14th December 2015
Tourists go to places. Travellers journey there. It’s this distinction that separates camera-waving visitors crammed into touristy restaurants from small groups, sharing smiles and noodles with local villagers. The journey to a destination should be absorbed; it provides the key to understanding the place, the contrast between rural and town life. Nowhere is that journey more interesting than in Laos where 70% of people live in the countryside. It’s essential to travel through Laos to understand Laos.
The country’s geography is almost impossible; 80% of land is considered mountainous. Given that the southern half of is almost flat, it means that anywhere in the north you are not far from a twist in the road, an ascent up into the clouds – or a dramatic wind down into a sun drenched valley. Mountains are also the heartlands of Laos’ ethnic groups – numbering anything from 167 to 3 depending on how you want to group them (the latter uses an over simplistic highland/midland/lowland categorisation).
The spectacular journey between Luang Prabang and Phonsavan is one of my favourites. There’s much to be learnt from a 300 km, seven-hour twist through the Laotian countryside. Barely an hour out of the town, you have already spiraled over 1000 metres skyward and been enveloped in morning mist and cloud. An hour or so later and the lazy Laotian sun has finally dragged itself above the peaks sending dazzling rays of warmth through the jungle.
The single lane of Route 7 to Phonsavan twists along a mountainous backbone, dotted with pretty Khmu and H’mong villages. Time to stop. We wander among banana palms and towering bamboos along the ridge, past the woven trays of day-glo chilies – the tell tale signs that the summer rains have finally ceased. On either side of the road are plunging valleys; shades of green form a mountainous backdrop in the distance. Spectacular.
A journey through Laos also highlights Laos’ current transition from the UN’s ‘least developed’ bracket a ‘developing’ country. I’ve made this journey numerous times over the years, witnessing the changes. Over 85% of Laotian children now attend primary school. The sight of masses of tiny uniformed kids returning to villages perched impossibly on the side of mountains is heartening. Oversize bicycles, and backpacks almost as big as some of the toddlers add to the spectacle. Elsewhere power cables and solar panels appear in villages that were once lit by candles and car batteries; bricks replace wood and tin roofs replace the thatch.
But amid the development positives there are warning signs; among the mountainous green patchwork of forests and jungles are the brown bare patches of the logging companies. Hundreds of dam projects are already operating, under construction or consideration. In five years time a new ‘Beijing Express’ train will hurtle at over 100 km’s through Laos, changing the physical and cultural landscape of the country forever.
Dusk is a magical time on the road. As sunset draws close, villagers and animals return from the fields. Exhausted buffalos are reluctant to share the road with motorized vehicles. Sleepy villages spring into life as women and children gather at the well to bathe. The comforting smell of burning wood fills the air and smoke hangs in little clouds beneath the cooler air. It’s barely dusk but it won’t be long before the village sleeps for the night.
Only by journeying through Laos can you appreciate that this way of life exists, surreally juxtaposed with governments and NGO’s discussions on millennium goals, dams, trains, and shopping malls.