What do I know?
For every other country we have visited, or will visit, I have done some research and knew a bit about them. Not so with Laos. All I could tell you was that it is a land locked country in South East Asia, and has the distinction of being the most bombed country in the history of warfare. And trying to understand a little more about the countries not so distant politics is difficult. They are messy with multiple characters and nations all dabbling their dirty fingers around the historical stew in the Lao cooking pot. Naturally the US were in the thick of it, with their domino theory dictating their foreign policy. There must be parallels with now. For domino theory read war on terrorism and axis of evil. The more I learn about South East Asia, and the more I listen to the unfolding statements from Bush on BBC world service on our short wave radio, the more I think that the US are not very good at foreign policy. They don't understand the world other than through their blinkered so-called capitalist liberal mind set. In the fifties the US were pumping aid money into Laos to the tune of some $150 per person. Twice the per capita income at the time. Naturally most of this went on military expenditure; on paying non-existent troops, which lined the pockets of the generals and politicians. And what better way of helping the communist Pathet Lao win the hearts and minds of the people than by exposing the corruption of those greedy politicians and generals getting fat on US manna.
Vientiane was a thirty-minute taxi ride from the Friendship Bridge boarder at Nong Khai. It is a bridge, crossing the Mekong River and then officious immigration officials who demanded ten bhat for a 'border fee,' despite having 'fee paid' stamped into our passports.
Vientiane is the sleepy capital of Laos. It feels more like a provincial backwater rather than a capital city. It is laid back. So laid back it is practically falling over. With its broad thoroughfares and odd colonial building it retains a French aura. But there is little traffic on the roads and its compactness makes walking around a joy. We are walking up a street, it is empty and there is That Dam, round-a-bout with a Buddhist stupa rising from the middle. Further on and we approach Patuoxi. It looks like a continuation of the French building effort, a Lao version of the Arc de Triomphe. It was in fact built in the fifties with the help of US aid. The American concrete from which it is constructed was supposed to have built an airport in Vientiane.
The French flavour in the city continues in the eating establishments. We find a restaurant that serves up steake frites. Even though it is a more up market establishment it still failed on what we in the west expect. A starter to be brought first. The starter is finished then the main course appears. But as is more the norm than the exception is Asia, everything comes at the same time. I suppose this is the way South East Asian dishes are brought to the table, why should it be any different for Western cuisine. So I'm eating spring rolls with my steak.
The guidebook talks about beer gardens but it starts raining so we hurry into the first drinking establishment we pass. A clean, renovated colonial building with high ceilings, long windows and French style window shutters.
Cat's danglies and chatting up a geezer
We are propping up the bar, supping glasses of draught Beer Lao, occasionally topping them up from a pitcher. Beer Lao is one of the better brews on this trip. I reflect on this fact with Lindsey and she tells me that this trip has been as much a booze cruise as an experience of cultures, people and places. She pokes my healthy beer gut to prove her point. And she is right. So for the record the list of beers to date. Scandinavian brews are omitted because we had none. The amber stuff was too expensive there.
- Russia - Baltika No.5
- Mongolia - Beer Chinggis
- China - Tsing Tao & Dali
- Vietnam - Tiger, Saigon and Beer Hoi
- Cambodia - Angkor
- Thailand - Singha
- Laos - Beerlao
So we are sitting and supping and a fat cat miows under Lindsey's stool, hugging the legs. "Psssshhhh" she says, kicking at it. As it strolls off (a cool cat this one) I cannot but help notice its bollocks. Now maybe it's because in Britain most cats have the chop, but you rarely see them on British moggies. Yet here in Asia, and Laos in particular, male cats have unfeasibly large testicles.
The beer is sweet, conversation is good, the setting is relaxing and the rain outside provides good reason for inertia. We are well established on these bar stools. Another pitcher please barman. The bladder alarm rings, 'evacuate immediately' so Lindsey gets up to go the toilet. I become aware of the bloke sitting alone beside me, also propping up the bar. He had briefly entered my consciousness earlier when I overheard him say "sometimes if you travel alone it gets a bit lonely." I had been talking to Lindsey about what she would do if she found herself alone in Asia and I presumed he had been overhearing us. But if he was trying to make conversation with the barman it was not working. I pondered whether he was talking to himself.
But now it was just me and him at the bar and I'm thinking that it would be interesting to talk to him. So how do I start a conversation? It's like trying to find a chat up line... And bloody hell I'm thinking about chatting up a geezer. I'm a married heterosexual I assure myself. Why should I want to talk to him? I'm intrigued, curious. I like talking to people, finding out about where they are from and what they are doing.
Then he tries to make conversation with the barman again and he mentions he is from England. So I pick up on this nugget and ask him whereabouts. We go around the houses, from London to Kingston to Berrylands to the road he lives on and Max lives five minutes away from where we live. And the evening continues discussing tropical diseases with Max, the medical student from Berrylands. Its good to talk about malaria and the shits to someone who really understands them!
Wibbly wobbly Buddha
We find ourselves in an Antique shop and I fall for this Buddha statue. The Asana (posture) is walking and the Mudra (hand position) is palm facing as though he is implying stop which means protection or freedom of fear. He is tall and metal and covered in gold leaf and very expensive. My senses depart me as quickly as my cash. Hundreds of dollars rather than dozens. And I courier him back via DHL. I ring my father to confirm he has arrived in the UK safely. "Ummm, yes' he says, 'but he is a bit wibbly wobbly'. I was convinced he was a genuine antique, but I thumb through the Rough Guide of Laos and read "for the record, most Lao antiques of any quality find their way t Thailand and are resold there, and many of the "antiques" for sale in Laos are actually reproductions made in Thailand or Cambodia. This is particularly true in the case of Buddhist or Hindu figurines made of any kind of metal. As with so many antique shops in Asia, the proprietors will tell you what you want to hear about the age and rarity of the patinated bauble you're dying to be the owner of." But then I convince myself that the Rough Guide was so crap in China it's bound to be crap here. Besides, it goes on to say "it is not advisable to ship anything of value home from Laos" and Buddha got back all right. Lindsey shakes her head and says that's because the Buddha is of no value. Ho hum.
Tom the Tuk Tuk
From Vientiane we make an excursion to Lao Pako, an eco-resort 50 kilometres away. We venture down to the bus station; the next bus goes in half an hour. A small man wearing a dirty baseball cap and checked shirt adds in good English that the bus will be very full and will make lots of stops. "So let me guess" I say to him, "you have a tuk tuk and you will take us there..." "Of course" he grins with a broad smile. "How much" and we negotiate the price and leave the bus station to his tuk tuk that waits just outside.
The tuk tuk is essentially a two wheeled metal carriage welded onto the front half of a motorbike with a roof covering the whole contraption. They are painted in bright colours and have red white and blue tarpaulins that can be pulled down the sides when it rains. We throw our bags and ourselves into the tuk tuk.
"Nice tuk tuk" I remark to driver. "Oh thank you," he says. His name is Tom (yes, that is his real name, not a made up easy-for-falang-to-pronounce one); he is thirty-four and has four children. He used to be a radar operator in the army but now he is studying English at university. The tuk tuk is his source of income. It cost him $1200. "My mother in law lent me the money to buy tuk tuk. She was so proud that her son in law was studying English. And soon I will be English speaking tour guide!" Generous mother-in-law!
Tom pays $50 in university tuition fees. It is interesting to note that in all these socialist countries we have visited students have had to pay for their education. Nothing socialist about that. Until recently with the introduction of tuition fees education on the UK was free, a socialist principle if ever there was one.
Tom tells us about a Canadian he took around Vientiane and environs for three days. "Give me your address" said this Canadian lawyer to Tom "and I will help you come to Canada". This appealed very much to Tom. I asked him why? Was he not happy with Laos? "Oh no Laos is very good. I go overseas for three years to save money. I work very hard. Then come back and build big house". So then we are talking about relative real estate prices in London and Laos. All this with one eye on the road. His head continuously turns to talk to us, but it is not a problem, there is little traffic on the road. From the prices of real estate Tom turns his attention to livestock. He points to a buffalo, "a good one will cost $250" and then to a cow, "they only cost about $80. I know you not have buffalo in England. English girl told me. But you have cow. How much a cow in your country?" he asks me. The price of livestock is not something I know anything about I confess to Tom. Steak from the Butcher, yes. Walking mooing Aberdeen Angus or Friesian dairy? No idea!
"If you want to pee pee, please tell me" says Tom, realising that this journey is taking a long time. Toms Tuk Tuk is slow and the bus rattles past us. It is practically empty. But this does not bother us. Tom is pleasant and it is better to be exposed to the elements than be cooped up in a rickety old bus. I ask tom about America. "Lao people do not like America," he says, "they only like its money". I ask Tom why. He tells me there are many people from Lao working in America (after the Pathet Lao came to power ten percent of the population left the country), "but" he adds, "American bombs. They destroy Lao". And as in Cambodia American ordnance continues to kill and maim. Tennis ball shaped anti-personnel bombs called bombis dropped from cluster bombs are particularly good in killing children who mistake them for toys. There is an accident with unexploded ordnance every other day. The US have never made reparations payments for the damage they caused. They do however fund missions to recover the remains of dead American MIAs.
We leave Tom at Somsami, a two-hut town and board a long narrow boat with a small outboard motor at the back. Tom waves as we head of down the Nam Ngum River towards the Lao Pako resort.
What they don't tell you about eco-tourism
The resort of Lao Pako sits in the jungle above a bend of the Nam Ngum River. It comprises of a number of bamboo bungalows on stilts with verandahs overlooking the river below. The bungalows are simply furnished with a rattan wardrobe, bedside table and two razor thin beds with mosquito nets draped over them. There is no electricity, a 12volt battery is provided in the evenings to power the dim naked light bulb hanging from the rafters. It is a great place to get away from it all, with little to do other than go on walks along the nature trails, mess about in the river, read, write, or just do nothing, lounging in hammocks. All very much back to nature; very eco-friendly. But there is more to eco-tourism than that. The truth about eco-tourism is sinister and murky and unpleasant.
Eco tourism jumps and crawls and slithers and climbs and bites. It is monster bugs, it is fearsome creepy crawlies. It is ants the size of ten pence pieces. It is microscopic semi-translucent brown ants that get everywhere. It is armies of ants. It is giant mosquitoes. Mosquitoes pumped up on steroids. B52 Mossies that leave bites that erupt like volcanoes. Huge red circles around the infernally itchy white epicenter. It is geckos on the ceiling and spiders on the walls. It is noisy, yet it is not the city. It is far noisier than living in the suburbs. It is the high-pitched drone of cicadas the whine of crickets and the throaty rumble of frogs. Eco-tourism is damp and musty and mildewy and clothes never dry. The pillows smell of mould.
Nature itches, it smells, it is noisy and creeps and crawls. And we are paying a premium for this.
Lindsey lies in her bed and I tuck in her mosquito net. I turn to my bed and unfurl the mosquito net and ohmigod what the hell is that. "Something wrong?" says Lindsey. "Urrrr, nothing, just got t get something off the bed". Sitting on my pillow is a scorpion. It is small which I take to be nastier. Isn't usually the way that the smaller it is the more deadly it is. A small brown scorpion sitting on my pillow, enjoying the musty mouldy smell no doubt, waiting for my head to make contact with it and introduce himself with a sting from his erect tail. The fear. I figure I have two options. One, beat shit out of it. I discount this because (a) we are in a eco-resort and that is not the nature-friendly thing to do, (b) I don't want scorpion entrails on my pillow and (c) given the softness of the pillow it is doubtful that the velocity of the brick that is the Lonely Planet that would be may preferred hitting implement would probably not squash the little bastard. So I decide to employ the technique that works so well with spiders in the bath back home. I get a glass and a sheet of paper and with a deft hand movement drop the glass over the scorpion. I then slowly insert the card under the glass. The scorpion shifts, running around the glass and then, impossibly, it escapes. It runs down my bed and stops in the centre. Bastard. To hell with eco-bullshit, to hell with nature, I grab the Lonely Planet brick and Thwack and Thwack and boy does a scorpion run fast. Thwack, thwack and I manage to catapult it over the bed onto the floor. "What are you doing?" says Lindsey, sitting up to see me on my hands and knees shuffling after the scorpion, hammering down the lonely planet on the wooden floor as I move. But the Scorpion out moves me. It doubles back and dashes under my bed where it disappears. "Sod that" I say to Lindsey, "I'm sleeping in your bed tonight." There's no way I'll sleep in a bed that is a known hangout for a scorpion who is no doubt pissed at me. So I crawl into Lindsey's bed, tuck in the mosquito net and fall asleep to the din of nature outside.
But sleep is ephemeral. When Lindsey moves I wake. The bed is barely wide enough for one, let alone two lardy falangs. Sleep again, then wake with my nails ripping at my skin, scratching at the bites. As my limbs flop out against the mosquito net the B52 mossies with their elongated blood sucking tubes feast on me through the net.
Wet is the river, the sky, Lindsey and I
It rains and when it stops we go for a walk along a nature trail. But it is muddy and slippery and after ten minutes Lindsey refuses to go any further. Too many ants. Ants bloody everywhere. Nasty buggers, we met this bloke who was cycling around Laos and he told us how he left his shoes and tee-shirt outside his tent and the following morning the shoelaces were gone and the tee-shirt was threads with a posse of hungry ants chomping away at it. So we return to the bungalow and relax in the hammocks and decide to leave when the rain clears. Only it doesn't.
There are a handful of other tourists at Lao Pako. There are the Irish, Ryan with his mother and an English girl and an Auzzie. The English girl is from Liverpool and I foolishly make a stereotypical comment about Liverpudlians and how we better watch out that nothing gets stolen and she gives me the cold shoulder and makes conversation difficult for me all night. The next morning we get out.
When we put our packs on the boat and cover them with tarpaulin it is not raining. When we move out into the centre of river it starts raining. Not in the sense that we in the UK are accustomed to. There is no spitting then shower than downpour. Here a wall of rain engulfs us. Suddenly. Once again it is not raining, it is monsooning. And we are caught in the middle of it.
I discover that my raincoat is more a fashion item than a barrier to the rain and Lindsey's waterproof cagoule may cope admirably in British showers but it is wholly ineffective in this torrent. The sky is as wet as the river and the river is as wet as the sky and we are wetter than both. The boatman taps me on the shoulder and hands me a bottle with the top cut off. The boat has been filling up and, water is up to my ankles and it is my job to bail out the water. And I'm scooping and bailing and the water level continues to rise and it is almost touching my bum but that doesn't matter because it is soaked anyway and Lindsey is telling me to hurry up with my bailing because we are going to sink and the boatman, nice and dry in his spacious plastic poncho just smiles at us both. He's not worried, just keep on bailing he says with his wink. And so like two drowned rats we crawl out of the boat at the two-hut town and wait for a bus.
Wet fish bus
As we stand in the cafe that is the hut on the right hand side of this two-hut stand I've had enough of being wet. I open my pack and grab a change of clothing and change there and then. Lindsey follows me, "what do you expect" I say when she is complaining "those men over there are staring at me".
The bus pulls up and we board. It is a local bus and everybody looks round at us. There are only a couple of seats left near the back. I sit next to an old lady who had her shopping basket by her feet. She shuffles across the seat to the window and I sit above her shopping. I can tell you now that the picture of her shopping basket that you may be painting in your mind is wrong. This is not the sort of shopping basket you'd see an old dear walking out of Sainsbury with. This is not a white plastic bag with the Tesco logo on the side. This is a whicker basket piled with green vegetables and a huge and ugly stinking catfish sitting on top. The fish pongs and I lean over and open the window. The old hags tsks and babbles incomprehensibly at me. "Calm down dear," I say. "I think she wants you to close the window" says Lindsey who sits on an aisle seat behind me above a basket of live frogs. " Oh" I say. I apologise profusely when I see that she is getting soaked by the waterfall that flows at a precise angle from the top of the window frame to her lap. "Sorry dear". But I don't know how to say that in Lao. In fact all that I can say in Lao is 'thank you very much' which is 'cup jie lie lie.' for me, the way that rolls off the tongue pretty much encapsulates Lao. A pleasant mouthful that sounds mellow and relaxed. In the same league as the Mongolian for no worries, "oooh too ger too ger."
We arrive at the bus station late for the bus to Vang Vieng. It appears to be full as every seat is taken. Yet more people board it and when we leave everyone is seated. The seats slide to the side so that three people can sit on them, the person by the window having only one buttock cheek on the seat and the person by the aisle precariously perched. Squashed in the middle people sit on the sacks of rice that have not made it to the roof. We've got four hours of this; at least there is no catfish or live frogs to get friendly with. The bus fills with the noxious smell of ganja, at the back a couple of falang toke on a joint but I am the only one who seems to mind. Nothing wrong with smoking pot, but not on a public bus I figure.
The bus pulls up at the bus station, which is a long strip of potholed tarmac, which is also the runway. A friendly woman with teeth that are in need of major dental repair touts for our business at her guesthouse and we decide to check it out. It was hardly worth us taking a tuk tuk there; Vang Vieng is a small two-road place. Her guesthouse is clean and cheap but I want to compare it with others. I am walking and bump into the two crusty travelers we met in Thailand and they tell me they've already done the shopping around for accommodation thing and this place is the best. So we check in.
Dervla Murphy, that formidable hardy traveling granny recently wrote about her travels through Laos. In her 1999 book "One foot in Laos" she writes of being told that there was 'only one English speaker' in Vang Vieng and "three simple guesthouses." Now it seems almost everyone speaks English and every other building is a guesthouse or a cafe serving the ubiquitous banana pancake, American breakfast and Israeli salad. In the 1999 Rough Guide to Laos, no mention is made to kayaking. Now all these falang friendly establishments offer kayaking trips. In the evening the main road is lined with yellow and orange and blue kayaks propped up against the wooden buildings. Vang Vieng is beginning to feel like Had Rin in Koh Phanghan and I reflect on the impact of tourism here.
Lounging in one of the cafes sits a Frenchman. His clothes are dirty and tatty and from his head sprouts a single fat dreadlock the size of a drainpipe with smaller, lesser dreads rapped around it. A Lao woman stares at him. Cleanliness is ever so important for the Lao people. Sales of shampoo must be brisk, passing waterfalls or standpipes you are very likely to see Lao women washing their hair. On one occasion we saw a monkey being lathered up and washed under a standpipe. A girl walks down the main street dressed in a skimpy bikini and sandals. Obviously embarrassed by this sight the men turn their heads away. Has she no shame? Does she not understand that this is Asia? You just don't parade around half naked on Asian streets. In the cafe we sit in, 'happy pancakes' are on the menu. How much happy do you want. A gaunt man is smoking some happy in the corner. I walk through the market and a young boy taps my arm and hisses in my ear 'you wanna smoka?' He wouldn't have been selling pot a few tears ago. The influx of falang is a ready market for the herbal high and the temptation of opium. It is easy for the Lao youth to find themselves permanent auxiliaries to a scene where the characters are ephemeral yet the consequences to them can be painful and costly.
The river ripples and runs
With kayaking being such an obvious fixture in Vang Vieng it is inevitable that we give it a go. Lindsey is not so keen. She is a better swimmer than me, but she doesn't like the water. It'll be all right I tell her, it will be safe. We check out the different operators, all offering different flavours of the same trips. There is the white water outing and the trip to the caves. I want to do the white water, Lindsey doesn't. I compromise. Well I don't really, Lindsey isn't up for it but I persuade her and we pay up for the cave trip.
We are driven upstream in a pickup and are shown the elementaries of using the paddle. There are three guides and four of us. We are with an Israeli couple who are quiet and keep themselves to themselves. He is remarkable only in the fact that he looks nothing like an Israeli. By this I mean his hair is short. Current vogue for the backpacking Israeli male seems to be Big Hair. A riot of black locks usually tied or held back with a girly hair band.
Now I'd call them ripples but for Lindsey who was sitting at the front of the kayak they were huge and terrifying rapids. As the front of the water dipped down into the white water Lindsey got soaked. I sat at the back navigating and stayed relatively dry. I was loving it. Lindsey hated it. We pulled up at the bank to walk to the first of the day's caves and Lindsey was furious. "I want to go back". Oh dear, we've got a problem here. We trudged through a village, "I'm not going out on that river again," through fields of rice and cassava and yams and reach a vast cliff. The entrance to the cliff was muddy, slippery and difficult and the Israelis who were wearing wholly inappropriate footwear (he was wearing flip flops, she platform shoes) both slipped and fell. Lindsey by now had had enough, refused to go into the cave and walked back to a hut near the cave with one of the guides.
The cave was dark and muddy and huge. Vast stalactites and stalagmites, a complex of caverns in pitch darkness. We were provided with torches; another group who came in after us had only candles. They were unable to see the treacherous patches of greasy mud and were constantly slipping and falling and it was clear that we had chosen a more professional company to take this tour with.
When we reached the hut where Lindsey was she was in better spirits. She was talking to an Israeli girl who was cursing the mosquitoes and hated being in Asia and was homesick. She had been away from home for two weeks. Lindsey had been away for four months. "I'm still not going on that river". But there was no other straightforward way of returning to Vang Vieng. We would give the kayak one more go, Lindsey would sit at the back and use her paddle to steer us, I would do all the hard work paddling.
And Lindsey started to enjoy it. Unlike the last time when the guide had splashed us with his paddle, when she had angrily yelled at him, this time she scooped her paddle into the water and flicked a paddle full of water at him. This was more like it! Then it started raining, monsooning and once again we were like drowned rats but this time it didn't matter. We were having fun.
The second cave we visited was waterlogged and suitable for subterranean swimming. The Israeli couple were not up for it, but Lindsey was suddenly taking the lead in doing the dangerous. She plunged into the icy water by the mouth of the cave, and pulled herself along a rope into the dark hole, laughing 'ha! Here's a mad experience to remember!' The cave was cold and dark. We were up to our necks in water. Having given it a go, I can't say that pot holing or caving has much appeal to me. Lindsey felt the same and decided to exit by the same entrance we had come in from. I continued through the complex of caves, sometimes swimming, sometimes slipping through deep trenches of mud to a back entrance. I tried to explain to the guide that in English we call this 'spelunking' but he thought I was having a laugh. There can't be such a stupid word in the English language. The rear exit was tight and I surprised myself by pulling by gut through a gap that was inches wide. I was covered with mud, but as we climbed and slid down the path, avoiding the sharp rocks and bamboo poles and thorn bushes the incessant rain washed the mud off me.
It was an excellent experience and I am glad we chose the company we went with. I have already mentioned the group using candles to negotiate their way around one cave. Another tour advertised getting pissed up before entering the cave I had just been in. "...then its time for you to get drunk. We have wine and tea to drink. Once you are drunk we kayak to None Cave (swimming cave) you can swim inside the cave in clean spring water and there is mud slide you can slide down to water more and more as you want and see the back before get out the other way". The week before we arrived in Vang Vieng an Israeli girl had drowned whilst floating down the river in a tractor tyre. She'd not been given a life jacket. As we walked up the bank where we left the kayaks at the end of the day a familiar voice from a pickup called us over. Sitting in the front seat was the Irishman Ryan. He propped his foot up against the dashboard. A large plaster on the sole of his foot with blood seeping out of the sides. "What happened to you?" I asked. "We were jumpin' from de bridge an I hit a rock a de bodtom." Ryan had been looking forward to going trekking in the North of Laos. "Don't tink I'll be goin' trekkin' now" he smiled. The company that ran his trip had advertised itself with the following: "If you are looking for an amazing best quality tour that is fun and safe with experienced local guides then let us take you on our trip".
Before leaving Vang Vieng we go to the bank to change money. There are two rooms in the bank, one with a large safe in, the other with a female bank clerk sitting at a desk. There is no apparent security. To the right of the woman is a computer that is not switched on, and in front of her sits piles and piles of cash. This speaks volumes about Lao and its laid back population. (And even the animals display mellow traits; the roosters in Vang Vieng only get as far as 'cock-a-doodle,' they are far to chilled to finish with a 'do').
The woman, like most people we meet in Laos is friendly and helpful and we change pounds into kip. There is rumored to be a larger note, but the highest denomination we have seen is the 5000kip note that is barely worth thirty pence. In exchange for fifty pounds we get a bundle of cash- one hundred and fifty five notes. I look pregnant as my money belt bulges.
Walking back down the main street I notice it is quiet. Vang Vieng only really comes to life at night. I mention this to the woman with bad teeth at our hotel. "Arrr," she says. "This is because the Israelis don't sleep at night. They drink and play cards and party and sleep all day". Unlike us who have been going to bed at nine every night.
The road to Luang Prabang
We've experienced local busses and will experience more the further north we go. So we decide to take a private mini bus to Luang Prabang. It's quicker and more comfortable, shaving two hours off the journey time for the hoi polloi. Although a couple of days previously the speed of the minibus made no difference- all vehicles were held up for nineteen hours by a landslide blocking the road.
The scenery had begun in Vang Vieng and just got better as we headed north. Huge Limestone Mountains rising up from the fields. Like an irregular wave on the oscilloscope. Flat then suddenly peaking. Sharp highs of rugged gray rock with green foliage clinging to it then long troughs of paddy fields and arable fields. The guidebook calls it 'Karst topography'. It is magnificent. This is truly one of the most beautiful of countries. The road climbs and winds up the green hills, cutting between the mountains jutting up and towering over us. (You will remember that I lost all this text when my palm Pilot packed in. I waxed lyrical on this environment, but now, it being so distant, it is difficult to match my enthusiasm, passion and love for it).
We stop for lunch at a roadside cafe, little more than a wooden stall. The food is displayed on a table covered by a grubby Coca Cola parasol and a fat woman standing guard. Bowels of unidentifiable stews and potatoes and rice are displayed. I point at a bowel of potatoes but the woman ignores my gesture and dollops substantial helpings of every dish onto the plate. It is enough for both Lindsey and me and we pick at the dish, which is surprisingly palatable. I presume it is the woman's son who is milling around us. He would not merit comment other than the fact that he is wearing a tee shirt with the portrait of Osama Bin Laden on the front. I am about to query him about it, is he an Al Quaeda sympathisier? But then I think better of it. I've asked people about motifs of their tee shirts before and it usually ends in blank stares and incomprehension. Football shirts in particular. In Ghana I approached a youth that was wearing a Chelsea top and approvingly commented upon his choice of football team and asked him how long he'd supported the blues. He looked at me as though I was a nutter. And in China I've met a few people wearing England shirts and say 'arrrr, the three lions, Yingquo!' and they haven't a clue what I'm on about. And it's because people wear these clothes because they are clothes and have no idea of the significance of the label or motif or badge. And don't bother about pointing out how fashionable your taxi driver is for wearing a Polo or Lactose shirt. For him it is just a shirt with a horse or crocodile on it. There is always however an exception to the rule. And that exception here is Manchester bloody United. Everybody seems to know the shirt they are wearing is United. And that is no mean feat given the plethora of different flavours of the united shirt- half the time the only way I can tell what it is by the sponsor on the front.
I like Luang Prabang, the second city in Laos. Colonial architecture, urban grandeur and peaceful Wats; Buddhist monasteries where monks dressed in saffron emerge from, open their gentlemen's umbrellas and stroll down the streets protected from the sun. In the early mornings they walk the streets with begging bowels, accepting alms, but we never quite made the early morning to see this spectacle. We spend a few days chilling out in Luang Prabang. Good food in old French colonial buildings and all the Wats to investigate.
The royal palace is worth a peek. It was constructed in 1904 by the French, although much of the interior decor and furniture, is straight out of the sixties and feels somewhat incongruous in a royal palace. In the final room are cabinets with gifts given to the Royal family. The gifts from the US are noteworthy. Plaques commemorating the moon landings of Apollo VII and XVII, including samples of moon rock and Lao flags that were taken on the trips. For Apollo XVII the inscription reads: 'This fragment is a portion of rock from the Taurus Littrow Valley of the moon. It is given as a symbol of the unity of human endeavor and carries with it the hope of the American People for a world of peace.' When Apollo XVII landed on the moon in December 1972 the American People were dropping a cargo of bombs of Lao every nine minutes, destroying villages and massacring the Lao people. Hardly a world of peace.
We take a day trip to the Kouang Si waterfalls. Giant waterfalls that cascade down limestone rocks and a spray that keeps everything damp and misty. On our way towards the falls, which are set in thick jungle, we are plodding along the path when suddenly I see something in front of us and tell Lindsey to stop walking. She says no and comments that the path is full of ants and she doesn't want them climbing on her shoes. "No Lindsey, STOP!" I grab hold of her to stop her walking any further. "Look" I exclaim, slowly pulling us both back. Barely half a metre in front of Lindsey's leading foot is a long thin green poisonous snake rearing its head us and hissing at us. Calm! Don't panic. And it slithers off into the overgrowth. I try to describe it to the locals we see on our way. Snake in Lao is 'Nou,' I get that far. What sort they cannot tell me- it is just a nou. Is it poisonous? I mime the action of slitting my throat. Oh yes they nod in agreement and pretend to slit their throats. Very poisonous. Very deadly.
Photographs at the waterfall and an attempt to climb up to the upper pools but Lindsey considers it too dangerous so we don't quite make it to them. The truth is it required walking through a small waterfall and I didn't fancy getting wet.
We take a tuk tuk to the north bus park and buy tickets from a grumpy woman (unusual for Laos) for the bus to Oudomxay. "When does it leave?" I ask her. "24 people she says" I don't have to ask hr how many are already waiting, I can see by the list to which she has added our names, we make four.
The North Bus Park is a dusty expanse on the outskirts of the town. It is surrounded by wooden shacks with corrugated iron roofs and tables covered with large umbrellas, all selling much the same produce. Drinks, bread and kebabs of unidentifiable meat. Crunchy chicken feet dipped in what looks like a bar-b-q sauce. Small birds, similarly dipped after being gutted and flattened out on to skewers, beak and all. Frog on a stick, fish on a stick, all partially cooked sitting beside a bar-b-q of hot coals. Don't ask how long they sit there for... The dusty floor is covered in flattened litter. There are some tuk tuks at the far end of the dust bowel; in the middle a pathetic specimen of a tree; to the right a few pick up trucks- 'Sawngthaews' which means two rows. And in front of us a truck which is being loaded with bags of rice and sacks of goods. In Lao the word 'bus' is used liberally. This truck is to be our bus for the five-hour journey.
Waiting is uncomfortable on account of the heat. There is no sun in the sky, no breeze, just relentless diffused heat through the blanket of gray cloud. For a bus park in a low-income country (what a better expression that is than 'developing or third world country), it is surprisingly quiet. There is little life, no hustle and bustle. Slowly more people appear and hang around our bus. They seem quite content waiting, whilst Lindsey and I get frustrated at the heat and wait. People here appear patient and good at waiting, something us Falang are loosing with our fast lifestyles, fast food fast culture, MTV culture. We want things bite sized and we want them now. Not so in Lao. We arrived at the bus park at 10am, having been told in town that the bus would leave at 11am. It didn't leave until 1.30.
It was an Isuzu truck and appeared quite new. A metal roof had been constructed with tarpaulin sides that could be dropped down in the event of rain. Naturally for us it did start raining and for the first hour or so we had no view, just blue red and white stripped tarpaulin to stare at. And bags of rice. Along either side of the back of the truck were bench seats and down the middle, piled four high so you couldn't see the passenger opposite you sacks. On the roof were dozens of watering cans precariously tied up. Several of these fell of on the journey, necessitating timely stops for wee wees.
When the weather cleared we were passing more magnificent scenery. The road was lined with dense groups of teak trees. The teak tree makes for great building material and is often used for telegraph poles. It is not entirely unlike the male genitalia. Both are mightily useful, but both are bloody ugly. The teak tree must be the most aesthetically challenged of trees. It stands tall and straight, with the most hideous leave. Enormous flippers that cling to the trunk - in a young tree of up to 12 foot or so you can easily count the number of leaves on it. In the forest other trees would laugh at the teak and call it names such as 'big ears, plug and fugly'.
Yet soon the ugly male teak gives way to the awesome and majestic female beauty of the rainforest. We are climbing into the hills. Hippy hills, trees with green dreadlocks, thick vegetation everywhere. And then a deforested hill. Oi! baldy! shouts the rain forest, laughing at the crew cut mound that interrupts it. Yellow grasses, or more likely a crop cover the odd hill, but this is not recent de-forestation on an industrial scale. This appears old and a result of local agricultural practices.
We continue to gain altitude. This morning we roasted then were rained upon. Now it begins to get slightly chilly.
The truck is so much better than a bus, we are in the environment, and as I lie on the sacks of rice I have a great panorama of the unfolding landscape. We drive through tribal villages. Huts with thatched roofs that are more simple in their construction than the ones we'd seen on the plains. Small huts on metal clad stilts that I presume are for food storage, the metal to prevent rats from climbing up. People live outside, children running about, many naked despite the chilly temperature. Old women carrying firewood in baskets supported with yokes and head straps. The odd hunter with a firearm slung over his shoulder. And animals everywhere. Pigs, cows, horses. The air up here is dry and fresh and smells of rural life in the hills. It is a similar smell to that in Nepal and the foothills in India. An indescribable aroma that has touches of smoke, of animals, of cold and little washing.
Our eventual destination is Luan Na Tha from where the boarder with China is only a stones throw away. But to get there we have to spend a night in Oudomxay, an unremarkable town with an unremarkable guesthouse. (As with most plac5es in Lao the pillows are like boulders. Lao people seem to like their heads propped up at right angles to their bodies). The bus doesn't leave until midday. I awake early and go for a wander around town leaving Lindsey in bed. We spend almost every minute of every day together, so it is strange being alone for a change. Almost liberating, though I say that in a good way. I can walk at my own pace and dive down the dirty alleys that Lindsey would prefer not to venture down. I find myself in the thick of the market, enjoying the pungent smells of slaughtered animals and the sounds of selling fruit and veg. I walk past a woman feeding her birds in a cage and I have to look again. In the small cage are three little chicks with dyed feathers. One is day-glo pink; another is fluorescent yellow whilst the third is electric orange!
I walk up the hill to the stupa and Wat. Monks are milling about 'sabadi' I say, 'hello'. One approaches me 'oh! You speak Lao!" It is easy talking to the monks, something that rarely happens with Lindsey, something about them not wanting to talk to women. As in much of South East Asia only a handful of the monks were in for the long term. It is expected for men or boys to spend at least a short period of their life in a monastery. Time is short and the bus will go soon so I trot back down the hill and return to the hotel. Whilst I wait for Lindsey to get ready I sit with the women who run our guesthouse. They are playing cards, when their game is over I ask for the pack and do a few magic tricks. For the first time in a while I found an excellent audience who were mesmerized by cards appearing behind their ears. I will confess that forcing cards on them was just too easy. I'm never any good at it, people always see that I'm trying to shove a particular card into their fingers, but here- every time. 'Concentrate, picture the card. Yes. That's good, I can see it. I'm going to draw it on this sheet of paper... yes! The three of diamonds!" "You're not doing your tricks again are you?" says Lindsey and that is my cue to stand up and walk with Lindsey to the bus stand.
Surprisingly it is a bus for the trip to Luam Na Tha. Unsurprisingly it is already full. But we manage to squeeze in at the back, above the rear wheel arches; the worst place on the bus, legroom is limited and you get catapulted up over every bump and pothole. Along the aisle of the bus are plastic seats, the sort that you may see at a children's party. An old man sits on the plastic seat in front of me, a young man behind. The young man speaks a little English and is fascinated by my phrase book when I show it to him. But conversation with him is not particularly inspiring.
It is not long before the bus stops and we all climb out. It's got a puncture. There is no spare wheel; the bus is jacked up, the tyre removed and the inner tube pulled out. The driver finds the hole, gets a patch, roughens the surface, smears the surface with adhesive and repairs the hole. Just like it was a bicycle puncture. This took almost two hours. The Indian man I'd been talking whispers in my ear 'Lao people very lazy.'
I never quite got to the bottom of what Mahseed actually did. He started by telling me he was into IT in Bangalore and said 'C++' so I assumed he was a programmer and then he said 'oil' so I presumed it was a multinational he worked for. This is not unusual; India is now a hot bed of IT. When you book your ticket with British airways it is processed in India and many call centres are being shifted to the sub-continent. The Indian employees are taught about English culture before answering the phones, the current UK weather is displayed so the call centre representative can sympathise with the caller about the dull dreary Newcastle rain (despite the searing heat outside the call centre) and watch EastEnders so they are prepared for any chitchat eventuality.
But as Mahseed went on it seemed that he collected some sort of wood from the jungle in Lao, chopped it up and sold it for 'lakhs and lakhs of bhat' in Saudi Arabia. The poorer quality wood he processed into oil for the Arab market. He held out his arm for me to sniff but I had a cold so could smell nothing. He then went on to tell me that he has a garment factory with 700 employees producing sportswear for Nike and Addidas. It struck me as strange that he couldn't remember the name of the factory; he had to ask his brother whom he was traveling with. He invited be to the factory but sadly it was down in Vientiane and not on our journey. I asked him whether his ventures were legal. "Oh yes" he said, "I give the government dollars. Lao government like dollars." "What, baksheesh?" "No sir, all official. I have stamped paperwork. "And a concession for twenty-five years" he smiled.
As we neared Luam Na Tha we made another unscheduled stop. This time at a checkpoint. Several men in scruffy green police uniforms were sitting around. The driver went up to them and sat down at their table. He was handed a glass and poured two healthy glasses of liquor from a plastic bottle with no label. He downed them both and jumped back into the cab. "Pretend you didn't see that" I said to Lindsey as we continued our way, switching back and forth down the poorly maintained road on the way up to Luam Na Tha. It was a long journey that seemed to take hours. But the closer we got to Luam Na Tha the more beautiful the scenery became and that made the hardship seem worthwhile.
The far north
Luam Na Tha was flattened by the US as it was populated by the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao during the Vietnam War. All the buildings date from the seventies and more recent. The market is a seventies concrete monstrosity with stallholders displaying a broad selection of live animals. Definitely not the sort of place for animal lovers with cuddly looking forest dwelling mammals cooped up in cages, ready for the pot, squirrels, fish, frogs, eels, all barely alive.
Despite its recency there is something about Luam Na Tha and we spend a couple of days there, walking around the town and out into the neighboring villages. Many of these villages are the recipients of EU aid (concrete signs proudly spell out the results of the donors money. The usual things, sanitation, micro credit, the former being particularly needed. Many of the villages we pass look like they haven't change in millennia. Indeed way back in China we had visited a reconstructed Pleistocene era village. These tribal villages in the north of Laos appear not much different to that reconstruction. Of course Pleistocene man didn't have satellite television. Which often seems to come before proper sanitation).
We stay in a basic guesthouse with a large bed and a mosquito draped over it. There is an attached bathroom, the squat toilet is raised almost a metre above the floor. I have to help Lindsey to climb up to it so she can perform her bodily functions. There is a fan in the room but no electricity. The town is supplied with electricity between the hours of 6.30-10pm every night. And when the electricity comes on every hi-fi in town is cranked up. They make up for the lost time when there is no electricity. At full volume all the town's hi-fis compete with each other. Connected to televisions and playing VCDs, Luam Nam Tha is treated to karaoke cacophony. The pink ball jumps along the words, random pictures of romance in scenic landscapes play and people in cafes sing along as they drink. Pain!
We are sitting at one of these cafes and a tanned man approaches us on his mountain bike. It is impossible to tell where he is from. Not Laos that is for sure. He sits and joins us, he's not spoken English for a few days having been cycling between villages on his way here. Cato is from Mexico- the first traveling Mexican we've met. He puts our eight-month trip to shame having been on the road for five years. He packed in his job in marketing and has peddled round the world ever since. We swap stories and I tell him he should write them down. He is a real adventurer and has real stories. Like when he was in Syria with no money. How was he to know you can't use Visa cards in Syria? With the few dollars he had he bought some coloured paper and scissors and glue and made cards with silhouettes of mosques. Relying on Muslim hospitality and selling his cards he was able to cycle up through Syria to Turkey in a month, with many weird and wonderful experiences on the way.
I'd caught a cold in Vang Vieng and had been unable to get rid of it. By the time we reached Luam Nam Tha my nose alternated between a waterfall and an itchy, sneezing klaxon. Both resulted in the moustache of my beard being coated in snot dribbling uncontrollably down. After soaking my third and final handkerchief I'd had enough. The beard had to go. Only one of the towns three barbers was willing to shave me. Not sure why. Probably because they had no experience of shaving falangs. Certainly the bloke that was attacking my face was more butcher than barber. He hacked at my face and I winced. Imagine a theatrical beard stuck on to your face with superglue, then ripping it off. Well that is what this shave felt like. Honestly the worst ever. And I've had a few. Barbers taking the cutthroat and gliding it around my face. Some just do the cheeks and chin; others go higher, just below the eyes. I've had barbers attempting to shave my forehead, others trying to negotiate the cutthroat up the nose to attack the nasal hairs. Some barbers can find hairs even when they don't exist. On top of the ears, inside the ears and when the cutthroat doesn't do the trick the electric razor comes out, or the scissors, or in one place in Turkey, a candle taper was lit and rogue hairs were burnt off my face!
On the 16th September we leave Luam Nam Tha heading north on a Sawngthaew for the last time in Laos. At midday we cross the border and enter China again. India is getting closer.