Laos - off the beaten path...and into a big mud pi
Trip Start Feb 26, 2006
48Trip End Nov 28, 2006
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Figuring out how to get into Laos was a dilemma. We had been warned by many people that Laos is the poorest of the Southeast Asian countries and that transportation was very unreliable. Do we take a 20+ hour bus ride that may or may-not make it, or splurge on a one-hour flight on Lao Airlines direct to the Laos capital of Vientiane? Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Well, not when you consider that Lao Airlines hasn't passed any international safety standards and most organizations advise their staff to avoid the airline for its poor safety record! In the end, we opted for we thought was the lesser of two evils and flew, which thankfully went without a hitch!
Laos is the least developed country in Southeast Asia (about 80% of the country is forest) and it really shows, especially coming from Vietnam. No annoying honking, traffic, pollution, or people hassling you to buy something...just peace and quiet. Because it's so undeveloped, there's not as much to do as in other SE Asian countries, but Laos makes up for that with its natural beauty.
Our first stop in Laos was the village of Vang Vieng . Situated in a valley surrounded by limestone mountains, Vang Viang is an outdoor playground. You can you go trekking, caving, rafting, tubing, river jumping, and more. We opted for a little of everything, and the highlight was a water cave which we explored by tube!
In the French colonial city of Luang Prabang, a UNESCO world heritage site, we had an interesting experience watching Buddhist monks collect their morning alms (see photo above).
We also spent a day hiking the area surrounding Luang Prabang, where we passed by minority villages, cornfields, dense jungle, forest, and a beautiful waterfall. We were warned there would probably be leeches along the way, and there were. Movies must have a big influence on people, because up until that point, we and some others on the trek thought that leeches are the big black round kind seen in the 80s movie 'Stand By Me', but we discovered that they're actually tiny worm-like things. I got a leech bite, and so did another girl, who got multiple bites because she wore flip flops on the trek!
Luang Nam Tha, a remote town in northwestern Laos, was a great place to experience many of the different tribes in Laos and their way of life. We explored villages on motorcycle - a great way to really see the country by literally sinking your feet into the mud!
In Luang Namtha, everytime it rains, the power to the city is turned off. Apparently, not all the power systems are waterproof, so they need to wait for the rain to stop and dry up before turning the power on again! It really makes you appreciate little things like having a continuous power supply when your hotel room is lit by candlelight.
The capital city, Vientiane, has to be the dustiest city we've been to. The roads are pretty much all dirt roads, and on some roads they actually water it regularly so that there's not so much dust being kicked up. We spent a good part of the day driving around, and when we got back in the evening I took off my sunglasses and Ed started laughing...turns out my entire face was brown except for the area covered by my sunglasses!
The bus ride from hell:
It was in Laos where we had the worst bus ride as well as the longest bus ride (22hours!) so far on this trip. The 22 hours traveled was from Luang Nam Tha in the north to Vientiane in the south, bordering Thailand (We had hoped to fly, but believe it or not, two flights were sold out so we had no choice but to take the bus!).
As for the worst bus ride, it was from Luang Prabang to Luang Nam Tha. It was a relatively short ride at 10 hours, but it was the bus ride from hell. There were only 4 foreigners, including us, on this bus. But because the bus originated in another town, by the time it got to us, there weren't enough seats (even though we bought the tickets in advance and they should have known how many seats would be available...but it's Laos right?). Anyways, we sat in seats which we thought were available but found out they weren't when a very unhappy guy showed up and I thought he was going to hit us or something. So we move to other seats, which we know are taken because there's bags of bread by the seat (in fact, we look around the bus and there are loads of bread everywhere...must be a shortage of bread in Luang Nam Tha). Lo and behold, we're kicked out of the seats (everyone on the bus is looking at us at this point because we're pissed and it shows) and we're moved to the middle seats on the back bench! At that point, I was just happy to have seats and not be sitting in the aisle like some locals, but my happiness was short lived because I soon discovered that the man sitting beside me was practically having a love affair with a desk-top fan that he put right at my feet. The fan looked new and every couple of minutes or so this man would lean over my feet and touch the fan to make sure it was ok. Whenever the bus made sharp turns, the fan would fall over and rest on my leg. After awhile I was so mad that I just put my feet all over it, and the guy didn't seem too happy. The fan must have been this guy's most prized possession! And the whole time on the bus there was loud Thai pop music blaring from speakers that were strapped onto the luggage rack...and the luggage rack was so overloaded (must have been the tons of bread) that the end of one of the racks came loose and was bouncing around, and looked like it was going to land on people's heads. Their solution was to wrap bungee cords around the rack and attach them to the ceiling. To top off this entire fiasco, at about 6AM we got a wake up call of techno and dance music that was actually louder than anything else that was played during the night. At least the bus ride from hell was finally over!
Even though getting around Laos was tough, and much of the country is still undeveloped, we really enjoyed ourselves in the laid back atmosphere. While Laos is probably considered one of the poorer SE Asian countries, you don't really feel like the people live in poverty. Though they may lack material goods and lead simple lifestyles, everyone you meet is always friendly and they seem content with what they have (except that guy on the bus with the fan!). What Laos lacks in infrastructure, it more than compensates with hospitable people and stunning natural beauty.