Longing for Laos

11 Dec
Carst mountains rising from the plains

Carst mountains rising from the plains

If Thailand, Vietnam and Laos were tuk-tuk-drivers (three-wheeler taxi), the Thai driver would take you to your destination via a silk shop, the Vietnamese would almost run you over for your custom, while in Laos you’d probably have to go and find a driver, wake him up and persuade him to come out to work” (Lonely Planet – South East Asia)

So Laos seems to be the most relaxed country of the region, the most laid back, but this also means the ‘least developed’. The guidebooks advice to think twice before going off the beaten tracks – or rent a tractor instead of a tuk-tuk or taxi. When checking the MasterCard website for the location of ATMs (cash machines) it indicates – none… I requested a Visa for February and got one for January to March instead for the same price…

But this also makes it the most beautiful and unspoiled of places (50% of the country, according to a 1997 guidebook is tropical forest, no idea how much of it is left 10 years down the road). Think nature, think authenticity, and forget (hopefully) MacDonalds and CocaCola (although I think they probably got through to the bigger cities). In my 97 Culture Shock guidebook, it says that electricity only comes a few hours a day (so no blogging there?!). So what else is there to do…

  • If you have more suggestions on what to do and see – feel free to add them to the comments ;-)
  • I will be in Laos after my Visa for Vietnam expires on 15 February – if all goes well

A colleague of mine said that this is the place for going on a river trip by boat (e.g. on the Mekong). One of the reasons maybe being that there are hardly any (good) roads and air connections (rail? You must be joking!). So transport goes by the numerous waterways. There are the slow boats (which take a few days) or the fast boats (with ear-deafening motors and flies getting squashed on your face, or in your eyes and mouth (for the newbies that don’t know to shut up when needed).

Renting bikes and doing a cycle tour of the area is also a common tourist pass-time. A great way to see the area and get lost… (hence the compass on my ‘To Take’ list) The only thing to watch out for is not to get off the roads, as the Americans had the luminous ideas to drop their leftover bombs of the Vietnam war in Laos forests (the so-called UXO – UneXploded Ordenances).

Laos People's Republic

Laos People's Republic

And when I asked Asian friends for suggestions on where to go to meditate in a Buddhist monastery, they invariably told me that Laos would be the most authentic. This would probably also mean that they would not necessarily be used to cater for ‘foreigners’, let alone speak English… So I can imagine sleeping on the floor, eating the kind of food I had in Nepal (and which made me loose 15kg!) and sanitary conditions that are limited to the basics – evacuating dirt from your body… (think bucket showers, hole in the floor toilets etc – the usual work-camp experience ;-) All that to find myself…

The fertile Bolevens plateau in the South is home to lots of plantations. For example the French cultivated coffee there (hence the ‘Coffee Road’ which still exists) and that region is particularly celebrated for its ‘durian’ fruit. A big spiky fruit, that smells like a mixture of throw-up and a dead body (therefore it is not allowed to be taken on board in planes or even imported in some countries!), but it tastes like a soft kiss. Yep, that’s on my list of funny favourite foods to try.

Life apparently happens in the street (as the weather is nice – as long as you have one of those little foldable raincoats for surprises from heaven). So you can eat in the streets from the numerous stands, the barber sets up shop next to the road, etc. So that seems to be the place to wander. And food won’t be a problem, as the guidebook says: “wherever there is space and people, there will be food in Laos” – yummy.

Things to eat (traditionally with the hands, except rice is eaten with spoon or fork, and Chinese food with chopsticks):

  • Lap: Laotian version of steak tartare (freshly minced venison or beef)
  • Phaneng Kay: chicken stuffed with ground peanuts stewed in coconut milk
  • Stuffed frogs (must be French influence!! ;-)
  • Luk andong: swallow in bananaleaves left to rot for a few weeks (hm, not sure about this one)
  • Durian: the smelly sticky yummy fruit
  • Fermented fish is used a lot for seasoning (so that must be just as smelly as the Durian)
  • Not to touch – the little dish of fresh lethal chilies that comes with your meal

As for places to see, there are

  • the limestone and karst rocks sticking out of the ricefields in the East of the country
  • he cities of Luang Prabang (former royal capital – full with pagodas, temples, wats and monasteries), Vientane (aka Vieng Chan – one of the few Asian capitals not choked with car fumes, with some leftover French villas)
  • Any other suggestions? Add your comments below

And to round off I plan to cross the 1174 meter Lao-Thai friendship bridge (a very symbolic project) back into Thailand & commercialism…

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One Response to “Longing for Laos”

  1. tom (from seminar in Berlin 2001) 5 January 2009 at 15:18 #

    Enjoy Laos,

    I have seen it in 2005 and it is the best of them all. Maybe it has changed a bit by now but even then … I think.

    Greatings from cold Belgium

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