We arrive in Vientiane after a disaster of a start to the holiday: first Ross can’t find our tickets online so he rebooks them, and then he gets shortchanged on arrival at the airport. But bad humour is soon dispelled by cousins Christine and Diego, who are waiting at the hotel, and the arrival of G&Ts and beers.
Vientiane is nothing much to write home about – a sleepy capital city which is nevertheless growing fast, like the rest of Laos since the liberalisation of the country in 1985. The Communist Party, realising that there was much dissatisfaction at the communalisation of all property and land, following the victory over the Americans in 1975 – measured by the vast numbers of people who fled the country, mostly by crossing the Mekong to Thailand – restituted land and homes to their original owners. ‘We are “good communists”, you see’, says Dao, our delightful guide. Since then the country has been over-run by both the Chinese and the Vietnamese, who seem to own most industries, are building massive malls, and provide all the tacky goods for sale in the shops.
Dao’s parents were on the point of fleeing in 1975, he tells us, as his father was a journalist working for the Royal family but, the day before, the Thais shot their friends who were attempting the Mekong crossing. They stayed.
Laos (pronounced Lao, as the French added the ‘s’ on during colonialism) is a mountainous landlocked state bordering Vietnam and Cambodia, whose suffering is underrated during the Vietnam war. For it is here that the Americans in their secret war against Communism dropped more bombs than during the whole of WW2 – 500,000 metric tonnes, equating to over 2 million bombs. The situation was exacerbated by the B52s letting loose any un-dropped ordinance on their return sorties, stepping up a gear after LBJ cynically declared the US were no longer bombing Vietnam, but failed to admit that they were continuing to blast Laos to smithereens, using CIA-controlled secret force of pilots, the Ravens, in addition to regular planes.
Today the cluster bombs continue to plague the Lao people, as over 30% did not explode on impact and remain buried until set off, mostly by children. The Mines Advisory Group (MAG) detonates over 100,000 ‘bombies’ or UXOs per annum. Cluster bombs are still being used in Syria today, and in other dirty wars. They are designed to inflict the maximum possible damage to people – nearly always civilians. It is a scandal.
We learn all about the secret war over our first couple of days in Laos. First we drive up to Phonsavan, site of the Plain of Jars, a series of giant stone jars scattered over several hundred sq kms, a mystifying monument to a lost civilisation. Despite being heavily bombed, they still present an impressive spectacle. We arrive in time to see it in the setting sun.
It is in Phonsavan that we watch a horrifying film at MAG’s local office, which prepares us for the following day’s visit to the Pathet Lao’s (Communist Party) war-time headquarters in Vieng Xai, a massive complex of caves that housed the leadership and the Politburo, and is now known as the birthplace of modern Laos, as it was from here that the war was won. As the voiceover on the excellent audio says, ’41 years ago the Politburo formed the government that won the war and they’ve been there ever since’. It is also the setting for Colin Cotterill’s marvellous Dr Siri book Disco for the Departed. Here we understand that this war was won by sheer bloody-mindedness, combined with stamina, as to live for 9 years under such conditions is not something that a normal mortal would endure.
Today Laos’s major industries and exports are 1. Gold 2. Tourism and 3. Hydro. By 2020 hydro will have become the number 1 revenue earner due to the controversial dams that are being built by, guess who, the Chinese of course, who also have bought land to farm bananas on vast scale here in Nong Khiaw and are using toxic chemicals, much to the horror of the locals. As in all countries they ‘colonise’ they are building roads, schools, hospitals and handing out compensation, to sweeten the pill of all the village displacements. They are also building a railway, via Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar to Singapore…
Dao tells us that the Laos PDR stands for Laos People Don’t Rush, and we see this as we spend our first three days in our trusty mini-van, Mr Pan at the wheel, average 30 -40km per hour to reach our daily destinations. The scenery is breathtaking – lime stone karst, giving way to rolling mountains, once covered by virgin forest, reduced from 70% coverage to 30%, and now scarred by the slash and burn and illegal logging that the Hmong and other tribes still carry out. It is burning season so, before the heavy rain sets in – unseasonal we are told (it even snowed here two weeks ago for the first time in living memory) as we freeze and have to buy more cheap Chinese clothes – the air is thick with haze.
Villages are threaded like beads along the precipitous ridges; and daily life is carried out before our eyes. Women are sitting round fires, cooking, eating, chatting, most with a baby on the back – but they are always doing something, whether it is honing a blade, chopping wood, winnowing rice, cooking, smoking broom-brush wood to sell to the Chinese, weaving and spinning; the men seem to sit around a lot more, though some are busy, weaving sticky-rice pots, making rat traps, occasionally even minding the baby! We are told they are normally out working on the farms and they rise at 3.30 am in the hot season; maybe because it’s so cold everyone is in the village rather than the fields.Sometimes you even see people bathing – all lathered up, women in sarongs and men in shorts; children naked.
Around them scrabble mother hens with chicks, potbellied pigs and little piglets, dogs and cats – mostly in the road – but somehow they never seem to get run over despite the huge (Chinese and Vietnamese) trucks, local buses and mini-buses that thunder past. There are kids everywhere, always going to and from school it seems (they come home for lunch) – we even see them high up in the mountains, laughing and giggling like kids everywhere. They even manage to play games: volleyball, badminton and boules, a legacy from the French. Those too young are playing with hoop and stick, making their own toys, practising slingshot – all snotty nosed and wrapped up like teddy bears due to the cold.
People are much shyer here than in Cambodia and don’t pose for photos in the same way. But if you show them their picture, they laugh uproariously.
Shops line the roads, selling everything imaginable, even tiny song birds strung up, and bamboo rats suspended by their tails: in local markets we discover it’s true that the Lao eat everything: we see grubs and crickets, deep-fried (‘Yummy’ says Dao); tiny white ant eggs, a great seasonal delicacy; buffalo cheeks and inner mouth parts, BBQ ready; duck blood being siphoned off; all kinds of fish and crabs, from minuscule to enormous. We quite often stop and eat our lunch time fer, Laotian noodle soup, at local eateries. All for $2.
So our first two days are a visual feast. Then we reach Nam Et National Park where we are to spend the night in the jungle in a ‘basic’ camp. We have already been warned about this, so are prepared, unlike in Sam Neaua where our brand new hotel was a Fawlty Towers experience, with no hot water, bathroom floor awash with water, rock hard beds, no breakfast, electric wires hanging out of the wall, grouting and finish unspeakable, but complete with chandeliers and marble floors. And no other visitors – I wonder why? We do manage to get a free dinner in Luang Prabang as compensation though from the tour operator so I’m not complaining too much!
We depart late morning in four long-tailed boats: ‘Shall we?’ – Dao’s trademark expression – as we hop on board. All the other recent boat trips we have done pale into mediocrity compared to the rapids we are scaling UP-RIVER, water so low we scrape the bottom again and again. After two hours we arrive, to be greeted by lunch, served on a banana leaf. Four chaps are hanging around who, we learn, are seconded from the army and the post office for three months in the park. ‘Is it tough for them?’ I ask. Shyly they admit it is, and wonder if we have any Lao whisky with us ‘to keep them warm’. Kind though we are, we think our 12 year old malt will be wasted on them, and it will be needed later on that evening!
I am worried, though, as see no sign of where we are sleep or any bedding. I look into a hut and see six dirty mattresses and think, oh dear!
My fears are unfounded as, hidden away, are five huts and large bedrolls, with quilts and blankets, all pristine, placed on wooden slatted beds with a mosquito net tucked around. Though its far too cold for mosquitos!
After lunch we motor upriver for another couple of hours for our supper, by firelight. I see the boatmen giggling over a phone image of a scantily clad girl showing lots of bottom. When I ask Mr Souvit, the guide, what the joke is, he says they’re teasing him ‘because they think I ladyboy’. And it is true he is a wimp – afraid of being injured if he plays football, and has some rather strange wispy hair growing out of the middle of his cheeks., and of course, he is tiny like most Laotians.
By now it is dark and we float silently downstream, poled by our boatmen, with spotlights on their heads which they scarily alternate between navigating the rapids and scanning the undergrowth for eyes. We are rewarded by a civet, which we see clearly; Christine and Diego see a couple of otters, and we all see some sambar deer orbs, shining brightly through the pitch black. But it is really, really cold – perhaps about 4 C – and it is with relief that we reach the camp and light another huge fire. Although there are rumoured to be over 20 tigers and several varieties of cat, sloth bears and other wildlife in the park,it is rare to see anything much, apart from the occasional track.
After a surprisingly cosy night, good breakfast and a wander round the ancient village which was moved to make way for the park, we reunite with Mr Pan for the final push to Nong Khiaw, on the Nam Ou river, where I am writing this on my balcony, looking at the rain teaming down, huddled inside my new anorak.
We spent this morning visiting a weaving village, where they dye their own cloth from indigo, and make fabulous cloth and looms. We felt we had to buy from practically every single vendor so are laden with various shades of blue. We loved meeting all the villagers, who were friendly and welcoming, showed us how they were drying tobacco, spinning cotton (Diego tried this but was not good) and, of course, weaving.
Tomorrow we set out on a 7-hour boat trip to Muang La, where will have a couple of nights in a rather lux place to have massages and generally unwind after being rattled about for so many hours on the rather poor roads. I am not complaining, as I did specify ‘off the beaten track’ and I can honestly say we are getting what we wanted and it’s great!
PS for the armchair traveller Flash-packing is to backpacking what clamping is to camping!
Some random shots from our trip