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Published: January 8th 2014
Arrived in Laos after a little wonder up the hill through no mans land. Strange to be bike less after a few weeks on the saddle. Enquired in Nam Xoi about buses onwards, no one knew when apart from it was coming. No probs there as there are no time issues. So I passed the time drinking beerlaos, stroking stray puppies and reading the Lao lonely planet guide extensively. The bus arrived 10 hours later. Got overcharged for the ticket but not completely done over so fair is fair I guess. The border is a touch isolated so there really wasnt much room for negotiation sadly.
I took the bus to a place called Vieng Xai which is about 70 km to the west of the border crossing. This place is famed for its huge caves, which back in the heady days of the Vietnam/American war were used as the primary hideout for the Pathet Lao leadership (revolutionaries, no puppets here. U.S.A not so big on these guys). Seemingly on the sly the USA actually bombed it so much that it has the undesirable title of been the most bombed country on earth (2 tonnes of explosive per
person or $2 million spent everyday for 10 years) Its pretty much made clear upon entering Laos not to go to much at all off the beaten track as there is so much unexploded ordnance lying around in school playing fields, fields, roadsides, you name it. If that isn’t enough to put you off the number of UXO vans whizzing around the countryside is a clear reminder. Had such an impression on me that i was sceptical about taking a pee on an isolated piece of road. Had to wait until the bladder nigh on ruptured before i could muster the courage!
Arriving in Vieng Xai of an evening I was surprised by how cold it was, like really cold. So I walked briskly down a road hoping to find a guest house and bingo one was found. I was a bit surprised in the morning to wake up in a floating house. Not only was I in a floating house but there was an Indian restaurant up the road. Fantastic to get away from the rice and pho for a few days. Surprising number of I guess authentic Indian restaurants in Laos, certainly in this part
of laos which is surprising as its pretty much in the middle of nowhere. I would love to see the thinking behind setting one up.
From Vieng Xai I walked the 30km or so to Sam/Xam Neua. It was a nice little wonder through a few villages and up one very large hill. This side of the border the hello’s had changed to sabidee, so I went along with it. Who says learning by repetition doesn’t work?! Its ingrained until my dieing day, hello in Lao that is. For some unknown reason I made stellar time. Arrived in Sam Neua. This is a place that’s interesting for been a bit dull. It’s a cracking representation of communism on the fringes. Its dull as in what you hear about communism from back in the day. Good solid concrete everywhere, brutal list if you will! It also has to be said that it has a market that can be bettered by no other that I have seen on my travels around the world. I say bettered as in the sheer scale of dead but un recognisable animals. So on one dull but on another a great insight into another
From Sam Neua I took a wonderful yet bone rattling 12 hour ride to Nong Khiaw. My fellow back seat passengers for the day were a family of Lao vomiters, serial Lao vomiters. Standard procedure is to vomit in a plastic bag then hurl it out of the window. Yes the approach to littering in Laos isnt the best. So the vomiting went on for the whole journey. I thought the lady was at the point of wasting away. Her husband rather admirably managed to stay asleep for the whole journey under his coat/canopy he had erected for himself, whilst she struggled with a writhing baby and aforementioned vomiting. He arose every so often to add extra velocity for the disposal of multiple vomit bags. All in all it was the kind of journey that can define a trip i.e. Memorable if a little pungent. I mean it would be boring if you spent every long bus commute drifting in and out of sleep mulling over the merits of some Sharpe novel you have found in your previous abode. Travelers seemingly love Sharpe novels. Amazing bang for your buck and any 2nd
hand book shop
will have them. I must admit been a little a suprised to read that Sharpe hails from London. Sharpe is Sean Bean and Sean Bean is Yorkshire. What more can i say.
I arrived in Nong khiaw and managed to stay in my first riverside bungalow of the trip. Cheap, very nice and there was a fire outside in the evening as it was really cold. It was all soothed by a very proficient guitarist banging out a fair old number of Beatles songs on his guitar way into the evening. Nom Khiaw is a great place, very scenic bar the concrete bridge over the river. Went to Nong Khiaw so I could get the boat further up to a place called Muang Ngoi and that I did. No cars in this place just the humdrum of everyday life. Small life mind. Again another place where everyone should go once in there life and it has to be said a cracking place and setting for a very unlikely cocktail bar, run by a 22 yr old Swede no less! Married to a Pathet Lao war heroes daughter no less! This was established when we quizzed him on
the ins and outs of establishing a cocktail bar/guesthouse empire in northern Lao. Certainly oils the wheels of progress when your father in law has orchestrated a successful struggle. Plenty more stories from him but im not sure I feel comfortable about putting them on a public domain until out of the continent! Anyway so far one of the most memorable nights of the trip was spent in an unlikely cocktail bar up a river in northern Laos. Then I got invited to a Laos wedding , seemingly so did the whole village. So basically there was one mud “street in this place which got filled with Gazebos with one totem poll in the middle as the centre piece. The idea was to whirl around this like a dervish whilst listening to bad, loud and highly distorted karaoke. The hospitality was also top level even if some of the nibbles were quite clearly offal. All in all highly memorable.
Next day decided to go fishing. Got seriously attacked by leeches in the jungle whilst searching for worms. So the fishing was hastily aborted. They really are little buggers to get off. Then worst of all you find
one that has evaded your eyes, nice and plump wedged between your toe!
I thought I had managed to pull off a great deal for getting a kayak minus the guide but forgot I didn’t have enough money at the time. This was again done through the “swedish fixer”. That’s the great thing about these countries there is always around the crap that pisses you off back home. I mean there is nothing malicious in what I wanted to do, just a desire to leave the T uncrossed and the I dot less! It was a shame as the stream definitely had some go in it and had seen a couple do it the previous day whilst getting the boat up. Anyway I think its been established that kayaks can be great fun with the appropriate amount of ommpphhh behind you.
Got to luang prebang kind of un memorable but nice regardless. Probably get shot for saying that out loud in the place as it’s a unesco world heritage site but so are lots places. All these awards, titles……… just add to the anticipation having said that there is a very nice sunset to be seen
at the top of Mount Phousi along with most of the tourist population of luang prebang seemingly.
So from Luang prebang I made my way to Vang Vieng. Got chatting to a guy on the bus about cricket, we had the kind of conversation that you can have about niche topics that can really alienate people, especially non English speaking people. Van Vieng has a bit of a reputation as party central, well it once did. Still a party to be had just a bit more on the lite side which is no bad thing when you consider the place was averaging a death every month. I think it got to the point where the authoritarian Lao government thought such un savoury goings on were tainting it so decided to do what any self respecting authoritarian single party government would do and literally burnt down the majority of the bars one day. Strip back all the gubbins from vang vieng though and it is in the physical sense an awesome setting. Not only that but I had an Air America landing strip behind my riverside shack.
So from there i went to Vientiane. Somehow feel duty
bound to say it had a French feel. Suppose it did as in it had cafes that sold croissants and coffee that didn’t have condensed milk. But im not sure id compare a city to its former colonial masters based on a few very loose similarities, but the coffee was bloody good and to get it with out condensed milk ahh…
Vientiane is good because its not screaming out for love its just there. I didn’t go around screaming o la la over everything but sometimes its nice just to wander around and soak it all up. In short you don’t feel duty abound to do much which is quite nice feeling as you often do a lot more in such situations. Just not defined by waypoints made up of pagoda's and mausoleums!
Paul Theroux said of Vientiane "Vientiane is exceptional, but inconvenient. The brothels are cleaner than hotels, marijuana is cheaper than a cold glass of beer. Opium is a restful drug, the perfect thing for geriatrics, but the chromatic snooze it induces corrects fatigue" and on it goes into more iffy territory. O how the times have changed Paul.
However notably the curious posters that
are aplenty in Lao's are absent in Vientiane. Curious as in everyone who has traveled here will be aware of them. They have a caricature quality to them along the lines of what you may see at a public bath for want of a better example. Goes like this:
-big fat white person with writing scrawled over a monstrous mid riff with a can of lager in hand and smoking (representing team tourist)
- yellow person with hand covering face generally cowering in the corner
I’m all for a little bit of propaganda warning us foolish westerners about how peaceful and Zen like the folk of Laos are. However it kind of misses the point that I have never been offered the sheer quantity of hard drugs more anywhere else than Laos. I can only guess Opium makes you go mental as depicted in the picture.
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