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Hacktreks in Asia - From Our Travel Archives

From Bangkok to Laos
James Evans in Asia

The 12 hour overnight train journey from Bangkok to the Laos border would be a daunting prospect if it were not
for the sleeper carriages. But that's not all... Too early to retire I discovered that it had a bar. Already relaxed from the two large Changs I had at the station I could now invoke fatigue at will. But where to sit? With the three English chaps to my right and endure one, maybe two hours of drunken football talk? I choose instead the kindly looking Thai gent sat opposite the young bookish guy reading a magazine (It later transpired he was indeed a student).

Painted Chickbirds in Laotian Market

Looking out of the window you might as well be trapped in a car driving counter-clockwise around the M25 if it wasn’t for the occasional palm tree thrown into sharp relief by the slowly diminishing glow of Bangkok. It's a vulnerable situation and sure enough I'm immediately trapped in a conversation with the kindly guy, except his broken English demands that the student, somewhat reluctantly, has to be drafted in as our interpreter. How long can I keep this up? Two more beers I think. I manage to maintain a decent level of communication and things are looking okay. But wait, what's this? The old guy starts insisting he buy me a beer! Terrible waffle now, as I struggle to understand this man who has evidently prepared this journey far more thoroughly than I. Then another! I insist I can pay and he insists I do not. Fortunately he concurs that this should be our last. The student has wisely left by now and the rest of our time is spent clumsily engaging in small talk before we finish our beers and finally I get to sleep.

Seven hours later I'm awoken by a severe drop in temperature, a sensation unbeknown to me during my time spent in the south. To the bar for coffee, it's the only sane thing to do. Room to sit alone now and ponder the three Thai guys drinking Samsong whiskey for breakfast. Total wino drug Samsong, should be avoided at the best of times. They were drinking it neat too.

But it nicely sets you up for the bizarre transition into Laos itself:

Signed out by Thai border authority and pay 10 Baht for the privilege. 10 Baht for bus to take you across the Mekong River. Get out barely 2 minutes later and fill out form that requires the same details that are on the visa you are about to give Laos man in booth. Hand him form, visa and passport and pay 30 baht this time. Presented with ticket acknowledging completion of this foolish charade to then give to Laos man, or woman ( you have a choice!), sat about 10 yards beyond Laos man in booth. Now pay 200 baht, which you just know is too much, to some goon calling you 'mister' who takes you to a hotel in Vientiane which you hadn't even previously contemplated going to and end up having to pay an extra 50 baht for him to take you to the hotel you had. Welcome to Laos.


Pha That Luang
Temples abound in Vientiane, yet the municipal architecture is strictly French. Unlike Thailand's pseudo European functionalism though, these buildings look like they have been imported straight from Province, being as they are a hangover from French Indochina. Cafes and restaurants willingly perpetuate this theme. Populated with a sombre collection of French ex-pats, various emissaries and successful Laotians one is rarely reminded that Vientiane is actually the capital city of Laos. Even the Mekong looks curiously sedate as it's huge mass moves steadily on its odyssey towards the South China Sea. The set up is different here. The action is tucked away out of sight. The bars are welcoming enough but as soon as you leave you are affronted with a curious stillness that dissuades you from perpetrating any drunken antics on your journey home. Consequently Laos attracts a different breed of traveller, a more interesting breed it could be said. You certainly don’t come across many 40 year old Bristolians with a penchant for opium in Thailand. Or maybe you did but you just didn’t know it?

No such show of neo-colonialism in Vang Vieng. Maybe the French deemed it to have insufficient "Je ne sais quoi", or maybe it was simply too small. Whatever, they missed out because Vang Vieng is a place of perfect beauty. Surrounded by cave-ridden mountains and a refreshingly diverse range of deciduous flora it provides a welcome break from the palm trees that so characterise Thailand in their ubiquity. The clientele is predominantly English, Canadian and mad Swedish {"It was so crazy, but it was a lot of fun"} but they do not number enough to force the locals into an unnatural role of economic subservience. Do not expect quick service here. Physically the Laotians are not as delicately pretty as Thais but are none the less a handsome people, although their dress sense can be just as scatological. Maybe less assured of themselves when dealing with felang than the denizens of south of the boarder, their good nature therefore just seems all the more atavistic. In an odd sort of way their whole approach seems a lot less contrived than it might in the more predictable tourist destinations of south/east Asia. Only the pimping of opium disturbs this serene idyll.


At 16000 Kip to the pound cashing your travellers cheques is an amusing process in the Laos People's Democratic Republic. Converting $100 makes you literally a millionaire, and with 5000 Kip the most common denomination, you're lumbered with a wedge of notes about 3 inches thick. It goes quicker than you would think but that is not to say Laos is expensive. On the contrary, at 7000 Kip the pleasantly palatable 'Beer Lao' makes Thailand's 'Beer Chang' seem as reasonably priced as that rank excuse of a lager they call Stella Artois. And a bottle of Lao whiskey equates to about 40p a bottle.

What majesty the Mekong! A wide murky brown deluge of water breaching China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Nam, and not compromising in mass, so it appears, along the way. Almost as wide in Luang Prubang some 300 clicks up stream from Vientiane, the river is aesthetically utilised to impressive degree. A result of geography for sure, from Mount Phu Si one can see endless mountains that channel wisps of smoke from up high, a feature of the slash and burn agricultural methods practised by the surrounding hill tribes. A place of profound 'Lao-ness' Luang Prubang oozes character. Not as nonchalant as Vang Vieng and three times the size, it still possesses the same stoicism that makes Laos the endearing country that it is. The days can be spent enjoying the finest coffee sweetened with condensed milk in any one of the sophisticated cafes dotted around town. Feeling more active then why not take a boat up the Mekong? In the evening travellers regale at the ‘Hive Bar’ a joint far classier than merits the modesty of this easy going country. Even the ageing football stadium exudes a sense of dignified antiquity and for the first time I felt a slight sadness over my inevitable departure.
© James Evans September 23rd 2003


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