Yep, this post is pretty straight forward, this was my entry to the WorldNomads 2011 Travel Writing Scholarship. Like almost everything I write it bends toward the melodramatic but I am happy that I managed to incorporate some concrete detail about Laos throughout. I owe Josephine Butler many thanks for providing editorial support, and for encouraging me to write stuff, her comments were both insightful and refreshingly honest, and the swearing, man, nothing like some well placed profanity. If chosen I get a 3 week vacation in Istanbul and get to write more things about travel. Heres to hoping. And my entry:
Across A Forgotten Country
We crossed into Laos from Hanoi, stopping first in Vientiane, the nation’s capital and most populous city. With two thirds of the population Theravada Buddhist, monasteries and monks are a frequent sight, adding the gentle swish of robes and ornate spires to the urban environment. 700,000 inhabitants call Vientiane home and by 9 pm it shuts down completely. It’s fitting for Laos, often called ‘the forgotten country’ of Southeast Asia. Less developed than its neighbors it attracts fewer tourists and embraces a pastoral tranquility attested to by a notably sparse nightlife. Laos has escaped, perhaps temporarily, the crass and unapologetic exploitation of place and people so evident in Cambodia and Thailand.
The country is a mountainous spread of rugged and breathtakingly rural terrain, a bright and vibrant edge of the world with clear skies and friendly people. Remote interiors boast dense and thrumming jungle, broken not infrequently by jagged, vertical limestone formations skirted by narrow, timorous highways that connect an archipelago of agricultural and mining villages. Legacies of colonial rule still resonate here. French is spoken in governmental and commercial circles and by members of older generations. Our breakfast ritual consists of small cafés and buttered croissants. Triumphal arches dot the towns, and the cratered remnants of near ceaseless American bombardment are ubiquitous in the eastern half of the country.
Touring the countryside on a rented 125cc Honda Forza the fields, rice paddies and distant hills surrounding Phonsavan glide lazily by. Wandering the landscape are small herds of water buffalo, ponderously sized draft animals with full arcing horns swept above broad foreheads. We stop and stroll among the chiseled monuments on the Plain of Jars before resuming our trek back into town. After two days we move on, unhurried, leaving a dusty village to its mountains and clouds and scenery and ancient history.
Vang Vieng, a tiny village hidden within the folds of Laos’ central interior, overlooks the Nam Song River from nearby hills. One of Lao’s only destinations on the hedonistic itinerant traveler circuit it’s our next stop. The town harbors escapists from everywhere. I meet Germans, French, Irish, Scottish, Canadian, Polish, Australian and Turkish travelers. Our last evening in Vang Vieng ends in a violent, howling thunderstorm forcing an early retreat from the river.
I watch the passing countryside for six hours on the taxi ride back to Vientiane. Words cannot describe how green Laos is. An adolescent rice paddy is almost impossible to comprehend in its lush, thriving, neon, unabashed verdure. A rolling, tangled ocean of green upon green, fringed by dark and furious jungle. The insects are a force, their noise tangible and incessant.
I had no idea what to expect from Laos, but something lost amid the frenzied congestion that is life in Vietnam’s industrial north was breathed into my being here. Four days left on this trek through southeast Asia and I doubt Thailand will resonate as Laos has. So peaceful, this forgotten country and its high green hills.