|Our impressions of Laos are admittedly more of a reflection on Cambodia than Laos. We had been told to expect a primitive, backward society. Instead we were amazed. Our entire trip was highlighted by exclamations of,
"Wow! They have bins!"
"Wow! They have mirrors on the motorbikes - and they actually give you helmets when you rent a bike!"
"Wow! There are rules of the road!"
"Wow! They have electricity lines - even in the country!" (Even in Phnom Penh there are daily power shortages. Outside of the main cities there isn't a hope of having electricity.)
"Wow! Where are the beggars?!"
"Wow! Why don't the police carry AK47s?"
"Wow! Green rice fields - isn't irrigation a useful thing?"
Laos is a stunningly beautiful country and its people are immensely friendly. They do appear to be nervous, however, when you try to talk to then about their government or the war. They are not very knowledgeable about such things and appear to be content to accept their present situation in exchange for peace. They are also very independent - only a handful of NGOs are located in the country. This was a welcome change from Cambodia.
It also prepared us for the culture shock that was Vietnam. In Savannakaet Chinese temples, Christian churches and Buddhist temples are all found beside each other - the first time we have seen the elaborate opulence of the Chinese! We had a wonderful time here simply relaxing and absorbing the serene beauty.
And so it was to Vietnam with us - our first land border. We have heard many tales about these borders and how the officials would attempt to rip you off. X-ray machines have been newly installed and as we now know, customs are particularly strict. The stories we have heard! One guy who was working for a Christian NGO had attempted to bring 42 bibles into Vietnam - they were not impressed. Two and half hours later they finally allowed him into the country- minus his bibles! And they will actually watch every DVD you try to bring into the country. We, however, had no such problems. Our bags weren't even taken off our bus and we were finally in Vietnam.
The first thing that really impressed me was the excellent English everyone we met spoke. And the extent of their knowledge. For 6 months now we have been met with blank stares when we mention Ireland. Here, the initial reaction is something alone the lines of, "Ah, small country. Beside England, yes?" It's rather impressive!
Once more the scenery is spectacular - although the people not quite as friendly. It ain't paranoia if they are out to get you! You wouldn't believe how often people will 'forget' to give you your change and the fierce competition makes for some aggressive sales techniques. Apparently the daily loudspeakers would announce to the community, "There are quite a few foreigners in town today. Don't be afraid to charge them extra, they can afford it." They don't do that anymore but old habits die hard!
Commercialism has obviously taken off in this communist state. High rise hotels spoil the skyline and everyone trying to get a piece of the action. Amazingly though, the fluent English speaking sales attendant who was ever so friendly as you walked past his establishment will suddenly lose all of his language skills as soon as you ask him for directions!