*Apologies for the appalling photography in this entry, all will be explained*
Or “hello!” to you and I. After taking an overnight sleeper train from Bangkok to the border town of Nong Khai
I finally got out of Thailand and into Laos. I then crossed the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge to Loas immigration where I paid up my 30 US dollars for a "visa on arrival" and away I went to Vientiane, the capital of Laos about 20 miles away by local bus.
Impressions of Laos
So, I’m now in the land-locked country known as Laos, or Laos PDR (People’s Democratic Republic of Laos) and of course when you get acronyms and especially ones with terms like “Democratic” in them, they are not, but are in fact run by those dastardly Communists! A bit of kudos to me as this is of the last remaining countries with a one party Communist system, but clearly no one really cares about this because it’s too bloody poor, with no railroads, a rudimentary road system, and limited external and internal telecommunications. To make things worse however, unexploded bombs everywhere from way back when the US Air Force carpet bombed the
place in an attempt at preventing incursions from North Vietnamese Viet Minh through Laos and into South Vietnam; since that war ended, so far over 10,000 victims - and rising. Ouch! Now, that’s gotta hurt the Yanks that come over here, and probably more so than in Vietnam, I reckon because it’s still on-going.
Love the place though, as soon as I arrived - it’s a cliché but it has a much slower pace and chilled-out vibe than anywhere else I’ve been in SE Asia. Yeh, everyone still gets up at 6 in the morning (in part to give alms to the monks) but there is less eagerness to make money from you compared to Thailand. The place is pretty beautiful too, lots of forest and lush mountain ranges; as this is a land of only 6 million it’s much less developed, and plenty of un-spoilt countryside.
According to the CIA World Fact Book (who needs Wikipedia, huh?) modern-day Laos has its roots in the ancient Lao kingdom of Lan Xang, established in the 14th Century under King FA NGUM. For 300 years Lan Xang had influence reaching into present-day Cambodia and Thailand,
as well as over all of what is now Laos. After centuries of gradual decline, Laos came under the domination of Siam (Thailand) from the late 18th century until the late 19th century when it became part of French Indochina. Now the French weren’t there very long, only until after the Second World War, but they left a legacy of sorts.
First off, the capital city - the term 'Vientiane' is a French construction, a reflection of French inability to pronounce the actual Lao name no less!. It should be 'Viang Chan', as a 'Viang' (original meaning is 'walled settlement') connected with the descriptor term 'Chan', which may refer to 'sandalwood', or to 'moon'.
There are lots of colonial French building, office workers at the end of the day playing boule
in yards, just like in some French provincial city. Post offices are called “La Poste”, wide boulevards and even a Laos Arc D’Triomphe, but which is made of concrete and incomplete since the end of the Vietnam War. There is an abundance of French restaurants and cafes as you would expect, I went to a French restaurant called Le Vendome and had myself a glass of red
wine with my Pork fillet and sautéed potatoes. However, the red wine was bloody chilled and only because it was a French restaurant did I send it back and ask for a non-chilled glass of red wine. Hey, I’m paying for the damn thing! I went to a Buddhist temple called Pha That Luang
that is the symbol of Laos independence and once all powerful empire from the 14th to the 17th centuries when it was called Lan Xieng (land of a million elephants). I got talking to some young monks who were visiting and talked about the usual stuff about each other. It was a scorching sun out that day, so taking your shoes off to enter and walk around the grounds of the temple was not that thrilling. I’m a shade seeker now.
Got myself a haircut and as usual it was half a botch job. Just as in Thailand, these women haven’t a clue about how to cut hair, men’s hair at least. Ii have strands in different places and the way she was cutting was like a disinterested teenager. When she was done I contemplated the monk look and ask her to shave it all
off, but I changed my mind.
Bad luck with the camera again. Same problem as in Thailand, the green power light comes on but no image or anything on the screen. Bit of a bummer because Laos is very photogenic indeed. Plus no one in Laos does camera repairs for Fujifilm without sending it back to Fujifilm Bangkok. I’m sort of sick of this thing now, I contemplated buying a new one but I thought my travel insurance would cover it. They won’t cover it unless I get a repair quote, which I can’t get because they have to send it to Bangkok first, and wait two weeks. Moreover, as it’s still under warranty it will be repaired for free, so I can’t get a new camera, I just have to get it repaired for free, but I don’t want it any longer. What a bloody hassle. I’ve emailed the company that deals with Fujifilm cameras in Vietnam, but despite three emails there has been no reply to the simple question of whether they do repairs or not. No one is picking up the phone either.
Hmmm. Anyway, interestingly I resorted to a disposable 800
ISO 27 exposure camera. Its use is purely for outdoors, and look at them! I've gone back to 1982, the quality is pretty bad, but for some reason I like them, they are bloody well composed shots damn it. Anyway, it’s amazing how your behaviour changes when you have to be selective in your picture taking. NO more useless shots of everything and anything and actually just taking stuff in without the urge to get the camera and capture it, I suppose I just have to rely on old fashioned reminiscing.
On the road to Luang Prabang
One of the highlights of my travel so far, speeding along the very winding road to Luang Prabang and being thrown from side to side, but just beautiful mountain scenery all the way from 9am to 6pm. I REALLY missed my bicycle during this trip, and I was jealous at the sight of several cycle tourers with their Lycra and panniers climbing mountains. It’s strange to say but it really felt like Asia for the first time, some of the scenes I saw on the way through the mountains, such as babes-in-arms with fathers, little pigs just wandering around the road,
very pretty young peasant women, men with Communist Workers hats walking in groups after a day’s work cutting trees down in the hills. People were curious by the sight of the bus too, a big double-decker bus. I haven’t had this since Myanmar, when we got off the bus for a toilet break and something to eat, people actually staring at you in curiosity. This was all the way along the northward route, really fantastic, and I don’t care I don’t have pictures; they’re in my memory now.
So I got to Luang Prabang and immediately love the ambience and architecture of the place! Lots of temples, French colonial houses and rivers on either side with mountains in the background. I got chatting to a French couple on the bus who happened to live in London and so we got taken to the same guesthouse together. Pretty much straight away we went to the night bazaar in the town, a whole street taken over by local Hmong tribes-people selling tourist and craft stuff. We were ravished so went to a restaurant and just spent the evening chatting and having a great time with 2-3 bottles of
French colonial buildings, an old Merc and two novice monks
Beer Laos. We went out again the following night, Magette and Stefan and caught an Aussie funk band playing at a local bar, so more beers, this time at the Utopia Bar, bamboo dominated and overlooking the river, pretty spectacular and at those moment you most definitely need an excitable Frenchman there to help you when you running out of superlatives.
The next couple of days, I just spent cycling around the city, drinking coffee, visiting temples, checking out the up-market French cafes and restaurants, eating at the great value night food stalls (5,000 Laos Kip for a plate full of tasty Laos food - basically about 4 pence! In fact I just converted it online: 0.389294 GBP). One afternoon I got a tuk tuk with some British lads who all went to Leeds University together and went to some multi-tiered waterfalls called Tat Kuang Si
. The highlight of it being me nearly killing myself whilst jumping off a rope swing into one of the pools. Yep, beautiful pools below each waterfall and I follow the novice monks who are jumping in with abandon and on my first go, I swing forward without letting go, swing back
towards the tree branch, the rope hits it and I fall off with a shudder upside down into the shallow end near the tree roots. The Swiss guy in the pool with me was aghast that I hadn’t seriously hurt myself; I thought it was a laugh! Anyway, I also saw my first SE Asian albino, one of the novice monks, must have been about 14 or 15 years old, he had skin like me!
Other stuff I did was cycle across to the other side of the Mekong River using a small boat and then just cycling through the countryside and remote villages. It was such a small thing to do but really rewarding being out on your own like that and just taking in the green lush countryside with the evergreen mountains in the background, awesome stuff.
Kayaking and other near-death experiences
The last day I took the liberty of booking a trip with one of the many tour agencies here. They’re all flogging them, boat tours, kayaking, cycling, trekking, city tours. The only reason I didn’t do a trek was because I’d done it before, and to be honest I’d much
rather get a map and do it without a guide and doing well trodden paths. Anyway, I went with a kayaking tour for the day, down the Nam Khan river, driving a few hours to our disembarkation point and then kayaking back down it. It was pretty cool stuff, however, my guide and I kept capsizing whilst going through some smallish rapids. In fact at one point, my scuba bag which had everything in it fell out too and with grabbing it and the paddle I floated towards what I was most certain about, a mini Niagara Falls, holding both items I tried swimming to the side of the river but it just took me. Suffice to say; it was not Niagara Falls but some minor rapids which bashed me about a bit. But, I took in affair bit of water and just when I was panicking a bit and thinking I’m going to get stuck in a rock underwater and drown in Laos...! My guide appeared upright in the kayak and I jumped back in. Phew!
Soon after all that palaver we kayaked to the riverside and had some lunch - very simple Laos food, sticky rice which
we rolled into balls and ate with a few spicy things on banana leaves acting as plates…beautiful
Laos food! We then chilled out and watched some of the local kids playing in the water next to us. Kayaking further down river, we saw plenty of locals along the shoreline diving for gold. We gave our arms a rest by jumping in and just floating down, really chilled out. Maybe too chilled out? I was asked about marijuana and opium by my guide, but seeing as drug possession can lead to the death penalty I sort of let the conversation “die” so to speak. All in all, a pretty good kayaking trip, good value and just some beautiful scenery to take in. Oh, and I didn’t die either, lucky huh?
Notes on bad luck
Speaking of which, since I’ve been in Laos, I’ve come across some good stories of bad luck, which make me feel part of an exclusive club and a little less of a moron. First case: I got talking to a retired German guy from Hamburg at L’Etranger tea and bookshop in Luang Prabang, who recollected that he simple forgot his very expensive camera whilst on
Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang
Built in 1560, pretty stunning temple
a train in India, yet he was cheerful about it as he’d bought a much better one as a consequence (oh, if only). Second case: I overheard a French girl on Skype in an internet café in Vientiane, Chinatown in fact, relaying information from her friend that she had had been robbed and all her belongings stolen, the credit cards and passport, the lot. Now, I knew exactly how this felt but she went one further and actually said that her friend was going to return home as soon as possible as a result. Thirdly, I then met a BBC man, a film-maker/anthropologist in a café in Luang Prabang, who had bandages over his hand and legs because he’d managed to fall out the back of a tuk tuk at 30 mph! Incredibly, he also said it was the first time something bad had happened to him in that way for about 14 years; whilst travelling in India he’d got a cut in his knee which he’d treated himself for 12 months, however when he got back to the UK over that time he’d developed ulcers in his knees and was then in crutches for two years!
notes on Laos
I find this quite bizarre but Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world, I think it’s in the bottom 50 or 60, yet compared to its brash and loaded neighbor Laos actually has proper toilets! No more squatting or dangerous maneuvers when you’ve had one too many drinks at the bar (there’ll be more on beers), this place has got it right. I’m assuming that it’s down to the French influence but also the fact that Laos hasn’t been properly independent in the modern era such as Thailand has; it’s not been free to do its own thing. So, that’s one really good thing about Laos.
Oh, one funny thing is that the women spit here, not into hankies either but big flobbers from the back of their throat, and in the open and on the street too! *Spit*. I was also checking out some of the guesthouses here and one female owner who showed me around her gaff and the shower room where a large, tall cistern was kept in the corner rather obtrusively. Whneh I asked her about it she said that was how she showered, she preferred standing in
the cistern with a bucket to wash herself, and I thought, well, “good on 'yer!”
Lastly, what made me remember that this in fact a controlling Communist totalitarian state was the fact there are bizarre laws that basically interfere with basic human freedoms. First off was that I’d read in my hotel room that sexual relations between us foreigners and Laos people was illegal. Moreover, if caught in any sexual manoeuvres with a lady (who wan't your wife) you were very likely to be deported. Makes a change to Thailand I suppose, where so many farangs whole reason for visiting is based solely upon screwing Thai women. Laos is trying its best not to turn into Thailand, gotta admire that in a way.
The other thing I didn’t realize until I’d gotten to Laos was that there is a curfew at 12 midnight, everyone (including foreigners) has to be in their homes, and as a consequence many bars and restaurants here close at about 11.30pm and literally chase us out of the premises. This actually happened at a place called Utopia in Luang Prabang, to me and my French mates. We were not happy at being discourteously asked
to leave without explanation and not being able to see where we were because there had been a power cut! Ironically, this is bizarrely reminiscent drinking back in Britain, but at least we don’t have police chasing us down if we are actually out of our homes.
Loving and leaving Laos
So, I’ve loved Laos, but I've had to move on, only 8 days here, but my journey has to continue to avoid the monsoon rains. Moreover, I’d heard the bus journey from Luang Prabang to Vietnam was a good 20 hours of "hell", and often running into 30 hours of "hell", I booked my flight and got a Vietnamese visa back in Vientiane. So, despite wanting to stay longer and go check out the more remote parts of Laos as well as the south with some interesting French colonial towns and the Two Thousand Islands, I got myself on a plane to Hanoi and Vietnam baby…
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