Leaving Laos

That was Laos. It was a quick week-long breeze-through and to do the country any true justice I’d need to come back. It wasn’t as cheap as I thought it would be, especially in touristed areas. Though I stopped off in rural areas briefly, I only spent any considerable time in Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane.

Luang Prabang, then, evokes Indochina at its most elegant. It’s a lovely place to spend a few days. The Hmong people going about daily errands and the vibrant monk life in town–both elements of “realness”– assuaged my travelers’ guilt of being in a too-easy place in an otherwise desperately poor country.

Vang Vieng, by contrast, is irresponsible, immature tourism brought to its most hedonistic conclusion. The Lao people in town are unfriendly and opportunistic owing to the cheapness of the exchange of culture for cash. I felt a divide between traveler and local that I never felt so pronounced anywhere else on this trip. The bright Lao spirit, so evident in other areas, was absent here and replaced by corrupt officials and leering boys peddling drugs, prostitutes and looking for any way to scam a foreigner. A German woman staying at the farm rented a motorbike, which was promptly stolen. Her experience with the police was dodgy and bribe-fueled, leading her to wonder (and farm staff to suggest) that perhaps the police were behind the theft themselves. Vang Vieng had incredible natural appeal, but the wildlife–as Dennis called the tubers–have ruined it for the rest of us.

Vientiane recalls a port city of long ago, but dotted with chic cafes and expats scooting around on motorbikes at every intersection. It reminds me of Phnom Penh in the sheer number of international NGO headquarters sprinkled about. You can’t turn a corner without seeing the WHO offices next to USAID next to the World Bank. Vientiane is sleepy, but not for long. Riverfront buildings sell for nearly $1m and now that Vang Vieng put Laos on the Banana Pancake Trail, it seems that Vientiane is more “discovered” than ever.

The intervening countryside between destinations was poorer and more underdeveloped than I’d anticipated. Coming from Cambodia and especially Thailand, I’d become accustomed to a slightly more advanced Southeast Asia than the one presented in rural Laos. Unfortunately, Laos seems to exist in the shadow of its neighbors (China included), not as riders on their development coattails. Houses are wooden, earthen or concrete and the occasional McMansion pops up out of nowhere. But the roads are pathetic, infrastructure very low and education seems to be an afterthought. It was disappointing to see Laos, landlocked and unloved, struggling so clearly.

A high point was the farm. Mr. T employs a variety of seriously progressive permaculture techniques on his farm, which is clearly a labor of both love and conviction. Lao-educated, he worked in the Ministry of Agriculture for his entire career before retiring to build the organic farm he’d always dreamed of. Industrious, capable, intelligent and kind, Mr. T.’s organic mulberry farm is the kind of place that could truly help turn Laos around. I was encouraged and impressed by his, and his incredible team of staff and volunteers’, efforts.

Goodbye, lovely Laos. Thanks for being real–the good and the bad–and treating me as well as can be expected given the tubular circumstances. If I come back, I’ll be sure to steer as clear of Vang Vieng as your rocky roads will allow me.


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