Laos - 14 days

Trip Start Oct 10, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Monday, May 8, 2006

Northern Laos - 15 Days.

The Journey.
Chiang khong (Thailand) -> Huay Xai -> Luang Nam Tha -> Udomxai -> Luang Prabang -> Phonsavan -> Vang Vieng -> Vietianne -> Odomxai -> Huay Xai -> Chiang Mai.

There is a saying in S.E.Asia that the Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Lao's listen to it grow. While this saying may be true for the Vietnamese and Cambodians, I really feel the workload of the Lao's has been over estimated. Now I am not saying that the people of Laos are lazy, I just think that they have perfected the art of waiting. Waiting for what you ask, I am not sure that anybody knows but I am sure they will recognize it when it comes and if they happen to miss it they will catch it next time around.

Two days across the Mekong River.
I arrived at the border crossing for Laos on a Saturday morning and getting out of Thailand was a simple as getting five passport stamps, giving some cash to the border official and getting the bike onto the boat, unfortunately once I crossed the Mekong to the Laos side things did not go so efficiently. When I arrived at immigration I got all the necessary stamps and was then told to head for customs, 2 km down the road, to make sure I had the correct bike paperwork, when I got to customs they told me that immigration had to check my papers before I came to customer, so I go the 2km back to immigration to be told that customs don't know what they are talking about and go back and demand that they check your bike in. So I return once again to customs only to find that in the last 20 minutes they have closed up shop and are all out the front drinking the famous and great tasting beer Laos. 'Finish today', he says. Are you open tomorrow? 'No open Sunday, come back Monday, you want beer?', without much choice in the matter I sat and soon got into the Laos way of life over a few quiet beers with the custom officials at the border. Why do something today when you can do it tomorrow or Monday even.

On Monday morning I arrive back at customs and three hours and four stickers on my bike later I finally get all the necessary paperwork, and with the parting words from the customs guy of 'remember, insurance no pay if die', I was on my way.

The 200 or so km's I planned to ride that day turned out to be a 6 hour ride, the roads where a mixture of smooth bends with freshly laid bitumen (the Chinese are funding a new trade route) and small, rough goat tracks barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass. On the part of the road currently being worked on there was a six inch layer of fine bull dust, the kind that you find in outback Oz. Overtaking Chinese trucks driven by Laos hill-tribe people was certainly an experience but I managed to work out a system that seemed to work pretty well, the trick is to ride to the end of the dust storm the truck was leaving, then when the road was reasonable straight hit the gas and ride blind until you could see the trucks tail lights, usually about 1 meter away from the back of the truck, then hit the horn and overtake the truck and pray at the same time that nothing was coming from the other direction.

Riding the bike in Laos allows me to go to remote villages that don't see too many farang, by the reaction of some of the people I am not sure they have ever seen a wide-eye before. I would be riding along a remote dirt road and I would come across a small village, maybe 20 to 30 huts made from wood and bamboo, at first glance the place looks like a ghost town apart from the chickens, pigs, ducks and dogs that are using the road as their private grazing area, then, within a few seconds, out of the huts come young children running towards me waving and yelling 'Sa bai dee', hello, in Laos. By the time the bike has come to a full stop I am completely surrounded by children looking at me, laughing and pointing. I take out the digital camera and the kids look with interested fascination, I take a few pics. and then show them back on the ever growing crowd and there is an eruption of laughter. Down from the mountain side come some older children, maybe 14 or 15, they have AK47's strapped to their backs, at first I am a little bit apprehensive as I am not sure if I have done something to offend them, then come the shouts, 'Sa Bai dee' and even more laughter. One fella looks over my bike, 'bike good for ride mountain' he says, 'yes good for road same same as this one', I reply as I point to the mountain rode in the distance. I look over his gun, 'gun good for killing stuff', I say. 'AK47, number 1, same Honda, number 1' he answers with a grin on his face that extends from one ear to the other. I never did find out what a 14 year old kid hunts in the mountains of Laos with an AK but he was such a happy kid I doubt he could kill anything, then again maybe he is protecting his highly lucrative crop that this region of the golden triangle is famous for.

Vang Vieng is pretty much a tourist town, the main street is lined with T.V bars/resturants, you can sit in one bar and watch "Friends" and at the same time hear 4 other episodes playing in the other bars. Not really my type of place but as it was the only town in the area so I found myself there for 1 night. Almost every menu in the place has happy food or drinks, for a few extra cents you can get your meal/drinks medium happy, large happy or extra large happy. Now, I usually get my happiness from beer, but I was talked into trying a free happy martini from an owner of a bar, it was his specialty. For the next four hours I found myself sitting at a Lao style table (sit on cushions on the floor around a table), eating pizza and listening to Bob Marley talking absolute shite with a bunch of locals, it was a very funny night and I now see where the completely chilled out atmosphere comes from, everyone in the country is stoned from gunja.

Luang Prabang is a town that is listed as a world heritage town, the main street are lined with French buildings mixed in with traditional Laos temples (wats). The main street has a vibrant night market where you can see most of the hill-tribe ladies all in their traditional costumes selling their goods. Monks and novice monks dressed in bright orange wraps occupy 32 of the temples in the city and their presents walking the street, brightens up the most overcast day. After eating sticky rice and meat (not sure what meat it was) for a week, I was very appreciate of the influence the French have had on the cuisine, the best baguettes I have had in all of S.E.Asia.

I was a little bit apprehensive about going off the beaten track around Phonsavan. More bombs were dropped on Laos during the American war in Vietnam than were dropped in on Germany in the second world war. Officially the Americans never had any military personnel in Laos, they actually ran the 'Secret war' using American civilians headed by the CIA. The amount of bombs dropped means that there is an incredible amount of UXO (Un-Exploded Ordinance) in the area. So staying to the main tracks I made it to one of the sites of the plain of jars. The jars are made from carved stone blocks and range in size weighting from 600kg to 1 ton each, there are a few theories on what the jars were originally used for but none of these have been categorically confirmed. It is a strange to see green rolling hills littered with hundreds of huge stone pots and with one of the theories for use being for wine fermenters, I can imagine they has a few good parties back in 100 AD.

The night I arrived in Vientianne (the capital) the wet arrived, from then on at around 5pm the skies turned gray and the streets emptied as rain thundered down. The capital is a great town and I spent a few days sitting in restaurants or bars by the Mekong river and watching life pass by.

Laos is a truly remarkable country with a diverse range of cultures and ethnic minorities. Unfortunately I could only get a 14 day permit for my bike but my plan is to get back there is the next couple of months and travel the South of the country and head off into Cambodia.

Go hard or go home.
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