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March 12, 2006

Laos Laxatives

We boarded the 2045 to Nong Kai - the last station before the Laos border, and settled into another night of Thai railway hospitality. After a long, peaceful sleep, I woke to one of the train staff beating me on the back trying to waken me and looked up to see everyone leaving the train at Nong Kai station. We staggered off the train half-asleep into the bright heat of another day and were instantly surrounded by hungry tuk-tuk drivers itching for a kill.

Ill-prepared and still asleep we got into a tuk-tuk with a pleasant Japanese couple and an American woman so huge that the suspension lurched to one side as she boarded.She was one of those people who could never stop talking - and told the driver she needed to get a Laos visa. This, he was delighted to hear, and immediately took us to the "visa office." Unable to remember this from my last visit to Laos, and looking strangely like a Thai travel agents, it was suspiciously situated in the centre of town rather than at the border. Assuring us that this was the 'Visa on Arrival' we'd been planning to get, Carita and I filled in the forms, handed over our cash, and they considerately gave us each a glass of water, which we would soon regret drinking.

Realising we were being stung but too late to do anything about it, we were now taken to the proper border where everyone else from the train was now collecting their visas for a few dollars less. As we stood in line, queueing to get through, I suddenly began to feel very bad. The water I'd drank in the travel agents was starting to have it's effect, fermenting inside of me, and unsure of which end it was going to erupt from, I tried to hold everything in and hoped the queue would move quickly.

The fat American, who by now was sweating profusely in the tropical heat, joined us, the smell almost making me vomit in the never-moving queue as she continued attempting to have a conversation. I began to expect the worst, and realised that if I did throw up, the only way I could avoid hitting anyone with it was to run out of the queue and across the border, which would probably result in being shot. With this in mind I managed to keep control of my bodily functions just long enough to get my passport stamped and rush across the border into the nearby toilets. My first experience back in Laos was that of a filthy squat toilet which looked as if it hadn't been cleaned since the French had run the country.

March 15, 2006

The Rise of Vientiene

Vientiene signWe found ourselves in the familiar situation of all the taxi drivers insisting on hugely inflated prices for doing the trip from the border to Vientiene, and, banding together, they refused to drop their prices. Eventually, we were lucky enough to find a one-eyed tuk-tuk driver who, strangely enough, was much cheaper, and we jumped in the back as he squinted out through the dusty window with his good eye, and drove hesitantly out onto the road.

As we meander the twenty kilometres or so to the city I'm shocked to discover just how much more developed the country is since my last trip here in 2003. The main road is now surfaced, rather than the dirt road it was last time, and as we pass two suicidal surveyors working in the middle of oncoming traffic with trucks roaring down on them, swerving away at the last second, it's obvious that progress is continuing non-stop.

Arriving in Vientiene I'm astonished to find that what used to be a backwater town of muddy roads is now a fast-developing city with air-conditioned, glass-fronted boutiques and trendy cafes. On my last trip it was so rare to see other Westerners that you would say hello to each other - now it appears to be firmly on the Lonely Planet Indochina backpacking circuit with American teenagers hanging around the convenience stores and hostels on every corner.

Our half-blind tuk-tuk driver, whom we now suspect is also deaf, is unable to find the hotel I stayed at last time, so we walk down a few streets with our bags and soon stumble upon a lovely new hotel with rooms full of creature comforts for $20. We're both exhausted, I still feel awful, and so we crash out in the cool, air-conditioned room for a few hours, waken up feeling much better, and head out for that all in one travel meal of lunch/brunch/dinner.

As well as being full of backpackers, the city seems to have Landcruisers on every corner. Long the preferred vehicle of NGOs and foreign corporations, it's hard to say whether they're used here to provide aid or lay claim to the country's valuable resources as it opens up for business. The new cafes and boutiques are full of well-paid westerners throwing their salaries around, while locals sit begging outside in squalor, the stark contrast making it seem like the colonial times have returned to Laos.

March 16, 2006

Vang Vieng Express

Vang Vieng ExpressAfter a long, lazy breakfast the following morning, we decided to head north to Vang Vieng, which we'd been hearing lots of good things about, to do some trekking. Vientiene bus station was a crazed, hectic, concrete square of a place, with hundreds of people carting sacks and parcels around, shouting and yelling to each other.

After hunting around and asking a few people, we found the old, dirty, wreck of a bus for Vang Vieng, and clambered aboard over sacks of rice and garlic - the employees joking they were there to keep the vampires away. The bus slowly filled with happy Laotians speaking an alien language and piling ever more sacks between the seats, but apart from a few Thais, we were strangely the only backpackers on the bus. Vendors walked up and down outside the buses, trying to sell the most bizarre products through the open windows to passengers; calendars, posters, and all the things you need least on a bus journey through the country.

Finally the bus left, and after a long grind as it found it's way out of Vientiene's expanding sprawl, we were at last going through the Laos countryside, passing villages of bamboo huts, green fields, and climbing up into the steep hills. I was delighted to be looking out through an open window as new places slipped by, and the atmosphere on the bus was lovely as the happy locals headed back to their villages after a morning of buying and selling in the capital.

March 20, 2006

Vang Vieng

We got off the bus not knowing whether we were in Vang Vieng or just on a dirt road. Guesthouses and bars lined the muddy street but there didn't seem to be anything else to the place - it just appeared to be another ghetto of scruffy, pissed, and wasted backpackers. The mountains, however, on the other side of the river, towered above us, and although we were fairly appalled by the town and it's travelling occupants, we reminded ourselves that we came here to do some hiking, not to make friends.

Everyone travelling in south-east Asia these days seems to carry a Lonely Planet, treating it as their bible, and following the suggested highlights exactly. So you find the vast majority of people going to exactly the same places, travelling on the same buses, and staying in the very same guesthouses like herds of sheep. Lonely Planet Laos refers to Vang Vieng as a 'stop on the Indo-China backpacking circuit' and notes that 'almost everyone' rents an inner tube and floats down the river. By helping to create this backpacker package tour culture, ordinary villages like Vang Vieng, which were probably once quite pleasant, have seen a ten-fold increase in visitors and have now become overcrowded, ruined tourist towns that anyone travelling around Asia with a Lonely Planet heads straight for. The book even goes so far as to criticise the culture they've created, crying foul of all the restaurants and bars in Vang Vieng continually running episodes of 'Friends' and playing loud music to entertain their new found foreign market. Simply reading a Rough Guide description of a town and comparing it to Lonely Planet's opinion can give you a whole different perspective of a place.

After finding a hotel and dumping our bags we set off in search of some food. The town has long been famous for it's happy pizzas and opium dens and everywhere we tried was full of arrogant backpackers getting pissed and stoned, and rude staff. In the end we found a beautiful restaurant down by the river, which was deserted and strangely happened to be cheaper than the backpacker places on the main road, and we sat down to some lovely steaks away from the mayhem of the town.

March 21, 2006

Across Laos in a Plastic Chair

Across Laos in a plastic chairWe waken up in Vang Vieng to the sound of rain battering against the windows and look out to see grey, overcast skies and flooded, muddy roads. Hoping that the rain will stop, we sit in the Organic Farm Cafe, enjoy a lovely, long breakfast, and chat to a couple of cyclists on a 4000km round trip of south east Asia. As we'd been unable to find any other guidebooks in Bangkok, we too ended up with a Lonely Planet, and looking through it we discover that apart from a few local walks, it doesn't cover any treks in the area.

Finally, after watching the rain pour down for a long time we come to the conclusion that it's going to be raining for the whole day, and between the awful weather, and our lack of trekking info, we decide that returning another time on another trip with local maps is a better option than hanging around in the hope that the weather will be better tomorrow.

When we enquire at the guest-house about the departure times of local buses, we're told that there aren't any - they only want to sell us tickets for the vip buses; and there aren't any of those for hours! Looking down the road, however, I see a vip bus sitting there, and going out to ask, they tell me it's about to leave for Vientiene. We grab our bags and jump aboard, but there turns out to be little need to rush, as, after going around the corner, it simply stops in the car park for an hour.

More and more backpackers gradually get on, until finally, the bus is packed, and they come around collecting tickets. Discovering that we don't have any, the crack-head staff, who always seem to work on backpacker buses, go crazy - screaming at us, and insisting that we buy tickets. Of course we'll buy tickets, and we give them the money. Still people keep coming on board, and the staff now return, realising that they don't have enough space, screaming at us again, that we now have to give up our seats. Trying to remain chilled, as we don't really care where we sit as long as we get to Vientiene, we get out of our seats, wondering what they've got in store for us now. Even we're surprised, however, when they bring on board two plastic chairs from a cafe, put them in the aisle, and tell us to sit in them! I burst out laughing, asking if we get seat-belts and making jokes about it being vip transport, but no-one seems very amused.

Finally, the bus leaves, while we try to hang on whilst our hard plastic chairs bend and roll from side to side as the bus goes around bends. There's only backpackers onboard, no locals at all, and although we're travelling through beautiful countryside, everyone just seems absorbed in their own little world - reading and listening to music, with no-one looking out of the windows enjoying the scenery. It's like we're insulated from the real Laos on an air-conditioned package tour for backpackers with everyone being bussed from guest-house to the door of the next guest-house, then sitting in front of a television every night; going across the world to find everything they left at home.

After a long four hours in hard, uncomfortable, plastic seats we're glad to reach Vientiene. It's still raining, and Carita immediately suggests heading back across the border to Thailand; I readily agree. We grab our bags and walk away from it all through wet streets and catch a minibus to the border. There we're lucky enough to grab the last two sleeper spaces of the day on the train back to Bangkok, and we're delighted to be heading there, even though we have to sleep in different carriages.

January 26, 2009

Making for the Border

I'm sitting in Vista Cafe having just spent a lovely week here in Vientiane with Leila, who's just gone off to Vang Vieng. It's Chinese New Year so all the trains back to Bangkok are supposedly full and the only sensible option seems to be getting on a bus from here. Still, something inside is forcing me to jump into a tuk-tuk, head to the border on my own, and figure it out from there, so that's what I'm going to do.

January 27, 2009

Don't Believe the Hype

I persuaded a tuk-tuk to take me to the border for 200 baht, jumped in with my bag and sped off towards Thailand at 10mph. The afternoon sun was beginning to sink across the Mekong and the warm light softened the buildings of Vientiane as I headed south. It felt right.

After the border formalities, a pickup dropped me off at the railway station and I hurried in to see if I could get a ticket. 2nd class was full but they had space in 1st class so I bought a ticket, grabbed some food and a Singha, and delightedly boarded the train to Bangkok as the sun set.