Countless people told us that following Vietnam, we would surely find Laos boring.
“It is verrrrry quiet in Laos,” they said, drawing out the word very so that the r sounded like a Spanish trill. “It’s the place you go when you want there to be nothing. No McDonald’s, no 7-11s. It has nothing!”
Having never been to Laos, we couldn’t rightly mount a defense for it, but in all fairness, I think that following Ho Chi Minh City, it’s safe to say that if you were magically transported immediately to the middle of Times Square in New York City, you’d probably find yourself wondering where all the people were in this quaint, quiet hamlet. Comparing things to the chaos of Vietnam is setting the bar pretty high and not, perhaps, entirely kosher.
That said, our first stop here in Laos hasn’t done much to disprove the notion that Laos is boring.
We’ve spent the past two days in Savannakhet, a city nestled on the banks of the mighty Mekong River, in the central plains region of the country. Contrary to all visible evidence, it is actually the second largest city in Laos, a fact that is completely unfathomable as you walk its sleepy streets. If Rip van Winkle were a place, he would surely be Savannakhet; it feels like maybe the city turned in for a nap at some point and forgot to set an alarm and has yet to wake up.
In Vietnam crossing the street was always something of a gamble, because no matter how long you waited for a gap in traffic, that gap never came and eventually you’d just have to send a quick prayer to Darwin that you’d survive and step off the curb into a stream of motorbikes. Here, we wander across streets without hesitating or looking, because the probability that there is any traffic coming from either direction is almost always zero, and even if something happens to be coming towards you, it’s generally puttering at such a glacial pace there’s nothing to fear. There are just enough people about to make it feel not quite abandoned, but even still, you can forget about spotting other tourists while you’re here, because you simply won’t see many people PERIOD.
Suffice to say, there’s really not much to do here in Savannakhet and I’m pretty sure that having spent more than 12 hours here, we are likely the longest visiting guests in the history of the place. The guy manning the reception desk at our hotel raises his brows in astonishment each morning when we turn in our key and say we’d like to extend our stay one more night. He must wonder what we’re doing given that you could tour the handful of nominal sights that are on offer here in about 30 minutes… and that’s probably a generous estimate.
But here’s the thing: for us Laos, is such the opposite of where we’ve just been, so much so that it’s kind of mesmerizing. Having been ensconced in a dizzying cocoon of frenzy for the past three months, and having been toiling tirelessly as we build our Web & Graphic Design business, it actually feels supremely liberating to be in a place where there is literally nothing for us to do. Moreover, I’ve realized that for those of us who travel, part of the allure in going somewhere new is being caught off balance and thrown for a loop. If we truly wanted things to be predictable and always the same, we wouldn’t constantly be on the move and shaking things up rather than simply getting more comfortable with how things are. Laos is about as nonthreatening a destination as any place is likely to be, but as far as being a complete 180 and slamming us into a very different way of life, I’m not sure we could have picked a better chaser to our time in Vietnam.
On a more personal note, as someone who tears about like the Tasmanian Devil and who often feels excessively guilty and agitated when I’m not doing something, it’s a relief to be somewhere where leisurely strolls to nowhere in particular, lengthy naps and prolonged meals seem to be the raison d’être. For whatever reason, in Savannakhet I don’t have to fight to remain present and my mind isn’t racing off in 20 different directions all at once. All is quiet and at peace.
A bit about the naps: In Vietnam, Tony & I always laughed at the nap culture. Watching xe om drivers stretch out acrobatically on their bikes and catch some Zs, or seeing a shop keeper lie down in the middle of her store in the middle of the day, it all felt a bit defiant, especially in the face of all the hectic activity that swirled around. We always had this sense in Vietnam that most of the time people just do whatever the hell they want, just you try to stop them, and their napping seemed to be an extension of this attitude. Here in Laos, however, the napping feels less of a statement. It’s simply as though catching a little shuteye is one of the nicest luxuries life can afford, so why wouldn’t you partake? And really, do you have anything better to do?
Also, I can’t fault the people here for taking a midday siesta because it is horrifically hot. Like, Hades hot. We’ve managed to arrive during the country’s steamiest month and despite our valiant efforts to resist Asia’s attempts to turn us into early risers, the temperatures here in Laos might finally succeed. Come 10:30 am, stepping outside feels not unlike stepping into a pottery kiln, and within seconds we are sopping with sweat. There were a few days in Saigon when I felt like things were getting a bit balmy, but compared to this it was downright chilly. Having grown up in Canada where I heard actual newscasts warn that going outside might result in death due to hypothermic temperatures, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the same here, though the risk would clearly be of melting.
When it is temperate enough to support outdoor activities, our time has largely involved wandering down empty streets lined with gently decaying Colonial buildings that date back to the 1950s, which is probably when Savannakhet was in its prime. We have popped into a few temples and wats, said hello to some monks, and drank deceptively large beers by the river to escape the heat. Given our near constant state of dehydration, one Beer Lao apiece gets us wobbly-kneed and giggly. (In our defense, they really are big beers…)
This morning, feeling ambitious, we walked to Savan Xai Market, the city’s largest, where we mingled with the local vendors who were flogging their products, most of them of the exceedingly exotic edible variety (think cicadas—being consumed live, all sizes of frogs and toads, “unborn” chicken eggs, vats of pungent fermented fish sauce, gelatinous pyramids of ants eggs, strips of mystery grilled meat with the fur still attached, and sundry new fragrant herbs we would be legitimately excited to try). I had always heard that Laotians were quite reserved and taciturn, but save for the men at the market who all uniformly declined requests for photos, we found the locals here as curious about us as we were about them and more than a little amused by the chance to play celebrity and have their pictures taken. We’ve always said that if you want to get to the heart of a city, head to its markets, and in that respect, Savannakhet is no different.
We always like to make an effort when we travel to visit somewhere that isn’t squarely on the tourist trail because we feel it gives us an insight into the country that hasn’t been manufactured by tourism boards to maximally appeal to rich tourists. Winding up in Savannakhet wasn’t necessarily an active choice on our part so much as a logical place to break up our journey before heading north on Laos’ notoriously poor roads, but we’ve found it a welcome primer to life here nonetheless. I can’t really point to any one thing that keeps us here rather than pushing on, except I find it exceedingly affable and the more time we spend, the more I like it.
Undoubtedly I will have some kind of psychotic break if we stay here for much longer, but for a few days of respite and the gentlest introduction to a country conceivable (especially as we get back our travel legs as we come out of hibernation), I am embracing the boredom and have been content to linger in Savannakhet’s slumbering shelter. It may be the very definition of boring, but as it turns out, boring doesn’t always have to be bad.
Tell Us: What’s the quietest place that you’ve ever visited? Have you ever found yourself lingering over a place that has no obvious tourist attractions?