Well, maybe it’s taken me a week since getting back from Laos to put up a post because I’ve been moping a teeny bit – RP is in the States for a little while now, and while having a great vacation is restorative, it can make it tough to come back to normal life.
Our time in Laos was sweet and relaxing, and not like many other trips we’ve taken; because our time there was short, we only went to Luang Prabang and Vientiane, both in the north. We strolled and ate and looked at temples, and otherwise didn’t do much – it was a wonderful time, even if Luang Prabang and Vientiane are two of the strangest places I’ve been in Asia.
Our guidebook, and the people I spoke to who had been to Laos, went on and on about how friendly Lao people are (true!) and how lovely Lao Buddhist art is (double true! and not as flashy as Burmese Buddhist art). But what they really ought to just come out and say about these two places is as follows:
“LUANG PRABANG: Welcome to a massive tourist trap! Every restaurant in this town is aimed at a horde of European and Thai tourists (Lao people seem not to eat in sit-down restaurants) who are kitted out like they are going on safari, even though they will actually spend their days wandering around cute little streets, eating baguettes left over from the 7 minutes that the French colonized the area, and drinking Beer Lao. Avoid the several hours in the middle of the day that it’s too hot to go outside by lazing under a fan and drinking more Beer Lao! Bon appetit!”
“VIENTIANE: Welcome to Vientiane, brought to you by UNDP, UNESCO, WHO and USAID! Here you can watch the banks of the Mekong being bulldozed, peruse a massive collection of middle school dioramas and exploded ammunition telling the story of the country’s history at the Lao National Museum, and wonder how exactly a country stays afloat entirely on the assistance of wealthier nations! And then you can drink a cup of coffee and eat granola and yoghurt and a replica of a Palo Alto coffee shop so complete that you will swear you’re on University Avenue! Cheers, dude!”
“NOTE: If you visit Laos in the dry season – which you will – the whole country will be covered in a layer of haze from all of the slash-and-burn agriculture. This will make for poor photos but truly hallucinatory sunsets!”
So there – now you don’t have to read a guidebook about either of these places.
This isn’t to say I didn’t have a great time: the tricky thing about visiting Laos when living in Kunming is that I actually miss good Western food, and Western-style shops and places to relax, so when I had the opportunity to hang out in those places…I was pretty excited. RP and I ate the most old-fashioned and absurdly delicious French food several days in a row, including the most expensive items on the menu because everything cost about $3. We hung out in a bookstore with more and better English-language books than I’ve seen in 9 months. I ate a chocolate soufflé that was ACTUALLY the size of my head. We chilled out and were deliriously happy.
I am fully aware that these two places are not what the rest of Laos looks like. We first flew from Kunming to Jinghong, a city in the very south of Yunnan where we spent Chinese New Year’s Eve, and then took a bus across the China-Laos border and went straight on to Luang Prabang – 19 hours of travel. From Luang Prabang we took a bus south directly to Vientiane – 12 hours of travel. The north of the country is mountainous, covered with dense but scrubby foliage, and sparsely populated, with small collections of houses raised off the ground on low stilts. People’s houses are single-story, with thatched or corrugated tin roofs and thin walls constructed of stacked planks of wood or some kind of woven material like bamboo. People are, for the most part, farmers of some kind and have very low incomes. The single major road is mostly but not entirely paved, much of it having been underwritten by the Chinese government.
But if you hang out in Luang Prabang or Vientiane, you will find yourself having to be reminded that you are in one of the poorest countries in Asia. Because from your giddy perch in an Italian restaurant – finally away from the huge stresses of your job and researching various public health miseries and an accumulated weariness of living in China – it’s hard to see it in all of the foreign government-funded (relative) prosperity around you. And maybe, just for a week of vacation, you wouldn’t really want to see it anyway.
Man, what is happening to me?
I’ve put up the first installment of photos – these are heavy on temple art and don’t show much of what Luang Prabang and Vientiane look like as cities. RP has the rest of the photos (I will get them up here eventually…).
Click photo to see the full album.