Asia | South East Asia | Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) – Midway Slump
Well once again the weeks have slid past and though we are now deep inside China this journal has left off somewhere in the south of Laos and …well, I am a bit ashamed but that’s how it is. In the middle of China’s chaos it is near impossible to slide back into that relaxed chapter and tell the tale in a fitting manner. This feeble entry will have to bridge the gap between then and now and the rest will just have to wait. China has been a full-on assault on the senses and my fingers are just burning to get them out, but first…
In Pakse the freedom of the open road beckoned and while we couldn’t quite match the romance of roaring down the road on a Harley, we rented a small 110cc Honda Dream and set out in search of…well, just in search of, that’s enough isn’t it ?
For three days we rolled, swerved and bounced across the Bolaven Plateau, down to Attepeu and back, across the Mekong to Champasak and Wat Phu and when it was all over with we had scored 600 kilometers on our trusty little steed and had aqquired the awkward gait of a cowboy that had spent far too long in the saddle.
Sore but proud of our wounds, we returned the Honda and collected our bags. It was 1:30 in the afternoon and at 2:00 a bus would be leaving for Savanakhet from the northern bus terminal. We brought our bags to the street and waited for a local tuk-tuk.
Tuk Tuk’s are strange creatures indeed. Picture a three-wheeled golf cart with a lawnmower engine, covered in colorful tassles and buddhist blessings, belching out inky clouds of impenatrable black smoke while navigating the moonscape of the Asian roads. And they are absolutely everywhere, beckoning the pale-faced visitor with lures of waterfalls, cheap hotels and any other destination that a few thousand kip and a fair ammount of blind faith can reach.
Everywhere they are, but should you find yourself needing one you might find that you are on the wrong end of town at the wrong time. And so it was, the minutes passed mercilessly and yet we stood alone on the street. Finally one passed though it was headed in the wrong direction and over-loaded with sacks of rice. Desperate, we flagged it down and asked the driver if he wouldn’t like to bring us to the bus station. He complied, for a price well-worthy of changing his route, and we were off.
As we neared the bus station the driver pointed in the distance to the backside of a bus that was barreling out of town and down the road to Savanakhet. No language barrier interfered with the raw fact that this was our bus and we were now a day late and a dollar short. Though this was enough to damper our mood, it only seemed to inspire our driver and he downshifted and layed into the gas pedal with a vengeance; the race was on and it was a classic scene indeed.
As the tuk-tuk sputtered and spat its objections to high-speed pursuit, the driver was blaring his horn and I hung from the back of the racing jalopy waving my hat in the air. Through no small wonder of antiquated motoring, we managed to catch the bus and in a lightning-swift move our bags were thrown aboard and we were seated in the aisle. It was a glorious moment, like a getaway scene in an old western; the sun shining on the open road and we, the last bandits to make it out of town before the posse was rounded up, were now savoring the victory while we distanced ourselves from my passport at a speed of about 50 km. per hour.
passport. passport ? … PASSPORT !!!
To be honest it wasn’t until the next day as I was changing money that I realized that the ‘security deposit’ I had left for the motorbike was still in Pakse, firmly securing the long-since returned Honda…and what a pleasant realisation that was.
To make a short story even shorter, I won’t relay the immense language barriers that needed to be hurdled in order to have the pass sent up the road to me, but I would like to take this moment to thank a few friendly people in Laos that spared me the bumpy 12 hour return trip back down to Pakse; Kawp jai lailai !
That brings us now to Vientiane, which must be the most pleasantly tranquil and lethargic capital city in the world. We arrived on a Friday which gave us the inspiration to enjoy a lazy weekend. This lazy weekend was the beginning of a mid-way slump that held fast for the following weeks that we were to spend in Laos.
Seven months on the road had brought us to a point where waterfalls,temples, remote villages and the like, all lost their lure. Call it oversaturation at the best, or pure laziness at the worst, the result is the same and the sluggish pace of life in Laos did little to snap us back into action.
The landscapes and the people throughout the north were absolutey delightful but it still wasn’t the cure for our lack of ambition. We followed the well-trodden path of the southeast Asian backpacker scene through Vang Vieng and across several landslides (slash and burn-slide and flood, don’t the people have eyes ??) to the dream-like serenity of Luang Prabang.
The temples and lazy streets hung on the banks of the Mekong like a well adorned christmas tree in July and there can’t be more than a handful of visitors that have not succomed to the small city’s sedate charm. As in the rest of Laos, the days pass here with the relative urgency of an eskimo on his way to buy ice-cubes.
From the banks of the Mekong we forced ourselves to make a sweat-soaked trek into the surrounding mountains. Villages of Hmong and other hill tribes lie tucked between the forests and mountaintops offering glimpses into a way of life that has remained all-but-unchanged for millenia. Unfortunately between the governments attempts to re-settle the villagers and the increasing influx of tourism I find it hard to believe that this way of life will see the 22cnd century. It was beautiful to see but at the same time I am not sure if we should have been there at all.
Hill tribe treks have destroyed the ancient customs in northern Thailand and if the present trend continues they threaten the existence of the traditional lifestyles in the mountains of Laos. The relentless growth of tourism in the region has long-reaching effects that continue to poison the peoples long after the kodak memories have been pasted in an album. If you are heading to the region please inform yourself beforehand and then decide if every ‘must see’ must really be seen.
This entry hardly does justice to the wonders of Laos, but it will have to suffice for the time being. Sooner or later there comes point in every journey where The Road loses it’s luster, and most times it has little to do with a specific country or place. The tail end of Laos marked this point, and while we still enjoyed the country, we will have to return again for deeper exploration. I am happy to report that the slow down was forcefully accelerated as we walked across the invisible line that seperates Laos from China. We are now in the middle of the ‘Middle Kingdom’ and it has been…well, that’s a whole new story and it will be coming to a screen near you very soon.