“This place is a shxxhole.” These were Dan’s first words when we arrived in Vientiane. We had just spent several hours on a dustbowl trail, which eventually transformed into Grapes of Wrath meets full blown industrialized pollution. Oh, and the scowling faces. Someone forgot to tell these people that the rest of their countrymen actually smile. Vientiane's roads seem to cake pained looks onto the faces of its motorbike drivers who struggled to breathe as they drove without face masks.
Imagine having to sit, in all your adult fullness in the kindergarten chairs of your youth, perhaps a bit smaller…for 10 hours and without access to a bathroom. And we paid money for this.
Big Brother Mouse (BBM), a book publishing and literacy program in Luang Prabang, produces children's books in the Lao language to help promote the love of reading and learning in children. The organization was started by a retired American publisher who saw the need for children's books and decided to try to fill the gap himself. The project is taking off and growing.
Diversity is tucked into the hills surrounding Luang Prabang. Our trek took us through three distinct layers of hill tribes, culture, and life – Lao, Hmong and Khmu. Our guides patiently waded through all of our questions – from life in the villages to the American bombing of Laos in the 60s and 70s – and our group (two Australians, one Guatemalan, and two Filipinos) kept the conversation lively throughout the day.
Luang Prabang's laid back atmosphere is one of its biggest charms. It's what draws people in and makes them, like us, extend their stay.
Authentic Lao food can be difficult to find in well-touristed areas like Luang Prabang where Thai curries are often cloaked as local fare. Fortunately for us, we stumbled upon Tamarind Café early in our stay. Its unique menu made a point of introducing and promoting Luang Prabang cuisine.
One American traveler we spoke to quipped that Luang Prabang actually felt like Sante Fe, New Mexico. A fair comparison, we suppose, given its café-equipped, mid-mountain artsy demeanor and copious artsy shopping opportunities. These features ensure that tourists will keep ‘a coming to this quaint yet polished French colonial outpost on the Mekong. But if you are looking for a deeper cut of authenticity, catch yourself a water taxi to Ban Xieng Maen, a peaceful village just across the river, but half a planet away. Its simplicity and low-key temples belie the fact that we were only minutes from well-traveled Luang Prabang.