Leave the Best to Last

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October 8th 2009
Published: November 23rd 2009
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The fifth best thing about going to Laos is being able to say that you’ve been.

On returning home from your year away, everybody you know will ask just two identical questions of your entire trip, all the detail they can squeeze in before returning to the unrelenting pressures of their busy modern lives:

‘Did you have a good time?’

(Oooh, no. Terrible. I’d much rather have been stuck in the old 9 to 5 like you guys.)

And secondly, ‘Where was the best place?’

Frankly by now they’ve lost interest already and aren’t terribly bothered by your reply, their eyes glazing over as they mentally move on to the next matter of absolute urgency in their bulging In-Tray.
And that’s when you hit them with it, right between the eyes.
‘Actually, we both really enjoyed our time in Laos,’
You can then sit back with just a hint of glee and wait for the inevitable response.

It’s time to enjoy the show as their mouths drop open and eyes widen in panic, realising they haven’t really the faintest idea of where that might be and are in danger of looking a right eejit. The very best may start drooling slightly, dribble on their collar and rock back and forth on their heels while speaking in tongues. You could at this point be kind and fill them in on a few choice details to jog their memory, but if you’re anything like me you’ll just smile sweetly, relax and enjoy the awkward silence. Fortunately they’ll regain their composure before too long and snap back to their senses, but just that split-second when you really had them was worth the expense of whole trip alone.

‘Err...yes, well I’m sure that must have been very nice... lovely this time of year I expect. Now, would anybody care for a nice cup of tea?’

And that’s it. Conversation over. It’s pretty much a given that they’ll never bother you for so much as a morsel of your trip ever again. As they shuffle over to the cupboard in search of some biscuits you can almost see them mentally take out a fat manila envelope bearing your name and file it in a large and very airy cabinet marked ‘WEIRDOS’.

For some reason Laos is a nation so inconspicuous as to have become almost mythical. I’d certainly no notion of it before my first trip to South-East Asia. They just don’t cover it in school geography or the nine-o’clock news (a somewhat startling omission for the most bombed nation in the history of the planet). As a result, together with places like Bhutan, Mali, Reunion or Khajekistan, it maintains a somewhat slippery profile on most people’s radar, which is a real shame, as Laos is one place on the planet most definitely worth checking out. I’ve already placed all the others on the schedule for the next Big Trip, should that ever come to pass, and will be happy to fill you in if and when the time comes. Well, all except for that last one which, if you hadn’t yet twigged, I have to admit I just totally made up. Had you going for just a minute there, though, didn’t I!

First port of call for most of us Laos Weirdos is the capital, Vientiane. I have to say I’d no idea of what-on-earth to expect here, other than not a great deal. Unsurprisingly, with expectations like that, I wasn’t disappointed. While it lacked an Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building or Opera House, it was refreshingly petite and appealing for a national capital, with a low-key personal ambience, the whole place happy to loll along in a sleepy sort of way which, as it turned out, was positively racy compared to the rest of the nation.

I’m always amazed rocking-up in these poor-as-dirt, backwater hubs that a small but sizeable portion of the capital’s populace seem richer than I’ll ever be, frequenting flash five-star hotels and swanning around in Mercs, Beemers and swanky 4x4s, all sparkling-shiny new. In fact the more impoverished a nation, the bigger the gap between rich and poor seems to be, and I’m always left wondering why the peasants in the fields don’t rise up en masse, invade the city centre and help themselves to a slice of the pie. Presumably all that cash also buys you a good many Glocks and Uzis which may have something to do with it. Initially this leaves something of a bad taste in the mouth, until you realise their wealth also ensures that should the need arise, you’ll be able to lay your hands on a damn fine slice of pizza, which, as we all know, is the cure for any ill, and cements Vientiane’s place as the fourth best thing about Laos.

Yearning to see the real country outside the capital, we took our leave and headed south on a sleeper-bus to Si Phan Don, the 4000 islands, a myriad of islets marooned by the flood-waters of the mighty Mekong. These are touted as an untouched paradise, famed for the locals’ welcoming disposition, and I have to say that for once they didn’t fall all that short of the billing. No sooner have you arrived than you discover the legendary hospitality revolves firmly round the Lao-Lao, the local rice-whisky, which is offered up without excuse at pretty much any opportunity, day or night. Its place in rural Lao society is so central that its difficult to decide if the whisky is named after the country or the country after the whisky, so good they named it twice, and the locals’ unfailingly cheery and laid-back demeanour may well be just down to them being constantly half-cut. Adopting a When-In-Rome policy, we found no trouble at all fitting right in, and happily surrendered ourselves to the laws of alcohol-induced relaxation.

Chilling Out is certainly top of the To Do List round here, which is just as well as there’s not a great deal else available. As usual in such spots, I find that after an intense period of serenity lasting all of thirty or forty minutes, I begin to find the whole affair very tedious, and am generally itching to get away by mid-afternoon. I’m also aware that this irritates the hell out of the dedicated chillers, who insist I’m ‘missing the whole point, man!’ but have always considered this merely an added bonus. Suffice it to say that after 36 brain-numbing hours we solemnly signed the guestbook at breakfast’s end and, with one last obligatory shot of the Lao-Lao, took our leave and ferried back to the mainland and up to Pakse, hoping there to encounter some higher-octane action.

Well, at least, that was the plan.

Unfortunately our arrival coincided with that of a rather less welcome guest in the form of Typhoon Ketsana. Luckily it had already vented the worst of its rage on the Philippines and Vietnam, but still managed to put a dampener on our proposed motorcycle tour round the Bolaven Plateau. We were thus sentenced to another 48 hours of enforced chilling in the confines of our hotel room, satellite telly proving a poor stand-in for a Lao-Lao toting host.

Eventually we could take no more of CNN’s doom and gloom, and decided to Get Our Motor Running and Head Out On The Highway, Looking For Adventure, and Whatever Came Our Way. That turned out to be Smoke and Lightning, and Heavy Metal Thunder, as up in the hills the typhoon wasn’t quite done, and there remained a small chance we’d Explode Into Space. Luckily, with a mighty 110cc at our disposal we could just about dodge the worst cloudbursts and duck for cover into the local tavernas when needed. Up here too, they proved a friendly bunch, but for once I managed to palm-off their offers of the Lao-Lao, or our Honda Dream could have quickly turned into our very worst nightmare.

And eventually, once the sun broke through, the splendour of the plateau was revealed, rainforests interspersed with coffee plantations and churning waterfalls. The kids here seem almost uber-friendly, having adopted a form of reverse-racism in which every white face is to be worshipped, frantically waving and grinning from ear-to-ear whenever you pass their way, gratified merely by your very presence. Given the country’s history of exploitation and annihilation by previous white intruders, this seems a trifle strange, but then again, when it comes to being treated like a rock star, who’s complaining, even if you suspect you might secretly be more Born to be Mild than Wild.

Only one little hamlet in the whole area managed to raise my shackles in any way, and did so despite not meeting a single soul. At the entrance of town on the main highway stood a sign (curiously in English), which proudly proclaimed it a ‘CRIME-FREE VILLAGE’.

Now really, is it just me, or is that just a little smug.

It all seemed so un-Lao and so very British, like ‘You Are Now Entering a Neighbourhood Watch Area’ or ‘Oxfordshire’s Tidiest Town, 1987’. I mean, really, who gives a toss? And what kind of petty-minded prat, on realising his good-fortune, would tempt fate by sticking up a placard? It’s an open invitation to theft; no crime means all the best stuff’s still there ready and waiting to be half-inched.

The sheer gall of it cut right to the quick. I felt like screeching to a halt there and then, going up to the first bloke I saw and punching his lights out just for the hell of it. Maybe I was born to be wild today after all. Luckily there was no-one else around, and I was left to content myself with muttering unmentionables into the inside of my helmet.

Crime Free Town My Arse!

Now I come to think of it, what I really should have done was simply stolen the sign. What a great souvenir that would’ve been! Next time, I must remember to pack a ski-mask and screwdriver before I leave.

Our southern Laos sojourn was now complete, and we returned to Vientiane before heading north on part two of the saga. It turns out Laos has even more of a north/south divide than the UK, and once safely off the local M25 and past the Watford Gap we could have been in a different country, somehow even more mountainous and enchanting than the one we’d just left behind.

After a seven hour journey that put the very best Alpine roads in the shade, you rock into Vang Vieng, the third best thing about Laos. Vang Vieng is the most famous backpacker hotspot in all of Laos, which, of course, makes it not very famous at all.

Admittedly this is partly just down to location, lying handily halfway across from Thailand to Vietnam on the main highway (think more B926 to Drumnadrochit than the M1), and as such is the ideal transit location for those who wish to say they’ve been there, done that, and got the T-shirt. As a result it’s the only real tourist boomtown in the whole of Laos, though its stunning location on the river overlooking the jagged limestone karsts probably doesn’t hurt either. What’s more, the T-shirt turns out to be free, at least provided you book onto a half-day tubing. This is apparently an excellent opportunity to observe the intricacies of the local community at work, and gain first-hand insight into the beauty and unique ecology of the region, and not just an excuse to float down the river in a giant truck-tyre while getting pissed and stoned out of your tiny mind. Not that we’d know, as being the old farts that we are we’d already completely knackered ourselves with a day’s hike to the local caves and found bed a far more attractive option. Which was a real shame, as it meant we completely missed out on chewing the fat with loud wealthy school-leavers called Paris (no, really!).

What saves the place, for this year at least, is that the global financial crisis has left to a good number of school leavers (not fortunate enough to have been christened Paris) unable to afford the trip, giving the town a sleepy sub-prime feel, and leaving more than one or two bars in real danger of repossession. Desperate for patronage, some have unfathomably taken to showing ‘Friends’ on giant screens 24 hours a day. I still can’t work out if this is down to some misguided belief that it’s the very height of sophistication, or just revenge for all those years of carpet-bombing.

Just goes to show you; what goes around, comes around!

Luckily we hit the road again before our sides split entirely, heading further north to the cultural capital of Luang Prabang and World Heritage listed Heaven. Here the stakes were raised considerably for the second best thing about Laos, which, let me tell you, is pretty damn good.

Ancient, but still very active, the Buddhist temples sit right in the centre of the old French Colonial quarter, rubbing shoulders with top class restaurants, hip bars and a quirky but cool vibe. Seldom have I stumbled upon a more perfect spot, a hidden gem not exactly undiscovered but somehow still way off most people’s radar (please, God, let it always be so!). As a result it’s still cheap as chips.

Further north from here and things start to get properly remote, little villages accessible only by small boats that putter up the river from one hamlet to the next, reminding you that up until recently this was the only practical way to get around the whole country, and back then you didn’t putter but paddle. Small wonder there’s still only six million folk scattered around a country the size of Italy.

And maybe that sums up the whole attraction of Laos.

Here, unlike just about everywhere else on the planet, the past is still the present, the rush to modernity is not the prime force and the people are still stuck closer to the nineteenth century than the twenty-first. Quite why that should be a good thing is hard to pinpoint when you come to think of it, but somehow it just seems fundamentally satisfying, in exactly the way that shopping for shoes on the internet doesn’t.

Back in Luang Prabang there’s no need to shop online as the markets are a souvenir-hunter’s dream. With our trip almost done we shopped till we dropped, before contentedly posting the lot back home to await our arrival. This, it turns out, may not have been the best of moves as our parcel is yet to appear, and suspicions are arising that right after we left town our goods may have miraculously made their way straight back to the stalls from whence they came, but you live and learn don’t you. For now we’re left to wait in hope and cross our fingers, praying that the Laos snail-mail really does still use real snails, and that our goods are making slow, steady but very slimy progress home... if they ever arrive, I’ll keep you posted.

It was with heavy hearts that we left Luang Prabang, and not just due to post-paradise blues, but also since this marked the beginning of the end, and the start of our long journey home.

Once back in Vientiane there was just a short stopover in Singapore and the flight back to Cairns to look forward to. Needless to say we drowned our sorrows with another sumptuous pizza and a bottle or two of Beer Laos. This last is as fine a nectar as you’ll find anywhere in the world, unlikely as it may sound for a South-east Asian nation colonised by the French. And at a dollar a longneck, it’s cheaper than Coke, Sprite or even water.

As you can imagine this forms a powerful incentive to help yourself to more than just a few each day, which helps Laos go with even more of a swing, and leads it, in case you were still wondering, to be the very best thing about Laos of all. Personally I’m of the opinion it deserves a World Heritage Listing all of its own, and am thinking of applying for global bottling rights. It also ensures, as if there was any doubt, that it won’t be long before we pass this way again. Hopefully when that day comes we’ll manage to hunt down those pesky snails, and help ourselves once more to a taste of the lives of the past and the beer of the future.

We’d Saved the Best to Last, as fine way to finish as any you could want, and would have no hesitation recommending it to anyone.

I’ll even be happy to fill you in on exactly where it is, in case any of you are still wondering.

So go ahead.

Feel free.

Enjoy the trip.

And yes, I think I would like that cup of tea now, thank you.


23rd November 2009

Loved your take on Laos
Visited there last April. I get the same reaction from people who think I must be bonkers for not only going there but loving it. Vientiane was a bit of a surprise because of the stinkin' SUV's and 'upscale' morning market that sold more electronics than anything else. Loved L. Prabang. Stayed in a very small boutiquey kind of hotel one street from the river but on the direct route of the monks when they made their morning walk through town to get their food for the day. Our place arranged for us to get some freshely cooked rice( at 5:30 a.m.) and we sat in the street and carefully put it in their bowls. It is imperative that a woman never touch a monk or his bowl :-) One of the best memories is a 2 hour boat ride up the river in a long boat for just myself and my travel companion ( arranged on the street with the boat owner/driver) and stopping for gas at a 'gas station' that was located aboard another boat. Sweet, sweet place. It is certainly not for everyone but that's okay as those of us who really appreciate places like that won't be so crowded. Carolyn( aka 'gunga')
23rd November 2009

I understand exactly what you are saying... I had a chance to live in Laos (Vientiane) in 1971-73.
23rd November 2009

you are sooo right
4 month ago we returned back home from a 1 year trip around the southern hemisphere (see "holamundo" on travelblog). We were asked exactly the same questions. But in Switzerland the second most important question (this one is more important than the "where was the best place") was "Do you have a new job?" - well, that was kind of difficult after being at home for 3 days and not even having a room to stay ;-). Enjoy the rest of you trip!!!!!! Cheers, Nina
24th November 2009

Beautiful photos... so vivid and evocative!
24th November 2009

Were you referring to us in your first paragraph?!! I actually wanted to know where your least favourite place was too but didn't get round to asking!! Laos sounds fab and I now hope to go one day. Great photos as usual. Lovely catching up with you guys and hope to see you back in Cairns soon. Em x.
25th November 2009

Funnily enough several people seem to have laid claim to being the inspiration for the first paragraph already! To put your minds at rest it was actually a reference to God, who plainly reads the blog as les than 48hrs after posting it he gave the snails a hurry-up and our parcel arrived, taking away my only complaint about the whole place. I'm hoping he also arranged for a few burglars to pay a visit to the Crime Free Village!
25th November 2009

When is the book published ?
Andy, I hope this is not going to be your last post on TB. It really has been a pleasure reading all your posts, all so brilliantly written, and best of all, the humour than you add to what must have been on some days, a bloody grueling time. Ah ! Such is travel ! Fair play to you, you've kept me reading like no other blogger on the site. Fantastic read, let us all know the title of the book and I will be straight on to Amazon. Thanks for the perfect internet travelogue. William
26th January 2013
Limestone Karst, Vang Vieng

Amazing view! the form of limestone karst always unique! http://www.jakpost.travel/

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