Life and Death in Laos

There have been many a time while travelling over the  past few years when a situation felt a little dodgy or unsafe or uncomfortable, and I coped by repeating a silent mantra to myself,”Nothing bad will happen today.” Since bad things happen every day, my mantra was more a delusional self-soothe than a fact-based reality, but it worked for me.

Yesterday, my mantra was shattered, but I will get to that later.  I want to tell you about the life we have been experiencing in Laos, and how varied it has been as we’ve travelled the country from north to south.

We spent two days in Vientiane, the country’s capitol, referred to by some as a dustier, less charming version of Luang Prabang. We were advised to give it a miss, but since it was a hub for our travels, and also Laos’ capital city, we wanted to see for ourselves.

It has its own Arc de Triomphe, unkindly referred to as a “concrete landing pad.”

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Vientiane lacks the polish and lustre of Luang Prabang – the word “crumbling” comes to mind. The French colonial style of architecture is still evident, but not as well-maintained and not in as great numbers – you have to wander the streets a bit to find the charm.

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The French influence on food is strongly felt – patisseries are authentic, and the butter croissants make a great change from white bread toast in the morning.

The promenade along the Mekong is a huge draw for tourists and locals alike. People start to gather around 4:30 or 5:00, to walk along the river, check out the night market or take in some exercise. We watched a zumba class, but the music was boring, and so were the moves. The aerobics class was quite spirited – I was (almost) tempted to join in.

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We ran into this curiosity – the travelling manicure ladies. At least three or four women called out to me,” Manicure, madam?”  I might have taken them up on the offer if it hadn’t felt so strange to perch on a tiny plastic stool out in public, and have my nails done under questionable hygienic circumstances.

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We actually enjoyed our time in Vientiane very much – it felt more Laotian and less touristy.  We were tripping over temples, and wandered through a few of them. This sign caught our attention, and I was curious as to how many people had smoked on the grounds of a sacred place.

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There are definite signs of affluence here – we saw a mint-condition vintage white Jaguar parked outside a hotel, and a Rolls-Royce tucked on the grounds of an exclusive art gallery. There are bangin’ big Toyota trucks, and Lexus SUVs, and many, many Range Rovers. Cranes dominate parts of the city – foreign investment has hit.

The riches are not available to everyone. This is the first place in Laos where we encountered begging. These women and children passed us and asked for money, and then one of the women squatted down on the city street, hoisted her skirt and peed; a thick stream of urine running down the sidewalk. It was shocking to see the utter absence of basic decorum; her rules (and life) so different from mine.

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A highlight was a visit to the COPE Visitor Centre – part of the rehabilitation centre for people who have lost limbs with UXOs (unexploded ordinances). Laos was the most heavily bombed country in the world: between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped over 270 million bombs and 80 million of them failed to explode. Forty-four years later, at least one person every day is killed or injured by unexploded ordinances – many of them children. There is a market for scrap metal, and dealers will send out kids to retrieve metal for a small profit to them – and the risk is all theirs. The COPE centre is excellent – very well laid-out, with many displays and short videos. All donations go to prosthetics and ongoing treatment.

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This sculpture was made of 500 kg. of UXO, including cluster bombs, “in memory of those who have been injured, killed or lost loves ones from UXO.” – Anousone Vong Aphay – local artist – 2008.

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Among the many excellent displays is the list of countries who have signed the CCM (Convention on Cluster Munitions) International Treaty. Among countries notably absent from the list is the United States.

Moving on to the slightly absurd – we visited the Buddha Park, a monument to concrete craziness, about an hour out of town. It is far from being a sacred site – more of an Asian theme park – with themes of lust, sex, domination and excess – all enjoyed with flute music wafting over the bamboo fence.

The Big Giant Pumpkin greeted us first –  we had to squat down and squeeze through the gaping mouth to climb inside, walk around three levels and finally reach the top. Safety was at no time a consideration in the building of this monstrosity, but…it made a grand spot for endless selfies.

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Lots of fun wandering around the park for about an hour.

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And then…our reality took a bit of a shift. We wanted to head south from Vientiane to Pakse,  enroute to the 4000 islands. The only affordable travel option was a sleeper bus leaving Vientiane at 8:00 pm, arriving in Pakse at 7:00 am. The bus consists of two levels of bunks, and if you are not intimately associated with your sleeping partner before the ride, you will be after, as the bunks are cozy. We got a lower bunk, two pillows and two blankets. I tried not to think about bed bugs, head lice and long-living bacteria. Armed with our sandwiches and water, we settled in, and surprisingly, we slept quite well.

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The next morning, we transferred to a regular bus for our three-hour ride to the 4000 islands, and that is when tragedy struck.  Our bus driver had been driving carefully and we were about 10 km. away from our final destination. Suddenly the driver hit the horn, hit the brakes and swerved, but could not avoid the motorcycle that pulled out in front of him.

Our bus slid sideways down the hillside, but came to a stop at quite an angle without tipping over. One of the passengers broke the back window and climbed out, followed by two or three others. The front door was jammed so it was a bit intense, but they managed to pry it open. Slowly we made our way out.  Our first reaction was relief  at being off the bus safely, but then we began to realize how serious the accident was.

A man carried the body of a small child, and three men carried the lifeless and bleeding body of a woman and put both of them in the back of a truck. Apparently the motorcycle came up from a side road and just drove across the highway without looking.The driver was pinned under the front of the bus – one of his feet was severed. A couple of passengers were trying to administer CPR, but it was pointless. Someone brought a blanket and put it over his head.

There was a house with several people standing outside, and we felt they must have been related. One of the women was shrieking with the most raw grief and anguish – I will never forget that sound.

We were all in shock  as we began to understand the severity of the accident. It will take a  long time to process.  I will remember the cracked windshield, the pools of blood, the little hat on the road. There is no sense to be made of this – no lesson learned.

 

Slow Boat to Laos

As with many things in life, you tell yourself what you want to hear. The idea of a two-day, 15-hour boat trip down the Mekong could be mind-numbingly boring or darkly romantic, so we chose to go with the latter. Two long days, one night and many, many emotions later we arrived in Luang Prabang, the French colonial crown jewel of Laos, and our first few glimpses of this UNESCO city melted the boat trip away.

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We began our trip armed with a few survival tips. One can stay the night either in Thailand or Laos – the twin border towns face off across the river, and the boats do not depart until 11 a.m. each morning, ostensibly giving all travellers plenty of time. We decided to take the bus from Thailand straight over the river to Laos and spend the night there; thereby getting all border stuff out of the way the day before, and leaving plenty of time to get to the boat line-up early.

We had heard horror stories of chaotic Laos border crossings – officials tossing about mitt-fuls of passports and documents, with mobs of backpackers queuing up and fervently hoping to be reunited with their correct papers again. Ours was a sedate experience – our bus pulled in on the Thai side – we relinquished our departure cards, had our passports stamped, jumped back on the bus, drove over the bridge to the Lao border crossing, handed in our papers, and voila – in less than 15 minutes all 25 of us were processed and through. We spent the night in Huay Xai, and watched the sun set behind the Thai mountains.

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The next morning, armed with our baguette lunches, we hit the pier by 9:30 (for an 11:30 departure). The configuration of the boat is thus: the front of the boat is lined with seats facing sideways, and then the next several rows face frontwards. We bought our tickets the night before, and were assured our seats were front-facing (I told the English-speaking ticket seller about Stephen’s motion sickness issues – he was suitably concerned).

We arrived to discover our assigned seats were in fact side-facing, and since the numbering was done with pieces of paper laid out on each seat, and we were among the very first to arrive, we merely changed a few of the numbers, and chose the second row back. Some confusion ensued as the boat started to fill up, but we kept our eyes averted and an uncomprehending smile on our faces.

This, the unruly front section. A few hours later, OD’d on potato chips, the kids were quietly reading.

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The Mekong is the arterial highway that connects hundreds of small communities and slow boats were designed to move Laotians and cargo with a minimum of fuss. Comfort and safety are not priorities (we counted two lifejackets), and seats are reclaimed automobile bench seats. The influx of tourists who have set upon these boats with such enthusiasm pay for their authentic experience with sore backsides and carb overloads. Anyone taller than six feet cannot stand up straight. A two-day passage costs just $30 US, to cram 150 people into such small quarters. The luxury cruise, with plush seating, food and drink provided, and a select guest list of just 30, costs $130 US pp. Since we are on a fairly tight budget, the cattle car it was.

This slow boat ride has wildly varying reviews – some love it, others less so.  One woman described it as being, “an unchanging scene of green with brown in the middle.” While I was hoping for more dramatic views over those many hours, we did enjoy a serene and subtly-changing landscape.

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Cattle, pigs, goats, dogs and kids cooling off in the river – river life takes on many forms.

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The Mekong, like so many big important rivers, has a strong personality and can be quite tumultuous – with whirlpools, waves, rapids and a treacherous current  in the middle. The water closest to shore, by contrast, is often as calm as a millpond.

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As we made our way along, people would often wave and call to us from shore, or from other boats. This boatload of people stared back at us; we didn’t even get a wave from one of the kids.

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We stopped a number of times, to let people off, or to pick up cargo. At one of the stops, there was a pile of very heavy bags filled with food, waiting to be boarded. We watched two men grimace and struggle to bring them to the door, and then watched in awe as one of our crew members singlehandedly lifted each bag, hoisted it up to his shoulders and humped it all the way to the back; returning for each bag and repeating the same feats of strength.
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We approached our overnight stop – the small town of Pak Beng, to grab a bite to eat, sleep for the night, and do it all over again the next day. The crew began to unload backpacks, and the crowd thinned, until not one bag was left. Where was my bag – my anxiety levels were going through the roof. I insisted my bag was still in the hold and they insisted just as strongly that they were done and wanted to put the planks back down. Finally, the young man went down again – this time with a flashlight – and emerged with my bag.  We walked up the gangplank as a sunset on the water ushered us in.

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Next morning, we were at the ferry dock by 8:00 for a 9:00 launch, and this time, it was a different boat.

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Our new friends Sylvie and Michel from France, had saved us good seats. They were fortunate enough to see two wild elephants drinking from the river at 7:00 am, from their hotel balcony, and they were still so excited about the rare chance to have such a sighting. Plus, we were surrounded by a group of very funny Germans who kept us all well entertained for the first couple of hours. Once we were settled in, Stephen went back up the hill for snack reinforcements – coffee and chips!

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Many Laotians gather around the boats, seemingly just to watch the activities.

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We noticed a young man, his wife and small child on their motorbike, which had incredibly been brought down the steep hill, over the rocks and onto the pier. Amazingly, this bike went onto the front of the boat; no big deal to the crew who are accustomed to loading all sorts of cargo.

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As our boat loaded up, a long lineup of backpackers was making its way down the hill. For some strange reason, they waited for at least a half hour before loading them onto the adjacent boat ; possibly they were hoping they could all fit on with us.

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We discovered that your boat mates can be crucial to your enjoyment of the trip. There were a couple of groups that could have derailed the trip. Four men who were old enough to know better began drinking before the boat ride even started,  but they stayed to the back of the boat, with the bar and the smoking section. Another couple made their presence felt – he of the wiry body, ropy arms, thin grey braids, and non-stop cigarettes; she of the hard face and swastika sticker on her phone. They were not people to be messed with, but it was very shocking to see the Nazi symbol so aggressively displayed.We’re all a little sensitive these days, and it had quite a chilling effect on us and others.  Luckily, they also stayed in the back of the boat the entire time.

On the first boat, our luggage had been put in a hold; this time, all our bags were tossed onto a platform at the back, beside the engine. People then sat, walked on or slept on the pile – our bags emerged unscathed at the end.

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I must tell you about the toilet. One toilet for 140 people.  Bucket of water to one side to flush contents (I’m assuming right into the river). Wet floor. Big bag to hold used toilet paper. A woman I met in Mexico last year said to me, “When I can no longer squat, I can no longer travel.”  This room to be used for emergencies only.

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If you haven’t already equipped yourself with hand sanitizer and wet wipes, this experience would do it for you. (I’m imagining my mother gagging as she reads this.)

But not to leave you with a filthy toilet as your last impression. We landed in Luang Prabang – about 10 km. from town. Since we were all a bit confused, the boat captain snapped us back to reality and yelled, “Get Off!” Dutifully, we trooped off, up the hill and into the arms of the waiting tuk-tuk drivers. Apparently a few years ago, an arrangement was made to switch piers, to create jobs for the taxis and tuk-tuks. No matter – it added one last and funny element to our travels.
The folks just ahead of us – a mirror of us and our luggage.

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We arrived at our lovely hotel, had quick showers and headed down the street for dinner and a cold Beerlao. Finally, the two-day ride was over.

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So…would we recommend this trip? With reservations – yes. It is quite the experience, and if you want to get a feel for what it is like to travel in Lao – this would be a good bet. Not clean, not comfortable, and probably not safe, but we’re glad we did it.

Would we do this again? NEVER!!!