Yesterday we wrapped up our week in Laos and hopped on a plane from Luang Prabang to Hanoi, Vietnam. The contrast between the two countries couldn’t be bigger, with the bustling streets of Hanoi making most of Laos look like a sleepy little small town in the Old West. And actually, that description isn’t too far off for Laos.
Laos is smaller than the state of California, but has only five million citizens. Most of the country is covered in deep green forest, with mountain roads twisting and winding through the peaks. Sadly, Laos is also the most heavily-bombed nation in the world and there are hundreds of thousands of unexploded devices that lie in deadly wait throughout the countryside. In the capital city of Vientienne, we visited a museum dedicated to this issue.
With so many Laotians living in rural areas and millions of them still part of traditional hill tribes, the danger of the unexploded bombs has caused endless heartbreak for the people of Laos. In the museum we saw pictures and testimonials from families who had lost children to bombs, and farmers who lost legs and arms when bombs exploded as they tended their fields. It was devastating to see the poorest of the poor be the ones who suffered because of politics, decades after these issues had been “resolved” between governments. Today, the Laos government, private companies, and non-profit groups work hard to clear the land of bombs, but it is slow, dangerous, and expensive work. It will be some time before the whole country can be declared safe again.
Jacob and I only visited two cities is Laos: Vientienne and Luang Prabang. In these cities, you do see a country that is making strides to move forward after a difficulty history. The Mekong riverfront bustles with cafes and bars, and in both cities we encountered many tourists looking to get off the circuit of the more heavily traveled Thailand and Vietnam. Rapidly increasing tourism brings commerce to the area, and as long as Laos protects its culture and countryside as it grows, the tourism industry could change the country’s future completely.
Because of the former French occupation of Laos, there are remnants of the French culture throughout the country. Bakeries and cafes offer delicious croissants along with their Laos coffee (read: jet fuel-grade caffeine), and many museum signs and municipal buildings are labeled in French as well as Lao. Both Vientienne and Luang Prabang offered plenty of museums, temples, and national park to keep you busy for several days, but you won’t ever confuse where you are: Laos is a slower-paced country with deep communal roots. This ain’t Thailand anymore, although it may be only a few hours to the border. We stayed at family-run hotels where grandpa might be checking you in while he holds his granddaughter, because the lady of the house is doing laundry and cooking laap for the current guests. True to its communist government ideals, everyone pitches in.
Although Laos doesn’t pack in the energy like the wild streets of Bangkok, and the strict national curfew means bars shut down at 11:30, Laos has a special charm to it. It’s quiet but contemplative. It’s not overrun with tourists (yet), and it’s rich with history. It’s a country that’s been delivered some unbelievable hard knocks, but managed to not lose its good heart. I loved our time there and would definitely recommend it to anyone who’s looking to change up the pace and take a step into the heart of a culture.