Where’s that, most people asked when I told them we were off to Laos. And that about sums up the attraction -- I like getting off the beaten track, at home and abroad.
Laos is landlocked. It’s a developing country. Most of the population live in rural villages. Although the government is communist, religion is tolerated. The north is mainly Buddhist and Animist. In short, Laos is about as different from my home, here in New Zealand, as it’s possible to get.
(Street vendor in Luang Prabang)
(The morning market, Luang Prabang)
Laos shares its borders with China, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. That’s a lot of neighbours to keep in with, which hasn’t always been easy, possibly still isn’t. Laotian history, like its countryside, is dramatic. In recent times it has included colonization by the French, the Indo-China wars, civil wars, the overthrow of the monarchy, establishment of the communist regime and the ensuing diaspora of the HMong people.
One of the first things I noticed is that there were children everywhere. Despite the poverty, despite the malnutrition, they spoke to me of hope for the future.
(Children in an Akha Village, near Luang Namtha)
There’s no getting around the fact that Laos is a developing nation, and one of the poorest in Southeast Asia. Many people rely on subsistence farming. Food supply, especially in rural areas, is insecure.
Nevertheless, Laos is rushing as fast as it can in to the 21st century. And why not. I don’t think it’s for westerners to criticise that.
(Rice distribution in Nong Khiaw)
The best bits
I’m a slow traveler. I like to soak in as much as I can, to take the time to build connections, no matter how short-lived, or tenuous. For me, a month was only just long enough to explore Northern Laos.
It was an experience that was one highlight after another. Here are the best of the best:
In a country that takes the everyday and makes it spectacular, one sunset stands out. It was our last night in Luang Prabang. We watched from the banks of the Mekong, near the confluence with the Nam Pak River.
(Sunset over the Mekong)
Even the rain in Laos seems exotic.
(Rain on the Mekong)
(Rain on the Mekong)
Best boat trip
Travel by boat on the rivers was the easiest way to get around. Although, I would never have said that at the beginning of our trip - I’m no boat lover. But it wasn’t long before I came to look forward to our time on the water. Each trip was memorable. The best of the best was the seven hour journey up the Nam Ou River from Nong Khiaw to Muang Khua.
(Nong Khiaw, Northern Laos)
I thought I was in for a numb backside, a headache from the thrum of the engine, and a chill from which I’d never recover -- it was very cold. What I got was all those things (okay, okay, the chill didn’t last that long!) plus seven hours of just me, my husband, the boat driver, the occasional villager hitching a ride, and the jungle. I took very few photos. I looked and I looked and I looked some more. And in that looking I realised, not for the first time and probably not for the last either, that it’s too easy in my day to day life to get preoccupied with the wrong things.
Sadly, because of dam construction which was well under way in January, that particular trip, in the way we did it, is likely already a thing of the past.
(Boat on the Nam Ou River)
The best food
Laos food has a reputation for complex flavours with a strong French influence. My favourites are simple. Noodle soup at breakfast time.
And in the evenings, for dessert, coconut dumplings. They’re best straight from the griddle - piping hot. They were readily available near the night markets in Luang Prabang and Luang Namtha.
(Noodle soup for breakfast)
Stand-out spiritual moments
There were many prayerful moments during our trip. One of the most powerful was Tak Bat in Luang Prabang. The centuries old ceremony, during which the monks receive alms from the faithful, takes place every morning at dawn. There’s a bit of controversy about this - mostly to do with the behaviour of tourists. Not all of us are polite or respectful. Nevertheless, for me there’s a consolation in knowing that everyday the monks and the believers, despite the intrusions of foreigners, continue the traditions.
(After Tak Bat, Luang Prabang)
Best bus trip
Muang Khua to Oudamxay.
This was our first trip on a local bus. It was crowded. It was slow. It was bumpy. It took about four hours and I was pleased to arrive. Nevertheless, I was glad of the chance to see Laos daily life up close. But most of all I was grateful to the bus station manager in Muang Khua for his kindness, for his patience, and his helpfulness. He was eager for us to enjoy our time in his country - an attitude that was typical of our encounters with the locals.
(The bus station at Muang Khua)
Since coming home people have often said to me: Oh, travel must be cheap in Laos.
And it can be, depending on where you stay and what you do, but that’s not a good reason to visit this country.
Go for the challenge. If you’re the reflective sort you’ll see things that make you review your most basic assumptions.
(Houses in Muang Khua)
Go prepared to learn. The version of history I remember and that I was taught, growing up during the Vietnam war, is not the version the people of Laos experienced. This small town, like so many others, was pulverised. Realising that was humbling. And shocking.
(The main street, Muang Noi, Northern Laos)
If you’re a nervous traveler, like me, go prepared to be scared witless. I was reasonably often. Things like rickety bamboo bridges and wobbly planks raise my blood pressure but then again I’ve considered renaming my blog: The trials of a timid traveler. Kidding, just kidding.
And, if you do enjoy getting off the beaten track, go prepared to be uncomfortable.
The rewards, as they say, speak for themselves.
(Fishing boats on the Mekong)