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May 27, 2014, Laos

The slow lane in Laos

Dave Fox goes off the beaten path and is rewarded with closeup encounters of Laotian life

Dave Fox

IT WAS my second afternoon in Vientiane and my feet were blissfully sore.

I had been walking all over the Laotian capital — partly because I didn’t feel like hassling with the city’s aggressive tuk-tuk drivers, but also because I knew that navigating on foot offers perspectives I can’t catch from moving vehicles.

I had inhaled incense-sweetened solitude at Buddhist monasteries, purchased a pineapple from the back of a pick-up truck, and exchanged hellos with strangers as I peeked into their homes and lives.

With just over 200,000 residents, central Vientiane feels almost too cosy to be a national capital. Other than the tuk-tuk drivers, people seem unrushed. Few buildings exceed three or four storeys.

The streets were quiet enough that, at times, I could even hear an electrical buzz from snarled wires overhead. 

The mellow mood made it easy to ignore the country’s war-torn past. However, a visit to the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (Cope) put things in perspective.

Cope is Laos’ primary provider of wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs for victims of landmines from the Second Indochina War. Its small museum explains the ongoing horror of unexploded landmines in rural areas.

In a country grappling with poverty, some people comb the countryside for military scrap metal, which fetch around 1,000 to 2,000 Laotian kip (S$0.15 to S$0.30) per kilo, risking their lives in the process.

A lucky disappointment

On my third day in Vientiane, my blisters needed a rest, so I rented a dilapidated bicycle for US$2 (S$2.50).

I bumped into Lisa, a German tourist I met at the train station when I first arrived. We pedalled towards Beerlao Brewery, 13km out of town. According to my guidebook, it offers tours.

It was a sweltering ride in heavier traffic than the downtown core. We made some wrong turns. A thick language barrier made asking directions difficult.

Two hours later, when we finally found the brewery, we learnt that the tours had been temporarily cancelled.

Frustrated, we pedalled back through rush hour. But instead of stopping when we reached the town centre, we followed an asphalt path along the Mekong River past a stretch of touristy restaurants.

After a couple of kilometres, the asphalt turned to dirt. We found a rickety drink shack, slapped together with plywood and corrugated aluminium.

Inside, guys were laughing and playing cards. Outside, a man was strumming a guitar. Kids were flying kites. Families were picnicking.

The Laotian menu was indecipherable but we managed to order beers. We were the only foreigners in sight.

This, to me, was far more enticing than a corporate brewery tour.

Contrasting towns

Over the next few days, I travelled by bus and minivan towards Luang Prabang, 340km north. I broke my journey in Vang Vieng, one of the oddest places I visited.

Dramatic limestone peaks surround Vang Vieng. The Nam Xong River slices through the village. An airstrip, used by American forces during the war, is now an outdoor market.

But what Vang Vieng has recently become infamous for is a binge-drinking backpacker party scene. It is not for the faint-hearted.

In contrast, Luang Prabang is a chilled-out town that goes to bed early. A Unesco World Heritage Site, it fuses European colonial and traditional Lao architecture.

Tourists flock to Luang Prabang to observe an early morning ritual as hundreds of Buddhist monks in saffron robes file through town in silent meditation, collecting food donations to sustain them for the day. It is an ageold, sacred tradition.

Sadly, however, camera-wielding vacationers were disrupting the monks’ walking meditation with flash photography.

English tuition

I got a close-up encounter with Laotian life at Big Brother Mouse, a non-profit literacy organisation. Its visitor centre invites travellers to volunteer at daily English tutoring sessions.

I was partnered with seven teenagers, all of whom spoke basic English. Some were there just to chat. Others had homework questions.

It was an intense but fun couple of hours as the students bombarded me with questions about grammar, Singapore, the United States, world travel and anything else they could think of.

They taught me about the worldview of Laotian teens, telling me about their homes, schools and families. When it was time to go, they asked if I would be back the next day. Unfortunately, I was flying home in the morning.

On my first journey to Laos, I had followed the most popular tourist route, yet found plenty of untouristy situations.

That is part of the magic in this small, landlocked country. Laos is a land where life moves slowly — and to fully enjoy it, you should too.

GUIDE LINES

Lao Airlines flies from Singapore to Vientiane three times a week.

■ There are several flights daily between Vientiane and Luang Prabang. You can also make the journey by bus or other local vehicles. Overland prices start at around S$12 for the eight to 12- hour trip. However, it is a bumpy ride, not recommended for people prone to motion sickness.

■ If you do go overland and wish to break up the journey, Vang Vieng is the most central overnight stop. Be forewarned, however, that you will find a loud, all-night party scene and an environment unsuitable for young children.

■ In Vientiane, visit Wat Si Muang, which was built in 1563 and is one of the city’s busiest Buddhist temples.

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