|Travel in a time of coronavirus
I started this blog as a celebration of our crazy, fabulous planet, but with Covid-19 closing borders for months, possibly years, any new adventures are on hold for the foreseeable future. So, in the meantime, I’ll be delving into my diaries and scanning my old travel slides to bring you some stories and photos from the past 25 years.
Laos isn’t exactly a tourism super star.
Unlike Thailand, one of its better-known neighbours, it doesn’t have world-famous cuisine, ladyboys for hire or all-night beach parties. Nor can it claim the world’s biggest temple complex (try Cambodia for that) or boast bustling cities and and dramatic bays like Vietnam.
And yet, despite its lack of stand-out tourist attractions — or maybe because of that — I loved Laos.
What this landlocked country of seven million people does have is a kind of sleepy, unhurried charm.
It’s a peculiar mix of Buddhism and communism topped by a wafer-thin layer of French colonialism, with ever-present orange-robed monks, rice paddies interspersed with jungle, hill tribes unsullied (so far) by mass tourism, and the gentlest, smiliest people I’ve ever met.
It also has the smallest, most relaxed capital city in Southeast Asia (Vientiane), a beautifully preserved World Heritage-listed town (Luang Prabang), and locally grown coffee strong enough to trigger heart palpitations. And while Laos mightn’t have a coast it does have an extraordinary inland archipelago where the Mekong River splits into countless strands to form the Four Thousand Islands (Si Phan Don).
[Story continues below the photo gallery]
When I visited in 2005 my greatest joy was travelling around a country where rivers were still the main highways. Instead of catching a bus or train I’d book a seat on a slow boat and spend up to two days chugging up the Mekong through green, steamy countryside to get where I wanted to go.
Even then, however, that era was coming to an end. The Chinese were already building a road the length of Laos and soon a railway from Vientiane to China will cut a two-day boat journey down to a three-hour train ride.
But Laos isn’t all smiles. Nor far below the surface lies a particularly cruel history.
During the Vietnam War hundreds of millions of bombs rained down on Laos in a secret CIA bombing campaign targeting North Vietnamese troops taking refuge on the Lao side of the border. By 1973, when the bombing ended, Laos had earned the unenviable record of being the most bombed country in world history (as calculated by kilograms of explosive dropped per inhabitant). And it wasn’t even at war.
The legacy was still plainly visible when I visited, from children whose limbs are still being blown off by unexploded bombs to the ingenious uses the Lao people have found for war debris, as you’ll see in the photos.
It’s a shocking story that needs to be better known. Watch this space for more about the most bombed country on Earth.