Lovely, Laid-Back, Laos
Michael reports from the Bamboo Road cycling tour:
As I sit here on the shady, quiet grounds of the Champasak Palace Hotel in Pakse, once meant to be the home of the last King of Laos, a simple gesture reminds me what I love about this country. As the last of my fellow diners departed, the staff emerged to clean off the tables. There was a skinny hotel cat roaming around the tables, looking for leftovers. Instead of shooing it away, or perhaps taking it to the kitchen for future use (sorry Vietnam), a staff member poked through some leftovers and then dumped the choice morsels onto the patio for the cat to enjoy. That cat is now contentedly curled up under my feet.
Don’t get me wrong – Vietnam was amazing – beautiful and friendly – but as soon as the tour crossed over into this country, this achingly beautiful land, you could feel the change in the air. Vast expanses of land were unpopulated. The general noise level dropped dramatically. On the crowded Vietnamese roads, our support vehicles were always speeding past other cars, trucks and scooters, honking continuously, always trying to get ahead. In Laos, our new drivers were content to sit peacefully behind each and every truck, no matter how empty the road. Whereas the Vietnamese tended to smile immediately, the people here seemed neutral, withdrawn. That is, until you made personal contact and then a huge, genuine, mischievous grin would appear.
In Vietnam, the dogs were chained up as guard dogs, ignored or eaten. Village walls were topped with broken glass. Temples appeared buried amongst the endless rows of shops. In Laos, the dogs are friendly and accepted, colourful temples populate the smallest villages and orange-clad monks accept food from smiling locals on their journeys. The atmosphere is totally different: intense and frantic in Vietnam, relaxed and chill in Laos. It is impossible to explain. You simply have to experience it for yourself.
Having visited Laos in 2002, I have discovered upon my return that this country has now reached what appears to be a perfect balance for those that love to travel the world. It has enough amenities – WiFi, cell coverage, A/C, ATMs – things that currently seem now to be basic necessities but the country and its people still manage to hold on to a distance from the real world that those things connect us to; an other-worldliness that appeals to our older, less rational souls; a sense of a more perfect, human-centred world.