As soon as we crossed the border from China into Laos it became apparent that Lao moves to a different tune than its oversized neighbour to the north.
“Entering Laos might entail a change down in gear,” our friends in Dali warned, a day before departure.
“This is the part of the journey I’ve been looking forward to since day one,” Richie reminded me as we handed over our passports at the border. Even the security officials seemed happy to see us. We smiled and made our first attempt at the greeting, ‘sabaidee‘, which sounded softer and more childlike in our mouths than angular ‘ni hao’.
I hadn’t realised how uncomfortable the pace of development in China had made me until I entered Laos. Except for the presence of rubber plantations and new roads, sure signs that China’s influence in this region extends well beyond its border, Laos felt a world away.
Gone were the gaudy concrete tourist hotels, the bells and whistles, the showy fountains, monuments to civic heroes and outlandish manicured gardens. This felt real, and charming.
As we passed villages where children ran barefoot after chickens, thatching lay drying in bundles, and the brilliant green fronds of banana plants waved in the afternoon light, I breathed a sigh of relief.
The newest arrival onboard the bus smiled appreciatively at the look of excitement on our faces as we cracked open a watermelon to celebrate our arrival in Laos.
On our first evening in Luang Namtha we sat for over an hour in the Night Market in awe of our good fortune, the fresh complex flavours of the food and the beautiful appearance of the local people.
The following day we set out on bicycles, visiting the local produce market, followed by an afternoon poodling about between temples, villages, rice paddies and stupas.
“Is it immoral to feel so happy in one of the world’s poorest nations?” we wondered as we mounted the steps to That Phoum Pouk. Watching local children scrabble among the ruins of the toppled 1628 stupa we sat ourselves down under a pink frangipani and tucked into a wide-open hand of short fat bananas.
“Ouch,” Richie yelped in bewilderment, reaching into his mouth to extract a large black seed; the first mature banana seed we’ve ever laid eyes on.
“Save that one for our garden in Queensland,” I laughed.
The sight of the ruined stupa was a stark reminder that there’s much we do not yet understand about this tiny country with its ‘secret’ past of bombs and havoc wreaked by interfering super powers.
“Why have we never heard of this before?”, we asked ourselves as the credits rolled on ‘The Most Secret Place on Earth’?
Subject to the largest US covert operation prior to the Afghan-Soviet War, as well as subject to the heaviest bombing campaign in history, Laos still suffers from a legacy of continuing casualties from unexploded ordnance (UXO) dropped by the U.S. and Laotian Air Forces from 1964–1973. ‘More than 2 million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos, 30 percent of which failed to explode immediately.’
That evening, as we wheeled our bikes back into the workshop and strolled home intent on packing, but preferring instead to read books and flick through our photos, we considered that Laos might be exactly what we need. Thank goodness for Laos, and all the things it might yet teach us…