Sa Bai Di! We are in Laos, the tenth country of our trip.
Boten (China) ? Luang Nam Tha (Laos) - Luang Pra Bang ? Vang Vieng - Vientiane!
18th February 2005 ? 28th February 2005
The crossing from China into Laos was relatively easy but the hardest bit was getting Adrian and Greg out of bed after they decided to commiserate leaving China with a few too many rice wines. They staggered back in at 5am, but with a wake up call of 7am they didn?t appreciate being dragged out of bed (in the case of Greg literally). Greg grumbled all the way to the border and half way into Laos. His grumbling wasn?t appreciated as border days are the most stressful and worrying as there are a lot of things that could go wrong, especially when you have a vehicle.
We arrived at the border at 10am after taking a slight detour due to Jimmy?s expert directional skills. We pulled up at Boten to a very innocuous looking border ? a red and white pole and a red and white line across the road with some guards in green suits. We got out and had our passports checked and stamped. There was an issue as Tom?s Laos stamp had been stuck in over the Chinese stamp, but it was resolved with a disapproving look and some scribbling in a notebook. We shook Jimmy?s hand and then headed off over to Laos, although half of us had to walk there. There were two red and white lines marked on the floor, spaced 5 metres apart. Adrian and Alexis (Greg got special dispensation because he was ?ill?) had to walk over the red lines whilst Tom and Greg drove and parked up. We were allowed to then get back in and then drive to Laos passing the official Chinese/Laos division line into the 18km no man?s land. Three kilometres into our trip we met another red and white pole ? the Laos border. We got stamped into Laos and then the Beast was sprayed with some liquid for ?quarantine? purposes. We then travelled another 15km on a very bad road to the vehicle registration point where we obtained insurance and our laisser faire, allowing us to drive in Laos.
We drove along the dusty road to the west of the border to get to a secret Laos. We passed thatched stilted houses with arrived in Luang Nam Tha in the early afternoon. This sleepy border town is just starting to discover tourism but the bars and restaurants are still under charging for delicious food and banana shakes. The locals are also unsure of what to make of tourists and how much to charge for their goods. Whilst sitting in a restaurant we were suddenly surrounded by little old ladies clad in beautiful traditional Laos outfits with multi coloured wrap around hats. They were offering us their hats, bracelets, necklaces and handbags for 20p to 50p and then dropping them in price just to sell them to us. One lady after hassling Adrian to buy her bracelets and being refused many times, moved some of the bracelets on her hand to show him her other product for sale ? opium! Who would have thought that you would have little old ladies as drug dealers!
We set off the following day and headed south to Luang Pra Bang. The first 100km of road took us 6 hours to transverse due to the winds and bends that stopped us from going more than 30km/hour. We passed through small villages with bamboo coated, stilt houses and thatch roofs with all the kids waving and shouting at us. Greg handed out pens and pencils which his brother-in-law Mike gave us to distribute to groups of kids at the side of the street. They all screamed with delight and started fights over who got the post it notes! The next 100km took us 2 hours as we dropped down into the river basin and onto a straight road. Luang Pra Bang is formed on the bend of the Mekong River which winds its way from China down to Cambodia. The whole town is a UNESCO protected town, our thirteenth site on our journey (see http://whc.unesco.org/ for some sites in your neck of the woods ? also a very good alternative guidebook for travelling). The town is stuck in time with Buddhist monks shaded by umbrellas wandering around clad from shoulder to toe in orange. There is a monastery on every corner and a photo opportunity waiting for you to capture. We stayed in Luang Pra Bang a little longer than anticipated due to the amazing relaxed culture. On the banks of the Mekong we found a restaurant that you could watch the sun drop down over the surrounding mountains and sit and eat found from a mordon ? a pan heated from beneath by a bucket with coals. From a kettle you add water and then cook noodles, vegetables, meat, eggs and anything else you want to throw in. It is South East Asias equivalent to a fondue set.
The road to Vang Vieng took us through more windy roads. The area between Luang Pra Bang and Vang Vieng is a notorious warlord hang-out so we drove with slight trepidation. A few years ago, this area of Laos was considered one of the most dangerous and several foreign tourists were killed when a bus was blown up. Reminders of the discontent in the area is still seen with the red and yellow sickle and scythe flag of communist Russia banded around on buildings. Vang Vieng is located about 150km north of Vientiane, surrounded by the most stunning scenery. The river Nam Song runs along the valley floor with karst limestone lumps, shrouded in trees, rising majestically up into the misty sky. With the new heat on our journey we are hankering for the sea. When you realise that you are an island dweller and that you haven?t seen the sea for 4 months it suddenly becomes a passionate desire to see it again. The river at Vang Vieng sufficed for the moment as we spent an afternoon drifting down it in rubber inner tubes, to the cries of ?Beer Lao, Beer Lao? from beer sellers positioned strategically at the side of the river or people offering their rickety wooden ladders for tube adventurers to scale and throw themselves recklessly into the river. The tubes was the perfect way to unwind as you drift past the towering limestone cliffs, children playing in the river, women washing clothes and then you think of the raw effluent being pumped into the river as you watch it float past? A much cleaner way to unwind is to get yourself to one of the restaurants in town and lay on one of the bench beds and watch some Friends or a film or perhaps enjoy one of the ?Happy Shakes? or ?Happy Pizzas?, laced with marijuana or magic mushrooms! Not to be messed with unless you fancy enduring several hours of trying to control your head spinning and then throwing up in the toilet before experiencing lucid dreams.
Vientiane is the capital of Laos and is located on the Thai border. It is one of the most chilled out capitals that we have ever been to. After seeing all the beautiful Buddhist Wats with garish oranges, turquoises, pinks and yellows surrounding large golden Buddhas, we watched the sun go down by the Mekong River and then eating a lovely curry and rice by candlelight and fighting off the invading mosquitoes. A lovely end to a beautiful country.
It is a strange thing, when you travel so far being the only westerners, perhaps within a 100km radius, you feel special. When you arrive in the tourist zone you just want to shout it from the rooftops ?I drove here? how did YOU get here???? You certainly feel more superior to the other tourists surrounding you. The other issue is security. We are travelling into a zone now which is notorious for drug smuggling and we don?t fancy being thrown into a Thai gaol.
- Laos has a population of about 6 million people, the lowest population density in South East Asia.
- Laos is the poorest country in South East Asia.
- Laos was one of the most heavily bombed countries that didn?t participate in the Vietnamese war. In the northeast of the country there is an area called the Plain of Jars, famous for the large jars that are thought to be upto 2000 years old. The area needs to be treated with care as there are many unexploded bombs and land mines which were dumped after leaving troops leaving Vietnam dumped their remaining bombs after bombing runs. The Land Mine organisation (http://www.landmines.org.uk/) are helping to remove the mines and bombs as well as help those injured by them.
- You must take your shoes off before entering any houses, hotels or restaurants as a mark of respect and not to traipse dust all the way through the building.
- Every house has a shrine outside for offerings to Buddha. Food and water offerings are usually placed inside with joss sticks, just in case Buddha pops by and is a bit hungry!
- There are little Vietnamese pot bellied pigs that cross the road and run around through villages.
- There is a bucket of water located next to every toilet with a scoop to allow you to flush away your deposit. There are very few flushing toilets outside of hotels.
- Houses in rural villages are constructed on stilts, roofs are made from thatch, walls are woven from bamboo and floors are made from bamboo.