. . . AROUND THE WORLD 2001/02
Africa 1999
Around-the-World 2001/02

The Team

Jeff Willner
1. Start: Recipe for Adventure
2. Zimbabwe: Hyperinflation
3. Namibia: Southern Circuit
4. South Africa: Circuit 2
5. Zambia/Malawi: Sketches
7. Kenya: Bandit Country
8. Ethiopia: Diary
9. Ethiopia: Border Run
10. Sudan: Across the Sahara
11. Egypt: Cape to Cairo
12. Jordan/Syria: Sept. 11th
13. Turkey: Hospitality
14. Bulgaria/Romania/ Hungary
15. Slovakia/Austria/Poland
16. The Baltics & Russia
17. Scandinavia
18. Western Europe
19. Brazil: Clearning Customs
20. Argentina: Revolution
21. Argentina: To Ushuaia
22. Patagonia Disaster
23. Buenos Aires Beautiful
24. Uruguay: Beaches
25. Chile: Expedition Life
26. Bolivia: Atacama
27. Peru: Transit
28. Galapagos: Gorgeous
29. Ecuador: Jungle Run
30. Knifepoint
31. Dubai: Lay over
32. Singapore/Malaysia
33. Thailand: Hospitality
34. Cambodia: Ankor Wat
35. Vietnam: Hanoi & Halong
36. Laos: Back to Basics
37. China: Beijing Tour
38. China: Shanxi
39. China: Western Province
40. China: Tibet
41: Nepal: Mountains
42. India: Driving Struggle
43. Pakistan: Dodging War
44. Iran: Overcharging
45. End: One Last Laugh

Sally DeFina
1. Cape Town: Robben Island
2. Zanzibar: Mike & I
3. Kenya: African Driving School
4. Sudan: Mud Crossing
5. Patagonia: Goodbye Max
6. Malaysia: Mike Update
7. Thailand: Ko Phangan
8. Cambodia: Phnom Penh
9. Vietnam: By Train
10. Laos: Vang Vieng
11. China: Meet Mr. Chen

Jody Finver
1. Start: Surreal Solipse
2. Great Zimbabwe
3. Brokedown in Kenyan Desert
4. Egypt: So Should I Hyphenate
5. Poland: Home is Where the Truck Is

Gulin Akoz
1. Start: Bits and Pieces
2. Zambia: Diaries
3. Egypt: Africa Memories
4. Turkey: For Your Information
5. The Team and The Bean
6. Somebody Else's Child
7. On My Own
8. Long Lost Memories of Childhood
9. The Tree and the Boy
10. Jealous
11. The Aftermath


Panamerican 2003
Various Trips
Planning an Expedition


Kensington Tours can help you plan your own expedition anywhere in the world.




#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...


On the bus:

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)

2:40 - 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 trip.

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 that? I wonder what 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 blocks 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, my daypack 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 stand is 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'

9:03 - 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 cliff-side corners 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 royal patronage. 
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 dollar.
It 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. 
The 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 when away. 

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. 

Laos 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.  



Copyright January 1999-2011
All rights reserved - Jeff Willner
Contact: jeffwillner@yahoo.com