This year I was lucky to spend my midterm break in Laos - here's a little overview of the trip & my reflections!
Tuesday night after class and dinner we hopped on the overnight bus. Chiang Mai to Udon Thani with just me, Fou, and our friend Sage. We had other friends going to Laos, but taking another route. We arrived there in the morning, and hopped on another bus to the border town, Nong Khai. We got dropped at a travel agency, which I had read warnings about. "It's cheaper to get your Visa at the border!" But being exhausted and not knowing any other option (and being amateur travelers, bringing no USD) we went ahead and did everything there, which was actually convenient having someone to help us every step of the way. We crossed the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge into Vientiane.
Vientiane is a slow paced, developing capital. There are few sights to see other than the people and the mixture of new & old. There is a beautiful "dam" near the River where a huge market takes place and people are exercising. It was breathtaking to catch the sunset there. We spent the second day visiting the Buddha Park, which was awesome, Wat Phra That Luang was stunning, and the Arc de Triumph (Patuxai). The following morning we left for Vang Vieng.
After early morning bus shenanigans (late arrivals, bus transfers, and me forgetting my purse), we finally arrived in Vang Vieng. The bus ride was only a few hours, but fairly uncomfortable considering I had nothing to rest my head on, and whenever we hit a bump (which was often because Laos roads are terrible), my head jerked me awake. But once we entered the small town, I was in awe of the beauty.
I'm glad we decided to stay in VV for two days instead of one. The first day we went tubing down the river, which was reasonably clear! The bars that this event is famous for are closed as of now, so it wasn't busy and was safe. That was nice. It was so peaceful and we got to just gaze at the amazing beauty of the surrounding mountains. The next day we explored waterfalls, swimming holes, caves, and lagoons. A day of waterplay was really refreshing.
Two days in Vientiane, two in Vang Vieng. Three days to go. We spent the last of our time in Luang Prabang. Upon arrival, we noticed how touristy this city was. There were travel agencies every other door and prices were quoted in USD. There were tons of backpackers, families, and older travelers. Much more than I had seen anywhere else! But, we definitely enjoyed our time here, and got shown the ins and outs by Fou's old friend, Ricky, who lives in Luang Prabang. We explored amazing waterfalls, beautiful countryside, and crowded markets. Tuesday night rolled around and it was time to catch our bus.
We went to the wrong terminal, but the man told us the ticket was correct. When the bus finally left, we regretted our mistake. The bus was one of the worst we've ridden in. But, what's traveling without a bad experience to look back on and laugh, saying "if I survived that, I can do anything"?! The seats were cramped together, it was hot, we stopped constantly, and the roads were terrifying. I could barely sleep. But I did, and eventually awoke to the sunrise in the beautiful Northen Laos countryside.
It was surreal. The glow, the traditional life of the villagers. The students riding their bikes and walking to school. The women carrying bamboo woven baskets on their backs. The men harvesting rice in the huge fields. The peace and quiet you could feel leaking through the windows. There was something magical about it. Remembering it is almost like remembering a dream.
Finally we reached Huay Xai, the border town to stamp out of Laos. We took a short little boat ride across the Mekong to Chiang Khong, Thailand, and got stamped back in. We were escorted to a bus. A REALLY NICE bus. I think Karma was on our side, because we were the only three in the entire bus for the whole trip back to Chiang Mai. We were definitely rewarded for our perseverance ;)
I was really happy to be back in Chiang Mai. I felt home. Laos was much more underdeveloped, and it was obvious in many ways. I didn’t miss modernity, but I did miss safety and the nice people. There were a lot more children than in Thailand. Life is simpler, more traditional. Roots are important to the Lao people; their way of life is unchanged. They may not crave development, but instead financial or agricultural assistance. It made me realize that it isn’t the West’s place to assume what these people want or need. Lao people have different cultural values, and that needs to be respected. Loss of culture is a terrifying epidemic, and Laos is determined to maintain theirs.
I’m so glad I had this opportunity to visit another country, and one so drastically different from Thailand. Excited for my next trips – Cambodia, China, and Vietnam!
Until then, Sabaii-dee-jao!