Monday, November 7, 2011

Laid-back Laos

28 October, Lane Xang Princess Hotel, Vientiane

Laos, in common with its neighbours, China, Vietnam and Cambodia, is, in name at least, still a communist state. These days, it is hard to experience any of the old communist ways. Here and there, the Hammer and Sickle of the Lao Communist Party flutters from a window or even the odd flagpole, but any other signs of the socialist state are long gone. Farmers can own and dispose of their land. In the city, private enterprise flourishes, albeit with far less competitive vigour than would be observed across the border in Vietnam or in Lao’s large, democratic companion, Thailand. There are a few more military personal on the streets than one would find in states like Malaysia, however, the young men and women of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Army are far from a threatening presence. Their lackadaisical attitude is a little concerning at times though. It is the norm for loaded sub-machine guns to be left leaning against a wall while their owners engage in an early afternoon snooze!

A short stroll up the pleasant Boulevard Lane Xang from our hotel, is an enormous concrete archway known locally as the “vertical runway”. This Arc de Triomphe-like edifice was constructed in 1969 by re-directing funds donated by the USA to extend the runway at Vientiane’s airport. As with many things in Laos, it was never quite completed. For the princely sum of around 35 cents each we were able to climb to the top of the arch for a pleasant view of old Vientiane. Needless to say, at every level we were greeted by tables of souvenirs. Lao people are far more reserved than their Vietnamese or Thai neighbours. None of the pushy sales techniques here. Most stall owners will stand silently near you and wait for you to make the first move. At many stalls, prices are marked, so at least you have some starting point for ‘haggling’. All this makes for a far more laid-back shopping experience than we have experienced in many other Asian countries.

Bus travel will be our major transport around Laos. Our first experience on a local bus was predictably ‘interesting’ to say the least. One of the city’s three bus terminals is just a block away from our hotel, so we headed off to jump the Number 14 bus to Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park) about 35 kms from Vientiane. As we studied the massed confusion of the terminal, we were adopted by a helpful tuk-tuk driver who pointed out the appropriate stop for our bus and informed us that the next bus wouldn’t leave for almost an hour. Who did he think he was dealing with?? We politely shook him off and made our way to the appointed platform. Indeed, the timetable at the bus stop showed the next bus departing at 10.05 am and it was now about 9:10 am! So our Good Samaritan was correct?? Well, not exactly. As we pondered how we might fill in an hour or so, up chugged a rather worse for wear, number 14 bus. On we piled with assorted other punters loaded down with everything from bunches of bananas to coconuts. A short wait later, once the small bus was packed to the gunnels and the driver had finished his smoke, off we rolled. Seems the timetable is very much for show. The local bus is more like a shuttle service. Fill-her-up and off we go.

Bumpy as it was, the ride to Xieng Khuan was well worth the 75 cents each. (For 35 km remember) On the way, we stopped off at the Friendship Bridge, built across the river to Thailand by the Australian Government. The short stop at the frontier was used by the driver to do a careful inspection of his vehicle to count up the bits that had fallen off en route. As our journey resumed, folk hopped on and off, jokes were told, the whole bus giggled (except us?), stuff went up on the roof, stuff went on the floor, kids cried, we stopped for a smoke break for the driver, we hit pot-holes, skidded on unmade parts of the road and generally had a cheery time.

Xieng Khuan, Buddha Park, was the brainchild of an eccentric religious visionary who spent a large portion of his life constructing huge religious statues depicting both Hindu and Buddhist deities. Set in attractive gardens by the river, the whole effect was surprisingly pleasant.

Our return trip was nowhere near as exciting as the end of the line for route 14 was just a couple of stops beyond the park. Consequently, very few people boarded the bus until we were close to the city. There were a few anxious moments during the driver’s lunch stop at the Friendship Bridge while serious discussions and much kicking were directed at the driver’s side front wheel. After consulting an obviously knowledgeable tuk-tuk driver on the likelihood of making it back to Vientiane, we were once again on our way. $1.50 for 70 kms  and free entertainment. You can’t beat it.

29 October, Elephant Crossing Hotel, Vang Vieng

Sitting on the balcony of our well-appointed hotel room in Vang Vieng, overlooking one of the most spectacular mountain vistas we have ever seen, it is easy to put the 4 hours of hell on the ‘VIP Coach’ from Vientiane behind us.

Highway 13 is the main route from Vientiane north to the Chinese border. We had heard that the road had recently been fully sealed using foreign aid money. Hummm? Fully sealed is probably somewhat of an exaggeration. More like 50% sealed and, from our observations, alternating strips of 100m sealed, 100 m unsealed, is about all that was ever completed. Even then, the 100 m that were sealed were almost as rough at the strips that weren’t! To make matters worse, our particular VIP Coach seemed to be missing some basic parts, like any suspension or shock absorbers.

Having travelled by bus in other Asian countries, notably Vietnam, we had selected a rear seat, so as to avoid looking out the front windscreen as the driver wove his way through countless villages, avoided wandering water buffalo and stray children, up steep passes and down precarious descents at break-neck-speed. So, shaken but undaunted, we found ourselves in the heaven that is Vang Vieng. Some caution should be exercised however in interpreting the previous statement. There are in fact two Vang Viengs - the peaceful scenic one street away from the town centre and the raucous, ‘tubers scene’ of the main street at night.

“Tubers’ are young travellers who float down the river in inflated rubber truck tubes, stopping  to drink at every riverside bar between Go and Whoa. The end result of four or five hours in the sun with frequent beer breaks is, of course, highly predictable. The sad and embarrassing part of all this is that a large portion of these jerks is made up of Australian “Bogans”.

30 October, Ancient Luang Prabang Hotel, Luang Prabang

Yesterday, back in Vang Vieng, we treated ourselves to a guided ‘trek’ through some local villages to a few limestone caves. Our small group was good company, a young French Canadian woman her mother and a well-informed, young Lao guide.

It must be pointed out that Laos is one of the 20 poorest countries in the world. Its infrastructure is often rudimentary and things like public safety standards practically non-existent. So entering an unlit, muddy cave, with no guide ropes or railings, 30 kms or so from the nearest medical aid, might be considered a little fool-hardy. Well, you only live once! Fitted out with our miners’ lights, off we went. To say the experience was scary would be a gross understatement! All was well in the end - just one fall, but no permanent damage. To top it all off, some of us even swam into a water-filled cave complex, pulling ourselves along with overhead ropes in... you guessed it, tubes.

Poverty in Laos isn’t obvious or depressing. In the countryside, farming communities have the ‘basics’, electricity, satellite TV and even the odd motor cycle. Children play happily in the fields, swimming in irrigation channels, racing push bikes on the streets. It’s a very simple life, but not all that bad.

Luang Prabang is the old Royal and, later, French Administrative capital of Laos. Situated on the Mekong at its junction with the Nam Khan River, the city has to be one of the most peaceful cities in Asia. With a population of around 30 thousand, it is more like a country town than a city. Old French villas, decaying colonial administration buildings sit amongst mature tropical trees and shrubs. All along the river banks, are small open air restaurants and bars. Even though it is a bit of a tourist town, Luang Prabang still manages to retain much of the strange mix of a colonial past and an Asian present.

Strolling about the tree-lined streets of the old quarter or the shady banks of the river is about as active as one needs to get here. So that’s how we spent most of our time, apart from taking a 60 km round trip by tuk-tuk to Kuang Si Waterfall. Again we were lucky in meeting up with some pleasant and interesting young travelling companions. Swapping travel stories took our minds off the discomfort of the long and bumpy trip.

The waterfall and its surrounding park area were extremely well laid out, with lush tropical gardens framing numerous turquoise pools. We found a trail to the top of the falls, but after a stiff climb, our way was blocked by some extremely boggy ground. Never mind, we had a bit of exercise to work off some of the great food and cheap beer we have been consuming. Swimming was on offer, but only one of our companions, a Swiss, was willing to brave the unusually cold water.

This peaceful place with its gardens, natural forest, waterfalls and bear sanctuary was typical of the sort of environment that we found wherever we went in Laos, a slow-paced, friendly, laid-back country where everything seems to work, just at its own pace. There is a story doing the rounds of a European visitor to Vientiane who was suffering from hypertension and stress. After a couple of weeks, he was off all medication and experienced a total cure. And that was in Vientiane, which is ‘fast pace’ in comparison to the rest of the country.

2 November Lane Xang Princess Hotel, Vientiane

Early afternoon, we flew back to Vientiane with Lao Airlines. As might be expected, the departure time was more of a broad guideline than a scheduled event. Security at the airport was a little lax, but the flight was fine, the plane was brand new and they even managed to serve a snack and a drink in the course of the 40 minute flight. For FREE!

On arrival, old hands now at the art of airport transfers in Laos, we shouldered our carry-on only luggage and set off for the unofficial tuk-tuk stand at the airport gates. Ten minutes and $5 later we were back at our starting point, the Princess Hotel. A good sleep,  an easy morning around the local markets and we were off to KL for our connection home.

Laos Review

Off the back of two weeks in Japan, our trip to Laos was an enormous contrast - modern, westernized Asia vs developing ‘old Asia’. From bullet trains to tuk-tuks and bone-shattering roads in the space of a couple of weeks, we feel like time-travellers..  

Put simply, Laos is just fantastic. It offers great value, fascinating cultural experiences, uncrowded, open countryside with some of the most spectacular mountain scenery we have seen. The food to die for (although be careful, or you just might!) it is safe and the people are friendly, without being overwhelming.

If you have a sense of adventure or you just want to veg-out on a slim budget while enjoying a standard of luxury way beyond what your money will buy you elsewhere, try Laos!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

My name isn't Tuk Tuk!

26 October, Lane Xang Princess Hotel, Vientiane, Laos

After an evening and most of the day mooching about KL and a short flight on fantastic Air AsiaX, we finally found ourselves in the glorious Vientiane International Airport - a small, but relatively new terminal with an efficient, if a little casual, customs and immigration system.

Even at 5:30 pm, the heat was slowing us to an Asian shuffle as we ventured out to the main terminal gates to pick up a tuk-tuk to town. Taxis from the airport are an outrageous $6.00!!! A tuk-tuk was supposed to be about $2.50. It was not just the money! We really wanted to take a tuk-tuk to our city just to get in the swing of things. As usual, we headed off the wrong way along one of those typical Asian streets with bike parts, dust, food stalls, and sleepy dogs... you just got to love it! Anyhow. we finally waved down what turned out to be one of the dumbest tuk-tuk drivers in Laos. Dumb? We wonder. He did manage to screw about $5.00 out of us. After a number of stops to ask directions from fellow drivers, he finally stopped somewhere in the vicinity of our hotel.

Ah. Back in the 'old Asia' we know and love. After the clinical cleanliness of Japan, it's good to get some dirt between the toes and the faint smell of rotting food in the nostrils.

Laos has a reputation for being laid back. It sure is. Compared with Vietnam, it is positively asleep. The traffic drifts along at a sedate 40kph, people shuffle from one shade tree to another. Life is enjoyed at a much slower pace here. The best the street hawkers can manage is a bit of a half-hearted wave of their goods in your general direction. Even the few tuk-tuk drivers who manage a call, let out a sigh of relief when we wave them away. Their sleep won't have to be disturbed. The valiant soldiers of the Lao People’s Liberation Army lounge about on street corners and in security pill-boxes, chatting, playing cards and trying hard to 'see nothing'.

The sites of Vientiane aren't well known and there is probably a good reason why. They aren't too spectacular, but the slow pace of the street life and the interesting people more than compensate. Not to mention the prices!!!