I’m not really sure where to start today. I’ve now been in Laos for a week, and I love it. The atmosphere is quite different to Thailand and Vietnam, yet eerily similar. The local saying of ‘same same but different’ has never made more sense.
Luang Prabang has a night market, selling the usual souvenirs, trinkets and clothing; there is street food available and food markets in the daytime selling fly covered meat and vegetables to local mothers and grandmothers. The streets are also filled with travel agencies, tour companies, money exchange offices and westernised cafes offering coffee and eggs for breakfast. Street corners have tuk tuks waiting in line with drivers yelling to any tourist that passes ‘tuk tuk, waterfall?’ But there are no chains, no 7-11s, no Maccas, no Burger Kings. Nothing internationally commercial – everything is local and one off.
Traffic is quite light here with just the one main road through town. As light as traffic may be, cars, motorbikes and tuk tuks still drive however and wherever they wish, with the right hand side seemingly just a guide here. Unlike Vietnam, there are footpaths here for pedestrians to walk on, yet most seem to favour the roads and traffic doesn’t seem to mind. There is an odd patience of the drivers, simply waiting for space to go around when the road narrows.
Whilst it wasn’t particularly hectic in Chiang Mai – certainly not at all in comparison to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City – there was still a lack of patience and craziness of the traffic. Since arriving in Laos, I don’t think I’ve heard a single car horn beep apart from when our tuk tuk approached a blind corner and warned of his arrival. I like it.
The boat journey here was long, yet peaceful. My time in Luang Prabang has also been long, yet peaceful. I initially booked my hostel for four nights, then added two, then one more. I’ve got time on my side and since I’m not putting any pressure on myself, why not stay a little longer?
I’ve been to Kuangsi Waterfalls, I’ve kayaked along a Mekong River tributary, along the Mekong River itself and I’ve visited local cafes and temples. I went to a museum today, dedicated to teaching locals and visitors about the impact of the Indochina 2 War – the Vietnam War.
Whilst not directly involved in the conflict, due to its location, the Americans and North Vietnamese used Laos as a path to get into the south – causing devastation along the way. Millions of bombs were dropped in the countryside and approximately 300 people die from unexploded devices each year. Coming into South East Asia, I knew of the Vietnam War, knew of the Khmer Rouge and the Pol Pot regime throughout Cambodia, I knew of the Death Railway and Japanese infiltration in WWII, yet knew nothing of the aftermath or affects in Laos.
So many people consider SE Asia to simply be a cheap place to visit, buy cheap drinks, cheap street food, and cheap souvenirs and take for granted the lush countryside and beautiful beaches. What they don’t realise is how rich in history this area is, what they have been through – at the hands of others. How they have recovered from this and welcome and embrace external cultures and smile at every tourist that walks by. Bargaining may be a fun activity for tourists to partake in, but this is a constant way of life for these people. While we move on after a day or two, they do the same day after day, night after night.
What I have appreciated is that there has been strong Australian government support provided. The signage at the waterfalls were graphic designed by the University of Sunshine Coast, the bear rescue centre was partially funded by the Australian government, and along with Unicef, the Australian government also helped set up the UXO (unexploded ordinance) museum. I am already very proud to be Australian, yet this makes me prouder.
I feel conflicted at times as to whether the tourist dollar and tourism culture is a good thing for the region. Without the tourists, would the locals have money to survive? But without the tourists, they wouldn’t need the high levels of infrastructure and costly food and sleeping items. Without tourists, they would live in quiet, history-ridden streets and continue with their customs.
What I do know is that I’m taking the time to learn and observe. I may not be immersing myself in the culture, but it’s not my culture – I don’t want to offend. I want to witness the locals being themselves and I want to appreciate what they have been through, what they are going through and what they will continue to go through.
I can’t read the language here – it’s similar to Thai and I have no clue what any character means or reads. I have however picked up two words: ‘sabaidee’ (hello) and ‘khop chai’ (thank you). Each time I use them, they are met with smiles and acknowledgment. The small things do go a long way. A sabaidee can turn a person’s face around; it can light up and change the vibe of where you are. It shows them that you appreciate them and their culture. I am here for their culture; I am not here for mine or to force mine on them.
After only a week in Laos, I’m truly feeling the peace. The country is poor – immensely poor – yet the people are rich. They are friendly, helpful and kind. This is a community-based country and market stalls don’t compete with each other. They swap stories, money and tourists. They care for each other’s stalls and share child minding responsibilities. Young kids sleep at the stalls, older kids sell at the stalls. Community and family working and living together. There’s nothing poor about that, only peace and love.
Tomorrow I am off to Vang Vieng; the once tubing tourist mecca: alcohol, drugs and adventure activities combined. Luang Prabang has an 11.30pm curfew, monks collecting alms at sunrise and market stalls. Possibly same same, but most surely will be very different.