Impressions of Laos

The Laotians have a reputation (deserved or not) for being easy-going, laid-back people, never in a hurry or working too hard. We must have absorbed some of that spirit because, although we’ve been in Laos for three weeks, we haven’t written about it yet.

Most of that time we’ve been busy dealing with a backlog of photos and posts about Cambodia, doing freelance editing projects, and just enjoying being here. But we don’t want to short-change what we’ve come to realize is an amazingly beautiful and interesting country, so here are some observations about Laos.

Whereas the countryside in Cambodia (in October and November) is the bright spring green of new leaves, the countryside in Laos (in November and December) is the dark green of late summer. And whereas much of Cambodia is flat, with rice fields stretching away to the horizon, the northern half of Laos (where we’ve been) is mountainous, with the only land flat enough for farming in the valleys and on the banks of rivers after the waters of the rainy season subside. According to official statistics, just 6 percent of land in Laos is used for agriculture, compared with 23 percent in Cambodia (and 17 percent in the United States).

It’s cool here (at least by Southeast Asian standards)! Highs are more likely to be in the upper 70s/low 80s F than in the high 80s/low 90s. Lows can drop into the mid-50s. We’ve been known to wear a jacket some mornings and evenings, which feels great for a change. (Those of you braving snow and freezing temperature probably don’t want to hear it, though.)

There are lots of kids and young people around. Half of the population is under age 23, and only about 10 percent is my age or older. Plus, this is one of those countries where elders are granted a lot of respect. One example is that if someone younger than me (especially a kid or young adult) passes in front of my gaze, he or she scurries past with head and shoulders down so as not to be higher than I am. It was a little disconcerting the first few times it happened, but now I’ve gotten used to it.

After the other places we’ve visited, Laos feels very sparsely populated. As in the Appalachian region or some of the western states back home, you can drive for long distances through hilly, forested countryside with few settlements. The country’s capital and biggest city, Vientiane, has a population of just over 700,000 people (smaller than Columbus, Ohio, or Charlotte, North Carolina). Population density statistics confirm our impression: The average number of people per square kilometer is 28 in Laos, 34 in the United States, 83 in Cambodia, and a whopping 673 in Bali.

Laos has somewhere between 50 and 200 distinct ethnic groups (depending on how they’re classified), many of whom speak their own languages and don’t learn the national language, Lao, until they go to school. Since we don’t know the language and can’t tell whether differences in facial features are the result of individual or group differences, the best way to know what group someone is from is to ask (in the context of talking about each other’s lives, not out of the blue).

Besides languages, different ethnic groups have (in some cases) different traditions, holidays, religious beliefs, and traditional and ceremonial clothing. They also have a wide variety of ways to make or decorate textiles, from different weaving patterns to batik, embroidery, applique, and cross stitch. We’ve been having tons of fun learning about the different styles and buying a few of our favorites for our Asian textile collection.

We love these highly pleated skirts of the Hmong, with their indigo batik and elaborate applique

We have yet to see a Lao woman with short hair or a Lao man with long hair or any kind of facial hair. Also, almost no one here wears glasses. Melissa’s heart aches for those who have to squint the way she would have to without glasses. Instead of sunglasses, many people carry umbrellas to shade them from the sun; a common sight is someone riding a bike or moped with one hand and holding an umbrella over themselves with the other hand.

Adults in Laos seem generally reserved, quiet, and shy with strangers but friendly, talkative, and playful with their relatives and friends. However, when you can get past the initial reserve (which is sometimes shyness about their English skills), people can be very friendly and eager to converse. Kids are a different story; many smile, wave, and yell “sabaidee” (“hi”) when we see them.

The colonial architecture and quiet streets of downtown Luang Prabang

Compared with streets in other parts of Southeast Asia that we’ve visited, the streets in Laos are wonderfully quiet and peaceful. Sidewalks! No honking! No standing for 15 minutes on the side of a road hoping for enough break in traffic to dart through! Most times of day you can saunter across with no fear for your life.

Outside towns, streets tend to be badly paved (or unpaved entirely) and very bumpy. They also tend to be very dusty during the dry season (like now) and very muddy during the rainy season. As a result, it often makes more sense to travel by boat on Laos’s many big rivers.

Instead of carrying things on their heads, women with heavy loads and no vehicles carry things in two baskets attached to a long pole that sits across their shoulders. Babies are frequently carried in a sling or other cloth carrier on someone’s chest or back—something we never saw in Bali or Cambodia.

In those two countries, petrol was most commonly sold in repurposed drink bottles at small roadside stores. Not so in Laos. Here, gas stations are much more common, even out in the countryside. Maybe Laos’s relatively low population density means fewer vehicles and less demand for petrol, or maybe the oil companies just got their infrastructure in here early. (The only place we saw petrol sold in small bottles was in a village that wasn’t reachable by road, only by river. Presumably, it was being sold for boat engines.)

Laotians have told us that burping and farting at meals are not considered impolite here. However, kissing or hugging people of the opposite sex in public or sitting in a way in which the soles of your feet or shoes are pointed at someone else is considered quite rude.

Compared with Cambodia (or Central America), hammocks are much less common here. And the ones we’ve encountered tend to be narrow, scratchy, and thoroughly uncomfortable, much to the disappointment of Melissa the hammock devotee.

In Bali, a guesthouse was usually a separate building at the back of a family compound. Here, a guesthouse or small restaurant is part of the family home. The lounge area of the guesthouse or the corners of the restaurant are where the family eats, watches TV, does homework, etc., in and among the patrons. In some cases, family members sleep in the lounge or in a room behind the restaurant. The shoes you leave on the doorstep (de rigeur almost everywhere) are intermingled with the family’s shoes. Such proximity makes you feel connected to local family life.

The private areas of many Laotians’ homes (even middle-income ones) don’t have much furniture. Instead, many activities of daily life take place on the floor, on woven plastic or bamboo mats. If people sleep on mattresses rather than mats, the mattresses are often tipped up against the wall during the day to leave more floor space. As a result, even large Laotian homes look very bare to our eyes. An exception appears to be Laotians of Chinese descent, who seem to have a preference for large, heavy, carved wooden chairs, tables, and cabinets.

Although homes are shut and sometimes gated when the residents go to sleep, before then window shutters and front doors are left wide open. That means when you go by in the evening and the lights are blazing, you have a good view into people’s homes (especially as you pass through villages on a bus). Such views suggest that—as in the United States—the main evening pastime in Laos is watching TV. Another popular one, at least for men, is sitting around in a circle playing cards (we can’t confirm that money is involved, but it seems likely).

We’ve met Laotians who love football and badminton, but one of the most popular games here is “rattan ball.” It’s a lot like volleyball except that the ball is smaller and made of rattan, teams are smaller, the net (sometimes a string tied between two poles) is at chest height, and players can only use their feet. It’s a fun game to watch, whether in a schoolyard or a televised national tournament, full of dramatic leaping kicks.

Another popular sport, undoubtedly brought by the French, is petanque (similar to bocce ball), which involves tossing small metal balls in a shady court to hit a target ball and knock your opponents’ balls out of the way. One evening we watched some men playing on a terraced court carved out of the bank of the Mekong River; a couple of the players had developed a killer backspin.

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