travelogue – Laos rebuttal by Peter Long

Laos Rebuttal (from Peter Long) (Rick in italics)

Hi Rick:

At last a letter I know something about!! i.e. Laos

Every backpacker is on their way to Laos. Some are already speaking of (shudder) “Thailand North”.

Don’t shudder too much – Laos before Thailandization was pretty primitive from many points of view: security, health, education. Subsistence living may look romantic, but in fact is grubby, stunting and short.

So why Laos? Why now?

I don’t know. Transportation is impossible. It’s a dusty land. The most unique of the few tourist attractions, the Plain of Jars (giant, mysterious stone jars), most don’t visit because the road is infested with bandit rebels.

You’re right, I never went there. The Germans were financing the construction of Highways 6 and 7 when I was last there, which should open things up.

In fact the entire infrastructure for tourism is sorely lacking.

Wow! You should have seen it in the ‘good old days’ Gummint hotels (in the capital), sheds elsewhere, filthy, although the Russians didn’t seem to mind, better than being at home I expect.

Yet everyone loves Laos. Everyone loves Cafe Lao — fantastic strong, tasty coffee mixed with sweetened condensed milk. ($.20)

We remember that well from Thailand in the 60s. Made by pouring water through a sock filled with coffee (Joyce has just reminded me that you got a chaser of tea to clean your mouth!). Good coffee in Lao, comes from the plateau in the south. I met a weird fellow there who was helping them develop coffee (he grew up in Kenya), but quality control ws a problem, and Lao is not a member of the coffee cartel and can’t get MFN status from the US because of involvement in the drug trade.

Match that with a fresh baguette veggie omelet sandwich ($.80) and you’re off to a happy day.

Veggie omelet – Luxury!! Breakfast was rice soup (with pork), and lunch was rice soup (with chicken). Dinner was rice soup etc. The day after the order was reversed.

Lao people are laughing, joking, goofing. They don’t take themselves (or tourists) too seriously. They’ve been generously protected from tourism and Western culture by communism and bad roads.

Also by being shot if they tried to cross the river, and a security guard in the hotel to see that no-one switched the TV to the Thai channel. And Migs at the airport. All in the good old days of course.

I arrived from Thailand via the “Friendship Bridge”, built 1994.

I went over the bridge when it was under construction – a very efficient Oz operation. I usually arrived via the airport, but crossed the bridge once when I was bounced from the flight ,and took the train to Nong Khai. It took about 3 hours to cross the bridge.

And Vientienne is just about the only place in the country where you can get unkipped.

I did change a traveler’s cheque once in Luang Namtha!

You can party Friday night at the Australian Embassy. Play rugby, touch football, bridge. Run with the Hash House Harriers on Monday night.

I went with the hash. Ran through some noisesome mud, (Joyce threw my socks out when I got home)

You can fine dine though you need an expat salary to eat at the French restaurants. (menu priced in dollars not kip) All the imported luxuries are available. There’s a better selection of French wine than in Saskatoon.


I met a Calgary cowboy experimenting with different cattle breeds on the local grasses.

I did not see much grass, other than rice. most cows appear to be in the bush/forest. I think you need a hardy local breed to survive, but I think beef is an important export to Thailand and China.

He’s got a better chance of success than those working “crop substitution” — convincing opium poppy farmers to switch to mulberry trees (for silk).

You need a high value crop when you have to walk out 2 days with the load on your back.

3 sights not to miss in Vientienne:

1) A wonderfully weird Lao-style “Arc de Triomph”. The Americans sent concrete and cash so the military could build another runway for U.S. jets. The general, instead, completed the “Arc” as a memorial for Lao war dead.

I think it was completed after the ‘liberation’

2) The symbol of Laos (replacing the hammer and sickle on the national emblem in 1992) is the wonderfully weird “Great Stupa” which looks like some kind of gilded missile cluster. It was peacefully deserted when I was there. I never saw anything like it in all my Buddhist travels.

However, I was there on the national day with thousands of people and hundreds of monks

Unlike everywhere else, I rarely heard a bad word about the government. The dissenters have mostly left. They cross the Mekong into Thailand which actually has more Lao speakers than Laos.

NE Thailand has an indigenous Lao population, they are not all dissenters.

North to Vang Vieng on highway 13, the only “good” road in the country.

Highway 13 is the old French numbering of a ‘Route de l’interet regionale’. It ran from Saigon, through Cambodia to the Chinese border. There is a statue of the French engineer on the road to the south of Vientiane

After an authentic Lao lunch (a gamble gastrointestinal) we climbed on to inner-tubes for the 3 hour float back to town. It’s timed so we would arrive back at sunset. At the “sunset pub”. Beerlao flows freely

Pleased to say the World Bank financed the expansion of the brewery in Vientiane..

– the “Secret War” in Laos where, in contravention of the 1962 Geneva Accord, U.S. pilots (code named “Ravens”) dressed as civilians and flew dangerously obsolete planes into battle.

The DC3 Dakota was a fine plane!

– the illegal bombing of Laos, especially the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Eventually the U.S. dropped more tonnage on this little country (about half a tonne / person) than they did in all of WW II. Unexploded ordinance (UXO) still kills about 130 people / year, about 40% children. (In Cambodia the number might be closer to 800 / year.)

You need to be careful digging for bridge foundations.

The end of the line for me was Muang Sing, a sleepy little village right in the middle of the Golden Triangle. In fact, the muddy, messy square was once the greatest opium market in the world (under French sanction).

I can’t believe that you got to Muang Sing. I have been there several times. Our stays were based in Louang Namtha, but I went to Muang Sing (and south of there to Muang Long, and once all the way to the Me Kong, from where I travelled down the river in a ‘long tail’ boat, trying to hunch down and not look like an American, who are not welcomed by Khun Sa’s men on the Burmese bank of the river. More of this another time).

The old opium market was restored with German aid, they had a nice installation in Muang Sing, with, at that time, the height of luxury of Mercedes jeeps, everybody else had terrible Chinese jeeps. They reconstructed all the pillars of the market while Klaus (?) was on leave, but when he came back they were not in a straight line, so in good Teutonic fashion he had them demolished and done properly.

It’s mainly know now as an exit point for automobiles being smuggled from Thailand to China. I saw huge convoys of (supposedly protected) hardwood too, heading north.

The porousness of the border appears to vary. On my last trip there were hundreds of cars sitting in the bush for a year. You could buy one very cheaply.

Actually, some come because this is a nexus of tribal peoples. Colourful costumes, metallic headgear, fascinating customs. Hill tribes practice “swidden” (slash and burn) agriculture. Not pretty, but apparently the environment can sustain the low population.

You are right about the mix of several tribes. Did you get acquainted with the one where if you get a massage you are worked on by a team of 6 girls simultaneously (so I’m told!)?

A guesthouse has opened up 8 km out of town so I spent a couple of rural days. I could have trekked to different minority villages. I did walk to one but found the experience awkward. What to do when the old woman runs out shouting, “Money, money, MONEY”.

On the Muang Long road once, we tried to take a picture of one of the girls with Joyce, but she was so spooked by Joyce’s white hair (maybe thought she was a ghost) that she screamed and ran into the creek. Too bad because she had good looking breasts casually revealed by her open jacket. The tiny pack horses were similarly spooked by the jeep, and the drivers were not much better either, also diving for the ditch.

After advising everyone I’ve met for the past 6 months NOT to backpack in China (unless they speak Mandarin), I’m really looking forward to the Middle Kingdom. It’s so much more … “civilized”.

Except for the toilets, the worst I have ever seen (smelt!) and heaved over, and watch for the phlegm first thing in the morning and the chicken bones on the restaurant floors.

Really enjoyed all your accounts and philosophy.




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Rick Mc

Career gymnastics coach who loves the outdoors, and the internet.

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