Welcome to Laos, The World Next Door
Running short on time and money, Jeremy and I were forced to make a choice for our next to last destination: Vietnam or Laos. We sought advice from our friends, talked with passing travelers and spent hours online researching the two options. In the end, we opted for fourteen days in Laos.
One of the greatest influences in our decision was the promise that Laos still offered the experience of undeveloped – or traditional – southeast Asian culture; whereas Vietnam has already been transformed by bustling cities and a thriving tourism industry. Assuming that Laos would be less developed than Cambodia, our bus ride from Siem Reap left us mentally preparing for the worst. We had both read and heard stories that the overland journey from Siem Reap, Cambodia to Laos’ capital city, Vientiane, was a nightmare. The agencies claimed it to take 24 hours with three back-to-back bus changes, but travelers have reported it taking up to 38 hours. If we had been $200 richer we might have flown and saved ourselves the trouble, but we needed those dollars, so we loaded onto a small, dingy bus at 5am hoping for the best.
After 2 hours, our bus broke down. Luckily, it only took about an hour and a half for the driver to fix the problem before we were on our way again. A couple of hours further the bus stopped again. “Vientiane?” they asked us. We nodded and were scooted off the bus and directed to another one waiting on the side of the road. Asking our new driver if we would make it to our connection in Pakse (for the 8pm night bus), he smiled and kindly said “no.” Things were not looking good…so we boarded in an early state of anxiety to find ourselves on an unair-conditioned sleeping bus (meaning there are only beds, no seats) with no assigned seat. Again, we were lucky and squeezed into the back row of beds, forced to lay down, shoulder to shoulder with three other people for 7 hours in the heat of the day. (Lucky because we didn’t have to stand in the isle like some other people).
Somehow we ended up making our final connection. The border crossing into southern Laos was quick and painless (not like entering Cambodia) and the night bus wasn’t actually scheduled to leave until 8:30pm. Arriving at 8:15, we even had enough time to pick up a healthy dinner of donuts, cake and pork-buns. Better yet, as if to repay us for the discomfort of sweating like sardines all day, our overnight bus looked like it had fallen from clean, sparkling heaven. Stepping inside the bus was like walking into a first class cabin of an elite cruise ship. Each couple had their own “cabin” with a cushioned bed, full window, pillows, blanket, and storage shelf with the air-conditioning blasting directly overhead. It was glorious. Wait a second, this is Laos? We realized. Undeveloped Laos? We slept like babies for the next 8 hours as the bus drove us smoothly through the night to our destination, right on schedule.
I have come to realize that the term “undeveloped” is commonly misused by travelers. Perhaps most of them really mean to say “un-Americanized” or “untainted,” because “undeveloped” certainly does not accurately describe Laos. When we woke to find ourselves in Vientiane, the first thing we noticed was how developed it was. It had been months since we had seen such well constructed roads, clean sidewalks, prevalent garbage bins, decent electrical wiring, and perfectly manicured parks. Immediately, we agreed that our preconceptions had been false – not a bad thing, however. A country of laid-back, happy people, yes; lazy and behind the times, absolutely not.
We had two days to get acquainted with Vientiane, which turned out to be a perfect amount of time. Vientiane is situated along the banks of the Mekong River, separating Laos from Thailand. Being the end of the dry season, the river was low and the gardens in riverfront park were a bit brown, but it was still a nice walk. We spent the good part of our first morning on a self guided tour of the parks, fountains, presidential buildings, temples, outdoor gymnasiums, and the adorable restaurants and cafes that give this low-rise city center its calming character.
Before arriving, I had not realized what colonizers the French had been in this part of the world. Knowing little about the history I cannot comment on the actual attitude that Lao people have towards the French or foreigners (though it seems amiable), but it is apparent that Laos has benefited from quite a bit of foreign financial aid. Remnants of French culture exist in the form of high quality pastries, incredible baguettes and expensive wine shops. The Americans left their mark when they donated cement to build a large highway, which the Lao used to construct the beautiful French-style Patuxai monument instead, and I believe it was the Australians who financed the construction of the Friendship Bridge between Laos and Thailand. I have also noticed that Lao buses were donated by Japan and many hospitals by China.
What’s unique and admirable about Vientiane is that despite the obvious foreign aid and influence, the traditional culture and lifestyle had held strong. You do not find the wild nightlife, the casinos, the traffic, the smog, or the sex industry that you find in other southeast Asian cities. People are not hassling you on the streets to buy something or take their tuk-tuk. You will find monks roaming the streets on their way to school or temple, lively markets and food stalls dishing out Laap (a traditional meal of minced meat and herbs with a side of sticky rice eaten with your hands), and everyday people going about their everyday lives. Life remains tranquil, family-centric and easily enjoyed by all.
Once the cool of the afternoon set in, we asked a tuk-tuk to take us to Pha That Luang, one of the most famous and culturally significant Buddhist stupas in the country. Having survived since the 3rd century, Pha That Luang is a Lao national symbol. Standing at the base of the three-tired, gold-covered monument makes you understand why they are so proud. The stupa is enormous and looks like a perfectly carved jewel on the surface of the earth. What’s more magnificent is how the government has blocked the roads surrounding the stupa, ridding the area of diesel and noise pollution.
The next day, we woke up slowly and took our time to enjoy the rich Lao coffee – something we’d been missing in Cambodia. After a short walk to the local market and bus station, we hoped on the number 14 bus to Buddha Park (again we were completely amazed by the quality and organization of their transportation system and never-seen-before-in-southeast-asia indoor, air-conditioned market).
We were skeptical about visiting Buddha Park because once again, people had given us mixed reviews. But as we had just learned not to trust every strangers opinion we decided to go for it. At the Thai border (where the bus had dropped us), we had a pleasant conversation with a monk who spoke five languages and was also on his way to the park (a good sign this place was worth the trip). He helped us catch a second bus that would bring us to the entrance.
In total, it took us about an hour and a half to find our way there from Vientiane and I’d say it was worth it. Buddha Park is not a temple, it is a sculpture garden with statues depicting a blend of Hindu and Buddhist deities. Over 200 sculptures are displayed on the grounds, including a larger than life reclining Buddha and giant pumpkin – hollow on the inside with three levels connected by a steep stone staircase representing Hell, Earth and Heaven. (So I guess I can say I’ve been to Heaven and back again?). We spent a couple of hours leisurely surveying the grounds, examining the masonry, wondering about the meaning behind the images, and taking nearly a hundred photos.
After only two days, I was thoroughly impressed by Vientiane and what little I knew of Lao people and culture. I felt uninhibitedly happy and exhilarated to be in a new country. Unfortunately, we already knew that two weeks in Laos would not be enough time to do this beautiful place justice. We had another full-day bus ride ahead of us to the city of Luang Prabang and a premonition that the best was yet to come.