Holy Laos!

Asia, Laos, Lost Girls RTW Adventure, Spa & Beauty — By on January 19, 2007 at 12:12 am

While there are some drawbacks to following the backpacker trail – – competing for the same Lonely Planet-recommended hostels, squeezing onto over-crowded buses and trains and being constantly reminded just how much Bush sucks (for the love of God, we know already; none of us even voted for him!) – – there are definitely some advantages of taking the road most traveled, particularly in SE Asia. Not only are we surrounded by tons of fun people our age to party with (OK, maybe they’re slightly younger. Gulp!), there’s always someone around to give us the inside scoop on where to get the cheapest cocktails, how to avoid common tourist scams and which pockets of the continent are really worth visiting. In fact, if it wasn’t for the advice of several other travelers, Amanda and I would have completely missed what we now consider to be one of our favorite countries – – Laos.

For those of you who as unfamiliar with this region of the world as we were, Laos is the thin country sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam. Also, the ‘S’ in Laos is silent, so it’s actually pronounced like COW, but with an ‘L’. Readers: Now that you know this, feel free to take the time to reflect upon and chuckle at my witty blog title. OK, now that we’ve all acknowledged my cleverness, let’s move on…

After arriving in Bangkok (our first stop in SE Asia after leaving India), Amanda and I had about a week and a half of free time before we had to meet our friend and former NYC roommate, Beth, for a little requisite island hopping in Southern Thailand. Since we planned to hit Northern Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam once Holly re-joined us on the road in January, we decided to do a bit of research on Laos to see if it was worth visiting. While our guide book did an excellent job painting the former French-territory as an appealing tourist destination, it was the rave reviews we got from other travelers that cemented our desire to check out the country for ourselves. Every person we polled gave Lao two enthusiastic thumbs up in all categories (in backpacker world that translates to gorgeous setting, chill vibe, comfy hostels, frequent happy hours and most importantly, uber low prices). With visions of scenic, mountain treks, yummy street food, lush beer gardens and $3 massages dancing in our heads, we immediately hopped the next overnight train bound for the Thai-Lao border.

The moment our tuk-tuk rolled onto the sunny, tree-lined boulevards of Vientiane (Laos’ capital), Amanda and I knew we’d made the right decision. Everything and everyone around us exuded a whimsical, carefree attitude – – fresh faced vacationers leisurely sipped cappuccinos at sidewalk cafes, shopkeepers charmed new arrivals with handmade silks and intricately-carved Buddhas and tight-packed clusters of monks, donning freshly shaven heads and tangerine-tinted robes, streamed from golden temple gates.

After churning in smoggy, spicy and chaotic India for almost a month, we happily melted into Laos’ relaxed culture and tranquil ambiance like marshmallows in hot chocolate. One day blended into the next as Amanda and I whiled away the hours exploring the town, shopping for clothes and jewelry in trendy boutiques and sampling tasty cuisine from local markets. But just when we thought life couldn’t get any better, we discovered an unexpected path to paradise through one of the country’s most popular tourist activities – massages.

Despite an abundance of cheap parlors on every corner, we again headed the advice of fellow travelers and decided to check out the area’s famous herbal sauna and outdoor massage center. Eager to experience a luxurious steam and rigorous, 60-min rub down – all for the bargain price of $4 – Amanda and I gladly braved the bumpy 3km ride deep into the woods in search of Vientiane’s legendary ‘spa’. Like every tuk-tuk driver in town, ours knew exactly how to get to the secluded wat paa (forest temple) but after dropping us off at the entrance, we were on our own. Amanda and I wound our way down the long gravel road past ramshackle huts, dingy hammocks and the occasional barn yard animal, hoping we were headed in the right direction. We followed a convoluted series of hand-scribbled posters and several ambiguous gestures from the resident monks for nearly 10 minutes until we heard a voice from above directing us where to go. “You want steam and massage?” “Come this way!”

Perched 30 feet above ground, nestled in the tree tops, was a makeshift wooden platform packed to the brim with tourists in bathing suits and terry cloth robes. Amanda and I climbed slowly up the rickety staircase to join our fellow hedonists in the large ‘foyer’ and put our names on the list for treatments. After changing out of our clothes, we were handed a silk cover up and led into an attached outhouse-like structure. A wave of sweet, hot steam smacked us in the face as we blindly felt around for an empty bench, tiptoeing carefully around the hissing coals packed in pots on the floor and trying desperately not to sit on someone else’s lap by mistake. We finally found an empty board and reclined back against the wall prepared to sweat off at least ten pounds. It didn’t take long before we were puddles on the floor, infused from head to toe with the sauna’s magic blend of lemongrass, eucalyptus, citrus, rosemary and mint that we’re pretty sure also included a ‘special’ herb to give guests an extra kick. Hey! Who are we to deny the effectiveness of ancient Lao healing practices?

When we couldn’t stand the scorching temperatures any longer, we stumbled outside and flopped down on one of the many massage beds that packed the wide back porch. Along with about 8 other people, Amanda and I spent the next hour being pulled and stretched like salt water taffy by hyperactive and overzealous little men. Snaps, crackles and pops filled the air as each of our body parts, which were now incredibly limber and malleable from the steam bath, were adjusted one by one and kneaded into perfect shapes. What looked and sounded like medieval torture was actually one of the most blissful and satisfying experiences we’d had since leaving yoga school (see ‘Om’ My God blog for details). Pumped full of endorphins, we floated back down to the ground and settled into a tuk-tuk alongside other satisfied customers.

To add a perfect ending to an already perfect day, we accepted an offer from our driver and a few fellow passengers to grab a sundowner at a popular outdoor bar in town (these invitations are oddly commonplace in the backpacker community). As the sun melted into the Mekong River, we raised our super sized bottles of Beer Laos and toasted to the many more yet to come!


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  • Dellie says:

    Thanks for the interesting and eye-opening information about Laos.I didn’t know anything about this lovely country. I will look at Laos through different eyes now–colored by your sweet experience there. The Vientiane outdoor wat paa-forest temple- made me feel relaxed just by reading it! Ahhhh…. Steam and massage? You bet! And cheap no less! Heaven on earth….Laos sounds like a dreamy-even romantic-travel destination.

  • Lynn says:

    Ladies, that sounds absolutely AMAZING! What an experience! I’m going to have to make it to that part of the world someday, and soon!

  • LopesCa says:

    A spectacular adventure. Congratulations
    Tanks for the tips.

  • luxury robes in Laos says:

    I can’t believe you girls are still at it! the Laos info was great, especially hearing about the massage capital of the world. your audience is steadily growing state-side as i tell all my friends about your adventures.

  • Michelle says:

    What a fantastic, totally true review!!! I was in Laos in 2007 and it was just plain beautiful. the people are fantastic, everyone is friendly and it just has such a wonderful atmosphere.
    i vote everyone should go to Laos!