TravelMemories 6: Laos - they are truly the most relaxed inhabitants of South East Asia

Photo by Robert Metz on Unsplash

I'm afraid. Afraid to forget. In 2014, me and my girlfriend were on a tour around the world for 14 months. While reminisce about these days, I notice that there are things that I have forgotten. I mix up places or cannot remember the voice and faces of some memorable encounters anymore. I guess my memory's not quite what it used to be. This means that I have to write things down. I want to immortalize a piece of this journey. Later, when I tell my children about how beautiful this world is, I want them to know how I felt at that moment, how I reacted in certain situations. Hence this series around TravelMemories. Not really a classic travel story; rather fragmentary. With the use of memories that come flooding back to me, I try to recall the right feeling of that time. Hopefully my mind doesn’t fool me.

After a small month it was time to leave Thailand. Via a ferry we arrived in Laos. It remains a special feeling to finally touch new ground. No matter how short a four-week acquaintance with a country may seem, you feel at home more quickly than you would think beforehand. "Kop Chun Ha" and "Sawadiha" became "Kop Chai" (thank you) and "Sabaidee" (hello). Thai Baht became Laotian Kip.

Travelers will immediately know what I mean. Arriving at a new country gives you a new kind of energy boost. Unconsciously you feel that there is a new adventure waiting for you. You’re eager to explore new villages and meet nice and interesting people. It turned out to be a direct hit. Laos will not be forgotten soon.

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SOUTHERN LAOS

Si Phan Don - Don Det

Our journey started in the far south of Laos. The region is known as 'Si Phan Don' or 'The Four Thousand Islands'. I didn’t count, but the Mekong is indeed spreading around countless islands. On most of the them you can only see a lonely palm tree or tufts of grass here and there. An unique landscape.

We stayed on the island Don Det, in a bungalow overlooking the river, owned by a loving family. English proved to be difficult, but we did not need many words to understand each other. Life can be blissfully simple.

Photo source

Don Det has the reputation of being a small party island. To be honest, if you are here for that reason, then i think you will be a little disappointed. There were at most two bars and by 9pm everything was already closed. So you can image it became a very relaxed week: getting up at sunrise, chilling in the hammock, a healthy breakfast along the waterfront, a bike ride around the island, looking at local fishermen and taking pictures of water buffalos during their morning ritual.

Looking at those fishermen, we were also eager to catch our own fish. I wanted to do it in the Belgian way though: with a beer in my hand. The fishing itself proved a bit more difficult. Against the current, It seemed almost impossable to move forward in our dumpy little boat. Besides that, we had trouble to throw the hook far enough in the water. I admit: I would not survive long in the wild. It must have been an amateurish sight, but we wanted to catch our fish so badly. Unfortunately, we weren’ t that lucky.

Besides fishing we also had the chance to see the rare Irrawad dolphins here. With little hope we boarded the boat. We were more fortunate here. We saw more than 5 of these extraordinary creatures, 2 of them up to 20 meters.

Photo source

The Irrawaddy dolphin is similar to the beluga in appearance, though most closely related to the killer whale. It has a large melon and a blunt, rounded head, and the beak is indistinct. -Wikipedia

Tha Khaek

After Don Det we continued our yourney to Tha Khaek. Here we wanted to try the infamous 'loop', a 400 km trip with the scooter, passing through numerous caves on sometimes somewhat questionable roads. A German girl, Alina, said: "I'm going with you!" We thought, why not. It became a journey never to be forgotten. This came first and foremost by a cow, a very steadfast one, or one with suicidal tendencies. We pulled up, honking and shouting, but without success. She kept standing in the middle of the road with a grin on her face. I thought: "well, maybe it’s time to brake." Because we just started the trip, I still had to get used to our scooter, so I used the wrong brake (not the rear, but the brake of the front wheel). Result: a first fall. Luckily, we suffered nothing more than shock.

The view during the Tha Khaek loop. Photo source

Worse, however, was our new 'girlfriend'. She was just as steadfast as the cow and had quite a strong opinion (softly expressed). In short, she was a liability, an unrelenting pessimistic specimen. But we went further. The Konglorcave, one of the most famous caves of Laos was on our route. It was not the most beautiful cave we visited, but it was huge and unique in the sense that we had to cross the cave with a boat.

The loop also seemed a unique moment for my girlfriend to unlearn her fear of motorized vehicles. On the second day she was therefore on the wheel. It eventually became half a day. We missed a turn and lay flat back on the ground. Our second fall. This time a little more serious. It seemed to be a dangerous curve because immediately afterwards, a Brit, whom we had met the night before in a restaurant, was also arriving at full speed. We ended up on the asphalt, but he flew directly into the roadside. He could laugh at it and we visited the local clinic together. Here we understood why we are always advised to go to a hospital in Bangkok for serious cases. It took quite a while and they first called a doctor (who was not present) to negotiate about the price. All in all a funny experience. Especially because of the unrelenting British humor of our fellow hospital patient.

Luckily the rest of the trip was covered without accidents. Along beautiful roads, winding through the mountains, we smoothly got back in Tha Khaek. If you are ever in the area, then you should make this trip!

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CENTRAL LAOS

Vientiane

In retrospect, we followed, unplanned, the Mekong for almost a month. The capital Vientiane was also on the bank of one of the largest rivers in the world. It is the smallest capital of South East Asia (except for Brunei) and it was feasible to do the whole center by bike. It was striking how little Asian the city looked like: everything was neat, non-chaotic and we found many European restaurants. It is here that we did not eat rice for the first time, but a real brick-oven pizza.

From Vientiane we visited the Buddha park. The park contains more than 200 religious statues in all shapes and sizes and is easy to reach with a tuk-tuk. The statues are not original or old, but made from recycled concrete, so if you are purely interested in the historical value, you do not have to go there. The park itself was nice and bizarre. 

Consider the Buddha Park Vientiane as a large open-air museum with a twist.

Photo source 

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NORTHERN LAOS

Vang Vieng

The only place in Laos where we would not go back is Vang Vieng. A few years ago, the village was known among backpackers for three things: tubing, alcohol and drugs. When that resulted in no fewer than 27 deaths during parties along the river in 2011, it was the last straw for the Laotian government. They decided to close down all the illegal bars. Today, however, the village again suspiciously resembles a hedonistic booze resort. Those who are not partying can go to bars where you can watch 24 on 24 repetitions of Friends, South Park and Family Guy. Not really our way of traveling…

Fortunately, we could easily escape all of this by exploring the breathtaking nature, for which we had come to Vang Vieng. We felt like true speleologists when visiting the many caves. We swam in an amazing lagoon and discovered a well hidden eco-farm, where they made goat's cheese themselves. Mmm, finally we had some cheese again!

Luang Prabang

The pride of Laos is Luang Prabang: the former capital and now Unesco world heritage. All houses are finished with wood and have patios or verandas. It is also a city that is full of temples in that typical Luang Prabang style.

In every small in Laos town you have a temple and there is a custom that monks walk barefoot down the streets to receive their alms. In Luang Prabang, however, you have hundreds of monks in a row crossing the city. It somehow calmed me down so early in the morning. Yet an impressive sight.

Photo by chrissie kremer on Unsplash

Luang Prabang is also the city with the haute cuisine of Laos. Because we adore the Asian cooking style, we wanted to be initiated! We therefore followed a full day of cooking lessons. In the morning we went to the market with the teacher to discover some strange fruit and vegetables. We learned some cutting techniques, got to know the Laotian etiquette and cooked about five recipes. It became a grand feast. We really had to tow ourselves to our guesthouse for a nap.

The pampering was not over yet: the next day we let ourselves be massaged in a traditional way. I was a little disappointed at first that it was not a beautiful female masseuse that came from behind the curtain, but when every part of our body was being worked on, I had long forgotten about that. The best massage we have had so far!

Luang Namtha

From all culture back to all nature in the Nam Ha national park, near Luang Namtha. Although, there was also a lot of culture here, because in this protected area you could find numerous villages with ethnic minorities. Here we joined a nice Dutchman and an American for a two-day trek, one day of kayaking and one day of walking.

In the evening we slept in a village of the Khmu tribe. They only had electricity for a year and still lived in bamboo huts. Things were a little different this evening. The locals danced and sang traditional songs, while the Lao Lao whiskey cups were circulating. We had to drink it down the hatch each time. Of course we couldn’t disobey. You have to show respect for local traditions :).

If that was not enough, they also brought a jug of roasted rice where they were adding water. 'Khmu beer', they said and they put an ultrafine straw in the pot. It tasted surprisingly nice but you cannot call it real beer though. I remember I was wondering what this booze would do with my head the day after.

And so the evening went on. Also for sucking on the jug you could not think about it to skip your turn. Result: at the end of the evening the whole international company was dancing on 'Gagnam Style'.

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Some facts

  • In all travel guides it says that the Laotians are the most relaxed inhabitants of South East Asia. We can certainly confirm this. Although you also have to see it a bit as a ‘I-do-not-care-attitude’. The buses leave at least one hour late, but no one gives you an explanation or warns you in advance. When you finally get to your destination - with of course a lot of delay - the bus driver often drops you at 10 km from the center, so that you have to take another tuktuk. The tuktuk driver is of course a good friend of the bus driver and is often stands ready when the bus arrives. In the beginning we often felt a bit deceived, but you soon get used to it and that's how you support the local economy.
  • Another expression of their 'chillness' is that they like to make things easy. If you order something, you do not always know exactly what you will get on your plate. The most commonly used pronunciation is then “same same, but different”, in other words: “everything looks alike, I prefer that you not ask any further questions”. If they do not know something, they do not say “I do not know”, but “maybe” and if they do not know when or how often, they say “sometimes”.
  • Laos has an infinitely vast nature with a lot of mountain landscapes in the North. Yet you can never really look far, because there is always a kind of haze. We are still not sure if it is because there is too much dust in the air or because of the high humidity level.
  • Every morning we were awakened very early by the crowing of roosters. We always had to laugh really hard about it, because no rooster seems to have a voice in Laos. The crowing was more like the dragging noise of a squeaky door.

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For your information: the photos are not taken by myself. They are especially added to create the right feeling. The source is always mentioned.

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