Laos has always been mysterious to me. I only know the country through my Asian history class and apart from that I have no clue at all. Arriving in Laos for the first time makes me excited to explore this landlocked country in Southeast Asia.
As soon as I crossed the border from Thailand, I easily noticed the Laotian flags flying from most of the houses along the road. I don’t know if they were having their national day at the time or it’s simply the norm. In any case, it sent me a feeling that Laotians are proud of their national identity.
Knowing that Laos is a least developed country, my perception was that it lacks even the most basic infrastructure, but I guess I was too innocent. Roads in the city center capital Vientiane are pretty decent but as soon as you step out of the center, dirt roads rule the day. There were several instances that the car I was riding on was stuck on deep mud due to heavy rain downpour.
You could see the locals riding motorcycles during the rain their agony for being in that condition. Apparently, I also noticed that there are too many luxury cars plying around Vientiane. I cannot imagine who can afford to drive those cars in this country where the average salary is US 100 a month.
The luxury cars are too evident to be ignored. I’ve been to other developed countries and I haven’t seen much compared with Laos. Parking lots at entertainment and leisure establishments like bars, bowling alleys, and KTV are dotted with nice cars and SUV.
Pick-up trucks are everywhere in Laos. I guess this is so due to the dirt roads. I can only suspect that government officials who “do magic” can afford these things. I am baffled if they can drive those in high speed given the road conditions.
Monks can be seen everywhere especially during morning when they ask for alms from passerby. I was told that every Laotian guy must become a monk once in their lives. Duration varies greatly from weeks to years.
Laotians eat papaya salad all the time. If Koreans have kimchi, Laotians have papaya salad. Papaya salad is served at every meal and they serve it spicy, I mean very spicy you’ll have to beg for water and for more water. Roadside stores sell these papaya salad and they make it upon order.
One particular restaurant that I like is Moon the Night. It is located along Mekong River overlooking Thailand on the other side. The place is packed with locals every night.
Sticky rice is the staple here. Laotians cook sticky rice and placed it on baskets. I don’t know the logic behind it but they always do it. When eating sticky rice, they tend to make the handful of rice into a circular shape before chewing it. When I see them eating, I feel like everyone’s playing with it. I noticed that after eating sticky rice, I feel sleepy. Later my Laotian friend told me that indeed they feel sleepy too if they ate too much.
Laos has a local currency called kip. However, Thai baht, US dollars, and Euro are all acceptable, but will give change in kip. Most shops only accept notes in foreign currency. Some shops display prices in multiple currencies. This system is quite confusing but I guess it’s one thing Laotians have gotten used to.
ATMs are limited. Most machines are located in the city center and the biggest bank is BCL. Even in the suburbs of Vientiane, machines are almost non-existent. Be sure to get some cash before venturing out of the city center.
Laotians are proud of their home-brewed beer called Beer Lao. I’m no beer expert but I can say the taste is decent. Laotians drink it on all occasions whether big or small. I witnessed one celebration wherein they drink at home with people sitting on the floor.
Laotians consume a lot of Thai media. I noticed that TV and music are dominated by Thai language. Thai bands usually cross the border into Laos to perform at bars. This is the reason why Laotians are also fluent in Thai but Thais are not fluent in Lao. In any case, both languages are understood by each other. Laotians would say though that they are not Thai, confirming their proud national identity.
Laos is a nice country. Vientiane is a deviation from the norm of the busy Southeast Asian capital cities. The people are nice and beautiful. They are curious about foreigners and would love to chat even there is language barrier. What I love the most in Laos is the simplicity of life. Laotians may not have the best quality of life but they are generally happy and contented with what they have.
Did I mention that food is delicious?