5 years ago, Laos was the cheapest country that I visited on my trip, and also my favourite country. There was just something about the place and the people that spoke to me and warmed my heart. And the scenery! Well, the scenery hasn’t changed, but I really feel that the country has.
5 years later, Laos certainly isn’t cheap. Prices are the same as in Vietnam, pretty much, except that the exchange rate is way different. For example, when we crossed over and we saw the prices of food, we thought that it was fine. 40’000 Kip for a main course, no problem! Then we had the “wait a minute” moment – the exchange rate here is 8’000 to $1 USD, instead of the 20’000 to the $1 USD in Vietnam. That’s a big difference! Room are also very expensive. In Luang Prabang, I stayed at a lovely place 5 years ago for $4 USD. When we showed up to the same guesthouse 5 years later, the price was now 150’000 Kip ($18.75) for the same room. It’s been like that almost everywhere, and the cheapest room we’ve found was 60’000 Kip a night. In Vientiane, I thought I would cry from the sheer number of expensive rooms that were riddled with bugs and wrapped up in dirty blankets. It was a miracle that I found a clean place at 110’000 Kip a night, as I was starting to get convinced that I’d have to stay at a fancy hotel just to spare us from the bed bugs.
To make a long story short: South to North, everything is a lot more expensive than it used to be, and a lot more than the guidebooks suggest. We’ve been running between $5 and $10 over budget every day. Sigh.
With the high prices something else also changed in Laos, and I can’t really put my finger on it. But it feels as though it’s lost it’s soul a little bit in trying to become a more appealing place for tourists. It gets harder to find the charm, the genuine lifestyles of yesteryear, the pristine. It feels that many are after a quick buck, cutting corners where pride should kick in. I don’t know what it is, but it feels as though Laos is loosing itself.
It’s really sad that this used to be my favourite place and that it no longer is. While I know that there are fantastic places here, and incredible things to see, I long for what used to be here and I can’t find it. There are glimpses, but they are harder and harder to find.
The South of Laos also hasn’t charmed us as much as the North. It got to a point where I wanted to keep going South in hopes of finding redemption, but yesterday I came to term that redemption might not be there, or anywhere. We were also worried about the 4000 islands being now too much of a party place, and that the boats set out in search of irrawaddy dolphins would be reminiscent of Donsol (the 15 boat to 1 whale shark ratio). We realized that in our current state of mind, it might not be the best place to head to. So, instead we decided to stay in Pakse a day longer to relax before heading to the UNESCO sight of Champasak. From there, we’ll cross into Thailand earlier than planned to explore the area before heading to Bangkok as planned. It will be a relief on the wallet that’s for sure!
This isn’t to say at all to others not to come to Laos. It’s also not to say that I no longer like this country, or that I have not enjoyed myself. Not at all. It’s just to say that I am grieving the loss of what it used to be, and I can’t move on from what it used to be. For a newcomer, especially one with time to get off the beaten pack, Laos would still be incredible and magical. Laos should still be visited. Just know that she is changing, trying to find her new self, and that until she finds the right balance, it might be a little messier than it should.