I was lucky enough to have travelled to Laos in 1989; about 6 months after the country had opened to “falangs” (foreigners). And as one of only the 3rd lot of Australians to go through at the time, the stark changes in Laos today forced me to put pen to paper, or should that be fingers to keyboard and write this post.
Very anxious back then as I had to post my passport to Canberra for the Laos visa and Australia Post isn’t always the best of services (still isn’t). However, after several weeks (supposed to be a maximum of 10 business days), the passport finally returned safely and stamped with a one-page visa.
Landing in Laos
Although we didn’t realise until arriving at the border in Nong Khai (Thailand) that as our visa was not stamped with “By Air”, this meant we were allowed to cross the Mekong River in a small local boat from Nong Khai to Vientiane. A bonus as this was the cheapest method of getting across. Other travellers with the “By Air” visa stamp were turned back at the border in Nong Khai and told they must return to Bangkok, then fly back into Laos; these travellers were pretty angry!
The Australian Embassy in Vientiane warned everyone not to travel outside a 5 km radius of Vientiane as it was too dangerous due to rebels still roaming Laos, especially in the hills. This same official advised he’d been living in Vientiane for over 5 years and had never ventured outside of this perimeter! Although we didn’t take his advice, decided to register with the embassy just in case.
As this was part of a 6-week Honeymoon, which included Malaysia, Thailand, and Laos, we only allowed 2 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 as there were no buses, Tuk-tuks, and barely any cars. Mostly, one-tonne armed supply trucks or army vehicles only travelled on the dirt road.
Although we walked a lot, we still managed to catch a ride. Very little English was spoken, if at all any. However, the older locals did speak French and with my High School French, I found everyone was extremely helpful and friendly, in fact, absolutely delightful!
Travellers in Laos were scarce in ‘89. The Country’s main road, which runs north/south of Vientiane was sealed in only about a 30 km 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 the river ways by boat or canoe.
Only a few hotels existed in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, nothing much at all in-between these two major cities. In Vang Vieng, a few of us travellers were herded into a small Town Hall (just a room) and we all slept on woven mats on the floor for a couple of nights as there was nowhere else, and no other accommodation.
Tourism was almost unheard of and thus, tourists were scarce. But the thirst that brought a very few to this country in this early stage was unanimous. Everyone wanted to experience something unique, this country in its natural “untouched” state; unscathed by tourism and 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 and our arrival, would draw many locals out of their huts in disbelief but especially children.
Occasionally, we were followed out of a village for half a kilometre or more by inquisitive children; 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 of where we travelled. The small timber handmade boats plied their way up and down the rivers, or across the man-made dam that had flooded the lowlands and displaced many villages.
Many locals travelled this way as most of the roads were difficult, non-existent, or impassable in the wet season. Typically, an armed government official travelled on some of the boat routes, again, this was to ward off any rebels.
Hitching was the only way to get anywhere in Laos although as cars were scarce, you often walked many kilometres and for a long way. Anyone that’s travelled in Laos knows this is very difficult as this is a very mountainous country!
Only the other day whilst travelling (in 2014), I overheard a group of American travellers talking amongst themselves and 2 of the guys had 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 (also picked up a couple of locals during the trip).
The driver spoke a little English and advised 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 hanging onto the ropes that held the supply boxes together. With only the one 20-minute stop for food during the whole journey, it was an exhausting but crazy, exhilarating ride with very friendly locals, and arrived in Vang Vieng safely!
From Vang Vieng, the aim was then 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 iPhones, internet, information, or anything in those days to make travelling easy.
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 the other army guy, pushed the gear stick back in when changing gears, whilst glancing over at us in the back of the jeep with a wide smile. And gear changes were many; as remember, this dirt road was very mountainous and pot-holed! Needless to say, it was a very long slow trip also hindered by the last hour of torrential rain.
We arrived in Phu Khoun at almost midnight (didn’t know the name back then as this village wasn’t on my badly photocopied map). This was a tiny village perched high on a mountain with a handful of thatched huts, no shops or accommodation – nothing.
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). They 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 (no guide books or maps), we decided Luang Prabang was the destination. Also, just in case we couldn’t make our way back from this new destination. So 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 the army guys left.
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. I’m sure someone was kicked out of their bed. 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’d seen many falangs before, especially walking into the never-never! Remember, we had no idea of distances, terrain or whether a vehicle would pass by anytime soon, but could only guess what the terrain that lay ahead was like…similar to what we’d already experienced.
Later on I found out that the famous site the army guys were trying to tell us about was the famous Plain of Jars, which I did finally see this year (2014). In hindsight, it was probably lucky not to have visited in ’89 as this site was still heavily littered with UXOs back. Today however, MAG has cleared much of the unexploded ordnances around this site.
In Luang Prabang, we had to catch a flight back to Vientiane as we ran out of time. Think the plane was an old twin prop Russian plane. These days, 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 (and has been) pumping into Laos over many years. But still, not everyone seems to reap the rewards. As with most countries, it’s 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; a good thing 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 6 hours and still passes through Phu Khoun junction. The changes are immense. The not-so-gruelling road is still very windy (this can never change) and apart from many potholes in certain areas, at least the road is mostly sealed now!
One incredibly noticeable change 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 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’s predicted that only around 30% of forests in Laos will be left by 2020. As that’s only 6 years away, I would see this country now. And after the forest devastation that I’ve seen travelling here in the last 5 weeks, it is already paramount!
The sporadic tiny villages containing thatched huts built on impossibly high slopes on the side of the mountain, have mostly been replaced with much larger houses of concrete, tile, or tin. The 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; and this is all I saw whilst whizzing past in the minibus before turning on the road to Phonsavanh.
I would still hitch hike in this country today as it feels safe enough to travel this way. Although as transport is much better, actually exists now, and readily available, we haven’t had to hitch yet…
After 2 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 it’s ‘how do I fleece more dollars out of a falang in the shortest possible time?’. Can this be a result of too much tourism in the country? Although tourism is good for a country as it’s 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 differences I’ve noticed. However, 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 like in 1989.