The road to Laos
In my first visit to the country of Laos, I'm finding a rich culture and land that are like stepping back in time yet are on the cusp of discovering the full bounty of modern day technology and living through greater access to the outside world.
Laos opened its borders to tourists in the early 1990s and in the past few years has seen an explosion in visitors. In just this past year, a record 1.4 million tourists descended upon this country of 5 million. The effect of having so many foreigners visit this land of mountains and rivers has been to introduce not just dollars and euros to their economy, but to also bring imported goods that did not exist before for the Lao people. Six years ago, the shops in Luang Prabang sold only local produce and foods, regional textiles and traditionally used items. Now the shops all have displays with Lays potato chips, Nivea lotion, Toblerone chocolate and Johnnie Walker Red Label Scotch. A local resident bemoaned the fact that parents now feed their children cookies and other junks foods instead of fresh foods to the extent that youngsters are developing scurvy.
So many experiences and thoughts to write about after just a few days here. I'll try to narrow the focus of this entry to the journey here and various forms of transportation.
The capital of Vientiane has an international airport that is connecting the city to more and more countries throughout Asia. It was a quick hour and 20 minute flight from Bangkok, a better option for us than an overnight train since we have only 6 days to explore.
We rented bicycles once again to see the sights of the city. It was all fun and good until the back wheel fell off of Michael's bike and we had to hire a tuk tuk to drive him back to the bike shop. At 20,000 kip (a little more than 2 dollars), the tuk tuk ride cost more than the bike rental.
It took us a few minutes to flag down a tuk tuk that wasn't loaded down with people or goods.
Tuk tuks are the workhorse vehicle of much of southeast Asia and they come in all different shapes and sizes. They have unmuffled two stroke engines and spew out stinky exhaust but they don't seem to use much diesel.
The capital city was really only interesting for a day or so and we moved on to Luang Prabang, a colorful temple city declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. The domestic terminal is a little less flashy than the international...
...but it does has a great little gift shop and restaurant.
Like many cities around the world, the ones in Laos are also becoming smoke-free environments although you can buy a pack of cigarettes for about 40 cents.
We didn't have a problem fighting for overhead luggage space on our flight from Vientiane to Luang Prabang.
There aren't many options of airlines to choose from and Lao Airlines dominates all of the routes. They've had 5 plane crashes since 1990 and the US State Department has a travel warning about using them to fly in mountainous areas (most of the country). We had good luck with fairly new planes and even got decent in-flight meals, even on the 40 minute flight to Luang Prabang.
The mighty Mekong river flows through much of the country and has always been a major route for trade. There are many rivers though like this one that we took a short boat ride on to see some waterfalls.
The Khan river joins the Mekong at Luang Prabang and together they form a beautiful landscape where a rustic culture prevails despite wi-fi cafes like the one that I'm sitting in. It's a tenuous comfort zone for me...I love discovering the third world for the first time but at the same time, I'm quite happy to have a sweet Lao coffee or ice-cold BeerLao while I write my blog entry. I'll keep supporting the local economy with my kip while I work on another entry with more images from Laos.