Thursday, 16 August 2007

Love and loathing in Laos

Today is our last one in Laos, and it's been a delight. In the last two of days we've done a couple of half-day trips out of Luang Prabang to two of the big local attractions, a very cool waterfall and a couple of less-than-amazing caves filled with Buddha statues. The journey up the Mekong and a tributary river was worth it though.

Lauren at the waterfall.

So goodbye Laos, I hope to come back and find you not too touristy. Sadly, I suspect you will be. Vang Vieng, or Vang Vegas, feels like it's more about helping backpackers get drunk and stoned cheaply than anything else, and Luang Prabang has plenty of places that sell burgers and chips.

Here's a summary of what I loved and loathed in Laos. I'll start with the bad stuff.

What I loathed

Losing my wedding ring in Vang Vieng. Yes, I know, I'm a moron. I was gutted - I loved my silver ring with its koru pattern, and I loved showing off that I was hitched to Lauren. I put it down on a chair in a room in our guesthouse and forgot to put it into its case. At some point the chair got moved and I think it must have rolled off. As we were about to board the bus to Luang Prabang I realised I didn't know where it was, and grabbed a tuktuk back. I searched the room, but to no avail. It's either been taken or is in some strange crevice. Which sucks the big one.

Drunken Western Yobbos. We were woken up in Vientiane and Vang Vieng by idiots who make you feel embarrassed to be part of the same culture.

Children trying to get money out of you. Begging isn't bad in Laos, and when you say no to someone who's offering something to you, unlike in Vietnam that's almost always the end of it. But the kids begging, selling nicknacks and offering baby birds in cages are not cool.

Rural poverty. Not quite as bad as Cambodia, but pretty damn bad. Driving through the villages with thatched rooves and walls made of woven bamboo, you feel like insanely wealthy visitors from another planet.

Toilets you have to pay to go in. Sure, they're cheap by NZ standards, but you are paying to use a repulsive hole in the ground.

What I loved

The scenery.

Man, karst mountains are cool. On the road from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang I stared open mouthed for ten minutes as we passed the steepest mountain I have ever seen. Sadly, the photos didn't come vaguely close to doing it justice.

The Mekong. It's big, it's brown and it's perfect for drinking iced lemon juice next to.

The Laos attitude. It's rare to strike someone who's not friendly, calm and laid back. A pleasant change from Vietnam. Go Buddhism.

Fruit shakes. Fresh fruit ground up with ice, combined with temperatures over 30 degrees, equals ecstasy.

Monks. They have cool robes, they give you directions and they also use cellphones and Skype.

Wats. So ornate, and filled with funky monks chilling out. Though I do wonder if some of the money spend making and decorating them should have gone on better sanitation.

Laos kids. Putting aside my disgust at the underage beggars and hawkers, the kids here are so darn cute. Playing soccer with a toddler, using a cane ball, was a highlight.

Elephants. So big, such amazingly flexible trunks. And, I thought, so placid. Then our bull snapped a small tree like it was a toothpick.

These things.

Essentially an engine on wheels yoked to a trailer, they're a popular form of public transport in northern Laos.

Beerlao. It's apparently the only beer made in Laos, and its yellow signs are everywhere. Including on a t-shirt of mine.

In short, Laos is great. Get here before too many people like us spoil it.


Tane Aikman said...

I found my ring! Yay! It was in my pack cover. Must have fallen in there when the chair got moved, then got stuck in some crevice. Lucky it didn't fall out when it was stowed on top of the minivan we took from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang!

I'm so happy. When I found it, the look on my face was like Gollum when he finally got the One Ring.

Sarah said...

Nice work finding your ring, Tane! I thought your comments about the child beggars were interesting. Once, when my stepfather was visiting a church in Rome (as you do...), a gang of children surrounded him and one of them lifted his wallet. When they dispersed, he realised they'd ripped him off and yelled at them. Then some random Roman ran after the kid with the wallet, tackled him to the ground, retrieved the wallet and handed it back to my astonished stepfather.

Bonnie said...

Finding something you thought you'd lost is one of the great joys of life.

Ash has a Beerlao tshirt, acquired for him by his travelling brother.