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Published: February 23rd 2010
First things first!
Beer Laos - one of the few products made in Laos and a source of great pride in the country. Tastes pretty good to boot.
Believe it or not, the 20-hour sleeper bus from Hanoi to Vientiane, Laos was not a wretchedly horrible experience! The bus was clean, warm, and quiet (after they stopped blaring Asian pop Karaoke). We started our journey in Hanoi at 5:30 pm on a Thursday afternoon. In true Vietnamese style, we were shuffled from bus to bus and from one waiting area to another for the next 2.5 hours, so we didn’t actually leave until about 8pm. We stopped for dinner at around 10 p.m. and then finally hit the road hard after that. Joe and I slept on and off all night until about 6:45 a.m. when we were forced to disembark the bus and wait outside in the cold for the border patrol to issue us our Laos visas. We got back on the bus, stopped for breakfast one hour later (I love traveling with the Vietnamese because they hate to be hungry as much as I do!), and finally rolled into Vientiane around 3 p.m. on Friday afternoon.
Like the rock stars we are, we were greeted by an escort and private car when we arrived at the bus station in Vientiane. Our dear friend, Miss Hang
at Apollo English in Hanoi, asked (probably demanded) her husband who works in Vientiane to meet our bus and drive us to our hotel in the city. Trust me, there’s nothing more wonderful than to see someone holding a sign with your name on it when you arrive in a new country with no language, map, or local currency (this is particularly true if you’ve been on a bus for 20 hours). With this luxury, a little luck finding a cheap(ish) hotel, and a good night’s sleep, our trip to Laos got off to a great start.
We spent the next 3 days touring the city, sampling the food, and trying to find out about typical life in Laos. The first thing that struck us is that Vientiane is nearly a polar opposite of Hanoi. It isn’t noisy, dirty, humid, polluted, crowded, or gridlocked by insane traffic. We found it to be a modern and charming city, if a little bland, with lots of pleasant locals and many more tourists than we expected. Vientiane is a relatively new city with a small population. It has been destroyed and abandoned several times throughout its tumultuous history, and it wasn’t until
Patuxai: Laos' take on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris
The cement for this 1960's monument was bought from the US and originally intended for the construction of a new airport, but they used it for this arch instead. Priorities...
the late 19th century that reconstruction by the French started. In 1928 there were only 9,000 people on record in the city. Today, there are only 20 people per square meter compared to the 230 per square meter in Hanoi.
Our first stop was at the Patuxai, a Laotian version of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It was built in the 1960’s with cement originally purchased from the U.S. for the construction of a new airport (hence its nickname - the vertical runway). We then toured many of the city’s Wats, stupas, religious museums, and monuments including Pha That Luang, the country’s most important monument and national symbol. At Wat Sok Pa Luang, we mustered all the courage we had to climb into a tree house in the woods adjacent to the main temple and join with other foreigners and locals in a funky herbal sauna (powered by a large fire underneath the tree house) and open-air massage. It was a little scary at first but we plodded through until we sucked in all the eucalyptus steam our lungs could tolerate and then had two young (and strong) Laotian men pummel our bodies with an hour of vigorous
These novice monks engaged me in conversation at the top of the arch by asking me where I was from. Then they asked if they could take my picture. I forgot that young monks were not allowed to touch women, so I unsuccessfully tried to huddle us together so Joe could get us all in a picture. Hence all of our awkwardness. To top it off, I instinctively shook their hands as we said our goodbyes. A look of horror came over their faces and they practically ran away from me after the encounter!!!
Vientiane was pleasant enough but after a few days we felt the desire to move on. Our neighborhood was overrun with Western tourists - the kind we felt we had little in common with. The majority were young, college age adults and many of them were groups of young men traveling together. We later learned that many young people come to Laos for the drug scene. You've heard of eco-tourism? Well, there's another brand of tourism we learned about called narco-tourism. Apparently, all kinds of drugs are readily available in Laos, including opium, and the country is a magnet for kids who want to spend their holiday partying in opium dens! Like Thailand and Burma, Laos has a long history of opium production. Although most of the poppy fields have been replaced with other crops, there is still a thriving opium industry and tourists have come looking for cheap drugs (more on this in a future blog). Another contingent of tourists seemed to be older men who come to Laos to find women - either temporarily or permanently. I guess this would be known as sex-tourism.
Perhaps because of the number of tourists that come through the
The language barrier was a bit more evident in Laos. We initially asked this lovely young Laotian woman to take our picture in front of Vientiane's Peace Gong, but she thought we wanted to take a picture of her and her friend in front of the gong. We compromised and had her friend take a picture of the three of us!!!
major hot spots in Laos, or perhaps because of a stronger language barrier, the locals seemed to keep to themselves much more than was the case in Vietnam. Most of the Laotians we encountered didn’t initiate or respond much to any attempt at conversation. It was difficult for us to engage with any of the locals in a meaningful way. One of the wonderful things about Vietnam was all of the locals who wanted to talk - to tell us about themselves and ask about us. So, our experience in Laos was very different. The only exception was our soft-spoken hotel clerk, Sang, who was trained as an English teacher and has aspirations to teach English to poor people in the Laotian countryside. We spent most of our evenings in Vientiane sitting in the hotel courtyard with him and finding about his life and learning about the country.
After 3 days we got back on the bus, this time for a 10 hour trip through windy, narrow mountain roads from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the northern part of Laos. Luang Prabang is a beautiful city situated at the confluence of the Mekong and
Haw Pha Kaew
Museum of religious relics in Vientiane, Laos.
Nam Khan rivers with thousands of flower-lined cobblestone alleys running between colorful French-inspired villas. It is home to a stunning royal palace museum and hundreds of wats, golden Buddha statues, and sacred stupas. During the day, we toured as many wats as we could before they all started blurring together. At night, we squeezed through big crowds of tourists who pour into a narrow alleyway to sample the offerings on display by the night market food vendors. After getting our fill of BBQ fish, chicken, or veggie curry, we usually strolled through the handicrafts stalls set up on the walking street at the night bazaar before going back to our hotel room on the outskirts of the city center. Every night in Luang Prabang was a fairly early one (we aren’t a late-night crowd), which was good because the town shuts down around 11:00 p.m. and Laotian law requires people to be in their hotel room by midnight!
Several days touring Luang Prabang was sufficient for our taste. Honestly, Laos fell somewhat flat on us. It has some lovely sights but we were unmoved by our experience in either city. We struggled with the decision of visiting another place
Wat Pha That Luang
The most important national monument in Laos which symbolizes the national religion (Buddhism) and Lao sovereignty.
in Laos so we could get a better feel for the country, or leaving and going to Thailand. We ended up leaving but I think we missed the real Laos - the parts that don’t exist for the sake of tourists. One thing we’ve discovered in our travels is that the connections we make with people and the things we learn about a country are the most compelling parts of the experience. Seeing sights is fun and interesting to a point, but feels a little empty when there’s no context for the country from getting to know the people that live there. All of the people that we got to know in Vietnam made touring that country so real for us. Visiting these highly touristy places in Laos was such a contrast for us that it didn’t feel quite right. At the end of the day, it was a good lesson for us and we learned a little more about ourselves. Maybe someday we’ll go back and find out what life in Laos is really all about. From this trip, we’ll have to settle with our memories of beautiful people (awesome clothing), stunning temples and Buddha statues, spicy papaya salad,
Herbal Sauna and Massage
in a tree hut at Wat Sok Pa Luang outside of Vientiane. Very cool...
and kick-ass Laos beer!,
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