I had envisaged a quiet time of reading and sleeping; our couple of days in southern Laos would be spent cruising 100 miles up the Mekong in a pretty, old teak boat. I was mistaken. Wonderfully mistaken. “Bye! Bye! Bye!” was the endless refrain, as groups of tiny children, some in twos and threes, some in their dozens, stood waving at us and practicing their one word of English from the banks. Or from small carved wooden boats. Or, on one occasion, from the top of a giant tree, before they all jumped one after the other into the waters below.
To read or to snooze would have been to fail to wave back at the hundreds of small, smiling faces. That, one felt, would be letting down the children of Laos. On the last day, one fellow passenger laughed delightedly as she showed me the two pages she had read of the 400-pagedoorstop she had been planning to finish.
It was just another example of what makes this mountainous sliver of a country—squeezed between its bigger, louder neighbors, Thailand, Vietnam, and China—such a remarkable place to visit. Laotian people, whatever their age, are some of the loveliest I have ever encountered. Laotians today seem happy with what little they have—theirs is one of the poorest countries in the world—and largely unconcerned by the mucky business of making money, as well as many other aspects of modernity. This is the kind of country where most Lao women still wear the traditional tube skirt, together with a neatly tailored jacket, just as most Lao families still live in traditional wooden houses on stilts and work in the rice paddies.
Cars are a comparatively rare sight; bicycles and water buffalo, in contrast, are ubiquitous. Scooters are the transport of choice for the well-off, a brightly patterned umbrella nonchalantly held in one hand when the sun is hot or the rain is falling. Its rural landscape in the months from November to January is eye-poppingly verdant and picturesque. But equally beguiling is Luang Prabang, now a Unesco World Heritage Site, a pinch-yourself perfect time capsule of a French colonial town, caught in a fork between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. Its main streets are filled with pretty French-built stone buildings with wooden fretwork balconies and terraces, its residential streets are lined with traditional raised Laotian wooden houses with their sweepinggables.