Lao Lao (Part 3)

The infrastructure of Laos reflects the national mentality. Bridges are flimsy and shattered or just nonexistent. The quality of roads is not any better, narrow and battered. On a positive side, most of the people in Laos drive slowly unlike Thai daredevils. Many dirt roads are not passable during the wet season. It sill remains a mystery to me how people get from one place to another during this time. Maybe they just do not? There is no sense of aesthetics whatsoever. Villages are dirty and ugly looking. Trash is left on the ground and there is not even an attempt to hide it. Poverty aside, bamboo huts in Thailand are as basic as Lao ones, but there is a charm and a sense of style in them. I saw only one tidy and pretty-looking ethnic village, but it was that way for a reason, namely it was a tourist attraction. Step out of it and walk 20 meters away and you see all the piles of garbage. Lao villages reminded me of Russian ones, in terms of dirtiness and lack of aesthetic considerations. On the other hand, Laotians have one huge advantage Russians lack, namely laid-back and easy-going lifestyle.

Without a doubt Laos’s biggest assets is its pristine nature. Laos is the land of mountains, caves, rivers, waterfalls and the most beautiful clouds I have ever seen. I do not know how Laotians do it, but clouds in Laos are vastly superior in terms of eye-candy to the neighboring Thailand and Vietnam. Some sights are simply stunning and many times after seeing a particularly magnificent waterfall or cave I thought that it cannot be topped only to see an even more beautiful one later. My top experiences in Laos must be Kong Lor Cave, Tat Fan waterfall and Si Phan Don. Kong Lor cave is a huge cave with a river flowing through it. The cave is some 7km long and at times is as 100m as wide and tall. A boat journey to the other side of the cave in the pitch dark with only a couple of torches is an experience I never forget. I have seen some other pretty impressive caves, but Kong Lor is THE cave. I guess if it was in another country, they would market the hell out of it, but since it is in Laos, not many tourists realize that such a wonder exists. As far as waterfalls are concerned, there are many amazing ones. The amazing Tat Kuang Si in Luang Prabang, which looks like a decoration to a fairytale than an actual real-life waterfall. The serene Tat Hang and its twins Tat Lo and Tat Suang on the outskirts of Bolaven Plateau. The massive Tat Somphamit in Si Phan Don breaking the steady of Mekong. The most ultimate one is Tat Fan in the heart of Bolaven with its massive twin water torrents falling down from the height of 120m. The moment I saw it, I realized that all other waterfalls combined are no match for that one. This is the waterfall that alone makes a trip to Laos worthwhile. Nature sights are mostly left in their original form with very little surrounding infrastructure. It is a huge contrast to China, where nature is put under control and brought to safety regulations. There are no endless series of stairs in the mountains, no cable cars, no fences and no safety precautions. If you make a wrong step or trip, the result might be potentially fatal. This is Laos.

The Laos geography is dominated by the the mighty Mekong flowing through the whole country from north to south. It is one of the world’s greatest rivers and is in fact the only one I saw to date. Now I am keen to see more. Over two days of the slow boat journey from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, I did not see any bridges over Mekong or any other signs of the industrial age on the river itself or its banks. Only light boats and scattered primitive villages on the banks of Mekong. During my travels in Laos I saw only two bridges over Mekong, one in Vientiane and another one in Pakse. There surely must be more, but I suspect they are not many of them. It is truly amazing to see that in this age such a great river has escaped the fate of industrialization. Thanks to the low population density and the rural lifestyle, Laos still sports mostly untouched nature, but it is changing. Hydrodams are being built, there is deforestation going on and slash & burn farming tactics are prevalent leaving ugly scars on green hills. The air in Luang Prabang was full of smoke and ash, which I thought was due forest fires, but only later realized it was a local way to farm land. Sooner or later Laos will enter the industrial age big time, either on its own (or maybe not) or with the help of its mighty neighbors as China and Vietnam (more likely) . If you would like to see the pristine nature of Laos, the time is now. Five, ten years later it might be too late.

Lao Lao (Part 2)

The best word to describe Laos is laid-back to the point of being half-assed. It seems nobody ever makes any effort at anything. Vendors act like they could care less about selling their products. You hear touts shouting words “pancakes” or “massage” on the street, but with no enthusiasm whatsoever, as if they do not care about making money. Waiters idle in the restaurants not paying any attention to what is going around and the best way to make an order or pay the bill is to take an initiative yourself. Contrast it with Pai in Thailand, an extremely laid-back place, where restaurants are closed for an afternoon/day/two/week, if the owner feels like it. But if the restaurant is open, the service is top-notch. In Laos restaurants stick to their schedule, but they act like they do not do any business. No music, no lights in the evening time and no other signs of activity. It is non-stop siesta time. Why work, when you can spend all your day lying in a hammock. The national pastimes are napping, celebrating and chilling out. All these activities are fueled by food, Beerlao, weed and opium. Granted this mentality might have something to do with the dry season and the fact that there is not much farm work to do during this time. Compare it with the winter time in the pre-industrial Europe, where summers were filled with hard labour and winters were about pretty much passing time away by sleeping. It would be interesting to see if things are any different in Laos in the wet season.

On the other hand, it is not like Laotians are not interested in making money. They are, they are just not sure how. There is a bar/restaurant on the sunset side of Don Det called Happy Bar. The place is always packed, which goes in contrast with deserted restaurants on the same side of the island (it is the season ending). The secret of their success is the guy Manny from England, who seemed to be the only one who did any work there. Taking orders, delivering orders, being responsible for the music (Bob Marley and minimal techno instead of Lao pop), entertaining clientele and occasionally preparing food. The rest of Lao stuff just chilled around. It was entertaining to see how Manny taught the place owner such business tricks as making a list of people and taking a deposit for a BBQ boat trip in order to estimate how much food to prepare. The owner seemed to be genuinely surprised that such a thing was possible. On one of those trips the locals in the passing by boat appeared as if they were taking notes on how to make money off foreigners with nothing else than a couple of boats and a portable ice box full of Beerlao. Truly fascinating. I did not feel like spending any money in Laos, because frankly there was nothing to buy. Food is rather bland, local delicacies are almost nonexistent and the selection on local shops and markets is rather strange. Once we made it to a Lao New Year celebration with a fair in the rural Laos. The fair featured such exciting items as light bulbs, batteries, car parts and packaged processed food. Most convenience stores seemed to feature similar assortment. Business is definitely not one of the strongest points of Lao people, but maybe it is better this way.

At times it seemed like Laotians are not capable of thinking logically. As if they have not yet developed the ability of rational thinking. A couple of examples are in order. There were two slow boats from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang almost packed to the full capacity. On the next day after a night at Pak Beng, the second boat magically disappeared and boat operators tried to convince everyone that that there would not be a second boat. And what is more fascinating they actually tried to accommodate everyone on the single boat. Only after they realized that it was impossible to fit two fully packed boats into one boat (what a surprise!), a second boat appeared. Another example took place in Vang Vieng. There is a narrow wooden bridge wide enough to for two people to pass each other. Locals and some brave tourists are courageous enough to drive motorbikes on that bridge (the main motivation is to save 10000 kips to cross the river on a proper bridge 100m away). What is more surprising that sometimes locals attempt to ride motorbikes to opposite directions at the same time. It goes something like this: both motorcyclists start crossing the bridge perfectly seeing that there is another bike coming from the opposite direction, meet each other in the middle, realize that the bridge is just not wide enough for two motorbikes, retreat and start the whole operation from scratch. Lao Lao, indeed. This all reminded me of a point made by Ken Wilber in “A Brief History of Everything”, where he argued that the ability to think rationally became a baseline in Western countries only at some point of history (so called Age Of Reason). Prior to that most people were, well, not very rational. It seems that the rational baseline is yet to be reached in the rural Laos.

Lao Lao (Part 1)

“Shit Thailand” was my first impression of Laos . Similar to Thailand, but only poorer, less developed, less friendly and smileless. I was quick to dub Laos “The Land of No Smiles”. That came as a complete surprise to me after hearing so many good things about Lao people. What I really encountered was mean service and unhappy looking grim people, which came as a shock after the friendly Thailand. Huay Xai, Pak Beng, Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng were all similar in this aspect. I and the fellow traveller Adam did an experiment in Luang Prabang by walking through the market smiling and saying Sabahdee! to all the local people we saw. Nobody returned a smile or greeted us back. Later I found out that these people smile only after you buy something from them. In Vang Vieng I changed my strategy and started telling vendors directly that I buy from them only if they smile. No smile, no purchase. Sometimes it worked. After the first week in Laos I felt not welcomed in Laos, it seemed that the only thing locals wanted from me was money. There were fees to cross a bridge, to park a bike in the middle of nowhere, to see anything of remote interest or just because you are a white monkey. Some people do not even try to provide any service to you, but just approach you and ask for money. If you look at the history of Laos, the country has always been dependent on foreign aid. During the years as a French colony, Laos was never profitable and French pumped a lot of money into it. Then it was the turn of United Stated and other countries helping Laos, so it might be that the idea of getting money from foreigners is deeply engraved into Laos mentality.

The situation, however, changed when I got out of tourist places. Only then I realized that Laotians are a very hospitable, smiling, happy lot despite the poverty. I shared food and beer with locals on numerous occasions and once got invited to an wedding (and the only thing I was wearing was swimshorts and sarong). Nobody spoke English and was pretty drunk to communicate anyway, but it was good fun. Vientiane was the turning point for me, where local people were nice and friendly never mind the mass tourism . It might have had something do with Lao New Year, but further south I went people were nicer and nicer. Bolaven Plateau was particularly pleasant. Nobody spoke any English and we did not speak any Laos, but it was counterbalanced by tons of smiles and hospitality. This is the Laos I was told about.