Laos: A Tour That Even Loners Can Love

Somewhere between a fully guided coach tour and a do-it-yourself expedition lies a category that sounds a bit like an oxymoron: the independent traveler tour. On a trip to Laos, Karen Valby happily hands off the planning headaches to a guide--and discovers that she might even enjoy traveling with a group

A van meets us at the last stop in Thailand, the Nong Khai train station, and whisks us over the Friendship Bridge at the Laos border. Any potential stress in attaining our visas is alleviated by Bom's calming presence. He has reserved lodging for us in town at the Mali Namphu guesthouse, which has air-conditioned rooms with cable TV and serves breakfast in the breezy French colonial-style courtyard.

Our lodgings are a couple of cobblestone steps from the Nam Phu Fountain, the humble downtown center of dusty Vientiane. Everything is slow-paced--the small clusters of tourists strolling along the Mekong River, the paper lanterns lolling lazily overhead at outdoor bars, even the stream of mopeds at the peak of the city's supposed rush hour.

Bom takes the group across the street to Namphou Coffee, his favorite restaurant in town--one he most often frequents alone, as many of the people he guides opt for more tourist-friendly joints. We order two crispy roast ducks, three vegetable pho soups, pork fried rice, and the addictive Lao staple, spicy papaya salad. All of this marvelous food, which leaves us moaning in three different languages of ecstasy, costs less than $7 total. And that's one good reason to head to Laos. Everything is almost embarrassingly inexpensive. (At restaurants throughout the trip, I consistently overpay the bill by accident. There are some impressive chases, but no waiter lets me walk away without receiving exact change.)

Just when I find myself in need of a break from the group itinerary--a long-winded guide leading a tour of Vientiane's main attractions makes me yearn for the peace of my iPod--there's a free day to explore the city. My husband and I opt for Bom's recommendation of the bustling morning market where vendors hawk everything from silk sarongs to Chinese electronics. We indulge in traditional Lao massages at Mixay ($3 for 60 glorious minutes!), and grab a couple 80¢ Beerlaos at the popular expat bar Khop Chai Deu (happy hour from 9 A.M. to 8 P.M.!). A bland dinner at one of the tourist cafés on popular Fa Ngum Road--praised, incidentally, by our Rough Guide--sends us back to the food stalls lining the Mekong. All along, Bom has been saying that the best food in Laos is eaten with the locals at cheap plastic tables.

On our last day in Vientiane, a high-strung American woman corners us and asks about our encounters with the tuk-tuk drivers. Have they been overcharging us? Do we haggle over fares? How in the world should she get to the airport? In Bom we trust, we calmly tell her, and return to our Beerlaos.

Bom deals with the logistics of check-in and seat assignments at the Vientiane airport, leaving us free to stick our sweaty faces in front of the oscillating fans. The 40-minute flight to Luang Prabang, Laos's ancient capital, ends on a strip cut from the jungle between the Mekong and Khan Rivers. On the tuk-tuk ride from the airport, we pass girls with parasols walking home from school, dressed in demure uniforms of white blouses and ankle-length navy sarongs, giving warm waves of welcome.

Our guesthouse, the Villa Suan Maak, a large yellow home with baby chicks waddling after their mother on the front lawn, is on a rural neighborhood block where people congregate outside every evening. Families grill fish in their driveways, young couples play badminton in the streets, old men gather for games of bocce, and children joyride three to a bicycle. On our leisurely strolls into town, I practice a few basic expressions that Bom has taught us: sabai di (hello) and khawp jai (thank you). Unfortunately, I keep getting confused, and tend to greet the friendly people on the street with a hearty "Khawp jai!"

Bom organizes an afternoon tour of the local blacksmithing and paper- and silk-making villages, where generations of families labor at one specific trade. At the Lao Silk Textile shop, Tim and I buy three 100-percent-silk tapestries for $35. Bom arranges for a slow wooden-boat ride another day, which takes us two hours up the Mekong to the Pak Ou Caves. Along the way, we drop off two old monks, loaded down with four sacks of vegetables from the morning market, at their village on a beach lined with water buffalo. The caves, jagged holes in the face of a cliff, are stuffed with thousands of Buddha statues and sleeping bats, and offer a respite from the heat.

The group has settled into an easy rhythm and, despite the language barrier, we genuinely enjoy sharing meals. Everyone giggles over Bom's wacky stories about life in Thailand, and Ma and Akko never cease being amused by my ineptitude with chopsticks.

Tim and I excuse ourselves from the group one night for a drink at a popular waterfront café, Boungnasouk, and watch the sun set majestically over the Mekong. Then we hit the fanciest restaurant in town, L'Elephant, for fine French food. We splurge--for all of $31!--on a delicious three-course meal with lots of wine and an espresso. While some parts of Laos feel way off the Western grid, Luang Prabang is no longer an undiscovered pocket of paradise. On our way home, we wander over to the night market, only to discover that it's glutted with tourists.

LAOS: A TOUR THAT EVEN LONERS CAN LOVE

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