I must say that the week or so I just spent in Laos has been some of the most enjoyable time of my trip so far. I’m in Cambodia now — just arrived this morning after a terribly early and woefully delayed flight from Vientiane, Laos. I haven’t seen much of Cambodia other than Siem Reap, the gateway to the ruins of Angkor, but already it reminds me of the hustle and bustle of Thailand. Motorscooters, throngs of tourists, general mayhem. Laos was anything but.
As one of the poorest nations in the world, infrastructure — and, hence, tourism — has been slow to develop in Laos. That being said, development is not far behind. You can feel it in the streets of Luang Prabang, which already cater to a surprisingly ritzy euro clientele. With the NY Times Travel Section recently ranking Laos the top destination of 53 featured spots around the world, the days of a sleepy Laos are numbered. For now, though, the countryside is beautiful and rugged, the people kind and welcoming, the going somewhat rough along winding routes through craggy mountains. In fact, Laos is one of the few places where I have actually seen an abundance of agriculture in or around cities and towns, which tells me that many folks here still tend to the soil and live close to the land.
Despite the immediacy of the Loas experience, it brings up some misgivings for me. It would seem that so much of the “real” travel experience hinges on witnessing another culture or country’s misfortune and poverty. There are certainly plenty of Westerners that would prefer to jump from Starbucks to KFC to 7-11 and never be inconvenienced or confronted by the reality of another culture, content to skim the cream off the top. But just as many tourists are looking to see and feel life on the ground in the developing countries they visit. Perhaps the desire exists to remove themselves, if only for a few days or weeks, from the amenities and abstracted maze of the developed world. But the very process of purchasing this cultural experience, of inserting oneself in another culture, brings about change which cannot be reversed. Such transmission of money, information and values cannot be avoided, I suppose, but it weighs heavy on mind my as I participate in the tourist frenzy that is the high season in Southeast Asia.