Friday, April 29, 2011

Long Time Coming - Laos Wrap Up

I have to admit, I have been back in Canada for three months at this point. I think the reason I have avoided posting about Laos (besides the copious number of coffee, wine and chili dates that I have been partaking in with friends and crazy temporary jobs all over the place) is the realization that this is IT. After this entry, the only country that we visited on the real No Plan Plans tour was Cambodia, featured on my blog. After this entry, there is only reflection to be done. Which means that this experience of a lifetime is really and truly over. So, saving the best for last, without further ado, may I present, Laos!

Arbitrary Favourite

When pressed to pick a ‘favourite country’, I’ve chosen Laos. This is an arbitrary answer since every country had its highs and lows and we only got quick glimpses of each. 

Laos had it pretty easy in terms of its ability to compete: it’s small, so I could see a lot of the country in two weeks; I was finishing off the backpacking part of my tour so I was used to the lifestyle; my route there was through China, the hardest country to navigate and the one where I had the worst luck; my last chunk of time was spent in Hong Kong where the prices approach Canadian levels; and given the right outfit and accessories, I blend in with few difficulties. Not having a laptop and staying on the east side of Don Det, far from the [slow and expensive] internet caf├ęs was freeing. I did the most reading, journal writing and walking in Laos.  

My love for Laos comes from two major categories: the tourism experience itself and the culture. Describing ‘culture’ is tricky and by default controversial, but I don’t think I can profess my love for Laos without talking about the social norms, food and clothing.

Tourist Crowd

Laos is a communist country. In recent years it has liberalized its economy and put ons emphasis on [eco-]tourism. About 1 in every 11 jobs in Laos comes from tourism! There is still a 10:30 pm country-wide curfew, with the exception of Vang Vieng. I give this emphasis on ‘ethical’ eco-tourism and strict curfew credit for the caliber of tourist I met in Laos.

Most of the people I met were interested in trekking, meeting local people, learning the language and shopping at local markets. The curfew really kept the party crowd down. I stayed in a dorm room with 16 men and 1 woman (solidarity, Christabel!) in the capital. Basically anywhere else we stayed, the high number of people in the room would have meant that people would be crawling in completely hammered, the bathrooms would have people passed out on the floor and people would be planning their next fraternity-style adventure. As long as you don’t mind people constantly smoking weed on the balcony, everyone was relaxed (possibly owing to the fumes, admittedly…) and most people shared advice on checking out dolphins, waterfalls and great hikes. 
Nina with her new headband at the market in Luang Nam Tha after intense bargaining!
Also appealing about Laos is that it is a narrow country wedged between Thailand and Vietnam, with Cambodia to the south and China to the north. Most backpackers either travel from the south to north or north to south in about 2-3 weeks. So you end up with the same crowd basically the whole way. I was lucky enough to meet some awesome people on my trek through Luang Nam Tha, where I started after taking the train through China from Hong Kong and continued to meet up with Aamon, Steph and Nina along the way through the country! Alessandro and Michelle kept popping up after Vang Vieng. I even saw Aamon again randomly on New Year’s in Siem Reap, Cambodia. T and Nikhil travelled from south to north and we met up halfway through the country in Vang Vieng. Either direction is great fun!

Tourism Activities

In Laos, the emphasis of tourism is ethics. Local people don’t try to rip you off (at least relatively compared to other countries) and the standards for getting the ‘local experience’ seem much higher than in Thailand. Rather than human zoos, tour companies promote local experiences where you get to really interact with people and the villages aren’t inundated with tourists that they try to appeal to.
chillin in the village
My trek in Luang Nam Tha was led by Alam, a local guide, and porters who lived in the area. We went through some villages briefly on our hike, camping out overnight on first night after sampling water buffalo skin (an acquired taste, to say the least) and lao lao whiskey (ditto). On our second night, we stayed overnight in a small village that had been visited less than a dozen times ever by foreigners. Rather than “observe locals in their natural habitat”, we ended up being the primary attraction in town! Homes were scattered on top of a hill in this Lahu village that seems to be in the middle of nowhere, full of dogs, pigs and children. We stayed in a bamboo hut that had an area in the corner to make a fire for meals and a long platform that the nine of us (including our guide) could just barely squeeze onto, sleeping like mice.
In our little hut doing language lessons, drawing and playing with camera!
During the day, we played with children, both in the hut taking photos and giving them our cameras to pose for them and outside, playing. Only some of the men in the community spoke Laos from their experiences in the city and working the rice fields. Most only speak Lahu and a few of us spent most of the day in the hut learning words, numbers and phrases. At the end of my first week in Laos, I knew more Lahu than Laos!
Other activities: museums and dance shows in Luang Prabang and Vientiane, cave exploring, kayaking, cliff jumping, temple visiting, viewing waterfalls, checking out dolphins and lying on hammocks. Between T and I, we did it all. I even went bowling with new friends in the capital! We also went to a local club where we were the only foreigners and were serenaded in English by a large group of young men at a birthday party –singing Justin Bieber’s “Baby”, of course.

Another particularly special experience is watching the monks in Luang Prabang walk through town every morning collecting alms. Tourists get a bit obnoxious with their cameras, getting in the faces of the monks. Obviously tons of people have taken pictures already, so I opted to not harass them at 6 in the morning.
This photo is from an amazing gallery by Khampha Bouaphanh. His photos of Laos are incredible! 

Food and Eating

Blending in was definitely a bonus. I got hassled less, stared at less and lower prices on occasion. However, I learned that if I didn’t speak English and wore my local sarong, my food would be much spicier than if people could tell I was a foreigner. Dangerous stuff!    
our first meal on the trek! The black leaves contain the sticky rice
Germophobes might want to skip this paragraph. Communal eating is the norm in Laos. Various dishes are spread out over a table –vegetables, meats, fish—and pots of sticky rice are scattered on the table. With your fingers, you grab a clump of rice no bigger than a golf ball and roll it into a compact ball with that same hand. Then, you reach out to whatever meat/veggie concoction you would like and use the ball of rice as a base to scoop out a bit. Shove in your mouth. So delicious. So unhygienic.

My sister is a germophobe and my best “Bex would die if she were here right now” moment of my entire backpacking trip came on my first night out in Luang Nam Tha. I went to the night market, which is essentially a big square bordered by different food stalls. Locals and tourists alike buy their dinners, which are being cooked on mini-gas stoves in most cases, and sit on large picnic-style tables in the middle of the square drinking beer.

One woman was frying up bamboo shoots and some other veggies in a wok on the edge of the square. I watched her use long chopsticks to stir her meal around. While I was standing in front of her, she lifted some of the mixture and held it out for me to try –off the chopsticks she had been using to mix the whole thing. I declined to try it off the chopsticks but bought a portion of it anyway. She then ate some of the mixture from those same chopsticks, right out of the wok. Another customer tried some off the same chopsticks. All the while, stirring this big pot of food to be sold to diners at the night market.
The Shade!
The food is incredible. In the luckiest moments, we go to have brown rice, which is actually purple in colour! It’s nuttier and more flavourful. And goes amazingly with various bamboo-heavy dishes. And in the capital, T and Nikhil would never forgive me for not mentioning their favourites: The Shade Restaurant has the best garlic sauce we've ever had in our lives and Hungry Burger makes a mean burger (although not as good as the ones at the Backpacker's Hostel in Ha Noi!).

T and Nikhil even got decent pizza in Vang Vieng
Lao-lao is the bootleg rice whisky that can be found all over the country. Very industrial tasting, it is sometimes clear and sometimes a fluorescent green. While trekking, we shared shots of it (some more than others…). After my first shot, I thought I was going to throw up. Just the smell of it made me nauseous so I declined future offers. Then, while in Vang Vieng, I had a few sips out of a bucket containing lao-lao and Sprite. Still sober, I ended up vomiting throughout the night (sorry Nikhil and T!) and continued to throw up for the next 3 days any time I ate a full meal. Clearly I am not allergic to rice but something about that nasty tasting stuff was not agreeing with me! 

This was all fine in the end, of course, as Beer Laos is arguably the best beer in Southeast Asia. 

Social Norms

Despite bordering Thailand (‘land of smiles’) and Cambodia (where people smile at you, touch you, wave and yell hello at every opportunity), Laos is a very subdued culture. I think the major reason why many people prefer Cambodia is the shy nature of Laos people. People do not touch in public. There are signs at the border and posted all over the country to explain this. Hugging and kissing in public are huge no-nos. Dress is very conservative. My knees and shoulders were covered at all times –even when we went tubing. People don’t smile openly in general until you start a conversation and even when they do, their cover their mouths with their hands.
They were both friendly and asked me to take this photo. As soon as the camera came out, totally serious.
I want to emphasize that this doesn’t make them an unfriendly culture. Especially because people were curious about my ethnic background, I was able to have great conversations (verbal or non-verbal) with locals who were kind, generous, expressive, funny and patient.
View from Don Det
Laos will always be a special place for me. I met wonderful people, foreigners and locals alike, ate delicious food, fully relaxed, spent a lot of time by myself and finished off the real backpacking part of our trip. It is with much sadness that I finish off this entry but it’s been a long time coming…

My friend Bianca (of Mount Rinjani summit fame!) has some fantastic shots that she took recently! Check 'em out. And check out her blog because her Asia trip is way more thorough and awesome than ours!

Coming up: the final wrap up reflections of our trip. What we learned, loved and would do differently.

No comments:

Post a Comment