Laos has become the trendy place for backpackers. I made a quick visit and followed a well traveled path; Vientiane to Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang, then up the Mekong to Huay Xai and back into Thailand. Along the way backpackers were abundant. I wasn't surprise, it was clear from talking to people in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos that many backpackers are intent on finding a Laos village untouched by modern society and undiscovered by other backpackers. This gives them bragging rights for having gone where no backpacker had gone before. I think in a few years Laos will have no "undiscovered" villages and tourism will be well established. It's good for the country's economy of course, since by "exploring" the country backpackers do the ground work for a tourist industry and get the locals started on building the basic facilities to support more tourists. Of course when there are no more undiscovered places in Laos the backpackers will have to go somewhere else to find people unspoiled by western civilization and begin spoiling them. Unfortunately for Laos I don't think the country has the sanitation infrastructure to accommodate all the tourists already there, who consume more and generate much more waste than locals. This is a concern because tourism is expanding rapidly and the country uses rivers, including the Mekong, as a sewer.
On 10 Dec '01 I entered Laos from Nong Khai Thailand by crossing the Friendship Bridge into Vientiane. I spent two days in Vientiane. I wasn't too impressed by the city but was impressed by the people. My first evening I walked along the river just to see what kind of night life there was. It was pretty mellow, just a short stretch of river with some bars with beer and music. I entered one, sat at a table by myself to have a beer, and was invited to sit at a table with group of young people. They practiced their very limited English, kept the beer coming and refused to let me pay, then gave me a lift back to my hotel. I was impressed by their generosity. I know they had to be well off people by Laos standards, but poor by U.S. standards.
The next day I looked for an English language newspaper. All I found was an old copy of Newsweek and a government approved paper in which every article had ample praise for the government. Fortunately Vientiane had internet cafes, so I got my news from there. I also walked around and took some pictures. There are some pretty temples--in order are pictures of Wat Ong Tew Mahawihan, two of Wat Hai Sok, and two of Wat In Paeng. Communist governments generally discourage religion, but the Laos people resisted attempts to get them to abandon Budhism.
The next picture is the "Wind West Pub and Restaurant"; I think someone didn't get the spelling right. The last two pictures are of a typical street in the city, and then Taliat Sao, the morning market. In Laos this is equivalent to a major shopping mall.
I left Vientiane by bus on 12 Dec and stopped in Vang Vieng. This is a fun village. I predict it will replace Khao Sanh Road in Bangkok as the worlds biggest backpacker hangout. Khao Sanh Road in Bangkok is overdone and getting expensive. Vang Vieng is a growing village that got electricity last year and has Guest Houses, bars, restaurants, and tourist shops going up as fast as they can be built. Many of the Guest Houses and bars are already showing bootleg videos of current movies; a very Thai thing to do. Laos people catch on fast. The village is a few hours north of Vientiane by bus, on the Nam Song river, near small Laos and Hmong farming villages and limestone hills riddled with caves. I stayed a few days, went on a guided tour and did some walking around on my own.
It was in Vang Vieng that I learned that there is still a backpacker's drug trail, and it ran through Laos. I knew there had been a drug trail in the '60's and '70's, but thought it was a thing of the past. I'm quite naive; I should get out more. Marijuana is plentiful in Laos. I was told it's not very good, but very cheap. It's also illegal and the police do enforce the law. Most people who are caught are fined somewhere between $100 and $200 and let go. Sort of a profitable catch and release program.
You can also get prescription drugs without a prescription in Laos. On my first night in town I saw a large, healthy looking man in his thirties collapse and die in the Xolay Restaurant and Bar. His friends reluctantly told the doctor trying to revive him that he had taken Valium in the afternoon and had been drinking in the evening. The man looked like a lumberjack; he was big and strong but that didn't help him. The doctor was a tourist who may have been an intern, she looked quite young. After attempting to revive the big guy she called out "He needs an ambulance now!" two or three times. It didn't do any good. The bar manager explained that there was no ambulance and the hospital was closed. It wouldn't open just because someone was dying.
Medical care in Laos is close to non-existent. If you get sick or injured the guidebooks advise you to leave the country. So if you're thinking of going to Laos to party, keep in mind that while there are ample opportunities to do something stupid, the margin for error is slim. I later learned that tourists taking Valium is not uncommon. Until this trip I thought only suicidal people mixed Valium and alcohol. Apparently some people think they can safely pull it off. Some of them don't.
I apologize for the gloomy story and moralizing lecture. I don't do that often.
On to much nicer stuff. The country around Vang Vieng is beautiful and walking through the villages is like walking through a National Geographic article. The six pictures below are from Hmong villages I visited as part of an organized tour on my first day.
The Hmong are hill tribe people that were fighting the communist government in Laos many years after the U.S. abandoned the "secret war" there. These villagers were forcibly relocated by the Laos government to this location near Vang Vieng, where they are more easily controlled. They are subsistence farmers, living mostly on rice, a few skinny chickens and the eggs they provide, and anything edible they can find. When we were there they were between harvests and the women were digging through the mud with their bare hands to find snails. Their water supply for drinking and washing was the river where the water buffalo wallowed. In summary, it was a fascinating, scenic, stunningly impoverished village.
Some of the young people on the tour thought the Hmong lived an idyllic life; they commented it looked "low stress". I suspect that if you are spending all your waking hours trying to make sure you have enough to eat, then you will feel a certain amount of stress. I pointed out that none of these people would be living this way if they had a choice. I also stated that I think things like schools, medical care, electricity, sanitation, paved roads and having choices in how you live your life are all good things. We got into an argument that lasted a while and didn't change anyone's opinions.
On the same tour we visited three caves and I took many picture. Unfortunately most did not turn out well. You really need special lights to take good pictures in caves.
This next bit is probably bogus, but I'm intrigued by it. The guide on the tour said that the plants in this picture cured a malaria epidemic in Luang Prabang. As he told it people were cured overnight. The plants are common in the area. I don't know if the story is true, an exaggeration of a more modest truth (perhaps the plants relieve symptoms and improve survival), or totally false. Does anyone know a malaria expert that wants to look into this? Unfortunately I don't recall the guide's name. If you are an interested expert, he's the most popular guide operating out of Vang Vieng. Just ask around when you get there. Or e-mail me; I'm sure I can work another trip to Laos into my schedule.
The next day I walked most of the day to see the country and some nearby Laos farming villages. The Laos people were a little more affluent than the Hmong, but not much. They were also subsistence farmers; but I saw an occasional radio and one man with a pipe--that's how I know they were more affluent. There were many children and the only toys I saw were wicker balls they made themselves. Children came up to me and asked for "pen" or "bic". Each village had one or two places where people would sell minor items--soap, tobacco, gum, cheap pens, stuff like that--from a porch in front of the house. I bought up every pen I could find, around 25 total, and gave them all away. The children were very polite, none tried to take more than one, and the lucky ones were extremely pleased with their toy. Unfortunately I ran out of pens long before I ran out of children and many were disappointed.
I met the three boys in the next picture after I ran out of pens, but they seemed pleased just to meet someone new and strange. They had been fishing in a small pond and their catch was a string of fish that looked like large minnows. These were going to be fried up whole and served with rice. Any source of protein and calories is important.
The next pictures are bucolic scenes of villages and countryside. The last shot is significant; you don't see too many telephone poles in this part of the world. Maybe someday they'll get some lines on these poles.
The next set of pictures are just countryside shots I took at different times. The area around Vang Vieng is pretty.
I don't know if water buffalo are used primarily for work, meat, or both, but they are obviously used for something in the area. In North America the white buffalo is supposed to have special significance; I wonder what the pink buffalo means in Laos?
A very unflattering shot of an abandoned airfield used by the bus station on the edge of Vang Vieng. The village isn't much to look at; the surrounding area is better.
On 15 December I left Vang Vieng for Luang Prabang. The ride was beautiful, through high jungle covered mountains shrouded in mist and passing by numerous Laos and hill tribe villages. Unfortunately the scheduled bus had been oversold so badly they put ticket holding passengers with the luggage on the roof for the eight hour drive. That was fine for these passengers in the low country, but it got really cold at higher altitudes, and people were not dressed for this. I couldn't get on this bus and so, with eleven other tourists, hired a pickup/songthaew. There were fifteen of us including the driver and his two assistants. We were shoe-horned inside and then the driver stopped along the way to pick up as many locals as he could squeeze in or hang off the side. The pickup truck was my only option for getting to Luang Prabang that day, and was quicker than the bus, arriving in six hours. But riding this way made it difficult to enjoy the scenery and impossible to take pictures. Too bad.
Luang Prabang is a World Heritage site renowned for its French Colonial architecture. It's nice, but I wasn't blown away.
In the center of town is Phu Si hill and That Chomi, shown in the first picture. The pictures after that were taken from the hill and are of the city, the Mekong, and a Soviet anti-air gun mount next to the temple.
Finally, two shots of Wat Aham, three of Wat Xieng Thong, and three of Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham.
I only spent two nights and one day in Luang Prabang. The cities I visited in Laos, Vientiane and Luang Prabang, didn't impress me much, but outside the cities the country is incredible. On 17 Dec I got on a river boat up the Mekong to Huay Xai Laos, where I could cross over to Chiang Khong in Thailand. The trip took two days on a slow open air boat sitting on hard wooden benches, but the scenery was great. When I got tired of the scenery I made a lot of progress on Les Miserables, which I had started weeks earlier in Ko Samui Thailand. Overnight we stayed in Pakbeng, where I was able to take a shower using a barrel of cold water and a small water scoop, and eat dinner before the generator providing electricity was turned off at nine in the evening. I'm not griping, the village was an experience and I enjoyed the boat trip. But next time I'll remember to bring a cushion to sit on.
The first picture is of a boat similar to the one I was on, and the second of the alternative option, the fast boat. Fast boats only took one day to make the same trip, but they were incredibly noisy and even more uncomfortable. Plus they occasionally have high speed collisions with submerged rocks, and even if the passengers are not injured their luggage is lost. I wasn't in that big a hurry.
The pictures that follow are of sights along the Mekong.
Late on the second day I looked towards the west bank of the Mekong and saw a house with solid walls and utility lines. I knew that had to be Thailand. Until I had visited Cambodia and Laos I thought Thailand was a poor country. Now I know the huge difference between a developing country and a genuinely undeveloped one. After the boring picture of a Thai house I took a shot up river towards the area of the Golden Triangle, where the Thai, Laos and Myanmar borders meet. Last is a picture of the people on my boat. I'll never see them again, but they were a good group that I spent two days in close quarters with.
The boat docked in Huay Xai on the Laos side of the river and I crossed over to Thailand that same afternoon. I spent the night there, took a mini-van to Chiang Mai, flew from there to Bangkok and was able to book a reasonably cheap one way air fare to MFEMFEMFEMF MFEMFEM, leaving on Christmas Eve and arriving Christmas Day. To recap: in September I flew to Germany, spent five weeks there and in the Czech Republic, flew to Bangkok, spent over two months in Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, then got home in time for Christmas. I flew around the world on my trip to Costa Rica and never got there. What's embarrassing is that for my last three years in the Air Force I worked on a navigation program. Well, if at first you don't succeed.......