A note from the 'Flashpacker'
Our journey down the Mekong by slowboat to Luang Prabang was delightful and our short three-day exploration of this city demands that we include a further exploration deeper into North Laos as part of our itinerary towards the end of our trip.
We moved south because the weather in the evening was chilly, (we just missed the freak frosts in the hills of Northern Thailand). Returning here at the end of March will also mean that the wonderful, numerous waterfall 'swimming pools' will be more appealling.
Travelling is quite straightforward, thanks to the extensive body of knowledge on the internet. There are few national routes connecting the major cities, and other roads are unpredictable... even in the dry season. Vix's last blog describes the money system that means I am carrying three currencies, including 2 million Kip (£100) and constantly improving my mental arithmetic as there are no fixed prices. This is a very poor country (10th in the global league) and they are rightly trying their best to get tourists to pay their way, but of course that's very difficult as they are beginning to adapt to a market economy.
Although limiting our flights, we decided to risk Lao Airlines from Luang Prabang to Pakse in the South of Laos instead of a very bumpy and potentially uncomfortable 12 ++ hour bus ride.
After two hours of spectacular ariel views of mountains, plains and the meandering Mekong and its numerous tributaries below, we arrived in the town, Laos fourth largest, (population 66,000) and spent our first night in the mid-range Pakse Hotel fending off trails of ants in our bedroom, before upgrading ourselves for Christmas to the Champasak Palace Hotel
. It's an almost swanky, but strangely empty white and gold edifice
(bar the appearance of occasional government officials, the odd nightly tour buses and tourism seminar delegates).
Having been backpacking, albeit comfortably, for over four weeks it was time for a short rest and suitable base for us to plan/organise the next 6 weeks and catch up with friends and family.
So a bit of Flashpacking ... a wonderful hotel.. At breakfast, we have about six serving staff but (at least by the time we get up) no other guests. By being connected to their server we have the fastest 24 hour connection in our room in the whole of South Laos as the hotel is geared up for government conferences. Even had Radio 4 yesterday morning!! We can watch the world go by, sitting on our balcony on one of only four bridges across the whole of the Mekong.
The hotel, originally built in 1962 for the last Prince of Champasak and a former prime minister of the Kingdom of Laos, is an apt place to catch up on the recent history and development (or not) of the country. We were attracted to Laos to follow the route (reverse) of the French Mekong Survey Commission in 1866. "Mad about the Mekong' (by John Keay) is a wonderful read and in a few days time we will spend a few days at the famous Fallsxxx that finally convinced the French that there Colonial expansion could not be aided by a new trade route on the Mekong.
For the past 200 years, and probably earlier, this country has been used as a 'buffer' between opposing political forces... The British and French expansionism in Indochina, and the Communist/American/Vietnam War. The results for the people have been horrendous. On our flight here, we passed over the mountain range that was the home of the CIA (and Air America) from where they conducted the Secret War 1964-1973. For four years its runway was the busiest in the world, with sorties every 8 minutes dropping over 500,000 tons of bombs and 200,00 gallons of herbicides.. half a tonne for every man woman and child living in Laos. In fact the first person to wish us Happy Xmas last night was a German Ordanance expert!! There are thousands of acres and villages to be cleared.
The political pressures on Laos are no different today... the Chinese are building the roads and new routes through pristine forests (forging new trade routes that the Mekong could not deliver). The Vietnamese still have strong influence on the government and the Thais are the providers of finance and enterprise. The government policy of closing all business/cafes etc by 10.30pm appears to be keeping the lid on public debate... we've had no access to any political conversations.
Vix is reading "Another Quiet American", by Brett Daken which gives a recent insight to the Laos political process and what actually happens to NGO Aid on the ground.
Pakse is run down.
Walking at night is treacherous as the pavements (covering the sewers) are breaking up with HUGE gapping holes..it is an adventure getting home at nights. There is some infrastructure improvements..roads..but little evidence of new schools/public buildings, evident in other South Eastern countries we have visited. Fortunately we have found 2 good exceptional food places. Not Lao, one Indian and the other Thai/Italian.
Small setback this morning, went to pick up a m/cycle for a day's trip to the large Chinese Trading Market on the outskirts of town and the brakes didn't work so hoping to test a bike this evening for our next round trip. Hiring bikes is a risky business as there's no insurance and we have to guarantee coughing up the price of a new bike if it's nicked.
We are planning an attempt to see rare Irawaddy dolphins, the only freshwater dolphins in the world, riding on elephants (not the dolphins) and seeing the last remaining working pachyderms in Laos (Laos was formerly known as The Land of a Million Elephants but only around 1300 captive or domesticated remain although some wild ones can still be found in a couple of provinces including Champusak).
We are also planning a trip to Champusak (or Kamchatska as Alan calls it), seat of royalty until just 30 years ago. Nearby is Wat Phu, and a chance to see another World Heritage site (2001) and which is described as a real 'Indiana Jones' experience, not least of all, I suspect, because of the numerous snake warnings, which I for one will be taking very seriously as Laos boasts six venomous species including the King Cobra, banded krait, Malayan viper etc.
Meanwhile, we're enjoying basking in possibly the last luxury for several weeks (Cambodia being the next country we visit). Pakse itself isn't a town of much note (everyone in bed as usual by 10.00pm) but it has a certain regional charm - apart from the very sad caged Binturongs we came across. These large mammals should be swinging from trees in the jungle canopy but instead, appear to be kept as pets for the market traders. We are investigating how to emulate the 'Free Binny The Binutrong' campaign we found online whilst trying to identify them. Binny is, apparently, now a happier resident in a Michegan Zoo.
The other place on our short-term itinerary is the Bolaven Plateau, (or Bolivian Plateau as my personal tour guide refers to it) home to high-grade Arabica coffee plantations and producing the most expensive coffee in the world. It is also, sadly, one of the most bombed areas of the 2nd Indochina war. It is home to the Laven people as well as Alak, Katu and Suay tribes. Apparently the Katu people have a unique custom of carving and storing wooden caskets for each member of the household well in advance of an expected death.
Every day, people descend from the Plateau (1,500 metres) to trade their goods at the very large indoor markets which have been recently built by the Chinese. Here, it's possible to find all kinds of strange and unidentifiable edibles. Also, a huge range of loose tea, tobacco, fish
and every part of every and any animal (often fermenting in vast vats of grey liquid). The range of fresh veg
and fruit, however, is far more appealing.