Laos - Where not much happens
from : Sabaidee guesthouse. Houaxyai, Laos.
Many Laotions have difficulty understanding just what brings tourists to Laos and I agree that there is little here suited to a glossy brochure or slick travel magazine. Vietnam has the energy of Saigon, Cambodia the mystery of Angkor. China has millenia of history and Thailand seems to have it all. Laos is the humble backwater quietly content to let things happen as they will. Or not, for on the whole, Laos is a country where not much happens.
Laos wasn't on the original itinerary. It seemed too far away from the path we were taking through Asia, we knew nothing about it and in truth, thought it not worth the effort. After all, can YOU name one famous thing to see in Laos? Then with Julie's trip to Ireland fast approaching I began to mull over all the things said by travelers we had met. Every one of them raved "Lao was the best place I have been, you have to go!" "It is so relaxed and the people are so friendly, it was one of the nicest places I have been," and many other words to that effect. It was this, mainly, that made me decide to bide my time while waiting for Julie in "The land of a million elephants."
The good news is that they were right, Laos is very "Laid back" and "relaxed." The bad news is that it can't last long. With guidebooks and travelers (myself among them) raving about the atmosphere of this country, the days of mass tourism and a developed system of getting every last Kip out of them cannot be far away. The Lonely Planet guidebook for Laos has, on it's cover, the byline "Roads less traveled." This is tastelessly ironic as this guidebook almost flies of shelves in this part of the world and anything mentioned in it inevitably gets so much tourist trade that the locals who aren't profiting from it, quickly go leave the scene. On the main streets of cities of Vientiane and Luang Phrabang, travelers with the LP faithfully in hand outnumber the Laotions. Establishments such as "The Scandanavian bakery" and "Le Cote D'Azur" are packed with them exclusively.
As I said though, there is good news. Despite the tide of backpackers crossing the border each day this time of year, little seems to have changed and it is easy to avoid the crowds and touch the country's true treasure. It is difficult to describe though, just what it is that is so charming about Laos. One would be right to say that it's the people, or the land or the culture. But what does that mean? On a long car ride through some rather remote corner of the North, I think I came to understand it. What makes Laos wonderful is not in what you see, but in the effect it has on you.
It comes, I think, from the fact that there are no great sites of must-see caliber. Yes, there are temples and statues and vistas that are nationally well known but Laos' turbulent history has left it with a dearth of Great Walls and Eiffel Towers. Released from this need to see anything in particular, a traveler can slow down, accept the inevitable waiting for transportation and learn to live at the Lao speed, if not actually meet some of them while sitting in a boat for an hour together, all equally in the dark as to when, or if it departs. Rushing from site to site in a great European city, checking off monuments and museums, hardly gives you the time to wonder about the locals, let alone do anything in common with them.
Once you have adopted this unhurried unworried attitude (and you will), you begin to notice the richness about you that guidebooks cannot capture and previous travelers have such difficulty describing. Driving through the jungle today was just such a time. Up and down steep hills and through streams I watched a whole day pass by my window. Low clouds still hovering in the morning, the tiny villages of tiny grass huts on stilts, pieces of corrugated iron wrapped around to prevent critters climbing in, have been left to swarms of children playing their games with sticks and old tires and spinning tops. The adults are long gone to the fields or jungle to forage and hunt. As the sun rises and the heat grows these villages are deserted. Not a soul out amongst the boarded up homes and dusty paths. The ladders all pulled away. Then again later, as the setting sun turns the hills to misty tiers of silhouettes, the roads and towns come back to life with renewed vigor. Women trudge home carrying their machetes and the grass, wood and banana leaves they have collected, boys carry strings of fresh caught fish and empty handed hunters have only their long wooden rifles. In town grannies sit on the wooden eaves sowing, calling out to passers by and watching the women washing at the pump. It is swarming with little naked children again, clamoring, laughing, acting out.
The entire day was a beautiful scene full of smiling people who know one another, a place that has not changed in generations. Only now a road runs through town and allows a grateful foreigner a glimpse of a country where not much happens, and perhaps never did. Just one day, much like the last, stretching back a hundred years. If you decide to come to Laos, just remember to slow down or you might not notice.
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