Published: May 26th 2012May 24th 2012
On a bus to Laos. Or rather, in a bus to Laos. On the bus is a selection of wicker furniture that would make a participant of the 1990s' craze of sticking a conservatory onto the back of your home weak with excitement. The contents of the bus are a number of Vietnamese and Lao people, and us. Being serenaded by sickly Thai pop music. Two hours into the journey, the lucky passengers are joined by dozens of piñatas and equally bizarre decorations. The man responsible for loading the bus comes down to our seats at the back especially to take his shirt off Diet-Coke-ad style in front of us.
Initially glad of the language barrier, as it nullifies awkward conversation with said man, it becomes a little less desired twenty five hours later, when we are standing on the side of the road, surmising the reason for a two hour halt in proceedings. A friendly Lao man who is on day four of a trek home from China informs us that the bus has in fact broken down. Again.
Twenty seven hours and thirty minutes after leaving Hanoi, Vietnam, we arrive in Vientiane, Laos. We decide it has
been a perfectly adequate journey. That's what happens when you've been around these parts for too long. Nothing surprises, and very little disappoints. If the people of Vietnam are laid back, those in Lao are permanently horizontal. Most tasks are completed at a glacial pace. After the initial disbelieving frustration, it comes to be expected, and it's quite pleasant to be surrounded by calm. Over in the west, we have become obsessed with tiny unimportant details. We sit on our seat of self-awarded superiority and complain about bad service and other irrelevancies. We're striving for our idea of a perfect society, but who's to say that here in the Land of a Million Elephants they haven't got it sussed?
After a very brief sojourn in Vientiane, we're on another bus to Vang Vieng, home of the infamous tubing sensation. Fifteen years ago, a clever farmer handed a few tractor tires to a bunch of tourists, and sent them floating down a river. Soon afterwards, someone opened a bar. It caught on. Now a three kilometre stretch of the water is lined with offerings of whisky buckets and mushroom shakes, accessorised with shaven-headed bohemian wannabes covered in body paint. A
sensory paradox delivers a smack in the face. Huge stunning karsts, evidently standing tall for thousands of years, rising high above a neon, artificial ruckus. It's unnerving to see a sixty-year-old Lao man raving to American dance music before zip lining into the water, all to impress and attract drunks to his bar.
Tubing concludes. Partying continues. More whisky buckets. Must adapt to backpacking mindframe. Boring questions, standard answers that aren't listened to. 'Where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you going next? How long are you staying?' Uninteresting alternatives are offered. As someone starting out on this trail, it seems false. But obviously one adjusts. A desire to improve lying skills arises. If that was achieved, all manner of colourful answers could be given: 'I'm from Cuba. I'm on the run. Robbed three banks.' It seems that this kind of deception would be possible, as few are genuinely concerned.
To be a respected part of the travelling conversation, there is an element of competition. It's in a similar vein to the "I liked them before they were famous and I have the album they released before they released their first album and so I'm
not a fan of their new stuff that you like, you philistine" attitude. First comes the check. "Have you been to [insert tourist attraction recommended by the Lonely Planet]?" Then comes the more serious stuff. "Oh, well we went to [insert somewhere not-so-famous but even more beautiful and amazing]. You'll HAVE to do it."
Cruising through Laos, one bumps by things that are simply a part of daily life for the people, but seem strange to our rule-obsessed Western eyes. A boy of ten zooming up a hill on a motorbike. From a nearby doorway, a boy of the same age sits completely focused on chewing a chicken's foot.
Bouncing through the mountains, there's a feeling of being on the stage of a puppet show. The bright white clouds perch in front of the rocks as if they are being held precisely in place with strings by an artistic puppeteer. Houses sit atop cliffs as if they were put there for aesthetical, not practical, reasons. The front of a hut looks out onto the road, but at the back straight down a cliff. Many of the homes sit on wooden sticks. At one point in this lovely country's turbulent history, during a kerfuffle with Vietnam about where the border lay, Lao people were defined as those living in raised houses. Vietnamese were those with homes on the ground. The ratio seems to be pretty equal nowadays, but makeshift ladders used to reach doors are still common. Families rest in the shade under their homes seeking solace from the beating sun in the middle of the day.
As a native of The Emerald Isle, it would be assumed that all shades of green are familiar to these eyes. Yet in Laos, it feels as though there are a hundred colours never seen before. The landscape is dense, lush, deep. It's hard to tell if the ground is covered in grass, trees or bush as the warm vista stretches out forever. After the magnificent karsts of Vang Vieng, you don't expect the view to persist with such glory as you continue driving. But it's relentless. Pulling in to Luang Prabang, it's still gorgeous.
Luang Prabang is officially a city, but it definitely doesn't feel like any other city in the world. No traffic. No noise. It's a wonderland of nothingness. It was once the capital of French Indochina, and at times you feel as though you could be in a quiet countryside town in France. Dark restaurants offering Lao dishes such as laap, a spicy salad of minced meat, coriander, mint, garlic and beansprouts. A monastery or two on every street and alley. Teenage monks clad in bright orange robes collecting food from the people of the town at dawn. In typical Lao fashion, days aren't organised by watches, but by the rising and setting of the sun. Dusk heralds the traders of the quaint night market to the streets. With patient precision, some line rugs with bundles of perfectly folded silk scarves, while others individually place tiny silver earrings on mats.
Tuk-tuk drivers appear from nowhere: "Tuk-tuk cheap cheap?" We hop in one to visit a nearby waterfall. After soaking in the pearly turquoise water, it's time to go home, but Mr Tuk-tuk has disappeared. We ask a nearby driver where he could be. "Beer," is the answer. Our enterprising driver passed the time with a couple of drinks. As he totters over to us, the impending twist down the mountain seems even more risky. But he makes it down safely, in half the time it took to get up.
It takes a day or two longer than expected to get over the Lao border. Buses break down. Buses don't go. People aren't sure. But nobody is worried. It can't be cause for complaint to stay in such a peaceful place for a little while more.