02.10.2013 - 12.10.2013 30 °C
Lachlan and I have been having a wonderful time in Laos. Laos is a relatively long and skinny country of South-east Asia, orientated roughly north-south and land-locked by China to the north, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south and Thailand to the west. Laos also shares a tiny corner of border with Myanmar (Burma) in the north-west.
We have spent all of our time in the north of Laos, within a few hundred kilometers of the Chinese border. Up here it is hilly, bordering on mountainous. The few roads that have been built are situated on the undulating high ground, rather than along the valleys, and straight and/or flat sections of road are extremely rare. Instead, the road spends 90% of the time climbing up and down steep hills clothed in forest bordering on jungle, winding in and out of lush bamboo or banana-clad slopes and around the noses of inconveniently orientated spurs, doubling or tripling the 'as-the-crow-flies' distance. Where the forest gives way to clearings, villages of huts with grass-thatched roofs and woven bamboo walls pop in to view. The dwellings are often spaced out along the roadside for several hundred metres, as they are built on the flattest land available - which is mostly the narrow alley of the road verge itself.
The villages are fascinating. There are chickens of all sizes running after hens, roosters strutting and yodelling, black pigs snoozing prostrate in the shade, small children running about in various states of undress, and women washing at the pump or sitting in the hut doorway while sewing or preparing food. Everything is delightfully neat and tidy...and in some villages (the smallest ones), there is scarcely a plastic item to be seen in the yard except for perhaps a fuel container or a large washing up basin. Instead, bamboo is used in a hundred different ways, to fill the role of plastic-fantastic, and also of metals to some degree. An upturned domed bamboo 'basket' keeps a rooster or a huddle of chicks contained. Bamboo pipes direct water from trickles in the roadside bank into a spout from where it can be collected. Vegetable patches are fenced with bamboo. There are bamboo ladders, bamboo mats and bamboo baskets of all shapes, sizes and uses. Two bamboo baskets can be carried across the shoulders on a bamboo yoke, or the load can be carried on one's back, in a funnel shaped bamboo basket with shoulder straps, like a backpack. There are also bottle shaped bamboo fish traps and eel traps, and bamboo 'cocoons' for transporting poultry to market.
We have been getting about by bus: either 'long bus' of 40+ seats, 12-seater mini-van (reaching speeds of over 60 kph this is the fastest transport on offer and preferred by tourists) or in-between bus of around 19 seats. A loaded bus is a sight to behold, with bags, boxes, sacks, suitcases and backpacks stacked up on top of the roof and lashed down under tarpaulins to keep the dust off. If there is any storage space under the bus it will also be full (Lachlan opened one of those hatches once to look for our bags and was faced with a dozen day old chickens running around - he shut the door fast before any escaped) as will be the aisle of the bus on the inside. The space between the seats is full with the things that didn't fit or were too heavy or too incovenient to go on the roof (eg. things that are getting off enroute) so you have to leap and climb your way through to your seat. Luckily on these busses the windows open fully (free air conditioning) which makes life easier for the luggage 'runner' (kind of like a conductor, performing duties like collecting ticket money, handing out sick bags and getting people and gear off at the right places) as he can load and unload items by poking them in or out through the window (timber came in, to be laid on the floor) and can climb in and out himself, as a shortcut to the roof.
In our ten days here we have travelled clockwise in a kind of loop, stopping in the towns of Oudomxay (the first major town after the border crossing, and a transport hub), Nong Khiaw (a sleepy backpacker town on the Ou River which is a tributary of the Mekong), Sam Neua (virtually on the Vietnamese border and a jumping off point for logged timber and travellers), Vieng Xai (where the communistic Pat-laos leaders holed up in caves in the beautiful karst limestone hills, for nine long years throughout the time of the Vietnam war, and from where they conducted their own military operations to fight the US-backed southern Laos neutralists/royalists) Phonsavan (in slightly less hilly country, about a quarter of the way along the country heading south, and where ground fighting between the Pat-laos and the southern-Laos, Thai-supplemented, US-backed army took place on the 'Plain of Jars' - an amazing landscape littered with huge stone funeral jars of up to two metres high and weighing up to five tonnes, transported on to the plains from nearby quarries by elephant) and Luang Prabang (Laos' s second biggest city, and UNESCO heritage listed for it's beautiful temples, royal history and French Indochine influences).
There has been a lot to digest, in this travel. Although people in Laos are ridiculously poor by Western standards (a third of the population earn less than $1.30/day) there are a lot smiles and friendly greetings everywhere, both Laos-Laos and Laos-Westerner. This is despite the awful time that the country endured during the Vietnam war years, when people had to live in caves or in the jungle to escape the US bombs that rained continuously for nearly a decade, and do their farming by the light of the stars and moon at night. When the war was over, it was safe to live out in the open again, but to this day the farmers are limited in the area of land that they can farm, because so much of the landscape is littered with unexploded bombs that can go off when struck by a plough or hit with a grass slashing knife.
There is heaps more I could say but it is getting late! Tomorrow we head towards Thailand, leaving Luang Prabang via slow boat up the Mekong River.
Much love to you all,