January 2018: Having left Vietnam I flew to the capital of Lao: Vientiane, and make my way north towards Luang Prabang.
Vietnam has the feeling of being a never ending city; even the countryside is busy. Lao is the perfect antidote to the overcrowding of Vietnam. If the whole of Lao were a city in Vietnam it would only be the third biggest in the country; both Hanoi and Saigon have a population bigger than the whole of Lao. If the capital, Vientiane were in Vietnam it would not even make the list of top ten biggest cities. It is in short blissfully quiet. So I arrived to a sparsely populated, rural, poor little Lao and the capital city of Vientiane.
One does not really sight see in Vientiane, it is a city, if indeed it even deserves that moniker, that is simply strolled around, perhaps with a coffee and a good book or a poolside vista, which is what I do; allowing myself to recover from my Vietnamese shell shock. Lao is one of the poorest countries in Asia, but no-one here seems to mind. Modernity and wealth would simply bring about the stress and troubles of a working life. Even the tuk-tuk drivers, swinging from their hammocks, seem annoyed when you ask them to take you somewhere. Laotians move with an energy and sense of purpose that would make Steven Hawkings look like Usain Bolt. But this is precisely the charm of Lao. A checklist tourist would be severely disappointed here, sure there are waterfalls and tiger sanctuaries that are advertised in the tourist brochures, but the selling of these attractions is somewhat half-hearted, as if to say, do you really want to; driving and taking pictures takes so much energy when the hammock is comfy, it's hot and the water in the pool is cool and refreshing. So rather than fight this sleepy lethargy I embrace it and check into a hotel with a pool and catch up on some reading and siestering, only venturing out when my stomach compels me to find some food. The wandering that I manage to muster the energy to complete shows a town almost completely devoid of human life. There are temples and government buildings, schools and hospitals as any city would have, but there don't seem to be any human beings to give sense to these structures. As if in a zombie movie I find myself wondering the empty streets of this capital city. A sleeping tuk-tuk driver whom I pass raises his head from his hammock and begins: "Tuk-tuk sii...", oh what's the point, back to sleep. I could stay here indefinitely in suspended animation, but there is a country to explore, and so I move on.
An infamous name in the folklore of the backpackers of Southeast Asia: Vang Vieng was once the party capital of Lao. The main activity of which was to hire the inflated inner tube of a traktor and float down the pretty river that cuts through this sleepy town. Adorning the banks of the river were bars and clubs, dosens in fact, that would sell beer to the travelers from a fishing line strung out into the river. And not just beer but cannabis, acid and even opium. The whole town was an anything-goes sort of place, where the police had systematically been bought off, or lucratively involved in, the drug trade, so that the young backpackers could do almost anything they wanted. Unsurprisingly, the combinations of murky waters strewn with rocks, floating tourists and copious booze and drugs lead to a spate of deaths. It is estimated that at least one western tourist died here every month; most of them from the Anglophone nations. Finally, the Australian government lent heavily on little Lao to put a stop to this, and all but one of the riverside bars were shut down, and the flow of drugs, booze and the corpses of white teenagers dried up. Now Vang Vieng is once again a sleepy riverside town in which one can enjoy the river in a kayak, or explore the countryside on a motorbike.
The minibus left Lao, full only of western tourists, and immediately the sleepy city gave way to untouched forest and windy mountain roads. The main highway in Lao towards Luang Prabang, an unpainted dirt track through the mountains. Our driver is another wannabe rally car racer, and I struggle hard to keep down the vomit as the bus swerves up into Vang Vieng. I make it without voiding the contents of my stomach and check into yet another hostel.
I make friends with a couple of young German guys and another from Switzerland. Vang Vieng is very much an outdoor place, and unfortunately the rains return, so we spend some time together playing cards and running to restaurants. As the evening wears on, our card game turns into a drinking game and we manage to polish off a bottle of whiskey between us; perhaps channelling the spirit of the old Vang Vieng and the many lives it has taken. An Irish pub and some drunken revelry and then to bed, a day sacrificed to the incessant rain.
The next day, after overcoming my whiskey induced headache with a litre of water and some paracetamol, hire a motorbike and set out to explore the countryside. The Germans are in no fit state to join me so I head out alone. The whole of Lao seems like a rural idyll, but here is particularly beautiful. The untouched forest stretching as far as the eye can see. I get the impression that the locals around here are still a little weary of white people, given the unrestrained excesses that these deeply conservative people have doubtlessly witnessed. Another waterfall here, a lagoon there, a steep walk to an unending vista of green. It's the usual Southeast Asian fare. The road is shit and so is the bike, so there is nothing to be done but to cruise slowly through this serene green nervana and enjoy the clean air filling my lungs. Made up tourist attractions dot the road, most of them not really noteworthy, but each claims another 10,000 kip from my wallet.
Back at the hostel the Germans are still in bed, sheltering from the sunlight and loud noises of the day. Now that the party scene has left, for which I am very grateful, there is little to do here, and I'm not sure what the point of coming here really was. I am still absolutely none-the-wiser as to what makes the Laotian heart tick, and to the culture of this place, but the stillness and quietness of Lao is beginning to penetrate my being.
And then further along the dirt path in the minibus to the final stop in Lao, Luang Prabang.
Luang Prabang is Lao's tourist centre piece, a charming ancient city built where a gentle river meets the mighty Mekong, dotted with golden temples, old teak houses and french colonial villas, all set beneath a canopy of lush green hills.
The ride in the minibus continues over a mountainous dirt road in appalling condition. There is a palpable silence as the minivan struggles over the shoddiest sections of steep road, the driver simply giggles at our fear. He is the antithesis of the previous driver, careful to the point of being tediously slow, and the short trip takes the best part of seven hours. We arrive at the hostel, who have no record of my booking, after half an hour of phoning back and forth they ascertain that they have a free bed in anycase, and I am allowed to stay. There is just time to walk along the dark river and take a glimpse of the old town and a bite to eat before I head to bed.
The next day is devoted to exploring the old town at a suitably sedate pace. Yet more ancient temples and climbs up steep hills to stunning green vistas. The weather is clearing and for the first time in many weeks I feel truely warm. The word spiritual, a word I have long found slightly meaningless, seems apt here. The temples litter the banks of the mekong, all of them sumptuous, monks seem to outnumber the sleepy tuk-tuk drivers. I end my day of lazy meandering on a more serious note, at the Lao museum of UXO (unexploded ordnance). During the American-Vietnam war Ho-Chi-Minh dug secret tunnels, which he deliberately placed in Lao, knowing that the Americans did not have the legal go-ahead to bomb a neutral country. The Americans simply bombed the routes in Lao in secret, and during this time the country received more bombardment than was dropped in the entirety of the second world war; including the infamous cluster bomb. A bomb which scatters many smaller explosives over a wide area with little accuracy. These unexploded smaller bombs, or bombies as the locals affectionately name them, still littler the Laotian countryside, claiming the lives of many children, and hampering the stuttering agricultural economy of this country. Local charities are doing a good job of clearing the land, but progress is slow. As well as clearing the land they run education programs for children, teaching them to avoid these shiny toys and to run to an adult when they are found. The exhibition is small but quite moving, I donate a pitifully small amount of the local currency that I have on me and move on.
I spend an eventful evening grazing the local food stalls, almost, but not quite, as good as Thailand. Belly full I drift off to sleep.
After waiting for an hour for a breakfast that never comes, the incompetence of this hostel is rather amusing, I hire a motorbike, which also takes another hour to arrive and set off through the countryside towards another waterfall. This is one of the shodiest bikes I have ridden, and also some of the shodiest roads. I lose count of the number of times my bike stalls for no apparent reason. I daredn't get over 40 km/h for fear of hidden pot holes or careless drivers coming the other way.
It's getting really hot now, and I'm enjoying the gentle breeze through my hair (helmets are actively discouraged) and I pull over at an ice-cream stand. It turns out the buffalo farm on which the shop is located is owned by three farangs who milk these buffaloes and turn much of the fatty milk into delicious ice-cream. They offer to show me around the farm. It seems that the ubiquitous water buffalo is an investment made by poor Laotian farmers, but they use them only for meat, not for the milk, which is a shame as the high fat content would do wonders to tackle the endemic child malnourishment. On top of this buffalo milk contains no lactose, a sugar which many Asians find hard to digest. As rational as drinking this milk may sound, it is simply not in their culture to drink milk. Instead the farmers simply let their livestock wonder the streets and fields unattended, death rates are high among these beasts. The farm generously rents the buffalo from the farmers to milk them, and takes care of them and returns them to the owner, who is really getting something for nothing. The ice-cream is delicious and it seems the owners of this farm are really trying to give something back to the people of Lao, bravo you. I continue past a stunning vista of the mighty Mekong to my waterfall.
Kuang Si falls reminds me a little of Erawan in Thailand, but if anything it is even prettier. A series of impossibly turquoise blue water pooling and then cascading into another pool, and at the top a towering shower of white water, positioned so that, when I arrive, the sun shines directly through the clearing, lighting up the spray kicked off by the mighty fall. There are no objective superlatives that can describe this waterfall, it is not the biggest or the highest or the loudest, and it is certainly not the most secluded, but I find it might be the prettiest, despite the glut of waterfalls offered to the Southeast Asian traveller. I clamber up the waterfall to a midway point in which there is a not-so-secret-secret swimming spot in a pool between the two main cascades. As I dip in the icy water I am treated to a view peering over the 20 meter drop down to the tourist below, and in the other direction the rest of the fall crashing down dramatically above my head. On the way back I fling myself into the cool water from a tree trunk by the side of the pool and ride home, allowing the breeze to dry me. Just time for one more scoop of buffalo ice-cream on the way back. A good last day in Lao.
My trip to Lao is over before it ever really began, and I feel none the wiser about these friendly, lethargic people and this beautiful land. I wish I had more time to explore and understand this little country, but the world is just too big, home is beckoning and there is just time for one more adventure before I head back to London. By luck a German girl from the hostel is taking the same flight as me and we share the cost of a tuk-tuk to one of Asia’s most low key airports. The plane takes off, we are given a quick sandwich and glass of coke and then the plane begins to dip again as it descends to Chiang Mai. I'm going back to Thailand for my final stop, this time to explore the north of this beguiling country.