Travelling in wonderland - Visit Laos 2018 from another perspective

Laos is a dream for many travelers from Western countries. In some reports it has already been called a “wonderland”. And for the first time - coming from Berlin, Chicago, Seoul or Sydney - to embark on a tour, it may seem like that from the outset. Even in busy neighbouring countries like Thailand or Vietnam you do not easily get that feeling.
Why is that? Laos has only a fraction of the population of these countries and, geographically speaking, people live in a very decentralised way. And modern history has often passed the country by in recent decades. For example, traditions are still prevalent in Laos that have mostly been superseded elsewhere by the advent of modern technologies, an economic boom, and the effects of globalisation effects. An old proverb says “In Cambodia they plant the rice, in Vietnam they sell it, and in Laos they listen to it grow.”

Farmers thrash rice after harvesting their crop in Vientiane province.

Nothing better describes the originality of the way of life still common here in Laos, even if from the Western point of view it is necessarily contemporary. Animist and Buddhist traditions and a strong sense of family empower communities and provide support, even where financial resources are scarce.
Travelling in Laos means perceiving, tasting, smelling, and enjoying with alert senses - while questioning your own rhythm of life. Much of what foreigners perceive as backwards or primitive is not simply an expression of poverty. The life of ordinary people is far from idyllic because securing all the necessities of daily life and sufficient nutritious food is hard work for most families. Nevertheless, the sustained practice of various traditions mean that a strong sense of home and a strong cultural bond have been preserved. I have already had many friends from many parts of the world in my hometown Berlin. But it was only my Lao visitor who told me after two weeks that he was homesick for Laos!
Many of the commonly practised traditions reflect the centuries-long way of life in the countryside or in the mountains. You will meet many tourists who are fascinated shortly after their arrival in Laos, after they have just arrived via one of the friendship bridges from Thailand.
The difference is palpable. And many want to immerse themselves in the everyday life of Laos, to get to know the “real” life. As a backpacker you stay in rather simple hostels or guesthouses. Whereas in Europe’s hotspots all the “native” inhabitants have been gentrified away from the city centres and instead of bread and vegetables only souvenirs are sold, in Laos one can live amidst the pure life.
Children cycle to school in the morning, street kitchens are waiting for hungry customers, and morning markets sell fresh vegetables, fruit and poultry. In a very few places, such as in the centre of Luang Prabang, tourist offers are gaining the upper hand. In other words, travel can still be a discovery for the individual rather than an industry.
However, those who want to experience the “real life” away from guided adventure tours or decorated hotspots must seek access to ordinary people. Then you can experience the “wonderland” Laos. If one approaches people, one is both respectful and curious at the same time, and miraculous doors can open. One is then quickly invited to visit the home village, to stay with the family, and to share the food, even if the latter can be very unfamiliar to Falang.
I was invited by a friend to visit the village of his childhood, without tourism, without any buses, and three hours from Vientiane, travelling only on the pillion of a motorbike. You have to get involved, then you experience the things that no guide can describe.
Children greet each other enthusiastically and turn to face the long nose as they crowd around a motorcycle stand where a man sells white bread sweetened with condensed milk - the only real treat in the village. The neighbour drags rice straw like a hundred years ago by hand and we try with moderate success. Everywhere children play with home-made toys. A cousin invites us the next morning to visit his rice field, his water buffalo, and the stove he uses to make charcoal. We go by boat through a paradise of green through a tributary of the Nam ... river. We are invited for a snack in a hut and visit a nearby village.
In the province of Bokeo, I recently met students from Germany during the rainy season who wanted to have such experiences. Lao friends took us there to fish on their family rice farm. In Laos, the ripening season of rice, which is under water until October, is also considered to be a particularly good time for fishing. The water levels of the rivers are high, but fish also live in the rice fields and make their way there due to the high water levels.
The Lao are perfect survivors. What you would need a supermarket for in the West, people find here in their natural environment and can assemble a meal from the simplest of resources.
Dig for earthworms, fish for fish in the rice field, catch crabs, frogs and snails, make a bamboo straw fire in one of the typical huts seen in all fields. Bring along only a little dried buffalo meat and the drinks, which are always the centuries-old homemade rice whisky known as “Lao lao” and the beer introduced by the French. These are the daily national drink of almost all Lao people, unfortunately not only at parties and barbecues.
The most beautiful season for the eye is undoubtedly the rainy season when the land, especially the rice fields, are a lush green. The earth reflects the sun’s rays after each downpour in bright red. Haze rises in the morning above the mountains until the sun lights up everything, while weather fronts create bizarre cloud formations.
Travelling can be more dangerous than in the dry season, especially off the asphalt roads, of which there are only a few anyway. But the traveller is rewarded with impressive imagery, fascinating views and the feeling of being in a country where the mass tourism of Western influence is still far away.
If you are aware of the contrasts and problems of the country while travelling, you can better understand and enjoy the calm and friendly restraint of the people of Laos. Travelling can then be a win-win situation and can benefit both sides by sharing the good and human things with each other and learning from each other. As Germany’s great poet Goethe once said: “A brainy person gets the best education while travelling.”
--Holger Melzow, Berlin, Germany

By Patithin Phetmeuangphuan
(Latest Update October 13, 2018)

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