traveling in time in Laos
Lao skirt, French baguette and Mekong River
22 November 2022. I am in Vientiane, Laos. Why am I here? In a country that I discovered its borders 1 week ago. I came here for C. The woman I met in Bangkok, in a hostel 2 weeks ago. She invited me to Vientiane after spending 2 days in Bangkok where she works for a UNESCO project to protect a forest. I ended up staying in Laos for 2 weeks, in this beautiful sleeping country.
Sabaidee. This is my current travel map. I am in Penang, Malaysia right now.
The date is 14 Dec 2022. I left Laos 2 weeks ago, spent some time on the Thai islands, and came to Malaysia after a 21-hour road trip.
Laos.. where to start? Its official name is Lao People's Democratic Republic, but expats I met call it Lao Please Don’t Rush. Its slowly acting people, perhaps imitating the leisurely flowing Mekong river, broken roads, humid weather, and simple facilities take you on a trip in time.
Some people call it a forgotten country, it might be right considering even the French didn’t know what to do in Laos when they colonized Indochina and they only left the French baguette.
I spent 1 week in Vientiane. It was nice to hang out with one person for a while after meeting and leaving new people every day on my solo journey. Yet, Vientiane did not feel right. It is not an appealing city, and neither has the city energy or peace of a small town. Is this it, I asked. Is this why I came here?
It has some special characteristics though. Since there is not enough capital, everything is on a human scale. Most people live in small single houses and are connected to the city, not behind the walls, if we exclude Farang houses. You always see families, sitting on the verandah, eating, drinking, and singing karaoke after a hard working day. It subconsciously reminds you of the importance of familiarity and proximity.
I learned during my stay that Luang Prabang is the actual cultural capital of the country. After a pit stop in the middle, Vang Vieng, a backpacker town, I arrived in Luang Prabang, saying goodbye to C after a week.
There are some cities you fall in love with at first sight. It is maybe the energy that residents create in the city or the atmosphere that old citizens bequest with the architecture, food, and customs. For me, it was Barcelona, it was Rome. Now, it is Luang Prabang.
A city between two magnificent rivers, with tropical flora, full of tranquil Buddhist temples, felt like I found the lost Atlantis. Walking between beautiful buildings, and watching the river on a cáfe allure you to give up your life and retire here.
The food is fresh and vibrant, either caught in the Mekong river or harvested recently. But, the highlight is sticky rice, Khao Niew. Eaten with hands, sometimes the only thing people consume in hard times, served in beautiful bamboo baskets.
As I learned from tour guides and other local people, the economy really depends on manually labored agriculture of a sparsely distributed population. The result is a fight against or at peace with nature every day. I felt like I was traveling in time when I went outside of the city, visiting a pre-industrial society. Life is simple, raw, and calm.
When I took motorbike rides, I discovered that many drivers were very young. They said they are saving money to go to school next year. I learned that the university is not affordable for many even though it is a socialist country? At those times, you appreciate the opportunities you have.
Customs and structures are still very visible. The Lao skirt and the monk ceremonies are part of daily life and the hierarchical relationships are noticeable if you call a travel agency and watch everyone giving the phone to their manager to not pick you up from your hotel.
Enjoying the smooth Mekong river on a long boat while listening to a Lao folk song and drinking rice whisky but seeing people fishing to save the day question the traveler. Working in complex economies makes you empty but wealthy and sends you on journeys to discover meaningful but tough lives in another part of the world to be grateful for things.
A paradox to be experienced not to be solved.
I will miss you Laos, the sleeping beauty, for reminding me to calm down but act.