Some places in the world have called to me since I was young and first read Jack London or Samuel Clemens. Laos is not one of those places but more of a location that you slowly become aware of as one of the strange names in a geography class with no context or identifying markings. To be honest, if it was not between us and our destination we would not travel here but it is….so we are here.
Laos is a small land locked country with dozens of tribes making up a diverse group of humble, modest and friendly people. The cultural focus on education and language jumps out at us immediately and we find we are asked questions about our culture as much as we ask about theirs. After so long in Cambodia, the bright eyed and inquisitive nature of the Laos people is a nice change.
The remote mid-sized town (it does have a new international airport) we arrived at is called Luang Prabang and sits on the Mekong and a few other rivers that wind themselves down from the foothills of the Himalayas. Not far from here is the fictional location that found Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now. The frontier feel is palpable and comparable to being on the Amazon. This town is the entry point for some of the most remote locations and tribes in SE Asia. Most people come here to head off on weeklong treks into the hills to stay with some of these tribes. There is a valley near the border that is thought to have been for 50 years now, the vector for the world’s only treatment resistant malaria.
Trekking sounds fun but we just don’t have it in us, so we spent our 5 days or so in Laos, wandering the river and town. Tamara discovered a craft village that taught foreigners how to weave silk, make dyed yarn from natural plants and create bamboo baskets. She had a great time and I rested up from the stress of travel with some great beer and a book. If you are interested the beer is called BeerLao, is very light and made from Jasmine Rice. It is one of my new favorite beers and one of the few exports for the entire country.
We did a touch of hiking on the trip and found ourselves at a travertine waterfall that wound its way down a hill through limestone deposits that caused the water to look crystal clear blue. The limestone causes buildups that create step pools. It was only when we started to swim did we discover the tiny fish the size of baby fingers would nip at our toes. It didn’t hurt but did cause some urgent yelps, until we saw how small they were.
The only issue we had was the pollution caused by the farmers burning the Teak forests to make room for more rice patties. The smoke would burn our eyes and drop ash on anything that sat for longer than an hour. Only when the rain came down from the mountains, did the newly scrubbed air feel fit to breathe.
Not sure if it is the length of our trip, the illness we got in Cambodia or the stress of culture after culture, place after place but we are exhausted and seem unable to relax fully. Not that relaxing is something I have ever known how to do. I would love to hire a boat and travel up into the remote parts of the upper Mekong, or spend a week visiting some Hmong tribe living on a isolated mountain…..I just don’t have it in me. Tamara is so happy to explore the internal through crafting and making things that it seems best to rest up, heal up and drink another beer.