I recently had the pleasure of spending a few days in Laos. My purpose in going was to attend a conference in Vientiane, Laos’ capital. In accordance with said conference, I also took advantage of being there to visit the massive Xayaburi hydroelectric scheme being built on the Mekong River halfway between Vientiane and Luang Prabang. I am chasing a large project for our company at that site and a visit to the site would help move things along. It always makes a big difference to see a project site in person.
I’ve had this trip scheduled for quite some time and I must admit that is was dreading the trip a bit. I assumed that Vientiane was a poor site for a conference and all I knew about Laos was that it was a backward communist country in extreme poverty. I could not have been more wrong.
Laos is a one party socialist republic sandwiched between Myanmar, China, Vietnam and Thailand in the Indochina region. The country is not a big one, with a population of around 7 million people. It is run by a politburo dominated by military generals, but seemed to be well run and organized. I felt very safe there and while there were communist and Marxists flags everywhere, I didn’t really get a sense that the government was overbearing in anyway.
I found Vientiane to be a sleepy little capital. Located right on the banks of the Mekong, Vientiane isn’t really much to look at. There are some beautiful buddhist temples and a couple of famous landmarks, but other than that it is really quite unremarkable. However, the city is clean and in comparison to other Asian capitals, the traffic was tolerable. The capital is dominated by government buildings, all decked out in the Laotian and communist flag. There seems to be significant investment in the city with several large high rise buildings and large worldwide hotel chains under construction.
The real jewel of Laos are the villages. I had a chance to visit one in Luang Prabang. It is the historical capital of Laos and today is a UNESCO world heritage protected city. It is in a beautiful setting in a forested area located right on the banks of the Mekong River. A small town of about 50,000 people, it has several very nice hotels and a thriving tourist trade. Among its treasures is the Wat Xien Thong temple constructed in the 16th century and the formal royal palace of the Laotian kings. The city is charming and intimate without the hustle and bustle of Vientiane. It has one main street that sees the bulk of tourists and a hill (Mt. Phousi) in the middle of town that commands a beautiful 360 degree views of the the town and its surroundings. There are several great restaurants in town and a wonderful little night market targeted at the tourists.
I found the people to be incredible friendly and polite. They seem kind and peaceful. Although my impression is that the vast majority of the people are poor, I did not witness the abject poverty of people living in shanty towns and begging for food as I have in India and parts of Africa. However, the best buildings and homes were those of the bureaucrats and communist party leaders. The Laotion diet is pretty simple: fish, meat, rice and vegetables. I had some good dishes, albeit simple ones. Incidentally, I had one of the best pizzas I ever had at a little pizza place in Luang Prabang owned and operated by a Canadian.
Overall, I rather enjoyed this trip. I would definitely come back for a visit and this trip has given me the desire to explore more of Laos as well as Thailand and Vietnam.