I was lucky enough to have travelled through Laos in 1989 – 25 years on and Laos has changed, markedly…
About six months after Laos opened to “falangs” (foreigners) and as only the third lot of Australians to go through at the time, the stark changes in Laos today forced me to put pen to paper and write this post. Or, should that be fingers to keyboard?
Although very anxious back then, as I had to post my passport to Canberra for the Laos visa with Australia Post not always the best of services, post it I did. After several long weeks (supposed to only take ten business days), the passport finally returned safely and stamped with a one-page visa.
Landing in Laos
At Thailand’s Nong Khai border, we were allowed to cross the Mekong River in a small local boat to Vientiane. We didn’t realise until arriving that our visa was not stamped “By Air” – a bonus as this was the cheapest method of getting across.
Other travellers with “By Air” on the visa, were turned back at the Nong Khai border and told to return to Bangkok, then fly back into Laos – travellers were pretty angry.
The Australian Embassy in Vientiane warned everyone not to travel outside a 5-kilometre radius of Vientiane, because of the danger of rebels still roaming Laos, especially in the hills.
This same official advised he had been living in Vientiane for over 5 years and never ventured outside this perimeter. Although we didn’t take his advice, decided to register with the embassy, just in case.
Laos in 1989
As the travel was part of a six-week honeymoon, which included Malaysia, Thailand, and Laos, we only allowed two weeks to explore as far as we could get to in Laos; oblivious to how hard the travel would be in reality. It took almost all of this time to hitch from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. No buses, Tuk-tuks, barely any cars, and with mostly one-tonne armed supply trucks or army vehicles only travelling on the dirt road.
Although we walked a lot, we still managed to hitch a ride.
Very little English was spoken, if at all. The older locals did speak French. So, with my high school French, I found everyone to be extremely helpful and friendly, in fact, absolutely delightful.
Travellers in Laos were scarce in ‘89.
The Country’s main road, which ran north/south of Vientiane was sealed in only about a 30-kilometre stretch. The rest of the road was dirt track or in parts, a mere resemblance of a trail bike track.
From what I saw, deforestation was in its inception, as were cars in this country.
Most locals travelled on river ways by a small motor boat or canoe.
Only a few hotels existed in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, with nothing much at all in-between these two major cities.
In Vang Vieng, a few of us travellers were herded into an open room, which was the small Town Hall. This is where we all slept, on woven mats on the floor for a couple of nights. There was nowhere else and no other accommodation.
Tourism was almost unheard of and so were tourists. But the thirst that brought a very few to this country in this early stage was unanimous.
Travellers wanted to experience something unique. This country in its natural “untouched” state. Unscathed by tourism. Still very rustic and raw.
To hitch a lift meant walking through tiny untouched villages, which were built impossibly high, on the side of mountains. Walking towards these villages would draw out many locals from their huts in disbelief, but especially children.
Occasionally, inquisitive children followed us out of a village for half a kilometre or more. Their faces looked as if they’d seen a couple of ghosts. What an amazing but humbling experience and one that is still quite vivid today.
The rivers were the life-line everywhere we travelled.
The small timber handmade boats plied their way up and down, or across the man-made dam that had flooded the lowlands and displaced many villages.
Most locals travelled this way as roads were difficult, non-existent, or impassable, especially in the wet season.
Typically, an armed government official travelled on some of the boat routes, to ward off any rebels.
Hitching was the only way to get anywhere in Laos although as cars were scarce, you often walked a long way for many kilometres. Anyone that’s travelled in Laos knows how difficult this is due to a very mountainous country.
Only the other day (2014) whilst travelling, I overheard a group of American travellers talking amongst themselves. Two of the travellers tried to hitch but no one would pick them up…how times have changed.
I remember one ride was a one-tonne UNICEF utility truck, which was carrying boxes of medicines, a few escorts, and a couple of armed guards. The truck also picked up another couple of locals during the trip.
The driver spoke a little English and advised that there were still instances of rebels coming down from the hills and attacking food and medicine supply trucks.
Just to add to the apprehension as not much transport went past for a couple of hours, we took this 5-hour ride, which saw us sitting on top of the supply boxes, and hanging onto the ropes that held the boxes together.
With only the one 20-minute stop for food during the whole journey, it was an exhausting, crazy but exhilarating ride, with very friendly locals. And we arrive in Vang Vieng safely.
From Vang Vieng, the aim was to travel to Luang Prabang, so we started walking north on the outskirts of Vang Vieng to a smaller village. Remember, we only had an A4 badly copied map of a section of Laos. No iPhone, internet, information, or anything in those days to make travelling easy.
Village of Phu Khoun
The next ride kind enough to pick us up was with a couple of army guys, in a decrepit left-over army jeep. The driver only knew a handful of English words and with our few Lao words, we had a laugh trying to communicate.
The jeep was in such poor condition that the gear stick kept slipping out. So the driver together with his army pal, pushed the gear stick back in when changing gears, whilst glancing over at us in the back of the jeep with a sheepish smile. And gear changes there were many, as remember, this dirt road was very mountainous and pot-holed.
Needless to say, it was a very long and slow trip, also hindered by the last hour of torrential rain.
We arrived in Phu Khoun at almost midnight. I didn’t know this name at the time as the village wasn’t on my map copy. This tiny village perched high on a mountain with a handful of thatched huts, no shops or accommodation, nothing, seemed eerily isolated.
The army guys motioned that this was the cross-road and that they were headed right, asking if we wanted to go with them to the army base towards Phonsavanh (Luang Prabang was our left-turn).
Both were very kind and tried to explain a famous site that we should visit if we went to Phonsavanh. As we didn’t know what was out that way, decided to stick to Luang Prabang as the destination – at least this was on the map. Another reason for not going was in case we could not make our way back from this new destination.
To our surprise, both guys proceeded to knock on each hut’s door in the village until someone agreed to put us up for the night. We said our good byes and were left alone, in a village in the middle of nowhere, without speaking the language.
The family that put us up for the night was very sweet. I felt guilty as the bed (mat and blanket on the dirt floor) was still warm when I slid into bed. I’m sure someone was kicked out.
In the morning, we were fed sticky rice and a tiny amount of tinned salted fish, which was all this very poor family had. We gave them some money, thanked them for their kind hospitality as best we could, and set out again for the long walk to Luang Prabang.
The village children were gorgeous, inquisitive, and followed us for a long way out of the village. I doubt they had seen many strangers before – if at all, especially walking into the never-never. Remember, we had no idea of distances, terrain or whether a vehicle would pass by anytime soon. Although you could guess what the terrain that lay ahead was similar to what we already experienced.
Later on I found out that the site the army guys were trying to tell us about was the famous Plain of Jars, which I did finally see this year.
In hindsight, it was probably lucky not to have visited in ’89 as this site was still heavily littered with UXOs. Today however, MAG has done (and is still doing) an amazing job clearing much of the unexploded ordnances around this site.
After only a brief visit in Luang Prabang, we had to catch a flight back to Vientiane as sadly, we ran out of time.
Think the plane was an old twin prop Russian plane. Today however, this airport accommodates international flights.
There’s an abundance of new and expensive cars travelling on the roads nowadays.
One can only guess that a lot of this money has been Chinese-influenced. This guess is also supported by the huge investments that China is currently pumping into Laos over many years. Still, not everyone seems to reap the rewards. As with most countries, it is always a select minority that benefit from progress.
Although I hadn’t travelled in the Bokèo, Luang Namtha, and Oudômxai provinces before, when arriving in Laos this year, the first noticeable change was the numerous power lines. Good progress for the people of Laos.
I don’t remember many power lines in ‘89 or much power at all, apart from in Vientiane and Luang Prabang.
Travelling by minivan from Luang Prabang to Phonsavanh this year took just six hours and still passes through the Phu Khoun junction.
The changes are immense.
The not-so-gruelling road is still very winding, of course can never change. And apart from many potholes in areas, at least the road is mostly sealed now.
Once more, an incredibly noticeable change also along this route is the power lines that slice through the already scarred deforested mountains. This once pristine spectacular vista, is rapidly and surely falling victim to progress, corruption, and greed.
As in so many other countries today (including Australia), the demand for old growth timber or any timber for that matter, supersedes any conservation aspirations. And with China, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam supposedly closing down deforestation in their countries, these countries are now hungry for the valuable timber in Laos.
It is predicted that only around 30% of forests in Laos will be left by 2020, which is only six years away. I would see this country now. After the noticeable forest devastation during the last 5-weeks of travelling here, this problem is already paramount.
The sporadic tiny villages with thatched huts built on impossibly high mountainside slopes, have mostly been replaced with much larger houses of concrete and tile or tin roof.
Phu Khoun junction village is now a large town, which starts a few kilometres out in all directions with many shops, houses, a round-about marking North, South, and East. This is all I saw whilst whizzing past in the minibus, before turning on the bumpy road to Phonsavanh.
I would still hitch hike in this country as it feels safe enough. Although as transport is much better, actually exists now, and readily available, we haven’t had to hitch, yet…
After two months in Laos this year, travelling north to the south in this spectacular country, it seems that since 1989, locals have also changed or have a different mind-set towards tourists.
Back then it was ‘how can I help or be more hospitable to a falang?’. Sadly now, it seems to be ‘how do I fleece more dollars out of a falang in the shortest possible time?’
Can this be a result of too much tourism?
Although tourism is good for a country and another way in which locals can earn money, it also comes with the obvious down-sides. You can’t have one without the other and I’m not sure what the solution is really.
Perhaps this is a harsh observation and I hope that someone can prove me wrong on this, but this is one of the noticeable differences.
Although, travel out of major cities and tourist destinations, and you’ll soon experience the Lao people that I remember. Most warmest and wonderful smiles, happy, and truly hospitable – just as in 1989.
I still love this country for its spectacular diversity and hope this doesn’t change too much in the future.