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Arriving in Laos

Laos Travelogues

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The boatman, still clutching our money, leveraged our boat into the rusty silt of the mighty Mekong. Keeping our profile low we hunched over our bags like fugitives keeping off the main roads and restricted to crossing borders by long antiquated transport. The border guards of Thailand were behind us and all that lay between Laos and us were lazy, corrupt communist officials and the Mekong - red as if from the blood of millions. The put-put-put of the engine resonated across the water and despite myself I couldn’t help but think it would give the game away.

Sweat dripped from my forehead onto my paper work, while the Lao officials stamped our passports without a second glance. As we struggled up the incline from the pier to Huay Xai mainstreet we got our first glance of Laos, and while the town may only be a stone’s throw away from Thailand it is worlds apart. The border town is something like a cross between a Wild West ghost town and a sleepy Mediterranean village, with bottles of wine and cassis taking up the prime retail positions outside apparently deserted shops.

I’m sure things happen in Huay Xai, they just weren’t happening then and it didn’t look like they would be happening anytime soon. Bicycles inched up the main street at a speed that in no way justified their use. Nippy mopeds, that dominate Italian towns, weren’t nippy and riders held umbrellas, small children and conversations as they crawled past the bicycles. As much as we often yearn for life to be simpler, it takes time to slow our MTV lifestyle down to the cardiac flat line that is Laos and we found ourselves talking and walking faster than anyone else.

Money too was going to be problem. The local currency, the Kip, is all but worthless. We changed fifty dollars at the border, double-taking when we were presented with three inches of currency – 260 notes in total (455,000 Kip). With the biggest note in circulation worth 50 cents and the smallest just half a cent, the local currency wasn’t going to fit into our money belts or even our pockets. The large wads would have to be unceremoniously dumped into our packs. We weren’t the only people with such problems. Local market women carry their day’s takings in plastic bags and children run errands holding a fist of cash that would make a crack dealer’s eyes widen. Going through our currency, admiring the communist imagery, we were struck by a 500 Kip note (5 cents), that had obviously been torn in half and meticulously repaired with a strip of bandage that, in the West, would have cost more than the note. On the positive side I doubt if the Kip has a counterfeiting problem. (note -we later found that it does)

Border towns are never the most pleasant but we found Huay Xai to be enchanting during our brief stay there. The gruff, stoic façade of the inhabitants was easily penetrated to reveal friendly but reserved people, not as sure as the Thais of part they played in the hospitability game. The true nature of these fun loving people became apparent after we ordered spicy green papaya salad, one of our favourite dishes. The ladies of the guesthouse delivered it to our table, smirking despite themselves. “It may be a bit hot,” they warned. Hot? Spice so strong that it ceases to be a flavour - 3, 4, 5 alarm hot, even after three beers and an hour our lips felt like they were peeling back. The ice now broken, we were treated like family.

Laos’ transportation infrastructure is so bad that in the rainy season it can often be faster to take a two-day slow boat journey rather than risk the 200km “road” to Luang NamTha. We were told that the rains hadn’t swollen our river enough to make it safely navigable so road was only option. Road is what they call it, and I suppose by some definition it is a road, just one that has never seen tarmac and is intersected by numerous rivers and streams. The bus was yet another revelation, it was a Honda pickup with two thinly padded parallel benches and rough roof welded onto the back. Worryingly the number 15 was stencilled on the side of our vehicle, however no matter which way I looked at it I still couldn’t figure how fifteen people were going to fit into it. We stood around with other travellers nervously eying our increasing numbers, but luck was on our side and we left with just 13 people – enough space to get both buttocks on a bench but not enough for everyone to sit back at the same time.

One of the things that had been missing from our travels was the camaraderie of like-minded travellers. In India the traveller to local populace ratio was infinitesimal, and opportunities to meet other Westerners comparatively rare. Thailand has become such a party destination that finding others of a similar mindset amongst the throng of pill poppers and lager louts can be difficult. Here, in Laos, it was different; every Westerner in the back of the truck was pushing thirty, had given up their jobs and was eager to see what the world had to offer before the inevitability of age caged them.

The journey took ten spine-crunching hours, yet it went faster then some 4-hour bus journeys I have been on. The company was good and we enjoyed swapping stories of wonder and woe. When we tired of conversation the spectacular landscape and the local children’s reaction to the novelty of our passing proved distraction enough from the discomfort of the journey. In Huay Xai, we had commented that Laos wasn’t as poor as we had expected it to be. Here, on a provincial road, we got to see how the majority of people in this ecologically pristine country live. Bamboo huts, no better than poor garden sheds on stilts, housed the majority these near-subsistence farmers. We were saved from pondering their difficult circumstances by the hugely excited children waving and screaming at us.

Finally, just as I thought the blood would never return to my bum, we arrived in Luang Namtha.

Pictures - click to enlarge
Picture of Laos currency kip Laos Travelogues
Photograph of Barbara with 450,000 Kip Laos Travelogues
$50 in Kip

450,000 Kip

Picture of a mountian of money - Laos Travelogues
Photograph of the jungle Laos Travelogues
Money changer displays $30-40,000 in local market
70% forest coverage gives Laos a pristine ecology

Picture of a typical village Laos Travelogues
Picture of a buffalo Laos Travelogues
Typical Laos village