14.12.2012 - 14.12.2013
We arrived in Laos after a memorably uncomfortable ten-hour journey from Vietnam. The small, elderly, rusting, suspension-free bus was first filled with sacks of rice and crates of fruit, and the passengers and their luggage were then squeezed into the gaps. Further sacks of vegetables, agricultural fertilizer and pig feed were piled in along the way, so that the aisle was eventually three sacks deep. This formed the seating for the unfortunate additional passengers picked up en route, though not as unfortunate as those who had to sit on the steps, or crush three into two seats. We were lucky with our rice and potatoes - we met a couple of guys who travelled the same route on a bus full of dried fish.
Grinding towards the border, the landscape took on a new character. The industrial flatlands and functional concrete housing surrounded by rubbish became gentle hills, winding roads, forests and tidy little villages of wooden houses. Grey skies turned to clear bright blue. Once we crossed into Laos it became non-stop glorious scenery, all dramatic peaks, wide rivers and jungle, even more gorgeous in the evening light as the sun began to set. The crumbling road was barely wide enough for the bus and the route up and down mountains was all hairpin bends, blind corners and vertiginous precipices. Reflecting on my imminent demise when the bus plunged over the edge as it surely must, I decided I could accept this scenario if the last thing I saw of earth was this beautiful landscape.
A few quick facts about a little country you can be forgiven for knowing nothing about. Firstly pronunciation: it's a silent S, so it's not Louse, it rhymes with Wow (and not with Chaos). It's about the same size and nearly the same shape as Britain, but with a fraction of the population and a rather different standard of living. It's communist and always has been - the hammer and sickle flag is flown everywhere. The French added the superfluous S to the country of the Lao people during their stint as colonial overlords in the 19th cenrtury. No-one knows why, including the French. The other colonial remnant is the baguette. The language and religion of the French were jettisoned upon independence, and the S was formally dropped when Laos was renamed the Lao People's Democratic Republic in the 1990s - so only the baguette remains. But Laos is still in common usage, and is quicker for me to type so I'm sticking with it.
Laos has the dubious distinction of being the most bombed country in history, thanks to the USA's policy of covertly dropping millions of tons of explosives on it in the 1960s and 70s. In a secret war running concurrently with the assault on Vietnam, bombers pounded this tiny land every day for nine years. And it's not over - hundreds of thousands of unexploded bombs still remain, with a terrible toll of lost lives and limbs to this day. More on all this in future posts.
There are two other important things to know about Laos. Firstly, it is the home of probably the most relaxed easy-going people on earth. Nothing bothers them and everthing amuses them. Secondly, Lao children are the cutest I've ever met - inquisitive, confident, bright, comical and full of fun. Sabaidee! is the universal Lao greeting. It's a joyous word and you feel happier for just saying it. Even better is small Lao children squeaking Sabaideeeee!! at you and then giggling when you say it back. The instant transformative effect that Laos had on us is best illustrated by the fact that I spent most of the first evening here with a small black kitten sleeping on my lap. Yes - I, Lesley, the feline-averse. Yes, a kitten (and I'm not normally very keen on children either). In Laos you walk round at a fraction of your normal pace. You find yourself stopping to look at the reflection of trees in the river, or watch a butterfly, or gaze at the clouds and the changing light, Things like time and getting stuff done become irrelevant. Things that would normally really bother you don't, and you find yourself feeling that actually, you know, everything will probably work out ok. And it does. Complete mental reset. A wonderful place - we like Laos an awful lot.
Oh and a third important thing - Laos does the best sunsets.
Next: the caves that became a secret city during a secret war.