It is said that "In Vietnam they grow the rice; in Cambodia they watch the rice grow; and in Laos they listen to the rice grow". That sums up the feeling of Laos really. Its a very rural and sparsely populated country (compared to its neighbours). And the people are so friendly! It is also a communist country, which we couldn't forget since every Laos flag was typically accompanied by the red and flag. So here's the summary:Houay Xai, in the far north; jungle treehouses, gibbons and ziplines
So, I enter the country in the north aboard a small boat (without a visa ..
. hoping that I was correct in assuming I could get a visa on arrival! I could.) I then had two days waiting in a one-street town until I left for three days on the "Gibbon Experience". Here, with 11 others (mainly Brtis) we trekked through mud, jungle, rice paddies and villages with our Laos guides until we reached the area of the gibbons. We stayed for two nights in fantastic thatched-roofed treehouses. Our treehouse was three levels; shower/bathroom on the bottom overlooking the jungle canopy; a large living area, kitchen, hammocks on the middle floor; and 'crows nest' (big enough for two to sleep) on the very top. We could go between treehouses with a bit of trekking and taking ziplines/flying foxes over the jungle canopy, wearing harnesses with rollers that we’d clip onto the cable. The sensation of flying out across the valleys with the jungle canopy below was unreal! It felt pretty safe, but I can assure you that NZ safety standards would probably be a lot stricter! In the morning, we would wake to the sound of gibbons, then take up the binoculars to spot them in the trees. Three days was too short, but it was wonderful to get out into the jungle (except the bugs!). The venture was first started to help reduce poaching and logging in the area, and create a conservation area where local villagers (particularly young people) can generate more sustainable profits through tourism. It was pretty much a childhood experience; living in treehouses, connected by flying foxes, and surrounded by ‘monkeys’. Awesome. Two days on the Mekong
To head south, I jumped on a ‘slow boat’ – a very long skinny wooden boat, about the width of a bus but two or three times as long – and meandered down the Mekong for two days, stopping overnight in a small town. The boat would call into villages along the way, dropping off and picking up locals
. As long as you didn’t get seats near the engine - or the young 20-somethings playing cards - the trip was very peaceful passing fishermen in their small boats and glimpses of village life on the banks of the muddy river. Luang Prabang; staying with Paivi and meeting the locals
At the end of the slow boat, I disembarked to a very French colonial town, and stayed with a ‘friend of a friend’, Paivi, a Finnish schoolteacher. It was a pleasant change from being in guesthouses, and thoroughly enjoyed hanging out in the neighbourhood playing badminton with the local boys in Paivi’s front yard, doing some gardening (we were told by the grandmother watching us across the lane that we shouldn’t be gardening; that was the ‘maids’ job!) and just enjoyed the delightful company of Paivi! Accompanied by a great couple from the US, I visited a bear-rescue park and stunning, large waterfall where we could escape the heat and swim in the pools (not with the bears obviously; but there were little fish that would pick at your legs, and on the hike to the top of the waterfall I got ‘leeched’. Ahh, nature.) Savannakhet, staying with more Finnish in Laos
Realising that I was going to be late to meet my friend Cath in Phnom Penh by the 25th, I made an overnight bus journey south (which included a delightful 1.30am dinner stop for sticky rice and chicken) to the capital, Vientiane
. It was raining and unpleasant, so I navigated the local bus system and kept heading south to Savannakhet, where I met up with Sari and Jarmo – another delightful export from Finland, working in an NGO in Laos’ second-largest city (which felt no bigger than Gore or Otaki!). Sari and Jarmo had spent two years living in Uzbekistan (with their newborn daughter!) in the 1990’s, which has a culture not too dissimilar from Afghanistan. It was great to swap stories and also show photos of my time in Kabul to a young Laos teenager in their church community who holds a dream one day of going to Afghanistan (of all places?!). Something Laos shares with Afghanistan is the persecution of Christians; recently in rural Laos a group of families forcibly removed from their village by authorities because of their beliefs, and are currently squatters on land alongside the highway. They have no land or crops to sustain them through the upcoming dry season. The reasons for persecuting any people group, no matter their beliefs or ethnicity, are just beyond me.
The downside of travelling on local buses is that they’re terribly slow and have no air conditioning, but on the other hand you get a richer insight to the country – particularly if your neighbour speaks English, which is not so common in Laos. I met a very frustrated teaching graduate in his 20’s on the bus to Savannakhet
. He was preparing for a job interview with the casino. He would prefer to continue studying a bit longer, but without the money he has no choice but to get a job to support his mother and sisters. He can’t get a job in the school system because he hasn’t the money to pay the necessary bribe or have connections in high places. So he’s hoping for a job in the casino. He asked "Is it like this in your country also?" While access to education seems to be improving (at least for urban families) the qualifications of young people - which can also be gained through bribes – held little value in the corrupt system. Kind of drains any hope out of high school ‘career guidance’.
Another interesting meeting was with a young Vietnamese entrepreneur, seeking out a source of catfish to import into Vietnam. He’d found Laos unfruitful, so he was heading to the markets in Cambodia. On the topic of global over-fishing, he couldn’t understand why a Kiwi would hold any concern, as countries were not poaching in NZ waters and anyway “you have lots of milk don’t you?” Staying with strangers, Pakse
As I caught the bus south again, I met the daughter of Jarmo’s work colleague on the bus
. Yai is 20 years old bubbly character who loved the chance to practice her English. She was heading back to Hanoi to continue her pharmacy studies. She also voiced her envy at the freedom and lifestyle enjoyed by young western travellers; her own dreams to travel abroad will be restricted by her citizenship, finances and of course, family expectations. I was invited to stay the night at her aunt’s place in Pakse. Her cousins and family were incredibly welcoming to this foreigner Yai just met on the bus! I loved that Laos people seemed rarely ‘hurried’ and people generally take the time to chat and watch the world go by with you. This was quite a contrast to NZ where we tend to view visitors as interruption to our super-busy-and-important days. So I’m now under strict instructions to visit Vietnam and stay with Yai in her dormitory in Hanoi, and if you’re heading to Vietnam let me know – she loves to meet ‘farangs’ and practice English!
So my trip down through Laos has been way too quick and I have a list of places I wish to return to. In a country where initially I had zero connections, I met and stayed with some amazing people and thoroughly enjoyed the insight I gained into the Laos way of life!
Okay, so it wasn't that easy to spend time on the internet in Laos. Or more to the point, time in Laos is very laid back and you don't strain yourself to do too much, hence, I haven't got to updating my blog till now!