I was going to meet my friend to do some buddy travel for two weeks in Laos after having travelled through Vietnam on my on. The solo travel experience, after three whole months of couple travel was interesting – it did not start on a good note. And yet, after only a few days, I got used to it and I loved it. I almost wished I had had more time on my own.
Now, I had to adapt to a new travel style again.
The bus ride from Hanoi to Vientiane was not as problematic as I feared it would be. In fact, it was one of the easiest long-hour bus rides I had been on – despite the horror stories that are being circulated on the Internet about this route. But when I arrived – after 24 hours of bus travel – I was looking forward to a nice comfortable room to relax, before my friend arrived a few hours later.
When I opened the door, the smell of mould hit me. I immediately shut the door again, went back downstairs, and asked for a different room. As someone with a run-down immune system and the proneness of catching bronchitis with the click of a finger, I knew: there is no way i’m staying here. The second room was better, but there were about fifty mosquitoes greeting me. Nope. Not staying here either. Room three was a little bit better – there were only approximately 40 mosquitoes that tried to attach themselves on to me. Oh dear. Where are we?
What have we booked?
So I texted my friend who was at Phuket airport at the time ‘Sweety, I’m going to try to find another hotel in Vientiane. This place is infested with a mosquitoe plague’. But after researching for about fifteen minutes, I knew, this ain’t going to happen. Everything was booked out and to be honest, I was too tired to walk around aimlessly to find an alternative. Plan B will have to do. I ventured out into the unknown to find mosquito sprays, coils and anything else I could find to remedy the situation.
After having ice-cream for dinner (which is what I always do when I need something to cheer me up), I returned placing several incense coils in our room and bathroom. It helped. I could not breathe anymore and my eyes were watering because of the smoke, but at least I was not going to be eaten alive.
It surprisingly worked.
Thank goodness for aircon in the room. Having it on full blast would surely cleanse the smokey room. However, my friend who arrived i the meantime informed me that she gets ill from sleeping in air-conditioned rooms and there was no way she could sleep with it on. Right. So, I won’t be able to sleep because of the smoke and because of the thirty degrees of heat in the room.
The two weeks afterwards were not any better – despite meagre attempts to talk about compromises and hinting at the possibility of maybe having the A/C on at least once in a while. I was granted a few hours per day. The rest of the time, as an insomniac, I did not overly sleep much. After my trip to Laos, in my apartment in Chiang Mai, I had my A/C blowing continuously through the night at a cool sleeping temperature of about 20 C – 22C (which by the way, is still far higher than the recommended bedroom temperature which according to Dr. Winter should be anywhere between 15 C – 19 C (!)).
One thing I learnt throughout my buddy travel weeks: I am way too often the one who compromises for the happiness of the other.
Now that that is out the way. How did I perceive the Lao people?
If I may be quite honest: I thought, with a few exceptions, that the majority of Lao were quite unfriendly. It’s perplexing to me that most people who have travelled to both, Vietnam and Laos, find the Lao to be friendlier than the Vietnamese. I definitely don’t share this opinion. I had so many extra-ordinary travel encounters during my time in Vietnam – the rude encounters were a rarity.
My impression of the Lao was the reverse.
I fully understand that the tourism in Lao, and Cambodia for instance, is very new – not many speak English – making it very hard to communicate (unless you speak the language) and the country needs time to adjust to hoards of visitors visiting every year. I also understand that some tourists behave like twats when they visit. But we did not. I constantly felt like I was a nuisance to them. As if I was not overly welcome in their country.
I also acknowledge the atrocities this country had to endure – we visited the UXO Centre in Luang Prabang and it was an eye-opening experience of how Lao have to live. My heart was broken. I do understand. But how come did I not receive the same vibes from the Vietnamese who equally went through a lot historically?
Lao rarely smile. Never really talk much. Which I later learnt is a cultural thing. I actually enjoyed the ‘silence’ intrinsic to their day to day lives. I could very much relate to that and thought it was a refreshing and welcome change to the European ‘compulsively having to chat non-stop’ mentality.
But, signalling your dislike for conversations and being plain rude, are two pairs of shoes.
One day I wanted to buy postcards and stamps and was prepared to pay 133 000 Kip for it which is a lot of money for someone who tries to stick to a ’15 Pound a day budget’. Of course it is a lot of money for them too. But then I did not have enough money and tried to explain to the lady at the counter that I will quickly go to the ATM to get the remainder of the cash. She was so irritated, snatched the postcards off me and placed them back on the stand. I still came back and bought the postcards as it was the only shop in Luang Namtha that I could find which sold them.
And yet, I was really hurt by that gesture. It was not the only time.
In the bus, at the border, no one bothered to inform us ‘white people’ about what to do next. They dropped us off and there was no explanation of where to go. Luckily there was a friendly Vietnamese woman on the bus who guided us. If it wasn’t for her, we would have had no idea what to do. I really had the impression Lao did not want us to be there. They didn’t care.
I somehow felt, they wanted us to leave again.
On our last adventure in the jungle, the guide, when I asked him, as a conversation starter, whether he liked his job, replied ‘No not really. I don’t like the tourists’. It wasn’t because I had annoyed him in any way – he was just genuine in his response (which I appreciated, but puzzled me nevertheless). He also expressed his annoyance towards us throughout the entire time. When we asked him questions, he either did not respond or was very short in his answers. He also cut the kayaking part short as we were too slow in his opinion (something he only informed us of when we were already on our way back in the car).
We really tried to engage in a conversation with him. It wasn’t working.
He was not interested.
However, my perception changed slightly when we spent our first night in a rural village. The people there were very friendly. I had bought a children’s book at the night market in Luang Prabang the previous evening and gave it to a young disabled girl – her joy and thankfulness about the present touched us all and will be something I will never forget. The villagers had welcomed us so warmly – it was a very different experience to what I had encountered in the cities.
I hoped to gather as many inspirational stories from conversations with locals as possible during my RTW trip. Laos leaves me feeling a bit empty – hearted. Perhaps it wasn’t Laos. Perhaps it was the incredible impression of Vietnam that left me disappointed. Perhaps I just needed a good night’s sleep – maybe my entire time in Laos had been tainted due to my lack of sleep. It was more than likely. But somehow…
I did not feel welcome. For the first time on my entire RTW trip.