Bill Robison, International Expeditions’ Director of Product Development, spent the first part of 2009 in Laos and Vietnam researching locations for our new 15-day itinerary . Follow Bill’s series of updates on these fascinating countries, as well as how he’s put together a Laos and Vietnam tour that covers the spectacular natural beauty and culture of Southeast Asia.
By Bill Robison
After first visiting Vietnam and Cambodia in 2005, Laos was moved to the very top of my "most wanted" destinations. I was so intrigued by the amazing culture, I knew more Southeast Asia was definitely in the cards. All I heard and read pointed to Laos as the most authentic and unspoiled experience in all of Southeast Asia. So, I set my sights there and in January of 2009 finally got the chance to create a program featuring Laos. I spent a month exploring the country. It was more than I ever imagined it could be!
What struck me most in Laos was the incredible ethnic diversity and authenticity of the village visits. Life is slow and peaceful in Laos...especially in the villages, each inhabited by one or more of over 160 ethnic minorities found in the country. I've been to many villages around the world in Africa, Asia, South America and Europe. All of them were interesting but too many turned out to be somewhat contrived...a short history, a peak inside a hut, and then a gigantic handicraft market with zealous and witty salespeople instead of a real chance to exchange cultural experiences. Nothing could have been further from the truth in Laos! Each village, and there are a TON of them, was filled with everyday Lao people who are genuinely intrigued by visitors.
Laos is new to tourism, and many of these villages have had limited, if any, exposure to Westerners. I could talk about a particular village but the story was the same at all of them. Instead of being met by the waiting head of the village and escorted to designated areas while the villagers are busy setting up the market, my presence was quietly observed by the villagers as they went about their daily routines of chopping wood, cooking sticky rice, repairing their homes and working on whatever skill that particular village is known for — farming, weaving, carving, even whisky making. Not that there weren't things to buy, but I had to look for them or was approached the very occasional, respectful, young lady with some local crafts. It was the most amazing feeling...it was the first time I had visited a village and NOT been the center of attention or mobbed for commerce. Many just smiled and waved with a friendly "sabai-dee," keeping to themselves at a respectful distance while they continued with their daily chores.
Curiosity got the best of some, urging them to ask my local guide about who I was, where I came from, and why someone from so far away would come so far to visit their little community.