Indochina 2016 - Laos

Village market stall, Po Ban, Laos

It feels like border crossings on land are always more fiddly & problematic than those at airports or harbours. Maybe it's just that the large numbers arriving by plane or ship require a more streamlined approach to keep them flowing or there's an assumption that people paying for transport are more respectable than those crossing on foot or with their own transport - either way it usually feels like the pedestrian traveller has to plead their way into the country rather than be politely welcomed.

Crossing into Laos was certainly very different from flying into Thailand. Walking through the (very impressive) Thai emigration building, our cases rattling along behind us, I suddenly realised that I hadn't completed the Thai departure form that had been stapled into my passport when I arrived in Bangkok. I quickly found a flat surface and jotted my details in but when I looked up again Rabbit & the rest of the group had vanished. Panic! Luckily after passing through passport control there weren't many doorways to choose between and most were labelled in reasonable English so after a swift process of deduction I was through into the no man's land between the two countries.

Immigration centre, Bokeo

The borden zone was remarkably anarchic. Groups of tourists (there didn't seem to be any local or individual travellers) milled around until a shuttle bus would appear, at which point the tour guides would struggle to get their group onto the bus and then their luggage packed inside. There was no obvious priority system or polite queuing involved, our group was overtaken by a larger Chinese one onto the first bus and when we made it onto the second one a French group got on, got off again, then got back on with some of their luggage stacked in the aisle. Eventually we set off over the Mekong river bridge and drew up outside the somewhat less impressive Lao immigration building.

(On the Thai side, past the border controls, there had been a large toilet block but once inside I found that there was no paper of any kind - no toilet roll, no towels for drying hands, nothing. At the next hotel we stayed at I swiped a spare toilet roll which proved to be very useful in the travels ahead. A tip for travellers.)

Entering Laos was bureaucratic but friendly. We queued to present our passports, visa application forms (carefully completed under Rabbit's supervision back in Bangkok) and US dollars - the preferred currency for our visa fees. These vanished into an office and then reappeared at the next window along a few minutes later, where a smiling official called each of us over by our first names to return the passports, now embellished by a very impressive visa. At the currency exchange window I suddenly became much richer - the 2,000-odd Thai Baht I had left (about £40) transformed into nearly half a million Lao Kip! The large numbers associated with currencies in this region (both Vietnam & Cambodia had similarly huge exchange rates) caught me out on more than one occasion where the mass of notes with lots of zeroes in my wallet turned out to only be worth a few pounds.

I was puzzled by the fact that we'd boarded the bus from the pavement but disembarked into the middle of the (thankfully empty) road. It turned out that Laos, Vietnam & Cambodia, probably due to their French colonial history, drove on the right while Thailand, with British influence, drives on the left.

All settled in the boat, Mekong river

Once through into Laos we were introduced to a Lao tour guide who would be accompanying us for the first half of our visit (Rabbit was still our main guide), boarded another minibus and were driven to the boarding point for our slowboat cruise down the Mekong river. This turned out to be just a grassy riverbank with over a dozen long, thin boats moored up together but soon our bags were whisked abord one of them, we were guided down and helped aboard, and soon we were smoothly chugging down the wide river.

Our time in Thailand hadn't seemed particularly busy or rushed at the time but once settled onto the boat a wonderful sense of peace and relaxation swept over us all. The cool breeze from our passage was a wonderful contrast from the dry heat of the road and there were Hello Kitty-style blankets for the more sensitive amongst us (intellectual property consideration remained somewhat hazy throughout the region). Soon after casting off a segment of the roof was slid aside, leaving a section of the boat where you could stand on the benches and get an uninterrupted view of the surrounding countryside and passing vessels. With our slow pace down the river there was no need of twitchy checking for photogenic subjects or scenes, potential photographs could be spotted, composed & snapped at a leisurely pace and the clicking of a shutter gave notice of new vistas to the rest of the photographers on board. Time slowed as we passed through the tree-covered hills on the wide, slow river.

On a deeper level the gentle pace gave time for us to get to know each other. As a small group on a (relatively) spacious boat we could each claim our own corner, then as we moved around to lay on the benches, stand to take in the wider view, line up a particular photo and so on there were opportunities to chat in pairs and small groups, slowly building up connections that weren't possible in the full assemblage. A dialogue would draw in another person, go off at a tangent, slowly fade away and then return much later on with different participants. Without a stream of Things To See we morphed from a touring group to travelling companions, albeit in a slightly reserved, British sort of way.

Lunchtime brought lunch on the boat, mama had been working in the 'crew only' section at the back and laid out a feast of soup, veggies and wok-friend meat with a rich, spicy sauce that was (carefully) drizzled over the accompanying boiled rice. A delicious meal topped off with fresh fruit and washed down with a bottle of Beerlao, the (seemingly) national lager. Yum.

Frogs in a bag, Pak Beng

Late afternoon brought us to the one-street village of Pak Beng where we would be spending the night before continuing downriver on the boat. A stroll through town brought us to the market where, alongside the familiar (or at least recognisable) food items, we saw roasted squirrel, grasshopper-like insects, live catfish in a plastic bowl and frogs in plastic bags (it was hard to tell if they were alive or not). The stallholders looked on in bemusement as we exclaimed over the weird fare.

The next day we broke our trip along the Mekong at the village of Po Ban, a collection of small, wooden houses just about separate from the surrounding forest. With no electricity or water supplies and dirt paths between the houses it was the most primitive looking place we saw on the trip but its commercial awareness was well developed - the route through the village was lined with scarves, amulets & shawls laid out in front of each house with the (inevitably female) stallholders calling out "Madam!" to the passing tourists (regardless of gender) to attract them to view their wares. At the far end of the village a second marketplace was filled with more prosaic items, our Lao guide explained that after selling their handmade textiles the locals would then spend the money on household goods from China. The global market in action.

Further down the river we stopped at the Tam Ting caves where, after a steep ascent from water level, we entered a cave with an enormous number of Buddha statues arranged on every available flat (or nearly flat) surface. It was pretty impressive but I never really understood the fascination with lots & lots of very similar religious statues, a feature that turned up in several places along the tour.

Finally, after two days on our wonderful slowboat, we docked for the last time, had our cases hauled up the steep riverbank and were loaded into a minibus for the short drive to Luang Prabang, our home for the next three nights.

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