The following opinion of Laos is mostly mine as John doesn’t feel quite as strongly as I do. I’m sure he’ll make his own comments on this post.
Laos is largely rural, very beautiful and the way of life is idyllic. There are cows, chickens, goats, pigs and water buffalo running around freely. It sounds absolutely amazing doesn’t it? Well it is. but……..
It drives me mad!!!
Everyone is asleep all the time, quite cute at first but when the restaurant waitress actually has a bed in the dining room and you have to wake her to pay the bill you realise Laos is in an alien universe compared to surrounding Asian countries. In the South hardly anything is ever open and if it is then it will be closed for about two and a half hours at lunch time. Our 7 hour bus to Vientiane set off an hour and a half later than advertised and then stopped after half an hour for an hour long break! The first boat we got to the Thai border took 12 hours instead of 9 and we ended up hiking up a sand dune in the pitch black with our heavy back packs on. None of the locals bat an eyelid at this.
The South of Laos is different from to North. We found the people in Southern Laos much more interested in talking to us and much more likely to say hello and smile in the street. So, although Savannakhet was that sleepy you had to check its pulse it was more charming than frustrating. Although the people seemed to have little ambition in life, other than doing as little work as possible, they seemed happy. We’re sure this is how Southern Laos has managed to keep it’s innocence from the money making obsessions of much of the rest of the world. So I suppose if the people were not so irritatingly slack and unambitious the country would be in the same kind of rat race trap as everywhere else.
With the exception of our wonderful trek to a traditional village (more about that later) I found Laos like watching a film of a place rather than being there. The people are friendly enough but difficult to integrate with. We didn’t meet any real interesting characters who enjoyed talking to us and wanted to hear about our lives back home. It’s difficult to describe but we’ve been to Laos but only seen it and not really felt it. I found the experience a little bland to be honest.
The capital, Vientiane, had a nice balance of being relaxed but not in a coma. We only spent a short time there but it had a really nice vibe to it. It had some stunning old temples too. I wish we’d stayed longer. It was nice to drink a beer by the river at night where we both witness the most spectacular thunderstorm yet.
When we headed North, passing through beautiful mountain scenery, we found a very different Laos. A Laos overrun by western tourists and although still very pretty I found it soulless. There were just too many tourists and too few Lao. Not to say the place was packed with people but nine out of ten people you passed in the street were westerners. It was pleasant and very relaxing, I cannot complain about that. There was just nothing to get excited about really, again, there was virtually no integration between visitors and locals. I’m pretty sure that Northern Laos has gone from being a hidden gem to a tourist hangout in a matter of a couple of years. Time will tell whether the South goes the same way. That would be a shame.
Now that you’ve had a feel for the place it’s time for the usual good and bad list, I’ll not repeat any of the stuff from above.
Our hands-down highlight was a two day trek to a remote village of Ban Phonsim in the South of Laos. It was a truly amazing experience. The village is seldomly visited by westerners so we had a very special welcome and a great time interacting with the locals. I ended up weaving cotton in a rather hopeless manner and John went out in the evening to play football with the locals. All was hilarious and the villagers were absolutely charming.
In the evening all the village elders gathered for our welcoming ceremony. All came to us individually to pass on their best wishes which were sealed in knotted cotton bracelets and tied around our wrists. This all happened while we held up a roast chicken on a china plate, it got a bit heavy after a while! After a toast with the local fire water our host asked us to translate the contents of his unicef medical package. He didn’t know what half the stuff in there was! Perhaps a weakness in the aid plan!?
The following morning, kitted out in traditional Laos dress, we went to give alms to the village monks. An experience that John found amazing and I found terrifying. We’ll certainly not forget it in a hurry.
ANNOY(nearly bit not quite his real name) – The most rude and atrocious tour guide we’ve had yet.
He was our young guide and translator from Savannakhet on our visit to Ban Phonsim. Fortunately we didn’t allow him to spoil such an incredible experience but he was lazy, disrespectful and self obsessed. He constantly talked down to me and never addressed me directly, only John. He couldn’t be bothered to tell us about anything we were seeing and rarely translated. We ended up using what little French we knew with the older villagers, which was actually fun and better in the end. Annoy was constantly complaining about how far he had to walk on the treks and stopping to sleep for an hour, leaving us stranded. We have a list as long as John’s arm (yes, much longer than mine) about this guy. It would get far too boring to write them all down. I’m sure John might want to mention another couple in his comment.
YOUNG CHILDREN(apart from the ones in Ban Phonism)
Yes, it was back to screaming and tantrums. There are some unbelievably spoilt children in Laos! What a difference a border makes, someone at a university should go and find out why. Come on Universities! Get on with it!