Welcome To Laos
Madeleine Deaton, flickr.com/photos/madeleine_h
Laos’ natural beauty is a traveller siren call. Its karst landscape forms stunning bluffs and dense jungle carpets the country in an explosion of tropical green hues. While Thailand shines as Southeast Asia’s tourist bedrock, Laos is steadily gaining its footing. Very much a nation in recovery – it holds the tragic title of most heavily bombed nation on Earth – Laos is now a facet of the well‐travelled ‘Banana Pancake Trail.’ That’s the Thailand –Laos‐Cambodia‐Vietnam itinerary, or the reverse.
When tourist dollars began to trickle into the starved economy in the early 1990s, enterprising nationals quickly catered to intrepid travellers. As they say, “Money talks.” In Vang Vieng, the money did so much talking that the outpost slowly became a traveller ghetto, where hedonism poisoned local culture. By the mid-2000s the small town had effectively been colonized by backpackers and locals reached their breaking point. Tourism and local health officials, alongside the police, cracked down, reformed and reclaimed Vang Vieng.
It’s positive to see Laos graduate from passive observer to dictating its tourism strategy, but that’s not to say that all the rough edges have been buffed. Isn’t it so often the case that the more remote a destination, the higher the concentration of peculiarities? None of the curiosities I fondly recall most would ever have been found in a pamphlet.
Hotel or Opium Den?
Mario Micklisch Follow, flickr.com/photos/fvfavo
Tucked well into Southeast Asia’s hinterland, just accessing landlocked Laos is a labour of love. When travelling overland from northern Thailand to the colonial town of Luang Prabang, travellers are faced with a dismal ultimatum: a two day slow boat or a grueling overnight bus trip. “Overnight bus trip,” some of the most dreaded words on the backpacking circuit. I opted for the slow boat.
Midway between Houay Xai and Luang Prabang, the slow boat calls ‘port’ at the riverside village of Pakbeng. From a traveller’s perspective, Pakbeng seems to serve a singular purpose: overnight accommodation. Wikitravel’s only 'to see' recommendation jokes, “a couple of wats may interest the obsessive temple enthusiast.” Pakbeng is just the type of remote, backwater outpost that slowly fades from memory, except that it happens to be located in the depths of Southeast Asia’s notorious Golden Triangle. The Triangle is an area located between Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam fraught with drug production.
Despite its obscurity and isolation, travellers arriving in Pakbeng are not immune to hustling touts. As we disembarked, quick talking pitches were made to those who hadn't secured accommodation in advance. For the rest of us, we stood wide-eyed and transfixed by the animated, albeit amphetamine-hyped, owner of the guesthouse we had pre‐booked with. He was making quite the spectacle. Standing in the box of his truck he waved a glossy laminated sign that highlighted the property’s amenities. With a flick of the wrist he revealed a menu of a different sort. The sort that advertises a laundry list of drugs. “Ha ha ha ha ha! You come to my house and you get a Special Shake. Ha ha ha ha. You get Opium coffee. Ha ha ha ha.” His antics left us slack-jawed while locals milled about apparently considering this a regular occurrence. The guidebooks hadn’t prepared us for this type of ‘foreign hospitality.’
Lao Snake Whiskey
While travelling Southeast Asia, I had avoided booking accommodation in advance but I began to worry if I had made a mistake as we arrived in Luang Prabang. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a few tense moments as we disembarked, courtesy of a machete-wielding local. By all appearances the man seemed to become suddenly agitated in the final ten minutes of the forty‐eight hour passage. In the middle of the packed boat he stood up, produced a blade and began shouting a long winded monologue in a Lao dialect, much to the nervous discomfort of every tourist on board. Diverting my gaze I mapped my emergency evacuation: a quick leap over the rail into the shallow water. The Brit a few seats down whipped out his camera and began to film, an action that I felt would surely seal our bloody fate. And then as quickly as it started, the situation diffused itself and with frightening ease my focus turned from evading a bloodshed to finding a bed. That's the thing about priorities.
Having bonded with a group of backpackers we took refuge at the Spicy Laos Hostel, housed in the former residence of a French diplomat. Distracted by its delapidated colonial charm I completely missed the ten litre jar of Lao‐Lao whiskey in the courtyard. A sign read, “Free whiskey from 7:00 am to 7:00pm.” In actuality it was available 24/7. Oh, and shame on me, I’ve neglected to mention that the jar was filled with coiled snakes and scorpions. Naturally this quickly became our group’s fascination and a rite of passage for the boys.
Whiskey in Laos is a bit of a misnomer as it’s truly more of a sticky rice moonshine. It is a vile tasting liquor that is crudely brewed in backyard drums, and consequently free from any type of regulation. It may be the only drink in the world in which infusing it with dead snake may actually improve its palatability. A 700-ml bottle will cost about a dollar but many bars give it away for free. Its potency runs 40‐45% alcohol content and if you ask me, I’d avoid it at all costs.
Luang Prabang Town Curfew
I’ve never been to a place with a mandatory curfew, and after forty‐five days of backpacking in Thailand, calling it a night at 11:30 PM was like leaving a dinner party after the soup was served. Around quittin’ time tuk‐tuks troll the main bar street to transport night owls to bowling alleys and discotheques outside of the city centre. Among some of the stranger situations I found myself in, ten pin bowling was not one I had anticipated. It was bizarre in the sense that we could have been anywhere. We could have been in the Canadian Prairies, or in Middle America. Even that drunk backpacker who ran down the lane and kicked the pins in, that could have happened at home. We were all in our local neighborhood bowling alleys until the owner‐operator ran down the lane and slapped the guy square in the face. That was truly comic proof we were still in the Laos hinterland.
Have you sipped Lao Snake Whiskey
or taken the 48-hour boat to Luang Prabang?
More words by Jenn Larsen