Laos is a jungle country of rural villages with wooden stilt houses and smoky cooking fires. Karst hills obstruct the journey, jutting up like horribly broken teeth, unbrushed and moss-covered. Distances are not great, but winding roads make journeys into marathons. The highway between Vientiane and Luang Prabang is like a footpath that — over time and purely by default — became a highway. Modernization goes no further than the edges of the pavement.
In the small-town streets of Vientiane, the French colonial legacy survives in baguettes and strong black Lao coffee. Eleven hours by winding bus to the north, this foreign influence fades like a song. Luang Prabang, the ancient royal capital, drowses beside the muddy Mekong River, where gilded temples with low swept roofs dream quietly in the side streets. Nothing much happens in Laos. The French colonizers said: “The Vietnamese plant rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Lao listen to it grow.” The Lao proverb is more direct: “Too much work is bad for the brain.”