Welcome to Laos, South East Asia’s Sleeping Beauty

Countless people told us that following Vietnam, we would surely find Laos boring. “It is verrrrry quiet in Laos,” they said, drawing out the word very so that the r sounded like a Spanish trill. “It’s the place you go when you want there to be nothing. No McDonald’s, no 7-11s. It has nothing!”

Countless people told us that following Vietnam, we would surely find Laos boring.

“It is verrrrry quiet in Laos,” they said, drawing out the word very so that the r sounded like a Spanish trill. “It’s the place you go when you want there to be nothing. No McDonald’s, no 7-11s. It has nothing!”

Having never been to Laos, we couldn’t rightly mount a defense for it, but in all fairness, I think that following Ho Chi Minh City, it’s safe to say that if you were magically transported immediately to the middle of Times Square in New York City, you’d probably find yourself wondering where all the people were in this quaint, quiet hamlet. Comparing things to the chaos of Vietnam is setting the bar pretty high and not, perhaps, entirely kosher.

That said, our first stop here in Laos hasn’t done much to disprove the notion that Laos is boring.


We’ve spent the past two days in Savannakhet, a city nestled on the banks of the mighty Mekong River, in the central plains region of the country. Contrary to all visible evidence, it is actually the second largest city in Laos, a fact that is completely unfathomable as you walk its sleepy streets. If Rip van Winkle were a place, he would surely be Savannakhet; it feels like maybe the city turned in for a nap at some point and forgot to set an alarm and has yet to wake up.

In Vietnam crossing the street was always something of a gamble, because no matter how long you waited for a gap in traffic, that gap never came and eventually you’d just have to send a quick prayer to Darwin that you’d survive and step off the curb into a stream of motorbikes. Here, we wander across streets without hesitating or looking, because the probability that there is any traffic coming from either direction is almost always zero, and even if something happens to be coming towards you, it’s generally puttering at such a glacial pace there’s nothing to fear. There are just enough people about to make it feel not quite abandoned, but even still, you can forget about spotting other tourists while you’re here, because you simply won’t see many people PERIOD.

Suffice to say, there’s really not much to do here in Savannakhet and I’m pretty sure that having spent more than 12 hours here, we are likely the longest visiting guests in the history of the place. The guy manning the reception desk at our hotel raises his brows in astonishment each morning when we turn in our key and say we’d like to extend our stay one more night. He must wonder what we’re doing given that you could tour the handful of nominal sights that are on offer here in about 30 minutes… and that’s probably a generous estimate.

But here’s the thing: for us Laos, is such the opposite of where we’ve just been, so much so that it’s kind of mesmerizing. Having been ensconced in a dizzying cocoon of frenzy for the past three months, and having been toiling tirelessly as we build our Web & Graphic Design business, it actually feels supremely liberating to be in a place where there is literally nothing for us to do. Moreover, I’ve realized that for those of us who travel, part of the allure in going somewhere new is being caught off balance and thrown for a loop. If we truly wanted things to be predictable and always the same, we wouldn’t constantly be on the move and shaking things up rather than simply getting more comfortable with how things are. Laos is about as nonthreatening a destination as any place is likely to be, but as far as being a complete 180 and slamming us into a very different way of life, I’m not sure we could have picked a better chaser to our time in Vietnam.

Vendor at the Savannakhet market

On a more personal note, as someone who tears about like the Tasmanian Devil and who often feels excessively guilty and agitated when I’m not doing something, it’s a relief to be somewhere where leisurely strolls to nowhere in particular, lengthy naps and prolonged meals seem to be the raison d’être. For whatever reason, in Savannakhet I don’t have to fight to remain present and my mind isn’t racing off in 20 different directions all at once. All is quiet and at peace.

A bit about the naps: In Vietnam, Tony & I always laughed at the nap culture. Watching xe om drivers stretch out acrobatically on their bikes and catch some Zs, or seeing a shop keeper lie down in the middle of her store in the middle of the day, it all felt a bit defiant, especially in the face of all the hectic activity that swirled around. We always had this sense in Vietnam that most of the time people just do whatever the hell they want, just you try to stop them, and their napping seemed to be an extension of this attitude. Here in Laos, however, the napping feels less of a statement. It’s simply as though catching a little shuteye is one of the nicest luxuries life can afford, so why wouldn’t you partake? And really, do you have anything better to do?

In Asia, umbrellas are for sun, not rain
In Asia, umbrellas are for sun, not rain

Also, I can’t fault the people here for taking a midday siesta because it is horrifically hot. Like, Hades hot. We’ve managed to arrive during the country’s steamiest month and despite our valiant efforts to resist Asia’s attempts to turn us into early risers, the temperatures here in Laos might finally succeed. Come 10:30 am, stepping outside feels not unlike stepping into a pottery kiln, and within seconds we are sopping with sweat. There were a few days in Saigon when I felt like things were getting a bit balmy, but compared to this it was downright chilly. Having grown up in Canada where I heard actual newscasts warn that going outside might result in death due to hypothermic temperatures, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the same here, though the risk would clearly be of melting.

When it is temperate enough to support outdoor activities, our time has largely involved wandering down empty streets lined with gently decaying Colonial buildings that date back to the 1950s, which is probably when Savannakhet was in its prime. We have popped into a few temples and wats, said hello to some monks, and drank deceptively large beers by the river to escape the heat. Given our near constant state of dehydration, one Beer Lao apiece gets us wobbly-kneed and giggly. (In our defense, they really are big beers…)

This morning, feeling ambitious, we walked to Savan Xai Market, the city’s largest, where we mingled with the local vendors who were flogging their products, most of them of the exceedingly exotic edible variety (think cicadas—being consumed live, all sizes of frogs and toads, “unborn” chicken eggs, vats of pungent fermented fish sauce, gelatinous pyramids of ants eggs, strips of mystery grilled meat with the fur still attached, and sundry new fragrant herbs we would be legitimately excited to try). I had always heard that Laotians were quite reserved and taciturn, but save for the men at the market who all uniformly declined requests for photos, we found the locals here as curious about us as we were about them and more than a little amused by the chance to play celebrity and have their pictures taken. We’ve always said that if you want to get to the heart of a city, head to its markets, and in that respect, Savannakhet is no different.

We always like to make an effort when we travel to visit somewhere that isn’t squarely on the tourist trail because we feel it gives us an insight into the country that hasn’t been manufactured by tourism boards to maximally appeal to rich tourists. Winding up in Savannakhet wasn’t necessarily an active choice on our part so much as a logical place to break up our journey before heading north on Laos’ notoriously poor roads, but we’ve found it a welcome primer to life here nonetheless. I can’t really point to any one thing that keeps us here rather than pushing on, except I find it exceedingly affable and the more time we spend, the more I like it.

Monks in Savannakhet

Undoubtedly I will have some kind of psychotic break if we stay here for much longer, but for a few days of respite and the gentlest introduction to a country conceivable (especially as we get back our travel legs as we come out of hibernation), I am embracing the boredom and have been content to linger in Savannakhet’s slumbering shelter. It may be the very definition of boring, but as it turns out, boring doesn’t always have to be bad.

Tell Us: What’s the quietest place that you’ve ever visited? Have you ever found yourself lingering over a place that has no obvious tourist attractions?

Popular in: Laos

43 comments Leave a comment

  1. Sounds like a perfect contrasting place to visit!

    Mar. 31 2014 @ 4:29 am
    1. Jimmy Dau author

      Yeah, it’s actually been really interesting and a good change of pace!

      Mar. 31 2014 @ 8:33 pm
  2. It all sounds very relaxing and calm. I would love to go there, but that bit about the heat really has me doubting.
    I.Am.Not.A.Fan.of.Sweat! Great post and photos…good luck on the business.

    Mar. 31 2014 @ 9:53 am
    1. Corinne author

      South East Asia from about March through June is pretty brutal if you don’t like sweating. I hate it too, but I’ve learned to just embrace the dewiness and accept there’s nothing for it but lots of cold showers!

      Mar. 31 2014 @ 8:47 pm
  3. sounds like a nice town, although it’s hard to believe how deserted it looks! I’ve never heard of a place so quite, especailly a bigger city within a country.

    Mar. 31 2014 @ 10:22 am
    1. Taylor author

      Savannakhet is crazy quiet! I promise you, we didn’t try to get empty shots of the streets or anything like that—it is truly just like that all the time!

      Mar. 31 2014 @ 8:55 pm
  4. Kiruna, Sweden, where we are now, is also pretty quiet with not a whole lot to do in the immediate area. Which we are loving, because it is giving us a few days to hunker down and get some work done before we drive to Finland, tomorrow! We love having the contrast between really busy places that give us a lot of energy and spur our creativity, and quiet places where we don’t feel so guilty if we don’t go outside haha.

    Mar. 31 2014 @ 10:34 am
    1. Casey @ A Cruising Couple author

      I definitely agree it’s nice to mix up the busy bustling places with some quiet down time. That said, I’m not sure that Laos has any busy bustling places… 😉

      And driving to Finland! Crazy! Seems like you are having quite the adventure up there!

      Mar. 31 2014 @ 8:57 pm
  5. Steve C

    My kinda place! The highlight of the day is to wander to the edge of town, find a big tree with shade and drowse off while listening to the rice grow.

    Similar to San Blas in Mexico in the off season. Find a couple palm trees by the beach, put up yer hammock and drowse off while listening to the surf and coconuts falling to the ground. (hopefully not on your head)

    Mar. 31 2014 @ 11:04 am
    1. Steve C author

      Yes, here you wander to the Mekong, grab a few beers and just watch the day pass! The only thing missing is a hammock!

      Mar. 31 2014 @ 8:58 pm
  6. Look at all those happy smiling faces! And awesome you went there; I had actually never heard of this city. Most people only see Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang and Vientiane so it’s great to read about another part of Laos.

    How would you say the heat compares to Cambodia? We haven’t been to Laos yet but Cambodia is definitely also stay-inside-between-11-and-3 territory.

    Mar. 31 2014 @ 4:31 pm
    1. Karyn @ Not Done Travelling author

      It’s definitely been nice seeing a little bit of the country that isn’t squarely on the “tourist trail” here in Laos. I mean, Vientiane, Vang Vieng, and Luang Prabang all have their charms, I’m sure (we shall see!), but it is nice seeing a bit of “every day Laos” too.

      Heat-wise I’d say it’s worse than Cambodia, but we weren’t in Cambo at the exact same time of year (we hit it a few months later right when rainy season was about to start so it might have cooled down a bit) so I can’t say for sure. I’ll just say that sometimes it is so hot that even at 9 am you find yourself covered in sweat here…

      Mar. 31 2014 @ 9:01 pm
  7. When we did our SE Asia trip (6 years ago…holy crow!) we only hit Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, and Laos was our favourite because it just somehow hit the right chord with us. Not too chaotic, not as many touristy scams, kind people (in Luang Prabang we stayed at possibly our most favourite guesthouse ever. It was owned and run by a kindly old couple of which the woman was the one who knew a few English words and would refer to herself as ‘Mama’ and force bananas and biscuits upon us. It was especially endearing as she had a lazy eye). We would go back in a heartbeat.

    We are now lingering for an eyebrow raising 13 days in Cusco (before we go on our trek to Machu Picchu). We’ve been here already 5 days and other than a city tour haven’t done a thing. This is likely due to the elevation because we’ve got the ‘general malaise’ symptom of altitude sickness, but it’s been really pleasant. We’ve found a wonderful place to hang our hat, and quite frankly, I won’t be upset if we continue to do nothing leading up to our trek!

    Mar. 31 2014 @ 4:50 pm
    1. Emily author

      I would say that right now Laos is squarely in the “bronze medal’ territory when it comes to SEA. We like it more than Cambodia, but less than Thailand, and of course, Vietnam is our number one! We still have much to see and explore before we pass final judgment, however, so anything could happen!

      I think with long-term travel (and with life, really), you come to recognize that there are times to move and be active and times to be still. Sometimes you just need to loll around in bed for a couple of days… the world won’t end if you do nothing!

      Mar. 31 2014 @ 9:05 pm
  8. Laos left us speechless, that’s for sure. Apart from smiley faces and affordable meals, we fell in love with the scenery – especially the lakes and mountains! I’m so glad you also found it so beautiful!

    Apr. 1 2014 @ 1:25 am
    1. Agness author

      We’re really excited to explore more and see some of the beautiful countryside you mention—the area around Savannakhet is pretty dry and dusty, but we have heard it just gets more beautiful the further north you go, so we’re going to try our best to make it as far as we can. So glad to hear you had such a great time here!

      Apr. 1 2014 @ 6:43 am
  9. Loved this post – your writing is beautiful. I was really able to place myself in Savannakhet, which is kind of cool since I’ve never been there. 🙂

    I can imagine that it would be lovely to spend a few days being bored in a sleepy city, but I always go nuts before too long. I’m not very good at relaxing either.

    Enjoy the rest of your time there!

    Apr. 1 2014 @ 5:42 am
    1. Lisa from Lulu's Big Adventure author

      Aw, thank you for your kind words, Lisa. I’m so glad this post could bring you vicariously to Savannakhet with us, and hopefully you’ll have a chance to visit yourself for REAL one day.

      I am seriously the worst at relaxing. I think I am one of the few people out there who actually doesn’t even really like beaches—I spend a couple of hours there and then I’m like, “Now what?!?”

      Apr. 1 2014 @ 6:44 am
  10. Quiet is okay. (Especially after really busy.) Laos and Luang Prabang are on our hope-to-visit-some-day list… Great people photos! (Must reflect your degree in Psychology :-).

    Apr. 1 2014 @ 8:58 am
    1. Sand In My Suitcase author

      We haven’t made it to Luang Prabang just yet, but so far we have found that Laos is a pretty consistent nation so I think it will probably be a bit fancier than the rest of the country (it’s the #1 tourist destination after all), but I’m sure mellow will continue to be the watch word! I’ll definitely report back!

      Also, I can’t take credit for most of these beautiful portraits—that’s definitely Tony’s passion!

      Apr. 3 2014 @ 9:52 pm
  11. I’d have to go with Vientiane as one of the quietest! And if I’m vegging out, there’d better be a specTAcular beach nearby…

    Apr. 1 2014 @ 12:36 pm
    1. James author

      We just finished up some time in Vientiane and YES! It is definitely the quietest capital city we have ever visited. Honestly, if not for the fact that people there were ever-so-slightly grumpier than the rest of the country, I’m not sure we would have guessed it was the capital had we not already known it!

      Apr. 3 2014 @ 10:48 pm
  12. We had the same reaction when we arrived in Laos from Thailand; the place is just so ridiculously laid-back that you can’t help but fall into its rhythms. I loved the napping culture in Laos and the fact that it felt so different to the other countries we’d visited in SE Asia. Savannakhet looks a hell of a lot nicer than Pakse too!

    Apr. 2 2014 @ 12:40 am
    1. Amy author

      Yeah, Savannkahet was actually really nice if not especially happening. We’ve both said that we think it might still be our favorite place in Laos! It was just so laid-back and while the rest of the country hasn’t been exactly bustling in comparison, there was something about Savannakhet that just felt like a warm welcome and we’ve not necessarily felt that way since.

      Apr. 3 2014 @ 11:09 pm
  13. Your description and first impression of Laos is pretty similar to what I thought myself of this country when we visited it as well a while ago, even if we saw a different part of the country. But, as you said, quite and calm isn’t always a bad thing. We are currently house-sitting in a very small village in the South of Spain and we will be here for 3 months in total, it has nothing touristic, it is a small place where life goes on very slowly, but we thought we needed a break from the intense traveling we did trough France and Spain before. It suits us well for the time being and make us feel more involved in the local Spanish community.

    Apr. 2 2014 @ 5:06 am
    1. Franca author

      It sounds like we are on the same page, Franca. As travelers the key is not necessarily in seeking out more of the same, but trying new things and seeing different ways of life. I don’t think I could stay somewhere like Laos for the rest of my days, but in terms of a change of pace, I couldn’t ask for a better one, I don’t think!

      Apr. 3 2014 @ 11:12 pm
  14. I need to be better about heading to places like this that force you to slow down a little… Love your line “quick prayer to Darwin”… I’ve definitely felt the same way when crossing streets before!

    Apr. 2 2014 @ 9:03 am
    1. Katie author

      Just when I think I’ve become used to Asian traffic, we head to a new place and I find myself wondering my travel insurance includes crossing the street! I think Vietnam really might be the worst of all the countries we’ve visited, and Laos must surely be the easiest!

      Apr. 4 2014 @ 3:11 am
  15. Hi Steph, liking Laos much more already! No McDonald and 7-11?! It’s our kind of place!!!
    There’s definitely a beauty is such sleepy places – it forces your to slow down, which you don’t admit you need until you are face with it.
    Keith and I have been wishing to make it to Laos. Looking forward to see more of your post about it to keep us inspired to get there.

    Apr. 2 2014 @ 9:23 pm
    1. Marisol@TravelingSolemates author

      I agree that sometimes we need to be forced to slow down! One of the nice things about being here in Laos is that I find I am less bothered about racing around seeing things and can just laze about if that’s what I need most. It’s been a great place to get back into traveling because the pressure has been pretty minimal. I look forward to sharing more of what we get up to here with you in our coming posts!

      Apr. 3 2014 @ 11:19 pm
  16. Hi Steph, liking Laos much more already! No McDonald and 7-11?! It’s our kind of place!!!
    There’s definitely a beauty is such sleepy places – it forces your to slow down, which you don’t admit you need until you are face with it.
    Keith and I have been wishing to make it to Laos. Looking forward to see more of your post about it to keep us inspired to get there.

    Apr. 2 2014 @ 9:23 pm
  17. Wow, that sounds less like a new country and more like a new dimension! What a contrast to Vietnam! It’s strange how a place can slow you down, I’ve felt like that in a couple of places, and often in unexpected locations. Lahore does that to me a bit actually – strange, considering it’s a huge city! Keep having fun!

    Apr. 3 2014 @ 6:15 am
    1. Tim | UrbanDuniya author

      Ha! You’re right—being in Laos is a bit like entering a new dimension! I actually still can’t believe this sleepy country is nestled right next to Vietnam… the two honestly could not be more different!

      Apr. 3 2014 @ 11:21 pm
  18. Beer and extreme heat definitely do not mix well! How hot was it while you were there? Beautiful pictures!

    Apr. 3 2014 @ 11:47 am
    1. Kendra Granniss author

      No, they definitely do not! I’m not 100% certain just how hot it really got while we were there, but a few times our phone said it was 100F/38C and that seemed like an underestimate as far as I am concerned!

      Apr. 4 2014 @ 3:27 am
  19. You’ve hit on the exact reason why I enjoyed Laos so much. After the craziness of Shanghai and other big Asian cities, the quite inactivity of Laos was pure bliss. We spent four days in Luang Prabang, and rather than flit about on excursions to caves and waterfalls, we were content to simply slowly amble around the town and drink beer Lao by the river. I definitely need to spend more quiet time in that country!

    Apr. 3 2014 @ 1:01 pm
    1. Heather author

      Sometimes you really do need to throw any and all plans out the window and give yourself permission to do nothing. Laos is really a great place for that because—as we are finding—even when you want to do something, there’s not that much to do! So another lazy stroll and a Beer Lao it is!

      Apr. 4 2014 @ 3:37 am
  20. It’s so lovely to see the smiling faces of Laos again 🙂 I think you’re totally right, it is incredibly quiet but I think so many people use it as a break and antidote for the chaos of the rest of South East Asia. We literally did nothing but eat and take yoga classes for nearly 2 weeks in Luang Prabang and it was bliss. If you want a bit of outdoor adventure it’s definitely there to be had but there is a lot to be said for doing absolutely nothing.

    Apr. 6 2014 @ 7:04 am
    1. Maddie author

      We have found that every SEA country has its own vibe, own way of doing things, and Laos is no exception. Supremely chill, and that has persisted throughout the entire country so far. We have had some outdoor adventures, as you will see, but it’s definitely the ultimate destination to unwind!

      Apr. 6 2014 @ 8:06 pm
  21. It sounds very relaxing! If someone told me “No McDonalds, No 7/11” I would take that as a good thing! 🙂 It looks wonderful there!

    Apr. 6 2014 @ 10:30 pm
    1. Lauren author

      We definitely weren’t too upset about the no McD’s or western chains either. It’s actually pretty cool to make it to a part of the world where they don’t exist because, honestly, very few countries have managed to remain immune to that kind of widespread commercialization.

      Apr. 10 2014 @ 4:18 am
  22. Learning the umbrella lesson the hard way while baking in China heat at the moment! And this heat is curing me of my own Tasmanian Devil syndrome. Leisurely walks and naps have never been so welcomed. 🙂

    Jul. 3 2014 @ 12:01 am
    1. Mark author

      We never actually started caring parasols with us, but I feel like we probably should have. Naps and frequent beer breaks seemed to work equally well, however! 😉

      Jul. 7 2014 @ 1:07 pm

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