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Dave Rich - lousy Lao whiskey flowing like water. Water is far superior and less vindictive....
Laos is Mexico on downers and in slow motion.

Shell out six bucks a day and you’re down the Mekong in Laos as long as you can stand it. It’d take ten days to go all the way to Cambodia and I initially stood it for two. The trip started early in Thailand, a dozen nationalities skiffing across the 100 yard wide Mekong to Laos for long lines at the only Lao bank for miles. The boat was a shocker, barely wider than a canoe, 30 feet long with a ceiling four feet high so you could neither stand nor move for two days. And worse, it had no keel and was overcrowded. All boats not carrying passengers, according to the Bangkok Post, are stuffed with amphetamines and heroin from the Golden Triangle.

But the scenery was spectacular. The awesome rapids required those who’d climbed on the roof, companions to our luggage, to scurry back below, to sit in perfectly balanced rows, lest the boat teeter past a tilt of no return. The rapids are extensive and wild, bounded by jagged teeth of granite for a 100 miles. Though the Mekong is a muddy brown, in the right light it perfectly reflects the karst hills carpeted in jungle, the net fishermen and other colorful boats. We whisked past the occasional village, a dozen huts on stilts, and when the sun dipped behind the hills the temperature dropped a few dozen degrees. Upon docking I began a diligent search for a hotel room with bath instead of the trek-to-the-bathroom common in Laos. I failed through terminal frugality, refusing to pay 11 dollars and having to settle for a 2 dollar room sans conveniences beyond a big double bed under mosquito netting and turbo fan.

The late afternoon of day two brought our boatload of disparate nationalities to the most charming town in Laos, the former capitol of Luang Prabang where an actual paved road extends south, 400 miles to the Cambodian border. I paused to celebrate New Years 2002 with more Americans than I’d met in years of travel, oodles of Aussies and French plus the odd South African and Israeli. There were parties at the hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and on the boats along the Mekong, lousy Lao whiskey flowing like water. Water is far superior and less vindictive.

The highlights of Luang Prabang were World Heritage Temples in a millennia of styles and costumed shows by photogenic hill-tribe ladies dancing to a local Lao band with xylophone, flute and drums. The center of Luang Prabang is a hill topped by a weathered temple and cannon with great views on offer. The food is uniformly French, excellent, and the Canadian Bakery has breakfasts to get up for.

I left Luang Prabang and moved down the paved road on a plush bus with German and less obnoxious tourists. The Germans voted unanimously to leave without me while I searched for a toilet. My significant other, read wife, stopped the bus driver from leaving with a pronouncement that he was going exactly nowhere until I reappeared. Everyone clapped as I climbed back aboard, everyone except the Germans who glowered in their beer. This episode was the subject of conversation for two days. An hour later we disembarked at Vangvieng. Vengvieng is reminiscent of southern China, limestone caves and karst hills reflected in a perfectly still waters. With newly acquired friends we signed up for a next-day cave tour, the leader assuring us there was no problem leaving the tour early to catch a 2 p.m. van to Ventiane. That of course was crap. Laos is Mexico on downers and in slow motion. A cram-packed tuk-tuk, us precariously balanced on its backside, got us back from our cave tour to Vangvieng with minutes to spare before the departure of our luxury van. Actually the trip to Ventiane wasn’t too bad. Fellow-passengers included two employees of Southwest Airlines who imparted valuable tips on around-the-world travel.

We arrived late in Ventiane and at dawn’s early light appreciated its decaying French architecture, delectable bakeries and the symbol of all Laos, a sprawling temple painted entirely gold. Laos is dirt poor, reported as among the twenty least developed nations on the planet, which to me seems inaccurate, considering the state of much of Africa whilst wondering whether development is progress.

I avoided 13 hours of bad road by flying south from Ventiane to ugly Pakse, convenient to the waterfall-ridden Bolovens Plateau and the ancient Khmer temples at Wat Phu, model for Angkor Wat in nearby Cambodia. Nearby are the 4,000 islands where the Mekong attracts backpackers kicked-back in hammocks. The mighty river shatters into a series of waterfalls at the Cambodian border, and floating the Mekong is an option no more.

Dave Rich © 2002

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