July 18, 2007

Ko Pha Ngan to Vang Vieng
Vang Vieng, Laos

From beaches of white sand to paddies of green rice—1,200+ kilometers, two nights, one boat, five taxis, three buses, and one border crossing.

Maekong Sunset

After 35+ hours of travel, I needed a bed and a shower. Getting off the island of Ko Pha Ngan and to the northern border between Thailand and Laos was relatively simple and inexpensive.

The boat/bus ticket to Bangkok was B$500. The Bangkok–Nong Khai bus fare was B$450. My morning departure from the island and found me on an overnight bus by early evening, which dropped me near Khaosan Road around 4:00 in the morning. Then a quick Internet session, and I was off to Bangkok's northern bus terminal for an 8:00 a.m. transport.

I could see how staring at a sea of Thai writing without any English in sight might be a bit intimidating, but it's just a matter of knowing how to say your destination before enough people point you in the direction of the correct booth. Ticket in hand, in the bathroom freshening up, you'd think the guys had never seen a topless Caucasian with his head crammed under the faucet of a sink washing his hair before. …Well, maybe they hadn't.

There was nothing particularly striking about the scenery during the full-day trip to the border town of Nong Khai. I always tend to look at man made roads like advanced animal paths, and this was just a dull, massive, monster of concrete leading north.

My reward for 30-something hours of travel came less than an hour after I'd arrived: Sunset. The setting sun was absolutely gorgeous over the Maekong River. An excessive number of photos were taken in a vein attempt to try and capture the moment.

The Mut Mee Guest House is a nice riverside spot that has hosted thousands of backpackers before me, and is sure to continue doing such things long after I passed through it. After sundown I chatted with a staff member about Laos, asking questions about paths, and the most commonly visited cities and sights. Before our conversation I knew absolutely nothing about the country, or where I was going to go.

Crossing the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge

Laos requires a visa to enter the country, and if you didn't have time to obtain one in advance (like me), then you're required to queue at the Visa on Arrival processing section before proceeding on to immigration. As far as the visa request is concerned, this entire process was rather painless—although plenty expensive—but I felt fortunate that I could even obtain such a thing without visiting an embassy.

30-Day Laos visa cost by country

Different nations pay different prices for a single-entry/exit 30-day visa into Laos—from US$20 for Chinese passport holders, up to a frown-inducing US$42 for Canadians. It's best to pay the fee in U.S. dollars, as payment in Thai baht (although accepted) is an extra 30% higher (US$50 for my US$35 visa). Paying a travel agent to grab the same visa around the Khaosan Road area in Bangkok is actually slightly cheaper—about US$30.

A single passport-sized photo is needed for the visa application. I'm not sure if they're turning folks away if you don't have one, but have a feeling such things are the case—back into town for those people. As for me, I keep both a stash of U.S. currency and passport photos in my pack, for such occasions.

Clueless British guys

Standing a few travelers in front of me in line were a pair of Brits engaging in one of the stupidest and most disrespectful things you could do at an immigration checkpoint: Not wearing a shirt. I was just staring at them, waiting for an armed official to rightfully slap a little sense into 'em. They looked several years of out Uni, and were old enough to know better.

We were all in this line to ask for permission to enter into Laos. The visa officials aren't obliged to give us such entry if they don't feel like it. I always try and clean up a bit before going through customs and immigration, and never wear sunglasses when talking to the clerks. These are just a few of the minimal signs of respect I can display.

I was more than pleased to see the topless Brits still waiting for their passport to be processed, even after I'd received mine (several people in the queue behind them). I'm sure the staff was purposefully giving their documents the magnifying-glass treatment.

This was the first visa I've had to obtain for a SE Asian country. I know others will have similar policies (and prices affixed to them), which doesn't make me happy—as that's about a week's worth of food—but on the bright side, at least the Lao visa is a visually attractive, full-page sticker.

Time Crunch

I may have paid for a month in Laos, but I'll only be getting to use a fraction of it—probably around 10–12 days. My Afro-Peruvian friend Tatiana has just made good on her promise to fly out and see me. She's recently been having some fun by taking belly-dancing classes in Cairo, and tells me she's more than ready to get away from the disgusting, aggressive Arab men of Egypt.

The venue was agreed upon months ago: The Philippines. My flight is at the end of this month, out of Bangkok—so I've only got a little bit of time to sample Laos before starting the multi-day travel necessary to get back through Thailand and fly to Manila.

Laos

Getting into the passenger-van taxi on the Lao side of the border, I couldn't help but notice something was wrong. The steering column—it was on the wrong side of the car—the proper side of the car, that is. I wondered if the vehicle was just imported that way, but quickly discovered that Laos drives on the right-hand side of the road (like the U.S., and countless other countries).

Idling in the in the van, on the way to the capital, I found a Laos visitor guide that was rather entertaining. I loved the sentence about (the lack of) road traffic safety—"Lao people drive by putting their faith in Lord Buddha"—and the friendly reminder that there's to be no shagging of Lao women by foreign men unless they're married. Actually, I rather like this law, as it means I won't be getting approached by hookers whilst traveling in this country.

There's also an entertaining little cartoon illustration of some falang (foreigners) over indulging in drugs, to the detriment of Lao society. In truth, I've heard the word "Laos" and "drugs" used in sentences with increased frequency since returning to Thailand this year, mostly by people who love to use them. Some folks make this country out to be the SE Asia's Amsterdam of pot, mushrooms, and opium.

My guidebook actually has something of interest on the subject:

As Laos opened up to Tourism [about 30 years ago], it gained a reputation as a free-for-all drug haven. It isn't. While opium-use has traditionally been sanctioned only for the elderly, attitudes to drugs like marijuana are not very liberal. There is a strong feeling that widespread opium- and marijuana-use by travelers, who are often seen as wealthy and cool by young Lao, is having a negative influence and drawing them into trouble from which they have little means of escape.

A Little Recent History

During the 1700s, shortly after taking over modern-day Vietnam, expansionist French negotiated and treatied Siam (Thailand) into relinquishing all territory east of the Mekong River, from which Laos was born. Since its inception, France did virtually nothing for the country except permit opium production to flourish.

The nationalist movement Free Lao was created to prevent the country's return to French rule after the invading Japanese left at the end of WWII. In 1953 France granted full sovereignty, but 20 years of chaos followed as Laos became caught in the clash between communist ambition and U.S. anxiety.

From 1965 to 1973, the U.S. devastated eastern and northeastern Laos with nonstop carpet bombing to counter the presence of the North Vietnamese in the country. Laos now has the honor of being the most bombed country in history.

Ultimately, U.S. involvement (bombing) increased support for the communists, and when the they withdrew in 1973, the (socialist) Lao People's Democratic Republic (PDR) was created. And now, after 30-something years of communist inertia, Laos is just starting to play catch-up with its neighbors.

Also of note: the 's' in 'Laos' is silent (it was tacked on there by the French); it's just 'Lao.'

Trusted Opinions

I e-mailed three friends who've visited Laos in the past, and asked them what I should do with 10 days in the country. Their replies were quite interesting:

Ten days is probably more than enough to give to Laos, which in my experience (I was there for maybe 5 days) was basically the anus of SE Asia. Perhaps, I'm being too harsh, but it is definitely a backwater. The good: The capital Vientiene offers some good photo opportunities, and the lush jungle scenery would make for a lovely motorcycle ride. The bad: Very little to do and the locals weren't very friendly and seemed to only be interested in fleecing money from foreigners. Also, since there was a general lack of tourist infrastructure everyone seemed to be rather bored. (or was it just me?). The ugly: It's still a communist country (as many hammer and sickle flags will attest) and the "security forces" have a reputation for holding up foreigners at night and on road trips. Perhaps Laos is just the Latin America of SE Asia. Go for yourself and see, but don't expect much.

I am not sure on Laos, when I was there the roads were bad and transportation was slow. I went in from the area up by the Golden Triangle and took the boat down the Mekong to Luang Prabang, then an easy bus trip to Vientiene. 10 days is very fast for Laos, a very primitive country when I was there, the mountains isolate them.

If I were you I'd definitely check out Vang Vieng. The tubing down the river and using the rope swings, though touristy, was frickin' awesome. Plus Vang Vieng is on the cheap side, except for the internet shops. But it's chill, and you'll learn to love Friends, that's all I can say. Definitely a sweet place though. Vientiene was a wicked chill capital, but when I say chill I mean it. The whole country closes by midnight, and after that time you'll be struggling for a place to find people. Keep in mind unless you have a Visa debit card, there are no international ATMs in all of Laos at this point. I had to do cash advances off my Visa card. It's that or exchanging US$, it's a pain but things will change you can tell. Probably easier just to either do the cash advance or use your Visa card like a debit card, but the ATM limit screws up a lot of travelers. Luang Prabang is the most touristy town of the country, heavy french colonial feel to the joint. The most expensive of the country, though that doesn't say a lot comparatively but keep that in mind. Lots of places to chill, decent food, and two bars: Lao Lao and The Hive. There's an amazing waterfall about 47km outside of town, if you want to see something amazing and just in some hella refreshing water, but make sure the tuk-tuk drivers don't just take you to the waterfalls some 2-6km outside of town. That's their catch, plus the hike up to the waterfalls that close to town is a really bitch. The one 47km is just a 5 min walk from the entrance gate (which you can totally get around without much hassle)….

Cash and Course

We were en route to the capital from the border. I was sitting shotgun in a minibus full of Italian and Canadian travelers, making conversation with the driver as best I could, learning little bits of trivia about Lao. I asked him to stop at an Master Card capable ATM on the way through town, before taking me onto the bus terminal servicing northbound destinations.

My guidebook had warned me about the ATMs in Laos, or the should I say the lack thereof. At the time of printing there was but a single international-capable cash machine in Laos, and it was located in the capital. In talking with the staffer at my guesthouse the night prior, I learned that this was no longer the case, as ATMs were now available in a cities along the tourist trail.

Somewhere in between the 20 kilometers from the border to town the van stopped at an unassuming cash machine, sitting on the side of the road in its own little concrete booth. I entered the wrong pin the first time around, as I discovered the ordering on the number pad was strangely flipped. The card was processed without issue and I instantly became a millionaire—roughly 10,000 Lao kip to the American dollar.

Update: I have since discovered that international-ATMs in Lao heavily favor Master Card (Cirrus) cards. Travelers rollin' with a Visa (Plus), are going to have a very difficult time finding a cash machine that will accept their card.

Still early in the day (about noon), and I saw no particular reason to stay in the capital. Capital cities have never really been my thing, and didn't see any point in delaying travel that'd eventually bring me back to the this same starting point anyway. I'd be pushing north, to the next city of the tourist trail: Vang Vieng.

Advancing

I was rather delighted at the sight (and price) of my transport: An aging bus full of more Lao people than tourists. Feeling the wind on my face, the lack of padding on my ass, and sight of locals clamoring to sell goods and food to passengers through the windows—this is travel to me.

I smiled as the vehicle struggled desperately in first-gear to clamber up hills, remembering some of the great experiences I'd had on Central American "chicken buses." Climbs like these always reminded me of that clinking, chain-fed noise that a traditional roller coaster makes on its first ascent. Then, the wild 'coaster sensation as the bus flies down the opposite side of the mountain at eyebrow-raising speeds.

The scene outside my window was that of rural village, rugged geography, raw jungle, and rice-based agriculture. Unmanaged vegetation covers an estimated 85% of the country, and 25% of Laos is primary forest. There seemed to be a particularly heavy amount of subsistence farming.

At one point a collection of topless British boys on holiday at the back of the bus shut up with confusion as the bus pulled to the side of the road and stopped. I got up, along with several others, knowing exactly what it was: A bathroom break.

Whilst watering the vegetation, the sight of a slung firearm caught my eye—the civilian sitting behind me on the bus, now urinating into the bushes to my right, had an AK-47 with him. I'm quite use to seeing such things, but still don't know enough about Laos to understand if carrying a firearm here is particularly common, or warranted for good reason. Personally, I felt safer, knowing that I'd have access to one if something awful went down (like getting randomly caught up in kidnapping attempt or firefight). But with so much amazing scenery to look at, such improbable flights of fantasy quickly left my mind, focusing instead of the green fields of rice and simple villages of wood.

In Vang Vieng, the rain was falling in the early evening as I walked along the edge of town, intermittently asking for a point in the direction to the secluded guesthouse that was recommended to me. Across a pair of bridges that straddled the Nam Song (Song River), I discovered my accommodations in the midst of a very small community, living in relative isolation from town.

I have a great feeling about Laos, and traveling in this country.

Guatemala :: Bolivia :: Laos

A day ago, I knew nothing of Laos, but I can't shake the feeling that a part of me has been patiently waiting to be here. I don't particularly care for big cities, and rural Laos, with its just go with it transport infrastructure and method of living, is in line with some of my favorite country attributes.

…Well that, and it's cheap.

There's inexpensive, and then there's cheap. Laos is the kind of cheap that makes Thailand look expensive—if you can imagine such things.

Guatemala is the US$8/day spot in Central America. Boliva is the US$8/day spot in South America. And I believe Laos is the US$8/day spot in SE Asia.

My dollar goes exceedingly far here, and I can only imagine what it's like for others coming from an even stronger salary/currency position (such as the pound, euro, or yen). Toss in some cheap Internet access, and we're talking big smiles for this nomad.

I'm already thinking about where I'll go when I come back.

Comments:

Girth

July 28th, 2007

Yes, technicially speaking that is an AK-47. How can I tell it's an AK-47 and not the more ubiquitous AKM that most people mistake for the AK-47? Above the magazine on the receiver there is a small rectangular indentation? That indicates that the receiver is made of milled steel. The AKM (I'm told the M stands for "modern") is made from lighter and cheaper stamped steel. BTW, AK stands for Avtomat (Rifle?) Kalashnikov (the inventor's last name).

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