Laos Impressions

Thus far Lao has been an unexpected surprise for us, and we are enjoying discovering its treasures day by day. I will admit (begrudgingly) that prior to last month, if I was asked to name one city in Laos, I don’t know that I could have. Embarrassing, yes. But room to grow. And now the names of towns and cities are rolling off my tongue as we pretend to know exactly where we’re headed next. Udomxai, Luang Namtha, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane. So far each stop has proved more than worthwhile and had something new to offer.

Everywhere we go, we are greeted with a smile and a warm, “Sabaai-dee!” which we return in kind. The most refreshing part about this ritual is that it is rarely followed by any solicitation, with which we have become so accustomed to almost everywhere else. Those who do ask us to look or buy usually do so quietly and politely and often react with humor when we decline their offers, which makes for a pleasant experience all around.

Monks and bikes in Luang Prabang

Monks and bikes in Luang Prabang

Food has been outstanding, and of course, this is huge for me. With the exception of one dish made with an overpowering, nose tingling, gag reflex inducing local herb, everything has been delicious. In fact, we want to stay in each town a bit longer just for the food (among other things), just in case the next town doesn’t have the same dish, prepared the same way. Most dishes are spicy, but in a mouth-watering tasty way, as opposed to the it’s-so-spicy-i-can’t-feel-or-taste-anything way. And we choose to accompany most of our meals with awesome Lao fruit shakes which sometimes are a meal in themselves at a mere 60 cents. Still trying to figure out the secret that makes them so darn good. See ya, Jamba Juice.

When it comes to nature and the environment, Laos is the least altered environment in Southeast Asia. This is in large part due to the danger that exists as much of the land is dotted with unexploded ordnance (UXOs), which are a danger for all. As an unintended consequence, this means Lao has a greater concentration of wildlife than Thailand and surrounding countries that have been ravaged by mass tourism. Even in the cities, it’s hard to get over the number, size, and colors of the butterflies that dart about. While poaching, deforestation, and other hazards occur, conservation efforts are in effect and in force to protect the country’s natural resources, which makes eco-tourism even more important here.

At the Kuang Si waterfalls near Luang Prabang

At the Kuang Si waterfalls near Luang Prabang

I’ve also gotten favorable impressions of the larger towns, which so far really is just Luang Prabang, but wow…what a place. It is described by one writer as the most photogenic city in all of South East Asia. Sure, it’s geared toward tourists-the main areas are packed with tour operators, guesthouses, souvenir shops, bars and restaurants. But it’s also lovely and lively, with several markets and wats cared for by the many monks.  French colonial architecture, local vendors, and the Royal Palace turned museum, all sandwiched between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. A turn down a side alley takes you through peaceful, dusty pathways, where local people dry rice cakes, do daily chores, and school kids walk home in small noisy packs with dusty uniforms. We get a good feeling being here.

Getting through Laos in less than a month requires some long bus rides, but the scenery makes it worth it. We’ve been taking the local buses that drive through the mountains and villages, and I find myself gazing out the window more often than dozing off in my seat. I can’t help smiling every time someone gets off the bus at one of the interim village stops and is greeted by a welcoming committee of friends and family (and sometimes dogs and pigs), eagerly awaiting their bumpy arrival. The houses, many made of tightly woven rattan and some on stilts are simple but beautiful. We pass by women and girls in sarongs, showering and washing their hair outside their houses. Children (some clothed, others not) running around rolling bike tires with sticks–the first time I witnessed this, I thought to myself, “Wow. Kids actually do that.” In a country where the average annual income is $400, there is beauty everywhere. I don’t mean to glorify poverty in any way, as there is no question that theirs is a hard life and a hand-to-mouth existence for many (not to mention the very real risk of encountering unexploded landmines, which kill approximately 200 children every year as a result of the US-led “Secret War”). But what I also see are incredibly strong families who are very close and the value in that. Watching them gather at all times of day for a game of badminton, volleyball, or soccer never fails to warm my heart. It reminds me of a simpler time, even if I have never lived it, and that in my own life maybe, sometimes, less is more.

Posted: November 19th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Laos | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

November 7th-16th

• We left Vietnam from Hanoi on November 7th. After waiting 5 hours at the bus station (because of the incorrect advice from our guesthouse) we started our 13 hour ride to the border town Dien Bien Phu. This was to be followed by getting immediately onto a 5:30am bus for 7 hours to the Laos border and then to a transfer town called Muang Khua. At Muang Khua we would walk the 3 kilometers with backpacks to the bus station which, after a 3 hour journey through winding dirt roads, would lead us to our destination of Udomxai. The highlight of the journey was that apparently our dinner was included in the price of our first ticket. So when we stopped at a rest stop we were told to sit with four others, a Vietnamese family. The daughter smiled and scooped rice for me. She then followed that with pantomiming for me to try the dish in front of her by rubbing her stomach. I tried the intestines, she laughed in return. Meanwhile her father and uncle, both in full military uniform, had offered me a shot of rice wine…and then six more. The rest of the ride, well, I don’t remember so well.

• Udomxai was a jumping point to Luang Nam Tha, an NPA (National Protected Area) with supposedly great hiking. We thought we would have the chance to see Black Asiatic Bears, elephants, or ligers. We were disappointed to find out that it was unlikely to see any animals without doing expensive 4+ day hiking trips. We opted instead for our own free 14 kilometer walk through stilted thatched villages to a waterfall. We bolted down to Luang Prabang the next day.

• Luang Prabang is an UNESCO World Heritage City. With its old French architecture, flourishing temples and location between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers it’s easy to lose yourself in its beauty. Unfortunately, as it seems with UNESCO protected cities and the catering towards package tourism it spawns dilutes the city’s charm. In spite of that though, the city still speaks to us and we’ve been finding our way through it to the things we think of as its gems. The nearby Kuangxi waterfalls are beautiful, producing turquoise blue pools that seem almost unnatural. The Hmong night market houses a food alley where a vegetarian buffet goes for about sixty cents. And today, Mari and I volunteered at a local English teaching program called Big Brother Mouse. Mari worked with a 21 year old man who was trying to learn English so that he wouldn’t have to be part of the family business as a farmer. He reminded us how much Luang Prabang, and it’s bubble directed towards wealthy foreigners, is not reflective of the average living conditions in Laos by mentioning in conversation practice that he didn’t know if he liked eating at restaurants, since he had never been to one before. For my couple of hours of volunteering, I was matched up with a young man who took me to an internet café because he wanted me to help him communicate with a doctor he had met here before…through Facebook of all things. We spent the whole time setting up his account, posting a picture to his profile, and sending out his 1 friend request. In the end, he thanked me and asked if I would be his second friend. Something tells me he’s getting the hang of it.

Posted: November 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Laos | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »