Interview with Krista Routledge - Small group Laos vacation

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Laos village and (inset) Krista Routledge
Laos village and (inset) Krista Routledge (Photo by Stefan Magdalinski)

Leader interview: Krista Routledge - Small group Laos vacation

Originally from sunny Suffolk, Krista has been leading tours in Laos for 10 years. She can be there up to twice a month and when she isn't touring she loves catching up with the local friends she's made over the years, playing petanque and eating picnics alongside tumbling waterfalls. Heaven, no? "The past 10 years have flown by," says Krista. "There's no question that I love my job even more now than when I first started."

Bael fruit tea is my favourite souvenir to bring back from Laos.
It's very unique to the region and is made from slices of dried out bael fruit; you mix it with boiling water and it has fantastic detoxifying properties and has a really refreshing, sweet taste like honey.

Iced Bael Fruit Tea
Iced Bael Fruit Tea (Photo by fabulousfabs)
It is so hard to pick a standalone beautiful viewpoint on this trip; every night there's an incredible sunset and each one is different.
But, we do go to a small wat overlooking the Mekong called Wat Pa Wat Thai and play a game of petanque with the locals, which is a wonderful experience. After we've played, we go over to the temple and watch the sunset over the Mekong with the mountains as a backdrop, eating lots of little tasting dishes to try from local restaurants. It's very special.

The food is Laos is lovely and although it doesn't sound great and is something almost everyone turns their noses up at initially, Mekong river weed is delicious.
It's the mossy weed from the river that the local ladies collect and then dry out in the sun spread out over huge frames. Once it's dry, they fry it lightly with some sesame and onion - it looks just like seaweed and it tastes really good. Another fantastic dish we try is dried mushrooms with a dipping sauce made from buffalo skin, but my absolute favourite is larb. It's mincemeat of chicken, or fish, or duck cooked with fish sauce and lime juice with lots of fresh herbs, chilli and ground rice running through it. It's so fragrant.

The local people in Laos are so welcoming and interested in everyone that passes through their villages to meet them.
There's a lady that I've met a couple of times in one of the villages that we visit on the way down from Pakbeng to Luang Prabang and she's very interested in my tattoos. The first time I met her, she grabbed my arm and was having a good look at it then proceeded to show me all of her tattoos, which she has all over her legs and arms. They are really quite amazing and it was a lovely way to communicate without language. Every time I pass through that village I'll go and see her and go and show her any new tattoos I've had done.

Pakbeng (Photo by Akuppa John Wigham)
I had a lady come on this trip who was 92, nearly 93 years old, and I was able to get her into a rice paddy alongside a buffalo, which was a pretty unexpected occurrence.
She kicked her shoes off and was helping plough the field; she was incredible. She did the north and south of Laos and went off in a boat to see the dolphins - I hope that if I make it to 92 that I'm like her. That lady is the oldest person that I've ever had the pleasure to show around Laos and the youngest is 16; we don't get a lot of kids on this trip and the average age of our travelers is people in their 50s.

A particular part of this tour that I love sharing with people every time is the cruise along the Mekong River.
We have two days exploring the area and as you cruise along you see local life play out before you - smiling fishermen and the odd elephant wandering up to the bank for a drink. You're surrounded by lush jungle floating and huge rock formations coming out of the water during the dry season and really vivid colours. You really get the chance to wind down and take it all in and every person without fail comments on how amazing the experience is.

Mekong river cruise
Mekong river cruise (Photo by lin padgham)
The tour is relaxing and most people adapt to their new environment well, but if I had one survival tip it would be to bring ginger tea or ginger tablets.
Chewing on ginger really helps with travel sickness and is a good all round stomach-settler for people that may need time to adapt to all of the new food.

To really get the most out of this trip you need to be open-minded and have a sense of adventure.
Laos is not a big, modern, fast-paced country - it's the opposite, in fact - so if you're looking for bright lights then it won't be the place for you. You need to be prepared to leave the modern trapping of western life behind and embrace what is a very different and wonderful culture there.

The biggest misconception about Laos is that people presume it will be just like Thailand: that the people will be the same and the food will be the same. They're quite surprised when they get there at just how underdeveloped Laos is in certain areas.
It's much smaller than Thailand too, and you can get to places that are really off the beaten track very easily. Luang Prabang is quite a tourist hub, but you drive five minutes outside of it and there's kids running around with pigs and chickens, surrounded by stilted huts. The lifestyle is Laos is very basic, which is one of the most brilliant things about it.

A trip to Laos is a very sensory experience. The sound of the Mekong River rushing is something you'll never forget, as is the sound of drumming first thing in the morning to signal to the monks dressed in robes the colour of saffron to come out and collect the alms - that is magical.
Coffee is a smell that I associate with Laos; there is a real café culture in Luang Prabang and the south-central Laotians grow their own beautiful coffee across the Bolaven Plateau, which you can smell being roasted. In terms of taste, lime juice, mint and chilli are the particularly zingy and fresh flavours that come through in the food. Silk weaving is very popular among the ethnic people of Laos and we visit women in villages that produce beautiful scarves and runners that are so soft to touch - silk is also a great souvenir to bring home and is a fantastic way to support the local communities while you're visiting too.

The thing that makes me want to scream 'No!' at tourists is when they get up during the alms giving in Luang Prabang when you are able to watch the monks walking around the town and put their flashing cameras up in their faces.
That drives me bonkers, so I always brief my groups about how to act appropriately. Something that makes me scream 'Yes!' is to meet tourists that are interested in supporting the small, grassroots businesses that are trying to make a difference there. We take groups to restaurants that train up former street children and disadvantaged kids, and we support an organisation called Big Brother Mouse, which is an educational organisation that provides translated books to school kids. We've published a couple of books with them and are happy to organise for tourists to pop in there during their spare time.

Alms giving
Alms giving (Photo by Allie_Caulfield)
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