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I really messed up this trip to Laos. But that's okay
It's not always easy to find the right path
Sometimes when you travel independently, you make bad decisions. You might pass by a place that would have left you with lifelong memories, hook up with the wrong group or just book a guest house in an unexciting part of town. I’ve done all the above and last week I really made a mess of a 10-day trip to Laos.
But I’ve learned a valuable lesson: not to be too hard on myself (and on others when they also get things wrong).
The thing is, I like to think of myself as a seasoned traveller, a meticulous planner, and a shrewd decision maker. I first travelled around South East Asia 30 years ago and here I am again, with my daughter now at university, on a six-week adventure with a return ticket to Bangkok, a backpack, a laptop and no fixed plans.
Between the early 1990s and now, I've made a living as a travel journalist and editor including 15 years at The Sunday Times. I will happily advise you on where to go on holiday next. I'm wary of the word expert, but others might call me one.
However, I really got it wrong in Laos. Here's what happened.
I was staying in a riverside town called Nong Khiaw, a five-hour bus ride north of the ancient capital Luang Prabang. The setting is spectacular, with limestone karsts soaring skywards in every direction. I’d treated myself to a room at one of the loveliest guest houses in town with a bungalow overlooking the water with sunset views. So far, so good.
I met an English couple around my age who told me about an idyllic weaving village called Sob Jam two hours up river by boat and I arranged to join a day trip there with a young French couple. It was glorious. The villagers were delightful, and I bought an armful of artfully-woven scarves.
On the way back to Nong Khiaw, we stopped for lunch at a slightly busier village Muong Ngoi. As I sat eating a fresh-baked baguette stuffed with grilled chicken and homemade mayonnaise, a group of young backpackers landed at the jetty and I idly thought: this would be a great place to spend a few days. There was a waterfall and caves within walking distance and you could go fishing on the Nam Ou river.
But I didn’t. Instead I returned to my comfortable bungalow, watched another sunset and next morning took that long bus ride back to Luang Prabang. The following day I’d head south on the train to Vang Vieng.
Partly I was keen to ride on the new China-Laos Railway, an extraordinary feat of engineering that looks set to transform travel through Laos, one of the poorest countries in South East Asia. One report estimates that once the border is reopened post Covid, 3 million Chinese people will cross it each year, potentially turning sleepy Laos into a new tourist hot spot.
And though I’m not a fully paid-up rail geek, I do love a train trip to somewhere I’ve never been before. And I’d never been to Vang Vieng, which once had a reputation for being a raucous and unruly backpacker party town. That wouldn’t have been my kind of place aged 28, let alone 58.
But Vang Vieng had cleaned up its act. The government had imposed a curfew and cracked down on the tubing companies that offered revellers free shots of spirits and laminated menus of recreational drugs. More than a few young travellers had lost their lives.
On the truck transfer from the train station into Vang Vieng, I got chatting to a delightful young Finnish couple who’d just stayed five nights at Muong Ngoi, the lazy riverside village where I’d eaten the baguette and fantasised about staying on. They raved about it. Damn. I'd missed out.
Then we arrived in Vang Vieng. It was early evening, overcast. It wasn’t pretty. The main drag was a dusty road lined with ramshackle modern buildings, cheap restaurants, bars, flashing lights, shops renting scooters and - oddly - beach buggies.
My heart sank. This wasn’t my kind of place. I’d actually found my kind of place but had passed it up, like some tragic figure in a romantic novel who ignores the woman who’d be his perfect match in favour of the town floozy.
I resolved to make the most of it. Next morning I’d rent a cycle and explore the surrounding villages. I’d hike to one of the local viewpoints and perhaps treat myself to a hot air balloon ride. I got up at dawn, texted the French-run balloon company to ask if they had availability that day and went out for coffee.
As I sat with my Americano, the sky shuddered with thunder and a violent storm lashed the town. Rainwater gushed from drains and flooded the street. It would almost certainly clear up later but the roads and hiking trails might have turned to mud. The ballooners texted back: we’re fully booked.
What to do? Stick it out, travel onwards to the capital Vientiane - a city that few people had a good word to say about - or return again to Luang Prabang, a seductive little city of ancient temples and French cafes?
Back at my hotel, the receptionist said she could get me on that afternoon’s express train to Luang Prabang if I let her know before 10am. It was 9am and still raining. I gave it some thought but I already knew what I’d do: take the train. I’d seen almost nothing of Vang Vieng and already I was leaving.
To be honest, there was another significant factor at play. I’d met a lovely American woman who lives and works in Chiang Mai and we’d been on a few dates. We were both keen to meet up again and she was hosting a Thanksgiving party at her home. If I’d not gone to Vang Vieng I could have made it back, but I felt a kind of obligation to honour my intended itinerary, even though nothing was set in stone.
What’s more, she’d warned me I wouldn’t much like Vang Vieng. I ignored her advice and turned down her invite and now, returning to Luang Prabang on the day of the party, I felt doubly bad.
I could have stayed in Muong Ngoi, or flown back to Chiang Mai. Instead I’d taken a pointless, frustrating trip to a town that was never going to be my kind of place. What a chump.
And yet … don’t these things happen all the time on the road? It’s impossible to know how things will pan out. And despite foolishly thinking of myself as a wise and experienced traveller, the truth is that I hadn’t taken a long unstructured trip like this in more than 25 years. I was bound to be out of practice.
And I’m a different person now, with different tastes, different pain thresholds. And, as I’d occasionally discovered, it’s not always easy to strike up a conversation with a group of young backpackers when you’re the same age as their dads.
So I’ve decided to give myself a break. I won’t feel bad, or berate myself. I won’t regret the time lost, the money spent, the opportunities missed. After all, I really enjoyed the first part of my trip to Laos.
I’ll remember too that extended independent travel by its nature involves a lot of decision making on the fly. Even if you’re following the so-called "banana pancake trail", it’s a complex sequence of events with a lot of moving parts.
Maybe the key to an exciting life-changing trip is being open to making mistakes, as well as seizing on unexpected positive experiences.
It's like walking up to a crowded food stall where the food looks and smells good but there's no English menu and nobody speaks English. You could point at something and hope for the best, or you could keep walking and find a restaurant serving all the usual tourist fare. If you roll the dice, you won’t always win.
I’ll think about that the next time I’m tempted to tell someone: “Oh you didn’t go there, you really missed out!” Or think worse of a fellow traveller because they’re wheeling a large hard-sided suitcase down an unmade pavement.
Perhaps learning to be kinder to yourself is the first step in being kinder to others.
P.S. I’m back in Chiang Mai now, staying at my friend’s house. She forgave me too.