Had we not been political junkies, we might not have ever heard of this small land-locked country in Southeast Asia, just north of Cambodia, south of China, west of Viet Nam and east of Thailand. Laos is mostly known for its peripheral involvement in the Viet Nam war. After the French left in the 1950s, Laos was subject to invasions by China and Viet Nam and was bombed by Americans during the war as it was a supply route between Viet Nam and the then Soviet Union. Click the link for a map.
Today Laos is a one-party communist dictatorship. It is largely agrarian & rural, with the Mekong River serving as a transportation conduit from north to south. Along with some minerals, Beerlao is a major export and economic driver. Tourism is on the rise, although that is not apparent to us as we see very few other gringos. The Lonely Planet travel guide describes Laos as “a land of lotus eaters amid the bloated development of its neighbours, Laos brings together the best of Southeast Asia in one bite-sized destination.” We say: well said!
Luang Prabang, the Laos city we fly into, is a playground of affordable massages, lunch stir-fries and spring rolls, lotus blossom salads, elaborately carved teak buildings, colourful temples. And silk. Silk garments, silk blankets, silk art, silk purses, placemats, pillow covers. This is an incomplete inventory of the contents of our bag going home.
Buddhism is the dominant religion and ornate temples dot the landscape. As do orange-robed monks.
Our hotel, the Bel Air resort is on the banks of the Nam Khan river, close to where it intersects with the mighty Mekong. One morning the gardener finds an unexploded land mine on the property, a sober reminder of the war. Two young waiters take a shine to us. They want to practice their English. I wish I could remember their names.
Life moves slowly. People take time to sit. And chat. There’s nothing to rush to.
Biking gets us a few miles out of town to the Ock Pop Tok weavers co-operative, on the banks of the Mekong. There are only a few of us there. It’s quiet and a gentle breeze ripples the silk banners hanging in the restaurant where we have lunch. Then a demonstration of silk making. Craig drinks some silkworm dung tea.
Walking along the Mekong one morning we see a bridge leading to an island. A guide materializes and offers his services. He leads us to several Buddhist monasteries. At the last one, two sisters start following us. They look 8 and 3 ish. Speak a little English. Giggle a lot. They come inside the main temple with us. Start dancing. The light is perfect. We get some very good shots. They walk us partly down the hill. We give them a bit of money as thanks for their time and their performance.
A day trip to a waterfall, a village and an elephant sanctuary happens in a private car. Driver and guide. The guide eats a bad green papaya salad. The cars pulls over so he can puke. We drop him off somewhere and carry on without him.
The elephant sanctuary is disappointing. As soon as we are hoisted up top to the basket and the old pachyderm is prodded to move, I feel uncomfortable. It is such a gimmick. I feel foolish and like a kid at a fair, riding a pony several sizes too small for it, even though the elephant is huge and we are dwarfed. I ask to be let off. Craig stays on, trying to convince himself that this is good fun.
I walk to the river bank, sandy and flat, find a comfy stone, sit and watch the water. Loud splashing draws my attention. Its the elephant. The handler is in the basket. Where is Craig? He had especially hoped for a trip down the river on the back of an elephant. Indiana Jones style.
Instead he walks up behind me. “Now he’ll go in the water. Now that I’m off”. Apparently the elephant refused to move when they got close to the river. The handlers’ shoving, slapping and prodding made Craig feel like too much of a sahib. He got off. The elephant bolted for the river.
Later, we cross the river in a boatful of other tourists. On the far side, up the rocky mountain face, are a series of caves where Buddhists secretly worshiped during times of religious repression. The caves are stacked with Buddhist carvings. Its surreal.
Back on the other side, at a tourist market selling the usual plastic souvenirs, there are kids selling caged birds’ freedom for a few coins. Craig buys. The little girl releases the bird. Craig watches expectantly. The bird can’t really fly. It lands in the bushes. She waits a short time, until we have started to walk away. Soon the bird is back in the cage and she is approaching another camera toting gringo.
Some days you realize that you are just naive tourists. It’s humbling.