Travels without a Plan #21

Breakdowns, Delays and Overcrowding – The Joys of Travel in Laos
The simple word of “Sabaidee” is the first word that you learn in Lao. Everyone says it, from young children to adults, words of greeting surround you when you arrive in this surprising and beautiful country.

What have I done in the time I’ve been here? First a slow boat for two days on the Mekong to the UN listed town of Luang Prabang, getting to know the others on the boat, whilst enjoying some amazing scenery. From Luang Prabang, second biggest city in Laos, it was straight up north to the town of Nong Khaw. From there another two day boat ride to Phonsali 35kms away from the Chinese border, stopping on the way in Muang Khua. Linking the circle, spending a few days in Udonmxai and then back to Luang Prabang for the New Year and Water Festival. Drying off from the festivities in Vieng Vieng and finishing in the tiny classical Indo-chinese capital of Vientiane.

Getting around Laos, which is the same size as the UK but with only 8 million people, is one of the prime times when the character and outlook of the locals really help calm the nerves that can sometimes get frayed. From late departures (hour and half is usual), high temperatures (has been over 40°C for much of the time), overcrowding (by up to 50%), sharing seating with other species (so far I have counted at least five different types of animals, pigs, chickens, fish etc), and a tendency to break down, travelling around Laos is not an easy task.

Just for example, the 185km journey from Phonsali to Udomxai took 10 and a half hours. The roads that wind through huge mountains have hardly any maintenance on them, which makes for highly uncomfortable journeys that seem to last forever. I don’t think that my arse cheeks have ever been so sore. Even what should be a relaxing journey by boat always ends up totally the opposite – late departures, unannounced stops (generally for the drivers to start drinking the local spirit Lao Lao), leaks, overcrowding and engines blowing up, you really start to develop patience when travelling here!! In some ways travelling sums up the people and country, there is no rush about anything, whilst all the time the locals chat and laugh, not giving the numerous delays a second thought.

Laos is a country of amazingly beautiful and varied landscapes, from the mountainous North that shares its borders with China, Thailand and Vietnam, to the mainly agricultural centre (although still very mountainous) to the Mekong Delta in the south. Some of the scenery in the North is particularly breathtaking – mountains that are shrouded in primary rainforests with huge granite cliffs that just appear from the fields of rice.

The accommodation in Laos is also varied and strange, from rooms in people’s homes, buildings in gardens with paper thin walls, to old Soviet-style monstrosities. They offer amazingly cheap accommodation in very large rooms (my cheapest so far has been 50 pence in Phonsali), to government run ‘offical hotels’. For the last few days I’ve been in a dorm room with 18 others, very cheap, but in this heat the nights are long and sweaty!!! The best by far are the slightly more expensive private Guesthouses that have sprung up everywhere, whose owners will do almost anything to help you out whilst you are staying in their places. I’m also getting used to the beds, very firm and quite often lumpy as hell.

One of the joys of being in Laos at this time of year, is the fact that its New Years celebrations last for a week. Parades, parties and more parties, with every opportunity for the local adult population to drink their local tipple, Lao Lao, which can only be described as tasting like industrial strength paint stripper with a kick to match.

Just one of the times I tried it I had gone into a Post Office. At first I thought it was a private party, so I turned to leave when someone came out to serve me. Firstly, I had my photo taken buying postcards, then I was ordered to down a glass of beer. By this time all the participants of the party had come out to see the ‘Farang’.

As I was thanking them for the beer, a really old lady, with wrinkles you could land a space craft on, came tottering out, smelling of Lao Lao. She looked at me and poured a huge shot glass. I downed it, nearly choked, while all the locals cheered and clapped. It is unlucky to only give one drink in Laos, so another shot was offered, and not being rude I downed that, then another and another, all the time being cheered on by the locals.

It was then that the original bearer of the beer came out with more beer. He had surprisingly good English, while I think mine was getting worse!! He poured me another beer and told me about himself. He was the chief engineer of the area’s telecom company. He proudly told me they had their first phone installed in 1998 and now they had 75 lines for the whole of the northern district of Laos. He then introduced me to his Uncle, who was the Manager of Telecoms in Northern Laos and then to a family friend who was the Manager of the Northern Regions Postal System. By the time I left the post office my words were slurred, and my vision not 100%. Ahhh, the joys of Laos hospitality.

One of the ways that the locals celebrate New Years is by taking part in a week long Water Festival, which due to the high temperatures at this time of year is no bad thing. Households and shops set up pitches at the side of the road armed with water pistols, buckets, hoses and anything else that can contain water and then try and get everyone passing, whether by foot or by road, as wet as possible. No age, race or creed is safe. Even the monks that are everywhere in Laos take great glee in getting foreigners as wet as possible. This festival has been adopted by travellers with a passion, so everywhere you went, everyone was in full festive mood, with the mission of getting everyone as soaked as possible!!!

One of the major talking points with travellers in Laos is the issue of money, and the fact that more than any other nation, the money you spend feels like Monopoly money. Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world, and the exchange rates clearly show this. The largest note 5,000 Kip (only introduced two years ago) is worth about 75 US cents, and a dollar gets you around 8,840 Kip. Just by changing a small amount of dollars you are handed a huge wad of notes that are unable to either fit in your wallet or money belt. Often is it possible to walk around with a quarter of a million on your person, and for that to be only worth about 50 dollars!!

I have come to the end of my stay in Laos, which is very sad. It’s an amazing place full of welcoming, friendly locals. Despite being one of the poorest countries in the world, there is a real sense of optimism and hope that things are changing for the better. Religion is now freely practiced (the ruling Communist government tried to curb religious activities for 15 years), and they see that visitors are attracted to their country in greater and greater numbers. I just hope that they learn from the many mistakes that the Thai’s have made and they continue to be themselves and not change too much to accommodate tourism. I have travelled far less than I imagined I would here, but being in places longer than a few days allows you to get a real feeling for a town and it’s community. I shall just have to return back in a few years time to see the rest of the country and to see how the locals are coping with the demands of tourism.

Tomorrow I leave for Vietnam, a 22 hour (at least) bus journey from Vientiane to Hanoi in the north of Vietnam. I have heard so many different reports about Vietnam, most of them not the most positive. I shall have to see.