Back Travel » What to See in a Landlocked Country? How a Detour to Laos Made My Heart Feel Full.

What to See in a Landlocked Country? How a Detour to Laos Made My Heart Feel Full.

Editor's note: This essay by Alex Tran won 1st place in the Editor's Choice category of Saigoneer's first-ever essay writing competition, "2 Years of Memories," in collaboration with Urbanist Travel. We felt that the author went beyond just chronicling the play-by-play events of a trip, and gave the portrayal of Bolaven Plateau characters, genuine interactions, spirits, and most importantly, poignant human connections.

When I was planning for the Southeast Asia backpacking trip a few months ago, Laos wasn’t on the map. Growing up in Vietnam, I know of Laos as a small and poor country next door, not as a travel destination. So all I wanted was to get to Chiang Mai as soon as possible. My heart was already in Thailand while I was still under the Cambodian sky; I wanted to skip Laos so badly.

Even when James, my partner, was determined to travel to Laos and I reluctantly followed, I wanted to get in and out of the country within a matter of days, thinking “What is there to see in a landlocked country?”

Boy, I couldn't have been more wrong.

We spent ten days in Laos and every day there made it worth living. Every day was filled with amazing food, indescribably beautiful sunrise, sunset, rainbow, waterfalls, and heartfelt moments. To travel Laos is to walk, bike, jump in the back of a pickup truck, get on your motorbike and explore the hidden gems off the beaten path — at least that’s what we did at the Bolaven Plateau in Pakse, a city in southern Laos.

During our three months backpacking, I always know where I will be sleeping for the night; all accommodations were pre-booked the night before. But not on the Bolaven Plateau loop: it’s impossible to plan ahead when you aim to travel 30–50 kilometers a day on a motorbike. For four nights in a row, we showed up unannounced at people’s doors and were welcomed with open arms, home-cooked meals, and the warmest hospitality. They made us feel right at home.

The slow pace of living, the beautiful nature, the kindness of the Lao people sucked all the type-A hustling attitude out of me and made me forget all about Thailand. The people we encountered might not have had the most modern and materialistic lifestyles, but they had the happiest lives connected with nature, community, ancestors’ wisdom, rituals and traditions. Captain Hook said, “We don’t talk about the future. Talking about the future brings bad luck to your plans.” So they reminisce about the past and talk about the present. Such wisdom is rare to find.

Who is Captain Hook anyway? If you do the Bolaven Plateau loop, then you must know about Captain Hook. He is a Lao farmer from the Katu ethnic group, living in Kok Phoung Tai Village with his tribe and extended families. His name is Mr. Hook but tourists have been lovingly calling him Captain Hook for many years now. His tour about coffee farming and plant medicine is incredibly informative, but staying with his family offered us another level of enrichment.

Staying here, you need to engage and put yourself out there. You have to listen attentively and ask Captain Hook all the questions you have about Lao and Katu culture because there might not be a second chance to meet someone like him who understands the culture so deeply and can explain it to you in English. You will see his four-year-old son smoking a tobacco pipe like a pro, with smoke filling up a corner of the room, and your eyes will widen in disbelief. Your jaw will drop learning that young girls in his village get married at age 13–15 and give birth at age 16, and it’s a normal thing in their culture.

By sunset, you need to roll up your sleeves and get in the kitchen to grind fish fillet to make laap (or larb, a traditional Laos dish) with his family. Captain Hook’s nephew will ask you if you want organic roasted peanuts from the farm and the answer is yes. His wife, Suk, will ask you to pluck fresh lettuce from the garden and show you how to make their peanut sauce and fish rice porridge in the most authentic Lao way on a wood stove. You will eat with his family at the same table, the same meal. You will roll steaming sticky rice with your hands and dip them in a spicy chili sauce; you will squint your eyes, and blow your mouth at the unexpected yet satisfying spicy flavor.

After dinner, Captain Hook will ask if you’d like to try a bit of organic ginger tea with sugar cane syrup, the answer, again, is yes, because the warm drink tastes so good it will heal you after a long day of travel. He will ask you if you’d like to share a bong with him. It will hit you much stronger than you think, but what is there to do after dinner in a small mountain village but chill with organic tobacco and talk about life. Outside the bamboo home, the sky darkens, and you will thank all the lucky stars that lead you to exactly where you are right now.

More than just a homestay, Captain Hook taught us so much about the Katu and Laos culture and our hearts feel so much — the simple and peaceful life they are having, something we wish to have one day; the warmth of his whole family towards us, two strangers who showed up at their door unannounced. We learned an important lesson: a meal is meant to be cooked together and food is meant to be shared. It was sad to say goodbye, but we bought two homemade bracelets from Suk, so we can carry a bit of their spirit on our path forward.

There were twists and turns, and it took us six days, double the amount of time to finish the Bolaven Plateau loop compared to other people, but we needed that much time to take in all of the beauty the region has to offer. I wanted to immerse myself for as long as I could in the coffee plantations, jungles, waterfalls, and mountain mist, in the warm welcome and kindness of the Lao people.

Thank you, Laos, for having me and showing me nothing but love.

Alex is a tech sales professional turned backpacker, Reiki healer and travel writer. After a decade living in Canada, she’s currently backpacking South East Asia with the sole purpose of learning about Asian healing arts. She documents the places she visits through writing and photography as shared on her Instagram @dear.alex_.

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