I have to admit (begrudgingly) that prior to last month, if I was asked to name one city in Laos, I don’t know that I could have. Embarrassing, yes. But room to grow. And now the names of towns and cities are rolling off my tongue as we pretend to know exactly where we’re headed next. Udomxai, Luang Namtha, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane. So far each stop has proved more than worthwhile and had something new to offer.
Everywhere we go, we are greeted with a smile and a warm, “Sabaai-dee!” which we return in kind. The most refreshing part about this ritual is that it is rarely followed by any solicitation, with which we have become so accustomed to almost everywhere else. Those who do ask us to look or buy usually do so quietly and politely and often react with humor when we decline their offers, which makes for a pleasant experience all around.
Food has been outstanding, and of course, this is huge for me. With the exception of one dish made with an overpowering, nose tingling, gag reflex inducing local herb, everything has been delicious. In fact, we want to stay in each town a bit longer just for the food (among other things), just in case the next town doesn’t have the same dish, prepared the same way.
Most dishes are spicy, but in a mouth-watering tasty way, as opposed to the it’s-so-spicy-i-can’t-feel-or-taste-anything way. And we choose to accompany most of our meals with awesome Lao fruit shakes which sometimes are a meal in themselves at a mere 60 cents. Still trying to figure out the secret that makes them so darn good. See ya, Jamba Juice.
When it comes to nature and the environment, Laos is the least altered environment in Southeast Asia. This is in large part due to the danger that exists as much of the land is dotted with unexploded ordnance (UXOs), which are a danger for all.
As an unintended consequence, this means Lao has a greater concentration of wildlife than Thailand and surrounding countries that have been ravaged by mass tourism. Even in the cities, it’s hard to get over the number, size, and colors of the butterflies that dart about. While poaching, deforestation, and other hazards occur, conservation efforts are in effect and in force to protect the country’s natural resources, which makes eco-tourism even more important here.
I’ve also gotten favorable impressions of the larger towns, which so far really is just Luang Prabang, but wow…what a place. It is described by one writer as the most photogenic city in all of South East Asia.
Sure, it’s geared toward tourists-the main areas are packed with tour operators, guesthouses, souvenir shops, bars and restaurants. But it’s also lovely and lively, with several markets and wats cared for by the many monks.
French colonial architecture, local vendors, and the Royal Palace turned museum, all sandwiched between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. A turn down a side alley takes you through peaceful, dusty pathways, where local people dry rice cakes, do daily chores, and school kids walk home in small noisy packs with dusty uniforms. We get a good feeling being here.
Getting through Laos in less than a month requires some long bus rides, but the scenery makes it worth it. We’ve been taking the local buses that drive through the mountains and villages, and I find myself gazing out the window more often than dozing off in my seat. I can’t help smiling every time someone gets off the bus at one of the interim village stops and is greeted by a welcoming committee of friends and family (and sometimes dogs and pigs), eagerly awaiting their bumpy arrival. The houses, many made of tightly woven rattan and some on stilts are simple but beautiful. We pass by women and girls in sarongs, showering and washing their hair outside their houses.
Children (some clothed, others not) running around rolling bike tires with sticks–the first time I witnessed this, I thought to myself, “Wow. Kids actually do that.” In a country where the average annual income is $400, there is beauty everywhere. I don’t mean to glorify poverty in any way, as there is no question that theirs is a hard life and a hand-to-mouth existence for many (not to mention the very real risk of encountering unexploded landmines, which kill approximately 200 children every year as a result of the US-led “Secret War”). But what I also see are incredibly strong families who are very close and the value in that. Watching them gather at all times of day for a game of badminton, volleyball, or soccer never fails to warm my heart. It reminds me of a simpler time, even if I have never lived it, and that in my own life maybe, sometimes, less is more.