The buzz of poorly earthed, pole-mounted megaphones bursts into life at 7am. A pseudo-operatic chorus of unmistakably patriotic zeal fills your hotel room. You know you are not in Kansas anymore. Laos (Lao) is a funny place. It is still a one-party “communist” state controlled by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. Early morning public propaganda aside, it is a pretty low key communist state, barely visible most of the time. The party is descended from the Pathet Lao who, allied with the North Vietnamese, swept into power at the end of the Vietnam War. The unfortunate result for the landlocked, former French colony was economic isolation from China, America, virtually everyone. There is still no British consular representation in Laos. Brits in trouble have to contact the more sensible Australian government. However, like almost everywhere, things are changing very fast nowadays. 14,400 tourists visited Laos in 1990, 1.1 million in 2005. Laos is not the mysterious, un-trodden backpacker territory it used to be. Still, modern influence is not all pervasive. The country remains heavily forested with rivers providing the major means of transportation. Subsistence agriculture provides 80% of jobs and 50% of GDP. Now, as in China, Communism is a façade and its sink or swim for the great majority of the population. Somehow Lao people still manage to be easy going (some say indolent), seemingly little affected by the travails or monotony of their lives and always ready for a laugh.
I entered Laos in early August via a comfortable sleeper train from Bangkok after four months partaking of art, shopping malls and internet in the crowded Thai capital. I quickly received my on-arrival visa from innocuous officials, crossed the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge and headed on up to the capital, Vientiane. I was looking forward to fresh baguettes for breakfast at some café overlooking the languid Mekong River. Unfortunately the river was nowhere in sight. Several kilometers of the famous waterfront had been turned into one big construction zone, either to provide a traffic bypass or space for exclusive hotels and million dollar homes, depending on who you asked. It seems like an extremely dumb idea but perhaps I am missing something. Like the money that a few fat cats will make. Well, what’s new? On day two I did a walking tour of the town. Certainly the place is not without merit. There are wide, manicured boulevards, pleasantly worn-out old monasteries with gilded statues and numerous temples, either entirely gilded (where does all that gold come from?) or adorned with huge murals depicting the life Gautama Buddha. These provided some very photogenic material. Atop a famous landmark which closely approximates the Chance Elysses with Lao embellishments, I had a nice chat with some friendly, young monks who were studying Japanese from “Minna no Nihongo”; a text familiar to me. For whatever reason, young Buddhist monks usually love to talk to foreigners. Additionally, the food in town was delicious. But there was too much traffic and other construction projects going on – huge box-like edifices swathed in green tarpaulin. I decided to quickly continue north in search of something more bucolic.
Next was Vang Vien, well-known as an obligatory stop on the backpacker circuit, where you can float down the river on a truck inner-tube primed with dangerous amounts of alcohol. It is a strikingly beautiful place; richly verdant and backed by dramatic, karst-limestone mountains. The surrounding country contains many caves housing yet more gilded Buddhas deep inside. Rickety wooden bridges cross the river to service numerous bars populated by hordes of young narco-tourists. In the center, several guesthouse bars offer endless re-runs of “Friends” to groups of zoned-out tourists who apparently find this familiarity comforting when the “happy” pizzas come on too strong. Other bars discretely sell quite a selection of drugs: grass, mushrooms, opium, speed. The police let all this illegality slide most of the time so they can periodically hit up some unsubtle tourist with an $800 fine that goes straight in their pockets. Interestingly, in an understandable effort to prevent an explosion of Thai-style sex industry, the Lao government made it straight-up illegal for foreign men to have sex with Lao women outside of marraige (I am not sure about the reverse situation!) Such activities can lead to a similar fine. Getting both at the same time could really ruin your holiday.
Tubing down the river is indeed a lot of fun. Nowadays the riverside upstream from town has developed into a virtual amusement park replete with homemade water slides and trapeze which plummet you into the swirling current. I didn’t surface for fully ten seconds from one swing, held down by the rainy season induced turbulence. It is entirely possible to be unable to hold on and to drop on some tuber below. Young children man the 10m launch towers to spy for oncoming traffic. Deaths are not rare. These are the kinds of freedoms that make Laos special. While I was relaxing at one bar where my friend from Bangkok was working, some stupid stole my tube. I had to complete the lower three kilometers using my dry-bag as a headrest, legs scraping on submerged rocks. It was a little scary as there are no signs of civilization for most of that section and the waters were a bit rough. Inevitably, I was taken on by a small convoy of tubers who were concerned for me. It seems that about two-thirds of participants pull over at Bars #1 and 2, 500m from the start, where they get totally hammered. Oblivious to time and logistics, they slough back into the water just before dusk and by the time they see the lights of town emerge from the chilly darkness an hour later, they are in a state of high panic. Each evening, from my lodgings near the exit point, I heard anguished cries of “Swim!! Swim!! Over here!!” and such.
Having had enough of that, I took another spectacular, six-hour bus trip to Luang Prabang, the cultural center of Laos and one place where tourist money has had a big impact. The many temples there exceed the beauty of their Thai cousins, in my opinion, and there are great chill-out waterfront cafes and a fine nightly crafts market. A common sight is the golden, five-headed naga, a fearful water-snake that has been employed since antiquity as a temple guardian. Excellent, cheap massage is popular in Luang Prabang, including tribal Khmu style which approaches perfection in the hands of an experienced, female practitioner and one at the Red Cross using some chilli-based balm of such potency that I thought my skin was peeling off and was about to call for emergency help. Luang Prabang is one of the few places in Laos where such help might be readily available, but even there, when twice I tried to give blood at the Red Cross donor office, there were no staff available to take it. I had one last pizza and prepared to head to the boonies.
The last bus leg of my northward journey was to Nong Khiaw, from where longboats would take me up the Ou River (Nam Ou) to Phongsali, my base for trekking. The trip was straight forward enough except when we passed the bus travelling in the opposite direction. It was upside-down in a ditch. The driver and passengers were all just standing around looking perplexed. Apparently nobody was seriously hurt and, it was claimed, such a thing had never happened before. Who knows? The driving was of the usual south-east Asian “why brake when you can honk” variety. At Nong Khiaw the river was lined with the precipitous, forested cliffs that would define much of the remaining journey north and I relaxed on my rustic balcony enjoying the peaceful views.
My first boat journey was just an hour or so, to the very attractive village of Muang Ngoi Nuea (MNN). Try saying that with a mouthful of rice. We arrived in mist and rain and, perhaps due to visibility problems, were let off at the wrong landing, next to the reconstructed village temple (the three that had previously stood for several hundred years were destroyed during the Indo-China wars). My temporary travelling companion and I trudged around in mud looking for a way through, to no avail. We called for help to the only person in sight; a young, orange-robed monk. The temple was surrounded by barbed-wire and the door barred shut. The monk spent a couple of minutes prying nailed planks off the back of the gate and eventually gained us access to the village. It was all a bit strange. We found a nice, cheap guesthouse and settled in. Not much to do what with the weather. In the garden of the guesthouse I was surprised to find several large, rusting, American bombs (or unexploded ordinance, as they say). I suppose I should not have been surprised. Dragged into the Vietnam War, Laos allowed passage to the North Vietnamese supply lines. In retaliation, America dropped (according to Wikipedia) some 260 million bombs on Laos; more tonnage than all the bombs dropped in World War II. A similar situation to Nixon’s “secret” bombing of Cambodia. How could that possibly have remained secret?! Of the bombs dropped on rural peasantry of Laos, it is estimated that 80 million did not explode, including many cluster bombs, providing a deadly legacy for years to come. For some reason, however, I did not see nearly as many Lao with missing limbs as I saw amputee Cambodians during my visit there. I stayed a pleasant extra day in MNN because I kept missing boats while having tea with a doctor who, no longer working as a doctor, was running another guesthouse. I gave him a bag of medicines which a friend from Barcelona had entrusted to me in Bangkok. I translated the Spanish instructions for him. Apparently there was no doctor working officially in the entire county.
Next day I made a good boat connection. I was the only passenger. I relaxed on my camp mat in the warm sun watching the stunning scenery drift by. Although the steeply rising banks of the river were significantly deforested, the mixture of forest and ingenious, traditional agriculture was pleasing. The boat captain had his boy on board for training, which was edifying to watch. We stopped to buy some cave-shrimp from some young guys who had an interested operation going on, farming or catching the creatures (it was unclear which from their wicker contraptions) to sell to restaurants back in MNN. Somewhere in the middle of nowhere I was joined by a bunch of typically amiable locals, and eventually dropped off in the bustling little trade town of Muang Khua.
In the morning, just when I thought I was stuck, the captain of the day before appeared and told me in quite serviceable English that he could get me to Samphon, half way to my destination, on a packed boat this time. Still, it was a pleasant three hour journey. River boat travel is usually pleasant. Samphon was a slightly sad little place inhabited by a tribe displaced from their home by the Lao government. There was one guesthouse there. It took half an hour for the guy to find the key. The “restaurant” in town was a shack with a subsiding floor and one noodle dish on the menu. Some strange Lisu tribeswomen dropped by there, down from the hills to try to parlay wilted greens for something. They were refused snootily as if through some tribal hierarchy. At dinner time, out front, I had a pleasant time talking to Atsushi from Osaka. I can’t remember how he got there. He was on break from training physics teachers in Luang Prabang; a two year volountary position. Unfortunately, he explained, the trainee teachers could not do basic mathematics.
Next day my captain had changed his mind and was going back south. I had no choice but to board a speedboat. When Lonely Planet describes this mode of transportation as “ridiculously dangerous”, you have to be worried. I donned a helmet and squashed into the tiny seat next Atsushi. With a deafening roar the boat took off at incredible speed. The driver with his dark-visored helmet on did not appear to be especially vigilant for the numerous logs floating down the river, but as we skitted over waves (or occasionally slammed into them) I gradually relaxed, or at least gave myself up to fate. In an hour he had us in the little river trading post of Namsa. Here we waited in sauna-like heat which radiated from the corrugated-iron roof of the “restaurant”. Our hostess was tortured by severe conjunctivitis. I felt very sorry for her. There was no pharmacy. Eventually the bus to Phongsali was ready to go. We packed in (I was sat on top of a bag of melons) and trundled up the 20km ridge for an hour. Phongsali, home of the early morning propaganda P.A. system, is not a bad place; spacious, with an air of mountaintop nobility and sumptuous hotel rooms. In the morning I watched fog rising from valleys in the distant lowlands to sweep in the form of streaming cloud over the mountain. It was lovely.
I spent the weekend in and around Phongsali, not that weekends make a lot of difference there. It was interesting to watch the local traffic. Old ladies with absurdly heavy baskets of produce strapped to their backs, hobbling to market. More moneyed peasants drove goods around in bizarre tractor-tricycles, powered by loud, apparently home-engineered engines with dangerous drive belts spinning on the outside, just waiting to take your fingers off. The driver sat three meters back controlling the beast with extended handlebars like some exaggerated, cut-back Harley-Davidson. Obviously totally unstable, I saw one overturn in an intersection for no particular reason, the engine screaming as driver and passengers tried to right it. These continued in use up through Yunnan and Sichuan, China, where similar engines were bolted, uncovered, to the front of trucks carrying several tons of boulders at sub-walking speed up steep gradients (rock transport is a large and growing sector of the Chinese economy). There must be something to it. One wants to believe things make sense.
On Sunday I rented a motorbike and toured some tribal villages along the ridge. At first I thought the road was impassable, consisting of frequent sections of deep mud, but I got the hang of it without taking a dip. The scenery was rich and the villages interesting. Stilt-raised houses with woven walls and the inevitable profusion of pigs and chickens. Tea plantations were everywhere. The village of Koemon is famous for its tea trees up to 400 years old. 400 year old tea trees are surprisingly unimpressive, however. Just a big gnarled bush really. Eventually, I made it to a village seldom visited by tourists and stopped to buy a drink at the “shop”. Children screamed and laughed and ran toward me or away from me chaotically, causing great consternation among the old ladies. There were some smiles to, from old men wearing Mao caps, but it was all a bit uncomfortable.
I had dinner at the best restaurant in Phongsali, in a large hotel, with a few loud, gambling, chain-smoking Chinese businessmen whose Toyota Land Cruisers were parked out front. The menu was really bizarre, packed with such mouth-watering delicacies as (translated from Chinese): Thelophora Speculation, Ants in the Tree, High-Handed Pig Liver, The Palace Protects the Meat Cubelets, and my favourite, Prevail Large Intestines, which, in the imperative, would be an appropriate mantra for anyone eating in provincial south-east Asian restaurants. I settled for chicken with peanuts that consisted by half of quite deadly bone shards. Later I realized that every restaurant in town, all Chinese run, had exactly the same menu (you couldn’t miss it) with different name headers. The funny thing was that after presenting you with the menu, it always came down to the fact that nothing on it was actually available and they served you chilli pork or cabbage.
The main reason I went to Phongsali was to trek some traditional tribal villages so I arranged a two-night, three day trek to some Akha areas north of town; not so far as the crow flies, but as it turns out, quite another world. The Akha are a “Tibeto-Burmese hilltribe”. Though only his second time walking this route, my young Lao guide Joy never gets lost. The hike starts easy walking on a road out of town but soon descends into deep river valleys filled with vine-entangled trees and bamboo. Myriad exotic butterflies and other bugs lap salts from the river’s edge. We wade across the main river then up over beautiful, ever-receding ridges to reach the first village, Changun. We arrive around 3pm, quite exhausted and stay there, at the headman’s house.
The village is located maybe 20km from Phongsali, but is entirely without modern convenience. The jumble of thatched buildings situated on a broad, flat ridgetop is alluring on approach, but somewhat less so on closer inspection due to extensive pig-mud and buffalo shit. As everyone knows, animal husbandry is far less romantic in reality than in one’s imagination. The villagers are very shy. Photographically elusive. Perhaps they do not realise how cool they look. While the men just wear scruffy western shorts and T-shirts, the women and older girls all sport indigo, colourfully hand-embroidered dresses, often with broad, jewelry-wrapped head-boards. Older ladies also have chains of antique French coins or multiple metal ringlets hanging from the head-pieces. The dresses often flap open incongruously as if to facilitate breast feeding. I am encouraged to stay put and not wander round the village and cause a fuss so I play football with some of the kids, using a vine-woven ball of surprising elasticity. It keeps ending up in the pig sty. I am interested in any case to watch the domestic activity which all seems to be the domain of elder daughter. Mother is sick, sitting holding her aching head. Elder daughter bustles around at high speed, washing pots, sweeping the packed earth floor, cooking on the open fire. She coughs frequently, no doubt from the smoke filling the kitchen. Everyone is coughing and spitting, though in the men’s case this is more attributable to heavy tobacco use. Elder son is laid up in bed with a fever. I am worried for him but he comes to life later so I give him some vitamins and aspirin. I am led off for a quick, chilly bath in the stream. We chat to some of the older men and Joy translates his limited Akha into English a little. All the Akha men do is sit around and smoke, drink and chinwag. The women do nearly all the work in the village. Perhaps this is due to some ancient male warrior-hood, but that is certainly not in evidence now. Later we dine on sausage and bamboo shoots. A neighbour arrives with river crabs which are baked on the fire and then another comes with some really tasty, melt-in-the-mouth meat. This turns out to be from a juvenile bear he had just shot, possibly an endangered sun bear. Oh, god. Well, it’s dead now. Tribal Laos prefer game meat and little remains alive in the surrounding forest. Everything is mopped up with Lao’s characteristic culinary product, sticky rice. We drink copious homemade laolao spirits and go to bed early, elder son hacking up great globs of phlegm onto the floor.
In the morning, mother is vomiting in the kitchen. It all makes me feel hypochondriacal. A festival of sorts is due to start involving the erection of a large swing and considerable animal slaughter. Unfortunately we cannot stay and head off west along the high ridge in the direction of the Nam Ou where we will pick up a boat next day back to Namsa. Day two turns out even more brutal than day one. We descend into a big valley again. Joy has some more “friends” in the village down there; a crew of young guys who have nothing to do but laze around all day in their collective bachelor pad eating giant cucumbers. We are fortunately ferried over the deep river by a friendly fisherman on his bamboo raft. He disappears round the bend singing merrily. Then it is up and up on sun-baked slopes of dry rice. It is really tough going. We finally reach another village where we are taken in warily for refreshments, the ubiquitous tea. The village men warm to us gradually under the gaze of aging Marx and Lenin posters. There are also government posters showing the villagers appropriate forest management practices. The usual crowded youngsters peer in from the periphery. The guy doing most of the talking says he has been to Phongsali once in his life. We continue on, up and down, through more gorgeous country with many rice fields so green I feel like spirulina concentrate has been smeared on my eyeballs. Passing several groups of funny, indigo-clad, older ladies out for firewood, they always ask if we have any medicine.
We reach at last our destination for the second night, Poyensankao. It is a bigger village than Changun with grander houses and even grander 360 degree vistas. The forested ridges recede into distant haze. Mr. Tongsai takes us in. He is a big, affable bachelor farmer with a tiny smattering of English. We share gifts and cigarettes. His friendly family of grandmother, mother and some very cute little cousins are more easy-going than the previous night’s. We are led to a communal dining building. The old men have eaten first and are passing a giant bamboo bong loaded with homegrown tobacco. Brass inlaid bongs are sold in souvenir shops in southern Yunnan, China. Bong smoking is presumably a hangover from the opium trade which has been in steep decline the last ten years under government pressure. In the back kitchen of the dining building, the women and children are scurrying about. The younger men gather with us to eat. Quite a spread of food is delivered. There is sweet tofu, chicken and pork stews, blood soup (tasty and mild), chilli dips and big piles of giant cress. All with sticky rice, of course. I really like sticky rice. I tuck in with gusto which pleases everyone. Stomachs fully satisfied, Mr. Tongsai leads me on a fairly long walk down to the spring, for a bath. This little pool is also the drinking water supply for the village and provision is made to separate the two areas. Little kids arrive with basketloads of bamboo carrying tubes to fill. The guys next to me are giving their locks a good scrub with laundry detergent. I imagine that might cause dandruff. Later a small crowd gathers to watch a spectacular sunset. People are low key and friendly. After dark I hear music booming from the Tongsai residence. Being on the westward end of the ridge, the villagers do have the possibility of lugging some consumer goods up from the river. Tongsai has procured a pair of giant speakers with flashing disco lights from Phogsali and rigged them up to some kind of amp and MP3 player. He is cranking them way into the red as everyone does in Asia. Lao techno-pop. I point out that the speakers are clipping and turn things down a little for grandmother’s and the neighbour’s and my benefits. 10 big bottles of warm Beer Lao arrive, also manhandled several kilometers up the ridge. That is pretty special to my mind. After the party, I sleep like a baby on thin but comfortable mattresses. Morning dawns misty for our descent. I finally need the toilet and let go a big, perfectly formed one into one of the little, litter-strewn ravines that run from the edge of the village to the steep side of the ridge. Out of sight, out of mind. We say our goodbyes, and march off for a 90-minute hike down, uneventful except for huge leeches in the lower reaches. Our longboat is waiting. We catch the bus again from Namsa. Once more I am sat on melons. Back in Phonsali I feel very content but something has changed deep inside of me. I spend the evening with painless but exceedingly lively, liquid diarrhoea. I think it was the tea. They probably don’t always boil that well water properly.
The rest of my journey was fairly uneventful. A couple of long bus journeys under grey skies to the Chinese border crossing. The journeys passed through mighty, sinuous, jungle-clad valleys that started to become monotonous after a while. I was almost sick of green. The highlight for me was watching a little kid chowing into rhinoceros beetle from his packed-lunch box. I guess those things need pretty sturdy muscles to lift all the carapace aloft. Not for me though, thanks. No bugs, no dogs. I crossed the border into PRC but much remained the same: the fake communism, the dangerous farm vehicles, the smoking of huge bongs in public places, the diversity of minority cultures, the vibrant forest clinging to improbable topography. But in China you know that things are being tightly managed. That is what gives Laos the edge – it is always a little over it.