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Laos

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fabianpickel

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Laos

After the strenuous weeks in China it is finally time to relax. Before starting on Laos we first enjoy the hospitality of two experienced German NGO aid workers in Oudomsay and park next to the rice paddies. We learn a lot about this quiet, remote country.Laos is gaining importance on the tourist map. It is especially attractive to the backpacking culture and nature lovers. Furthermore the notorious Golden Triangle draws a special kind of clientele, still living up to its reputation as an opium Eldorado (cultivation, trade, smuggle).

Inseparable, even in rough waters: Rowan and her Kindle(Oudomsay)

United colours of Laos (Oudomsay)

The jungle, the Mekong and a sleepy capitalAfter that first recreational break in Northern Laos I slowly make my way down south. I explore the temples of the old capital and city of the kings: Luang Prabang. Spending hours and days in the local cafes, I wait for a big landslide to be cleared which was blocking the main highway.

The Plain of Jars in Eastern Laos surprises with very different scenery: Up here, instead of tropical vegetation, there are light birch forests and the ground is littered with bomb craters as far as you can see. The mysterious jars however, after which the area is named, just lie around there in the grass, a rather unspectacular sight.

For the traveller in the centre of the country the first attraction is the river: Half naked white backpackers float down the stream in inflated truck tyre tubes - from one bar to another. Tubing is what its called.I stuck to Schnitzeling. For that you sit down in the shade, eat a schnitzel and stay dry.

My last stop is the capital Vientiane. It's growing rapidly, and not always in a controlled manner, but feels rather sleepy. Lonely Planet calls it the most relaxed capital city on earth. Its centre looks cozy, with post-colonial, socialist and Chinese-capitalist buildings along its squares and avenues.

'Errr, errr!'By uttering this the Laotian shows approval. Otherwise he will tell you laughing 'boh-mee, boh-mee! Thai-lann, Thai-lann!' - No have, must go Thailand.Human encounters are generally always positive: friendliness, respectful interest and a smile are always inclusive, even if some still need to get used to that tall, long-nosed potato in his van. It was only a few years ago that the country opened up to tourism, and in some remote regions you're already considered a rich man if you own a bicycle.

A forgotten countryThe late history of Laos reads rather sad: Whilst officially being neutral during the Vietnam War, the CIA recruited troops from the Hmong people. What started under the command of a cruel anti-communist, culminated in an unprecedented air war that remained secret until the end. The mission was co-financed by the US share in the opium and heroin trade. About 40,000 GIs returned home as junkies.The US air force dropped more bombs over Laos than over Germany and Japan combined during the Second World War - half a tonne per head. A third of that is still lying around in the countryside. Add to that mines, air defence units, tanks.Left alone by the Americans in 1973, the Hmong continued their armed fight against the communists until only a few years ago - desperately, as guerrilla fighters from the jungle.In some provinces bombs serve as flower pots, grenades serve as decoration, ammunition becomes cutlery in restaurants.The east of the country, along the former Ho Chi Minh Trail, is covered with bomb craters; in addition the defoliant Agent Orange is still showing its effect.Hundreds of farmers, children and scrap dealers die every year from exploding ordnance.The mines clearing companies slowly work their way through the country.

Lush Lao landsGreen hills and mountains dominate the landscape although agriculture (rice, rubber, pineapple, cotton, tropical timber) has destroyed almost all primary rainforest. Due to the constant mine and bomb threat substantial parts of the land are not used for farming. Laos depends on food imports.The immense brownish waters of the Mekong River flow through the country North to South. Together with strong monsoon rains they cause the catastrophic floods in Southern Laos, Cambodia and parts of Thailand at the end of 2011.

The state of the nationLaos is one of the world's poorest countries.Only five kilometres out of the capital there is sometimes no running water, traffic crawls from pothole to pothole. I watch a motorbike sinking in one of them, the hole was too deep and slippery, the bike too heavy.On the one hand, when looking at the standard of living today you surely need to consider the burden of the Vietnam War and its fatal consequences.On the other hand, Laos is yet another socialist one-party state blocking its citizens access to basic rights and fundamental freedoms. Media is censored. The bureaucratic administrative body is infested with incompetence, laziness and corruption. The level of education is remarkably low, many young Laotians lack any perspectives. Most modern buildings have been built or at least been paid for by foreign countries. The main streets of the capital Vientiane have been sponsored and asphalted by Japan. South Korea takes charge of the Mekong riverbanks, China maintains and extends highway 13, which is the country's most important transport connection.It is also the mighty neighbour China who buys (or leases for many years) huge areas of farmland in Laos: Chinese farmers get heavy subsidies for doing just that. While to many Laotian farmers this means the first motorbike or pickup truck, sooner or later they pay with their economic future - and food supply. These and other developments don't show any visible socialist characteristics any more, market economy moves in. Whether or not this u-turn in economic policy will on the long run be profitable for the majority of Laotians remains questionable. However, the demand for motorbikes, cars and consumable goods is growing - and not everyone can fulfil his material dreams. Often, though, the money goes to the shopping paradise across the Mekong River: Thailand.

Waiting for the pumpIn Laos our China convoy slowly falls apart: Only a few minutes after the border Uwe rushes off in his Land Cruiser. Bart and Rowan try their luck on the muddy tracks of the Ho Chi Minh Trail - in their silver 15 tonnes truck. Stefan, Petra and dog Mandu continue to Thailand. For my part, I roam the streets of the capital for a full six weeks, waiting for a new water pump from Germany. DHL mix up Vientiane and Vietnam, so the parcel is declared lost - before finally arriving anyway. Only after I had ordered all things a second time, of course. Due to the long wait my visa is running out, thanks to the many visa extensions my passport is full, and I am temporarily confronted with jail if I do not export my car before the deadline. The Chief of Customs understands my situation though, and lets me exit even with expired papers. Via the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge I cross the Mekong into the Kingdom of Thailand to make my way into Cambodia a few days later.After Cambodia I'll return to Thailand.

LAOS (updated 10/2011):RouteMohan (from China) - Boten - Oudomsay - Pakmong - Luang Prabang - Phou Khoun - Phonsavan - Phou Khoun - Vang Vieng - Vientiane - Nong Khai (to Thailand)Entering via Mohan/Boten crossing (from China)No problem, friendly, about one hour including getting Lao car insurance (passenger car EUR 26/month). Upon entering you must present the Chinese exit stamp (the Chinese don't insist on stamping out). Visa on Arrival about EUR 30 for 30 days. Close to the border are a few small restaurants and one petrol station.Exiting via Thai-Lao Friedship Bridge crossing at Vientiane/Nong Khai (to Thailand)No problem, about two hours. Exit fees and bridge tolls about EUR 4.RoadsDrive on the right, many seem to dream and drive, lacking experience and danger awareness. The road network is thin. General conditions are acceptable, you rarely see construction going on. In good condition are: Highway 13 from the Chinese border at Boten to Oudomsay and from Pakmong to about 30km north of Vang Vieng as well as from Vientiane to the Cambodian border. Highway 7 from Phou Khoun to Phonsavanh. During the rainy season (like European summer) many roads are affected/threatened by flooding and landslides. Clearing/levelling can take days, queues. There is no legal alcohol limit.FuelPetrol (regular unleaded, EUR 1/L) and diesel (EUR 0.80/L) are always available. LPG only available in bottles. Fuels are cheaper in all neighbouring countries (or same price in Cambodia). The station network is medium dense, but you will always get at least a few bottles of petrol.CampingWith everything off the sealed roads drowning in mud during rainy season, it may be hard to find a good spot. Huge amounts of rain can come down within few hours, water levels of rivers, lakes or (even initially dry) creeks may rise suddenly. Beware of unexploded ordnance (UXO). You can find a few nice spots in my Camp Spot List.MiscellaneousGetting high quality goods is difficult. Imported products from Thailand and Europe are very expensive as the price level is quite high in general. Chinese low price stuff is more expensive than in China itself. Blackouts may hit the water supply, too (also in Vientiane). Laos is rated a Malaria high risk area. In parts of the country dangers of unexploded ordnance (signed UXO) continue to exist. ATMs exist in bigger towns. All media are state censored. For a year round cooler climate visit the high plains in eastern Laos (i.e. Plain of Jars).All information subject to change (note time of writing).

Spirit house: After they had to make way for construction, this is the spirits' new home. (Vang Vieng)

South East Asia's lifeline: the Mekong river (near Luang Prabang)

Oldtimers (Luang Prabang)

Golden Buddha(near Luang Prabang)

Holy caves: hundreds of Buddha sculptures at Pak Ou caves(near Luang Prabang)

Temple at the Royal Palace (Luang Prabang)

Plain of Jars. Why and for how long they've been here remains a mystery. (Phonsavan)

Bomb craters (Phonsavan)

Could be Laos' heraldic animal:the Gecko (Vientiane)

Northeastern highlands (near Phou Khoun)

River landscape(Vang Vieng)

Opposition not welcome: National Assembly (Vientiane)

Patou Xai: unfinished concrete Arc de Triomphe (Vientiane)

Central Laos mountains(near Phou Khoun)

Laos' national symbol: Pha That Luang, the Royal Stupa (Vientiane)

Getting cold feet? Menu at Chinese restaurant (Vientiane)

Or stick to German classics? (Vientiane)

Movie menu: one serving of bootlegs with your coffee? (Vientiane)

Wanna try this new toilet paper? The annual boat races also serve as a consumer trade fair. (Vientiane)

Better not to ask him for directions (Buddha-Park, near Thanaleng)

She's making paper...

...and she's yarning.(near Luang Prabang)

Red means bomb or mine. (map, Phonsavan)

Warning sign (Phonsavan)

And once more, this time in funny (Phonsavan)

Bomb decoration(Phonsavan)

Green peace(near Vang Vieng)

A sad rest of rain forest(near Oudomsay)

What you can't see, are heat and humidity.(near Vang Vieng)

Wet rice patty(near Vientiane)

Farm house(near Vientiane)

This image shows one third of the Lao motorway network.(near Vientiane)

A collector's Buddha Park(near Thanaleng)

Crowds, crowds, crowds at Thanaleng station (Thanaleng)

That might be due to the fact that it's the only station in the country. (Thanaleng)

Road traffic, too, is little.(near Pakmong)

Traffic changeover: Laos drives on the right, Thailand on the left.(Friendship Bridge, Thanaleng)

The annual Mekong boat races mark the end of the Buddhist rainy season. (Vientiane)

Busy riverside promenade:The boat races attract the masses from all over Laos. (Vientiane)

You better stay clear of his path: The Mekong hell driver. (Vientiane)

The long-awaited water pump. I love DHL. Not. (Vientiane)

A big thanks to Rowan Fookes for proofreading this translation!



fabian pickel

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