|How to sum up an entire country?
While traveling I am constantly running into people that have already been to where I am headed next, and everyone is always happy to give you their opinion of the place. I try to not have it affect my perspective, but subconsciously, I am sure it does. As it was for Vietnam, no one I have met has been overly affectionate, or even that affectionate, about their time there and I think I walked away with a similar feeling. Beautiful country but it did not leave me overflowing with love towards the people or the energy of the place.
Now, when it came to Laos, everyone raves, although no one could ever articulate why. They all say...'oh Laos, you...must...go..to..Laos, you...will..love...Laos.' And it is always said slowly and dreamlike. And I hate to say it, but I now feel the same way. My hypothesis on why everyone responds to the country in a stoned-like way is because it is the most laid-back place I have ever been...and, people tend to smoke a lot of weed.
My first night in Luang Prabang, my newly met friends and I were having difficulties finding a place to stay, and for once, there was no one standing on the street trying to lure us into their residence. At one point, we actually wanted to see a tout that could bring us to a hotel. There was no hassling. I would walk the night market filled with textiles, food and goodies, and it was actually quiet. No one is aggressively trying to get you to buy their products and when you try to bargain down the price, it is easy and friendly.
I found myself staying longer in Luang Prabang than I originally thought; which turned out to be my theme for the entire country. Although there is not a lot to do, the towns some how suck you in. After a few days of wandering the beautiful colonial streets and ancient wats, a group of us headed up North to a small village called Muong Noig. It took a packed mini van and even more crowded long boat ride to bring us to the one-road village. The handful of accommodations ranged from the high-end of $8 to $2 bungalows. It was perfect. I stayed on a little compound of five bungalows and made fast friends with two Israelis, another American and a Belgium girl named An. The view from my bamboo hut looked over the Mekong River and the massive mountains surrounding it. The first day was beautiful and warm and got me thinking I could spend my remaining two weeks in this little village.
However, the cold that chased me out of Vietnam followed me to Laos and I woke up to being surprisingly cold. We did a great day trek that led us to a small village where we were invited to join in the local's celebration. Lao Lao (local rice whiskey) was being passed around freely and after my fourth shot, I thanked them for letting me observe their drum playing and singing but announced I had had enough. It was such a treat to walk the simple village where people made everything by hand and you were reminded of how little one actually needs to survive.
The next day was so cold that instead of heading to another village, we all collected fire wood and ended up having a great big bon fire that lasted the entire day and night, attracting more travelers and friends. I was torn about waiting out the weather or deciding to return to Luang Prabang where I would then head further South. The next day I decided I wanted to see the rest of the country and so I left with some of the other people I had met and we boated, and bused it back to Luang Prabang.
The next day the same group that came from the North piled into another mini bus that took us to the town Vang Vieng. It is a beautifully located town that has now become too touristy and too Cancun-wannabe. I was very weirded out by all the restaurants that had TVs in the them that showed Friends and Family Guy reruns. The day after arriving, a group of us rented inner tubes and floated down the river with frequent stops at bars and rope swings (picture the Apple River for all you Minnesota people). It was fun but I was ready to leave the following day and not get sucked in to all the reggae bars that Laos was trying to offer.
I spent two days in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, which is sleepy and surprisingly boring, making me ready to leave to go further south. I hoped on an overnight bus to take me to the city of Pakse and that is where I saw my friend An who I had said goodbye to up in Muong Noig. Once I arrived there, I took a local bus (picture holes in the flooring and live chickens running around) to another sleepy but wonderful town of Tad Lo. The highlights there are the waterfalls. All I did was read, sit in my bamboo hut, rent a bicycle and hike around the area. I loved it and learned that there is an art to doing nothing.
After a few days I realized my time in Laos was soon expiring and I needed to head to Don Det, one of the islands in the string of 4,000 islands that Laos has to offer along the Mekong River. I took another local bus that then transferred me to a jumbo tuk tuk that not only transported around twenty people, but two baskets of live pigs and one live chicken. After the dusty three hour ride I got into a boat that transported me to the generated-run, bungalow strewn island.
Again, I can't really tell you what I did but I seemed to fill up a good five days there. I read a book every day, I biked around the islands and played in more waterfalls, I ate, I laid on the beaches and ran into people that I had met in the North. It was really lovely and I am glad that I went there when I did because I think it is only going to get more touristy and turn into the next Vang Vieng soon. The island plans on having electricity within the year, and even that makes me sad although I am sure the locals are happy about it.
I decided to leave on the 27th so I would be sure to be in Bangkok by the time my parents arrived. After taking a boat back to the mainland, I got in a mini bus and to my surprise, saw An again. To make a very long day of traveling short, I ended up riding in six different vans (due to them all breaking down at one point or another), crossing the border easily into Thailand and then catching a very comfortable train ride into Bangkok. An joined me the whole way and I was happy to have a friend with to laugh at how exhausting traveling overland can be.
We arrived in Bangkok early morning of the 28th and it hit me that I actually made it to Thailand, a country that was always at the tail end of my planned traveling itinerary. I guess my journey is starting to wind down, although not completely, I still have Cambodia and Southern Thailand to tackle!
Laos was incredibly relaxing and I am feeling very lazy from that country because it was so easy to do nothing but sit around and enjoy your surroundings. It was a nice break from Vietnam and I am happy that I followed other traveler's advice and ...went...to... Laos.