Burma was definitely an experience, and, as experiences tend to do, it wore us out a bit. The language and cultural barriers, the lack of communication and the terrible, terrible food, both Burmese and Western: it gets to you. After Burma, we spent a few days in Bangkok, just long enough to buy much-needed new shoes and earphones, check the Internet, mail some unnecessary baggage back home, eat a decent meal or five, and crash another expat cocktail party. Then, onto an overnight train to Laos.
We hadn’t initially planned to go to Laos this trip, but after a couple of weeks in Burma our minds started to drift to nostalgic thoughts of fresh baguettes, strong Lao coffee, and cool mountain climate, so we decided to come back to relax for a bit.
Our last trip was in January of 2007, where it was a real highlight of our first SE Asia expedition. Back then, tourism in Laos was just taking off in a big way, but it was still a place where you avoided traveling the crumbling roads, power outages were commonplace, and when people said they were going to the ATM, they meant they were going to take a riverboat to Vientiane to use the country’s single machine. While nowhere near as isolated or poor as Burma, there were, shall we say, definite infrastructure development issues.
While we’ve yet to travel beyond Vientiane this trip, things already feel different. Just getting in was different: our train from Bangkok dropped us off at the Thai-Lao border from where we travelled across the Mekong to Vientiane on Laos’ first train since the French ran the place. Wifi isn’t quite as ubiquitous as Cambodia, but still common, reasonably fast, and uncensored. The trunk roads have improved so much that boating on the Mekong is now considered slow, uncomfortable and expensive compared to buses. It’ll be interesting to see how Luang Prabang has changed when we get there.
One thing that hadn’t changed is the food. While traditional Laos food probably isn’t as tasty as Thai food, and Bangkok technically has better food in that you can get pretty much anything there if you look hard enough, the kind of on-every-corner food in Lao is fantastic. Fresh-baked baguettes stuffed with meat, fish or cheese (good cheese! in Asia!), Western and Thai-style salads with fresh vegetables, pho noodle soups, and tropical fruit shakes. And that’s not even talking about Beer Lao, the best of SE Asia’s cheap national lagers, or Lao coffee with sweet milk, probably the best coffee I’ve ever had, available everywhere for about 60 cents a cup.
As Janelle likes to say, if the food is good, everything is good. I think we’ll stay in Laos a while.