Last Thoughts on Laos

Laos was not a country I was prepared to like. I’d opted to visit based solely on enthusiastic but vague recommendations from other travelers — they’d all had wonderful things to say about the place, but were never able to completely illuminate what, specifically, all that wonder was pinned to.

I literally took this picture from the parking lot of a gas station somewhere in rural Laos.

And now, a full two weeks after leaving Laos, I find myself thinking that last part is to the country’s credit. There’s something to be said for the kind of place that defies easy explanation, that makes conventional praise all but impossible. The kind of place you really just have to take a  leap of faith and see for yourself.

Laos is an ineffably beautiful country, to be sure, with lush, heaving landscapes that make New Zealand look like Kansas and Thailand look like it lost a bet. It’s got a slow pace of life that you can’t help but appreciate after enough time in Southeast Asia: streets you can cross without a lengthy, life-or-death internal debate; one main road, which no one seems in much of a rush to pave, running the entire length of the country; restaurants that bring your food out piecemeal as soon as dishes are ready and never hassle you to buy more even if you sit there for hours.

Laos’s main highway. When one truck gets stuck in the mud, everyone waits.

But most of all, Laos is more laid back than it has any business being; its people appear happier and better-natured than circumstance would dictate. That enigmatic “something” that makes Laos so special isn’t a concept you can sum up with an argument or a slideshow: it’s an ambience, a mindset, a sense of comfort and ease you get from just being there.

This woman had to wait to cross the bridge while an open-bed truck transporting an elephant passed by.

Laos is largely rural; it’s slightly bigger than Utah but has a population significantly smaller than that of New York City. It’s also one of the poorest nations in the world. Consider these two facts after months of traveling Southeast Asia, after being pestered constantly to purchase T-shirts and knock-off perfumes and taxi rides and fresh fruit on streets from Bali to Thailand, and you’d expect the people of Laos to double-down. But no one demands that “You buy something!” Instead, vendors opt for a gentler, more inviting “sabaidee.” (Even that word, “hello,” has a soft, lyrical quality that made me smile and repeat it each time I heard it). If you’re approached by a local in Laos, it’s more likely he wants you to help him practice his English than it is that he wants you to buy another pair of sunglasses.

Just half an hour outside Luang Prabang

The landscapes are imposing but accessible: the mountains look like jagged Picasso portraits flipped onto their sides, but they’re a casual backdrop for thatched huts, kids bathing at open pipes spurting out of the roadside cliffs, stray dogs and herds of buffalo taking their time crossing the street, and lazy days of bicycling or floating down a river.

The unfiltered truth: even the bamboo huts in rural Laos have satellite TV dishes out front.

Even the temples are inviting, un-intimidating. I spent my mornings in Luang Prabang and Vientiane wandering (or sometimes jogging) into wat courtyards unnoticed and poking around. I climbed my way up to Luang Prabang’s mountaintop Phu-Si temple at 6:00 a.m., admiring the view alongside local joggers and restless early birds. The accommodating ticket-taker didn’t seem to care that it was still hours before opening time, instead greeting me with a warm “sabaidee” as I approached, as if he’d been expecting me all morning.

View of Luang Prabang and the Mekong from Phu Si temple, 6:00 a.m.

In the capital city, Vientiane, spirits are almost palpably high. Jogging down the city’s picture-perfect version of the Champs Elysées one morning, I was practically cheered on by each of the few-and-far-between locals I passed. “Exercise!” one called after me with a huge grin; another gave me a thumbs-up; policemen guarding what must have been a particularly important street nodded me past with such casual openness I didn’t even have to break my stride out of hesitation.

And, oh yes: there are free nightly aerobics classes on the banks of the Mekong. Go watch that without cracking a smile. I dare you.

Sweatin’ to the oldies in Vientiane

So, what is it about Laos? Maybe I can’t put my finger on it, or maybe I just wouldn’t have enough fingers if I tried. I can’t describe it, yet I can’t stop talking about it — even two weeks after spending just seven days there. I can’t say that I saw it all, and I can’t help but regret not seeing more. I can’t convince you to go. I can only beg that you invite me along if you do.

Just for good measure.

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10 thoughts on “Last Thoughts on Laos

  1. I loved reading this post Jess. Very well written. You managed to convey the transcendental appeal of Laos through perfectly clear, beautifully composed prose. Whereas Laos was not high on my list of places to travel, it’s now jumped to the top. Miss you! Ari says hi 🙂

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  3. Of course I love the blog (I am sure you see Arkansas ping the site daily), but I was a little too nerdy and confused about this: “Laos is largely rural; it’s slightly bigger than Utah but has a population significantly smaller than that of New York City.” Utah’s pop is 2.8 million, Laos 6.2m and NYC 8.2m. So does it feel rural with concentrations of nice, poor people?

    • Way to nerd out, Chris 🙂 What I was trying to get at here is that, in comparison to what I’m used to (i.e. NYC), Laos is much bigger and with a smaller population spread over that area. The big cities are really not that big, and the rural areas are pretty spread-out, population-wise.

  4. Thats what I thought. I must say it different to live in a part of the US where a college town like Fayetteville (U of Arkansas, go Razorbacks) is the 3rd largest city in the state with like 75,000 people vs the Bay Area too. Luckily I offer my population fact-checking services for free if you have any future questions.

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