My trip started with a shuttle ride from Chiang Mai to the Lao/Thai border town, Huay Xai. Upon crossing the border, I got a beginning taste for Laos. The official was rude to me and the process confusing. When I paid my passport fee there was surprise “overtime fee” at like 4 pm and all over the border were the strong China/Lao friendship signage. I waited for a few hours on the other side of the border with my little “VIP” sticker and was finally shuttled to the “bus terminal” where I boarded the overnight bus to Luang Prabang.
This was my first overnight bus experience. All the seats were lined up on each other and you sleep next to a total stranger. There is no toilet, so be prepared to pop a squat with 40 other people and also pay to use the toilet at the one actual rest stop. This wasn’t so bad for me, as I had been forced in other situations to use terrifying toilets. The outdoors feels free and clean. I was lucky and my bus wasn’t overbooked, as I heard this is really common. An Australian girl I met showed me an insane picture of people lined up on the narrow floor. They just had to sleep like that on a 12 hour bus ride… no body gives a fuck in Laos. You have to be prepared to take whatever they give, which is most likely not what you are told you are getting.
We then arrived at a different time, much earlier than quoted, at 4:30 am. The driver stopped and then they literally just started throwing our stuff off the bus. They don’t explain anything to you. The “bus terminal” is pretty much just a desolate and unlit parking lot. Then the Took Tooks arrived. Be prepared to just be dumped off at some random place. They pretend they know where they are taking you, but they don’t. They just dump you off in the middle of the city. Once you give your money to someone that’s it, you don’t have a say. And you barely have a say to begin with anyway. I was grateful to be with a group of people my age so we wandered the dark and cold streets of Luang Prabang together until sunrise. We had a great breakfast together and then parted ways around 7 am. They were in search of a place to stay, as this city is about 95% occupied so beware. I paid a hefty fee for my dorm just to book in advance. The address didn’t work in google maps though, so I still ended up wandering around for a few hours just trying to find the place.
While wandering, I got to view the Mekong river around sunrise and it was beautiful. I have to say the nature of this country is stunning. The mist from the mountains lingered over the water and small boats of villagers would ramble by here and there. It was a placid and calming moment… which was good to gear me up for the crazy and hectic day to follow. I stayed at a hostel type place called Matata Garden Inn Guest House, which I found out had different prices for the same dorm room. I pay more than anyone else for no reason at $23 USD a night for a shared room. I tried to rent a motorbike and the man at the desk recommended I rent from them. I signed a contract but asked to test drive the bike afterwords, not keeping my guard up. When I got back the guy was gone and I was stuck with the bike. I took it out and it was dangerous to drive. The odometer didn’t work, it didn’t shift properly and it didn’t throttle correctly. I was almost in an accident twice because I couldn’t simply accelerate through an intersection (it’s chaos on the streets here). Also, at one point when I tried to pass a truck the guy didn’t like it and he cut me off, knocking my bike down, me following. He just kept going like everyone else did. Luckily me and the bike were fine so I picked it up, dusted myself off and kept going.
When I tried to return the bike because it was dangerous to drive and offered to pay half day, he refused. I wasn’t allowed a refund at all or another decent bike. I also paid 3 times the price as any motorbike in Thailand. Pretty much everything in Laos is 3-5 times more than anywhere else in SE Asia and 3-5 times less in quality. I also am curious where that money goes, as people here are insanely poor. I saw that on the bus ride through the country. Some families didn’t have clothes for the cold. They live in tattered shacks and huddle by fire pits in the ground for warmth. This country is extremely poor.
A short break in the day was a visit, by my terrifying motorbike, to a good waterfall not far from the city. I did have a positive experience there, because there were no people. I did pass some cute kids on the way though. The kids in Laos are very sweet and adorable. I hope it is a good promise for another generation of maybe less jaded views… The nature in Luang Prabang is honestly wonderful. It is beautiful in the country, for sure. I was able to quietly hike around the jungle and stumbled on some adorable wooden benches I could rest on and contemplate my journey so far.
After the waterfall, I stopped to buy grapes and the guy charged me an astronomical price. It was higher than the cost of grapes in the US. Frustrated, especially after all the incidents of the day, I said, “What!? No thank you.” He just kept bagging them and said aggressively to me, “No!” I had to pay him because he already bagged them. I was pissed off but gave him the money to avoid an aggressive conflict and headed out. Frustrated with the whole entire day and exhausted from no sleep, being haggled and knocked off my bike, I went to just book a bus trip out of Luang Prabang to Vientiane (to start making my way out of Laos). I didn’t realize the guy was ripping me off, as I was so exhausted. I signed his little paper to book the bus but when I went to get money out of an ATM, I found a better bus at a better time for a better price. Shocked, I just booked that and returned to the guy to let him know I wanted to cancel. He flipped out and immediately started screaming at me. I yelled at him to just cancel it and it wasn’t a big deal and I know he was ripping me off and I didn’t want it. His mom got into it and started yelling at me too. They were extremely aggressive so we were fighting and she picked up the phone and they said they would call the cops on me. They were kind of delaying and finally extorted 50,000 LAK out of me to not call the cops. It was highly aggressive and insane. He tried to kick me out, but we fought again because I wanted him to rip up the paid ticket then. Finally he did and told me “I’m done, get out of my shop.”
I’ve been to many places, including Beirut, Lebanon and have never had such a frustrating time with the people. It is also worse because I’m half Lao myself. I was really hoping to positively explore my roots. I can say I have through the nature, but not through the society. I can see people are still heavily oppressed by the government, which the communist propaganda is overwhelmingly in your face here. People are living in some of the most impoverished conditions in the entire world and they literally have no opportunity. My father escaped the country as a refugee and made it to America, but several family members and friends were murdered during the civil war and these things destroyed my family I believe. Nobody seemed the same as they got into addiction and gambling and other violent and terrible behavior. The family left behind suffered and only cared for constant funds from the few that made it to America. For safety, I was estranged from these family roots. This very personal experience has sadly only further brought out some of the darkness I have associated with this country and the current government.
I can understand why this history would fester these negative attitudes to foreigners within the Lao community, suddenly exposed to this drastic rise in tourism. I really can. I mean they are poor with no opportunity whatsoever and here they are watching wealthy privileged foreigners come to their country freely, enjoy themselves and then leave. What a shit feeling. And on top of that, because of all the aid from China, the Chinese are coming in and acting incredibly entitled to everything here. I’m sure the Lao people are justifiably frustrated, but being mean to people like me isn’t going to fix anything and it’s just not a healthy solution. I just don’t think the country is where it should be for someone like me to enjoy my visit as a tourist. It feels wrong and I feel a sense of frustration and guilt, especially being American. I understand we bombed the shit out of this country and destroyed their communities, leaving behind scrap metal and mines that still take their toll on peoples limbs and lives to this day.
I can only meditate and focus in on drawing positive energy. I bought some beautiful fabrics from villagers outside the bigger cities, and hope the money goes into the communities positively. I reflect back on the peace of standing by the beautiful waterfall alone here and try to keep my heart pure. I will try my best to make the best of this trip through Laos, and be sure to keep my guard up and mind open. Maybe this isn’t the coming home experience like in the movies, but at least it’s moving and enlightening for me.