I am ashamed to admit that before this trip I'd barely heard of Laos, even pronouncing it "Louse" when discussing our route with the travel agent. Yet I am now absolutely enthralled by the place and definitely plan to return in the future.
Laos (it's a silent "s" just in case you're as clueless as I was) is the most heavily bombed nation in the world (per capita). At least 2 million tonnes of ordnance was dropped on the country between 1964 and 1973 - during this time the USA dropped a planeload of bombs onto Laos every 10 minutes...for 9 long years. Around 30 per cent of this did not detonate, meaning there are still many deaths each year, along with the fact that the people are kept in poverty as they cannot use the land for fear of detonating such bombs.
Despite all of this, Laos is still one of the most beautiful countries in South East Asia, and one of my favourite countries of the trip, with breathtaking scenery and kind, friendly people.
I don't think we'd realised just how frenzied and grasping Vietnam had been until we arrived in Vientiane late evening, stepped off the bus, and were struck by the peace and tranquility of the city, the country's capital. Although Vientiane (meaning Sandalwood City) is the bustling capital of Laos, it still has only 450,000 inhabitants and is probably the most laid-back capital in Asia, more like a large village really.
We felt instantly more relaxed and at ease than we had done for the previous 15 days in Vietnam - whereas in Vietnam the locals think of a price, double it, multipy it by 6 then add 72, here in Laos business is a done in a more civilised, reasonable fashion. Don't get me wrong, you still have to haggle for everything from a banana to a tuk-tuk , but you don't feel completely violated after every teeny transaction.
It seems the rest of the travelling population were impressed by what Vientiane had to offer too, as we had to drive around to at least 6 guesthouses before we could find a room. Now I know how Mary and Joseph must have felt..all they wanted was a basic inn, and so did we but to no avail.Eventually we found a place for 18 dollars a night - not that cheap compared to elsewhere but we were so exhausted we'd have slept in a barn too at that point.After dinner and a few restorative cocktails with Dieter from our bus we perked up somewhat and slept like babies...
The next day we awoke and were almost shocked to discover that the room we'd finally accepted was tiny and had no windows - we'd been so shattered we'd barely noticed. Therefore, we dressed in shorts and a vest top (me, not Liam),not having seen outside, only to find that it was actually pretty chilly.
The weather improved as the day went on and we decided to treat ourselves to a luxury 2 hour massage (only 15 dollars each). I chose a herbal hot compress massage and Liam opted for the aromatherapy jobbie. When our tiny Laotian massage therapists led us into separate rooms and indicated for Liam only to take a shower I was beginning to smell a rat (or perhaps that was just her previous client)..."make sure there are no "happy endings" involved," I warned as I was led to my own bed and the door closed.
It turned out that Liam chose the best massage - gorgeously scented aromatherapy oils (and no funny business, I'm assured) , whilst mine involved red-hot muslin packs filled with herbs placed on various parts of my body. I attempted to endure the pain of these steaming sacks on my sensitive bod, gritting my teeth and telling myself it must be good for me as it seared into my sunburnt skin. When I was still covered in huge red burns the next day I wasn't so sure of the benefits...
The rest of our time in Vientiane was spent having lovely meals in quaint fairy-lit restaurants, meandering around musty antique shops and cute handicraft boutiques. I couldn't resist splashing out on an antique wooden carving of a rustic Buddha, even though I knew subconciously that what looks amazing in exotic Laos won't neccessarily look quite so well-placed in a 3 bed terrace in Romford..
We also walked along the Mekong river and took a tuk-tuk to a huge golden stupa (temple), marvelling at the great expense and meticulous detail lavished on these extravagant Buddhist places of worship found throughout South East Asia, so incongruous with the modest bamboo huts nearby.
Our next destination is Vang Vieng, home to a fun pastime known as TUBING....