🇱🇦 Slowing down in Laos

Or, how to make a travel magazine when travel collapses

Hello friends!

Another dispatch this weekend from Laos where a tourist couple leans into border closures and stay at home orders in Luang Prabang with style (and immense productivity). What’s a fairly common story across the world, this experience reveals a little more about life in Laos. Honestly, I’m jealous. Being stuck in Canberra for the pandemic has only revealed that I’m broke.


See you next week!
Erin Cook

(The diariesof YouTube page will push Laos to the top of your must-go in Asean list)

Anabela and Jorge Valente lead what many would consider a dream life. The couple tours the world by motorbike. When they find inspiration in a place, they stay a while and make a magazine about it.

This year that place was Laos and that “awhile,” planned for two months, became five as the borders slammed shut.

Plenty of falang in their position would have been miffed. Not the Valentes. Not only did they relish their unexpected stay in Laos, they printed their magazine right on schedule.

How? They embraced the spirit of Lao time.

“Now that we’ve come back home, we almost long for it,” said Anabela.

“It was lovely to have a time just to stand still, to enjoy the place, to enjoy ourselves, to just slow down the rhythm a bit and actually not having to feel bad about it because the whole world was on hold,” Jorge told me from Portugal, where they’re sequestering with family until travel resumes. “What better country in which to do this kind of stepping down, than Laos?”

Back in March, aka centuries ago, there were lots of travellers in the country hoping to squeeze in a few last days of sightseeing. They got more than they bargained for when Lao authorities abruptly shut the borders and directed people to stay home.

Many of these travellers have lived in limbo ever since, unable to afford a four-digit charter flight out (like the one the Valentes took), yet unable to find work. Clearly, some have become quite frustrated about the six-months-and-counting sabbatical in Laos.

When I met the Valentes at a cafe in Luang Prabang, they, by contrast, seemed at peace with it, which is about as Lao as it gets.

They’re a starry-eyed pair of coworkers: he a wild-haired bohemian with a gap-toothed grin and a fountain of ideas; she a soulful, intense type who measures her words with the precision of a sculptor.

They met 17 years ago in Luxembourg. He was a designer at an advertising company. She did a translation for that company. A coworker noticed they had the same last name and suggested they connect. It turned out they both had Portuguese heritage.

They coupled up and for a while worked straight jobs, indulging their true passions for motorbikes and photography on vacations. Friends proposed they make a book or magazine.

Seven years ago the Valentes went all-in. They quit their jobs and started making high-production “bookazines” — meant to be picked up from a coffee table and stir the spirit of exploration — about Morocco, Iran, Georgia, Cuba and many more. They drew a few thousand subscribers, which helped them afford the trips.

Plainly there isn’t much money in making a travel magazine on a shoestring. But through their travels, the Valentes came to value slowness as its own sort of luxury.

“We move so fast, our bodies move so fast and sometimes even our minds move so fast that we leave behind the essence or the soul of things,” Jorge said. “Time is the real value we have in life.”

In March the couple was exploring ethnic-minority villages in Laos’ far north. They learned the border would close in days. There wasn’t enough time to reach an airport.

They skittered to Luang Prabang, rented a flat and decided to produce a magazine about Laos from their kitchen table.

Luang Prabang, of course, is a sort of temple to slowness, a place where monks work to shed all sense of urgency so as to detach from temporary things.

The Valentes adopted a Lao rhythm. They awoke with the monks’ drums at dawn; bought the day’s food at the market; worked all afternoon; and bookended the day with the monks’ late-afternoon chants.

They remember the peaceful streets, the fragrance of dok champa.

"We love going from place to place,” said Anabela. “But after a couple of months on the road, it just feels so good to have a place where you can have your little routine, just doing what everyone else does.”

The magazine? It got done through the magic of telephone and broadband. The Lao issue is available in Luxembourg and online, with complimentary shipping anywhere in the world.

As for the couple, they’re itching to get back on the run. When travel permits, they plan to fetch their motorbike from its garage in Vientiane, tune it up, and strike out to Thailand, Malaysia and beyond.

I find a parable in their story. Laos is a country that few foreigners visit and fewer still take the time to truly see.

To appreciate its subtle beauties, I find, takes a willingness to downshift — to recognize that while Laos moves at its own speed, it is moving nonetheless.