#36 - Laos
Jeff Willner - 9 April 2002
(Luang Prabang, LAOS) – I
arrived at Vientienne, the capitol of Laos, on a surprisingly nice
Air Laos flight from Hanoi. A bit of lunch and hello, we were there.
The airport was a surprise too, a very modern terminal for such a poor
country (built by Japan said the taxi driver). Dubbed the country of
a million irrelevants by foreign journalists during the Vietnam war,
it is all but lost in the region. I certainly didn't know where it
was before visiting. It is land-locked in between; China (north), Vietnam
(east), Cambodia (south), Thailand (west), with a wee border with Myanmar
thrown in for funsies.
Laos has a very sketchy tourist industry and the one major place
to visit is Luang Prabang, a city with over a hundred temples that
was the royal capitol in past centuries. I just missed the connecting
flight north and decided to do a bit of rough travel and try a local
bus instead. Instead of a 45min flight it was a twelve hour adventure.
Here are excerpts from my journal...
2:00 - My taxi pulls into the gravel lot at a sketchy looking station
just as a bus was leaving so I run over and hand up my backpack. Ticket
is only 40,000 kip ($4), better than a $60 flight! I'm in a great seat
at the front with lots of leg room - excellent.
2:05 - The woman in front of me offers a bottle of free water, how nice! The
lady on the left hands me some green mango, they seem bent on snacking through
the trip which is not a bad way to kill a 10hr ride. There is a little plastic
bag of dip for the green mango with salt, red pepper and msg, THAT is interesting.
Everyone is chatting but I have no clue what they are saying. Lao, Laotian,
Laoese, whatever - its a blur.
2:20 - The two baggage handlers hang out in the front lounging out
the open door, every once in awhile they splash water at girls on
bicycles, what is
that about? The women at the front help by refilling plastic containers for
them, the bus driver slows and pulls in close for the hit. Is this normal?
(Turns out it was a few days before the New Year water festival - everybody
splashes everybody else)
- The bus stops to take on guy with 22 crates.. They keep coming, and coming,
and coming. Finally the entire centre aisle is loaded two high. I am surrounded
by crates, but at least I still have leg room!
3:20, 3:34, 3:49, 4:12 - Stop again & again, we seem to be stopping
for no reason, once for the driver to chat up a pretty girl, another
time to buy
a length of plastic hose, then to get drinks. This may be more than a 10hr
4:40 - Stop for refreshment, women are selling BBQ birds on a skewer.
The sight of their little heads and beaks and wings is sad, you eat
the vendor is yelling. "BBQ birdies, 4 for ten cents".
4:50 - The horn jammed on coming round a bend, its a bus horn so its
freakishly loud. We have to stop to disconnect it. During the stop
the heat seeps
into the cabin. Laos is covered in smoke, the haze is so thick it almost
the sun. Slash and burn agriculture and it's burn time.
5:48 - Up from deep sleep, bought ice coffee & 3D Doritos
(is Laos where product flops go to die?)
6:40 - Bus picks up another woman and her eight crates, she's sitting
atop the pile of luggage beside me with the two baggage handlers,
is on my lap, so long foot space, I'm hemmed in.
6:54 - Heaven help me I just threw my garbage out the window, the neighbours
were very politely doing it for me for the past several hours and I finally
decided to help myself. Twenty years of anti-littering commercials scream
in my subconscious.
7:52 - We stop for dinner, rice & green beans & mystery flesh.
It's a tin roofed shack with open walls and tree trunk beams. The cook
a cart with a pot of hot oil.
8:30 - The old guy beside me loves to give the time in French, 'Huit
heur et demi maintenant'
- The woman across is into the beer, she's a funny drunk, I wish I knew
Lao. She sings long rambling songs that occasionally cause the entire
bus to erupt
in glee. They look at me every once in awhile and laugh, the woman across
the aisle who gave me the mango is blushing. I really wish I could speak
Lao. 'Neuf heur!' says the old guy beside me confidentially.
10:31 - The driver starts drinking beer, at night, in the mountains,
on a narrow winding road. With no horn.
1:00am - Drunk woman has the lungs of a pearl diver, she just keeps
going, not many are sleeping between the singing and the violent
that rattle us around.
1:45am - The road is straightening out, we are out of the mountains.
2:06am - Pull into the Luang Prabang station, a 12hr epic that will
certainly be unforgettable. I hire a jumbo (motorcycle rickshaw) into
town to find
a guesthouse for the night.
||Luang Prabang is a ramshackle town
in the first stages of a tourist boom. A port on the Mekong River,
it was for centuries the capital of a large Thai-Lao state. It
was under French rule from 1893 to 1954 and served as the royal
capital (Vientiane being the administrative capital) of Laos
from 1950 to 1975, when the country became a republic. Shortly
after independence the royalty was driven into exile and the
city relegated to provincial capitol status. The major attraction
today are the many Buddhist temples built in centuries past with
||Laos is a desperately poor country
and the town has retained almost all its original buildings simply
because there was no money to replace them. Walking the streets
is like stepping back in time, faded mansions, temple complexes,
and old wooden shops - all eroded with the passing of time. There
are a handful of hotels and restaurants but most streets are
still packed clay and the 'port' is a bamboo platform on the
side of the Mekong river. Hours flew past while I wandered the
town, going from opulent temples recently restored with tourist
dollars to peeling houses with chickens scratching for grubs
in the yard.
||I stopped on a side street bakery
lured in by the chocolate cake and ended up ordering an English
Breakfast. Don't ask, it's just one of those things. The eggs
arrived not so much cooked as brutally murdered. Still, at less
than a dollar for the entire meal some latitude has to be given.
Wandering the various temple complexes I chanced across this
storehouse. Dozens of little Buddhas dressed and ready for action.
There wasn't anybody at the entrance so I wandered around till
I found an attendant to pay my fifty cents entrance. If you don't
mind the burned eggs or mud roads, Laos is real value for the
was another smoky day, the haze hung in the air from brush fires
all over the country. On the left picture the flames lick around
a woman and smoke ascends past Buddha - gold relief from a temple
door. On the right, smoke lends a sepia tint to this picture
of a pagoda at the top of Luang Prabang hill. Past and present.
Laos by fire.
||Dragons leap off the front end of
a royal barge in temple storage, waiting perhaps for a chance
to return to action. I found a new cafe with spotless tables,
pressed paper menus, linen tablecloths - and $5 coffee. As with
most of SE Asia, if you have a bit more money you can truly live
well. A three day package from Bangkok is only a couple hundred
dollars. A few hours by plane but after the modernity of Thailand
it's like passing through a time warp. And your tourist dollars
earn you the attention of royalty. You are a special visitor
being transported back in time. Maybe the dragons are serving
their purpose after all.
||I needed to get back to Bangkok fast
and there were no planes for two days. So I checked into other
options. Aside from flying, the fastest way to get anywhere in
Laos is by speedboat up the Mekong river. But to get to Bangkok
I would need to take the speedboat for six hours, taxi, ferry,
taxi, four hour bus, overnight and then fly - or wait two days
for a plane. "I took a speedboat up the Mekong to Chang
Khong." Never mind the practicalities, that sounded so cool
that I had to do it - just to be able to say that line.
flimsy dart-shaped boats fly across the water at over 50kph.
I realized my first mistake when I lugged my backpack down the
river's edge to load the boat. The longtail boat is a tiny narrow
thing with virtually no space. Seats are only two feet apart.
Imagine, a 6'2" guy crunched up with his knees at his chin
- that was me, for six hours. Within ten minutes my butt was
in full mutiny but by then I had realized my second error. An
unmuffled six cylinder engine that screams at a hellish level
powers the boat, and it was shrieking about three feet behind
my ears. Clearly I did not think this through. We stopped for
a break after two hours and I rooted through my bag to put in
my earplugs - but it was a day before the roaring in my ears
After three hours in the boat we stopped for lunch at a
floating shack on the river. The place was full of deaf,
sore foreigners, asking for "not so much hot pepper" in
their noodles and stumbling around while the circulation
was restored in their gluteus maxius. Driving was an art
form, the driver had to know which channel to take between
the giant rocks or how to hit the rapids just right. Only
the two foot wake of the giant cargo canoes slowed them down,
whap, whap, and then eaaaaahhhh we leapt forward again. It
was wicked cool, aside from the aching butt thing.
has never really been a peaceful place - or a unified one. Invasions
from the neighbouring empires in Vietnam, then Burma, and finally
Siam (now Thailand) left the country in an almost perpetually
vassal status. The French seized Laos from Siam in 1893 as a
settlement to a border war with Vietnam, another colonial possession.
While French officials directly administered the rest of the
country they did little to develop Laos, and it became the sleepy
backwater of Indochina. During World War II Japan stationed troops
in Indochina under an agreement with the French, who maintained
their administration throughout most of the war.
After the war the independence movements gained force.
Under the leadership of Prince Souphanouvong some dissidents
allied themselves with the forces of the pro-Communist Vietnamese
liberation movement known as the Viet Minh, who were still
fighting the French in Vietnam. The Lao dissidents called
their movement Pathet Lao (Lao State). France accorded Laos
full independence in 1953 as a constitutional monarchy, the
Kingdom of Laos. However the US was opposed to any power
sharing arrangement with communist forces and supported an
overthrow of the coalition government. After successive communist
victories the US agreed to accept the 'neutralization' of
Laos - but both the communists and the US violated this agreement
during the war. The communists for the Ho Chi Minh trail
to supply southern Vietnamese units, and the US by recruiting
and training Hmong villagers as mercenary soldiers and bombing
the crap out of the country.
At war's end Laos was a smouldering mess, the communists
took control, imposed a single party system and managed ruinous
economic policy. In recent years with the end of Soviet aid
the party has been forced to open the country to outside
investment. Laos became a full member of the ASEAN group
in 1997 though it has been a challenge for the country to
meet even the most basic standards of this trading block
of Asian countries. Perhaps tourism is it's best bet for
the future since decades of abject poverty have left so many
historic buildings and towns intact. People in Laos are famous
for their hospitality and many visitors comment on their
great sense of humour. Hopefully the scenery, the people,
and the historic sites will be enough to finally bring some
prosperity to this humble country.