I’ve heard people lament and complain about how touristed Thailand has gotten. Even Vietnam and Cambodia, to some extent. But everything I’ve heard and read about Laos claims it still feels like the promised land. Uncorrupted locals, an authentic way of life, gorgeous scenery…
Do you know what Laos reminded me of? Ethiopia.
In the sense that someone once told them, “Hey, you should try out this thing called tourism,” but they haven’t quite figured it out yet. Luang Prabang is an obvious exception, but I don’t feel like Vang Vieng or Vientiane (Laos’ capital) are.
My last post was filled with reasons why Vang Vieng wasn’t the place for me, but I was surprised to learn that neither was Vientiane. We checked into Sihome Backpackers Hostel and immediately felt out of place. Now, I know I was never enough of a “people person” to really feel at home in a hostel (we had a private room here, by the way), but this was more than that – they made me feel old. But in a good way.
I’m sure the hostel was fantastic for 18-to-21-year-old, socially apt people, but for a 24-year-old nearing the end of a 3-month trip, it was rough. Everyone around me was young, loud, and forgive me if I sound rude, but a little bit ignorant. The things they loved about Laos were the very things I struggled to cope with in Ethiopia.
“Laos is so authentic…the roads are dusty, children play in the street, and thatched huts are surrounded by modern, three-story developments.” What people don’t realize is that, what they’re really saying is: I love Laos, it’s so poor. The roads are dusty: they can’t afford to pave them. Children play in the streets: their parents can’t afford toys. Thatched huts are surrounded by modern, three-story developments: the income gap is only widening, with many getting left behind.
I hate that for some to enjoy an “authentic” experience in a country, they expect that country to refuse to develop, refuse to improve their lives. Yes, I think it’s tragic when people lose their culture, I think that culture is something we should all be proud of and hold on to. But development can mean good things as well: employment, health care, better standards of living.
And in some places in Laos, you can see the improvements. Luang Prabang, for example, has a thriving tourist scene. All of the locals I met were incredibly friendly – none seemed to begrudge our visit. That was less the case in Vang Vieng, and we were pretty much invisible (not in a good way) in Vientiane. But hey, not every country is for every person, and I absolutely think that’s ok.
We did still find ways to spend our time in Vientiane. We ate some pretty good food (I was even able to find Savannah Dry Cider!) and we went on a walking tour of the city. My favourite stop was Patuxai. It’s the Laotian Arc de Triomphe, built in 1962 but never completed.
It would feel lonely, but it’s been turned into a leisure park and it was filled with families in the early dusk.
Now that our time in Laos is finished, I can easily say I’m glad we went – I loved Luang Prabang and I know I would always have wondered what the country was like if we had skipped it. But for me, Thailand is the promised land, and I’m happy to be back in it.