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Losing the tourists in Laos without getting lost

One block off the main street lies a different world that you won't see on a tour

Luang Prabang was crawling with tourists like ants on a picnic watermelon. There was one main street and it was groaning with the weight of people; shops, restaurants and tour agencies stood shoulder to shoulder, interrupted by the occasional temple.

This was not the magical Laos I was looking for.

However, I soon discovered that much like the Laotian capital, Vientiane, the magic of Luang Prabang was there. It was just being shy. I would have to work a little and coax it out. By the end of Day 4, I was in love with the place.

The first thing I noticed was that only one block off the main street, Luang Prabang was a different world. Like a Potemkin village, the main street was a commercial facade behind which the locals lived in aging bamboo houses down dusty alleyways.

It was a world of revealing entranceways, stolen glances and warm laughter - tiny glimpses of everyday life tucked away from the din of the shops and restaurants.

While main street met the dawn with a daily procession of 200 or 300 monks marching like cadets down the road receiving alms, the back streets started the day with simple daily rituals: cooking, bathing, gossiping, grooming and getting ready for work.

The second thing I noticed was that on the back streets, only a block away, there were virtually no tourists. The siren call of restaurants, shops and the many beautiful Wats and temples had lured most of the tourists to the main street.

But for me, the magical odyssey of Laos was meeting the people going about their daily lives. Fortunately for us, most tourists opt for the elephant treks, waterfalls and cave visits that dominate so many tour itineraries.

The next day, we hopped a local ferry and ventured across the Mekong with rented mountain bikes and some hand-drawn maps of the nearby villages that we downloaded from HoboMaps.com.

If venturing one block off main street dropped most of the tourist crowd, what would crossing the river do? I wondered.

Our goal was to lose the other tourists and ourselves (but not get completely lost!) for the day, travelling river, road and path, exploring villages and temples.

The ferry docked at the bottom of a road filled with rice cookers, silk weavers, paper makers, shopkeepers and other local entrepreneurs. As we rode or walked through the towns, we stopped to talk, pantomime, laugh and entertain the locals.

It's easy to immerse yourself in much of daily Laotian life when so much of it takes place outdoors and within easy reach of the road. Engaging with the locals, who spoke little English, required only a friendly Sabaidee (hello), an engaging smile and a willingness to sometimes look silly.

Everywhere we went, we took photos. If there is one quick way to establish a connection in Laos, it seems to be taking and sharing photos.

Virtually everyone we met was more than happy to have their photo taken. Grandmothers and children squealed with laughter and delight upon seeing their picture.

Crossing the river and biking two kilometres from the ferry point was all it took to never see another tourist all day and immerse ourselves in the forests, temples, villages and daily life of Laos.

Not that much work to feel otherworldly, to feel timeless, to be guided by monks down a secluded forest path.

Not that much work to be the only foreigners strolling into a village and greeted by the squeals of children and the smiles and laughter of grandmothers and mothers shepherding a yard full of kids.

Not that much work to watch old men chewing betel nut and weaving bamboo baskets, or to join kids playing KaTaw, which is kick volleyball played with a rattan cane ball or have them follow you around like you were the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

After a satisfying day we boarded the ferry back to the other side of the river. One final encounter awaited.

With us was a pickup full of men, women and children. The men were singing; the women and children looked somewhat dour.

The men were also drinking. Maybe that had something to do with it. We were offered a capful of whisky from a two-litre soda bottle.

Once we had all imbibed we reciprocated with our latest purchase: a small bottle of whisky with a large scorpion inside (it was that or a snake and we decided to be conservative).

We passed the bottle around and soon everyone, women and children included, was laughing and shaking hands and taking photos - us of them and them of us.

Best friends forever. For me that was the magic of Laos.

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