After our three-month stay in Thailand we were itching to strap on our backpacks and journey onwards to a brand new country: Laos. Although it’s only a short hop, skip and a boat ride across the Mekong we saw an almost immediate difference between the two countries; in stark contrast to the industrious buzz of Thailand we were totally charmed by the laid-back vibe in Laos and we learned to finally relax for the first time on our trip.
Discovering Laid-Back Laos
We’ve been travelling through South-East Asia for more than eight months now and have become somewhat used to the raw intensity of life here. We’ve begun to normalise all the things that so stunned us when we first arrived; the hectic rush of motorbikes and tuk tuks, the heat and the smells; the food cooked on rusty street-side stalls and the constant calls from people trying to sell us a room, transport, a meal or a souvenir. We’ve begun to take the friendliness of the people we meet for granted and have been spoiled by beautiful views; from mountains and rice terraces to beaches, jungles and waterfalls. Asia has gotten well and truly under our skin, its beauty and chaos an addictive drug.
Although there’s no mistaking that Laos is part of South East Asia, I was surprised to discover that it has a uniquely relaxed feel to it. Almost immediately upon arriving I felt the hectic rush of Thailand melting into the sleepiness of small-town Laos. Stepping off the boat and passing through the most lax customs procedure we’ve encountered so far, we were greeted by the tiny one-street, dirt-paved town of Huay Xai where we got our first taste of life in laid-back Laos. At our almost-deserted hotel bordering the banks of the murky Mekong we had to rouse the owner from her camp-bed in the lobby to show us to our room. As we walked the ten minute stretch of road in search of food, locals pedalled lazily past us on bicycles; the deserted tourist centre featured faded posters of local temples and mountains – there wasn’t a tout in sight.
Learning to Relax
Although we moved on to explore larger towns and cities, this laid-back vibe continued to permeate our stay in Laos. Everywhere we went it seemed that locals were catching a nap; be it in a hammock strung up in the back of a tuk tuk, on a camp-bed inside their shop or on a mat alongside their pitch at the local market. People in Laos certainly know how to relax and this began to rub off on us; for the first time on our trip we really learned to chill out and spent a lot of time doing nothing. This was particularly true in our favourite place, Luang Prabang, where we took to sitting in cafes for hours at a time, strolling through the leafy streets and watching orange-robed monks go about their daily business. In the evenings we would wander around the night market and have a leisurely meal before heading back to our guesthouse in time for the city’s 11pm curfew.
The fact that Laos only has a total population of around six million people no doubt contributes to its laid-back feel. Even the capital city, Vientiane, felt slow-paced and empty to me, a stark contrast to other Asian cities we’d encountered like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Manila and Jakarta. Uncommonly for Asia, we were also hardly hassled as we journeyed around and were able to peruse markets and restaurant menus without being besieged; locals were often more interested in either napping, chatting or cuddling a baby. In fact, while we’ve found that Asia as a whole is far more child-friendly than the UK, we noticed that people in Laos were particularly fond of kids; it seemed that everywhere we went a baby was being passed from one adult to the next to be loved and adored.
In tune to the laid-back theme of Laos there was no great rush when it came to getting around either. No matter the distance, every journey we took around the country seemed to take forever due to the windy, badly maintained road network. The only transport option we had was the local mini-buses which were always crowded with people, chickens and bags of rice; we attempted to sit as patiently as the local people who rode without the distractions of books or headphones, simply watching the countryside around them as they spat fruit pips out of the open windows. One day our bus broke down and we all piled onto the roadside to watch as the driver slowly hacked away underneath the vehicle while nonchalantly smoking a cigarette.
Bombs and Poverty
There is however a darker side to life in Laos and as we explored more thoroughly we began to understand that the slow-paced, undeveloped nature of the country originates partly from deep war scars. Due to the severe bombing campaign inflicted on Laos by the American government during the Vietnam War, two thirds of the country is so littered with unexploded ordnance that people cannot harvest enough land to feed themselves, because of this Laos remains one of the poorest countries in the world. The land is so contaminated by bombs that the country’s infrastructure cannot be improved and everyday at least one person is killed or wounded by unexploded bombs – in short, Laos is stuck in a cycle of crippling poverty.
I have much more to write about our adventures in Laos, one of the most beautiful, unique, scarred and laid-back countries we’ve visited so far – I hope you’ll stick around to hear more.