A Lao bus ride is not for the faint-hearted. It’s a mountainous country, with narrow winding roads and fearless drivers bordering on frankly reckless. But the view! Oh boy, the view.
Driving from Luang Prabang through the mountains of northern Laos to get to Vang Vieng was spectacular. We passed small settlements along the road. The villagers were there, sitting outside their houses, walking to the nearest small market, the kids playing outside. I saw women washing clothes at a tank producing the thinnest stream of water I’d ever seen. The houses were simple, made of plain wood with hay roofs, or entirely of sheets of corrugated iron. They were never built on the ground, but always on stilts. I learnt later this is part of a religious tradition that believes stilts bring houses closer to heaven. It’s not without its practical uses, though: depending on their heights, I saw ground floors arranged with tables, cookers and hammocks. Countless hammocks. The always-open house doors showed little to no furniture inside; with shoes lined up outside the front step. Laundry was drying outside, sometimes getting a second wash from the frequent showers.
In the background, mountains. Tall, lusciously green mountains, with dark tops wearing clouds for necklaces. The road snakes around the peaks, with minuscule streams of rainwater running either side. From time to time, a landslide reveals piles of red argile. Occasionally the pouring rain will turn them into muddy nightmares. It took five men, half an hour and a very valiant engine to get our minivan through one of those. Then the road continues, with a small waterfall adding a soundtrack to it all. That, and motorbikes wheezing past. Even in the most remote of places, where houses would be barely standing, there’d always be a motorbike or two parked outside.
I climb a mountain and turn around
The sheer majesty of the Lao countryside makes you feel really small, like a little kid staring at a tall Christmas tree. Sparkles in your eyes, questions and the feeling you’re seeing the prettiest, most precious thing in the whole world. Because of this, it didn’t surprise me much to find out that in spite of the omnipresence of Buddhist temples in Laos, many in the country are of animist belief. My bike tour guide in Luang Prabang told me about the beliefs of his people, the Khmu. They live mostly in the northern mountains of Laos, and they believe in nature, praying only to ancestors in times of sickness or need.
To me, that’s what Laos is: a country of contrasts. Relatively developed towns, attracting heaps of backpackers and tourists, from quaint, darling Luang Prabang to the wildly beautiful (and alcoholised) Vang Vieng. The capital, Vientiane, reminded me of Bangkok: tall, square and busy, with suburban arteries filled with endless streams of cars and motorbikes. The Mekong riverside had the looks of a French seaside resort on the Atlantic in the off-season. But in the country, lives are modest, and nature completely takes over.
I’m sorry this post lacks a lot of photographic evidence for what I wrote about. It’s difficult taking pictures from the window of a bus, especially when the road is full of potholes (which is all the time). And sometimes, sometimes I do make an effort to let go of the camera and just… be there.