Translated by: Andras Zsakai
Laos is the only southeast country without a sea. Possibly nothing comes into mind about the country when you hear its name. Thailand recalls tourism, thai boxing, Vietnam recalls (if nothing else) the Vietnamese wars, Cambodia maybe recalls the red khmers or the old city of Angkor known from its temples. But with Laos nothing comes to mind. Please, dear reader, don’t feel bad, we felt the same way. For me, I have seen the movie Air America with Mel Gibson and I remembered there were lots of jungles and they had a connection to the Vietnamese wars too. Before entering the country we collected a guidebook to smarten up a bit. Let’s see what this mysterious and mostly unknown (for us) country can offer for the visitors.
We’ve grown to love China and we have found cheap readymade food in Jünnan province’s south part, however we were waiting for the arrival to Laos and to Southeast Asia, because everybody says it is a super cheap „block”. Border crossing went smoothly, it was easy to get our visas on arrival for 32 dollar/person. Tourism is rolling with full speed in the country so they don’t push boulders in front of the tourists, ’let whoever wants to come in, open the gates!’ could be the slogan of the country. We have entered the country at the northern border which is a very poor and fallen behind region (the whole country is poor, but the northern part is the worst). The visitor will have a massive culture shock entering the country, especially in case he is entering on foot. Skinny, underfed people sitting sadly in the dirt in front of their bamboo hutgives a chilling vibe to the heart. Then we started to look for food and it looked like the country won’t be so cheap after all. Or we didn’t have any luck for the first time and also the Chinese border is near.
After a few days we have realized that the border is not the culprit. Laos isn’t cheap. Maybe it isn’t cheap for the person who only visits for a couple of weeks and can carouse, but for the cycling traveler, he really needs to gather all his creativity to obtain normal food for a plausible price. We also can’t find something for a sandwich to make in the shops here also. Only biscuits, banana and other fruits, this is good, but gets boring until a time. The solution is „kao”, sticky rice, which can be found everywhere and it is approximately 5000 kip (180 HUF) a piece, usually we can get 1 kilogram for 10.000-12.000 kip. We can order this for take away and then the lady puts it in a bag (thanks for the tip Zita and Árpi). It is very good fresh, but on the other day morning, it is not so a culinary experience. We have eaten this for every day (at the end we started to get bored of it, but no other solution), sometimes with grilled meat, sometimes poured with balsamic vinegar (we’ve bought this in Kirgizstan to lighten up the raw vegetables, still preserved), coconut cream, sugar and cinnamon or with honey, banana for a side dish. Laos was a French colony, the only advantage for the posterity at least out of this that they sell baguette. It is sometimes fresh, sometimes you can hammer a nail into an ash tree with it, but still you can get it. Cheaper in big cities, more expensive in the countryside, evident. But what can we put into it? Despite the long time without any bread, in itself it’s still not that good. For example, they pour condensed milk on the half sliced crescent, we skipped this, or they put some interesting brown, cotton wool like, otherwise sweet thing with a couple of sliced vegetables, but it is for sure (we are not fast food fans although) that a Subway advanced studies would do good for the country’s gastronomy. Banana is cheap and you can get it everywhere. Now we reached an interesting, important and annoying chapter: bargaining. I don’t measure myself as a professional bargainer, but at home I try whether I can get two underwear for a lower price at Chinese markets.
In Asian countries, starting from Turkey, those who cannot bargain a little are up for a challenge. But at the least the trip will cost much. It’s just like cycling, you have to start, and then balance comes. Prices are never written out except for the shop sin cities, better said the in western shop. It is an asian „illness”, not a laosian specialty. We have to ask everything, because we have to stick to our daily budget, therefore prices are important. It is good like this, but the price only depends on one person, the vendor. Regularly (except for China, here they always told us normal prices, didn’t want to deceive us) they told us higher prices than for the locals. You can argue whether it is fair or not, I couldn’t decide myself yet. They see a silhouette of a stuffed wallet in every white, western people. You are a foreigner, then you are rich, therefore you have to pay more! You can do this with style, let’s say with discretion and elegantly and also you can do it shamelessly, so that a knife appears in one’s hand. In Laos, we always had the knife in our hands. You can do two things. Okay, you could do a million things, but two are the favorites. Version A; leave the vendor and feel lucky that you are a Hungarian and nobody understands your swearing. Version B (and we used this most of the time); we take on the gloves and start bargaining. No misunderstandings, it is not about that I don’t respect the certain valuable’s price, it is about that the prices aren’t set, thus the vendor can say anything and I can believe rightly that the price was made up randomly. Let’s admit it, this is what’s happening. They constantly tried to deceive us in Laos. One time, we asked a girl eating in the local restaurant the price of the noodle soup she was eating. – Thirteen thousand was the answer. We ordered the same and when it came to payment, they demanded fifteen thousand from us. Or in the market in Luang Prabang, where a western guy in front of us asked the price of a pineapple. It was seven thousand, the woman put it in a bag and the boy a ten thousand kip. In the meantime, I grabbed another pineapple asking the lady: so it is seven thousand? – No, it is ten – was the answer from the vendor. – But you just said to the guy it was seven. – Then the woman started to play she can’t understand english, although a minute ago she was pretty fluent. The guy didn’t get his money back and we moved along, sharing the guy’s indignation. Me, I wouldn’t have taken the pineapple, but asked for my money back and if she is not willing I would have flipped the table over her. Not because of the three thousand, but because of the decisive way. And there were numerous other times when they tried to deceive us. It goes like this in Laos, we heard it from other people too. But back to food.
You can find many grilled fish, meat (of many kind of animal), it is advisable to buy it somewhere freshly cooked, but it is not always manageable. Luck is needed for one to survive an Asian travel without a food poisoning. If a propeller is turning over the meat, at least it is chasing away most of the flies. You also can find Chinese noodle soup here (don’t confuse it with Vifon fast noodles), a little bit with other spices and other taste. They give us raw vegetables on a plate, green beans, salad, mint, anise, lime. Fried noodles in banana leaves can be found in many places, which is tasteful, but most of the time it is a small portion. Even a tourist won’t get a full stomach, not to mention a eating machine cyclist! Coffee is good, with ice or hot, served with condensed milk. We’ve grown to like the latter, it has a merry chocolate aftertaste. Beer Lao trademarked beer is tasteful, the best in the neighboring countries, but I think Thai Chang is better for me. In South Laos, we’ve drunk iced-condensed milk-lemon syrup drink. Fresh coconut milk can be obtained in many places, this is stylishly served in its own coconut shell, with a straw. French and other foreign goods can be found in the capital city and in tourist flooded places. We can buy expensive stuff like cheese, mayonnaise, jam, etc. here. Tap water is undrinkable everywhere. Which was very interesting and can be found in every place was the moving shops. They do this with the use of scooters in Laos (and Cambodia), not with cars. Scary, how they pack up the stuff like the driver is almost invisible, because of the numerous stuff on the bike.
Maybe it is because of the disappointment from shopping experiences, but we weren’t able to build up a good opinion on the Laosians. We had a few friendly encounters, but most of them aren’t too friendly. They see foreigners in tourist and approach tem like that. They can’t handle the situation well. The only exceptions were children and monks. They waved and talked with us with honesty and interest. Kids are so sweet, they run out to the road and start yelling from afar. North-laosians that we’ve met, are very poor, we’ve encountered lots of disillusioned, hopeless faces. Tourists on buses don’t see this, it only reaches the cycling tourist’s heart, which we can’t handle. We couldn’t close our eyes like “there are many poor people, but it is not a problem, let’s look at the beautiful landscape instead!”, it was hard. I mean, spiritually. It was better in South-Laos, people smiled more frequently and they were nicer. Don’t get me wrong, it is not about that everybody has to be nice because here comes the two Hungarian bicyclist! But nobody likes to be in a place where he is not wanted and we felt like that in North-Laos. I don’t judge, I can understand them. It can’t be a spirit rising thing to see the rich, (more) comfortable living foreigner spending his money casually. The other thing that catch our eyes was that they weren’t a too hard-working people. Respect to the exception, but most of the people didn’t seem put to the work. It can be written to the weather’s bill or somewhere else, but it is a fact that most vendors are lying in a hammock in front of their shops, or inside, but they could be tidying up the shelves or sweep up. No need to bounce around us, but at least he could get out of the hammock and talk like that about what we can eat, if he wanted to serve us. The owner of the guesthouse is yelling under our window at 6 in the morning, not caring about that we could sleep a little bit more or grandma starts to crush iron ore (surely it was food, but for the sound, it could have been that also) in a mortar. They still need to learn. Managing a guesthouse is not just about renting a room and sleeping there. I don’t intrude without knocking or yell under the window, I fix the shower if I promised it, etc.
Landscape, nature, construction
Laos is a beautiful country! WE haven’t been to Vietnam, this is our second day in Thailand, but I am willing to risk that Laos is the one of the most beautiful country in the region, considering nature. Much more beautiful and varying than Cambodia. In the north, dens jungles, high mountains (highest mountains are above 2000 m) and lots and lots of valleys making the landscape rich. Numerous rivers, waterfalls and rich wildlife. Eni kept saying it was like we were in the film King Kong. As we were heading south the relief starts to become plane with an occasional limestone hills (Thakek region). The Bolaven-plateau is known of the waterfalls. Mekong is flowing through almost all of the width of the country. There are savanna like plains in the south. The climate can be separated into two (just like for the neighboring countries). A hot, dry season from October till February, after this an even hotter, wet, rainy season comes. WE are glad that it is the dry season in the region, still it is moisty and hot enough, I can’t imagine what can be like the rainy season, but books of Rejtő give some example. Animal life is rich also, we’ve met interesting bugs and insects, scorpions and so. In one of the north-laosian markets we’ve seen an unknown long tailed animal, already dead. There are some hunting colonies in the northern jungles, we’ve never met them, but numerous walking tours give an insight in the villages of the tribes. In the north, most of the people live in bamboo huts, which they weave easily, richer people live in wood or stone houses, the latter are dressed in flashy colors. Electricity can be found almost everywhere, tapwater is not so frequent. Drinking fountains can be found in the villages, they are probably undrinkable, but drinking water bottles can’t be found anywhere. In the south, the poor also live in bamboo huts, while the rich in wood or stone houses, but the region is recognizably richer. Here, you can see everywhere that people drink bottled water bought from trucks. Luang Prabang looks cozy, considering its inner city, with French colonial construction sights. It is regular to put these kind style to today built blocks (mostly to houses). We didn’t like Vientian too much, but it is true that we haven’t seen much. It didn’t have a capital city vibe, more like a big village. You can found French legacies also in small villages in the south.
Roads vary from mid to low quality. Roads are rebuilt in most places in the northern regions, traffic jams are frequent, in most cases we can only to use bad quality pebbly roads. Driving moral is surprisingly good, much better than the Chinese. Car traffic is infrequent, few car owners in the country. Avery kind of trucks can be seen (but mostly very used), Hyundai, Isuzu, Daewoo, Mitsubishi, etc. The loading boys are riding on the hood of the trucks and camions and they seem to like it. No rules on how many people can ride a bike or sit in a car. Who can fit, can ride. Many, especially the children use motorbikes. Looked like every family had a scooter. Most of the coaches were in a disastrous condition.
Laos can be a very exotic destination for the traveler in Asia. It has many interesting things, worth to take the time to look around. I wouldn’t say it is unique, but in a way it is. Who can imagine a Southeast-Asian trip without a coast wouldn’t be disappointed. However, you should be prepared for the mentioned culture shock and considering how poor people are here, preices are really up. It is a bit like Lake Balaton in the eighties, when everybody wanted to get rich in one summer, no matter what. We would suggest the country as a start, so in case of a bad experience (which isn’t certain), it can be amended, let’s say in Cambodia.