My short but sweet eight days in Laos provided two welcome changes from my trip so far. First, I crossed into Laos with a rough idea of what I could fit into a week's worth of travel but I had no information, no guide book, and no idea what I was really doing. I sort of wanted to just let things happen after using guide books as security blankets in Australia, Thailand and New Zealand. Secondly, I finally completed a rewarding and extended amount of travels with a group of random backpackers; this coming after a few mediocre travel mates and my conclusion only a few weeks ago that I was best suited to travel solo.
Laos is a unique place. Now with both Thailand and Vietnam under my belt, Laos leaves the impression of a lost or forgotten world set between two countries that have a ton of history. The small villages I spent my time in were easily the most third world places I have ever been to....I say this in a good way. Unlike dilapidated third world countries, Laos is simply not developed. Thatched roof huts, rustic toilets, wood stoves, few electronics - its just an undeveloped place that to the naked eye, is in no rush to join modernity. The locals either ignored us or tried to help us when necessary.....again this is a good thing, compared to the hassles you encounter from over-zealous sales persons and touts in Thailand and Vietnam.
Some travelers will conclude that there is very little to do or see in Laos, and in a way I have to agree. Forty percent of the country remains prone to unexploded land mines, and the rest of the country has minimal to zero modern infrastructure. The backpacker highways are commonly known trips running north/south from the border town of Huay Xai on a two day boat cruise on the Mekong to the french colonial town, Luang Prabang. From there its an 8 hour bus ride to Vang Viene for a notorious day of tubing on the Mekong from one bar to another ending the day in a drunken stupor. There are trekking opportunities in between, there is the weakly reviewed capital of Vientiene, and there are a few other activities like the Gibbon Experience (see below entry) which can keep you in the country longer.
That being said, after I opted for the Gibbon Experience I had basically a week to get myself to Hanoi without sacrificing too much of Vietnam in the process. While living in the treehouses I befriended four other travelers. There was Daniel and Hannes, a German and Austrian, who were old university friends and now were both in the corporate world and taking a three week vacation together. I actually met them on my overnight bus from Chaing Mai, and we talked briefly about the Gibbon Experience. The next morning I crossed the border on my own and ran into them in Huay Xai. We went over to the Gibbon Experience office and lobbied to get into the group that started that morning....we missed the company's charter van north by thirty minutes, but with three people offering to sign up, they got a pickup truck and loaded us in so that we could meet up with the rest of the day's group. In the jungle the three of us were placed in a five person tree house with two girls from Canada, Ally and Courtney, and from there the team of 5 was in place for the next week in Laos.
A bit of bad luck led to our first tip. Ally had her camera taken from the treehouse. Possible theories ranged from curious giant squirrels to the local village drunk, but the reward came in the form of the company owner Jeff, a forty something Frenchman who talked with us in an attempt at damage control. (NOTE: I really dont know what happened to the camera, it was a piece of garbage and we all had our wallets in the treehouse unguarded, and the guides and owner were earnestly distraught, so its loss was not really logical.) Jeff advised us to avoid the two day Mekong boat ride, which consists of sixteen hours spread over two days on a slow rather uncomfortable boat, with a layover in a dull town that everyone is forced to stay in. Instead he advised us to bus it to a small village called Nong Khiau. To get there would require a simple ten hour bus journey, or so he said. From there it was a day's boat journey down the Ou River which flows into the Mekong just north of Luang Prabang. It was off the beaten path, and it was only one day on the boat. All five of us were excited to have some insider information and an alternative to the standard route.
The actual journey provided what we wanted -- no tourists, no backpackers, isolation in a small town, and picturesque scenery. The initial 'bus' ride turned into a private minivan ride when we found out that the only option on our travel day was the local bus...an estimated 16 hour drive with live chickens, pigs, and babies on board. No thanks. Our minivan was pretty flash, we all had full recliners and a lot of room for what turned out to be an eleven hour drive. The total distance less than two hundred miles! The roads in Laos are mostly paved, but every mile brings occasional dirt road patches, pot holes, mud slides, or reductions to a single lane. You have to just give it all time because you can not get anywhere fast....unless you fly. We got to Nong Khiau in the dark, exhausted, without any idea where we would sleep. The driver took us to a guesthouse that was kind of clean and remotely comfortable, but it was all we had and despite the whining of some of our troops I put my foot down and said that there was no way I was going to look at various guesthouses at 8pm in this town, we were staying put. We caught an amazingly starlight sky, ate at a bizarrely fantastic Indian food place, and got pulled off the street by a drunk local to finish a bottle of Laos whiskey with his family. All in all, a good night.
In the morning we awoke to the enchanting location that puts Nong Khiau on the map. Its stationed on the Ou River in between various jungle green mountains. With more time it would have been a choice location to do some trekking, but we all had a tight schedule and yearned for some society in Luang Prabang. The ensuing boat trip was nice, but coming off the heels of an 11 hour van ride, 7 more hours in a boat put everyone on edge. We dodged the rain this whole time, but apparently a storm had led to a swollen section of the Ou north of the merge into the Mekong. We had to wait two hours while the boat captains examined the section and determined a navigation route. The boats in Laos are all wooden and are closer to big canoes than boats, a bad current or any type of swell could be exciting in a bad way. So that was an unfortunate delay, but we still got into L.P. before dark and were all fully satisfied that we'd chosen correctly with our travels.
Luang Prabang is a strange place. After several days living in jungles and in small backwoods villages, L.P. was a shock, as its easily the most western place I have been to in southeast asia. There is certainly a large local community and local Laos restaurants and universities are everywhere, but the old city is a UNESCO world heritage site and it is presently home to a large westernized neighborhood of french patisseries, cafes, travel agents, and nice hotels. The issue I have is how cut off the tourist and local areas seem to be in L.P. It is a very nice place and I enjoyed resting there for a few nights. Certainly, it is on all tour packages as a location not to be missed, and it attracts a very sedate western crowd of middle to older age tourists, along with the obligatory backpacker scene. Its just a hard place to feel as though you are in a country like Laos.
So much writing, I'll stop now. I had wanted to do the land crossing from Laos to Dien Bien Phu in northern Vietnam, but after experiencing the pace of the roads in Laos, I booked a flight into Hanoi. I skipped the drunken revelry of Vang Viene and missed out on some trekking. I could have easily put in another week in Laos, if not more, but I am thankful to have seen a good cross section of what the country has to offer. And I'll add that I got the sense that Laos remains outside the investors' eyes, it does not look like a place that will be all that different in ten years, hopefully I'll find out for myself.