While on a 2-day “slow boat” ride down the Mekong from Luang Prabang to the Thai border, we had some time to reflect on the past few weeks in Laos. We came into the country with vague expectations based on accounts from friends who’d been there before and almost unanimously loved it…. the people would be the “most laid-back we’d ever met,” we’d be hassled far less than other places we’ve been, the natural scenery would be unique and stunning, the culture would feel like one of its neighboring countries did 20 or 30 years ago.
In the end, we saw some amazing things in Laos, and it did have a different feel than Thailand, Cambodia, and not surprisingly, Bali. Overall, we really liked it, but we ended up liking it for some different reasons than we’d expected, and the things we’d expected to like the most ended up at times less enjoyable as well.
For one, the commonly described, “laid-back” nature of Lao people could be another way of interpreting what we found to be a general sense of indifference towards visitors. It’s not that people were unfriendly towards us – not at all – but we didn’t get the sense that they were nearly as curious about us as we were about them… in conversation, we were rarely met half-way, often pushing to get more of a response. Part of this was due to the stronger language barrier for us in Laos (which is nobody’s fault but ours, of course), as English was uncommon and our chance to connect really rested on our ability to pick up Lao (we did alright, but never learned enough to say anything interesting). Perhaps also, Laos may just not need visitors quite as much as its neighbors – you get the sense they were getting by alright before we were here, and they appreciate the tourism dollars, but would be fine without us just the same. Of course, generalizing a whole country based on its few citizens we met is unfair; mainly, we just found fewer chances to break through a service-oriented surface. Laid-back, or preoccupied, I’m unsure.
Another thing that surprised us about Laos was how trodden its routes have become. It seemed to be the most plotted and preplanned country we’d visited so far, which left fewer opportunities for spontaneity, or at least required a little more creativity than usual (not necessarily a bad thing). Several of the places where we’d hoped to get `off the path` ended up having more guest houses than homes! In other countries, we often found that when it takes a little effort to reach a certain place, or if you have to take somewhat uncomfortable transport to get there, there’s often a reward waiting at the end: a chance to observe something before it’s been converted into a commodity. Here, that was harder to find. Maybe the problem is most people come to Laos to find the same sorts of experiences, and merely find they weren’t nearly the first people to think of coming there to find them. Either way, it was certainly easier and more comfortable travel than we’d been expecting; change has its upsides!
Before I sound negative, I’ll add that we found LOTS more to love than dislike about Laos!
For one, the scenery was some of the most unique and beautiful we’d seen in our whole trip. We hiked, biked, and kayaked through some spectacular country.
The unique Lanna style temples of Laos were a highlight for us as well, particularly in the northern parts of the country.
In Phonsavon, we were humbled by history both recent and distant, learning of the extent of our country’s military involvement in the region during the 1970s and the struggle and resolve of people still dealing with the aftermath of a conflict that the rest of the world has long since forgotten…
…and then walking among the mysterious sprawls of jars that have stayed intact since prehistory.
We were also fortunate to spend Christmas in Vang Vieng, Laos – our first Christmas outside of the U.S. – and it was certainly memorable. We tubed down a river, volunteered on an organic goat farm, and gave gifts we’d both been carrying in our backpacks for weeks.
And the cities! We could’ve easily lived in Vientiane or Luang Prabang for a long time. In particular, Luang Prabang had a very addictive mix of local culture, familiar comforts from home, fun excursions, and far too many delicious (though constantly pushing our comfort zone) foods to try.
We also had great fun celebrating New Year’s Eve in Luang Prabang, starting the year off right by releasing a paper lantern into the sky – the romance!
In all, we loved our time in Laos, and I can think of no better place from which to reflect on that than the window seats of this slow boat, where many of the scenes we’ve seen throughout our trip are being replayed on the shores. If only I could only take a picture, I’d show the people in remote villages waiting anxiously for supplies to arrive by boat, logging elephants dragging trees across the field to a barge, and young monks bathing at the edge of the river, stripped to nothing but their bright yellow underpants.
But I can’t… Our camera was stolen days ago during a brief return from Nong Kiaw to Luang Prabang. Unfortunately, pictures will have to wait.
On that note… I’ll close this post out as the locals might, with a round of Lao Lao.