You are hereTransport chaos in far-off Laos

Transport chaos in far-off Laos

We had originally planned a slightly more far-reaching journey through Laos with some trekking and home-stays in the north but as my foot wasn't getting any better in a hurry (God of trekking was on tea-break and God of hammocks was waving his wand) we took my wobbly foot on a very wobbly boat across the Mekong into the kingdom (now People’s Democratic Republic) of Laos. Luckily, despite the soviet name the main highlight of Laos – the former royal city of Luang Prabang, had been mercifully untouched by communist style architecture and was still full of shiny temples and shinier people. No wonder when you consider the only ways in or out are time-consuming and nerve-fraying adventures in themselves!

The first stop was at the border town (street) of Huay Xai, which is clearly run by our guesthouse owner who introduced herself as 'Mama Laos’ – you know you have mafia type power when you can adopt the country
. She seemingly was in charge of accommodation, food, travel tickets and anything that crosses the border – wouldn’t be surprised to see her on CNN as the UN’s latest envoy anytime soon. Anyway, she sorted us out for tickets for our 2 day trip down the Mekong to Luang Prabang, sold us a packed lunch and cushions for our bottoms and we were off!

The view down the Mekong is lovely – if you get on the boat early enough to get a seat at the front. Luckily we were there in plenty of time to grin smugly at all young and hungover backpackers who jumped on last minute and had the choice of on the roof with the ducks in baskets, at the back with the lizard on a bit of string or next to the toilet and diesel engine – the fumes of either guaranteed to kill at 10 paces. The even more foolish had opted for the 6 hour one day trip via speedboat "rocket-boats", crash helmet included. You know this is foolhardy in that most of SE Asia balances babies on motorbikes – and so if they get the helmets out in a boat it must be time to question what you are doing. We had great fun pointing and laughing at them as they bounced down the river past us with clinging desperately to the sides of the boats.

The first day’s journey was 6 hours and then we pulled into the riverside village of Pak Beng for the night – clearly the starting point for the Laos drug trade
. Within minutes all on the boat were offered happy shakes / happy pancakes / happy coffee plus a number of drugs I have only ever heard of in documentary programmes about things that will kill you quickly. We declined gracefully and opted for a cup of tea (non-happy thank you). The second day was a longer and more cramped journey of 9 hours where again we sat glued to the seat watching the captain expertly wind around the rocks and rapids (this is no place to learn how to sail) eventually getting in at 6pm. Relieved to have arrived with both luggage and ourselves intact we found a small guesthouse with air-con and collapsed.

Luang Prabang is a beautiful old city, full of wats, small crumbling lanes, orange clad monks and exhausted backpackers re-charging their batteries. It has a huge French influence from colonial times meaning crepes and baguettes are sold on every street corner – a welcome change to sticky rice! We hired bikes, took a trip out to beautiful waterfalls, got carried away at local handicraft markets, ate and slept. However we clearly tempted fate too much by wondering at the relatively little amount of rain for the rainy season (compared to that which was forecast by diligently watched BBC World each evening) and on the 4th day the rain cameth – and didn’t it just. We had non-stop “pelting-it-down-for-day’s” monsoon weather which managed to soak us to the skin on each baguette run and even knocked out the electricity for the whole city for a day. Even trying to appease Budda by getting up at 5.30am to go and give alms to the monks who make their daily rounds through the streets at that time didn’t work. Which was strange as Carsten managed to get quite carried away giving out food, not realising the old woman happily handing it to him to distribute would want paying for it afterwards – leading to us giving away our last kip before an angry scene ensued
! Luckily it was our last day there and so we jumped on the bus to Vientiane – assuming it was the best place to be in the rain.

Ha!! If only we had known! The supposed 9 hour trip turned into the longest so far, in fact nearly 3 times that. Due to the amount of torrential rain over the previous few days the windy road through the mountains on very narrow lanes and been severely damaged by landslides (bits of road fallen down the mountains) meaning the bus had to squeeze what was left - which was going ok until we finally hit the big landslide which had blocked the road completely. And the digger needed to clear the obstruction was somewhere behind us... Unfortunately by this time we had learnt that Laos people clearly aren’t good travellers and the sick bags handed out at the beginning of the journey were well in use. The oxygen ran out on the passenger deck quite early as the temperature inside crept up into the 40’s only to be escaped by braving the torrential rain outside. The toilet was reaching its limits...and the air-con only went on sporadically...but the loud Asian pop music went on all the time...

Funnily enough although none of the traffic was moving the local villages always seemed to find a way to us with cars full of goodies to eat – sticky rice and pineapple ran out first
! Now and again you would have someone zoom past with a fistful of squawking chickens only to see them again 20 minutes later in a slightly more roasted state.

The journey took 24 hours all-in-all, although we thanked our lucky stars that that meant arriving at 7.30 am in Vientiane – in daylight to sort out the hotel. 2 girls on the bus had been kicked off in a very sleepy village at 4am as we passed through – I wonder what happened to them... we were just happy to arrive – and cross off both bus and boat from the activities list for a few days..

The capital of the country is a pretty non-descript type of place – lots of busy roads which we hadn’t seen for a while and pretty loud and hectic. Not really a place to relax in. We took a tuk-tuk out to see the main sights including a gold-plated wat, a big parade ground, governmental buildings seemingly sponsored by Knorr (?) and a triumphal arch. Locally known as the vertical runway apparently the US provided money for an airport in the 60’s but the Laos government decided to build an Asian Arc de Triomphe instead – brilliant!

The one place definitely worth a visit – and an absolute eye-opener is COPE – an organisation providing prosthetic, orthotic and rehabilitation services in Laos
. Some 260 million sub-munitions (known as bombies) from cluster bombs were dropped over Laos between 1964 and 1973 – more than in Vietnam or Cambodia. 80 million of those failed to explode; most in rural areas where collecting scrap metal is now one of the ways local people try to earn money – especially children. This leads to at least 300 new casualties per year who suffer from the effects of handling these terrible devices. Many arrive at the clinic after arduous journeys, or are found in their villages unable to make the journey themselves, where they at last get medical attention, are fitted for new prosthetic limbs and receive support and rehabilitation training. The stories are incredible. The clinic also supports children suffering from birth defects and adults injured through traffic or work accidents amongst others. Check out the website – It shocks at our ability to kill and maim, and restores your faith in humanity at the same time

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