Welcome to Laos!
The first day in a new country can be pretty rough. You instantly go from being competent – understanding the money, knowing how to say “hello” and “thank you,” to being a complete idiot. My first day in Laos was slow and subdued while I waited around to see if I could get into the Gibbon Experience, but it wasn’t bad. This country is so relaxed, so mellow, it would take extraordinary circumstances to have a bad time. A friend once told me that New York was like San Francisco on steroids. Laos is like Thailand on Quaaludes.
Long, skinny countries are convenient. You just decide if you’re going North to South or South to North. Most visitors who are beginning in the North will start the journey in Luang Prabang and it’s hard to imagine a more charming setting off point. Some travelers found it a little too gentrified, but I found the mix of French colonialism, Buddhist temples and Hmong handicrafts to be quite delightful. Especially after two days traveling down river on the “slow boat” from Huay Xai. Cafes boasted sings saying, “Luang Prabang, Unesco World Heritage Site, No Smoking Please”. So civilized! The Night Market was fantastic. If I ever go for a PhD in Anthropology, I’ll try to determine if the Hmong and the Maya stem from a common ancestor.
Wat Sen in Luang Prabang. Photo by Jean-Marie Hullot.
The Plain of Jars
Many travelers in Laos don’t bother with the “detour” to the Plain of Jars. I’m glad I did. I love a mystery and few things are as intriguingly inexplicable as the huge (one to three meters tall) stone jars which are scattered around Phonsavan. How old are they? Who made them? How were they used? No one knows and research is slow, because, sadly, this area has another claim to fame.
Between 1963 and 1974, the US dropped more than 270 million cluster bombs here, making Laos the most bombed country in the world. Many did not explode, and when visiting the Plain of Jars, one sticks closely to marked path where “unexploded ordnance” has been cleared. Phonsavan has museums which offer up an informative picture of this tragic history and information about the efforts which are underway to clean up the “bombies” which still threaten locals. The people of Laos seem to be amazingly forgiving. I never experienced a bit of anti-American sentiment in spite of the damage which my country ensued on theirs.
Watch your step as you ponder the meaning of the jars. Photo by Prince Roy.
Credit the good people of Vang Vieng for putting themselves on the tourist map by harnessing two, fairly commonplace resources. The first is a river, in this case the Nam Song and the second, a highly (and deservingly) successful, man-made resource, Beer Laos. The main reason people come here is to float by stunning scenery in an inflated inner-tube while getting royally drunk. Silly, but fun. I arrived in the afternoon and sat in one of the many “television bars” (which is not a bad idea except that they were all showing the same thing- Friends re-runs) listening to other travelers who had run the river describe their experience.
“Your getting drunk, floating along, and all of the sudden there’s this water buffalo next to you. It’s so surreal,” one girl quipped.
Surreal for you, I thought. Think how the water buffalo must feel!
Another traveler mentioned that once the sun went behind the hills, around 3:00 in the afternoon, the water felt really cold. I made a mental note to start early and not dawdle excessively. Somewhere in my travels, I had become an old fart.
I followed my plan the next day and was pleased. I only stopped at a couple of the float-up bars (you can also buy beers from enterprising children in the river), enjoyed the scenery and arrived back that afternoon safe and warm. Drugs (including alcohol) and an unfamiliar river are not a wise combination. Travelers have died in Vang Vieng, provoking the government to intervene. (Adding responsible government to the list of Laos’ virtues.) Being an old fart is not all bad.
Vang Vieng: River + tubes + Beer Laos = Instant tourist destination. Photo by Stan Dalone & Miran Rijavec.
Seldom is a capital city as pleasant, as unhurried, and relaxed as Vientiane. (One of my goals is to visit all the countries of Central America without going to any of their capital cities.) They’ve only recently gotten around to paving the roads. I wondered the city, saw the sights, and tracked down some Chinese dumplings. Somehow, I ended up going with a novice Buddhist monk out to his temple to give students and impromptu English lesson. He showed me his simple room, and in broken English gave me that precious pearl of Buddhist wisdom; Death alone is certain. The time of death is uncertain.
Paris in the Jungle? Photo by Charlotte Marillet.
Southern Laos has it’s own charms. Savanakhet has a good market, the coffee country is scenic, the ruins at Champasak a good preview for going to Cambodia and the Four Thousand Islands offer yet another opportunity to be overly relaxed (this time in a tropical island setting).
Though I would grow to love it too, my first day in Cambodia was harrowing. I ran into a Dutch couple that I’d met kayaking in the Four Thousand Islands. I asked how their day was going and they cried, “We want to go back to Laos.”
Laos is changing fast. The New York Times recently reported that some residents fear their country is becoming a vassal state to China. Best go now!