Lucky enough to have travelled through Laos in 1989, but 25 years on, Laos has changed markedly.
About six months after Laos opened to “falangs” (foreigners) and as only the third lot of Australians to go through suring1989, the stark changes in Laos in October 2014 forced me to put pen to paper and write this post. Or, should that be fingers to keyboard?
A visa in 1989
Although very anxious as I had to post my passport to Canberra for the Laos visa and knowing that Australia Post loses mail, post it I did.
After several long weeks, which should have only take ten business days, the passport finally returned safely – 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 timber boat to Vientiane.
We didn’t realise until arriving that our visa was not stamped “By Air”. This was a bonus as well as the cheapest method of getting across.
Other travellers with “By Air” stamped on their visa were turned back at the Nong Khai border, told to return to Bangkok, and fly back into Laos. Travellers were pretty angry.
The Australian Embassy in Vientiane warned us not to travel outside a 5-kilometre radius of Vientiane, because of the danger of rebels still roaming Laos and especially in the hills.
This same official advised he had been living in Vientiane for over 5 years and never ventured outside this designated perimeter. Not taking the advice, we did decide to register with the embassy just in case.
Laos in 1989
As the travel was part of a six-week honeymoon without any real plans, which included Malaysia, Thailand, and Laos, we were only allowed two weeks to explore as far as we could get to in Laos – oblivious to how hard travel would be in reality.
No buses, Tuk-tuks, barely any cars in those days and mostly one-tonne armed supply trucks or army vehicles only travelled on the dirt road.
Although we walked a lot, we still managed to hitch rides.
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 1989.
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 or goat track.
Deforestation was in its inception, as were cars in this country.
Most locals travelled on riverways by a small timber motor boat or rustic dugout canoe.
Only a few hotels existed in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, with nothing much at all in-between these two major cities.
With nowhere to stay in Vang Vieng, a few of us travellers were herded into an open room, which turned out to be the small Town Hall.
This is where we all slept. On the floor, on woven mats for a couple of nights. There was nowhere else and no other accommodation in town.
Tourism was almost unheard of and so were tourists. But the thirst that brought very few to this country in this early stage was unanimous.
Travellers wanted to experience something unique.
Laos was in its natural “untouched” state. Unscathed by tourism. Still very unpolished and raw.
To hitch a lift meant walking through tiny villages, which were built impossibly high on the side of mountains.
Walking towards these villages would draw out many locals especially children from their huts in disbelief.
Occasionally, inquisitive children followed us out of a village for half a kilometre or more. Their faces looked as if they had seen a couple of ghosts. What an amazing but humbling experience and one that is still quite vivid in my mind today.
The rivers were the life-line everywhere we travelled.
Small handmade boats plied their way up and down, or across the man-made dam, which 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 or fighting.
Hitching was the only way to get anywhere in Laos although as cars were scarce, you often walked a long way and for many kilometres. Anyone who’s travelled in Laos knows how strenuous this is as it’s a very mountainous country.
Only the other day (2014) whilst travelling in Laos, 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.
One of our rides was with a one-tonne UNICEF utility truck. The vehicle carried large boxes of medicines, a few escorts, and a couple of armed guards. And, also picked up another couple of locals and us during the trip.
The driver spoke a little English and advised that there were still instances of rebels coming down from the hills to attack 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. Sitting on top of the supply boxes whilst hanging onto the ropes that held the boxes together for dear life, it was touch and go whether we would arrive.
No mobile phones to call anyone for help. No internet. Nothing. We were on our own.
With only one 20-minute stop for food during the 5-hour journey, it was an exhausting, crazy but exhilarating ride, with very friendly locals, and arrived 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 phone, no internet, no information. Nothing was available in those days to facilitate travelling.
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 seats, with a sheepish smile. And gear changes there were many, as 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 the name of the village back then and it wasn’t on my map. 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 must visit if we went to Phonsavanh. As we didn’t know what was out that way, decided to stick to the Luang Prabang destination – at least this was on the map. Also, who knew whether we could not make our way back from this new destination?
Waking the village
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 goodbyes and were left alone in a village in the middle of nowhere, without speaking the hills tribe’s 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 in exhausted. I’m sure someone was kicked out.
In the morning, our breakfast was sticky rice and a tiny amount of tinned salted fish, which was all this very poor family had. Extremely humbling.
We gave them a little money, thanked them for their kind hospitality as best we could, and set out again for the long walk to Luang Prabang.
Leaving Phu Khoun
The village children were gorgeous, inquisitive, and followed us for a long way out of the village.
I doubt they’d seen many foreigners 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.
Later on, I found out that the site that the army guys were trying to tell us about is the famous Plain of Jars, which I did finally see this year in 2014.
In hindsight, it was probably lucky not to visit the site in 1989 as the area was still heavily littered with UXOs. Today, however, MAG has done and is still doing, an amazing job of clearing much of the unexploded ordnances around this site.
After only a brief visit to Luang Prabang, we had to catch a flight back to Vientiane.
The small airport’s old twin-prop Russian plane that flew locally is today replaced with an international airport.
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 as China is pumping huge investments into Laos. Not everyone seems to reap the rewards. As with most countries, it’s always a select minority that benefits from progress.
Although I hadn’t travelled in the Bokèo, Luang Namtha, and Oudômxai provinces before when I arrived in Laos this year, the first noticeable change is the numerous power lines. Good progress for the people of Laos.
Apart from Vientiane and Luang Prabang, I don’t remember many power lines in 1989 or much power at all.
Travelling by minivan from Luang Prabang to Phonsavanh this year took just six hours and still passes through the Phu Khoun junction.
The changes in Laos are immense.
The not-so-gruelling road is still very winding, of course, this can never change and apart from many potholes in sections, at least the road is mostly sealed.
Travelling along this route, the power lines slice through the already scarred deforested mountains.
This once pristine spectacular vista is rapidly and surely falling victim to progress, corruption, and greed.
As with many countries including Australia, the demand for old-growth timber or any timber, supersedes any conservation aspirations. With China, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam supposedly closing down deforestation in their own countries, these countries are now hungry for the valuable timber in Laos.
It’s 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 2 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 roofing.
Phu Khoun junction village is now a large town that starts a few kilometres out in all directions with many shops, houses, and a round-about marking North, South, and East. This is all I see whilst whizzing past in the minibus before turning on the bumpy road to Phonsavanh.
I would still hitchhike in this country as it feels safe enough. Although public transport is much better and actually exists these days, there isn’t a need yet…
After two months in Laos this year travelling from north to south in this spectacular country, it seems that locals have also changed since 1989, or have a different mindset 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?’
Is this a result of tourism overload?
Although tourism is good for a country and a way in which locals earn money, it also comes at a cost. You can’t have one without the other. I’m not sure what the solution is really.
Perhaps this is a harsh observation and hope that someone can prove me wrong, but this is a noticeable difference. However, travel out of major cities or 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 Laos for its spectacular diversity and sincerely hope that this doesn’t change in the future.