Wednesday, November 6, 2002

Vang Vieng, Laos

Friends: Laos is the Promised Land. It is presently a traveler's paradise, largely thanks to the communists, who after overthrowing the government in 1975, shortly after the fall of Vietnam, closed the borders to all outsiders until just recently. The locals are so thrilled to be no longer isolated from the world, they welcome the few travelers now trickling into the country with genuine and unrestrained friendliness. It is as if they have gained their freedom. Our reception has been the most fervent in the out-of-the-way areas few travelers frequent, and that our bikes take us to.

Laurie and I were overwhelmed and awed by the great friendliness of the Thais. The Laotians almost make the Thais seem restrained. In our first 150 miles of biking through the mountains to Vang Vieng hundreds and hundreds of people have exclaimed "sabadi" (hello), as we pedaled by. Small children especially took delight at the site of us, waving so vigorously and excitedly I feared their hands might fly off. The country is still in the early stages of the excitement of no longer being closed off and isolated. The likes of us haven't been seen here in years. I doubt the Pope has received a warmer reception any where he has ventured. Some of the kids even rush to the side of the road and want to slap hands as we go by.

This is as Nepal was thirty years ago before it became inundated by travelers and tourists who gave out treats to the "adorable" kids, corrupting them into expecting handouts from every Western they saw. It became "gimme, gimme, gimme," rather than "hello, hello, hello," a most appalling desecration. The same thing will no doubt happen here. Already the kids want hand slaps. Soon it will be candy and pens and balloons and coins and the other trinkets well-meaning, but ignorant, tourists disperse. We feel very, very fortunate to experience Laos in its early stages of opening up. All the travelers we meet, especially those who have been at it for years, all marvel at how uncontaminated the country is.

Vang Vieng is another traveler's gathering spot. It is even more tranquil, and far less developed, than Luang Prabang. But the town is growing fast. Three years ago it had two guest houses. There are now 32, though mostly small, modest mom-and-pop operations. There are even more restaurants catering to the backpacker set, but at least none of the semi-pretentious, higher-priced French restaurants we saw in Laung Prabang. Vang Vieng has been a delightful surprise. We'd be happy to settle in here for a couple of weeks and luxuriate in the spectacular limestone mountain scenery, do some kayaking and tubing on the gentle river that passes through the town and explore the area's many caves. It's doubtful we'll find a Shangri-La such as this in the months ahead. But we know plenty of other surprises await us down the road. We'll only allow ourselves a day here, more than we had initially planned.

I will try and send these paragraphs before this computer steals them, as it has already done twice. Here goes, and hopefully more will follow.

Later, George

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