Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

7 Dec 2013

Laos – It’s like they know something we don’t

Posted by Will

From what I’ve seen so far, Laos is the poorest country I’ve visited. I travelled across the less developed north, skirting at times less than a hundred kilometres south of the Chinese border, through an uninterrupted wave of wild, sunlit jungle. It’s a shame money doesn’t grow on trees: if it did every owner of Laos’ radiant smiles would be millionaires. dsc_0331-800But it doesn’t, and to the passing eye it is quite clear that past a smile, community spirit and enough to eat, the ordinary people of Laos don’t have much else. So how is it they’re always smiling, laughing, beckoning, calling, jumping and dancing? Why are the children readier than all the world’s others to shout ‘sabaidee!’ (hello) at the top of their lungs, little arms swinging excitedly from side to side? Outwardly, they are the happiest people I’ve ever seen. The more I ride through villages with nothing but faces alight with everything I can’t help feeling they know, or understand, something we don’t.

In a week and several hundred kilometres’ cycling I don’t consider I passed through a town, let alone a city, in Laos. The biggest red dot on my map, Luang Namtha, seemingly one of the country’s main cities, turned out to be little more than a village with a few coffee shops and guest-houses pandering to tourists. Other dots on the map contained a village shop or two selling no more than coffee sachets, dried noodles, eggs, tacky sweets and a few other similar, insubstantial products. Past that, tiny houses, almost always made of wood and sometimes standing on stilts, where kitchen huts used open fires and were separated from other rooms, composed the rest of a typical village. ┬áCommunal taps stood along the roadside where everyone washed themselves, their clothes and their pots and pans. Countless times I cycled past naked children washing unabashed beneath fountains of gushing cold water. They always found it funny when I stopped to scrub my neck and face.

Gone were the smartphones of China and Vietnam. Gone were the ‘wifi zone’ signs, designer trainers and the compulsive need to be noticed. Food was cooked over smouldering fires, washing was done under taps, flat footballs replaced iPads for child’s play and sandals stood for shoes on their feet. A rare man to speak English told me his village had been hooked up to electricity only two years ago. The asphalt road had come a year before that. The villages looked only partially emerged from the surrounding jungle, entirely out-of-sync with the standard of living expected almost universally around the world.

Don’t get me wrong, my intention is not to slight the villages or villagers of Laos, in fact quite the opposite. For their extraordinary lack of material possessions, a boundless optimism emanated from almost every one of the inhabitants, particularly the children, who never tired of waving until I was round the corner and who never gave up bouncing for attention if I missed them at first glance. I have never worked my vocal cords so hard as I tried to ensure every ‘hello’ was answered and every smile returned.

dsc_0383-800Teenagers too cool in other countries couldn’t have cared less in Laos – they jumped just the same. Some rode bikes to race me, others climbed trees to see me on my way. The adults were more reserved but never failed to shout greetings in reply as they chopped bamboo or stacked great piles of firewood. One time a happy man produced sticky rice, lettuce soup and runner beans from his vegetable patch when I asked if there was food around and although the meal was basic it was the willingness with which he produced it that made the difference. He was so delighted when I showed him a picture of my family that he summoned in his children from the nearby fields to look. Of course, that led to fresh new rounds of ‘sabaidee!’.

I cycled with a Chinese man, Wang, for a few days and as we sat down to eat yet another portion of sticky rice he said in broken English: ‘Laos … no money’, and gesturing with his hands to the surrounding village, ‘… but happy’. As the kids skipped faultlessly around the ramshackle village under thatched rooves and the eye of their chatting, laughing parents, I couldn’t help but agree. ‘China’, he continued, ‘… money … but …’ and started pretending to sob with his face downcast. I thought about people back home.

I don’t say ‘Western’ people are miserable. I’m not jumping to the easy, over-simplified, idealistic conclusion that my compatriots would be better off rejecting their material possessions for a life sawing bamboo in the jungle. I just know that few are as outwardly happy as the people of Laos. I don’t doubt that below the surface there are hardships that even the most determined smile can’t conquer, the depth of which I am unable to explore as a visitor in transit, but the happiness glowing in their faces is impossible to fake, anyone would know it is genuine at the slightest glance. To the idea laced in conventional wisdom that money, development, growth and ‘stuff’ are the most accurate measures of human happiness, Laos is surely the ultimate counter-example.

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4 Comments already on “Laos – It’s like they know something we don’t”
  1. 2:09 ampermalink
    07 Dec 2013

    Laura

    Is it not enough you are a brilliant cyclist, hugely adventurous and obviously excellent at navigation, but you’re also a superb writer… Seriously, some people get all the talent! This is a thoughtful and interesting entry that encapsulates my perception of Laos, which I was travelling around last month. The people are hugely friendly and inspirational. I loved spending time with them and learning about their way of life. You summed it up so well! A brilliant entry to your blog x

    • Will

      5:49 ampermalink
      07 Dec 2013

      Will

      I’m glad you felt the same about Laos. I’m heading back in a few months to visit the south, Vientiene and Luang Prabang which I imagine are more developed than the north. From your experience it sounds like they’re just as friendly there though.

      I couldn’t believe how quiet and peaceful Laos was too. The traffic in neighbouring China, Vietnam and Thailand seems a million miles away in the jungle. A paradise for cycling!

      And congrats on the recent half-marathon victory! Great effort!

  2. 1:27 pmpermalink
    07 Dec 2013

    Chen

    I couldn’t agree more.Happiness can’t be measure by wealth.I believe life is simple,simple is beautiful.

  3. 10:46 pmpermalink
    13 Dec 2013

    Sarah, Guy, Toby and Edward

    Hi William,

    I totally agree with Laura, your Laos entry moved me to tears. Written beautifully and with such feeling. Having been there too, I know exactly what you mean.
    Take care
    Guy