Travelling on your own in Laos is a test of patience, but gives enormous satisfaction in the form of genuine experiences and encounters. We take a ride along the Mekong where an older, calmer traveller type starts replacing liberal drug backpackers.
We have been sitting in the heat for nearly an hour after the departure time and waiting for the last place to be filled in the minivan. Finally we begin to jolt forward on the road between Vientiane and Vang Vieng. When we stop for a short break, we end up in the middle of the Laotian wedding with screeching music and singing with hypnotic echo. A hundred happy people eating and drinking beer. Some engaged in the extremely conservative form of Laotian dance where dancers are barely moving.
– Here! Sit down and eat with us, says a woman and hands me a glass with ice that she fills with beer.
In Vang Vieng we stay in the middle of a rice field. A boardwalk leading to the house that rests on piles one meter above the water-filled field surrounded by tall lush mountain peaks. In the twilight you can see a bunch of Asian starlings in the fields, in the morning we see the cows just outside the window and rice farmers working some distance away in the cool air.
Until a few years ago, Vang Vieng was a paradise for those who like drugs. On menus in bars you could find milkshake with opium or meta – amphetamine. In a guidebook from that time which we have with us, we are warned to combine opium with lime juice. But the authorities put their foot down. On a large sign at the main street we see a cartoon, bold westerners with tattoos and a joint in the nip that staggers forward with a lightly dressed, obviously drunk woman. “This is what we do not want in Vang Vieng!” says the text.
Now everything is almost fine in Vang Vieng. The older travelers can be found here besides backpackers, tourists who prefer cakes without cannabis to the coffee and who would rather take a trip on a longtail boat on the river in the evening than bobbing up on inflated truck hoses that are very popular among the young. And who think that the evenings are worth trying coq au vin with a few glasses of shiraz in the French restaurant.
In the morning we travel further north in a big bus, like someone with humour dubbed the “VIP bus”, to Luang Prabang. The road winds its way up in the mountains. The scenery is amazing, the road is a nightmare. It has rained during the night and there are parts of the road which split. We had to make a stop at such a passage. The driver saw that roadside – which largely consists of clay – had collapsed and cracked a few meters from the wheels. Many of us were scared and felt like walking past this site but we luckily passed it.
When we finally arrived to Luang Prabang late that evening we celebrated the trip was over, each with a Beer Lao .
Luang Prabang is one of Southeast Asia’s nicest and most captivating cities. The city was already established in the early 700 ‘s and was ruled by the Chinese, Khmer, Mongolian, French and Laotians. Unesco has designated it as a world heritage town. Cars and trucks are kept away from the inner city, making it pleasant to walk or cycle. Along the Mekong and Nam Khan, which flows into the great river, there are nice restaurants and cafes, often framed by flowering frangipani.
The next morning we board a narrow river boat on the Mekong. There is plenty of space and we sit on couches while watching out the boat floating up the Mekong river. Upstream means that we are travelling in the direction of the mighty river’s source somewhere on the Tibetan plateau. With its length of 400 miles, from China to the delta in Vietnam, it is the world’s twelfth longest river. Already after half an hour we are plunged into a comfortable meditative calm.
Within ten hours of our meditative boat ride along the Mekong we pass fishermen, small boats, greenery hanging over the Mekong and small ornamental crops down at the river’s edge. We overnight in Pak Beng which is home to almost solely “guesthouses” and catering to travelers. The next day we visit a village inhabited by khamu people. Khamu are Khmers and Laotians who lived here before Chinese arrived. People have lived for at least 700 years in this small village with very simple huts. Now there are approximately 250 residents. It is extremely rare that someone leaves the village. People are born and people die here without going anywhere else.
All huts have no windows because, according to residents, spirits do not like them and there is no electricity in the village. However, a power line is drawn to the loudspeakers in the trees. At six o’clock every morning, they start announcing propaganda by the Communist party at a violent volume: Get up, go out and work.” Do I have to say that the villagers have already been up for a while?