Confession 1: Prior to arriving, we knew virtually nothing about Laos and would have failed miserably if given the task to locate the country on a world map.
Confession 2: On the eve of departure from, cartography skills have vastly improved, though admittedly, our knowledge of Laos has increased only slightly. It is a place that requires a great effort to know but for those willing to try (and try again), the rewards are many.
To get acquainted with Laos, a visitor must make a considerable investment in patience and suspend any expectations of logic in systems and processes in the most mundane or routine tasks, such as purchasing food or getting a passport stamp at customs. One must be willing to travel long and uncomfortable distances (on all types of questionable transit) over worn roads marred by potholes that could easily swallow a car up whole. Regional hubs are often dusty and sprawling, sharing a common patchwork of early morning markets, free ranging roosters (literally), bus stations composed of handful of chairs on a corner, scooter parts and repair places, and multiple small business stall lanes that are eerily devoid of merchandise. It is not uncommon to find shopkeepers asleep on the counter or any number of tuktuk drivers napping in a hammock on the side of the road. Life is simply not in a hurry here.
S LO W allows for contemplation of this country. Historically part of Indochina, Laos is landlocked and shares borders with Thailand and Vietnam. The Mekong River flows throughout and the waterway serves as an important lifeline for residents, many of whom still live in bamboo villages along her shores. Remnants of French colonization are evident all around the country, mostly in architecture and cuisine. In Luang Prabang you can have a cafe au lait and a croissant that rival those in Paris, but with a distinctively developing nation twist. Rather than enjoying your breakfast overlooking the flowing of waters of the Seine, you will be stranded on rive gauche, as the bamboo bridge you crossed to the café was just swept away, victim of the release of the new Chinese dam 100 miles upstream.
And in Laos you can also hang out with French tourists.
Loads of them in fact, if that’s your thing.
Quite enchanted with the scenery (but less so the French tourists) we diverted to the north to Nong Khiaw, a mountain town in the Nam Ou River valley. There we were treated to big mountain views-the most spectacular that we have ever seen- + fresh air, quiet kayaking, challenging hiking, and quite possibly the final glimpse of an area “as is,” before big tourism comes and takes hold. A one day visit slipped easily into an unexpected five. We (and let’s face it our foreign dollars) were warmly welcomed. All the locals we encountered were eager to share their favorite spots with us (and sticky rice, too).
Laying down on a bus.
In an open cubby for two.
That barely fits one.
It is actually less of a cubby and more like a plein air top bunk. On the least safe bunk bed you can ever imagine.
The only thing “preventing” you from falling out is a low guard rail that is presently digging into your abdomen.
And besides, if you do tumble out, you will land on the four people laying in the aisle below you.
Hope you know the Laos words for “I’m sorry, I may have just stepped on your baby” because it’s just you two and the locals on this ride.
Turn up the bus music really loud and ensure it is tuned to a loop that is definitely not Beyonce and play it on continuous repeat.
Put the gas pedal to the floor and for the next nine hours careen down the twisting switchbacks of the crater filled highway in the pitch black of night.
As if the death is chasing you. With fire.
(did you actually remember to pay the travel insurance premium before you left the USA? did you leave the file containing your will in an easily located place for your relatives back home?)
Arrive at your destination four hours early!
it’s still dark at 3:00 AM.
and here you are (well at least you are still alive)
On the side of the road “bus station”
Somewhere in central Laos.
*And thus describes our first and last ride on the contraption known as Laos sleeping bus.