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.

Luang Prabang

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.

Jean-Marie Hullot's of a Wat in Laos.

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.

Prince Roy's  photo of the Plain of Jars, Laos.

Watch your step as you ponder the meaning of the jars. Photo by Prince Roy.

Vang Vieng

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.

Stan Dalone & Miran Rijavec's photo of Vang Vieng

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.

Charlotte Marillet's photo of the Arc de Triomphe in Vientiane.

Paris in the Jungle? Photo by Charlotte Marillet.

The South

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!

How do you decide where to go? With so much to see, wouldn’t it be nice if someone identified the places that really matter, the gems of art and architecture, the truly unique places that define the best of what nature and humans have created on the planet? The list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites does just that.

The 981 items on the list are divided into cultural sites (759) – things like the temples at Angkor, the Taj Mahal and Great Zimbabwe, natural sites (193) such as Ha Long Bay and the Monarch Butterfly Reserve and 29 mixed sites (like Machu Pichu).

Henrik Bennetsen's photo of one the best of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The Taj Mahal was rated as the best World Heritage Site in a Tripadvisor survey of travelers. Photo by Henrik Bennetsen.

Auspicious Beginnings – Saving Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel was possibly the most impressive thing I saw in Egypt.  Like other monuments, it was BIG. And like so many in Egypt, it bore the image of Ramesses II, perhaps history’s greatest egomaniac.  Unlike other ruins I had seen, this one had been picked up and moved.  Not just a small piece carried off to some far away museum.  The whole mountain had been relocated.  Standing below Ramesses’ big toe, I was awed.  Which was more amazing, that people could build something this big, or that they could move it?

It was not faith that moved this mountain.  It was a combination of money- about $80 million, and political will (though maybe that’s what faith is?). In 1954, the government of Egypt decided to build the Aswan High Dam.  Doing so would create Lake Nasser, a huge reservoir in place always in need of more water.  But it would also submerge the temples of Abu Simbel.  UNESCO launched a massive campaign to save the temples, and in 1968, through successful fundraising and the marvels of modern engineering  these fantastic temples, carved into the sides of mountain, were moved to higher ground.

tengri555's photo of Abu Simbel.

Abu Simbel after the Big Move. Photo by tengri555.

Other safeguarding campaigns followed on the heels of that success, eventually evolving into a convention to protect humanity’s cultural heritage.  Protecting our collective heritage is a lofty and worthy goal.  It also makes for a nice list of top notch travel destinations.

How the List of UNESCO World Heritage Sites Works

and How It Doesn’t

Getting on The List: Countries prepare Tentative Lists of properties of they consider to be of outstanding cultural or natural importance.  Only properties which are included on the Tentative List can be nominated.  Once nominated, the World Heritage Committee decides whether or not to add the site to the list.

The country with the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites is Italy.  What with the Roman Empire and being the birthplace of the Renaissance, it’s easy to understand.  But a quick glance shows a list which seems to little lopsided- a disproportionate number of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites are in Europe.  Now UNESCO is trying to  broaden its definition and achieve more global balance.

The Down Side: There is a downside to identifying the best examples of our human heritage. Being on the list brings more tourists. That’s the dilemma with trying to protect something.  It takes money, which take publicity, which makes people want to go there, which changes the very thing you were trying to protect. Shit. Hoi An, Viet Nam and Ping Yao, Chinawere both absolutely dripping with charm, but they annoyed me a bit.  Hoi An had an elaborate ticket system that allowed you to see some of the sites, but not others, unless you were willing to pay for all of them twice.  How does that help protect their cultural heritage? If they really wanted to protect their beautiful downtown, why didn’t they limit the number of motorbikes? I enjoyed Luang Prabang, but the obvious gentrification made things seem less authentic.

So do we know if it’s working, if places on the list and better protected than they might be otherwise? Yes and no.  While UNESCO does have a process for monitoring, perhaps the most useful information comes from National Geographic, who periodically rank how well the sites are being conserved.  (I’m pleased to say that my home city of Guanajuato ranked as one of the best in the 2006 National Geographic ranking.)  Bottom line is that success varies, some sites are being preserved quite well, others not so much.

Gustavo Madico's photo of Ping Yao, one of China's many UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Ancient walled-city of Ping Yao. One of China’s 45 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Photo by Gustavo Madico.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Danger

The list also identifies sites that are in danger.  If touring the masterpieces of our collective cultural heritage made you feel proud to be a human being, this sub-list is sure to bring you right down.  War and/or environmental degradation threaten these marvelous places.  It’s humbling and sad to acknowledge that humans can create and appreciate such beauty, but may not be able to preserve it.  It’s pretty hard right now to feel optimistic about the Syrian city of Aleppo, or the Florida Everglades.

Robert Neff's photo of the Everglades.

Everglades National Park. Photo by Robert Neff.

So there you have it – another thousand places you need to visit!