Editorial March 2012
My joints still ache from riding the buses in Laos, a country that I have fallen for. I started my journey in the north, in the town of Luang Prabang, which is well known for the seemingly endless line of monks that gather each morning for the alms gathering ceremony. From there I took a 7-hour bus trip over to Phonsavan, close to the Vietnam border. It’s in the mountains and quite cool when compared to the tropics. The ride was wonderful because we passed villages along the way where the houses are right up against the road. Villagers use the sides of the road like their living room sofa until the bus comes screaming through. Tiny children are everywhere with no one seemingly looking out for them. Animals roam freely too, chickens scratching every surface, goats bleating, cows blocking the road. Houses are simple, most made of wooden boards with a thatched roof; many have no windows. In each village there is a communal tap where moms were washing kids or modestly trying to bathe themselves; some were picking lice out of their kid’s hair. This you can see riding by on the bus.
People go to Phonsavan because of the mysterious stone jars that are there. It is also where the Americans dropped millions of bombs during the Vietnam War and many of those are still around too. The guide I hired is from one of the hill tribes and knows many legends about the place and asked if I would like to see his village. Our driver invited us to have lunch with him at the Buddhist wedding of his cousin. As the driver was taking me back to my hotel he stopped at the market to introduce me to his wife.
The road from Phonsavan down the mountain to Vang Vieng is even worse but the scenery is spectacular. When the fog rolled in I didn’t know whether to be thankful because I couldn’t see over the side or more worried because the driver couldn’t either. But the fog lifted and we made it. A couple of days later I took my final bus in Laos, this one to Vientiane, the capital. I’m told the road is much better than it was three years ago but if they could fill in the potholes, pave it and add a few guardrails then it wouldn’t just be the most scenic drive in Southeast Asia but the most travelled one.
Laos is a communist country but there are no billboards with slogans like in Cuba or even big photos like you see in Thailand where the king’s picture is everywhere and that’s a constitutional monarchy. Nor did I see begging and no one was after me to buy anything although it is one of the poorest countries in the world. The people seem ambitious and everywhere you look someone is out sweeping the dirt, keeping things clean. They seem to know more English here than in Thailand. At least they’re all keen to practice it and many carry an English phrase book around.
The Lao people don’t smile like the Thai people do. Thai people are known for their smiles—they smile all the time and it lights up their whole face. The Lao people rarely smile. In fact, you can’t usually tell if they’re sad or happy if you just look at their face. But when you get to know them you really like them. They go out of their way for you.
The biggest challenge for Laos is to leave behind the “least developed country” status. They’re trying to do it by 2020 and they need to attract foreign tourists. Most visitors are from Thailand (60%). There are some Europeans (7%) and a few Americans and Canadians (less than 3%). I don’t know about Australians but some are certainly here for this is their backyard and Aussies are travellers.
Yet it’s not a country where you’re struck by the poverty, at least not where I travelled. Instead I found myself admiring the people’s dignity and spirit. The place is very calming. On my last day in Vientiane I visited a temple known for its powerful magic, where people go to ask for good luck. I sat on a bench under a shade tree and watched the people enter the temple with their gifts. Many brought flowers and baskets of fruit. A few released birds or spread blessed water on the shrubbery. One family came with two laundry baskets full of goods, from toilet paper to flashlights (I think the monks keep the stuff). I assume their wish—a big one—had been granted and they were giving thanks.
That’s the sort of place it is and some of that is captured in this issue of Riding the buses.
© Riding the buses 2012