Sunday, March 14, 2010


20/1/10 – 12/2/10
Laos isn’t part of the carnet system, but customs insist on stamping ours anyway. Do we care? Nup. Sure don’t. Come one, come all and stamp the bloody carnets. We paid enough for the stupid things, and as long as it makes the bureaucrats feel better and makes our lives easier, they can stamp any official looking bits of paper they want.

Can we see the big yellow passports please?
“Sure. Here you go.”

On the way into Vientiane driving on the right is strange, but not so hard. Its much easier on a motorbike than in a car, and Asian traffic is generally so chaotic it doesn’t really matter half the time. That said, it doesn’t take long to figure out that Laotians are pretty poor drivers.

The guesthouse in town has a bit of character and the people here seem more interesting than your average tourist. Real travellers. Which is all just as well, because it rains for the next three days.

Walking the damp streets one night we discover something which comes as quite a surprise. Something which gives our naive perspective of the world a little bit of a shake. You see we thought Laos was not only a communist country, but also one of the poorest places on earth. And we thought the Aston Martin DB9 was a Footballers’ car. Something, even in a western country, you’re more likely to see on an episode of Top Gear than toodling down to the shops. But here one is. And a Skyline GTR, a Ferrari F430, a Porsche Cayenne Turbo.... and so on.

The fact that cars like these exist in this city is incredible enough, but what’s even more astonishing is how anyone with any sort of common decency could actually drive one through town. Its like flipping your middle finger at the majority of the population. Fuck you pal, I’m rich. Comin through. I’ve milked your government for every cent and ferreted it away offshore. Get outta my way.

Its also a little surprising to see how some of the monks and novices live when we’re invited one rainy afternoon into the living quarters of one of the city wats. Pulling back the curtain of a monk’s room reveals a Sony home theatre, Toshiba laptop and LG flat panel TV. Oh-Kaaay. Realigning our perceptions yet again, we back away from the room. Obviously there are degrees of austerity.

The rain finally starts to clear and it doesn’t take long to leave the (relative) congestion of Vientiane behind. It takes a full day of riding on the wrong side of the road for things to start to gel, by which time we’re rolling into Vang Vieng.

Vang Vieng. How to describe Vang Vieng? Well for starters the original town is no longer in Vang Vieng, having instead moved north a couple of kilometres. Why? Because Laos has adopted the Thai model for tourism and gone completely overboard with falang restaurants and guesthouses. Everywhere there’s a hint of tourism potential, the old is knocked down to make way for the new. The falang move in and the locals move out.

Ok, so nothing new there. The reason this place is on the backpacker map comes down to three things. Cheap beer, cheap drugs and a stunning limestone karst-lined river, on which you can float your cares away on a rubber inner-tube. Preferably smashed, or stoned, or both. In fact its almost obligatory to come here and get shit-faced.

The main street is lined with cafes serving falang food laced with weed, mushies, heroin, or something whipped up in a lab. Inside these cafes are rows and rows of crash cushions, facing big-screen TVs playing endless reruns of Friends or Family Guy. The complete setup is a well organised machine. Falang come in, hand over the cash, get wasted for a day or three and move on. Replaced by more falang.

Now if you think we’re passing judgement on all this, like we’re a couple of old fogies or something, you’d be right. The whole thing is pathetic. Half-naked, wasted twenty-somethings, staggering up the streets, or pigging out on happy burgers while glued to an episode of Friends like it was a remake of Macbeth. Couldn’t you do this at home people? Why did you come all the way to Laos to do it?

For Laotians, like the Thais, face is everything. They wouldn’t be seen dead making fools of themselves in public. One can only imagine what they think of all this. Sadly, as long as the falang keep flashing the cash, probably not a lot. The police obviously ignore the whole thing; overzealous cops are very bad for business.

Take Daddy’s credit card and go home children. You’re an embarrassment.

Leaving the lameness of Vang Vieng behind we head north through some spectacular countryside towards Luan Prabang.

On the way Lucas somehow manages to pull out of a massive tank-slapper, courtesy of some water running across the road. Its those god-awful Bridgestones again, because Ann sails through as if on dry bitumen.

.. babom.. babom.. babom.. lucky.

Laos is still leaving us feeling a bit disoriented. Down the hoity toity end of Luan Prabang you can almost imagine yourself in some European city. In fact the line-up of hoity toity boutique restaurants and hotels would put many cities to shame. This, on top of four days in Vientiane and Vang Vieng, is starting to make us pretty disillusioned about the whole Laos experience. Put it down to naivety again. Obviously we’re ten years too late, Laos having been discovered by the herd long ago.

The herd are mainly French. Again. What is it with the French, anyway? Is there anyone actually back in France, running the place? Because Asia is literally crawling with these guys. Ok, so Laos was a colony, but still. It wouldn’t matter. They’d be here anyway. Hi Richard.

They’ve certainly left their mark on the architecture of the place. Compared to the boring concrete towns of Thailand, Luan Prabang is almost beautiful.

Its a shame, but it seems the Playing With The Bikes thing is back, something we’ve not seen since Indonesia. Having both become a lot more assertive during the past year, some dickwad fiddling with the bikes is more than enough provocation. So far we’ve stopped short of actual violence, but have spoken to at least one other biker who hasn’t. Our reactions tend to be loud, aggressive and confrontational, leaving said dickwad in no doubt as to the error of his ways, language barrier or no language barrier.

Sometimes the deciding factor in whether to stay or move on is simply the guesthouse. Ours starts out fairly peaceful, but deteriorates rapidly over a couple of days to the point where we decide that Luan Prabang isn’t special enough to detain us any longer. Its a close call though. You can get a wicked foot-long baguette with the works for a dollar something here. Je vous remercie beaucoup la France.

Nong Khiaw is one of the main stopping off points when taking a longboat north from Luan Prabang. The main highway to Vietnam also crosses the river here, over which the Chinese have built quite an impressive bridge.

This accessibility coupled with the beauty of the area, has landed Nong Khiaw squarely on the tourist map, and it leaves us wondering if we’re ever going to find an ordinary falang-free Laos town to chill out and do nothing for a couple of days.

Vieng Thong is such a place but fairly limited, more of a stopping off point for places further east. On the way here the road is treacherous, due to heavy rain the night before.

The mountains are shrouded in mist until the afternoon and its quite eerie riding through the small Hmong villages perched high up on the passes. Visibility is poor and yet the children lining the road (there are always children lining the roads) all wave and yell after us as we pass. Sabaidee! It reminds us of Timor Leste and we’d forgotten what a buzz it is to ride right hand on the throttle, left hand waving at the kids.

After passing through the mist layer the next morning the day clears, cold and bright. The Hmong people out here live extremely basic lives, possibly unchanged for centuries. Draughty bamboo house, wood-fired stove, poor nutrition, health and hygiene. Little or no education. In short, the poorest of the poor we’ve seen in Asia. We count ourselves lucky to have been born in an affluent western country. The kids here have very few opportunities.

But is it really that simple? If not for the obligatory village satellite dish, would these people even have anything with which to compare themselves? If they’ve been living this way for centuries, how bad can it be? Are they happy? Or rather were they happy, before realising the rest of the world in TV Land lives in a two storey brick and tile house, with a pool out the back and a convection microwave in the kitchen?

Is that even the question? What are all these NGOs doing here? Obviously lining the pockets of the few judging by the proliferation of Toyota Prados - the UN’s vehicle of choice, and a completely pointless vehicle in this environment. And are the do-gooders on the ground equipping these people with skills, enabling them to deal with that big steamroller called progress, before it arrives and mashes their way of life into oblivion?

Sam Neua is the capital of this province; a modest, but reasonably prosperous looking place. These days we tend to judge prosperity by the number of dual-cab 4x4s we see on the streets. We call it the Hilux Index.

It has a great little market, an amazing Vietnamese restaurant across the river, the hotel is cheap and quiet, falang are very scarce and usually attached to an NGO, god... we might even stay a couple of days.

Nearby Vien Xai is quite an important area in Laos’s recent history. The future government and most of the army sat out nine years of US bombardment in the limestone caves near here.

The mandatory guided tour is ridiculously expensive for falang (doubled in the space of three years), but an interesting and atmospheric experience nonetheless.

We wander through villages strung out on the road to Vietnam, stopping short of the actual border. Its all a little bit brown at the moment, but must be quite beautiful after the rice is planted.

So its kind of a shame to leave Sam Neua for Phonsavan, but the thirty day visa clock is ticking and we have a long way to go.

In a picturesque little section of river on the way, we spy something which seems quite unusual, so pull over and clamber down the bank for a closer look.

Most of us never have reason to question where our electricity comes from. You plug something in and it works. That’s it. But it appears that the village just upstream is drawing their electricity from the DIY hydro-electric power station right in front of us. Built from planks of timber, the water is diverted into channels, at the end of which sit a bank of little generators, capacity unknown. Countless wires run up the bank to power poles, which line the road all the way to the village.

We’ve been convinced for years that micro-power generation is the best solution for household electricity, so are blown away to see it in action here in a remote corner of Laos.

Phonsavan. Dusty wintry Phonsavan. Brown. A northern Laos halfway town nestled between Thailand and Vietnam, kick started in the past few years by tourists in search of an exotic new destination. The mysterious Plain of Jars... oh sorry, you’ve read all this before haven’t you?

Its a shame in some ways to be in Phonsavan. The mountains north of here are more beautiful, the people more innocent, the rhythm of life more gentle. But seeing as we are here, the Plain of Jars beckons.

And because no one seems to know what they’re all about, you can’t help trying to figure it out for yourself as you wander around.

The obvious one is burial chambers, but supposedly no human remains have been found nearby.

But some of them still have their lids intact, so you assume they all must have had them at some stage.

So they must have been used to store things. What then? You make up your own minds.

This whole area was heavily bombed during the second Indochina War, and many of the craters have been left unfilled. Its all part of the history of the place, and seeing some of the massive granite jars split in two right next to a crater is a stark reminder of what this country endured all those years.

The path through the jars winds its way between red and white markers. White meaning cleared of UXO (unexploded ordnance), red obviously meaning not.

Riding out of the main site, we have every intention of going to another one a few kilometres away. But earlier in the morning we’d seen a few bulls being led to a nearby village, and on the way back it seems a large crowd has gathered just off the main road. Thinking it might be a livestock auction, we detour up a side road to have a look.

It doesn’t take long to figure out this is no livestock auction, especially since we’d already seen something similar in Sulawesi. Lucas takes one look at Ann “I’d better move the bike hadn’t I.”

The bulls are led out onto the arena, and if a little reluctant, given a bit of a poke with a bamboo stick.

If there’s an obvious mismatch, or one of them just doesn’t want to fight, its led away and the next contender is trotted out.

Most of the spectators are from the surrounding villages and, unlike the Sulawesi buffalo fights, don’t seem to be gambling, but there’s the odd bigwig, phone glued to ear, taking bets. Chatting to one of the locals about this, we’re told only rich businessmen place bets on the fights. He said American, but most of the money around here seems to be Chinese.

Apart from the act of organising the event itself, there’s no obvious cruelty. Its bull against bull, not bull against matador.

These once a month bullfights seem like they’ll go on all afternoon, so deciding we’ve seen enough blood sport for one day, we head off down the road to find a shady spot by the lake. However, once again it seems Lucas has parked the bike in the way of the local livestock. “I’m not moving the damn thing again. It can just stay there.”

A man leads two stubborn buffalo right past the bike to the water. For whatever reason (these are water buffalo for chrissake), one of them just doesn’t want to take a bath. So Ann decides to lend a hand.

The plan from here is to head south to Pakxan and roughly follow the Mekong all the way to Cambodia. That’s the plan. Unfortunately it all goes pear shaped and we find ourselves back in Phonsavan a few days later, feeling like we’ve had a bit of an adventure overdose.

The little Hyundai pulls up outside our old guesthouse just on sunset and the kind guesthouse owner drives out with us to a vacant lot a couple of blocks away to help unload the bikes. We’re a mess. The bikes are an even bigger mess.

We’d like to stay here and do nothing for a few days, especially Lucas, who can only hobble around. But the bikes need fixing, cleaning, and after meeting Adam, an Israeli mechanic who shames us into doing some maintenance, some ah... maintenance. Unbelievably Adam, who has ridden from Nepal on his HP2, is carrying a BMW diagnostic computer. Maybe if you like I could plug it into your bikes and check if everything’s ok. He suggests. We think on that for about a nanosecond before agreeing.

In the end we spend several days slowly getting organised. The bikes are clean-ish. They still need a couple of hours each with a gernie, but are now minus a few kilos of mud. The air filters are clean. The chains are lubed. The engine and ABS systems check out ok. So after getting a local workshop to hammer out Ann’s pannier frame, we set off in the general direction of Vientiane where we hope to get a new bolt machined for the pannier.

Vang Vieng is still the same as when we left it. The best thing we can say about Vang Vieng is that, like Luan Prabang, you can get wicked foot-long baguettes here. Great for an attack of the munchies.

Vientiane is still here too, along with the same guesthouse. A rambling old house with a relaxed atmosphere it seems to attract interesting people, many of whom seem to camp out until a room becomes vacant. The manager Air is a great guy, and with his help we have a local workshop machine us a new pannier bolt, which they make out of an old valve stem. Its probably ten times stronger than the old one, maybe even too strong, but after a bit of fiddling Ann’s left pannier looks like a bought one again.

So that accomplished, and another oil change out the front of another helpful bike shop who won’t accept our money, leaves only the painful process of getting new Thai visas before we can move on. Which we do, two days later, heading west, not south, back over the bridge to Thailand, leaving Cambodia for another time...

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