There are some people and places that you just cannot rush. Sometimes this is because the terrain, weather or lack of infrastructure is preventative; sometimes it’s because the people just like to take things slowly; more often than not it’s a combination of the two. Laos is a prime example of a slow-moving people in a sometimes tricky environment, trying hard to get to grips with the ever-speedier demands of modernity as it begins to affect their daily lives. But the people of this beautiful country are not the surly, lethargic type. More so they are simply happy to do things at the pace they’ve always been done, and their happiness and relaxed tempo is infectious.
We’d arrived in Laos after a sardine-tin of a bus journey, and were happy to find a half decent room in our overnight stop of Muang Khua. Although we’d got off the main tourist trail here in this remote northern village on the Nam (River) Ou, the size of the place and the large handful of western tourists (many French) gave a distinctly traveller-town feel to the small number of restaurants and bars. Here, when our food eventually arrived, we enjoyed our first Beer Lao and our first taste of Lâap, a beautiful and spicy salad with minced chicken, full of garlic, mint, coriander and chillies. Then, like a scene from a 60s American TV show, a local dog followed us down to the river and guided us through the gardens and back streets of the village, where we were met with smiles and greetings at every corner. As we got back to the restaurant, the animal almost seemed to give us a nod as it left us to pad back happily to its residence. Typically for Laos, there was no tip required. An impressive footbridge and picturesque scenery sent us to our bed with our pulses already slowing to Lao pace.
The next morning we had been told to turn up at 8.30 for the ferry-boat downriver to our next stop of Nong Khiaw. The long narrow boat had a much narrower plank of wood low down on each side of its bows, and it was on this we sat for quite a while before the driver decided it was time to leave. Sadly devoid of the seemingly prerequisite chickens for this voyage, we were relived to be able to pick a couple up further downstream. According to the man who sold the tickets, the ride was due to take three hours. After just 15 minutes of a somewhat cramped low plank journey, that was beginning to seem like quite a long time. In reality also, the total ride was nearer five hours. Still, you can’t rush in Laos.
In between shifting buttocks to allow blood to continue flowing to the parts it must, the journey showed an old-fashioned kind of life on the river, backed by some incredible mountainous scenery. Workers panned for gold on the shores, masked divers fished, water buffalos wallowed and children played with such joy one would think it was their first trip to the water. Behind them, the land of Northern-eastern Laos, still littered with thousands of unexploded American bombs from half a century ago, loomed with giant limestone karst shrouded by cloying fog. Still time ticked more slowly as the boat progressed towards its destination, its noisy petrol motor the only nod towards anything vaguely modern.
Surprisingly, our joints and limbs functioned enough on our arrival at Nong Khiaw for us to establish that, in this larger but equally charming town, there was no means for us to get any cash. This was a problem as we’d already spent most of the kip we had changed at the border. After inordinate inspections of our remaining $20 note, various potential money changers decided its slight rip would be too much trouble to explain to the bank. In the end we had to rely on the kindness of other travellers (thankyou Kim and Francoise), as well as a deal cut with the very nice owner of an Indian restaurant who needed someone to pay for his phone calls to Madras and would swap cash for a PayPal transaction, and a natural 24 hour wait for a cash advance from the only hotel in town with a visa machine. You can’t rush these things.
Eventually solvent once again, and happily free of traffic for almost the first time in Asia, it was once more onto bicycles. As we rode around the neighbouring villages with few cars and motorbikes on the road, it was a pleasure to take our time (like Laos time but slightly faster) and greet plenty of friendly locals along the way. After all, our limbs wouldn’t get much of a workout the next day as, armed with a pillow each, we were to catch another small narrow riverboat to Luang Prabang. The estimated journey time: a mere seven hours. No rush.