Laos. Does it sound familiar? A small country sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam definitely isn’t the most famous country in the world. It wasn’t my biggest dream either, cuz how can you compare it to adventure of Pakistan or beauty of India? You can’t. But this country has something that it’s hard to find anywhere else: pure, green, rich nature. And although the people didn’t make the best impression on me, the endless greenery and slow, relaxed pace of life is something that I will remember the most.
Ok, so what’s wrong with these people then? Well, nothing. Every nation is different and has been conditioned or influenced by something that in the end creates some particular attitude or lifestyle. In this case, a lot I think has to do with tourism. And China. Laos is not the richest country, nor is it the strongest. If you look outside of the tourist streets you see the people mostly working on their farms or typically selling stuff on the street. Tourism recently became a new way of survival and I’m not sure Lao people are really happy about it. During our stay I sensed an invisible barrier between locals and foreigners if not a total ignorance or aversion towards tourists. I’m not talking about everyone, of course, but it was definitely more visible than in other countries. Maybe it’s a Chinese, anti-Western influence or maybe it’s a simple fear of us, taking their resources or destroying their culture? No idea. I just know that this tension can lead to many conflicts and, in our case, there was few as well. I love relaxed people and I think I quite got used to Asian culture (it’s been 8 months already, helloooo?) but I must admit, the attitude of some of the locals really pissed me off. Whenever you ask something (most of locals speak a little English), you get no answer or only “Don’t know” look, followed by staring at their phone. You think they’d care more if you wanted to buy something? Wrong. Why should they spend their time on convincing you to buy one of their tours if they can watch a tv show instead? Well, that’s how I would describe it. In the beginning it was weird for me and I felt a little offended but in the end I got used to it. Cuz what can you do?
Many Westerners work in Laos (mostly in the bars or guest houses), though so the atmosphere cannot be that bad. We didn’t have a chance to work in one but we spoke to many travelers (especially in Vang Vieng) and they were quite happy about their jobs. Well, I would be happy as well if I didn’t have to do much besides bringing dishes from the kitchen and occasionally smoking a joint with the customers. Laos, although communist (red flags on the streets remind you about it every day), is pretty liberal. Alcohol is available everywhere and if you only ask the right people (or look at the back of the menu), you can get any drugs you want. And, as we learnt, the governmental police knows what’s going on but, although it’s illegal, they take money under the table and keep their mouth shut. Corruption, like everywhere else, at least the people are happy. Hicthhiking on the north was hard, almost impossible, most of the time people waved to you from their shiny pick up trucks as if they saw some kind of attraction. Couchsurfing? Not enough popular, I guess.
I came here hoping to find some meditation centres but Laos brought me down to earth. In the internet you could barely find any information about it and the only centre I found in Luang Prabang was closed. Isn’t it supposed to be a Buddhist country? Maybe a few years back. Alms round in Luang Prabang and couple of Buddhist temples (chargeable, of course) are the only remains of the Buddhist spirit of this country. I’d say you can surely feel more of a French atmosphere than Buddhist. Laos, as the French colony for many years, inherited a lot after its Western conquerors. Fortunately, mostly good things. Perhaps the best part is the cheese, baguettes and the French wine, of course. It’s difficult to find a normal bread in Asia so Lao baguettes were like finding water in the middle of the desert. The French style remained in the architecture as well. Although it looks, I’d say, a bit “artificial”, it surely brings a bit of refinement to the traditional Lao building style. After the end of colonisation the French didn’t leave the country alone. I’m talking about the crowds of French tourists who feel here like at home. And I understand why as a lot of the locals speak French and lots of the signs are written both in Lao and French language.
Lao tradition doesn’t vary much from the other southeastern countries. It’s definitely less touristy than Thailand (fortunately!) and reminds me a bit of Myanmar. Although most of the people wear Western clothes, you can still see women wearing traditional skirts that are only a bit shorter than Burmese ones. Lao hairstyles are probably even more ridiculous than in the “Golden Land”. The men groom themselves by dying hair in different colors, without sparing even the children. Like everywhere in Asia, Lao people like to celebrate. We had a taste of it during Songkran Water Festival when people occupied the streets armed with water guns and buckets. They danced, sung, ate and celebrated with their families which is great, although the size of the speakers could be a bit smaller. If someone in the village celebrates, you will definitely hear it, even if you are on the other side of the hill. If there is a wedding, usually most of the village is invited so you better stock up with lots of food as lots of places can be closed. Although less touristy, don’t expect Laos to be less expensive than Thailand. Especially the travel services, which include 50% of tax for the government. Laos has lots of interesting tours to offer but we simply couldn’t afford it. Fortunately, bicycles and motorbikes are available everywhere so you can easily explore the country on your own 🙂
Another expensive thing- the food. It’s not too bad, let’s not exaggerate, but it could be cheaper. Why so expensive? The answer comes naturally after you learn a little about the history of the country, especially the Vietnamese war. We were quite surprised discovering that Laos has received over 2 mln tons of bombs dropped by USA in only 10 years, The bad news is that most of these bombs (mostly cluster bombs) didn’t explode and they still remain hidden somewhere in the ground. Many people died many years after the war, usually during daily activities or working on the farm. Removing these little killers takes time and maintenance, that’s why farming is a hell of a challenge for the local people which affects the prices as well. Maybe if Laos wasn’t a battlefield of American-Vietnamese conflict, it would look different today? People wouldn’t have to constantly focus on preserving their life but they could grow as a nation, create new places of work and healthy economy?
The food may be expensive but it’s absolutely delicious. Lao street markets have so much choice that you don’t know what to choose. The quality is not bad either, after 3 weeks of eating on the food markets our stomachs didn’t seem to oppose at all. Although Lao laziness can be annoying sometimes, most of the places have a really great vibe, lots of cool bars to go out and many activities to choose from. Relaxed Lao ambience lures lots of relaxed, cool travelers and backpackers which is probably one of the best things about this country. You can go to a bar, lay down on your floormat and, before you know it, you come back home with a bunch of new friends. Most of them come to Laos because of its vibe and the nature, of course. Comparing to other Asian countries, Laos is like an oasis of greenery with a couple of karst mountains, appearing from time to time. Rivers and waterfalls even in dry season are impressive but I think the greatest attraction of this country are the caves. There are thousands of them and each one is unique. If you haven’t tried caving or rock climbing before, Laos is the best place to start. All this things make it a place where you can truly relax, take a deep breath and forget about the whole universe. We spent there 3 weeks and I know that if there is any place where I could slow down and escape from the reality, it would be Laos.