Time off in Laos

Laos has been a great place to relax for ten days – laid-back, safe and hassle-free.

I find Africa a fascinating place but it is always very demanding; you are always having to interact with people. “Ça va?” is never enough, you always have to stop, to explain – where are you going, what is your name, where is your husband, your children, etc, etc. & I always feel that I have to be on my guard – whilst genuinely friendly people, Africans rarely stop to talk to a stranger just to be friendly, they usually have some motive.

In Laos people smile, the children wave, and you have to say “Sabaidee” (hello) dozens of times a day – but it stops there. You are left in peace.

I decided it would be counterproductive to rush around trying to see all the sights of Laos, given that one of its selling points was the slow pace of life, so I opted to restrict myself to a small area in the extreme south of the country, visiting just three places.

My first stop was an ecolodge on the edge of a wetlands in a protected area. As well as seeming a good place to relax, I thought I would see lots of birds. It turns out, however, that there are no birds – the locals shoot and eat them. This leaves the countryside strangely quiet and empty – you don’t realise how much birdsong there is around you normally until it isn’t there. I did, however, hear the beautiful, haunting, call of the rare yellow-cheeked crested gibbon (or at least that’s what the guide said it was…) early in the morning in the forest. That was part of a two-day trek I took into the heart of the Se Pian Protected Area, walking through forest on the first day and a mixture of that and travelling along a river in a small pirogue on the second day. In between I slept in a small village, eating with local families. It was very enjoyable (through mixed forest including lots of bamboo and orchids though the latter were not in flower) though I have to say not to be undertaken in the hope of seeing wildlife. The most we managed was a giant centipede and lots of frighteningly enormous spiders. The type with tiny round bodies and legs that seem to go on for ever (in this case I think for 6-8 inches). They were constantly moving and quite repulsive.

It’s good that Laos are setting aside so much of their countryside into protected areas, but disappointing to see bird-hunters prowling with their guns, and signs of deforestation, within the protected area.

Logging has (at least theoretically) stopped in these areas. This means that the elephants that the locals used to use to haul logs have been made redundant. Elephants are expensive to keep, so as an alternative way of paying for their upkeep they are now being employed near the ecolodge to carry tourists about. I guess the alternative would be that they would be killed for food, as the Laotians seem to eat anything that moves, so I didn’t feel too guilty about riding on one’s back for an hour to visit a local hill-top archaeological site. It was also a pleasure, when walking around, to spot them ‘at leisure’ in the wetlands.

My next stop was a small island, Don Khon, among the “four thousand islands” (Si Phan Don) of the Mekong inland delta. It is very rustic, but also ridiculously cheap – $2 a night to stay in my own little ‘bungalow’ of wood and woven palm fronds, with a string hammock on my balcony overlooking the Mekong (though I admit the bathroom wasn’t great). I tore myself away from the hammock though to explore some of the footpaths around the island, and ended up walking for hours and hours. The scenery wasn’t spectacular, but it was pleasant – rice paddies, remnants of forest, and a couple of little villages – and an impressive set of rapids beside the island.

After a couple of days on Don Khon, my final stop was Wat Phu Champasak, a UNESCO World Heritage listed Khmer ruin. My guidebook said it was in the style of Angkor Wat, which was true, but it was nowhere near as impressive. However it was in a lovely setting on the side of the hill, with some wonderful old magnolia trees up the sides of some of the paths, and it was a great day-trip from the nearby village of Champasak where I splashed out on a $5-a-night room with ensuite hot-water bathroom.

Then on the journey back to Thailand I had a special treat, having found a restaurant serving Italian food. Those friends who know my view of chilli, and coriander, will understand why I had not been looking forward to a diet of Lao food, and why I was so thrilled to be able to lunch on spinach and gorgonzola lasagne with garlic bread...

Back in Thailand I attended a meeting with colleagues in Bangkok, my first time in that city since 1984. It seems now to mostly consist of roads and shopping malls. I managed to sneak out without my colleagues one evening to try a little local culture – a ‘ping pong show’ followed by a beer with a few deep-fried insects. The show was nothing to get excited about though I had always felt it was something I should see once. The grasshoppers were surprisingly tasty. However I also tasted a large beetle (which looked like some kind of cockroach); it took a lot of willpower to even put it near my mouth, and when I finally got to taste the gooey brown and yellow gunk in its abdomen – well, I can’t even begin to describe quite how foul it was. I think even a hot Thai curry would have been preferable.

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