Boats, bombs, backgammon and Basques

Trip Start Jul 2003
Trip End May 2005

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Number 23 (14th September 2004 - 19th October 2004): boats, bombs, backgammon and Basques

There is a saying in SE Asia:
'In Vietnam they plant the rice,
In Cambodia they watch the rice,
In Laos they listen to it grow.'

After stepping from the boat as it gently bumped up the river bank we found ourselves standing quite still on a jungly, deserted, dusty red track somewhere in the south of Laos. Then we sat down, quite still, in the shade, and waited. Somebody in a little hut stamped our passports, and then we sat down again. When the truck driver felt quite ready to undertake the 20km journey, off we headed to the paradise of Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands, although somewhat less in the monsoon season). Here, along with the island occupants of other thatched and stilted huts over the water we kept very, very still for a couple of weeks, with waterfalls thundering away somewhere in the distance. Afternoon strolls were taken through beautiful villages, and deep and meaningful conversations were taken with thoughtful buffalo tethered by waterlogged, glow worm lined paths as spectacular sunsets went down over the wide, wide Mekong all around us. What a place.

When we felt we had listened for long enough, and had played enough cards and backgammon, we headed to Pakse in a fish-slopping pick-up with all the cold potatoes/turnips we could eat.

Ignoring wet season advice, we loaded our Basques into the back of a 4WD and headed east on to the Bolaven Plateau. Awesome waterfalls, deep muddy tracks, beautiful village and jungle scenery and local coffee (the most expensive in the world) entertained us as we bounced, waded and swam our way up to Sekong (what a sunrise) and Salavan. Could this really be the most heavily bombed place in the world?

Apparently, between 1964 and 1973, the US flew over half a million missions above eastern Laos and dropped over two million tons of bombs; 30% of this ordnance failed to explode (UXO). Villages around Salavan are riddled with ex-conflict paraphernalia, from sand-track fencing to bomb-casing flower pots. After asking around in one settlement we were treated to the village centre piece, a huge Russian SAM (surface to air missile), as live as the day it was parked there for all the local children to play on. The region was clearly as new to our driver as it was to us, and on the second day Will leaned over to ask him, jokingly, if we were lost. "Yes," he whispered, "big lost!"

From Savannakhet we bused north to the ex-pat rich Vientiane. Quiet and unassuming, to really blend in we lacked the requisite white t-shirt, beer gut and open topped ex-US army jeep (although we did manage the regular dining in swanky French restaurants). Buddha Park, overlooking Thailand, is a pretty weird place. The strangest part was the 'Apple of Life', with its three levels of heaven, earth and hell; it was certainly hell climbing in and out but the view from the top over the concrete clutter of Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist statues is pretty impressive.

We managed to get into the Lao Beer brewery, but after a few free ales failed to repeat the performance in the 'A' cigarette factory next door. We couldn't find the soap factory. Silkworms were finally eaten, although not entirely through choice (and she slapped Will's behind). More like cold McDonald's chips rather than chicken, this time. Oh, and cow pat is safe to order.

We should probably mention the neck massage in the toilets of a cabaret club, but Will refuses to go into the details (again). The same goes for Pip's visit(s) to the doctor. After sobering up, a few Colt 45s were fired before picking up our Burma visas and heading off to Vang Vieng.

Finding some of the best accommodation we'd had for a while in flower laden, stilted and thatched huts (thanks to the Lonely Planet for not featuring it), we relaxed into the entertainment of relaxing, and tubing. Tubing involves sitting in a large inner tube and floating down the river for hours, past the most spectacular jungle and karst (cave riddled limestone mountain) scenery. Climbing out every so often to crawl up through the jungle to explore an amazing cave or two is optional. Floating down the river as the sun was setting, with a light mist rolling in was quite surreal: am I really in an old, patched inner tube in the middle of a jungle-lined river in the dark? do I have any idea where I'm supposed to get out?

Reaching a river crossing at sunset as the last boat was about to cross, we knew we'd lost the Basques. Leaving Australian Pip to wait for them, we crossed to safety in colonial fashion. As the long, thin boat pulled away from the muddy bank into the slowly thickening darkness, a small fire blazed to one side. Smoke poured across the black water, gently meeting the mist drifting up river, very slowly obscuring the now faceless waving figure. To his other side a couple of silently slanting, stilted huts were just visible in the glow under the dominant, ever present jungle; if loudspeakers could have just played a little 'Riders on the storm' or 'The End', it would have been the finest Apocalyptic Now moment yet.

Dragging ourselves away from a great place (again), we continued on north to Luang Prabang. As with Esfahan in Iran, Luang Prabang has some beautiful architecture and has sacrificed itself to the god of tourism. Cheap rooms are non-existent and at night the streets fill with goods aimed at wealthy tourists off an international flight: native suits for the grandchild/nephew and bed covers for the recently vacated spare room. Forgiving the town for this unselfish sacrifice, and because it's Laos, we swapped Pip for Tom and boarded a boat for the seriously scenic seven hour jungle and karst laden voyage up to Nong Khiaw. Nestling under the misty Sleeping Princess mountain we spent a few days stumbling about in jungle far too alive with frightening crawling things/flying meatballs. Very impressed with the large cave HQ of the Pathet Lao senior command (complete with huge US bomb crater misses outside) we left, bleeding profusely from ex-leech wounds (thank goodness for smokers). A choice selection of vehicles took us, via Udomxai and Luang Nam Tha, to Muang Sing.

Mellow Tom entertained us all by hiring a bike and cycling to China, before returning unsure as to whether he'd actually been there or not (and all before breakfast). Villages in this remote area are very picturesque, with an interesting OAP retirement scheme: instead of sweating away in the rice paddies you sit outside your house and toot to oblivion on the abundant papaver somniferum (opium). This gave one village a certain Madame Tussaud's appearance as we slipped through, not even the scattering menageries drawing a blink from the elderly occupants. Whilst strolling between villages we'd regularly be met by a grinning local, complete with half-cocked crossbow, before disappearing back up some unseen path to his poppy meadows. Small markets were certainly picturesque with heavily head-dressed locals manning their 'medicinal' stalls.

A last truck ride took us to the end of the road at Xieng Kok, through a landscape shaved like a cat awaiting an operation. With Burmese jungle over the river the epicentre of the 'Golden Triangle' had been reached with hardly a poppy in sight. This is an idyllic spot where the Mekong ploughs its way through the thick, humming dark greenery in a big loop, with vines heavily draped over the unseen jungle skeleton beneath. Unfortunately, the peace is fairly regularly broken either by Chinese barges (apparently laden with local black gold), or the deep raspberry hum of chainsaws over in Burma. The latter was eventually followed by the slow, painful crack of ancient timber tearing as its 300 years of stillness are brought to a sorry end.

One final rocket of a boat took us to the end of Laos in a style not reflecting the country: extremely fast. This time going with the flow of the Mekong we donned life jackets and blasted down the river. Occasionally ducking into a previously peaceful lagoon-like inlet to hide silently from the wake of something a little too big, we'd then gun the engine and shoot out from our ambush position to fly over more rapids and hurtle around more whirlpools etc. Four hours later and it was all over and sadly for us, so was Laos.

Time really has a different meaning in Laos. As if to let us know, whilst rolling down some rapids with local children on the Bolaven Plateau the river gently took Will's watch from him, and we didn't really notice its loss. It doesn't feel lawless like Cambodia, it doesn't feel touristy like Vietnam, yet there's everything here any visitor could ever want and not much is asked for in return. With our first ever visa extension, is this as good as it gets?!

Whispering Willie and Wondering Whems
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