavan, a short flight or long bus journey from Vientiane, is the mysterious Plain of Jars. The area concerned is actually a little more extensive than a mere plain, and is covered with thousands of stone jars, the original purpose of which is not entirely clear. To complicate matters, the area was heavily bombed by the US, and as a result only limited areas have been deemed safe to walk around. Like so many places in Laos, Phonsavan is not easy to reach, but if you do make it then a tour of the main jar sites is a must. They represent a bizarre and unique experience in the midst of some beautiful countryside.
If you're in Thailand already, and feel like getting off the beaten track, Laos might just be the answer, so get yourself over the border and check it out for yourself.