Laos Is Too Good to Be Rushed
Jason Rolan, Sales Manager for Khiri Travel Laos, tells Ryan van Velzer that visitors should drop their pace, eat Kai Phene, and make a point of talking to villagers along the way
So why did you take the job with Khiri?
I wanted to work somewhere I had the freedom and control to create and promote the best possible tours for those looking to get a real experience this region – rather than with some soulless company just looking to fill seats on buses without any thought to the negative side effects that may result.
Why did you choose Laos over places like Cambodia, Vietnam or Thailand?
I’ve lived here for so long, it’s become something of a second home. I’ve also spent time in Thailand. But there’s one amazing thing that keeps drawing me back to Laos – the people. Lao people are quite genuine. While often considered “poor” by NGO standards, there is an irrepressible happiness to everything that they do.
Why do you think Laos is often overlooked as a tourist destination compared to countries such as Vietnam and Thailand?
Laos is a landlocked country. People often want at least part of their holiday to be on the beach. It has changed quite a bit since 1990 when the government decided to open Laos to tourism. Places such as Luang Prabang, despite being a World Heritage site, don’t have any big attractions like Ha Long Bay in Vietnam and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The main difference with Luang Prabang is that it is a living city and one you have to get in to, to experience. It’s not just a collection of rocks in the water or old stone temples to be looked at.
So what does Laos have to offer that these other countries don’t?
What really fascinated me when I first came to Laos — and still does — as soon as you come out of the cities you have beautiful traditional villages everywhere. There are more than 40 different tribes in Laos, so it is culturally intense and diverse. It is still untouched in many ways. For people who have grown up in America or western Europe it is very fascinating to see this kind of life. You see how happy the Lao people are – even if they don’t have a lot.
On that point, what do you think is unique about Lao culture that separates it from Western Culture?
Lao culture can sometimes be a little difficult to demarcate, because it is still similar to other Southeast Asian cultures, but it’s definitely very laid back. You would never see a Lao person rushing, screaming or being stressed. For them it is very strange to experience that. They will laugh at you. This is their reaction if something is awkward or stressful. Everyone who comes here to Laos always says the people are so friendly. Even on the main street in Luang Prabang – it’s probably one of the most touristy places in Laos – but there you can still find so many authentic aspects. People are drying their chillies, sausages and rice crackers. You can see the monks everywhere following their daily routines. You see places where locals like to go and chat. You see people cooking outside their houses.
So it’s not so ruined by tourism like for example, Khao San road in Bangkok?
Definitely not. But there are still some problems. For example, with the morning alms giving, there needs to be more attention paid to that. If you get up at 6 o’clock in the morning and go to the main road and see the monks getting alms, it’s not always nice — it’s crowded. Tourists can be disrespectful, getting too close, taking pictures with flash, being above the monks, which is disrespectful. But it is very difficult because you can’t say tourists aren’t allowed to watch it anymore.
What’s your favourite place in Laos?
Luang Prabang. It’s just the charm of the town itself. It’s just walking through the town and watching the life and seeing all this beauty of the temples and the surrounding areas. Walking the hills and seeing the amazing views and going out of town to see some really special waterfalls with beautiful pools to swim in, yeah for me, it’s definitely Luang Prabang.
What’s your favourite local dish?
Luang Prabang sausage — Sai Oua. Also Jeo Bong (a sweet, spicy, smoky chilli paste made with buffalo skin). And Kai Phene (fried river weed).
What is that?
Oh you need to try it. In the dry season when the river is shallow and clear, an algae grows on the rocks. Locals harvest it, wash it, cut it and dry it. Then they put sesame, garlic and tomatoes on it. It’s dried to very thin sheets and quickly fried before eating. You can buy it in all the markets. It goes perfectly with Beer Lao.
What it one thing tourists should see in Laos?
Again Luang Prabang is a must see. But all the tourists do that anyway. I think it’s also very important to go out into the countryside and see the villages; ideally with a guide and in a very respectful way, to learn how to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ and to know to take your shoes off before entering a house. It’s also important to find a way to allow the locals to benefit from your visit. Tourism is not a one-sided coin. Both sides should benefit in some way, be it through a donation to the village school or just buying a round of beer for old men ready to share their life stories with you. Try to get involved with the villagers through your guides and tell the villagers about yourself. Interaction is very important in order to not create a ‘human zoo’ situation where travellers just walk through taking photos and depart.
If you were travelling to Laos for the first time, what is one thing you bring with you?
The standard stuff like a camera, a book and…a lot of time. Time is very important. You need time to really get to know the country. I know some people don’t have so much holiday time. I know that’s why they do Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia in two or three weeks. If they have the chance and are more interested they should try to stay at least two weeks in Laos. If you have time you have a completely different experience. You are more relaxed, more open and can just walk through a town with no plans and see where it carries you. That’s travelling.