Laos:Laos, Latvians and Longing

While I had heard great things about Laos prior to my arrival, I must admit for me it was disappointing. I met some great friends but I didn’t appreciate much of the country as others apparently have.

The highlight of the country has to be Luang Prabang which also happened to be the first town I visited in Laos. It’s a Unesco Heritage site but I am not really sure what that means. The town is at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers and was an ideal place to just relax for a few days. If you recall, this is where the 34 hour bus ride ended so some chillax was definitely needed The town has a large number of Buddhist temples and therefore monks, so it’s not unusual to see someone walking around in an an orange sheet. While there I spent a lot of time wandering around temples, running on uncrowded streets (as uncrowded as an Asian street can be) and reading. OK, maybe a little drinking as well.

New Years Eve was spent in Luang Prabang with my new Latvian friends (everyone needs Latvian friends). During the day we took a tuk-tuk ride out to a waterfall. The evening started at Utopia, a backpacker hangout along the Nam Khan river that has cushions for chilling on a wood deck, a yoga area overlooking the river (which although everyday I said I would do the following morning, I didn’t), a volleyball court that turns into a fire pit at night and from what I hear, the best mango chicken sandwich anywhere.

We temporarily left Utopia to wander the streets and soon were invited to join a party several Lao people were having to celebrate the New Year. I should note that the Lao actually celebrate Tet the lunar new year but if there is one thing the Lao like, it’s an excuse (which they actually do not need) to party. While as tourists we love these opportunities but in this instance they seemed to relish it just as much. They were taking our pictures and texting their friends more than we were. In between that were a lot of glasses being filled with beer (and emptied), toasts and loud Lao music.

Not wanting to overstay our welcome we left the party and returned to Utopia. For those that are familiar with the book or movie “The Beach”, this is what it felt like. Here we celebrated midnight long before most people in the world with beer, champagne I think, and fire lanterns. Not long after midnight we again wandered the streets, set off our own fire lantern that dominated the night sky and met more locals including the patriarch of a family from Luang Prabang that told us about time before and after Laos independence.

The next morning, while everyone in the States was celebrating New Years and I was nursing a combination hangover/Asian flu, I took my second bus trip in Laos. This one was much more uneventful but still seemed to deliver us to our destination, Vange Vien, much later than expected.

Vange Vien became known as a tourist destination several years ago when people started tubing down the slow moving river that flows along its banks. Eventually this became a big drunken party that led to a significant number of tourist injuries and deaths each year, and under pressure the Lao government cracked down a couple years ago. What’s left is a party town catering to westerners without the big parties, and no real Lao culture to speak of. Finding a restaurant that doesn’t serve western food is nearly impossible. It does have some nice scenery around it which I walked around but little else for those not interested in tubing.

My final stop in Laos, after another bus ride that took twice as long as advertised, was the capital Ventiene. Unlike the first two places I visited, this was a large city with all the big buildings, traffic, and commotion and just like a big city, it was pretty non-descript. I spent a few days here visiting what few sites there were and hanging with people I met in Vange Viene or Ventiene, but was really just looking forward to my 24 hour bus journey back to Vietnam and what I now considered, civilization.