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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.