Laos has a reputation for being a very laid back country and this is evident since the very first moment a foreigner enters the country. That’s why the PDR acronym which officially stands for People’s Democratic Republic is often unofficially referred to as Please Don’t Rush.
Laos is not Cambodia. Things in Laos are in motion – jobs are getting done, houses are being built, electricity is being delivered to everyone, including those in the most remote areas. Laotians may be slow paced, enjoying their unrushed lifestyles, but they are not lazy. You always see them doing something. I looked and looked and then looked some more but I have never seen groups of Laotians sit around on their motorcycles whole day every day, filling up shaded areas on every corner of every street unwilling to bend over to get anything done. This can only be seen in Cambodia where laziness is a way of life and men care more about their fingernails than than their jobs.
Some unsavvy individuals call Cambodia “laid back” but there is nothing laid back about being lazy and gathering round each day to kill time by verbally abusing by passers. Cambodia is not laid back, Cambodia is lazy, just as Laos is not lazy, Laos is laid back. You can see the movement around you wherever you look in Laos. Everything that needs to get done is being done, it’s just not done by rushing around. That’s Lao PDR – Please Don’t Rush.
For a busy Westerner, this may seem rather odd from the beginning and could actually seem irritating as buses may not be on schedule and your Tuk Tuk driver may pause for an ice filled beverage in a plastic bag on a hot and sunny day while you’re trying to get to your guesthouse. But that’s the way it goes in Laos, so if you do pay the country a visit, then Please Don’t Rush.
Since Lao People’s Democratic Republic is a socialist country ruled by a single party communist government, it’s natural for many westerners to question whether the country is safe to visit. Hidden behind the veil of secrecy, Laos was off limits to westerners for many a decade leaving an impression that internal affairs, which were not watched by international communities could have created a potentially hostile environment that’s risky to enter. Yet despite what you may have thought, Laos is one of the safest countries to visit with people as peaceful and friendly as they get.
When it comes to personal safety, Laos is at the opposite end of the scale from Cambodia. History of Cambodia is riddled with violence and other than a few rarities, the country remains the epitome of violence to this day. The history of Laos on the other hand is the history of peace and other than a few rarities, the nation remains peaceful to this day. It’s astounding how countries that are geographically so close to each other can be so different in terms of personal safety and the way people treat one another. Since I had spent quite some time in Cambodia before coming to Laos, it gave me a chance to compare safety in both countries. Let me clarify how safe to visit Laos is by comparing it to Cambodia.
Laos vs. Cambodia
Having arrived in Laos from Cambodia, a country where violence and scam are part of everyday life, entering into a society where everyday life is highlighted by peace and friendliness felt like when the blood starts flowing again into a limb that was choked off by a tight rope. Fake smiles used as a disguise for shady purposes so typical of Cambodians were gone and all I could see were genuine, inviting smiles full of warmth and honour.
After Cambodia, Laos was a breath of fresh air that made me question (again) why I had wasted so much of my time and money on that country. I felt the same breath of fresh air when I left Cambodia for Vietnam, and when I crossed over through Cambodia to Thailand.
Fool me once, shame on you but fool me twice, shame on me. For some reason, I allowed Cambodia to fool me thrice but with each eye opener, with each new country I have visited after Cambodia, it became apparent that the world is an inviting and friendly place, but as with everything, there always is an exception to the rule. For a worldwide traveller looking for a safe and enjoyable place, based on my experience, that exception is Cambodia. I have been through all of Europe except from Scandinavia (excluding Iceland), all of North and Central America including the islands of the Caribbean, all of South East Asia and some of the rest of Asian continent (adding more to the list by the day), but Cambodia remains the only country out of all I have visited in which I had to fear for my life.
Global Peace Index
According to the 2010 Global Peace Index, Lao People’s Democratic Republic is the 34th most peaceful country in the world. Out of the rest of South East Asia, only Malaysia and Singapore ranked higher than Laos sending clear signal that Laos is a safe country to live in and safe country to visit. For comparison, according to the Global Peace Index, Cambodia ranked as the 111th most peaceful country in the world, which basically confirms that it’s one of world’s most violent ones.
Laos is Safe, But…
While I have never experienced anything even remotely close to being in danger and found all Laotians to be friendly and non violent people (even after walking through the dark streets and remote areas at night), I understand that as recently as 2007 there was a major problem with banditry in some areas of Laos. Particularly the road between the nation’s capital Vientiane and a popular tourist trap, a UNESCO world heritage site Luang Prabag was said to have been targeted by armed groups attacking buses with tourists. This has allegedly been taken care of by the government and banditry in that area is allegedly no longer a problem (I have taken that ride by bus myself and nothing extraordinary happened throughout the course). So even though most Laotians are non violent, non confrontational people, there certainly is a history of illegal activities sometimes involving robberies and killings. Never take your personal safety for granted and always take precautions against becoming a victim, even in otherwise very safe countries like Laos.
Unexploded Ordinance and Landmines
Landmines and unexploded ordinance (UXO) are also a problem in some areas of Laos (especially in the north, close to the border with Vietnam) and account for more than 300 deaths a year. While landmines are not as common as in Cambodia, considering the amount of bombs dropped on Laos by the USA, travel through remote areas could lead you to unexploded bombs waiting around for someone to poke at them. It’s smart to stick with well-worn paths when hiking in these areas and never enter places marked with minefield warning signs. But most of all, if you do spot something that resembles a bomb casing, don’t try to find out whether it’s still unexploded or not. Don’t go near it, do not ever touch it and notify local authorities about the location.
The Land of a Million Elephants, better known by its contemporary name of Laos Peoples Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) is a landlocked country in South East Asia that remained vastly off limits to the travelers until the early 1990’s. Taking into account that the United States dumped 1.9 metric tons of bombs on Laos towards the end of Vietnam War, making it the most bombed country in the history of the world, there is little wonder why the communist government didn’t want any foreigners in their lands. But as their economy took some heavy blows following the fall of Soviet Russia sheltered Eastern Bloc, the idea of opening up and allowing hard currency bearing tourists in seemed like the only way out.
Seeing how tourism money kept the economy of neighboring Thailand bustling, Lao officials figured that: “if we open up, they will come here too.” Afterall, it only takes an hour on a plane to get from Bangkok to Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. Yet despite its proximity to Thailand and a promise of brand new, unmatched experiences, few travelers decided to cross the Mekong river which flows along the border separating the countries. As Thailand continued to see the growth in the numbers of travelers visiting the country, Lao government was forced to conclude that foreigners are not yet ready for Laos.
So the officials came with an idea of declaring 1998 the “Visit Laos Year”. Encouraged by the 1997 admission into ASEAN, this seemed like a good idea but despite undying efforts to attract mass tourism, the initiative failed to yield results. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 21st century when Laos was discovered by the crowds of adventurous backpackers and the scales were tipped. All of a sudden, some of the towns went from receiving maybe a dozen foreigners a week, to having hundreds come in a day. It was independent travelers and nature lovers who put Laos on the map and a new era of tourism, which also signaled the end of an era of being a sleepy, unexplored country has begun.
Laos is no longer what it was when it was re-discovered. Western style cafes, foreigner friendly restaurants and over priced pre-packaged tour operators now fill the cores of major cities. Once laid back country has stepped up its pace to keep up with the demands of ever growing westernization that has crept into the lives of many. An adventurous traveler can still get a glimpse of unspoiled, unwesternized Laos when stepping off the beaten tourist track, but the time when you would be the only foreigner enquiring about a tube ride down the river in Vang Vieng is long gone. Hoards of travelers can now be encountered no matter how remote a place you go to, yet Laos still remains the country with some of the most pristine nature and some of the friendliest people in the area.
I loved every bit of my stay in Laos, however since the country is much more expensive for travelers than any of it neighbors, I cut my trip shorter than originally intended. Every backpacker whom I met in Laos was surprised by high costs involved with traveling there compared to traveling in other South East Asian countries. One would expect the opposite, given that Laos is considered to be one of the least developed countries in the region but fact of a matter is, backpacking through Laos will drain your wallet much faster than say Cambodia, Indonesia or Vietnam.
Limited availability (with only a few exceptions, this means “complete unavailability”) of inexpensive accommodation (inexpensive accommodation would be a half decent room in a guesthouse for no more than $7 a night), unusually high cost of transportation (by SE Asian standards) and common overcharging of foreigners on food make traveling across Laos more expensive than in other countries in the region. Yet despite the costs, Laos is a beutiful place to visit and definitely worth a pop.