Only few did I know about Laos before coming there. “Buddha and Mountains” is the slogan you sometimes hear, alongside with the fact that Laotians are even more relaxed than other South-East Asian nationalities. Since I was in North Thailand already, I was planning to hop over to see the neighbouring country and to make my way south from there. Initially, I have thought of riding through Laos within around two weeks, but I ended up staying for just over a month.
Laos’ population density is low: as a country the size of West Germany, Laos has around 7 million inhabitants. After entering the country in Huay Xai in the North, there were longer stretches of just driving through green hills and occasional, small villages in between. Roads in Laos are a quite inconsistent and after some ok stretches, there sometimes are parts with huge potholes or slippery tarmac, basically reflecting the economic situation of the country. The roads did require full attention, however the constant scenery, the laid-backness of the people and the happy kids around the villages were totally making up for it.
For sure, the kids of Laos will stay in my mind: They seemed to be the happiest and least shy compared to any other country I have been to. So often when I was driving through a village, I heard a “Sabaidee!” from somewhere, followed by a kid running to the edge of the street and waving at me. At guest houses, kids would come play next to me, or gymnast around my motorcycle.
The Inner Conflict
It was after around a week in Laos when I was contemplating on staying there or not. Having visited Luang Namtha and Nong Khiaw in the North, I came to Luang Prabang, Laos’ historic centre and probably its most popular tourist destination. Albeit it is nice to meet other travelers and to get some Western food here and there, coming across ‘tourist hubs’ makes South-East Asian countries, on the surface, feel very similar: Walking street markets, mango shakes, banana pancakes, waterfalls, caves, you name it. Luang Prabang’s Night Market felt very similar to the markets I had been to in Chiang Mai in Thailand and again, my time in South-East Asia started to feel like a long holiday rather than a travel adventure. This was not my intention and so I was thinking about crossing back to Thailand to make my way down to Malaysia, where I hopefully would get some new inspiration.
Getting to know Thomas
Part of my salvation at this point was to find out about a German expat living in the South of the country. When I told my parents I am in Laos, they mentioned a friend from our home town who had been living there for several years. Soon, I would talk to Thomas on the phone, not knowing him in person yet. It was a bit funny to have a stranger on the phone, quite far from home, who would speak in the very same accent as I do. Thomas was telling me about his job as a development worker and invited me to come and visit him in Salavanh Province in South Laos. Getting off the beaten path a bit was for sure motivating me to go for the South of the country, and I should be glad to travel there still.
Having crossed Vang Vieng and Vientiane, I headed towards Central Laos, from where I was planning a two-day trip to the world’s biggest River Cave — Xe Bangfai Cave — a truly spectacular experience about which I will be writing in a separate Blog post.
I then finally made my way down towards Salavanh, one of Laos’ poorer provinces, where Thomas would welcome me in his house for a few days. I was curious to see what a Westerner who was living in Laos for several years would be like. Being open-minded is, to my experience, not an automatism when traveling or living abroad for many years. Some expats I had met made the impression of staying in their Western mindset without truly wanting or being able to understand the culture they’re living in. If one wants to be successful as a development worker, however, this seems to be a prerequisite.
Of course, Thomas spoke Lao and also apart from that, he seemed to have such a vast knowledge about the culture that he would come up with an explanation for most its peculiarities. In a way, he was even helping me to increasingly overcome my own remaining “culture shock”. I remember one situation, when we were sitting in a restaurant and the waitress was making conversation in Lao over all the tables to a lady outside she couldn’t even see. Unconsciously, some annoyance came to me: “What the hell is she yelling about?”. In the same moment, Thomas told me, “oh, she is just anxious about going to the market after work. She made an arrangement with the local taxi driver to go together when she’s finished.”
Thanks to him, I also got to know about how deeply rooted mysticism is in the Lao culture. In front of most houses, a tiny house on a platform can be seen, along with some sweets or drinks as offerings. Those houses are believed to accommodate the ancestors. His own house was embraced by a thread, which was meant to keep the ancestors at peace. It seems a bit comical to the scientific world — most people that have been living in Laos and other South-East Asian countries will readily tell you about an experience of hearing or seeing a ghost. Many of the cultural customs are linked to this mystical beliefs. If something undesirable like a traffic accident has happened, a small feast needs to be held along with preparing food, e. g. slaughtering some chicken, for bringing the spirits back to calm.
The other day, Thomas showed me around his school, introducing me to the staff and the teachers, who seemed happy to meet me. Of course, the story about me bringing my motorcycle from Germany was a bit of an attraction. It was the time just before Thomas would be finished with his project, and the teachers were sad to know him go. The project at this vocational school was about a program to qualify young adults who at some point had dropped out of regular school, in sort of a fast-lane program, for vocational training. It seemed a successful program that gained momentum.
I enjoyed spending time at Thomas’ place in the countryside, from where I proceeded to the most impressive waterfalls I have seen so far. Some of them were like in a fairytale, with clearest water, a rainbow in front and walkable from the back. Reaching further south, I spent the last week in Laos around an area called “4000 Islands”. In the very South, the Mekong is opening up, leaving many islands varying in size, some of them featuring guest houses that make your stress level drop to zero. There is one border crossing point to Cambodia, however it is only possible to enter with a special permit if with a foreign vehicle, so I skipped Cambodia for this time and went straight back towards Thailand and Ubon.