Impressions of Laos
Impressions of Laos
A little piece of my heart stays in every country we visit; this was particularly true in Laos. Japan mesmerized with its reverence for tradition, China’s scale confounded us, Vietnam’s hospitality was a welcome reprieve and the hearts and smiles of Cambodia inspired us. Laos doesn’t fit neatly into any particular category. What it lacks in major attractions such as Angkor Wat and the Great Wall, it fills with something far less tangible but no less real.
We came to Laos after a month in Cambodia, our hearts bursting with the warmth of the Khmer people, a nation that had endured tragedy and the massacre of its people but they were inspiringly not resentful of the hardships that they had endured less than forty years ago. It’s popular among travellers to try and characterize the people of country, often oversimplifying the sentiment of the nation. Just as not all Canadians are polite and friendly, it can be risky to classify and subsequently expect the people from a country to behave a certain way. This is why we were a little taken aback by how we were first received in Laos.
Granted we were prepared that Si Phan Don (more popularly known as the 4000 Islands) would not be a taste of authentic Lao life, other travellers were virtually unanimous in extolling the virtues of the warm and trustworthy Lao people. There was nothing particularly striking in our first encounters, Laos shared many of the same characteristics of the other SE Asian countries we had visited. Although we had read that the island of Don Dhet had a reputation as a party island, we found it incredibly sleepy, most likely due to our arrival in the wet season. The guesthouse owners were seemingly apathetic about vacancy and most certainly unwilling to negotiate on rates.
The biggest surprise came the day we decided to rent bikes and tour around the island of Don Kong. As we navigated our way along the paths heavily rutted by the recent rainfall there was something missing. Biking around Cambodia had been one of our favourite ways to see the countryside as it was impossible to keep the smile off your face hearing and seeing the children coming out of their houses to yell “Sous-dey (hello)!” and waving happily. This wasn’t the case on this island on the Mekong. Even worse, the children were openly hostile to us, blankly staring or turning away from us when we said hello, throwing bits of trash into our bicycle baskets and at one point a young girl of maybe five even tried to throw a stick into Ross’ front wheel! What was going on here?!
We were totally taken aback by how unfriendly the local villagers were and were certainly hopeful that they weren’t representative of the rest of Laos. Thankfully during our five days on the island we got to know the family that ran our guesthouse well and were relieved with the hospitality and warmth shown to us. I will always fondly remember waking up one morning to see the father and grandfather toiling away trying to figure out how to operate the new espresso machine they had purchased in order broaden their coffee offerings for guests. As coffee is something I’m openly pretty enthusiastic about, I offered up my skills as a long-retired Starbucks barista and they were thrilled. The mother, father, grandparents and other relatives listened eagerly as I explained and wrote down how to make cappuccinos, americanos and mochas. Their little 11 month old boy BK, was an absolute character making everyone laugh as he made the restaurant his playground. The sizeable family worked each day maintaining the bungalows, cooking fresh meals and cleaning. Despite the experience we had with some of the other locals, it was very sad to leave this special place.
Thankfully undeterred by the bizarre experience we had had, we continued north into the Bolaven Plateau, but the unanswered questions remained, so we decided to dig a little deeper. We learned that Laos has had an uneasy transition into a tourist economy. Unlike Thailand which offers world-class options for foreigners, followed closely by an ambitious Vietnam, and an aspirational Cambodia, traditional values of commerce don’t seem to resonate with the Lao. Whereas in Vietnam, vendors will often quote you a price somewhere in the realm of 300% of the value and then chase you down as you walk away, business owners in Laos seemed totally indifferent to the prospect of losing business if you were unwilling to pay the stated price. As one might suspect, it appears that history plays a part in this sentiment. Like Vietnam and Cambodia, Laos has seen its borders and authority change frequently with shifting colonial powers which can understandably breed some resentment towards foreigners. While Vietnam rightfully receives a lot of attention for the war with America, an often unknown fact is that Laos “silently” bore the brunt of the conflict as the US sought to stymie the increasing influence of the communists in North Vietnam. From 1964 to 1973 an average of one B-52 bomb load was dropped on Northern Laos every eight minutes, 24 hours a day. That’s 2 million tons of munitions over 9 years. To this day Laos remains the most heavily bombed country in the world. At least 30% of the cluster munitions that were dropped remained undetonated after 1973 and an average of 300 people still die every year from encounters with unexploded ordinance (UXO).
Laos has subsequently received a fair amount of international aid following the Vietnam War (interestingly Canada does not contribute funds, presumably this is why Laos tourist visas for Canadians are the most expensive of any nationality). Nevertheless, there are signs of the Laos government striving for economic independence, and as one might expect, without energy reserves, like other SE Asian countries, Laos has played with the prospect of income from tourism. But without the beaches of Vietnam, Cambodia’s Temples of Angkor, landlocked Laos has struggled to discover its calling card. This has led to some ill-fated attempts trying to satisify the hedonistic pursuits of wealthy Westerners. The traditionally conservative, subsistence oriented and strongly Buddhist local communities have had an uneasy transition into the tourist industry. In 2011, 22 young foreigners died in the rivers of Vang Vieng from a fatal mix of cheap booze, drugs and water sports. This led to a huge crackdown on illegal activity (that had previously been quietly dismissed) and more attention to the painfully obvious and incongruously lewd behaviour of young party loving tourists with the restrained and gentle Lao. This leads me back to our experience in Don Dhet. Like Vang Vieng, Doh Dhet had been gaining a reputation as a bit of a party place and the locals weren’t having any of it.
The rest of our travels throughout Laos were incredibly special. From participating in a traditional welcoming ceremony, where the children of the small community of Tad Lo tied bracelets and gave blessings to us, helping teach English to a wonderfully eager mixed group of Lao children, the breathtakingly diverse scenery of karst formations and the lush mist covered mountain pass to Luang Prabang, swimming in breathtaking waterfalls and watching locals offer alms to the saffron cloaked monks at dawn, Laos secured its unforgettable place in our hearts.
Although we were driven crazy at times by things like seeing the ingredients for our dinner walk in the door an hour after ordering, having our bus leave two hours late, vendors seeming totally unaffected with us walking away from a sale, or our bus driver’s perversely inspired insistence on blaring awful Laos pop music at 3:15am, Laos will always be something special to me. I dig that the people don’t deviate from the values of their communities and I sincerely hope they embrace that their country should be comfortable for its citizens first and hope they do not aspire to be another Thailand. It was facetiously explained to us in Tad Lo that the acronym PDR in Laos PDR does not stand for the People’s Democratic Republic, but rather “Please Don’t Rush”. In the words of Billy Joel, Laos, “I love you just the way you are“.
Alyse & Ross
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