Laos is one of those ‘untouched treasures’ for backpackers. It is not a party central which Thailand has become. It is not surviving on tourism like you notice the moment you get off taxi by the beach in Bali, where everyone comes to try to sell something, from massage, traditional hand craft, tour guide and pirate DVD’s.
Don’t get me wrong, Bali still has a beautiful culture. I took a subject called “Rural Society in SouthEast Asia” while I was on an exchange studies at Murdoch University in Perth back in the mid ’90s, and I could appreciate how the religion, tradition and culture are really inseparable parts of people’s lives in those villages of rice farmers. Ceremonies, which have hallmark of religious events, take place at times of year when water gates need to be operated to send water in to the paddy, stop the flow, and harvest. It is so practical that without those ceremonies, their farming industry would not function, not just on the spiritual level but on the actual flow of agricultural process. And you can still see that, if you looked hard enough. When I had a chance to go to Bali on a stop-over, I walked around the back street, I went to local elementary school, and I spoke to the local Balinese people, who are not to be confused with the Javanese people who moved in to Bali from Java and destroyed the Balinese traditional culture. If you know where to look and how to get to know people, people in Bali still retains a beautiful tradition and depth of culture. But what I’m saying is that it takes a lot more effort for a visitor to get to witness it. And that is because of all the noise and mess made by and for tourists, who are not there to respect the local livelihood, but to take advantage of cheap lavour so they can get a cheap meal and spa. Colonialism is still everywhere in SouthEast Asia. Laos has not been exposed to that destruction.
I remember back in early 90s people suggested that I visited the mainland China. They said China was about to join the commercialised western world, and all their beauty would soon be history. How right they were.
So when I was standing in the travel book section of the massive Kinokuniya Bookstore above Takashimaya on Orchard Road, I was really looking for a relatively cheap destination from Singapore so I could renew my 30-day tourist visa. But when I saw it, the back of the Lonely Planet Laos just jumped out of the shelf.
It was just before their traditional New Year festivities. But seeing how guidebooks make it sound so exotic and beautiful, I figured it would be the time when lots of tourists come in, as well as backpackers. So I decided to go early, when I had a better chance of seeing the place as they would normally be, like a girl with candid smile, without mascara and all the rest of make-up which make you notice her in a big party or night club but make you want to look away when you sit up-close. I was not interested in how well they put on a show on a special occasion. I wanted to see how people lived.
With the thought of walking around the local neighbourhood with a small backpack on my back, I looked at the map of the region. I saw how the peninsula spread from Singapore up north, through Malaysia and Thailand, to reach Laos. That’s how I decided to take a train journey, and to catch up with a few friends along the way in KL, Penang and Bangkok (and lunch at the one of the best food court I’ve known in Central World, the shopping centre that became very well known though international media when the Red Shirt extremists set fire on it), and a couple of stops to eventually get to Luang Prabang, my real destination for the trip. The place I get to re-connect with the old ways, the way it feels right, the way universal ethics are still intact.
I wrote up to my arrival in the town of Luang Prabang and left it there (which you can read in this blog, starting with this entry). There were a few things going on in my life with moving back from Sigapore to Melbourne, and then the hunt for a new apartment and back to job, and a few other things. It just got a bit messy and I did not sit down to sort out all the things that Laos was to me, which was really about my experience in Luang Prabang.
But now that things have become a bit more calm in my life, I’d really like to share with you what Laos is, at least what I saw, and hopefully, I’d like to go back there again because there is a lot of story I’d like to tell you about Laos. There are people I’d like to give voice to, with my photography and story-telling.