Laos is land-locked, bordered by Thailand to the east, China to the north, Vietnam to the west, Cambodia to the south, and just a tad by Myanmar (Burma) to the northwest. However, you wouldn’t know it where we are. That’s because the Mekong River, the 12th longest river in the world and the longest in Southeast Asia, after winding it’s way from Tibet through a chunk of China, also worms through western and southern Laos. And, it has a lot of tributaries, too.
The river creates very fertile soil in the extended river basin and also makes it easy to transport both goods and people. On land, rice is the biggest crop by far. Others include peanuts, corn, tamarind, soybeans, eggplant, and cucumbers, among many other fruits and vegetables. Local markets are plentiful with nature’s bounty in every hue.
I’m in Luang Prabang, the original capital of Laos that was founded in 1353, because of its fertile location along the Mekong. For the same reason, through the centuries, it came under the influence of various neighbors like the Siamese, Burmese, and Vietnamese, and, in the 20th Century, was a colony of France.
All of these cultures are evident here in many ways, including the architecture and the food, along with very strong influences from both Buddhism and Animism. It’s hard to detect that Laos is a Communist country, having become so after Vietnam defeated the French in 1954 — and that it did not open to tourism until the break-up of the Soviet empire in 1989. Due to its rich and evident culture and well-preserved history, Luang Prabang became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/479).
All of the above, combined with the beautiful natural environment, make Luang Prabang a tremendous tourist destination. This has lifted up the economy of the entire province. Laos is still one of the poorest economies in all of Southeast Asia, but it grew by more than 8% annually in 2013 and is continuing at that pace (http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/lao). This province, certainly, is well above the average. The extended area of Luang Prabang has a population of 50,000. Our local guide that took us up the Mekong said that 90% of the folks here make their living through tourism.
You would not believe the tourist infrastructure here and yet there’s something about it that isn’t “touristy.” Even as you pass through markets that cater to visitors or visit villages with a tour guide, seemingly all of the Lao people have a friendly, laid back style and do not try to push you to make a purchase. The historic downtown is certainly almost all about tourism, with markets, storefronts, tuk-tuk drivers, restaurants with large English translations, and money exchange kiosks. But, you have to picture all of these things sending off a laid back vibe. So much so, that waiters don’t even come over to take your drink order, unless you ask. My theory is that they’re waiting for you to close the menu or that if you want something, you’ll let them know.
I strongly recommend that anyone traveling in SE Asia already or others just looking for a unique and unforgettable vacation experience come here. The only place I’ve been that is remotely similar was Guilin, China back in the 90s. That’s the best comparison I have. But Luang Prabang is more relaxing, more cultural, and has a much wider variety of amazing things to do.
Getting back to the subject of the Mekong River, my next blog post will feature how the agriculture that grows along it influences Lao cuisine.
For more information about the Mekong River, go here: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/373560/Mekong-River.
A great intro to Laos is here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laos.
The best traveler’s resource on Luang Prabang I found is here: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/laos/northern-laos/luang-prabang.