The most heavily bombed nation in the world, per capita, in history - not clever
21.06.2010 - 29.06.2010 35 °C
During this last week, I have seen some of the most beautiful scenery and some of the most abject poverty.
I arrived at Chiang Khong, on the Thai-Laos border and stayed in a lovely guesthouse with my veranda looking over the Mekong River. The rickety old tuk-tuk struggled to the quay and deposited me at immigration before we crossed the river in a tiny boat. The level of poverty strikes you as soon as you arrive in Laos but the people seem pretty happy with life. I love seeing the kids running around butt-naked and having a great time holding kittens up by their tails or playing in the mud by the side of the road.
The slow boat to Pakbeng was a mixture of experiences - load, drunk Americans tempered by the most fantastic scenery along the river's edge and watching the ridiculously dangerous jet boats speeding past us. Many stops are made for locals to get on and off the boat with their various cargoes. Spent the night in a very basic guesthouse then started off again with most of the same crowd. As we neared Luang Prabang at the end of the journey, the scenery became even more spectacular and the river got faster, with small white-water areas that the captain negotiated skillfully. I spent the last couple of hours sitting at the prow in the quiet, talking to a guy who helps with the African environment but is based in Cambridge and lives in Norwich!
Luang Prabang is a lovely town with an obvious French influence. I did my usual walking tour and met a film crew, making a documentary about traditional Lao dancing. Watched as the lovely girls danced in front of the Vat Xieng Thong to the music of drums etc. Climbed Phousi Hill which gives fantastic views of the town nestling beside the Mekong. It seemed as if I was level with the turbo-props coming in to land at the airport!
Took a trip to the Kuang Si Waterfall next day which was spectacular. After climbing through the forest to the top of the falls, I scrambled back down and swam in a small pool which was freezing, despite the day's high temperature. I have finally seen the sense of having an umbrella at all times. Local kids were using a rope swing to fly into the middle of the pool - it is so strange that parents will point out 'these strange foreigners' to their kids.
The minivan driver insisted on stopping at a local tribal village which is very uncomfortable to witness as the poverty is palpable. Kids beg for food and, of course, money. The drive to Vang Vieng next day was through even more straggling villages in the mountains of northern Laos on roads more like tracks than the main road south! A rain storm turned the road into a river in minutes and the cows, pigs, goats, water buffalo and children just sit in the road and dare you to run them over! The huge lorries lumbering south have mud flaps with pictures of Che Guevara and (I think) Robert Redford.
Unless you want to kayak or 'tube', Vang Vieng is just a hick town beside the Song River. I walked about 5 miles into the hills and found a limestone cave with a Buddah sitting in the dark. The old man who took me into the cave showed me the bats in the ceiling and the huge drops just beside the path - very scary in the pitch dark. On the walk, I was very aware of the warnings about unexploded ordnance (UXO) which are still in the paddy fields and on the stone paths.
The serious bit - it is estimated that 30% of all bombs dropped by our 'cousins' from '64 to '73 did not explode and still lie in the ground, waiting for a victim. 2 million tons of explosives were dropped on half a million bombing runs over Laos. There are more than 200 accidents each year, mainly in the paddy fields.
Next day's drive to Vientiane was another experience! We passed an open truck with two elephants standing in the back. A local lady got on and didn't stop talking for the entire five hour journey! At least she kept the driver awake! The only good thing about the roads being so badly potholed is that you can't go too fast, thus allowing time to avoid the oncoming lorries, buses and bikes. We all breathed a sigh of relief on reaching the reasonable sophistication of the capital city.
Spent a lazy morning wandering around Vientiane, climbing the Patuxay Victory Monument and watching work on the new Mekong River Walk. Complimentary car to the airport for my flight to Vietnam.
Laos is certainly an experience - I love their rice whiskey (35%). When I asked for it in hotels, the waiters all laughed - they don't know what a hardened drinker I am!!