I realize it’s been a while since we’ve done an up-to-date update, but you can blame the beautiful beaches of Thailand for that one. While we found a few incredibly idyllic places near sand and sea to recharge our traveling batteries, our love affair with Thailand was tested quite a bit in the days following our departure from paradise.
Thailand is a country of beautiful places, fascinating history and lovely people. Yet all of these things are not enough to mask the ugliness that lurks beneath: the highly sophisticated and deeply institutionalized network of scamming tourists, the deep-seeded hatred of farang (foreign white people) by locals, the abuse, deception and neglect of Thailand’s ethnic minorities (the “hill tribe” people, Muslims and others), abysmal treatment of animals (namely elephants) in a Buddhist culture that claims that even an ant’s life is sacred — I could go on and on.
Every country has their challenges and struggles with issues — Thailand is certainly not an outlier in this respect. What is unique about Thailand is that so much effort and money is put into not only masking issues, but creating an alternate reality in which they do their best to direct the stream of foreign tourist through. And the worst part is that we fall for it and (judging by online travel stories going back many years), we’ve been falling for it for a very long time!
Don’t get me wrong, Lori and I had a FANTASTIC time in Thailand. But our initial euphoria of just being ANYWHERE but India was quickly tempered by reality, as is to be expected of course. And it should most certainly be mentioned that our time in Thailand helped us develop a new appreciation for our time in India and India in general — most notably that while India was very difficult to backpack through independently for two months, it was exceptionally rewarding; and that while everyone seemed to be on the make, it was many cases of one individual trying to make one extra buck to benefit himself and his family, as opposed to Thailand’s complex network of lies, scams and corruption involving travel agents, and the entire tour and private transport industry. We laughed at the thought of taking a budget package tour in India to see a sight because on the whole they don’t exist — and figuring it out was half the fun!
So now we find ourselves in Laos. We took the slow boat from the Thai border down the Mekong and ended up here in Luang Prabang, which by all accounts is a surprise indeed. Like a lot of other travelers, we knew very little about Laos before coming here. Our expectations were not incredibly high given Laos’ complicated history and relative obscurity. But what a relaxing and breathtaking place. Everyone Laotian we’ve met has been incredibly kind and seemingly sincere. Even tuk-tuk drivers are courteous. The scenery is amazing too — lush green hills, redish brown hillsides and the mighty Mekong.
And Luang Prabang is quite the surprise as well. For one, it’s a UNESCO heritage site, which is worth mentioning. We’re staying in the historic section near the famous alms-giving temple. It’s one of the most peaceful and quiet places we’ve visited on our entire trip. The roads are lined with French-influenced guesthouses and restaurants, brick sidewalks and Tamarind trees. Local children play in the streets in the evening and you can stroll around old town in the evening effectively free of hard-selling touts, save for the kindly woman on the street corner asking “Massage madamme?” or the random sketchy Lao dude passing you on the street whispering “waterfall tour, smoke-smoke, joint?” right outside of the boutique artists gallery and bookshop.
We enjoyed our time in Chiang Mai (northern Thailand), but — despite the accolades it has received by friends and other travelers — we weren’t too keen on the town. Foreigners LOVE Chiang Mai — and for good reason I suppose: it feels VERY Westernized and there are LOADS of Farang. Our constant feeling was that, despite its beautiful and historic temples and plethora of massage resorts and good cuisine there was very little to distinguish it from many, many other medium size cities we’ve visited in our travels. In retrospect, we may have liked to have taken away one or two of our days in Chiang Mai and added them to Luang Prabang, but it’s really hard to know these things ahead of time given that every traveler’s tastes are different.
So far so good with Laos. We’re excited for the coming two weeks in this intriguing and unique corner of the globe and only wish we had more time to devote to it. If anything, that’s what we’ve been warned: don’t underestimate Laos. Take whatever time you’ve allocated and double or even triple it. Now that we’re here and learning more and more of what there is to see and do, we can second that advice for others.