After three years under Covid regulations, Hong Kong is finally allowing quarantine-free travel. I was thrilled to be able to travel to a new country – Laos. I didn’t know many people who had been before, and there weren’t a lot of blogs to look at, so my expectations weren’t really that high. I was excited to travel with my bestie Corli – our first trip abroad together.

When almost all your friends are married, it’s harder to find travel companions. She’s married and I actually knew her husband Nick first through work, but I claim Corli :). 

But there are also so many questions, even when you know each other really well – how were we going to handle stressful situations, sharing a toilet, sharing a bed when we had to, scheduling showers and early morning wakeups?

There were months of lead-up after we’d booked flights and hotels; constant texts and emails and planning, adding various cities to our weather apps, consuming information via Instagram and Pinterest posts, pulling down the suitcases from storage, and trying to remember how to pack for a three-week trip to a foreign country. It was reactivating a long-dormant muscle memory to kick in.

We were leaving on a Saturday evening after a crazy week of wrapping up Christmas activities at work, holiday happy hours, I hosted our staff work party, etc., so I was hyped and ready to go, but stressed to the point where hours before boarding, I broke out into a full-body rash, possibly hives, for the first time in my life. I think it was my body saying “you need a break, friend. Time to get aways.” There was no way I was missing this trip, so I went to a black market pharmacy, threw money on the counter, and pointed to my neck, then took the four things they sold me without trying to translate the label and crossed my fingers for luck and boarded the plane.

The rash disappeared the moment I had a drink and the plane was in the air. Always something.

Our first stop was Luang Prabang, a sleepy, beautiful, small city nestled in between the Mekong river and tributaries. She’s surrounded by mountain ranges, full of crumbling buildings with leftover French colonialism influence (but overrun with current French tourists), hidden Buddhist temples, jungle Hmong villages, elephant sanctuaries, island rice whiskey farms, and some of the smallest, friendliest, most welcoming people I’ve ever met. 

We were staying in what the locals called the “skyscraper” – a four-story hotel across from the night market, which we chose for the promise of sunsets from the rooftop bar and bathtub. The weather was delightfully chilly and required me to wear almost everything I’d packed all at once. We managed to accidentally stumble upon nearly all the landmarks and restaurants I’d bookmarked in advance pretty early on in our trip, that’s how small and navigable the town is. 

Crunched for time, we’d booked two full days of tours in advance, and got to learn so much about Laos from our guide Thin. Our all-day bus was a grab-bag of tourists, including one super obnoxious American who filled in every stereotype you can imagine of a man alone in his sixties traveling South East Asia (loud, knew more than everyone else, making inappropriate jokes, etc.) but almost everyone else we met was really nice. At the beginning of the tour, one of my favorite parts was when Thin asked the boat “so many years have you all studied Laotian history?” and was met with full silence. And he said “okay that’s so interesting because I grew up here and have also studied five years in university for a degree but often there are experts who know more than me on these tours” HIs gentle sarcasm went right over a lot of heads, but I enjoyed it. 

We spent the full day together riding a traditional boat on the Mekong River, trekking up to a hillside Buddhist cave that was used as a bomb shelter during the Secret War, tasting rice whiskey samples (known as “happy water”) that gave me chest hair and indigestion, feeding elephants at a rescue center after our amazing BBQ lunch. The Mekong river was lined with different thatched huts, water buffalo, cows grazing, peanut and rice, and vegetable crops as people use every inch of available land to try and eke out a living. We saw caves full of guano and pirate lore and Buddhist icons and sampled chili-flavored snacks like cassava, bamboo, mushroom, and dried pepper leaves. 

At the famous lagoons, we took a hike to the tallest point, accidentally coming across a guide giving a private tour who helpfully showed us the right way to go so we didn’t get lost. Despite the freezing temps, we gave each other a pep talk and then forced ourselves into the Blue Lagoon because you gotta carpe every diem and had it all to ourselves for twenty minutes, 

Another highlight was visiting a Hmong village and learning about their history, and how they’ve been struggling to adapt since moving out of the opium trade. Culturally they get married as young as 14 and start having babies right away, as many as they can. Part of the village visit was learning some of the ancient ways these hill tribes have lived with hunting and farming, but once I saw a few of the kids I got distracted and mostly played with them, showing them how to take selfies and videos and giggling with them as I played them back so they could see their smiles shining. Heartstrings were very tugged. 

I’ve traveled a bit, and Laos felt like the easiest place to take your reluctant parents to dip their toes into the idea of Asia. Luang Prabang is somewhere I would return to on a long weekend just to go to my favorite bbq and watch monks and small children cross the bamboo bridge on the river. A full delight.

As are you.

Part 2 of Laos coming soon! Within a fartnight, I hope.