Bordered by Burma, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, Laos is a smallish country that has truly been insulated from the bulk of the Southeast Asian tourist invasion that has been going on in parts of the region since the late 1960s. Part of French Indochina before gaining independence in the early 1950s, Laos started out fresh on a road that turned rocky quickly, propelling the country into a civil war that lasted the bulk of 25 years. When the dust settled and the smoke cleared in 1975, the Communists were in power and not a whole lot has changed since. One thing that has changed, however, is the number of visitors who are coming to this relatively untouched land in search of an 'original experience' that is not easily found in other parts of Asia. The country opened the doors significantly in the early 1990s, which, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, has resulted in a rise in the number of visitors from just over 80,000 in 1990 to nearly 1.9 million in 2010. That number is expected to climb, and with good reason: Laos has a number of things to offer every traveller, backpacker and short-term tourist alike. Beyond the ancient temples that pepper the cityscape of Vientiane and Khmer ruins throughout the land, the country is home to traditional and colonial architecture so unaffected by modernity in Luang Prabang as to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Opportunities abound for trekking to witness the lives and ways of various Hill Tribes, as do changes to experience the country's natural beauty and wildlife, which includes tigers and Irrawaddy dolphins. Laos is known for its handicrafts and there are plenty of chances to get your hands on some, for a very decent price, while supporting local artisans and giving something in exchange for getting so much more. Travellers should be careful of straying too far from the beaten path here, however, due mainly to the number of unexploded ordinance that peppers the countryside. ~ WBB Staff Writer
Fancy a lazy river? Try the party river. Laos’ party mecca Vang Vieng is the hub for travellers in Southeast Asia looking to unwind and have a good time. There is no shortage of good food, cheap accommodations and raging bars, but most travellers come for one reason: the tubing. Set amidst the rugged mountains of northern Laos in the breathtaking forests of Vientiane Province, you embark onto the Nam Song River by inner tube to leisurely float downstream at your own pace. Sounds relaxing, right? Well, now add about a dozen riverside bars and you’ve got a whole new experience like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Each bar is brimming with lively music, bikinis and drinks, oh, the drinks. Keeping in tradition with the low-cost nature of Southeast Asia, it’s no surprise that drinks flow cheaply here and are, sometimes, even free.
The journey across the border from China to Laos by foot is like going down stream on a rubber tire: there is time to look around and breathe in the pleasure but resistance to the pace is impossible. We took a night bus from Kunming to Megla and then headed onwards by invisiblecurrents and luck to Mohan and onto Boten. Struggling with maps and broken Chinese we journeyed by truck, bus and motorbike, haggling drivers with huge smiles as they dreamed of our dollar.
Traversing the border itself is eventful only by handing over your passport to sleepy looking men in small huts on the side of a dirt track road, filling out departure forms and getting your stamp. You’ll know when you have arrived in Laos when the ladies in brightly coloured clothes, smiles and huge wads of Laos kip approach you, offering to exchange your money. A word of caution: do not change large amounts here; they will rip you off, all the while smiling while you stand there, dazed and confused!
I was landing into Laos when I looked outside and saw endless lush green forests; the land below me looked almost untouched, with rolling hills, blue skies and the Mekong River weaving throughout like a snake, with small communities on its side. The river was a pinkish brown, which I later found changed depending on the time of day. We landed in Luang Prabang, where a small airport heralded our arrival. After walking with our carry-on, we were greeted and shuffled into the airport to get our visas for the time that we would be staying there. Men garbed in olive uniforms sat behind a white desk, while a large bulletin with countries and numbers lay between them. I noticed that Canada had the largest price beside it, which I thought curious.
There was little problem getting our visas and, after paying forty dollar fee, we drifted through the doors and into Luang Prabang. A man met us with a sign proclaiming “Lotus Villa Hotel”, which sounded fine, so we put our luggage into a minivan and set out on our way. I remember immediately feeling the differences between Laos and Thailand, where I had previously been. The houses looked shabbier, the roads were more broken and everywhere were signs displaying uniformed people with hammers and sickles. After a bumpy ride we arrived at our hotel and were given our keys. I walked up narrow stairs to a lovely teak room. The shower was a device on the wall and didn’t have any glass panes separating it from the rest of the room, but the modern toilet was a welcome sight, as always. As I normally do, I checked the drawers of the side tables to see what I would find. In many western countries there is usually a copy of a Bible; in Bangkok I found a book on Buddhism. In Laos, however, I found a book of instructions for preserving Lao culture. It had a list of various things tourists should be aware of and respect; we were to dress appropriately, cover shoulders and thighs and, if we wanted to give alms to the monks, we were not to buy sticky rice from vendors, as it tended to be rotten.
After more than six months of teaching and writing, based almost entirely in the Lao capital, I opted to have a cheap weekend due to the fact that my vacation is unpaid and my propensity to hemorrhage cash here is disproportionate to oft-rising prices. Given that I have a multiple entry visa I figured this would be a healthy change of scene. With the exception of the tiny 'overtime fee' (i.e. a fine) my costs for the jaunt would be, theoretically, negligible. The loose plan was to loaf around for the day, stay at a $10 guesthouse and return recharged. You know what they say, however, about the best laid plans!
Eschewing the $2 bus out of town, I rented a half-decent mountain bike and crammed my Diesel bag to the very brim. As I had foolishly included my netbook, I wasn't able to put my bag in the front basket for fear of losing everything to a pothole, I was sweating like an animal with the sack of dead weight slung across my back.
Despite bearing such a load, the one crucial object not included was a map and within less than five minutes I stopped to ask a policeman directions. Rather make that policemen: Lao policemen tend to congregate by the half-dozen, tooled up with sidearms and semi-automatic rifles in a sentry box either sleeping, watching movies or, occasionally, actually doing something. Directions in hand, I walked toward my bike only to walk face-on into a lamp-post. Although my cheeks felt swollen like a melon there was no damage and it was only by laughing that I avoided turning back home instantly. Perhaps I should have; already feeling like Nielsen in the catastrophic scene of the “Naked Gun” film, I was unaware it was only just beginning.
After digging into a place for seven months, you start to insinuate yourself under its skin (and vice versa!). The alien feels familiar even if the impenetrable language doesn’t, and things begin to change. For me, the same is true. Some people who glared at me like I had nine noses became hyper-friendly, and a seedy guest house room - erroneously described in my guide as “clean” with “helpful staff” - is upgraded to a shared house. I am the only European within a square mile and, while neither fitting in nor being accepted is about to happen, I seem to be vaguely tolerated. I could only summarize living in Sisavath South, Soi 21, as like being famous minus the fringe benefits plus wild dogs raising hell all night, food sometimes unfit for human consumption and residents so insular many simply never leave the village. Racism can seem overt and surprising for a theoretically tolerant culture.
Squandering the noughties with no focus or motivation and managing only to write an unpublished novel, I was jet-propelled to Laos, land of a million elephants and the silent “s”. My plan was to sidestep the global financial debacle and an enervating stretch of unemployment, and seek work where there is always demand no matter what: teaching English in Asia. After such a long break enjoying the comforts of home, I decided my next adventure had to land me somewhere softer than the venality of central Bangkok or the unmitigated chaos of Hong Kong. Despite my best intentions, my choice turned out to become anything but an easy path to tread.
After 250 emailed applications and only three responses – all positive but declined for various reasons – I was offered a job at “The School” in Vientiane, subject to an interview in person. Though it was harder to round up family funding for the journey than it would have been had I had a firm offer in hand, I was inoculated, packed and in Lao PDR via Bangkok less than two weeks later. A four-week flurry of messages led me to believe it was imperative I arrived before Christmas; I duly did so only to be told at the interview that the start date was mid-January. Groan!