Diary - Laos

Tuesday 4th June 2002 - DAY 125

Starting point: Mengla, China
Ending point: Luang Nam Tha, Laos
Distanced travelled: 81 miles

Nong Khiaw

We make an early start to the border and just as well - half way down the half-finished road 2 trucks have become stuck trying to pass and it takes almost an hour to sort out. Exiting China is no problem (although there is some complication with the documentation and Jill may have to stay another day to sort it out - feel quite sorry for her as she's been desperate to get back to Beijing) so we say a fond farewell and head off on our own for the first time in 4 weeks. Entering Laos couldn't be easier - the officials at immigration are incredibly relaxed and even apologise for having to charge us '10,000 kip' to bring our car in (about $1 US). The customs officials 19km down the road at Boten are much the same. After passing our Carnet around amongst themselves in a bemused way they eventually just wave us on. We head west towards Luang Nam Tha on a paved, but fairly well potholed road. Every few miles we pass by a collection a bamboo huts on stilts and various pigs/goats/ducks/chickens running around. Occasionally the villagers wave or smile, but most of them just stare incredulously - one small child even ran off crying. Nam Tha - the capital of the region - is a pretty small place but we find bamboo-style accommodation without any problems - foreigners aren't segregated into specific hotels, no need for passports or checking-in rituals + you can pay whenever you like. Our first attempt at ordering food is also a success and a tasty stir-fried chicken dish appears. This has to be the most relaxed country in the world - you can even poke the flies and they don't move.

The river at Nong Khiaw

Wednesday 5th June 2002 - DAY 126

Starting point: Luang Nam Tha
Ending point: Nong Khiaw
Distanced travelled: 151 miles

For the first time since China we wake up with no agenda and a choice of how to spend our day - actually it leaves us at a complete loss as to where to go! The coffee here is really good, as are the banana pancake breakfasts. Having eventually made up our minds, we head off leisurely towards a sleepy little village called Nong Khiaw. The roads are all surfaced and virtually empty (apart from the suicidal chickens), so we can enjoy the lush green mountains and little bamboo villiages we pass through. Our map is sometimes at odds with the GPS and distances are difficult to work out, but we can't really go too far wrong as there are only about 10 roads in the whole country. Our destination is a beautiful little bamboo village nestled by the river between the mountains with a scattering of guesthouses and restaurants. After some food and beer by the river, we are on our way back to our guesthouse when we find a group of very drunken locals watching the World Cup in a pharmacy - they invite us in and start plying us with Whiskey-Laos (strong local rice whiskey) and some completely unidentifiable food. When the power goes out, we make our escape while we still can.

Laos family

Thursday 6th June 2002 - DAY 127

Mysteriously our spare tyre on the rear door is flat again. It appears that they must have damaged the valve stem when they did the last repair a couple of days ago in China - hopefully that's the last of the Chinese gremlins (thats a grand total of 4 punctures and 5 turbo hoses to China). We decide to take a casual walk to a 'nearby' waterfall and amongst the endless streams of butterflies we spot a large black scorpian, a couple of squashed snakes and some 'Danger UXO' notices - amazing to think Laos is the most bombed country ever (you can still see large craters on the hillside). After 3 hours of walking in the heat and still no sign of a waterfall we admit defeat and hitch a ride back with a truck (the first vehicle in 2 hours). We find out that Laos is actually an hour behind China not ahead so we've been going to bed 2 hours earlier than we thought for the past couple of nights - thought we were getting funny looks.

Friday 7th June 2002 - DAY 128

Starting point: Nong Khiaw
Ending point: Luang Prabang
Distanced travelled: 95 miles

With slightly confused body clocks, we head off towards Luang Prabang, with a Dutch couple, Jack and Charlotte, crammed into the back. The roads are good and the journey takes us just 2 1/2 hours. Luang Prabang, the country's second largest city, is little more than a village of 18,000 sleepy people on the banks of the Mekong. There is a growing traveller scene here, and there are plenty of guesthouses, restaurants, internet cafes and bars for us to choose from, so that's exactly what we do, in that order. Paddy and Sheila, our erstwhile passengers from Nepal are coincidentally in town too, so we meet up for a beer or two in front of the England-Argentina game (well done boys!).

Wat Xieng Thong - Golden City Temple

Tuesday 11th June 2002 - DAY 132

Starting point: Luang Prabang
Ending point: 153 Vang Vieng
Distanced travelled: miles

After a happy few days in Luang Prabang soaking up the atmosphere, visiting various temples, caves and a really spectacular waterfall (with pools you can jump off into), we figure it's time to move south to Vang Vieng (with Dutch people still in tow). The rain has been quite heavy lately so parts of the road are beginning to suffer - especially up in the mountains. We come across a bus which has become stuck in the mud and is blocking the road causing a bit of a jam, so we do the heroic thing and tow it out as the locals cheer - quite amusing. We beat the bus from LP by at least 2 hours and we can tell we're back on the beaten track now as we keep bumping into the same people.

Towing a bus out of the mud

Thursday 13th June 2002 - DAY 134

Vang Vieng is a funny place - mid-way between LP and Vientiane it has the feel of a very small village that has been completely overrun with backpackers because this is where the bus stops. The place consists almost entirely of restaurants with English menus, guesthouses and bars showing films but it's a relaxing place to hang out for a couple of days. The highlight is floating down the fast-flowing river in large inner-tubes and investigating some tunnels through caves - reminiscent of a Goonies adventure and the best way to enjoy the stunning scenery all around.

Friday 14th June 2002 - DAY 135

Starting point: Vang Vieng
Ending point: Vientiane
Distanced travelled: 102 miles

Pha That Luang The main road in Vientiane

The road to Vientiane is still intact but apparently there is a lot of flooding up in the north and some of the roads are impassable (we seem to leave a wake of destruction in our path wherever we go). Our new passengers are Andy (Brit) and Marika (Swedish/Aussie) - some people might suspect that we are using our car to make friends... Vientiane is a capital like no other - you can count 15 seconds between cars which means no traffic jams (the idea of a 'rush hour' out here is a joke - apparently Laos PDR really stands for Laos Please Don't Rush). The lack of cars means there's no pollution and farmyard animals wander the streets freely. It's just about large enough not to be swamped by tourists and still retain some of its culture. The French influence is also more apparent here - colonial buildings, wine shops and baguettes.

Monday 17th June 2002 - DAY 138

Sadly our visa runs out tomorrow so we'll cross the Mekong into Thailand over yet another 'Friendship Bridge'. The past few days have consisted of enjoying the food, seeing the sights (including the Victory Monument - Laos version of the Arc de Triomphe), attending a very dubious nightclub and having a sauna/massage in a forest temple.