Southeast Asia Travel Narrative Story: Post Pandemic Laos

Story and photography by Ray Waddington.

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Although it was the height of the rainy season, I arrived in Luang Prabang, Laos in late September, 2022 on an afternoon so hot and dry that I was parched. My guesthouse could not meet my very first request — a cold Beerlao. But the hostel across the road had them in abundance. Thank God for young backpackers and the hostels who cater to them.

I had last been in Luang Prabang in late February, 2020 just as the world was closing down because of Covid-19. Laos was just now re-opening to tourism and I was keen to see the impact the shutdown had had. I knew some of the country's recent history already — 31% inflation, bad flooding in northern parts and the opening ten months previously of the Laos-China railway.

I was especially interested in the railway. I had observed it under construction on my last visit. It connects the capital, Vientiane, to Kunming, China. It is part of China's Belt and Road Initiative and has added USD 6 billion to the country's national debt. Planning to travel on it, I was happy to help alleviate the financial burden of my favorite country in the region.

News in English had trickled out about the railway since its opening. Much of that focused on how difficult it had been for Lao nationals to buy a ticket! But I had e-mailed my guesthouse in advance and now only needed to ask how to get to the nearby travel agent they had told me about... Or so I thought.

The next morning, the guesthouse owner told me that the travel agent no longer sold tickets. Even worse, I would have to go to the train station 18 km away. I went instead to the official tourist information office. They had no idea about where or how to buy a train ticket! Later that afternoon I learned that there was an official ticket agent a short walk from my guesthouse. It was already closed when I went there. Returning the next morning they told me they did not accept cash or credit cards — only online bank transfer. I found a place that could do the online transfer (for a fee) and, finally after hours of misinformation, had my train ticket (for two days later as the agent had already sold out of tickets for the next day).

All this red tape had exhausted me. It was almost as if any information about the railway was a Chinese state secret! I decided to take a walk by the Mekong River. Ironically, I soon came across a travel agent who could have secured the same ticket for me for a very small commission.

Continuing my walk, I observed some tourists but mainly locals. Luang Prabang has always been a slow-paced town. My observations that day (a Thursday), though, confirmed that tourism is returning only slowly. The town has many artisans and craftspeople. One interesting sight was this local man giving a basket weaving lesson to a western tourist.

The next day brought a seasonal deluge typical of this part of the world. I was worried that the night market might be cancelled. Night markets are as much a social gathering as they are an economic institution in Southeast Asia. Only the most severe weather stops them outright. I needn't have worried though. The rain stopped as if by magic soon after dark. By the time I arrived it was difficult to find a seat. While most of the visitors were locals, there were about 40% tourists.

The train ride was smooth and fast; the train was quite full. Despite setting off thirty minutes late, I was door-to-door in a Luang Namtha guesthouse in about four hours. The same journey by bus would have taken two to three times that long.

Depending on your point of view, the appeal of Luang Namtha lies either in how small and quiet it is or in the endless trekking opportunities it affords. Because of the season, most visitors I met were there for the first reason or just in transit between Luang Prabang and Thailand. There isn't much to do in the one-road town itself. I had wanted to take a day trip to Boten on the Chinese border. It is a designated Special Economic Zone undergoing tremendous growth funded by China. Alas, public transport was halted due to the border being closed. The roundtrip taxi fare was too high. Hopefully, I can visit the area again one day — at a different time of year!

When it wasn't raining it was uncomfortably hot. I limited myself to walking a few hundred meters at a time stopping for iced coffees. My Sunday afternoon was taken up almost entirely that way. There were so few people on the road that at one point they were outnumbered by dogs!

That is perhaps a good thing. For economic reasons, motorbikes and motor scooters are the preferred mode of transport in this part of the world. Almost nobody wears a helmet and riding under the influence of alcohol is all too common. Still, it is quite rare to see a child operating a vehicle as I did that day. Another good thing is that Luang Namtha now has a traffic light. That was the biggest change I observed since my first visit there in 2001. Surprisingly, most drivers were obeying it.

Something else that hadn't changed in all those years was the cost of living. Yes it was higher than twenty-one years ago. But even without factoring in the favorable exchange rate I was getting, there were no signs of runaway inflation. A basic meal at the night market was less than LAK 20,000. After a few days it was time to move on to a place where that would not be possible, the capital Vientiane.

Vientiane has changed a lot in twenty-one years. In 2001 I rented a bicycle and saw pretty much the whole central area in about six hours. Even today, it is one of the smallest and quietest capital cities in the world. That is apart from the night market...

I had unknowingly reserved a room for the weekend at a place right by the night market. It was hard to believe this was the same city where most people once were in bed soon after dark. The scene was quite a departure from tradition. It is very commercialized now.

Perhaps people were releasing pent-up energy after their long lockdown. While the hotel's location was convenient for photography, I can report that it wasn't convenient for those of us who prefer not to fall asleep to blaring Lao rap music at 1 a.m.

That morning I had been only a few kilometers away from all this. It felt more like worlds away. The Lao side of the Mekong here is still little-developed. Local people go for walks and gather just to meet and talk to each other. I saw this man fishing and thought of how little some things have changed in hundreds of years. That for me is the appeal of Laos — in this crazy world it allows you to step back in time.

Photography copyright © 1999 - 2023, Ray Waddington. All rights reserved.
Text copyright © 1999 - 2023, The Peoples of the World Foundation. All rights reserved.

Citation

Waddington, R., (2022) Post Pandemic Laos. The Peoples of the World Foundation. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from The Peoples of the World Foundation.
<https://www.peoplesoftheworld.org/travelStory.jsp?travelStory=post%20pandemic%20laos>

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