Archive for the 'laos' Category

hell and back again

Wednesday, June 14th, 2006

we’ve spent the past few days in vientiane, the capital of laos. due to a strategical error (read: numbskullery) we’ve spent three days waiting for the entry date on our vietnam visas. vientiane, meanwhile, is a strange little nowhere-nothingsville of a place – a curious bit of hellishly hot backwater suspended in a state somewhere between renewal (if you’re a glass-half-full type) and decay (if you’re not). j calls it a shithole, though i wouldn’t say that. there’s nothing overtly wrong with it – but there’s precious little to recommend about it, excepting its function as a transport hub for, oh, anywhere but here. so our days were filled by shuttling between air-conditioned oases: eating at bakeries, noodling at internet cafes, and watching world cup matches at pubs. nothing to write home about.

so once our visas became valid, we hopped on te first bus to hanoi. as i write this, we’re in the 23rd hour of what has become the journey from hell. vientiane and hanoi are probably roughly600km or so apart, as the crow flies. so how, one might ask, does this entail such an epic bus ride? let me explain.

it’s important to understand, first of all, the distinctions between the several different classes of bus journey. the highest class is what’s known as the “v.i.p. bus”. this is a tourist class coach, of varying degrees of plushness, but the commonly found characteristics include three things: tourist priced ticketing, super-freeze air-conditioning, and an on-board toilet. the natural habitat of this “v.i.p. bus” is limited to within the borders of thailand (though some may say it has a close cousin in the chinese “overnight bus”, however the chief difference is that such “overnight buses” make absolutely no pretence at plushness.) the “v.i.p. buses” are often promoted as “sleeper buses”, the theoretical notion being that one departs in the evening, sleeps through the night, and awakes refreshes at their destination in the morning. having taken several of these, however, i can safely attest that absolutley no such sleeping takes place. these buses are also often billed as “express buses”, a description which might lend one to believe that they arrive at their destination significantly faster than other buses – but that belief would be highly erroneous. a unique and entertaining feature of many of these buses is the airbrushed artwork on the side (in imitation of “old-skool” graffiti artistry) and the neon halogen lighting, creating a funky urban thai hip-hop kinda vehicle.

the second class of bus is known as the “local bus”. this is the bus which the native-born countrymen take for long distance trips. it is usually characterised by uncomfortably narrow vinyl seating (reminiscent of a classic schoolbus), and hideous decor, often consisting of leftover wallpaper remnants, children’s bedroom curtains and dustruffles. the amenities on this type of bus are usually limited to basic airplane-like ventilation (or electric ceiling fans) and overhead lighting which is turned off for the duration of the trip, rendering it decorative only. while these buses are somewhat cheaper, the ticket price for foreigners is in no way reflective of what the locals actually pay (a fun little custom called “price tiering”) and the savings are often offset by the need for in-person purchasing and navigation of the chaos which is the public bus depot. this, in and of itself, requires one to call upon unexpected depths of patience and fortitude. furthermore, the “local bus” makes all “local” stops, some of which include mr. smith’s driveway, grandma jones’ convenience store, and a multitude of assorted random intersections and curbsides. depending on road conditions, refreshment/toilet breaks, whether or not mr. smith/grandma jones is travelling, and the mood of the driver, these buses can take from 2-6 hours longer to get where you’re going.

and finally, there is the “chicken bus”, which I believe i’ve described here before, but suffice to say they are often distinguished by the presence of livestock.

our current convoy falls somewhere between a “local bus” and a “chicken bus”, inasmuch as there are a few hundred kilos of rice and fruit lining the aisles, and no toilets, but it does have air-conditioning. still i am beginning to desperately wish we’d shelled out for a plane ticket.

when we boarded the bus, nearly 24 long hours ago, i knew it would be trying, but it didn’t seem too bad. they piled all the luggage into the back rows of seats because the holds were already full (of contraband imports, to be sure), but there were still rice sacks to load so they formed impromptu aisle seating for extra locals. we waited an extra hour for a few more locals and all their accompanying luggage (also piled in the aisles). a family of five squeezed into two paid seats. the tall guy behind me protested when i tried to recline my seat. the lady in front protested when j’s knees impeded her recline. it started to pour, so the windows were shut and it because close and steamy. i was starting to feel uncomfortably claustrophobic and we hadn’t even left the car park yet. ten minutes after we finally got underway, they turned off the overhead lights – so much for finishing my book. i napped a bit and we stopped off for a few pissing-in-the-ditch breaks (never straying far from the road, in case of landmines), but we seemed to be making good time.

six hours in, however, shortly after midnight, we stopped at a roadside cafe. and that’s when j suddenly recalled that this particular route entails a six hour layover. so after a plate of noodles, the cafe closed up shop and the restauranteur family gave the driver a place to sleep and went to bed. leaving the rest of us with no choice but to pile back into the cramped, hot bus to try to sleep. we sweated and stirred and sighed – sleep was impossible. many abandoned the bus and spent the evening sitting in the cooler air outside. mosquitoes were rampant. i’ve never been so intensely, annoyingly uncomfortable.

but light finally arrived on the horizon, and two hours later we arrived at the border controls, first in the queue. only there was no queue, only a teeming mass of swarming locals shoving passports and bribes in the faces of the officials and a bunch of bewildered foreigners getting trampled in the stampede happening at the window. stamping our departures, then, understandably took quite a while, what with the piles of scattered passports and money, people constantly breaking into the office to try to personally plead with the immigration officer, etc. etc. etc.

and then we had to enter vietnam – vietnamese immigration a model of efficient communist bureacracy, if ever there was one. it took them two and a half hours to shake us down for a few u.s. dollars and stamp our pre-arranged pre-paid visas, while we helplessly watched them suffle the small red and blue books from one pile into another, take a coffee break, scan them on the new passport scanner, curiously examine all our other stamps and visas, take a call on their mobile phone, take care of dozens of local passports, flip through ours again, put them aside – all in time-warp super-slow-motion, before finally extorting another 30,000 dong to hand them over.

our passports moved less than 10 feet during the entire two and a half hours. it took supreme feats of self-control not to start screaming.

back on the bus, it seemed that was the worst of it. yet the trip continues to drag on, twelve hours hence. at lunchtime the sin read “hanoi – 350 km”. at a second lunch break the sign read “hanoi – 150 km”. the bus broke down and was fixed. i engaed in tug-of-war with the lady in front of me over control of my window curtain. i got gum on my ass. my ipod battery died.

it’s now been 24 hours and 13 minutes (12 hours driving, 6 hours “sleeping”, 3 hours immigrating, 3 hours eating) with no end in sight.

i’ll let you know if we make it there alive.

lights out in vang vieng

Saturday, June 10th, 2006

the electricity is out here this morning in the l.ittle town of vang vieng – though “town” may be too grandiose a term. vang vieng is really just a glorified dirt road with a few guesthouses thrown up around it. but that dirt road just happens to be situated next to some spectacular scenery and a placid little river, so the main attraction here is outdoorsy-type stuff like kayaking/caving/tubing (which we did yesterday). i know i’ve mentioned how poor laos is, but until you realise how fickle something as basic as electricity is, and how little difference it actually makes in the day-to-day quality of life, it doesn’t really hit home.

for all intents and purposes this morning, nothing has changed. we woke up drenched in sweat because the fans were off, but otherwise, probably wouldn’t have noticed. all transactions are still cash and paper only – there’s no electronic banking in these parts. refrigeration is pretty much limited to beer and yohgurt anyway – meat, eggs, butter are stored at room temp under a cloth. most activity is limited to daylight hours – there’s not a whole lot to do in vang vieng after dark, and most backpackers just get stoned on opium shakes and watch the incessant “friend’s” repeats shown in the cafes. (aside: given the number of times we’ve been offered opium and cocaine here, i think it’s safe to say that the “golden triangle” is still doing a brisk business.)

it is, however, entirely conceivable that the town somehow blew a transformer somewhere while the whole population was simultaneously watching the opening match of the world cup last night. i’m still astounded that the biggest sporting event in the world goes nearly unnoticed in the u.s. meanwhile, the rest of the planet is in the grip of football fever, and little laos is no exception – the entirety of vang vieng was huddled around their tellies until 1am watching germany v. costa rica. being in such a rural area which is so passionate about their footie really makes me appreciate what an incredible phenomenon this globally unifying sport is. and makes it all the more unbelievable that almost no one in america either knows or cares. still, i will be watching and cheering on a strong u.s team, from wherever we are.

so while we’re laying here praying for the fans to come back on, the rest of vang vieng is just desperate to get the juice back in time for tonight’s match. and that speaks volumes about both the country and the sport.

a little laotian lesson

Wednesday, June 7th, 2006

i’m not generally much of a history buff – it usually goes in one ear and out the other – but the little i’ve read about laotian history is both fascinating and profoundly sad. i’m borrowing heavily from the guidebook here, but the secret u.s. war in laos during the vietnam era was so incredibly devastating, and so little known. from 1964-1973, the u.s. flew an average of 177 planes per day, carrying payloads of more than 2 million tonnes of bombs, making laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in the history of warfare. not to mention the unknown number of landmines still remaining buried all over the country, creating untold victims every year. all this was of course, strategy by the u.s. to prevent the so called “domino effect” of communism. then several decades of puppet governments and manipulation of the ethnic minority population by the c.i.a. as guerrilla soldiers served to wreak further devastation. even years later, the ecomony is a joke (50 pounds sterling will get you almost a million kip) and all the lao educated classes have long since fled (amounting to almost 10% of the population).

and in the end, vietnam was lost and laos became a socialist state anyway. how bitterly ironic. read more about laos on the “where we are now” page.

the ghosts of luang prabang

Tuesday, June 6th, 2006

we’re in luang prabang, laos – a surprisingly beautiful and elegant little town which has been preserved in the style of crumbling french provincial. elements of former colonial grandeur are still in evidence nearly everywhere – from the sweeping cobblestone streets to the carved balconies overlooking the river. inky black coffee thick enough to coat a spoon and croissant are de rigeur. lingering traces of opulence combine with lush exotica to produce a heady mix. dozens of golden wats stud the skyline while camellia and hibiscus blossoms litter the pavement. rice cakes are set in the sun on bamboo screens to dry while men congregate over games of boules. the ghost of laos royalty wander the quiet alleyways at night and whisper through the palms during the day. these were the boulevards of kings, not so long ago. and luang prabang carries itself with a dignity which lets you know they have not forgotten.

file under: pet peeve

Tuesday, June 6th, 2006

ugh – those linen “fisherman pants” that backpackers seem to love. they make the wearer look like they’re walking around with a load in their undies.


feverish night

Monday, June 5th, 2006

j’s been sick since we hit luang prabang – fever, chills, nausea, aches. which only becomes worrisome when you remember the guidebook saying “healthcare in laos is so poor as to be virtually non-existant” and recommending that for anything more serious than a stomach bug, you immediately hop the next flight to bangkok for medical attention.

you never think about it until your imagination starts wondering if this could be something more serious. thankfully we have the resources to *get* on the next plane, if need be. but it gives a concerned wife a sleepless night, until the next morning she finds the fever has broken, thank god.

the slow boat

Sunday, June 4th, 2006

it’s the second day of our slow boat trip down the mekong river, from chiang khong, thailand to luang prabang, laos. the river is strangely hypnotic, with it’s thick muddy whorls and eddies, its cragged shores. its size belies the power that lies just beneath the surface. even as we motor along, it pulls at us, tugging us towards the jagged rocks. fishermen in long-tail boats cast their nets. children run alongside at the banks, waving to us as we float by. women bathe neck deep. small scattered huts hint at the lives clustered close to shore. the mekong is a natural infrastructure where unpaved land and “unexploded ordnances” are a part of everyday life. the mekong *is* life, in these parts.

we stopped overnight in pak beng, a tiny smidge of a village with nothing much more than a few hasty guesthouses. people bathe at the side of the road, chickens run rampant, and the electricity only comes on between 6 and 11 pm. (”lights out” is fairly common in much of impoverished laos, where electricity is luxury.) after finding a room for the evening, we walked out to find some dinner, and somehow stumbled into a local wedding reception, where we were plied with homemade moonshine and 50 cent blaring from the stereo.

muzzy headed this morning, we’ve fortified ourselves with bottles of orangeade and baguette sandwiches, and settle into the narrow wooden benches for another eight hours. time drifts. the river drifts. we float along, pulling in at random bends and banks to let locals on or off. we take on a cargo of several hundred kilos of rice. we sleep and we eat, and we watch the river and river life. we pass through rainy patches and alternate scorching streaming sun. we gaze at the unending hils of jungle and landmines which rise up on all sides, surrounding us with heavy air and the buzz of insects so loud they pierce the drone of the motor.

the slow boat is uncomfortable and long and , true to name, slow. but it’s an essential part of the bonding process. to understand life in laos, you must understand the mekong. appreciating that is something which cannot be rushed. photos here.

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