Ok, both countries have joined the ASEAN, and while the Ho Chi Minh dream of a unified Indochina is getting real, both countries are pushed by capitalist, not socialists, economics. Which is sometimes good and sometimes bad...
Cambodia is a much younger country. Inexperienced, I may say. For a tourist not much to see. Of course the Angkor area lives up the hype and goes well beyond expectations. But for the rest, a few monument are on the list of any eager traveller, like I am. And the rest of the country (except jungly Ratanakiri) looked very dry to me. Almost desertic.
Notwithstanding that, the Khmer people are fantastic. They have understood that tourists often come to Cambodia to learn about the recent history of the country. And to walk in a territory that some years ago was still struck by a late Khmer Rouge guerrilla. So they sell their innocent smile. And their warmth and ingenous spontaneity were contagious for me. I would definitively tell you: do not go to Cambodia for Angkor. Do not go for finding tropical beaches and lush jungle. Go there for the people, and you will never forget what a human experience a simple trip can become!
On the other side ther is Laos. You cross the Mekong, and doing so you cross a cultural border. Just as an example, while in Cambodia your passport is stamped out by a smiling and almost underage policeman, it gets stamped in in Laos by elderly not-so-warm tourist agent.
At first I found it disturbing. Then I understood, after a few days, that Lao people are calm. It is simply that. Much more calm than in Cambodia or than in other country I have ever visited. Here the approach to tourism is always reserved and dignified. They share a lot of their culture with Thailand. But they are still not used to see stupid-white-men coming in their villages or sleepy towns. So they look at you crossing their dusty roads like you would watch to a golden fish in bowl: absently.
In any case they will never refuse you a kind Sa-bai-dee, if you look gentle and respectful. Which is my case.
Apart from being terribly calm, I think that Laos has not clear what to expect from tourism.
In the south, the tourism machine is still sleeping. And I think it can continue to do so, because, once you come from Cambodia, you have already seen the Mekong and all the rice fields stuff. You are looking for something different. So you will, as I did, take a night bus with the locals, and head straight for the capital city: Vientiane. And you will find, as I did, that this is the sleepiest capital city in the world. Nobody on the roads. Nobody at the markets. Nobody in the restaurants. Nobody on the tuk-tuks going to Patuxai. The sun rises. The tuk-tuk driver is sleeping. The sun is high in the sky. The tuk-tuk driver is still sleeping. The sun sets over the horizon. And the tuk-tuk driver will go back home to eat the ever-green fried rice or any kind of local foe.
Walking like Mary Poppins on Vientiane's large and empty roads
When in Vientiane you will also, as I did, understand that the northern mountains are not that far away. And you will, as I did, quickly hire a wonderful dirty-road motorbike and head north. And north. And north. After coming across still more rice fields, you will suddenly see karst mountains rise above everything.
Me on my motorbike on the Northern Laos dirty roads!
Crossing villages and meeting cultures.,
This is Northern Laos.
The Nam Song River flowing between the mountains
You will eventually get to Vang Vieng, the Laos version of Bangkok's Khao San Road. But ducked in between karst peaks, rivers and THE jungle.
Vang Vieng is probably one of the most strange places on earth. You are nowhere here. But americans, european and japanese happily cross the world just to come and go for one single activity: TUBING. Probably the most stupid passtime you would ever imagine of... You take a truck-tube, you put it on the river, you get in it, just like when you were four and you started to learn to swim, and you float down the Nam Song river. Going downstream you stop at any of the many bars that have popped as fast as mushrooms in this village. And you get yourself in a better mood by drinking lots of BeerLao and playing Tarzan hanging to the swinging ropes and splashing in the river... Finally, when the night comes and you are too drunk to float alone, a speedboat will come to rescue you before you get to the final jump from the waterfalls intoxicated...
Vang Vieng is a bad place, I may say. People do not come here to see pristine jungle, but just to get drunk. But I liked it. After having gone tubing myself to celebrate my birthday, I took my motorbike and went through the mountains, in remote villages, to see the real Laos. And it was a wonderful experience. I went into the jungle, and after a long walk into it, I went into a huge cave, and, after walking for many kilometers inside that incredible hole in the world I swam in beautiful blue lagoons... (where I lost my mobile phone... sigh...)
Buddha's wonderful cave
Me looking for an undergound way to Alaska...
So, do not come to Laos for the people. Do come for nature at its best. And, if you can, go north. The more north, the better. Find a village. And go trekking, go caving, go playing Tarzan on the rivers. And get calm. Laos is the place where to learn the "Sorry, chicken ran away" philosophy. Get in a restaurant, ask for yellow noodles with chicken and see the waiter coming to you half an hour later and telling you that the chicken you had asked will not be available for being eaten at the moment because it ran for freedom. And enjoy it.