Category Archives: Laos

Laos – Straight to the roundup

Sorry guys, I did half write a post a couple of weeks ago but then managed to get a mystery illness and didn’t quite finish it. In truth the pair of us have had sensitive stomachs for our entire time in Laos. We put it down to the heavy handed use of spices. There’s nothing subtle about the cuisine, a typical menu item might be stir fried ginger with chicken, note it’s not the other way around. Some of the chili dishes will blow your head off.

The following opinion of Laos is mostly mine as John doesn’t feel quite as strongly as I do. I’m sure he’ll make his own comments on this post.

Laos is largely rural, very beautiful and the way of life is idyllic. There are cows, chickens, goats, pigs and water buffalo running around freely. It sounds absolutely amazing doesn’t it? Well it is. but……..

It drives me mad!!!

Everyone is asleep all the time, quite cute at first but when the restaurant waitress actually has a bed in the dining room and you have to wake her to pay the bill you realise Laos is in an alien universe compared to surrounding Asian countries. In the South hardly anything is ever open and if it is then it will be closed for about two and a half hours at lunch time. Our 7 hour bus to Vientiane set off an hour and a half later than advertised and then stopped after half an hour for an hour long break! The first boat we got to the Thai border took 12 hours instead of 9 and we ended up hiking up a sand dune in the pitch black with our heavy back packs on. None of the locals bat an eyelid at this.

The South of Laos is different from to North. We found the people in Southern Laos much more interested in talking to us and much more likely to say hello and smile in the street. So, although Savannakhet was that sleepy you had to check its pulse it was more charming than frustrating. Although the people seemed to have little ambition in life, other than doing as little work as possible, they seemed happy. We’re sure this is how Southern Laos has managed to keep it’s innocence from the money making obsessions of much of the rest of the world. So I suppose if the people were not so irritatingly slack and unambitious the country would be in the same kind of rat race trap as everywhere else.

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With the exception of our wonderful trek to a traditional village (more about that later) I found Laos like watching a film of a place rather than being there. The people are friendly enough but difficult to integrate with. We didn’t meet any real interesting characters who enjoyed talking to us and wanted to hear about our lives back home. It’s difficult to describe but we’ve been to Laos but only seen it and not really felt it. I found the experience a little bland to be honest.

The capital, Vientiane, had a nice balance of being relaxed but not in a coma. We only spent a short time there but it had a really nice vibe to it. It had some stunning old temples too. I wish we’d stayed longer. It was nice to drink a beer by the river at night where we both witness the most spectacular thunderstorm yet. show_random($num=4, $tags=’ blog_2006615a’); ?>

When we headed North, passing through beautiful mountain scenery, we found a very different Laos. A Laos overrun by western tourists and although still very pretty I found it soulless. There were just too many tourists and too few Lao. Not to say the place was packed with people but nine out of ten people you passed in the street were westerners. It was pleasant and very relaxing, I cannot complain about that. There was just nothing to get excited about really, again, there was virtually no integration between visitors and locals. I’m pretty sure that Northern Laos has gone from being a hidden gem to a tourist hangout in a matter of a couple of years. Time will tell whether the South goes the same way. That would be a shame.

Now that you’ve had a feel for the place it’s time for the usual good and bad list, I’ll not repeat any of the stuff from above.

GOOD

Our hands-down highlight was a two day trek to a remote village of Ban Phonsim in the South of Laos. It was a truly amazing experience. The village is seldomly visited by westerners so we had a very special welcome and a great time interacting with the locals. I ended up weaving cotton in a rather hopeless manner and John went out in the evening to play football with the locals. All was hilarious and the villagers were absolutely charming.

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In the evening all the village elders gathered for our welcoming ceremony. All came to us individually to pass on their best wishes which were sealed in knotted cotton bracelets and tied around our wrists. This all happened while we held up a roast chicken on a china plate, it got a bit heavy after a while! After a toast with the local fire water our host asked us to translate the contents of his unicef medical package. He didn’t know what half the stuff in there was! Perhaps a weakness in the aid plan!?

The following morning, kitted out in traditional Laos dress, we went to give alms to the village monks. An experience that John found amazing and I found terrifying. We’ll certainly not forget it in a hurry.

Bad

ANNOY(nearly bit not quite his real name) – The most rude and atrocious tour guide we’ve had yet. show_random($num=1, $tags=’blog_20060615b’); ?>

He was our young guide and translator from Savannakhet on our visit to Ban Phonsim. Fortunately we didn’t allow him to spoil such an incredible experience but he was lazy, disrespectful and self obsessed. He constantly talked down to me and never addressed me directly, only John. He couldn’t be bothered to tell us about anything we were seeing and rarely translated. We ended up using what little French we knew with the older villagers, which was actually fun and better in the end. Annoy was constantly complaining about how far he had to walk on the treks and stopping to sleep for an hour, leaving us stranded. We have a list as long as John’s arm (yes, much longer than mine) about this guy. It would get far too boring to write them all down. I’m sure John might want to mention another couple in his comment.

YOUNG CHILDREN(apart from the ones in Ban Phonism)

Yes, it was back to screaming and tantrums. There are some unbelievably spoilt children in Laos! What a difference a border makes, someone at a university should go and find out why. Come on Universities! Get on with it!

Guns and goats

Since Viv last wrote we’ve left Vietnam and now find ourselves in a the laid-back capital of Asia, Laos. We should fit right in!

And so to bring you up to date on our antics since Viv last wrote….

We left Saigon and headed back to the centre of Vietnam on a loooong sleeper train. Managed to somehow get a compartment all to ourselves, it all felt very decadent until the train food arrived – Vietnam has the worst train food I’ve ever experienced. Yes, worse than soggy British rail sandwiches with cucumber in them, eugh! It is at least free but probably because there would be riots if they tried to charge for it. It’s actaully quite a cunning ruse – give the passengers some horrible food for free and then come around with moderately nicer food that you have to pay for. You buy it just to remove the lingering horrible taste in your mouth that the free muck left you with.

We got off the train in Dong Ha and the following day went for a tour round various war sites in the DMZ on the back of motorbikes. It was great fun bezzing around on motorbikes and a great way to see the countryside and rural life too. Almost every group of children that we passed would wave at us and shout “Heellloooooo!!” and then collapse in a fit of giggles when you shout back “Sin Jow!” over the hum of the motorbike engine. It was quite surreal viewing the war remnants and junk as it is all very peaceful now. Trying to imagine this place as a barren expanse of land, home to nobody and with the whirr of B-52 bomber engines from above and explosions and gunfire on the ground was hard. It really didn’t seem like the same place that we had seen war photos of only a few days previously such is the extent that life and normality has returned to this area. There were only occasional reminders of the war that was so recently and intensely fought on these lands: a bullet scarred bunker, a ruined bridge, bomb craters, a tank shell.

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One thing you can certainly say about the Vietnamese is that they are an incredibly resourceful lot. To avoid having their villages razed by bombers they built an underground network of tunnels and living quarters that entire villages would live in, they lived in them for 6 years. Seeing the cramped and dingy conditions that they would have lived in at the Vinh Moc tunnels was a real eye-opener to the lengths that people will go to survive.

The tour was a lot of fun and our guide was great for adding a bit context; he was a South Vietnamese veteran who spent 5 years at a ‘re-education camp’ after the war ended along with our guesthouse owner. We’d recommend the DMZ cafe in Dong Ha and their DMZ tour – the rooms are cheap and clean and the tour was fun.

There’s nothing much else of any interest in Dong Ha so we took a bus to the Laos border the very next day. The journey to the border was a little hairy at times, the driver seemingly deriving his driving ‘talents’ rather too much from the Indian school of vehicle pilotry. We made it to the border safely and getting through border security was a breeze – the most lax border crossing we’ve been to yet for sure which is great for us as it means no hassle and less queues.

The bus journey on the other side was an interesting experience too. The passenger bus also doubles as a goods truck and it seemed there was as much produce crammed on to it as you would usually be able to fit in a reasonable sized truck – sacks of potatoes stacked 3 high in the aisle, boxes under our feet and all sorts piled high on the roof. Not too soon after we had set off we realised that this bus probably wasn’t quite so dangerous as it first appeared being that it never got above 30mph and the roads were very good with barely another soul on them.

The bus journey really made us realise just what a difference a border makes. Almost all of the houses along the way were of the traditional wooden-stilted type and their inhabitants seemed largely non-plussed about tending to their arid and parched fields, instead choosing to sit/lie around chatting or sleeping. Laos only has a population of 6 million and we reckon there are probably more goats here than there are people, at least going by our 6 hour bus journey here – there’s shit loads of them! We both like goats – very comical looking creatures. If we ever have a lawn again we reckon that a goat is the order of day for keeping the grass short rather an lawn-mower. It would surely enhance our lives with many a comedy-caper to be had chasing the goat down the road and appeasing Mildred at number 32 when the goat had escaped and eaten all of her begonias, again.

We arrived in Savannakhet last night, the southern capital of Laos but with more of a small town feel to it, at about 7. About all there was time for last night was an gorgeous Thai-influenced meal and a Beer Laos by the Mekong looking over to the bright lights of Thailand on the other side. We’re looking forward to exploring the rest of Laos, it seems a really chilled out and fun place to be.

Until next time,
John