Laos: why bother?

Laos offers spectacular landscapes, but its people are the real attraction.
Laos offers spectacular landscapes, but its people are the real attraction. Photo: Getty Images

There's this little country in South-East Asia. It's extremely poor, with many of its citizens living under the poverty line.

It has a socialist government that seems to care more about ... well, I'm not sure what it cares about, but it's certainly not roads. Or freedom.

There's a country-wide curfew of midnight. Everyone's indoors by then.

It's a nightmare getting from one place to another here – a 200-kilometre drive might take you all day. If you're lucky. The country's main thoroughfare is a potholed mess barely wide enough for two cars.

There are no thriving metropolises. The capital city has a million residents but it's not what you'd call a pleasant urban existence. The country is also landlocked, so you won't be going to the beach.

Oh, and there's also the small fact of the place being absolutely littered with unexploded ordnances – the kind that still regularly kill and maim innocent people – that were thoughtfully left behind by the Americans in a pointless war that many people still don't even realise occurred.

This is Laos. Doesn't sound very nice, does it? But the funny thing is that despite all of those hindrances, and maybe even a little bit because of them, Laos is an incredible travel destination. Possibly one of the world's best.

Talk to any traveller who's been through South-East Asia and they'll bang on about it for hours. Thailand was good, they'll say. Vietnam was really interesting. Cambodia, great. But Laos? Laos is amazing.

I'm in Laos at the moment, loving every minute of it, and I've been trying to figure out what it is that makes this country such a great place to visit. It's cheap, obviously, but so are all of the countries around it, and it's always Laos that gets singled out as people's favourite.

Is it the landscape? The diversity of experience? Is it the rush of the Mekong River, the soaring limestone castes of Vang Vieng, the river islands of Pakse, the ancient temples that dot Luang Prabang, the strange stone jars strewn across Phonsavanh? Probably. A bit.

But it's also the almost bizarre freedom that travellers have in a country whose citizens are quite strictly controlled. Want to hire a motorbike? Go for it. Want to float down a river drinking beer at 10 in the morning? Go for it. Want to lie in a hammock for an entire day? Go for it.

But even that gets old after a while, so there must be something else going on here. And there is: the people.

Now, this is where you'd normally start dusting off the clichés like "simple" and "uncomplicated". There's that old chestnut of poor people seeming to be far happier with nothing than we are with everything.

I've been trying to come up with a different way of putting it but essentially that's true. Lao people are some of the friendliest you'll ever meet. But it's not just the forced friendliness of pleasing the foreigners – it seems more genuine than that.

Laos is one of those special places where there doesn't seem to be a barrier between traveller and local. Some countries you have to work hard to be accepted as a friend, but in Laos you feel like you already have millions.

It's ridiculous, because we couldn't be more different – us foreigners with our fancy backpacks and millions of kip and stupid "In the tubing" singlets, and a developing nation struggling to rise from subsistence living.

But it works. Genuine friendships are formed.

For travellers, Lao people put you in touch with a simpler way of living, and you're immediately made to feel part of it.

The country is a snapshot of life lived without all the gadgets and distractions of the Western world. You're not woken each morning by car horns, but by crowing roosters. People don't sit in cafes with laptops, they go to open-air restaurants and chat.

And most of all, they make you feel welcome, which is why everyone loves Laos, and why everyone wants to go back. I know I do.

Have you had a similar experience in Laos? What makes it such a great destination?

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Email: bengroundwater@gmail.com

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