Howdy all, I am in Laos, just arrived in Luang Prabang. I haven’t really explored yet (the bus from Vang Vieng was 8 hours instead of the expect 4), so I will report in on that in a few days.
When last we left our inept hero, I was in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Originally, my plan had been to go back to Bangkok and then go into Vietnam before crossing the Chinese border in time to meet my folks in Shanghai just before Christmas. Instead, due mainly to the plain pain-in-the-assness of the Chinese, I had to change plans as I must be in China by Dec. 15 or my visa is invalid. Thus, rather than try and squeeze all of Vietnam into two weeks, and based upon the glowing reviews of Laos, I came here instead.
I thought for a time about crossing over the Cambodian-Laos border, but I decided against it. I didn’t have a Laos visa and wasn’t sure I could get one at the Cambodian border (it apparently isn’t an official International checkpoint, and while I liked the mental image of me taking the fast boat across the Mekong and paying the $1-$3 bribes to the border official, the image of me either being stuck forever in no-man’s land between the two, or Laos prison, seemed less rosy. Thus I decided to fly.
I flew from Siem Reap Intl Airport to Vientiane by way of Pakse Laos aboard a puddle jumper. One has not lived (or nearly died) until one has done something like this in Asia. On the positive side, Asian air services believe that an in-flight meal is standard for all flights, regardless of their duration, and so the stewardess hustled to get the 50 passengers a full meal in the 40 minutes of air time.
Some basic things about Laos.:
First, it is yet another SE Asia country that we felt we should carpet bomb during our military phase around here. Apparently, Laos served as the place where bombers who failed to drop a full payload in Vietnam shot their load (so to speak). In fact, and this I found surprising, Laos is (per capita) the most heavily bombed country of all time. We spend almost $2 mil a day on bombs we dropped here. They have a MAJOR UXO (unexploded ordinance) problem here.
On the positive side, Laos has few people, and much of the places the GIs dropped bombs, nobody lived (lives, will live). Remote jungle and mountains mostly. Having now driven by bus halfway across this country, I can safely say (perhaps with the benefit of hindsight) that there was NO WAY we were ever going to win a war here. Aside from the area right around Vientiane and down the Mekong Valley, Laos is jungle and mountain, and usually both. Imagine West Virginia or Tennessee covered in swamp, heavy overgrowth, steep mountains, and no roads. Now add all manner of bugs and animals that will kill a man in a very unpleasant way on occasion, and otherwise make him wish he were someplace more hospitable (like Patterson, NJ). That is what much of Laos is like. I don’t mean to make it sound bad, it isn’t, but there is no way US or anybody else’s ground forces would be able to determine friend from foe (or even north from south) around here.
Second, it is the first country I have been to where they fly the hammer and sickle. Its kinda cool actually...
I spent 2 days in Vientiane, the capital, before deciding I’d seen enough. Its small. Very small. The bars close at 11pm. On the positive side, they have 0 street crime. I covered it all in one day, but decided I didn’t want to pack my bag back up so soon, so I stayed and wandered the streets some more. The Laos people are lovely. Friendly, laid back, quick to smile, not big into the hard sell, they really are a treat.
They were preparing for the 30th anniversary of the communist takeover as I was there and so the streets were lined with colorful lights. The stroll along the Mekong, past the night markets, with a view of Thailand across the water was a great pleasure. Just the same, I’d come to Laos mainly so I could see Luang Prabang, which is an Unesco world heritage site, and thus I had to be getting on up old highway 13 into the north.
The trip, about 300km, is a long one. Despite the fact that rte 13 is probably THE highway here (it connects the two biggest tourist points) the road is narrow, the mountains steep, the security situation a tad spotty at times and the buses as well. Thus, I was told to expect the trip from Vientiane to Luang Prabang to take at least 8 hours even though this was the dry season. In light of this, I decided (like many others making the trip) to stop off in Vang Vieng, almost the midpoint, for a day or two.
I took a minibus for the 4 hour trip, and arrived in the early afternoon. Vang Vieng has three claims to fame. First is the aforementioned natural break in the road trip one. Second is the fact that tubing on the Nam Song river has become the rage as the water is not too deep, and had some class 1 and weak class 2 rapids. Third, is the fact that it is perhaps the easiest place in accessible Asia to get opium. This last reason had no appeal to me, but I figured (rightly so) that such a place with a decent flow of western traffic, would be chill and laid back and not too wild west-y. I also thought I’d get on the river for a day.
When I arrived, I walked down one of the three main streets to the river and found myself a lovely (but basic) room with a balcony overlooking the river for $10, and a stern warning in almost every common area about bringing opium into the hotel.
After showering (try riding in a non-ac minibus with 25 of your closest strangers for 4 hours in 80+ degrees and constant road dust), I went to explore the town. Really there isn’t much. There are dozens of guesthouses, bars and restaurants along the main drags, and some on the river, but the biggest business (besides the drugs) is village treks in the outskirts and river activities. I found a lovely bar/restaurant on an island in the middle of the river (I had to cross a lovely but iffy bamboo foot bridge to get there), and settled down in a thatch and bamboo covered platform to have lunch and watch the world go by.
The view was unreal. The town is smack in the middle of a mountain range, the likes of which I’d never seen in person before. Rather than being a series of peaks connected by foothills, these mountains were freestanding. Made of limestone, they had been eroded away into all manner of different odd shapes, almost all of which was covered in dense vegetation. They ran off into the distance, some larger, others smaller, all seemingly part of some giant slumbering animal’s scales. In the foreground was the river, running right to left. It was narrow before me (perhaps 35 yards across) and quick moving, but just a few yards further upstream it widened and slowed. Downstream another bamboo bridge could be seen with some bars as a backdrop.
Every so often a tube or rubber kayak would go past, or a fan tailed motor boat. Locals forded the river back and forth, carrying goods or fishing in the river.
In keeping with my belief that the town would be laid back, the sign above the bar said "Should you want to smoke Marijuana, please ask bartender if it ok, as sometimes the police comes. He will tell you OK or not." Just next to it was written "Please no take picture of sign."
I was being good and so I sat and drank my BeerLao (which is lovely should anyone ever stumble across some) but the two Japanese guys in the next hut weren’t. They must have smoked 4 bomber joints in the 2 hours they were there. Sitting in the sunshine and watching the river, they seemed pleased to be alive.
For whatever reason, after dinner I decided I’d head further up the road today and so booked an onward bus ticket. I had breakfast overlooking the river and listening to a Jack Johnson Cd (he is somewhat of a hot item in this part of the world) and then got on the bus. 8 hours and 2 tire changes later I arrived. The trip itself was amazing, despite the holdups. The road runs through the mountains, twisting and turning as it goes. It runs through many small villages, some of which looked like they might have for generations. Rice and red chilies were being dried in the sun on or near thatched houses. Naked babies chased chickens and ducks around the dusty lots. If I had a nickel for every amazing picture I’d missed taking as I sped by it in a car or bus during my various trips in Asia, I’d have quite a bit by now, but this piece of the world was particularly picturesque. Green and peaceful, with stately mountains and steep valleys, it was something to behold. I hope some of the pictures I have taken here do the place justice. I have another 10 days....