I took a deep breath. ’I’d like to cancel my flight to Cambodia’.
Was I crazy? Did I really just abort my pre-paid, ‘once in a lifetime’ visit to Angkor Wat…
A slightly lost, photo heavy, confused Laos Travel Guide..story…thing!
It started with a bump, literally. Lao Airlines, who worryingly told me and the eight other passengers on our flight ‘we are ready to be a national carrier’ shuttled us up the runway of Hanoi airport. I wasn’t feeling overly confident.
But as we parted Vietnam’s skies and my smiles returned (Yeah, Vietnam. We have some making up to do) the beauty of Laos lay in front of my window. Mountains broke through the blanket of clouds which coated the country, lush green landscapes making their presence known in any gap. Too soon the flight had landed.
The charming white washed streets were broken up by the gold topped temples, Monks and novices donning shades of orange and stalls serving up incredible food at even more incredible prices. Well cared for dogs danced around children playing happily along the streets.
Sitting alongside the Mekong river, pristine and free of rubbish, Luang Prabang suddenly didn’t feel like Asia at all.
It is often refered to as the cutest city in Asia for this very reason. It seemed all most too good to be true. But was it?
It’s a bit of a nothing town for ‘must visits’, not to say that’s a bad thing. The town itself being the main attraction means wandering aimlessly, my favourite thing, was exactly how to kill the next few days.
Exploring Temple after Temple, the ornate gold patterns and purple flowers contrasting beautifully in the sun. Wandering the Mekong and crossing the bamboo bridges to the more real side of the river, where chickens roamed free, walls were not white washed and locals went about their day-to-day life without any need to entertain the tourists.
When sunset came we all ascended to the temple at the top of the tower. Crowded and wanting to find a better vantage spot I headed to the edge of the river. The boats were ferrying locals across to their home villages, the last lights of day danced merrily on the water and silhouettes highlighted a photographers dream.
I skipped sunset the next night and headed to Big Brother Mouse, a great charity which works with schools and writes school books. Each morning and evening they host a drop in session for other language speakers to practice with locals of all ages and help them with homework and improving their languages. I felt so privileged to be surrounded by a group of young people who genuinely had a thirst to improve their skills.
‘I want to learn better English so I can go to smaller towns and help them have better lives too’ replied one guy when I asked what he would do when he finished his studies. Someone with little aiming to help someone with even less. He didn’t want to be a Pilot, Spaceman or a CEO… Did we get it all wrong in the west?
Rising early for Sunrise I headed to witness the famous arms giving ceremony. To put it shortly, it is when the Monks collect their food donations for the day. I have seen it before in parts of Asia and always found it an uplifting experience.
‘The fucking Monk didn’t want a selfie with me’ declared a girl, in hot pants, to her group of travelling buddies after dashing up along side one of the Novices. Tourists pointed cameras in any face they could, jumping in whenever a great shot appeared. It felt like a circus act. I left my back seat view and walked off deflated.
By the end of my three days though I couldn’t help but feel I was in a Disney show. My love for the city on first arrival remained, but also now sat alongside questioning. I knew this wasn’t the Laos I was expecting.
I headed to bed. My mind made up.
I took a deep breath. ’I’d like to cancel my flight to Cambodia’. Was I crazy? Did I really just abort my pre-paid, ‘once in a lifetime’ visit to Angkor Wat…
I had no intention of leaving now. I would be able to extended by another week before my flight on to Australia which financially wasn’t an option to cancel. I can’t remember the last time a country made me change my plans so dramatically that I wrote of another one. But Laos had and I was not complaining.
Before heading South I ventured to the impressive and dream like waterfalls of Kuang Si nearby. The natural beauty shone through, only interrupted by the odd westerner in a bikini or shorts ignoring the local signs asking us, the guest, to be respectful of the countries ways.
‘Not to Vang Vieng?’ The tour office employee questioned me again.
I was skipping it, although it can’t be denied its beautiful to the eye I was after a different experience right now. I didn’t want to be near other back packers or tubing along a river. A few months earlier and I wouldn’t have been able to skip it though.
I learnt this year a really valuable lesson: You will never go everywhere, you will never enjoy everywhere and you should only aim to go somewhere you want to go.
Vang Vieng wasnt one of those places, and I have learnt it’s just ok to say that.
I somehow ended up having a three night vacation in a city that was a mere pit stop. I was too ill to face another night bus, nor was it fair to be snuggling up to a stranger in my current state (Yep, my 12 hour bus from Luang Prabang to Vientiane was in a shared, tiny bed). So I booked an extended stop and relaxed.
This capital city is small with limited entertainment. A surprisingly good food scene coupling Asian with French cuisine on every street and the sun still on side I could have killed my days dining and wandering had my stomach not been telling me otherwise (See: Don’t eat salad)
It’s a dusty town, it felt less energetic than Luang, less keen to impress and more settled on just functioning. I felt the facade was going down, although still tidy the rubbish and dirt seemed more in line with its neighbours.
For all my illness I had a great time here. I achieved nothing other than losing weight, but there was a charm to this city I imagine so easily skipped on a stopover.
So it was time for another one of those bus Journeys. Pakse in the south was to be my next stop.
The Champasak Palace Hotel, a real palace of a day gone by. At first it appeared an eyesore, but on second glance I knew I had to spend a night here. The views from the balcony soothed the long night of no sleep laying next to a stranger.
The Palace itself in disrepair, too big with too little custom to manage the up keep. The rooms basic but adequate. But, who wouldn’t want to stay in a Palace?
Pakse felt more alive than Vientiane to me, focused around the main road running through it there seemed more energy in the air and more tourists than I was expecting. But it was just a mere stop as I was here to explore the Bolaven Plateau.
The Bolaven Plateau
The Plateau, an area with mountains in the clouds, waterfalls of all sizes and minimal tourists in sight is best discovered on Scooter/Motorbike or by car, I was ready to visit the real Loas beyond the touristy hotspots.
With quiet and relatively good condition roads I hired my scooter. It wasn’t until the mud paths, back lanes and trying to find what I was looking for later in the journey did I realise I was too off path for my wheels.
I crashed in Laos, a sudden storm sent me flying off my bike. I was lucky, however I saw two others whilst driving who were not. The road had not been so kind to them that day and it is a tragic reminder that the safety on these roads can never be taken likely.
The further I drove the bike down dirt paths, past burning rubbish, children waving and parents looking on in a questioning fashion the more I knew I was getting nearer to the real Laos.
Taking rest in a local
petrol station hut that sold gas out of water bottles and exchanging laughs with the family there about my soaked state they handed me a cup of coffee. A gesture that at the time meant more than any I had felt before.
I remembered why I was here. It wasn’t to take photos with a waterfall, it was to give something back. We couldn’t communicate, they couldn’t understand that I was asking for where a school was nearby.
I thanked them for the coffee, handed two books and a pencil to the children and bid farewell. I imagine my face would look the same if someone had handed me the controls of a spacecraft.
It took over two days to distribute the school books to three different places I found on way. People wouldn’t understand why I was there. A travelling salesman one lady thought as she tried to sign they couldn’t afford to buy them.
It was a little gesture I made and a selfish act. I needed to rebalance everything I had taken from this beautiful continent and Laos felt the right place to do this. Especially in the South, these areas untouched by Tourism on mass (as of yet)
Laos is a poor country and one which is still recovering from the damage of the Cold War. The uncountable number of unexploded devices still littering the country and causing disaster regularly is a troubling reminder of this. The little support from the west, the communist government and the financial state of the country making it hard to move forward.
But it will and us as visitors can support and help it grow as we have in much of Asia.
I left too soon still. I had learnt a lesson that so many travellers fail to grasp. Quality wins over Quantity every-time.
As a solo traveller I can pack my days as much as I like without upsetting anyone else. But I realised I had been the whole time. I had been effecting myself.
We must always remember to keep ourselves happy on the road. Listen to our guts and give ourselves what we need to enjoy, grow and learn from the experience.
But we should never forget to give back. No matter how little we can offer.