Before I started planning my trip in January I knew next to nothing about Laos. In fact, I'm slightly embarrassed to tell you I didn't even know how to pronounce it.
However, friends of mine have come back from there highly recommending it as a friendly, cultural place which, although welcoming to tourists, has not yet been overrun. One or two mentioned in particular a journey they took on a Slow Boat down the Mekong river through Laos, and recommended it to us as a great way to see untouched parts of the country and experience their traditional method of transport.
On the strength of their recommendations we decided to include Laos in our round the world trip, and take the slowboat down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang.
Unfortunately, since January I've been fairly busy seeing other bits of the world, and planning what I'd be doing from one day to the next, so until very recently, apart from finding out it's pronounced with a silent 's'. I've remained in the dark about Laos.
With only a few days left on my Thai visa and still in Bangkok I decided it was time to head to Chiang Mai, the main town on the way to the Laos border of Chiang Khong.
While I was in Chiang Mai it rained. No, that doesn't do it justice. It rained
The heavens opened and the clouds emptied relentlessly for 2 days solid, seriously injuring my resolve to take the slow boat. Two days on a boat with no glass in the windows being pelted with tropical rain, in the middle of a huge river notorious for it's strong currents and murky water just didn't sound like the picturesque relaxing journey I'd had described to me. However, I decided to take my chances, travel up to Chiang Khong anyway, and pray for some sunshine.
All the inclement weather left me with some time on my hands. I decided to do a bit of research on the geography, history and culture of my next destination.
To my surprise, finding out much about Laos proved to be something of a struggle. Through flicking through the trusty Rough Guide, I was able to find out why. It is barely ten years ago since the People's Democratic Republic of Laos, to give it it's proper name, opened it's doors to foreigners, so the tourist industry is still very much in it's infancy.
One major thing about Laos that is mentioned in the RG is their involvement in the Vietnam war. With over 2 million tonnes of ordnance dropped on them over the course of the conflict (which equates to about one planeload of bombs every eight minutes day and night for nine years) they became the most bombed country per capita in the history of humanity. I wasn't aware that Laos were even involved
in the Vietnam war.
The rain stopped long enough for me to get a highly uncomfortable minibus to take me the 6 hours to Chiang Khong, the Thai side of the Thai/Laos border, and checked into a hostel just before dark.
Out I wandered for some dinner, where I met an English couple and two Australian girls, who had met on the slow boat coming the other way the previous two days. They all raved about Laos, and said the slow boat was a really nice trip, which, coupled with the abating rain, helped to assuage my fears. They also told me that it was a lot cheaper to buy a boat ticket from Houayxai in the morning than for the amount they'd seen it advertised since arriving in Thailand, so that's what I did.
After dinner we wandered into a place called 'Madames Country Pub' for a drink. Fearing that the name indicated it would be a brothel, we were quite surprised when we were encoutered by a live 'rock' band, dressed in a variety of odd clothes, including a leopard skin tunic, singing a variety of Thai hits. After a few tunes, the lead singer gabbled something in Thai, and walked backstage to applause from the Thai section of the crowd who knew what was going on. We looked on, bewildered, as the band started plucking their way through another unfamiliar tune. All of a sudden, a six foot ladyboy comes storming through the curtains wearing a bikini, a 3/4 length leather jacket and stillettos and singing in a falsetto voice, his/her adam's apple yo-yoing at the high notes. As I'm sure you can imagine, we left shortly afterwards.
The morning afterwards, I crossed the border to Houayxai. The Mekong river acts as the border between the two countries here, as it does in other areas further south. After getting my passport stamped by a disinterested looking immigration officer, I wandered down to the bank of the river, paid 20 Baht and climbed into a longtail boat to take me across no-man's-water to Laos.
Having crossed the border too late to catch the slow boat that day, I checked into a hotel for the night, booked a boat ticket for the following morning and changed some Thai Baht into Kip at the local bank. I also stocked up on food for the first day of the journey, as there is no way of getting food on the boat.
At half past eight the next morning, I returned to the travel agent's where I had booked my trip. While waiting there, a boy walked round taking all our passports off us, ostensibly so he could check we had the necessary visa stamps.
This struck me as a little odd considering I'd already had it checked when I bought my ticket, and I'm a little bit loathe to hand my passport over unless totally necessary at the best of times. This meant that when he jumped in the back of a tuk-tuk and hightailed it out of there I panicked a bit. The old woman behind the till quickly reassured me that he was just going to buy our tickets, so I sat back down.
About twenty minutes later, with the boy still not back, a minibus turned up to take everyone down to the jetty and load our bags onto the boat. Thankfully it turned out he wasn't a passport thief as he eventually walked down from the ticket office and dished our passports out, so the worst he could have done was to have photocopied the details and stolen our identities at a later date.
On the boat we hopped, and watched as it gradually filled up to almost overflowing. Thankfully, maybe due to my recently shaved head, maybe due to the sheer size of me, nobody sat down next to me, so I had room to spread myself out a bit.
At quarter past eleven, only 15 minutes behind schedule, the boat chugged away fom Houayxai. The journey had begun.
Barely ten minutes later it nearly came to an abrupt end when the guy at the helm steered into strong currents which made the boat list heavily to one side. People gasped in shock, I let out a high pitched scream and clutched a handkerchief to my breast.
The guy with the bamboo pole on the roof, whose job it was to push us away from boats, rocks and other obstacles stumbled as we swung round and dropped his pole in the river. Luckily a girl in front of me caught it before the currents took it off. Everyone by this point had sat bolt upright and were wearing fearfully alert expressions, like a herd of gazelles when they realise too late that there's a couple of hungry looking cheetah's prowling round them. The boatmen barked aggressively at each other in Lao. The guy at the helm looked sheepish, and took the boat through a full 360 degree turn to get us back on track. For a couple of minutes after it became clear that we weren't going to sink and die, everyone chattered excitedly to each other and the sense of relief was palpable.
After that the journey went back to normal. We chugged down the Mekong, a vast expanse of water which stretches the entire length of Laos, through Cambodia and into Vietnam, at a slow pace, negotiating rocks and currents, and stopping occasionally at little bamboo houses down by the riverside to pick up or drop off locals.
A few hours into the first day we pulled up at a village by the riverside, and a group of little boys ran out with baskets filled with fizzy pop, Beerlao (the national beer), and crisps. 'Chip! Chip! Chip! Chip!' they shouted at us in high pitched voices, 'Beerlao 50 Baht!' (they accept dollars, baht or the national currency Kip in most places). When it became clear they weren't making any deals, and the helmsman started the motor again, they lowered their prices in a last desperate attempt to sell, but to no avail.
Off we ponderously set again. The views from the boat were spectacular, with dense rainforest on either side of the river. Where there were breaks in the forest, stilted farmhouses and huts sat on incredibly steep hills. The small patches of land set aside for agriculture seemed to be at such an angle that if the farmer slipped, he'd not fall over, he'd fall off.
The unwelcoming aspects to the landscape brought home why this river has for centuries been the lifeline through the impoverished country, and SE Asia as a whole. We crawled past a house on the right hand bank having a bonfire, and on seeing and smelling the smoke, it was difficult not to cast my mind back to what I'd read about the Vietnam war and how different life must have been for these people just a generation ago.
As the boat continued down through the currents of the Mekong, we went past whirpools where conflicting currents created a vortex. With the similarity in colour as well, it put me in mind of a cup of tea after you've just stirred the milk in and I started to drift off into a little world of withdrawal symptoms. Tea, tea everywhere, but not a drop to drink. I snapped back out of it at the sight of a water buffalo standing knee high having a drink. You don't want that in your brew. No siree bob.
We eventually pulled into Pakhbeng, the halfway village where you have to stay the night, at about half past five. After almost tripping on ropes attaching all the other boats to the bank, I walked up towards the guesthouses. The first man stopped me to hand me a card and ask me to go to his guesthouse. I thanked him but refused, assuming the first one you go to is generally the worst because it fills up so quickly that they don't have to make any effort to attract the customers with cleanliness or quality. After watching me shake my head he then changed tack. 'You want something to smoke my friend?' he asked me 'All good people smoke Ganja'
'No thanks mate' I said, shrugging off the hand he'd rested on my forearm, and continued on up the hill. The next guy who stopped me to ask me if I wanted a room only had a shared outside toilet, so I refused him too.
'You want something to smoke?' he asked, doing a little puff puff hand gesture to his lips. 'No thanks, not tonight' I said. 'Eh! Come on! It's good Ganja!' he implored. I continued on my way.
The third place that stopped me was good enough for the night, so I dumped my bags and sat down to fill in the check in book. While I was doing this, the manager came up to me and said 'Hey mate!' (I think he saw my English passport) 'You want some weed to smoke mate?' Three offers in ten minutes of being on dry land! I assumed everybody was getting offers, but on speaking to people over dinner that night, nobody else had been approached any more than once. I must have a certain look about me I suppose.
Next morning, after picking up the baguettes I'd ordered the night before, I got back on the boat. It was literally half the size of the boat we'd been on the day before. Even my shaved head and my intimidating size wasn't enough to grant me any room this time, so at half eight in the morning, sardined in, we set off for Luang Prabang.
The scenery was just as spectacular on day two as it had been on the first day. We passed a temple built into a cave in the cliff, and men using elephants to drag logs about. One of these elephants was drinking from the river when we passed it, and picked up some in it's trunk to spray over itself and cool off. The guy riding on it's back got a load of river water full in the face, which was highly amusing to watch.
When I went to find the toilet at the back of the boat later on in the day, I thought I'd walked onto the pages of one of the Alice books. Considering I had to literally bend double just to get in the door of the toilet, the rest of the task at hand proved to be something of a struggle.
The rain that I'd been scared of never materialised. In fact it was so hot and sunny that I've now got a slowboat arm, my right arm being more tanned than my left by some margin. Unfortunately I also got slightly sunburnt, but only on the right hand side of my face. The resulting sunglasses mark makes me look like I fell asleep sunbathing in a pirate outfit.
Eventually we pulled up in Luang Prabang with darkness approaching, tired and happy after a couple of days on the boat.
I would recommend this journey to anyone, but it would be worth bearing in mind that if you value your comfort, are fussy about the kind of toilet you're willing to visit, or don't like people encroaching on your 'personal bubble' it may not be for you. However, they do have a more expensive slowboat with leather reclining chairs, a sundeck and a bar that we saw, but that seemed to miss the point of it.
If however none of my little provisos apply to you and you're interested in doing it, my one piece of advice would be for you to bring a cushion. Believe me, if you don't have one, it can be a right pain in the @rse.