Returning to Laos was an education on how tourism can affect a country; the difference a mere three years has made in Laos at times seemed inconsequential—unpaved roads were still riddled with jolting, bone-shaking potholes, and a slow and syllabic “sabaidee” hello generously rang into the warm afternoon air from sweetly grinning locals standing in their shop doorways. Then, the same as now, the (often excited) ring of falang, or rather westerner, dipped and flowed into conversation as I walked through the small towns with my niece, Ana.
So much my return to Laos felt like a “welcome back, Shannon, we have been here waiting for your return.” I spent a month in Laos in early 2009 and fell in love with the slow days and easy smiles. Now though, that “welcome back” has a gleam of Westernization spritzed with a glitter stick over the well-traveled backpacker route through Laos. Towns where the thought of internet access was laughable when I visited in January 2009, are now littered with discreet signs proudly announcing: “we have WiFi,” “we speak English,” “book any of a gazillion different tours right here and we will hold your hand as we show you around town.”
It’s worth noting that I threw my toilet paper in the toilet…yes, right inside the toilet bowl instead of a trash can nearby. Okay, not everywhere. In fact, not even most places, but there are places with fully flushing toilets in Luang Prabang and that, my friends, is a gigantic flying leap different from the dank and dark squat toilets (and I considered those good toilets!) of just three years past.
In short, the tourism path is cleaner, neater, better organized, more comfortable, more expensive, and just more than it was three years ago. And thankfully, it’s also not less Laos than I remember–throughout these new developments, the people and sentiments felt largely the same, and the political maneuvering with the rural ethic minorities is still a sad and ongoing game.
The UNESCO protections in place in Luang Prabang safeguarded the city from any sort of modern face-lift over the past few years, a protection not in place in Laos’ capital city,Vientiane, where tall cinder-block hotels and offices line the streets in a disjointed jumble and cavernous holes gap in the skyline in a wave of new, and often unfinished, construction.
The country has changed; and I have changed too, to be sure. Over the past few years, I often listed Laos as one of the highlights from my round the world travels. Going back this time, I realized there was more at work during that trip, and it’s this “other” that likely played a part in why I enjoyed traveling the country so much.
This time, I realized I cannot reconstruct the past, there is no way to recreate a moment from my past travels no matter how much I loved it in that moment. I backpacked Laos with Laura, a good friend from the years I lived in Los Angeles, and we did the more footloose and fancy-free activities. Back then, we struggled for an internet connection strong enough to support a quick and choppy Skype chat home, I got sicker than I have ever been in my life, and we spent days upon days on slow boats and buses as we crisscrossed the country.
I returned with Ana last month, unsure of what I would find as took that same route down the Mekong River. Not too surprisingly, the road infrastructure is still in transition (meaning they rely on dirt roads outside of the tourist route) and there were still many weary, long travel days. But, I noticed that very same glitter stick struck some of the more popular guidebook towns. Wifi. Western restaurants. Packaged experiences playing to the interest in Southeast Asia’s ethnic minorities (and some not doing so very ethically, I might add).
But then, I look to the positive side of tourism…and the fact that this is, after all, still Laos. There was more wealth spread throughout the large towns (hints of that are trickling down to the smaller towns). Large-scale tourism brings money, and when it’s done well (and I’m not entirely sure that’s the case in Laos), it can positively augment the way me, as a traveler, sees and experiences a place.
There are many elements of tourism done well in Laos. Luang Prabang had a range of grassroots and local projects. Ana and I took a full day weaving class from an organization supporting cultural preservation in Laos. We learned a traditional stenciling method the monks use to decorate new temples. Fair-trade shops abound. The food is delicious, plentiful, and safe to eat (more-so as Western sanitation standards make themselves known). With tourism comes more English, and that meant asking more questions from our guides and guesthouse owners so we could understand the nuances. And, the glitter stick version of Laos had its up side, because without it, I’m not sure Ana would have enjoyed the country nearly as much. Whereas I, as an adult, love sipping an afternoon coffee watching the boats drift down the Mekong River, she needed engagement on a different level, which we found in the various towns at the local level where just the mere hint of English being spoken meant we had enough charades and gesturing to still be fun but could get our point across.
I’m still reflecting on my return to Laos (and plan some stories and photo-essays in the coming weeks), but my conclusion is: Laos has changed, but the essence of the country, and the warmth of the Laotians leave this country in a special place in my traveling heart.