Laos: Rainforest, Rapids and Remote Villages…and asking myself the question: “Is backpacking bad?”

hiking in the beautiful Nam Ha region of northern Laos
hiking in the beautiful Nam Ha region of northern Laos

Beautiful Laos!! It’s wonderful to be back here. Everything’s how I remember it: small wooden houses, smiley and friendly people, and the happiest children in the world.

Within a few hours of being here, I’m troubled by the language and attitude that some backpackers have towards Laos: an attitude of western superiority, so ingrained in us that we don’t realise that we have this attitude at all. I explain to someone that his use of the words ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ is condescending. Another person says, “These people [Lao villagers] don’t want to continue living in the Stone Age.”  Someone else talks about a western organisation that is “helping Lao people to help themselves.” Does this westerner think that Lao people are in such a dire situation that they can only “help themselves” out of their pitiful existence with the help of western institutions?

Luang Namtha is a town in the north of Laos, famous for the Nam Ha protected rainforest and river. I meet some other backpackers and we hire out motorbikes and explore the beautiful countryside and villages. Children smile, wave, and shout “Sabadeeeeeeee!” and adults greet us kindly. 

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The beauty and the beastliness of Yunnan province, China

Rooftops in Nuodeng, Yunnan province
Rooftops in Nuodeng, Yunnan province

I’m ill. I lay in bed with a fever, shivering but sweating. I ache. I groan. Chris showers me with sympathy. In my sick delirium, I search the internet to diagnose myself. I read about all of the possible diseases I could have, and all of them fit my symptoms. Why oh why didn’t I look into getting some vaccinations before coming here? Is my disdain for pharmaceutical companies really worth getting sick for? I decide that I definitely have dengue fever. Then I look up malaria risks in China. Every province has a low-to-zero risk, except for Yunnan province, where I am laying ill. It has a high risk. That’s it. I have malaria. I instruct Chris to go to the chemist, buy me some rehydration salts (my answer to every single illness, no matter what the symptoms, whilst on the road) and to find out if there’s a doctor or hospital nearby. He comes back with the news that there’s only a doctor specialising in Chinese medicine in the town. Aaaaaagggghhh, I’m going to die here, I think.

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