Laid Back in Laos

Land-locked Laos; just a long streak of a country full of jungly mountains in the north running to flat-ish paddy-field plains to the south, all bordered to the west by the Mekong river that forms a natural frontier with Thailand and Cambodia. The ‘Lao People’s Democratic Republic’, to give the nation its full title, is also one of the last five remaining communist nations, the others being China, Vietnam, Cuba and North Korea. Like other land-locked nations in less developed parts of the globe, Laos has been doomed to relative poverty and corruption. It also has the dubious title as one of the most bombed places on earth, the consequence of unparalleled US interdictions during the Vietnam War over thirty years ago.

On the face of it Laos didn’t seem to have much to offer as a travel destination. Even their tourist board slogan ‘simply beautiful…’ seemed a bit of a muted effort to entice tourists. Having previously travelled through older communist / socialist states, Yugoslavia (before the break up) and Algeria, it was noticeable how government interference in day to day life made those places seem dreary by stifling ambition and innovation in an attempt to ‘level out’ society with the exception of the hypocrites at the top who set the rules and then ignore them. Still we were ready for a change and, as we well know, travelling with low expectation is never a bad thing…

We exited Thailand via the most northerly border crossing with Laos at Chiang Khong via an impressive modern customs terminal where we were all stamped up and escorted over the bridge across the Mekong to the equally impressive Laos customs terminal at Houey Xai. It cost $35 each for a visa on arrival and then a friendly customs guy quickly processed our vehicle carnets and we were in. The first few days provided a steady diet of marvelous mountain roads, every bit as stunning as the Mae Hong Song loop had been in Thailand but this time the roads were a kind of Laotian lullaby that slowed down not only our riding but even our breathing and general pace of life, all fitting stuff as it delivered us into the gentle embrace of Luang Prabang. ‘Sai-ba-dee’ said Mr Thang, the young receptionist at the Villa Maha Sok, welcoming us with the traditional Laotian greeting before showing us to our cool room. Luang Prabang is Laos’ second city and cultural capital, yet it felt more like a small French provincial town nestled on a peninsula at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers. The city has been fittingly declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a mix on the Mekong of Buddhist Temples and French colonial dwellings all just a stroll away down heady-scented, flower festooned lanes.

We enrolled for a day of cookery lessons that started with a mooch ‘round the market to stock up on ingredients followed by an afternoon on the wok to cook both lunch and dinner. A sedate river cruise took us to see some old caves at Pak-O and a short ride on the bikes deposited us at the utterly delectable Kuang-Si waterfalls, far and away the prettiest waterfalls on the planet. Here we hiked through the glorious nest of cascades and swam in turquoise waters, sampling our first piscine foot pedicure into the bargain. Luang Prabang could easily run for the title of ‘most laid back place on the planet’ and we easily found new excuses not to leave. Even as I sit here and write this I can feel its draw, enticing me back…

It has helped that we are travelling off-season so, although there have been one or two rain-showers, there are no crowds and accommodation comes at bargain rates with easy availability. However darker clouds loomed on our horizon as we received news of militant hill-tribes being involved in a number of shootings directly on our route south on Highway 13, the main road from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, the Laotian capital.   In March this year a bus came under automatic weapons fire, being hit 27 times, killing one Chinese tourist and wounding another 6. Then, in the previous week, a Laotian army captain was shot dead in an ambush against the military sent in to quell the trouble. Nine of the attackers were also killed in the ensuing firefight. Asking around it seems that the hill tribes are upset about land grants from government officials to Chinese immigrants; upset enough to take this drastic action. We pondered the map and the only alternatives to travelling this main road were to either backtrack all the way into Thailand and miss the rest of Laos or take to mountain trails into the heart of hill-tribe country; probably not a wise move. In the end we decided to continue with some assurance from the military presence in the area to keep the road open. If we were turned back at one of their roadblocks then so be it.

In the event, had we turned back, we would have missed one of the most awesome motorcycling roads on the planet. With switch-backs and chicanes, S-bends and U-bends, hairpins and dog-legs this was a road that cambered and careered all over a jungle-rendered mountain ridgeline that took us high up onto the clouds. We passed through tumble down villages that periodically lined the road, humble hooch shacks made from rattan and bamboo and our only interaction all day was returning the maniac smiles and waves from the hordes of grubby urchins as we passed. Our destination was the backpacker town of Vang Vieng and what a beautiful setting for the end of this magnificent day on the road as sugar loaf hanging-mountains lined the valley, a serration of backdrop guaranteed to make the jaw drop.

But then the town itself and what utter horror after the sweet florid backstreets of Luang Prabang! Vang Vieng; a tourist ‘Deadwood’, a wild-west town with chewed up muddy streets lined with backpacker hostels, lean-tos and saloons. The lovely mountain views were now obliterated by new-build, high-rise complexes rendered in foul concrete, all shooting up their re-bar’d upperworks clawing the very sky. Here was unrestrained tourism gone crazy, the opposite end of the spectrum to Luang Prabang. We stayed for a day, sampled some of the bad food on offer and found nothing here to dispel our initial impressions of the town. An afternoon hike into the nearby mountains provided some compensation and, with the view of Vang Vieng firmly at our back, it led us into some truly spectacular country.

Vientiane, our next stop, is the administrative capital and we found it a place of somewhat moderate charm. We spent a relaxing weekend exploring the city on a pair of bicycles from the hotel. Once again the abundance of flowers were providing an assault on both scent and vision. I had my eye to the camera to capture a beautiful five-petaled white blossom when the bush spoke to me… “Frangipani” it said. “Oh err…” I replied somewhat startled. “Frangipani. It’s the name of that flower. Did you know it’s the national flower of Laos? Beautiful isn’t it?” I turned to discover that I wasn’t going potty after all and that Mags was chatting with Ruth, a lively backpacker who had just enlightened us with the identification of this beautiful flower. And so a delightful friendship began, founded in in the peaceful aroma of flora. Over a lively dinner that evening we learned how Ruth and her husband Ian have been on the road for nearly a year, trekking in the Himalayas and through China. She has a fair pen for a blog too as you will see if you visit their travel site at the following link: Ian & Ruths blog

Laos the country, we were finding, is a fantastic travel destination. However we were detecting a slight air of indifference from the Laotian people who seemed somewhat sullen in their demeanour. Don’t get me wrong, we are most definitely not attention seekers but we have grown accustomed to a certain level of interest in our endeavour especially when rolling into town on a pair of never-seen-before bright yellow motorcycles. This normally encourages a lively level of engagement and it’s one of the reasons we love motorcycle travel, as the bikes themselves are such great icebreakers when you arrive at a new destination. Yet even without the bikes, in many service scenarios in shops or restaurants, there is an evident air here of ‘couldn’t care less’ from staff that continually raises the question ‘do you really want my business?’ We have heard the same opinion expressed by other travellers in Laos. Perhaps, given the country’s recent history, there is a mistrust of all foreigners? In both Luang Prabang (UXO Visitor Centre) and Vientiane (COPE exhibition) we learned more about that history and its tragic consequences.

During the Vietnam War, the Ho-Chi Minh Trail was established through eastern Laos. This infamous North Vietnamese supply route was used to move materiel from North Vietnam under the cover of jungle trails through neutral territory and deliver this to the Viet Cong rebels fighting insurgency operations in South Vietnam. The US decided something had to be done to halt the traffic and set about obliterating the trail. Both North Vietnam and the US denied they had any involvement or personnel in Laos. Consequently, there were no ‘rules of engagement’ to restrict the US operations that were applicable to operations against North Vietnam where they were anxious to appear as liberators so ‘no bombing temples’ etc. Instead Laos was carpet-bombed with more ordinance than was dropped during the entire Second World War.

The statistics made for grim reading. Between 1964 and 1973 more than 2-million tons of ordinance were dropped in over half a million sorties by US air power. A significant proportion of the munitions dropped were cluster type weapons, a sort of aerial shotgun that delivered sub-munitions (known as ‘bombies’) designed to saturate entire areas with anti-personnel mines that would later explode on contact with enemy troops moving through the area. Despite all efforts, the trail kept moving and so the missions continued and the bombing escalated. At one stage even detergents were dropped to make the mud slimier to restrict movement.

Some of the larger individual cluster weapons contained up to 600 ‘bombies’ and, of these, an estimated 78-million failed to explode and have remained dormant where they were dropped. Add to this dud artillery / mortar rounds and conventional unexploded aerial bombs and there is a horrific amount of live ammo or ‘UXO’ (Un-eXploded Ordinance) just waiting for contact to detonate. Around 200 people are killed each year. The victims are mostly innocents, from kids who pick up an appealing little cluster bomb that looks like a funny metal pineapple to farmers trying to work land that has already been seeded with a lethal crop. There are also casualties from folk trying to dismantle unexploded bombs for salvage, a lucrative proposal in impoverished Laos where a single 700-pound bomb can yield around $200 in scrap metal, a huge windfall when you consider the average annual income here is an estimated $1200.

Cluster bombs are a legacy from the Cold War, designed for use against the mass armies of the Soviet Union should they ever try and steamroll across Western Europe but they have sadly gained their main deployment in Laos and neighbouring Cambodia as a counter-insurgency weapon. Laos has initiated the ‘Convention on Cluster Munitions’, an international treaty prohibiting the use, transfer and stockpile of cluster bombs. It has been adopted by over 100 nations since its launch in 2008 but sadly the main proponents of cluster weapons, USA, Israel, Russia and China have not signed up.

We had a pleasant ride south through the Laotian lowlands with a pleasant day scrambling over the Khmer ruins at Wat Phou (pronounced ‘Poo’), a spectacular curtain-raiser for Angkor Wat just down the road in Cambodia. Our final halt in Laos was on the island of Don Khong in the ‘Si Phan Don’ region, land of the ‘Four Thousand Islands’. Here the mighty Mekong spreads into an area 14-kilometres wide looking, from the air, like a huge tray of brittle toffee that has been dropped on the ground to crackle and splinter into millions of little channels. The power of the Mekong is perhaps at its most spectacular at the Li-Phi Falls where it cascades through a myriad of spectacular broken ground on its journey south.

This is the land of Laid-Back Laos were days simply went by in a series of east bank sunrises and west bank sunsets on the Mekong made all the more pleasurable over a brace of Lao-Lao whisky cocktails. Laos has been a delightful surprise; in the balance it is a charming and magical travel destination and a place we are finding so hard to leave…

The photogallery for this posting is available by clicking the following link: Laos





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