There’s a reason that Laos P.D.R. (People’s Democratic Republic) is affectionately known as Laos Please Don’t Rush. A slow pace, mellow emotions and a relaxed way of life form the psyche of this deeply Buddhist country.
For a traveller on a tight schedule, this can be challenging. Time is such a precious commodity these days; we’ve been led to believe that if we don’t maximise our scant vacation time by hitting all the major tourist must-dos, we’ve somehow failed.
But travelling and living in Laos has taught me that slowing down adds richness to your experience – like seeing the world vividly in Technicolor. You begin to notice things and understand how they fit into a greater cultural narrative.
“Slow Travel” is a buzzword that is gaining popularity. It can mean a variety of different things, but is often used to describe a longer stay in one place rather than flitting from one spot to the next. What you experience is usually a deeper connection to a place, its culture and its people.
On your first day, do nothing
Crazy, I know. While most people scramble up Phousi Hill for the sunset (yes, it is nice), my favourite spot is at a bar on the Mekong River. The view is unobstructed and the sunset is equally, if not more, spectacular. Sit, relax with a drink and just do nothing. You’re in Laos!
One key ingredient in Lao cuisine is patience. A delicious Lao dish begins with a trip to the morning market for fresh ingredients (check out Phosy market, where the locals go). No fancy equipment is involved in Lao cooking – just a mortar, pestle and good ol’ fashioned elbow grease. Fresh herbs and plenty of chilli are bashed to make mouthwatering marinades and dips. And a Lao table is never without a basket of sticky rice. The grains have to be washed several times and soaked overnight before they can be steamed.
Give back with your time
Started in 2006, Big Brother Mouse is a locally run organisation that publishes books and distributes them to villages. Not only can you sponsor a library, a book party or buy Lao books in the shop to take to villages, you can help out at their English language sessions. Eager locals, especially young adults, attend to practice their English conversation. It’s a great way to learn more about Laos and for Lao people to learn about your country. Sessions run daily; just drop in at either 9 a.m. or 5 p.m. You don’t need to bring anything (they have some books and maps), although pictures of your family or country would be interesting.
One thread at a time
Laos boasts beautiful handicrafts. You can’t appreciate patience and time until you’ve seen an artisan working at his or her craft. In fact, it’s not uncommon to hear that a single handwoven textile with an intricate pattern has taken a month to complete. In Luang Prabang, while you can see the pieces being made, you can also try your own hand at creating one. Learn how to dye fabric naturally, weave, draw Hmong batiks, paint silk or make paper. Or, if you’re all thumbs, numerous shops sell locally made textiles and crafts.
Experience village life
Less than an hour outside of town, you are out in rural countryside. Go trekking and stay in a village to experience the simple life, where even electricity is a luxury. Phone? Internet? Forget about it. Think of it as a detox from Facebook and all other distractions of the modern world. Experience what it’s like to grow and raise your own food, bathe at a tap, cook over an open fire and dine with a local family. After a long, refreshing day of walking, crawl into your sleeping bag, but prepare to wake when the rooster crows.
Wake up early. Really early.
Every day at dawn, monks walk through town collecting alms from humble locals. The alms-giving ceremony is an important ritual in Luang Prabang. The sight of hundreds of monks clad in brilliant orange robes lined up to receive food is truly breathtaking. But the ceremony is in danger of becoming a tourist spectacle, with some people behaving badly to get that perfect photo. Be respectful: dress appropriately, maintain your distance and be quiet. Read the etiquette and guidelines for the alms-giving ceremony in Luang Prabang.