After the hustle and hassle of Hanoi and Saigon, Vientiane is a refreshingly laid-back city. Ok, there's not much to do, it's a little dirty, and it suffers from post-colonial decay, but it has a nice feel, and despite the language barrier (few people speak good English), I think the people are charming. Well, except for one guy who I'll call Lou. Thanks to Lou, I had an encounter with the Laos police yesterday...
I got up at 6am to go for a bike ride. My guest house rents bikes for $1 per day and Lou is in charge of that. He showed me the one bike he had left. While I was checking it out (only to determine that it had a mechanical defect), he disappeared. I returned the bike to its proper place and left in search of a better bike. When I returned hours later (riding a different bike), Lou demanded that I pay for the stolen bike! Huh? It was the first time I ever saw an Asian yell without provocation. He said he would call the police, and I would go to jail. I said, "Yes please, call the police." He did. They came. I told them my side of the story through a bad interpreter, and after much discussion in Lao, they all agreed that I should pay for half the bike. I said, "No way." I showed the police a receipt for the bike I rented down the road, then told them my theory that Lou himself "stole" the bike, seeing an opportunity to extort money from the American. They all stood up, shook my hand, patted me on the back, and said I was free to go. They made Lou stay behind for further questioning.
One can only get to Muang Ngoi by boat. This friendly village has no motor vehicles and no Internet, but it does have enough bungalows for the backpackers who roll through. When my Australian friend Michelle and I got off the boat, we were immediately invited to a wedding! The entire village partied until late, tourists and all, drinking free Lao-Lao, with free food, music and dancing :^) The next day was more of the same. Muang Ngoi has the perfect mix of culture and simple ammenities. Here I can play kataw (takraw), the footbag-net-like national sport, and swim in the river with smiling locals. The only downside is smoke. One cannot see the mountains. Sometimes it literally rains ash. But soon the fires will stop, they say. Seasonal burns for agriculture are out of control, destroying forests.
Vang Vieng is one of those great backpacker hangouts, a stress-free place to mountain bike, explore caves, tube down the river (pure leisure), or drink Beer-lao. The ancient capital Luang Prabang is the main tourist center. Friendly people, bargain prices, and fun activities make this a wonderful region to explore.
Laos has the distinction of being the most heavily bombed place on Earth. The USA dropped more than 1.3 million tons of ordnance during the Vietnam War. Unexploded bombs are still a huge problem, sadly.
Laos is my favorite country in South East Asia because the people are just that nice. This is a country that has not been spoiled by tourism. I love to see people who are happy with their lives despite a lack of stuff. It warms my heart.
I went to Muang Sing, near the Myanmar - China border, as a place from where to trek to an Akha hill-tribe village, a great tramp. The Akhas are distinct from mainstream Laos culture in race, language, clothing, food, and spiritual traditions (with a Pagan belief system that pre-dates Buddhism). The village we visited grows rice and sugarcane to sell to China; they also make a little money by giving massages to the odd trekking group :^)