A Travellerspoint blog

March 2008

The Lao People's Democratic Republic


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Any country that calls itself a people’s democratic republic probably isn’t democratic, and Laos has been a one-party state since 1975. As in China and Vietnam, political opposition and free speech are not tolerated. As in China and Vietnam, private property is permitted and, economically, anything goes.

As we travelled through Pak Beng, Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, there was no evidence at all that we were in a one-party state. Even the policemen seemed relatively benign.

Communism arrived in Vientiane, but we had to go looking for it. The first floor of the Revolutionary Museum is made up of a permanent collection of photographs and objects from the various wars of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. They provoked a pleasant nostalgia for the language of Soviet Russia. The grammar was similar: no reference to the US was complete without the stock epithet ‘imperialist’; any Lao on the side of the Royal Lao Government or the US was a ‘puppet’ or a ‘lackey’. Members of the communist movement, the Pathet Lao, were referred to as Comrade X or, occasionally, Hero Y.

The images were similar, too. There was a sculpture of a military hero looking uncannily like a Transformer. There were the familiar posters of Marx and Lenin, together with unfamiliar (to me) posters of Ho Chi Minh and Kaysone, the fat thug who became the PM after the 1975 revolution. Mao did not get a mention. In other rooms were photos of factories and dams. It was exactly what you would want of a revolutionary museum.

Given that the Lao PDR has normalised trading relations with the US, is a member of ASEAN and wants to be a member of the WTO, the propaganda could do with an update.

It was good to be amused by the captions, because if they had told it straight the story would have been too tragic to bear. The population of Laos fell from three million to two million between 1960 and 1970. Of the two million remaining, one third were displaced within the country. Schooling stopped. The US spent $2m a day, on average, bombing the PL and Viet Cong over a nine-year period. They dropped two million tons of ordnance. Much of this did not explode, and it still kills and maims children as it ignites 40 years too late. (There is a BBC Radio documentary on he subject here.)

If they failed to find their target, bombers were instructed to jettison their payloads before landing. Thus the US routinely bombed what would have been their allies, had the US ever possessed the candour to declare that it was at war in Laos. They also dropped huge amounts of napalm to defoliate the cover for the Ho Chi Minh trail (which is partly in Laos).

The communist atmosphere stepped up once we arrived in Lak Sao, on the border with Vietnam. Lak Sao is a new town, or model town. It has a population of 50,000, most of whom are invisible. It is perhaps 15 degrees cooler than in Luang Prabang. The ambient temperature is not a communist policy, but it somehow feels related.

We are taken to a restaurant, accurately named the Onlyone. It is huge and empty, with the atmosphere of a funeral parlour. All that is missing from a Soviet-era Russian restaurant is hand-picked Komsomol members to lie to the tourists. Our tour guide doubles as the waiter.

Our hotel has a state-run smell to it. The lights don’t work. The bathrooms are dirty. The mosquito protection on the windows has holes in it. A cavernous foyer is starkly lit by fluorescent strips. A fridge holds the hotel’s minuscule stock of beer and soda. There is no wine or spirits – not even lao lao, which has hitherto been ubiquitous. The floors are hard, the beds harder. My bed could be a snooker table. The hotel management ignore the few guests. Our tour guide, in cahoots with the management, sits drinking with them and watching some awful Lao soap. At 8.30pm, it feels like the middle of the night. Since we are only here for a night, it is all amusing.

Actually, the parallels with communist Russia are not so strong. In Laos, people still smile at the slightest opportunity. The food at the Onlyone restaurant was not merely edible but decent. And you get the feeling that, so long as people do not get too interested in the government, the government does not intrude in their lives. All the more puzzling that dinosaur hotels like this cling on.

Posted by Wardsan 19:08 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

A walk and a swim

Luang Prabang


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I'm recording events of ten days ago. The lag is partly down to the difficulty of finding a connection good enough to upload photos, and partly because writing about stuff has to come second to actually doing stuff.

Four of us went for a walk with Chan, the tour guide. We headed out of Luang Prabang in a tuk-tuk. These little vehicles have wheels the size of dinner plates and engines calibrated at 2 mosquito power, and are not suited to country roads. We duly got bogged down trying to ford a stream. Matt and I got out and pushed, uselessly. Ed got out and said ‘we shouldn’t have come this way’. Rae was not allowed to get out, delicate flower. It took a construction vehicle to haul us out.

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We get out at a village called Ban Long Lao. Here an impressive school has been built with Japanese money. Chan said that it was reparations from the American war, but I suspect it was reparations from an earlier war.

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Chan said that the children were Kamu (Kamu are part of the Mon-Khmer linguistic family). Those of us who used the school’s facilities were charged an unexpected 1,000 Kip fee after the happy event. The chap in red has the collection box:

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Then we walked through the adjacent Hmong village.

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After that, a teak plantation.

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Then a walk across a charred landscape, under an oppressive sun.

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Finally, we climb up through bamboo forest for a couple of hours.

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We only covered about 12 km (7.2 miles) but I found it very hard work because of the heat. It seemed to affect me more than the others. I was tired for two days afterwards, but that may also have been due to the, er, gastrointestinal laxity that dogged me throughout Laos.

Near lunchtime we made it to our destination, the waterfalls at Tat Kuang Si. Sam and Voo had come directly in a tuk tuk. To me a waterfall is just a waterfall, but this one had a couple of lovely pools at the bottom.

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They were very blue; copper sulphate, we decided on no evidence at all.

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After a swim we walked past the Tat Kuang Si bear rescue centre, run by an Australian charity called Free the Bears. A Brit called Jude told us about the centre. The bears at the sanctuary are Asiatic black bears. The Asiatic black bear, Selenarctos thibetanus, ranges from Iran to SE Asia and northern Siberia. Despite its adaptability (it is omnivorous) it now exists only in disconnected pockets, so it is a CITES Class I endangered species. It is endangered because it is believed in Chinese traditional medicine that bile from the gall bladder is an aphrodisiac. (An obsession with miracle erections is also behind the decline in the Bengal tiger – why can’t Chinese softcocks just take Viagra, which works?)

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Bears are caught in Laos when very young and smuggled alive across the border. There they are kept in tiny cages that do not allow them to move at all, and the bile is milked by way of a permanent catheter. The bears at the rescue centre were all confiscated by the Lao government. It seems that a minister in the Luang Prabang area is strongly against the trade; without his support, the rescue centre could not exist.

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The bears at the sanctuary have a large space to run around in, tyres to play with, frames to climb and hammocks to lounge in. They are fun to watch. Before they are fed, they are led indoors and the centre workers hide their feed around the enclosure. The bears then have to find their feed for themselves, which encourages them to use their sense of smell and reduces squabbles between them. In the wild they are solitary but they get along fine at the centre apparently.

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They are a lot smaller than brown or black bears, but their claws still appear capable of effortless evisceration.

They have nearly finished building a larger enclosure. When it is open the adults will move into it and the juveniles into the present enclosure. They are currently short of space for the juveniles.

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I don’t normally give to animal charities, because I think that the British give too much to animals and to cancer research and too little to everything else, particularly children’s charities and overseas poverty relief. But I bought a T-shirt anyway.

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Posted by Wardsan 18:42 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

In the hills

Sapa


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The organised tour is over. It dribbled to a halt, really, with Ed and Sam getting off at Vientiane, and Izzy and Marla heading off early yesterday morning and Voo later. Actually, the last few days were a bit strange, since we spent two whole days in a bus getting to Hanoi and only a day there.

Only Rae, Matt and I are still in Vietnam. Rae is staying in Hanoi to begin another tour, and Matt and I decided to head for the hills. We took the sleeper train last night to Lao Cai and then a minibus this morning to Sapa, which is not far from the Chinese border at about 1600 metres up. Formerly a French hill station, it was beaten up during the short war with China in 1979 (when VN invaded Cambodia and China invaded VN). Matt will be here for a few days and we hope to climb Fansipan, the region's highest mountain (however, it is currently pouring). I will be here for nearly as long as my visa allows. There are a lot of French people here.

Posted by Wardsan 03:45 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Huay Xai to Luang Prabang

Along the Mekong


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On the Lao side of the river our guide, Chan, introduces himself. He is wearing shades and talking into a snazzy cameraphone. My first impression is of a wide boy. My first impression is mistaken: Chan turns out to be a nice guy and a devout Buddhist. Like one of our other Lao guides later on, he studied in a monastery, where he learnt a form of English. I was not expecting our guide in a communist country to be religious, but the government abandoned its atheism very quickly after 1975, since the people ignored the policy anyway.

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Shortly afterwards, we board the boat where we are to spend two days travelling down the Mekong. The boat is about 100 feet long and ten feet wide, built square forward and aft, and powered by a large engine. She is owned by a family who have saved the money by running a smaller boat. They live in a small cabin aft. They have hired a pilot, a necessity on the Mekong where the stream wanders all over the place and there are submerged rocks.

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Just in front of the family’s cabin is the head, and in front of that bulkhead some shelves with drinks and crisps and an eskie (as the Aussies put it) with more drinks. Then a dining table and then an empty space with cushions.

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Then come some coach seats facing forward, and then some coach seats aligned longitudinally, then the captain’s cockpit.

Voo, Matt and Sam on the boat
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Come to think of it, half the boat seems to be cobbled together from car parts. The boat’s horn – which is hooted before going round the many blind bends – is a car horn, which seems ludicrously descant. The larger the vessel, the deeper its voice should be, surely.

Soon after setting off we stop at a checkpoint. Children carrying trays of crisps, sweets and fags instantly swarm aboard and offer their identical wares at huge prices. Rae obliges; she is a soft touch and they know it. Strangely, however, they also pick on Izzy, the group's hard bargainer.

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And then we are off on a long stretch. The four antipodeans settle into card games; the Brits (excluding me) bask like lizards in the sun. I spend most of my time walking around the boat and looking at the scenery. With a lot of time in front of us, everyone relaxes deeply.

Over 1500 miles from its source in Tibet, the mother of rivers (mae-khong) is about as wide as the Thames at Greenwich. Farther south in Laos it is twice as wide. It’s a big river: the twelfth longest in the world, and the tenth largest by volume.

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Beige with silt, the river flows slowly between heavily rainforested hills. They stretch into the blue distance but haze limits the visibility. Many of the trees are teak. Sandy beaches make up large stretches of the river bank. Some dunes are cultivated with peanuts.

Water buffalo by the Mekong
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The rest of the river bank consists of a highly stratified mudstone or shale, which has twisted over the aeons so that the strata are near-vertical.

Speedboat on the Mekong
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In the afternoon we stop at a Hmong village. As we draw up to the river bank all the village children – most of the population – run down the sandbanks to look at the boat and the huge foreigners in it.

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Only half the population of Laos is Lao Loong (lowland Lao, speaking a language closely related to Thai). In Laos, the Hmong have always been thought of an upland people. But that is because when they arrived from China (and perhaps, originally, from Mongolia) in the 19th century the only land free for them was in the hills. Many of the Hmong have moved into the valleys. In the valleys they have access to schools and hospitals, particularly for childbirth. However, the schools need to be pay for, and many Lao children do not go to school. The flipside is that they have to pay taxes for the first time in their history. Alternatively, they can stay in the hills, where it is harder for the government to collect taxes.

Chan tells us about the Hmong. The Hmong worship their ancestors, and each house has an altar inside it. Every house also has a second door for the dead.

The Lao government is, finally, trying to govern the country on behalf of all its people, rather than just the Lao. Indeed, ethnic diversity is part of the attraction to many tourists, and there is a good Museum of Ethnology in Luang Prabang. But the government had it in for the Hmong for a long time. Unlike most peasants in the east, the Hmong did not join the Pathet Lao, the Lao Communist movement. Instead they fought the PL and the Viet Minh during the secret war. They were funded by the CIA and provisioned by Air America. They were led by Vang Pao, a Hmong who had made it to major-general in the Royal Lao army. Eventually, of course, the PL and the Vietnamese took over larger and larger swathes of the country, but Vang Pao was never defeated and eventually fled to Bangkok. (This according to A Short History of Laos). In the official version, of course, he is “a puppet of the US imperialists” who was “responsible for the deaths of many Lao”. (The PL were founded and funded by the Vietnamese and they killed a lot of people too. The one thing they didn’t do was use Agent Orange and napalm, and perhaps only because they didn’t have any. But that’s a subject for another time.)

Once the PL gained sole control in 1975 they took revenge on the Hmong. Many Hmong ended up in the USA, where as a group they have achieved better economic outcomes, on average, than their Lao compatriots. Indeed, some of the richer Hmong villages prosper on the back of remissions from exiles. Vang Pao became a leader of the Hmong community in the USA, and last June he was charged with eight others in a Minnesota court with conspiring to overthrow the Lao government. A strange decision to prosecute, one might think.

We go into one of the thatched houses. It takes a while for the eyes to adjust to the darkness; there are no windows. A battery radio is blaring at maximum volume. Inside the large single room are about ten Hmong people. The mother of the family has five sons and a daughter. The eldest son is there too. Chan explains that he is 28 and has two children. I can’t believe it – the guy looks no older than 14 – so I rather rudely ask him again. The mother says she is 38, but she looks older. She speaks Lao, so she has been to school.

Now comes the part that leaves a somewhat bitter taste. The people here are poor even by Lao standards, while we are as rich as robber oligarchs. It is appropriate for wealth to be transferred. We all know that simply giving money or objects to people for nothing is to encourage a form of begging which will degrade the recipients and even deprive them of a means of making a living. But what we do is not a great deal better. We buy lurid fluorescent wrist bands, which we do not want, from the adult women. It is a shame. The Hmong, like all the peoples of Laos, weave beautiful textiles. Their most beautiful clothes are not for everyday wear: they take too long to make and are too precious. Perhaps they could make and sell these for proper money - as they do in Sapa - instead of making junk. I’m not sure what to think.

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We wander round the village. Pigs, chickens and children are everywhere. In Laos, that is true of everywhere but the town centres. A little girl follows us everywhere but she is too shy to interact.

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We re-embark and get to Pak Beng as the sun sets. Pak means mouth; this is where the Beng meets the Mekong. As elsewhere in Laos, most of the houses are on stilts.

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Our stay begins unhappily. Rather than carrying the bags ourselves, we are encouraged to hand them to fairly small boys to carry. My rucksack is not far short of 20kg and is tall; it is much easier for me than for the boys to carry it. Instead, I hand it over to a boy and pay him a dollar to carry it a short distance uphill. Rae, again, is unhappy about it, but she is more worried about their physical capacity to carry the bags. These children are not going to school; they are earning very good money for their families instead. But it might be better for them in the long run if their parents carried the bags and the kids went to school.

At Pak Beng, the generators run for four hours a day, in the evening. Apparently they have hydroelectric power, but we are in the dry season and the power is off. I take a cold shower in the darkness before the power comes on – a great relief after the heat. We eat in one of the many local restaurants – all the tourists going down the Mekong stop here for the night - and have our first degustation of lao lao. Said to be ‘whisky’, it is actually a home-made moonshine made of rice, consumed immediately after being made. It tastes of cheap grappa. Nowhere in Laos are we charged for lao lao, but it is doubtful value for money even at a price of zero.

As we walk back to the guesthouse a storm hits. From nowhere the wind gets up and huge drops fall. Even as the rain falls, the wind coats our hair, clothes and mouths with dust. It is strange.

Without air conditioning or a fan, the night is hot. Rubber sheets on the mattresses do not help.

The following day I am up at dawn to walk around town, but forget my glasses in my befuddlement so I just get late-Matisse impressions. All the Lao in town are up and about. The market is in full swing. Mist sticks to the hills and lingers until the middle of the morning.

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We chug down the Mekong all day, stopping only at the caves at Pak Ou, aka the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas or something. The caves were a place of worship centuries ago, when the population was animist (as indeed in some ways they still are – every building in Thailand and Laos has its shrine to house the local spirits). Fa Ngum stayed here on his way to taking Luang Prabang in the fourteenth century, I think. He forcibly converted the population to Buddhism, so there have been Buddhas here ever since. For many years, at Lao new year, the king would wash the Pha Bang (the Buddha that gave Luang Prabang its name) with water from the caves. Now they use water from Luang Prabang; and the royal family is gone, most of its members dying during their ‘re-education’ in the north. So the caves have some historical importance, but they aren’t that impressive, truth be told.

It is the river that is the star.

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Leaving the boat at Luang Prabang
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Posted by Wardsan 02:04 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

In Vietnam

Ha Noi


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I'm posting from KOTO, a not-for-profit cafe in Hanoi, while drinking a mango lassie. So life's OK.

This morning:

1. Uncle Ho's Mausoleum. A rip-off of Lenin's. No talking, smiling, hands in pockets. Due solemnity, as if approaching a god. Rather over the top in a secular state. Felt sorry for the guy, actually. He wanted to be cremated. Instead, he lies there looking unwell (not surprisingly) and thoroughly orange.

2. Museum of Ethnology. Great, but I'm peopled out; 54 or so ethnic groups in VN.

Tonight: water puppetry.

Got to Hanoi last night after a 13-hour bus journey from Lak Sao in Laos. Needless to say, I was not in a very good mood. The mountains near the border were lovely, but the run along the coast from Vinh was boring and ugly. VN is heavily industrialised in comparison to Laos, which is not surprising: VN is about 50% richer than Laos per capita (purchasing power parity) and growing at about 8% a year.

Lak Sao is a new town on the border, a seven-hour ride from Vientiane. Claimed population: 50,000. Visible population: 3. A hole, whose entertainments are solely ironic.

Posted by Wardsan 01:53 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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