We leave Lao today. I’ve started and halted many posts on Lao as my feelings on the country have evolved. When I think back to our first week in Luang Prabang, we were turned off. Turned off by the tourist strip of ticky-tak stores and backpackers in short shorts and tank tops walking with bottles of open BeerLao. Turned off by the garbage and dust and animal feces. Turned off by the tourist weary residents.
So I waited. Because first impressions can be wrong. And mine was.
Luang Prabang is a picturesque town with a fushion of traditional Lao and European colonial buildings situated on the confluence of the mighty Mekong and the Nam Kham rivers. Haven’t lush greenery and colonial architecture always gone together so well?
I look out from our balcony at white French buildings with blue shutters, narrow brick side streets, palm trees and colorful, opulent flowers. The elderly Lao women on our block are packing up their rice and mats after having spent the first hour of their day on their knees methodically offering a pinch of sticky rice to the sixty or so monks — shaved heads, orange robes, so young — who quietly plod by in bare feet…every day!
I am struck by the ingenuity of a people to make do with the resources they have. A hydro electric generator made from a bike wheel. Children’s toys in the form of straws, used plastic cups, and sticks. The ability to leverage the earth to eek out a small living — harvesting bamboo, rice, river weeds, and carving small garden beds into the river banks.
The annual per capita income in Lao is US$3,000. The landlocked country is surrounded by China, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand. The latter two exert a heavy influence on the socialist country, both culturally and politically. This proximity also led to the Northern Vietnamese using Lao as a supply route during the Vietnam war and as a result, Lao is the most heavily bombed country (per capita) in history, with the U.S. dropping over 2 million tons of ordnance on the country. (As an American, it has been eye opening to witness the impact of the Vietnam war and U.S. Secret war on Cambodia and Laos. A future blog post on this topic…waiting to visit the Opium Museum in Thailand to increase my education on the secret war. Out of respect to those involved on all sides, I want to get the facts right.)
The buddhist and animist country is changing rapidly due to the foreign investments in mining and hydropower and the continued growth of tourism. You can feel the infrastructure straining at the onslaught.
But the beauty of the country lies in the landscape, the sing-songing “sabaidees” of the children as you pass, the devoteness of a Buddhist nation, and the calm relaxing breeze carried from the Mekong River. Khawp jai lai lai, Lao.
* In the U.S., we commonly refer to Lao as Laos. However the country calls itself Lao PDR (People’s Democratic Republic).
More to follow on Tips, Sleep, Eat and Do plus a few Luang Prabang getaway recommendations soon!