Edit Blog Post
Published: April 11th 2020
On March 11th the WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, just as Turkey, Ivory Coast, Honduras and Bolivia announced their first cases. There were now 126,214 confirmed cases worldwide, 7,266 new cases that day and a total of 4,628 deaths thus far.
Should we head back to the UK? If we did we would need to enter into isolation, although there was no way we'd contemplate doing so at either of our elderly parents' houses. Of course we have siblings and kind friends who would put us up, but... all that travel and exposure and risk of transmission (at both ends)... Another option would be to impose (undoubtedly for a prolonged period) upon our old friend Andy and his Thai wife Oi, based in Chonburi. This would require the extension of our Thai visas and... a lot of imposition...
Anyway, maybe we were over reacting. The leader of the free world had assured us only the previous day: “It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.” The day before that he had put everything into context: “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu,” he tweeted. “It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per
year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!” And it is not as though he isn't informed: "I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should have done that instead of running for president."
Buoyed by these comforting words we crossed the border into Laos and made our way to the town of Pakse on the fringe of the Bolaven plateau. Laos still, officially, had no recorded cases of Covid-19 infection. We appreciated that this was highly unlikely, but it was - with a similar area to the UK but only 10 percent of its population - a potentially good place to sit and isolate whilst we monitored the situation. We would remain close to the border and could, if deemed necessary, always return to Thailand to fly home.
The number of UK infections stood at 460, panic buying and hoarding was becoming rife, with toilet paper in particular, absurd,
Not satisfied with being petri dishes for norovirus and Legionella
cruise ships continued to surpass the covid infection numbers of many small nations. Only the previous Friday one individual was definitely not happy with the Grand Princess
: "I like the numbers being where they are. I don't need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn't our fault". Thankfully several operators suspended business, although tragically not all followed suit and further devastating outbreaks - notably that aboard the Ruby Princess
(662 cases/10 deaths) - would follow.
Ali developed conjunctivitis and nasal vestibulitis, neither are covid symptoms: we attributed the former to the Gulf of Thailand and the latter to overly enthusiastic nostril plucking.
We belong to a WhatsApp group comprising old friends who shared a house whilst at university together back in the 80s: Johnny a UK businessman, Tim a UK gynaecologist, John an anaethetist ex-pat in Australia and ourselves. Among the usual trite nonsense and a spot-the-enhanced-breasts competition, talk of covid was centre stage. Johnny had been in Milan on the cusp of Italy's outbreak in mid-February and was unable to visit clients; Tim was struggling to master enhanced PPE (personal protection
equipment) that might be required during future surgeries; John was at the fore in developing strategy for his Queensland hospital; whilst we were in Pakse where life continued as usual.
Face masks, an increasingly common sight in Thailand, were notable by their sparsity in Laos. Here was not a country feeling imminently threatened.
Inconveniently, our reasonably priced guesthouse Nang Noi
, with excellent shady courtyard garden (complete with Koi carp occupying water feature) and wonderful room, was located several kilometres away from the night market, the place for dinner. Fortunately Paulo and Enora, our French friends we'd met in Pokhara, had also just arrived in town from Cambodia, with their motorbikes. Each afternoon we would meet at ours for beers (no need to shop around as every outlet, including our guesthouse, sells large bottles of Beerlao
for a standard 10,000 kip - little more than a dollar - and we'd not seen those sort of prices since Mexico) and cards (they immediately fell for Chinese whist that mixed things up) before we'd borrow a couple of helmets and scoot off with them for some spicy Laos fare. It has to be said that the staff at Nang Noi
anything but friendly and they deploy a strict 11 p.m. curfew with zeal. Signs state that anyone returning after the gates are locked will be refused admittance and still charged for their accommodation.
As the days ticked by Laos continued to deny (fail to observe) any viral presence. Singapore and South Korea appeared to be doing well with containment, whilst the scale of the scourge in Europe was becoming increasingly alarming with massive daily increases in Italy, Spain and France. Thailand, our most likely desperation bolt-hole (borders with China: closed, Vietnam: closing, Cambodia: threatened and Myanmar: similarly in un-testing denial) was still recording a steady linear rise rather than an exponential terror.
Our naive thoughts of continuing to travel: up through Laos, back into Thailand and then fly to the 'stans had long since been jettisoned. The only two responsible choices were to either return home or find somewhere safe to stay for the foreseeable future. On a morning walk around Pakse we wandered into a seemingly deserted monastery only for a young monk to appear. His first question was the age old "you, what country?", although the follow up was a horribly new "England have virus?"
Tim forwarded a number of peer-reviewed published/in-press papers (one in Science
no less) that examined the genetic code of initial isolates of this novel coronavirus and certainly raised some interesting questions regarding its origin, phylogeny and virulence. Food for thought for those conspiracy theorists.
Italy's death rate was worryingly high, far greater than that "stated" by China or, more convincingly, reported by South Korea, Japan or Singapore. Why was this? Facilities per capita, no. Home isolation against hospitalisation for symptomatics, possibly. It had been noted that they were slow to roll-out strict isolation measures and very likely the compliance (in a far more individualistic country) was not as rigid. Italy has the second oldest population in the world, although Japan has the most aged. What is marked though is Italy's intimate family culture: grandchildren (possibly asymptomatic carriers) visit their grandparents on a Sunday, they kiss, go to mass together, eat together. Later, we're not quite there yet, Spain also demonstrated a similarly high mortality rate (with a far younger populace), but, like-wise, does have very close familial bonds. The epidemiologists are going to have a field day with future, resolved, data sets.
Tom Hanks tested positive in Australia.
Amazingly there were still those out there comparing the pandemic to a "flu". But no longer did that include America's 45th because on the 13th he used "two very big words": National Emergency.
The WHO announced that “Europe has now become the epicenter of the pandemic”.
In the UK mass gatherings were prohibited and all sporting events suspended until April 3rd
at the earliest (this suspension would later be pushed back further and leave Liverpool wondering whether it would be more than 30 years of hurt).
Astride their bikes Paulo and Enora set off to do “the loop” of the plateau, their first stop being Paksong to its south. We caught the public bus northwards to the tiny remote village of Tad Lo that actually sits at the plateau’s western foot, hence it’s profusion of waterfalls. Although in theory on the backpacker’s trail it totally lacks the party scene of Don Det or Vang Vieng, indeed it is very sleepy. Our guesthouse – soon to be “home” – Sypasert
has a line of four pillar-elevated rooms with a common wooden balcony that overhangs a grassy bank aside the Tad Lo river. From our raised vantage point
we can gaze up river past what remains of the once stocky concrete and iron bridge (largely washed away last rainy season) to the currently placid Tad Hang waterfall and its numerous tiered pools. In front of us now, at the end of dry season, the lazy river some 80 metres in width, is barely four feet in depth with several rocky islands projecting mid-stream and yet it hosts some mighty fish, both submarine-shaped predators and stocky more equable beasts that bask languidly just below the surface. I strongly suspect that the latter are carp. Regardless, you are not permitted to fish this stretch and each crashing leap or swirling roll mocks my impotence. Downstream the river bends away from us shallowing further and is constantly occupied by groups of delirious young children. The bank opposite is a mass of trees with one hidden, upmarket – currently empty - lodge. Beyond the remnants of the bridge on our side are a copse of trees that leads to the temporary bamboo and wood platform that crosses the river. To our right was another ramshackle guesthouse of stilted huts, although this, in its entirety, followed the bridge down river. At the corner
is the Buddhist monastery and then a line of raised villagers’ homes. Each dawn the family’s cow is pegged out on a long leash below us to graze, as dusk approaches a great blood-orange reflected disc advances across the water towards us before the orb sinks behind the trees and we are enveloped in the shrill whine of cicadas. Then, come the still depth of night, with the geckos feasting on the mayfly hatch above us, villagers emerge with torch beams sweeping the banks to scour the margins for frogs and snails. It is a serene tranquil bliss.
On our 15th
March arrival town was quiet, although the half dozen guesthouses and similarly numbered restaurants were all open. Maybe there were fifteen tourists present, probably not markedly less than usual for the baking hot lead-up to the rains. The room adjacent to ours was occupied by Savannah and her husband (his name escapes us although it did have serious Native American overtones, something like Wind Whistler – he was not a Native American). She is French/Laos, he French. She does some crazy elaborately made-up modelling (evidently often topless) – think Science fantasy scantily-clad warrior (personally I just thought “wow”);
he does circus stuff (fire juggling… fire juggling…). My meanness aside he did have the family’s children at Mama Pap’s
restaurant (huge crepe-like pancakes and very, very generous servings of moderately decent curries overseen by a massively larger than life Mama) entranced with his balloon modelling, although personally we were uncomfortable with the lack of distancing his popularity encouraged.
Further along the dusty street is Fandee Guesthouse
, managed by the delightful Czech ex-pat Martin. This is actually owned by a French man who also has another basic resort situated in the middle of a lake half a mile away, the little island being solely accessible by a hand-pulled pontoon. On it are eight or so very attractive huts that face out onto the lake. It was already full with young French who were none too friendly nor forthcoming about the fishing potential of the lake. They intended to stay put for the duration and were clearly concerned regarding our provenance. Fair enough.
The number of new cases imported into mainland China from overseas purportedly surpassed the number of locally transmitted new infections for the first time.
Tim and John were pushing for a cessation of elective surgeries
and indeed all non-essential operations were cancelled by the NHS on the 17th
. John reported that the Royal Brisbane hospital was hoping to start trials of a vaccine the following week. Italy suffered 475 deaths in a single day, more fatalities in 24 hours than ever recorded by China, France announced a national lock-down and Latin America began to feel the virus’ bite.
Also on the 17th, Captain sagacious stated (almost in coherent English) that "i've always known this is a real, this is a pandemic. I've felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic." Now this did initiate raised eyebrows in our household as (noted above) The World Health Organization had declared the coronavirus a pandemic on March 11, only one day after Admiral au courant had told us it was a pathetic flu. We were starting to think it a fortunate turn of events that he had opted for his current job and not pursued the more challenging path of scientist.
Our neighbours at Sypasert
departed for Don Det leaving us as the only guests, although I had become aware that we were sharing our balcony table with a very industrious paper
wasp who was busy constructing her hanging nest just inches above my knees. Strangely thus far we have gotten along just fine and she has only stung me twice when, crossing my legs, I have almost ended her empire. I’ve witnessed one progeny emerge and, as I type, the two of them have remodeled, eggs have been laid in the new chambers and duly capped, so there are more on the way. I’m not sure at what point the increasing numbers will break our amicable co-existence.
We went for an isolated wander along the river to Tad Soung, the highest of the region’s waterfalls, 8 kilometres away on rough paths, through paddy fields and two miniscule hamlets, before a final sweaty ascent to its top. For the second half of the jaunt we were escorted by a local dog who waited patiently when we dawdled and even scaled the sloping ladders on the steepest sections. Currently dry (and typically so due to the interference of the dam up river) we were able to walk across its broad lip and look back through the valley towards Tad Lo. There are far worse places to be stranded. On retracing our route
Peter, for that is what we named him (after a similarly diligent canine who insisted on ensuring our safe passage in the hills of Barreal, Argentina many years ago), merely melted away as we passed a cluster of remote huts, his service faithfully completed.
That evening a trio of friends arrived, two German men and a Polish woman. Much to our selfish self-preservation aspirations we were delighted when they took the room furthest away from us.
At the junction of our lane and the road running through the village is Honey Bee
a wonderful little restaurant run by an incredibly kind English speaking lady that serves excellent Laos and Thai fare as well as generously stuffed lunch baguettes and delicious fruit shakes. We were typically her only patrons and she was later to become our only non-Sypasert
eatery: initially to eat in and later, as regulations – finally/thankfully – tightened, to take-away from.
Some days ago John had mentioned the possible efficacy of hydroxychloroquine as a therapeutic drug. Now the word seemed to be out and G&Ts (containing a modicum of quinine… think Raj era malaria prophylaxis) were all the rage, although sadly not in Tad Lo.
Mr Trump was also soon on the case, but was proffering dangerous sound bites that culminated (OK, maybe that’s a bit strong) in a number of Nigerian overdosing deaths.
We purchased a spool of relatively heavy duty fishing line – fortunately I had brought carp hooks with us from the US – and I endeavored to construct a functioning fishing set-up with an empty two litre plastic bottle and a suitably shaped stone. Mini balls of sticky rice (leftovers from dinner) would have to serve as bait.
Although the lake looks very fish friendly – there are some beautiful lily pads - nothing of any size was showing and our first five short sessions all drew a blank.
It was becoming readily apparent that healthcare workers are at much greater risk (for their given age/general health status) of the infection progressing to a life-threatening extent, presumably because of higher viral loads on contraction. Of course first among these was the courageous Dr. Li Wenliang. Intubating patients is a particularly risky proposition.
Concerns were raised about possible compounding effects if taking the anti-inflammatory drug ibuprofen.
On the 21st
numbers in Italy spiked again. Operatic singing from
open windows bolstered morale.
There were now increasing rumours that all Laos/Thai borders may close.
Effective as of 12:01 a.m. Sunday March 22, the Thai government required travellers (both those flying in and arriving by land) to have a health certificate issued within 72 hours before arrival certifying that they are “free of coronavirus,” as well as proof of medical insurance with at least $100,000 of overseas coverage. Such a certificate could be acquired in Pakse although obtaining one was reported to consist only of a temperature test and, maybe, in certain cases, a throat swab? The latter, I hasten to add, not for the purpose of a pukka RT-qPCR test. Surely this was a pointless exercise and, far worse, a necessity that was going to coral large numbers of individuals to the facilities issuing the document.
The two German men at Sypasert
decided to run to the Thai border before the restrictions were enforced; they were heading home. The Polish girl made her way south to 4000 islands. Unbeknown to us thousands of migrant workers, similarly fearing being trapped in a foreign land and separated from their families, were crossing the border in the opposite direction.
The sink by the guesthouse’s main entrance was stubbornly soap-less, we provided several bars and assembled the family for a handwashing demonstration. This may sound condescending, but they were amazed at the time taken and suds generated. The process was videoed and we hoped to disseminate to a far wider audience. However, nobody apparently uses WhatsApp
and people were reticent – for whatever reason - to have a westerner on their Facebook
Anyway, it was time for a serious chat with our landlady. We had now been in the village for a week and in Laos for eleven days; we couldn’t swear that we were uninfected but, given the time line, it was unlikely that we’d crossed into Laos as asymptomatics. Could we stay on indefinitely? And if we did could we simply eat the same food as the family whilst maintaining our distance, thereby enabling us to isolate further? Bless her, she said yes. She also reported that the local villagers were feeling far more at ease around our familiar restrained presence (although we were starting to see the odd person covering their face if we walked within 20 metres: that indicated awareness, somewhat distorted awareness,
but we had no problem with overly cautious behaviour). She’d also heard on the grapevine of our plans to buy covid-related supplies for the village (not available here) when we were forced to make a road trip to the provincial capital of Salavan in order to extend our visas. She, the entire family, would be delighted if we stayed on; oh, and she would drop the room price from 60 to 50,000 kip per day ($6) as we were now planning on staying for weeks, or…. more likely… months.
We now had a 20L water container in our room. And a kettle. And a second appropriated table: there would be no new guests.
That evening I went to get some more beers from the big fridge (now we merely stated our intention, from a reasonable distance, and then helped ourselves). These we wash – with plenty of soap - and dry and then, similarly, our hands… yet again). Sitting in the yard around two large bowls were the whole extended family. One vat contained hundreds of live two inch cicadas, semi submerged in water. These were being extracted and their wings summarily plucked before being chucked into the
second receptacle. The wingless bugs were then washed, twice, lightly salted and deep fried. Wow, they were delicious: slightly nutty, crunchy, umami heaven and a perfect accompaniment for a bottle of Beerlao.
On March 23rd
Johnny was distraught: McDonalds
had closed its restaurants. With this calamitous development the whole of the UK went into lock-down.
Laos recorded its first case of infection and (coincidentally?) Thailand abruptly closed its borders, just as it registered a large jump in its own figures with numbers leaping from 322 to 411 overnight. The only way out of Laos now was by plane.
Feeling we should notify someone of our continued presence we registered with the British embassy in Laos. In fact Ali got quite carried away and joined a number of different social media groups: Facebook’s
“Brits in Laos” and “Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos backpackers” as well as WhatsApp’s
“Get out of Laos”. The latter group are not a happy bunch. They were/are all, almost without exception, in the capital Vientiane awaiting/chasing any flight out. This was causing them grief on multiple levels. There are no long haul flights from Vientiane as the runway is too short, hence nearly all flights
transit through Bangkok. This passage required an alternative, pointless, “fit to fly” certificate and further massed queuing. The only, very rare, flights out were charters, specifically put on to link up with those very last French-, German- and British-government organized planes out of Bangkok or Seoul. The trouble was delays and cancellations. Many, through no fault of their own, failed to make their connection and missed multiple flights; plus fares were now high indeed and, amidst the chaos, refunds were not forthcoming. Livid individuals were pleading lack of funds, maxed-out credit cards or an unwillingness to pay what they saw as scandalously elevated prices. Some with health conditions, running low on medications, really did need to get out. Others, the majority, were driven by panic. Yes, they may have left it late to flee, but until their options were totally strangled they’d not felt threatened or desperate.
These discussion groups were not aiding Ali’s wavering stance.
We were in regular contact with Chris Cantrell, the British vice-consul and the embassies really were doing everything in their power to get these people out. Us, resolutely prepared to sit it out, were one less entity he had to stress over.
The UK was calling for retired medical professionals to come forward to aid the straining NHS. Even in Laos requests were being made for such individuals to make themselves known. Ali, a district nurse, albeit one with a lapsed registration, was offered priority for an upcoming British-organized flight. Now she really was torn as what to do for the best.
On the 25th
India went into lock-down and the 26th
saw America, with 82,404 confirmed cases, surpass China’s now almost static total. A day later global figures passed the grim milestone of 500,000 infections.
Chatting with all-round angler and carp maestro Iain Sorell on Facebook
he expressed his interest in what I might catch (covid aside) here in Laos. Incredibly kindly several days later he informed that he had assembled the necessary kit and that it was winging its way here.
We had now been the only guests at Sypasert
for a week. Indeed all foreigners bar the couple of ex-pat workers and Naresh a solo Indian guy (OK, and those French on the island) had left.
And then over an afternoon beer Martin announced that Fandee
would be closing (what, no more paté/mustard/pickle baguettes?).
They do so every year before the rains; it was simply, given the circumstances, happening earlier than usual. Yes, Naresh could stay on in his room, but he would be without on-site support or a restaurant. Sod that, he’d been around as long as us. We convinced our lady that he was safe and he joined us riverside. Sypasert
was now the only guesthouse still open.
Following problems with their bikes Paulo and Enora also made it to Vientiane where they managed to get a France-bound flight back home.
There were yet more rumours, this time about the cessation of public transport. It appeared that we would also be restricted in our movements – between towns – from the 1st
of April, two days away. How long for was anyone’s guess. Intrinsically this was great, first rate preemptive behavior; but, our visas expired on the 9th
and a failure to renew carries serious penalties. This was (note: was) a massive bugbear for me. Why, why was this still a thing? I’d contacted the embassy on the issue and been vocal on numerous chat groups: merely take it as given that an individual would have paid their extension(s)
and charge them accordingly when they can, safely and responsibly, depart. Drop the fines for non-compliance and negate the need for travelling to and assembling in public places. How hard can it be?
We and Naresh decided to make the enforced face-masked dash the following day. And then our landlady came to the rescue: apparently she also needed to gather some essentials from town and she knew where we could procure (unhassled/without arrest – here there are serious repercussions for perceived hoarding) the goods we’d promised to provide for the village. She’d run us there and back in her car. Unfortunately you still had to return the following day to pick up your re-stamped passports, but Naresh was prepared to do that solo on his motorbike and he’d still beat the deadline.
Visa run completed we were called before the chief of the village, its elders and the Abbot of the monastery. We thanked them for accepting us into their community, handed over our spoils, discussed good practice, handwashing (another demonstration), social distancing and stated that we – particularly Alison, given her skills – would be happy to aid in any way we can down the line. They,
in turn, thanked us for our support and stated that we were welcome and appreciated.
We were informed that 18 local recent returnees from Thailand were now in quarantine in the closed primary school. Quite how long they had been at liberty before their isolation was unclear.
Still unsure quite who exactly comprises family here a group of men prepared duck three-ways last night, the last variant even we – initially – baulked at: duck in blood and fish sauce. Of course it was delicious. Then they insisted that we partake in a Lao Lao session (bottle of extreme spirit bearing knarly roots… for additional flavour). Social distancing remains a concept hard to enforce.
On the 1st
of April Ali, listening to radio Manchester and knowing that the vast majority of her family would be likewise, decided to contact the station in an attempt to thank her brother, sister-in-law, the nephews and their wives for looking after her mother so well in her isolation. She’d only wanted to pass on a message, but the producer – on hearing that she was ringing from Laos – soon had her talking live on-air. Predictably Ali managed to delay the
Boris (Bo-Jo) has the virus, as, tragically, have/have had one million others.
It was announced – finally, too late for us (this time, we now have 40 days grace) – that the UK/Laos governments have come to an agreement whereby visa renewals are presumed. Sense prevails...
We continue to keep ourselves as isolated as possible. Naresh is slowly slipping into inspired alcoholism although I have yet to convert him to Backgammon, he being too busy with coding projects. What is it with us and meeting computing whizzes? Lutz, I might add, back in Germany is currently assembling a robot in his living room. Mighty clever he is, but I bet it still can’t head the bloody ball.
Incredibly the days pass in a flash: up, coffees, check the news/alerts, Joe Wicks work-out, breakfast, maybe a dip in a waterfall pool, an isolated stroll or a spot of fishing, beers, dinner, more beers (on bad days leading to Lao Lao), a read, cards or something on Servio (what a god send), boabs... Repeat ad-infinitum....
Our landlady showed us a video of what we might expect in several months: last year the river rose 15ft
and was washing over our balcony. There may well be a room change on the horizon.
Today, the 10th
, we were visited by tourism officials keen to check our arrival dates and to confirm the number of foreign nationals in their province. It seems we are fine to stay for the time being. With no land transport running or flights out we were rather glad to hear that.
And that marks exactly one month in Laos. We love Laos and its people, but it has been a thoroughly shitty month. And on the back of comments I do realise that I need to elaborate on that last statement. It really has been no hardship for ourselves, but it has been mighty grim for much of mankind.
Whilst various family and friends have been, or at least believe themselves to have been, afflicted by this indiscriminate scourge we are so grateful that, thus far, all have pulled through. And here a massive heartfelt thanks to Tim, John, all our friends in the healthcare professions and indeed to all those unsung essential people who are keeping us safe and our countries afloat.
Please, stay safe
Tot: 0.129s; Tpl: 0.031s; cc: 11; qc: 33; dbt: 0.0084s; 1; m:saturn w:www (126.96.36.199); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.4mb