ON the beaten path…
There were many many tourists in Vientiane. My first impression was that there were more tourists than local residents, and I heard from a number of travellers that this was even more striking in Luang Prabang. This is a bit of a paradox, because many people had made their way to Laos specifically because it is billed as an undiscovered destination. The Lonely Planet book on Laos, for example – admittedly now several years old – is part of the publisher’s off the beaten path series. The paradox part has to do with the fact that although Laos no longer seems to be off the beaten path, it still has no real tourist infrastructure. In that way, it serves neither type of tourist.

The rather funny dynamic this set up is that many tourists in Vientiane and Vang Viang seemed to be attempting to create for themselves the illusion that they were truly off the beaten path. They went about this mainly by trying – sometimes going to great lengths – to avoid any eye contact with other tourists. I admit that I was disappointed at first to see so many tourists, but I accepted this reality pretty quickly, and as a result I got to meet a lot of very interesting people.

The children of Laos…
They are truly beautiful – always quick to smile and wave. There is nothing in their faces that speaks of my relative prosperity (compared to their poverty). There is nothing in their eyes that suggests my presence in their country mostly means potential income. I should say that I found most of the people I encountered in Laos to be extremely warm and friendly, but as in Bali, their warmth was disingenuous just often enough to make me just a bit cynical when dealing with grownups.

Having and having not…
In general, my visits to Bali and Laos are a good reminder of how little we really need to survive, and often it’s the financially poorer communities that seem to be the richest in heart. Perhaps I digress here, but the people of Laos typically bathe twice a day – once in the morning and once in the evening. Outside of Vientiane, they bathe in rivers and streams – in full view of each other, although not in the nude. It’s a beautiful and intimate piece of real life that I was lucky enough to see. Through this daily act the people of Laos share something we think of as naturally private, while we westerners are putting wider and wider boundaries around ourselves.

charity…
Finally, it seemed a little strange to me that the ex-pats in Laos who are working for NGOs like UNICEF live in huge mansions and drive brand new SUVs.

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