Studying about Asian countries in grade school, I never thought that I would ever get to visit Laos. The country never triggered any interest in me. I even confused it with Burma and Cambodia. Yeah, I guess I was that ignorant back then. Years later, the opportunity to travel to Laos presented itself when I volunteered to be part of the Asia-Pacific Missions Team of the Baptist Missionary Association of the Philippines. My specific destination in Laos, I was told, was the capital city of the biggest southern province, named Pakse.
Girl on a Mission
Back in 2009, there weren’t so many written articles and online publications specifically about Pakse. My curiosity led me to browse through card catalogs at the public libraries and seemingly endless online searches. Having learned very little, my curiosity grew more with each passing day.
How I Got to Pakse
While in Banlung
In December of 2009, I was then based in the small town of Banlung in Rattanakiri Province, Cambodia, when I finally got the green light to start packing for a five-day visit to Pakse, Laos. Prior to which, I had already gathered some background information about it, such as, its 80,000+something population; currency called Lao Kip(s); low English literacy; and the climate being similar to my home country, Philippines.
Born and raised in the city of Bacolod where the population was about five times the size of Pakse’s, and where English is widely spoken, I already braised myself for some “culture shocks.” In so doing, I learned a few phrases in the Lao language; such as saying my name, where I come from, that I don’t speak Lao, and counting from zero up to ten. Impressive? Well, if memorization was all it took, then I could probably have memorized more but the Lao language is tonal. You say a word with the wrong tone, and it totally means different. So, in learning a Lao word, you don’t only need to learn its transliteration into English but use the correct tone, among four other possible ones. By the way, I used the word transliteration because Lao words are originally spelled in the unique Lao characters, not in the Roman Alphabet.
From Banlung to Phnom Penh
Anyway, armed with a few Lao phrases, an eBook copy of the Lonely Planet’s Travel Guide to Laos, an English-Lao-English dictionary, I embarked on my first trip to Pakse, Laos. From Banlung, I booked a seat in a 12-seat van that makes day trips from Banlung to the capital city, Phnom Penh. In 2009, the road constructions of the main highway at that side of Cambodia were still on a very slow but steady process, almost everywhere in the country. So, needless to say, the ride was very rough; the kind of roughness that jars your brain, hurting your whole body, and causing flank back pain from not being able to use the bathroom when you need to, because there weren’t that many stops, in the first place. There were even areas with no power lines. As a newbie traveler, I didn’t know then that absence of power lines meant very low to no cellphone signal at all. If and when something happened in the twelve-hour trip from Banlung to Phnom Penh, I had no way of contacting my colleague in Phnom Penh or my superiors and family in Bacolod City, Philippines. Well, I was too caught up in the excitement of being someplace one has never been to before, to even think about that in the first place.
It almost took forever but I finally arrived in Phnom Penh. It was early evening already and my behind was sore since I had been traveling since six a.m. After a quick dinner and meeting with my colleague who made the trip with me, I was more than ready for a warm shower to soothe my tired body.
From Phnom Penh to Siem Reap
I had learned then that from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, there is no direct flight to Pakse, Laos. My colleague and I had to fly to Siem Reap which was an hour long through Cambodia Airlines and then get on a Lao Airlines plane for an hour and a half, more or less, flight to Pakse.
From Siem Reap to Pakse
Flying from Siem Reap to Pakse was my first time on a Lao Airlines plane. Oh boy, was it small! There only four seats in each row, two seats on each side of the aisle. The overhead compartments were a lot smaller than the already small ones of the Cebu Pacific and Air Asia planes I had taken. Thankfully, the leg room was sufficient for my Asian stature. The best thing about the flight was the free snack served. It was in a box with a beautiful picture showing the national symbol of the Thaluang Temple in Vientaine Laos and the national flower, Dok Champa. Inside were a ham and cheese croissant and a 100-mL sealed cup of water. After the boxes were handed out to the passengers, the crew then offered a drink from choices of coffee, tea or pepsi. Not bad at all!
First and Lasting Impressions
At Pakse International Airport
It was mid-afternoon when the plane touched down in Pakse. I was amazed by the size of the international airport. It was even smaller than our small airport in Bacolod-Silay which was already labeled as adhering to the international airport standard size. Its size, however, was not an indication at all that the service of airport personnel was inferior. Passengers were greeted politely by the ground staff with the “nop;” the traditional gesture of pressing palms together in prayer-like motion over one’s chest and accompanied by bowing of the head and saying, “Sabaidee.” This is how “Hello,” is said in the Lao language and it can be used to say to mean good morning, good afternoon, or good evening. Isn’t that handy at all?
The trip from the airport to our hotel destination was not longer than ten minutes. Pakse Hotel gave excellent service. A pre-arranged hotel van was already waiting to pick us up. We were greeted with more “Sabaidee” when we got to the hotel by hotel staff and by, nonetheless, the hotel owner, Mr. Jerome. He spoke perfect English with his innate French accent; absolutely exquisite sound, in my opinion. We were given complimentary drinks which was a kind of herbal tea. Hotel staff carried our stuff to our respective hotel rooms. As the young guy who put my bags on the floor was leaving my room, I was surprised that he didn’t move slowly as though in anticipation for a “tip.” I later learned that “tipping” is not customary in Laos. It is still welcome and accepted, of course, but it is not obligatory like in other countries where a certain percentage of one’s bill is even demanded as the standard amount to give.
Right from my first few hours, I already felt hospitality quite similar to the Filipino kind yet unique in its own Laotian way. There’s a hint of being more conservative and the way the ladies wore their traditional Lao skirts showed their pride for their heritage. The kind of pride that did not come out as obnoxious at all. To say that I was impressed right then is an understatement.
The breakfast buffet served was sumptuous. The variety of pastries showed the French influence in their food. As I looked around the hotel vicinity, I saw the beautifully French influenced architectural design of nearby buildings.
Up and About the Heart of the City
My colleague and I had a free day to explore Pakse before the “business part” of the trip took place. From Pakse Hotel, we walked around and found ourselves at the OTOP market where fruits, vegetables, meat and other necessities were sold. Across such was the Champasak Shopping Center that had products from China, Thailand and Vietnam to sell. Only souvenir items were made in Laos, I noticed. Then, I had my first smell of the Lao coffee aroma as we passed by local stores. Later, I learned that the French taught the Laotians the coffee farming method and brought the Arabica coffee beans many years ago. I also learned that Arabica Coffee is the best kind of coffee in the world. I know this might be debatable among coffee experts, but unless convinced otherwise, I am a believer that it indeed is the best.
Near the OTOP market is the Champasak Hospital where we were welcomed for a courtesy visit the following day. It occupies a huge land area and the hospital building is quite spacious. We later learned that facilities were lacking in this the biggest hospital in southern Laos that serves four provinces namely, Champasak, Sekong, Attapue and Salavan. A few doctors and hospital staff could speak English, good enough to carry a simple conversation.
Trying the Lao Food Specials
Later in the day, my colleague and I met the other delegates that completed our team. We were all treated to a delectable lunch at Dor Khoon Restaurant which was along the main road, Road 13, a few meters from the Champasak Palace Hotel that was home to the former King of Southern Laos. I was specific because there used to be a king in each major division of the country: a king in northern Laos, a king in central Laos and one in southern Laos. Anyway, the food was amazing! Well, it was spicy and herbs I had not tasted before added to the unique taste. The Tom Yum, Lao style, was and still is my favorite among the various delicious Lao foods. I was introduced to the Laab (minced meat with herbs and spices) and the Lao sticky rice.
The View from Le Panorama
Our dinner was at the rooftop of Pakse Hotel. Anyone who has been there would probably agree with me that the Le Panorama, the name of the restaurant on the hotel’s rooftop, is the best place to see most of Pakse and the best place to view the sunset. Food was more westernized but the decorations and arrangement were uniquely Lao.
The Best Massage Experience
After dinner, I had my first experience of the Lao traditional foot, full set, massage. I’m putting emphasis on the “full set” part since, for me, that is the best massage I have ever had. Back then it was 35,000LAK, roughly equivalent to $8.45 USD. The hour-long massage was worth way more than its cost. I didn’t think that my Lao lady masseuse who was shorter and much thinner than I was could hit pressure points on my feet, legs, thighs, arms, shoulders, neck and head so precisely and with just the right pressure to soothe muscles that seemed in knots. One should experience it to know exactly what I mean!
The following couple of days included a trip to two villages where my organization had donated a health center and a school building. The “atmosphere” and scenery dramatically change as we left the heart of Pakse. We had more food adventures and cultural experiences that were surely unforgettable.
What Struck Me the Most
Naturally Polite People
This first trip to Pakse still feels fresh in my mind since it was the beginning of my adventure of a lifetime that is, living in Laos. I am also amazed to realize that some of my first impressions were lasting and it was only through getting to know more people, understanding their history and learning about their unique culture, that I got a deeper appreciation for this amazing group of people.
In this first trip, I felt the friendliness of hotel staff and sellers in the market and souvenir stores. That didn’t only come from their warm hearts but also kind of a need for them to show tourists, in order to maintain a strong source of income to attract more tourists to come to Pakse. Their shyness proved to be enigmatic as if in disbelief that foreigners could show an interest in establishing a friendship instead of the usual tourist to local relationship.
Pakse as the third biggest city in the country yet it does not come with the hazards of pollution, crowded areas, heavy taxes, high rise buildings, crazy traffic, and over-priced commodities and services. Motorbikes rule the streets without it causing heavy traffic like in Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City.
Simplicity with a Touch of Class
Pakse’s simplicity is its strength, actually. One can enjoy the treats for tourists with the touch of their unique culture and tradition. Food, coffee and massages were amazing!