SOMEWHERE IN NORTHERN LAOS – It’s nearly two-thirty in the morning, and I’ve been on this damned “sleeper” bus for almost five hours now. I’m not sure why sleep is so elusive on this particular night; maybe it’s the fact that the mountainous road from Luang Prabang consists of nearly one hundred straight miles of steeply ascending and descending switchbacks with no real respite before the barely-paved road finally straightens out somewhat after Vang Vieng, or maybe it’s the fact that this area carries a certain notoriety for the restive Hmong tribes that live in the surrounding hillsides and are known to carry out occasional attacks on buses due to an ongoing conflict with the government.
Either way, after several long hours of trying to tire myself out by alternately reading, closing my eyes in vain, and trying to mentally reconstruct the opening day lineup of every American League East team from 1995 – 1997, I’m finally, mercifully starting to drift off to sleep. And then, quite suddenly, our bus jolts to a stop. We’re perched rather precariously on a particularly steep mountain pass and our driver, screaming in frantic, indecipherable Laotian, is seeming to say that everybody needs to get off the bus, right this instant.
With less than no idea what’s going on – conveniently, the roughly 50 percent of people on the bus that do speak Laotian don’t speak English, and vice versa – I get off the bus, wondering whether I’m about to be taken hostage by a group of disgruntled Hmong rebels.
Getting off the bus, I follow a group of able-bodied Laotians, prepared to defend our group from whatever evil may be lurking around this dark mountain pass. What we find – and what I suspect all of the Laotians are already well aware of at this point – is a broken-down, old pickup truck in the middle of the road. So, not a waiting guerrilla ambush, but a truck full of chickens.
Its driver is leaning against the passenger side door, lazily puffing on a cigarette and ignoring the fracas emanating from the 50 or so chickens in the bed of his truck. The next thing I know, we’re all manually pushing this truck out of the road so that our bus can pass. When it’s all said and done with, we all sort of awkwardly grin at each other, and I get back on the bus, wondering what the hell just happened – but oddly satisfied at the same time.
I think the story above is the best way to encapsulate my feelings on Laos. Of all the countries we planned to visit on this trip, I probably had the least expectations of Laos. It’s not that I thought I’d dislike it, I just really didn’t know what to expect.
Nestled between much more influential, headline-grabbing neighbors in China, Vietnam, and Thailand (and even Cambodia, to an extent), Laos doesn’t typically garner much of the global mindshare devoted to Southeast Asia. An after-thought at best, we assumed that, apart from the gaggle of drunken Aussies known to frequent the quaint-village-turned-partying-mecca Vang Vieng (more on that shortly), there wasn’t much of consequence in Laos.
As it turned out, I don’t think we’ve enjoyed anywhere we’ve visited quite so much as Laos. The only real complaint I have is that we didn’t have more time to spend there – thanks largely in part to a lengthy delay in getting a visa at the Indian embassy in Phnom Penh. We entered the country from its southern border with Cambodia and, by all accounts, didn’t have to bribe their exceptionally corrupt border guards quite so much as the average traveler.
From there, we headed to Pakse, a small city of about 30,000 people in the southern part of the country that doubles as the third most-populated city in all of Laos. While Pakse itself wasn’t much to write home about (save for the delicious Indian food at Nazim’s), it did serve as the jumping off point for an incredible three-day trek through the surrounding jungle, where we hiked about five miles into the bush, ate unidentifiable but delicious jungle fare for most meals, climbed up the face of a 500-foot cliff, and slept in the shadow of this:
We also spent a few days in Vang Vieng, which I mentioned earlier. Arguably the most well-known attraction in Laos, it’s primarily known for its tubing scene – basically, a series of four or five bro-tastic bars situated along a river (with minimal time actually spent in the river, which was my biggest gripe). While I’m certainly not so self-righteous to say that I don’t enjoy floating down a beautiful river with a cold drink in hand, the experience can be a bit cheapened by hordes of chest-thumping drunks eager to proclaim how worldly and adventurous they are, all while failing to appreciate the irony of the fact that the conservative local population sees the whole tubing thing as desecratory and evil. I think my favorite part of Vang Vieng was talking to a guy of Swedish/Australian descent who claimed that he “was without a real home country, and mainly identified as Laotian now.” Because, you know, he’d been there for two weeks at that point, didn’t speak a word of Laotian, nor did he seem to have a single Laotian friend.
Another highlight was Luang Prabang, a beautiful town in northern Laos that still has a lot of French-inspired architecture from its days as a colonial hub. It’s also surrounded by beautiful mountains with some amazing hikes, waterfalls, and elephant camps (fun overall, though being suddenly pulled underwater as the elephant dips down for a drink while clinging desperately to a shoddy harness around its neck was a bit unexpected).
Perhaps the true highlight of Laos, though, was getting to meet three of the best friends we’ve made in our travels: Fanny and David, a Swedish couple traveling around the region for the next six-ish months (and probably the only other people in Laos who gave half a damn about the Winter Olympics), and Karel, a Belgian / Costa Rican legal translator who can entertain one for hours on end with some of the more bizarre cases he’s encountered in his years on the job. I’ll spare you the full details here, but there was one particularly memorable night where we seemingly alienated half of the restaurant (certainly the tables immediately surrounding us) as we had a lively discussion that ranged in scope from Central American stand-your-ground laws, to the “doggy death penalty,” to the legal ramifications of failed attempts at necrophilia. You definitely want us at your next dinner party.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of Karel on hand, but here’s an obviously staged photo of the remaining four of us:
So, all in all, Laos was great. It had some of the kindest, most welcoming people of any country we’ve visited, much-better-than-expected food (do yourself a favor: find a local Laotian restaurant, and try the larb) and stunningly beautiful countryside. I’ll definitely find my way back there someday.