HOT INFO On The Road

Ben van den Anker
SE Asia: REPORT #2

Aug 01, Y2K Chiang Mai, Thailand

The roads of Laos.

I stayed a bit longer in Vientiane due to some people I met in the evening. So many tourists walk the streets of Vientiane these days. I thought it would be more quit here but when this continues Laos will develop like a kind of Thailand. After two days in Vientiane I caught the bus to Vieng Vang with an Israeli woman named Karmit. She taught me some things about Middle East politics. It seems that every person, whether man or woman has to go to the army. Vieng Vang was a pleasant small town, visited by tourists mainly to shorten the long busdrive to Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang was a former capital of the Lan Xang kingdom until 1545. It's an Unesco World Heritage site but I don't think it deserves this title. The main road is now filled with restaurants, hotels and expensive souvenir shops. To me a lot of its character has disappeared by allowing commerce to change this former sleepy town.

I went on my own for a walk in the afternoon as two monks invited me to visit their temple. They spoke openly to me; "If I've stayed at me father's farm I had to work hard every day, now I've got plenty of time for myself and I can learn English." They even watched the Euro 2000 championship games; one monk could brilliantly imitate our keeper. "Dutch keeper, no good!, Italian keeper, better!" he laughed.

I didn't check with immigration as other backpackers told me it wasn't necessary anymore. I still saw some police along the way, every time I crossed a provincial border the driver had to check with the police. They didn't seem that capable of their task like the police in Thailand. I never was asked anything so I suppose it was right to forget about registration.

I visited the royal palace with Hermann and Karmit, two people I met along the way. It seems I come across the same people every now and then. Those backpackers have proven to be the most important source of information till now.

I made the terrible mistake to catch a bus to Udomxai, except from money hungry Chinese there's nothing that makes this town anything special. When having dinner I saw Hermann and another guy, Pieter walk the main road. Pieter taught German language in Peking for three years.   arrived kind of enthusiastic, idealistic maybe. The second year I became more realistic and when I left in the third year I really was a racist. I agree to a certain point, people down south are much friendlier than the northern people, it was exactly the same in Vietnam.

The road to the Thai border was closed so I could only reach Huay Xai by river. First I had yet to arrive in Pakbeng. The songtaew stopped the next morning in a small village half way. I heard the sound of bells and a woman walked towards the car. She spoke with the woman and in a sudden every woman was crying. I guess a beloved one had passed away recently.

Several women can be seen in the mountain villages with bare breasts. I asked permission to take a picture, but was denied permission. I guess one can't be lucky at all times!

In Pakbeng we made a walk through the green hills, I saw a small path leading directly into the mountains and became instantly curious. Hermann felt the same, Pieter complained about us ruining his schedule for today but followed. The narrow path led us for two hours through dense vegetation and bamboo trees. As we heard voices behind us we turned around to see four man, wearing army uniforms, appear around the corner. A lot of bottles Lao Lao (gin) were hanging from their belts. I was surprised to say the least. Hermann greeted them in Thai and asked if he could make a picture of them. They demanded money after that, Hermann simply said  ai chai ,  o . They just grinned and continued their way. I think I'd better quit taking walks in unknown areas for the future, even if accompanied by more people. It all ended well but a worse scenario is thinkable.

We asked a cargo boat to bring us to Huay Xay. Nine long hours on this boat. The kids worked in the engine room, I took a quick glance and it surprised me. Breathing was hardly possible. Many children work in Laos from age 6, it's considered quit normal.

We arrive that late that I missed the ferry to Thailand. I asked the border official but he simply replied "Come back tomorrow". In Thailand everything changed, no bad roads, good "American style police", no more overcharging, at least not that I  aware of. I looked forward to travel on my own again, in Laos I've never been one single day on my own. In Chiang Mai I visited the night market and there I met Karmit again, it seems to be difficult not meeting the same people everywhere!

Laos was different from my expectations, too many people, too much overcharging, and not the land of one million elephants. Merely the land of people that are learning how to get as much money out of people as is possible. Prices have multiplied more than four to eight times in one year. This in the poorest country of Asia, something must be wrong.

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