We are travelling through IndoChina for a few months. Starting in Laos we head south into Cambodia, then we cross into Vietnam and head north. Our journal is separated similarly and while each stands alone, they are part of one journey. We found Laos a really a pleasant place, and the locals are a very friendly and gentle people.
Vientiane: As we walk across the tarmac it looks like the old Gold Coast airport, but heavier, steamier and greener. We missed the 10 days of celebration and dragon boat races by a day, the town was littered with people and debris, the downtown guest houses are still full so we go to the Beau Rivage Hotel, about 1 km out of town on the Mekong River. The new 3 storey 10 room ‘boutique hotel’ was built, owned and managed by Gordon, an Australian from the Kimberlys. He gave us a great room looking west over the Mekong River to Thailand.
Laos is the least densely populated of Asian countries, with a population of about 6million and 500,000 people in the capital Vientiane. It’s a friendly, comfortable and interesting city, with loads of French influence and colonial architecture.
We spend a few days here, adjusting and recalibrating. Gravity, night and day, and east and west, all work fine. North – South has a minor problem with the midday shadow, time at a state level is OK but at an individual level there seems to be too much freedom in making timetables and schedules unreliable. Language was definitely flawed until we add hand-waving, so we focus on food, accommodation and transport and settle in nicely.
We walk the town, Cathy is surrounded by young Monks keen to practice English as she is to learn Lao, two hours later along with other key phrases she is able to distinguish between hot temperature and hot (spicy) food, but unable to explain the English equivalent.
Vang Vieng: A conversation with Gordon our hotel owner has us heading north to Vang Vieng, about 3 hours by minivan with 6 other tourists. Set on a river with a lush green limestone mountain backdrop,it’s a bit of a tourist destination, with kayaking, inner tube rafting, trekking, limestone caves, waterfalls, or hanging around bars watching western TV.
We find a nice guest house overlooking the river with a mountain backdrop, we relax and watch the tourists float past in tubes and kayaks, while the locals go past in canoes. We witness a canoe slam sideways into the bamboo foot bridge, the flimsy craft breaks in three, the rickety bridge develops a terminal list, while contents and the locals spill into and are carried away by the river.
We do some more recalibration, at 10.800 kip to the US$1.00 it does not take long to have a pocket full of money. Laos is incredibly good value, accommodation is US$2 – $20, a good meal is US$2-$5, and a large bottle of beer is US$0.80.
Luang Prabang: UNESCO heritage – listed Luang Prabang is the old capital and the cultural centre, seven hours further to the north. In a mid-size bus of other travellers, Cathy hones her language skills with the young Lao girlfriend of an American. The bus grinds over a mountain range, the road is paved but the wet has just finished, so much of the road is covered in mud slides, or washed into the rivers, add to this the many villages perched on the sides of the roads and children, chickens, ducks and cows are all using the road for their own activities and the going is slow.
The bus stops in mid jungle, the bus driver’s intent was not to show the passengers a snake eating a lizard in the middle of the road, but to allow him to back up and drive around the snake, such are the trials of a Buddhist bus driver.
We get some great accommodation with a veranda overlooking the tourist walking trail, directly opposite a local wat (temple) and we are kept well entertained. There is quite a mix of travellers here with backpackers from Bhutan and package tours from Bangkok. Many wats means a sea of orange as the novice monks go about their daily activities with dignity and grace. However from our veranda vantage point, in the privacy of the grounds, we observe them acting as typical young boys at play.
We briefly flirt with a two day boat up to Huay Xai on the Laos, Thai, Myanmar border, or perhaps a week or so into Yunnan in southern China. Instead we send our passports off with the local travel agent for a visa extension, anywhere else this is a definite no-no, but the Lao people seem very gentle and honest.
While we wait Cathy cooks Laos Lemongrass Chicken and John squeezes lime over his ginger fish at a cooking class in the local restaurant. Afternoons are spent lounging around enjoying foot and head massages at the local spa.
Return to Vientiane: While Laos Air offered a special discount on all flights to the end of October, all planes from Luang Prabang to Vientiane – ’they are full’ (which sounds a bit like ‘typhoon’ if you say it in a Lao accent). So we’re on the 8am bus for a 9 hour journey back to Vientiane.
It’s wet, misty and we both feel a little queasy on the windy road through the pass, the Lao ‘MTV’ karaoke DVD doesn’t help. Nine hours later we are in Vientiane catching up with Gordon in the Beau Rivage Hotel. We dine on fresh Mekong BBQ fish, rice and cold beer at a stall overlooking the river – we agree tomorrow is a rest day.
We spend the next day enjoying Vientiane, changing money and getting intelligence on transport south. The US$ is up so we change US$200 for 2 million plus Kip. The largest denomination is 20,000 Kip (US$2.00), we have a wad of notes 50 mm thick, Cathy asks “is that Kip in your pocket or are you just glad to see me……!”
The VIP buses only go at night and we want to see the scenery, so despite Gordon’s tempting invite to the expats Melbourne Cup celebrations tomorrow, we choose the 7.30 am six hour public bus south to Tha Khaek.
Tha khaek: We arrive at the bus station at 7.18 am, to be told the secret VIP bus left at 7.15 am. We are encouraged when the public bus leaves punctually at exactly 7.30am, but disappointed when we stop around the corner and wait while the driver has breakfast.
This gives us time to contemplate the bus, it has all the important parts required to be recognized as a bus, it just seems a little less maintained, a little less cared for and fits together a little less well than you normally expect a bus to be, …its just a bit too ………Bolivian.
The road south is well made and there is little traffic, our half empty bus bumps along at a slow but steady pace avoiding cows, chicken, children and the occasional buffalo. The animals are nonchalant as vehicles pass within centimetres, they have learnt that they are protected…if a driver hits one he pays… chicken US$3, duck US$6, small pig US$20, big cow $200, buffalo US$1,000. A 100% transportation efficiency gain is possible by simply changing this road rule alone in Laos.
Once out of Vientiane the country turns to scrubby low land scattered with dry rice paddies, intermittent villages, we had expected the Mekong valley to be full of lush green rice paddies. Apart from the activities of the vendors getting on and off each with their own special snacks, the villages are quiet, Cathy surmises that they are all inside organizing the celebrations and sweeps for the Melbourne Cup.
Late afternoon in Tha Khaek, we spent time seeking out espresso, internet café and transport into the hinterland. Instead we find an exciting original retro hotel and some exotic food – fried crickets, snake, and frog. So we spend time eating noodles and are entertained watching logging barges unload using an undersized crane and men in thongs, a work health and safety nightmare.
We have trouble finding transport to the hinterland. We quickly decide Tha Khaek is really just a small Lao town with little traveller infrastructure and despite the encouragement of our guidebook and neighbour Rod we decide to push on south to Pakse, where we hear the coffee rich Bolavan plateau is quite beautiful and easier to reach.
Pakse: Our 10.30am bus leaves at 11.00am, for its seven hour trip south. It was a better bus than the one from Vientiane, but very crowded, plastic seats are brought out for the discounted aisle space. We are entertained at the bus station as motorbikes and live goats are hoisted up and loaded onto the roof. A young British couple, join us on the bus, they are skateboarding around the world and have their skateboards attached to their backpacks. As they said, people walk, bike and bus around the world, why not skateboard, so John asks ‘well what are you doing on the bus?’
The crowded bus stops regularly for a good dose of chaos, in no special order…passengers get off, passengers get on, cargo is loaded, cargo is unloaded, vendors get on and squeeze down the aisle with their smorgasbord of foods, then the bus moves on … and harmony is restored.
The driver stops to commiserate with a fellow bus driver who unfortunately hit an even more unfortunate cow. Negotiations are under way, stranded passengers and local villagers replay and discuss the finer points of the accident and attribute blame, the cow is silent on the matter.
It’s dark by the time we arrive at the Pakse bus terminal, we take a tuk tuk to town, find a nice guest house overlooking the Mekong, walk to a local hotel with a US$2.00 buffet and decide tomorrow is another rest day.
There are quite a few travellers in Pakse, its two major claims to fame are the fertile and cool Bolavan Plateau (best coffee in Asia) and the Mekong River – Four Thousand Islands and rapids, and it’s easy to get to either. We are keen to see the hinterland and are planning to cross into Cambodia via the river anyway.
Bolavan Plateau : We set off at 8 am for our day tour of the Bolavan plateau, with our hire car and driver Mr Ed, it is not as spectacular as we had imagined but it did give us an opportunity to get into the countryside. We saw miles of coffee plantations, several spectacular waterfalls, some very poor villages, a couple of look-alike markets, some traditional weaving….. and quite a bit of afternoon rain…. a good thing we passed on the two day overnight tour. It’s time for us to move onto Cambodia.
To Cambodia: The information on Mekong crossing to Cambodia and Phnom Penh, remains unreliable, it seems it is sometimes open and sometimes closed. So an US$80 air ticket for a one hour flight from Pakse (Laos) to Siem Reap (Cambodia) is just too tempting to pass up.