I decided to visit Laos and Myanmar mainly because they were the only two countries I had never visited in South-East Asia (along with Timor Leste, but this is a bad season to go). Being on the road with limited internet access, I must say I landed in Laos with little idea of what I was going to do, or about the country in general.
The first thing that struck me was the presence of French. The former colonial language still has some sort of official status in the “communist” country, and is common in business, government and education. Furthermore, since French tourists come here by the busloads (literally), some French is spoken in tourist-oriented businesses, even by young people.
While I couldn’t care less about French signs, I was delighted to discover French baking was also left behind by the former rulers. This little baguette tuna sandwich might not seem very impressive to you, but to me, it was pure delight. The last time I had eaten really good baguette style bread was probably in Cape Town around October. The little lady running this street stand even put the bread on a little bowl of hot coals before making the sandwich, turning the simple sandwich into a warm, toasted marvel. Best of all, it was not rice!
The capital city of Laos, Vientiane, also has obvious colonial influences in the city layout. Lane Xang Avenue is the Champs Elysées of sorts, and important buildings, such as the Prime Minister’s Office, are located along it.
In 1962, the US Government donated countless tons of concrete to Laos, for them to build a much needed new runway at the capital’s airport. This is what they used the concrete for: the Victory Gate of Vientiane (Patuxay). The Americans called it the vertical runway. Truth be told, it is quite ugly.
The surprising thing is how candidly locals acknowledge its ugliness. This sign is affixed to the monument and refers to it as a “monster of concrete”! The lesson to learn is that triumphal monuments like this should be made of stone, not concrete. If you are a poor country and cannot afford all that stone, make a much smaller monument, of stone. The Patuxay reminded me of the plaster lions some people put in front of there suburban bungalows.
Monument to King Anouvong, the last king of Laos. For some reason, he is revered by locals, despite his small strategic mistake of starting a war with Thailand. This resulted in the Thai razing Vientiane to the ground and annexing half the country, and Anouvong moving to Bangkok, where he lived the rest of his life, in an iron cage. So basically, as I understand it, the people of Laos are devout Buddhists, deeply respectful of Monarchy, and… they’re communists. So simple, really.
Not having planned anything for my visit, I just hit the important touristic attractions indicated on a map. Nice sites. Here are a few pictures.
You can tell when a country hasn’t quite yet mastered the tourism thing. Major improvements, such as proper restoration of national monuments, or redevelopment of the downtown waterfront, take both time and large investments. Towing a car takes neither, yet this Toyota carcass sits along the fence between the Haw Pha Kaew, one of the most important temples in the city, and the Presidential Palace!
Intent on crossing the land border into Thailand, I headed north by bus into the small town of Vang Vieng. In a matter of less than a decade, Vang Vieng was transformed from a little fishing village to some sort of backpacker mecca, with row upon row of generic restaurants serving tasteless fares (and drugs) to young people who sit there for countless hours watching re-runs of the Simpsons on large screen televisions. The kind of travel experience that blurs the line between seeing the world and just doing nothing somewhere other than in your parent’s basement.
When I saw this sign, my first reaction was actually not one of understanding. I thought that if you want to benefit from hordes of tourists who spend money in your little river side town, you should accept that people will not dress very formally. Then I saw girls in “downtown” restaurants in tiny bikinis and transparent shawls. Basically “outfits” that would even get looks in Barcelona, if you are more than 50 m from the beach.
As it turns out, Vang Vieng attracts a certain kind of tourist. The principal activity, which the town got famous for, is to get trucked 4 km outside of town, and come back floating along the river on a truck inner tube. As it grew in popularity, 30 bars were built along the itinerary, with water slides, swing ropes and other such contraptions. Last year, the Government ceased to be blissfully unaware of what was going on in tiny Vang Vieng and, upon realizing there had been over 20 drownings in 2011 alone, it cracked down big time. Not only were 27 bars closed; they were demolished, along with all swing lines and other such attractions. If you just went tubing down this shallow, quiet river, you would have to try very hard to hurt yourself in any way. Of course, jumping in your tube from various ledges, at night, drunk, after trying opium for the first time, may produce a different outcome.
I stopped for a beer at the second bar. This guy took a bottle of rum on the river. I can only imagine how crazy it must have been a year ago.
Doing it the sober way, with Ricardo, a Portuguese guy working for the UN in Timor Leste. Not exactly fast paced action, but a very pleasant activity.
The area around Vang Vieng is also full of hiking trails, caves, lagoons and other things to visit. Also, the karst formations are quite nice around the town and along the river. I am not usually keen on renting motorbikes, but the traffic in this part of Laos is very light, so I went for it. I can now confirm that a scooter is not a proper off-road vehicle.
A steep 45 min climb up a local mountain offers nice views of the area, but the air is very hazy and limits photographic opportunities.
I guess you have already recoiled in horror at this picture of an ogre’s back, but rest assured, it is in fact, a rock. Roots managed to get through the roof of the shallow “Flower Cave”, near Vang Vieng, and they grow along this rock, capturing moisture from the air, I suppose.
From Vang Vieng, I embarked on a 7h bus journey, which of course took longer than that. After about 30 minutes, the bus broke down after it failed to climb the gentle hill you see in front of it. I imagined scenarios involving taking other buses, sleeping somewhere along the way, prolonged stays in a garage, but the most improbable thing happened. After 45 minutes of the driver (in the red shirt) fiddling with the engine and trying, in vain, to get up the hill, he started it again and off we went, without any troubles for the next 8 hours.
I don’t quite remember what I did in Luang Prabang. Judging from my pictures, not much. I remember being caught in a restaurant, waiting for the rain to stop, getting a bad massage in that restaurant’s so-called “spa” (aka the balcony in the back, above the kitchen), and meeting another Canadian long-term traveller, who was really interesting to talk to. I could tell he was a young guy, but he looked older than his actual age (probably the travel beard). We checked-in the same hotel and I copied off his check-in book entries, which is faster than looking all the way up the column headers. “His name”, I put my name, “what looks like a passport number”, I wrote mine down, “A date in 1994”: what’s that? Look up: birthdate! What? People were born in 1994?!? I was shocked. The fall of the Berlin Wall? The Gulf War? To him, that’s like the Moon landing or Elvis Presley to me! Wait, actually, it’s not: I was alive when Elvis died!!! Uhhh… getting old…
Since I was lazy in my explorations of Laos, I will try to compensate with silly shots I took all around the country. This billboard was in the capital. In South-East Asia, like in most of the World, the whiter you are, the more beautiful you are (except of course, where white people live, then it’s the opposite – go figure). That being said, this is getting silly; I’ve never seen a Swede as white as these Laotian kids!
I didn’t ask how this happens, but I know how it happens in Vietnam and I will assume the explanation is the same. The electrical grid grows without an actual plan or methodology. Soon, nobody knows what line is what. When a building suffers a power failure, tracing the problem is too difficult, so they simply add a new line!
After my bus broke down, we stopped in a roadside store and I bought a bag of emergency calories, in case we got stranded somewhere. I saw “hot and spicy” and grabbed the bag. I had missed the word “crab”; it was not an positive experience.
At the same roadside stop, I saw this horrible thing which I cannot explain. Judging from the little glasses next to it, people drink this potion!
And finally, the ridiculously poorly translated tourism police rules for hotel owners and clients. I’m the first one to give a break to anyone making the effort to communicate something to me in English, but when you make a one-pager official Government document which is going to be posted is all hotels in the country, you think you would show it to your kid’s English teacher or at least some random expat first. My favourite one: “Do not allow domestic and international tourist bring prostitute and others into your accommodation to make sex movies in our room, it is restriction”. With my pornographic projects destroyed, I promptly left the country.