It wasn’t many more days before we were crossing the Mekong River in Thailand’s northeast to enter another capital city, Vientiane, the capital of Laos. It could not have been more different to the polluted metropolis of Bangkok. Laos is a beautiful, un-crowded, almost forgotten little country. Few would know where to locate it on the map, so seldom does the rest of the world visit it. Its population is only five million and it is an environmentalist’s dream. Up to eighty percent of the country is still forested and much of that is primary growth. Vientiane had the feel of a small French town, brimming with delightful cheap restaurants and patisseries.
Two hundred and fifty kilometres north of Vientiane we came to Vang Viang, a region of jagged hills covered in forest and riddled with enormous caves – limestone karst at its most spectacular. China never felt too far away in Laos. Its products were everywhere. One of the strangest was the Chinese tractor, basically an exposed engine on two small tractor wheels hitched to a wooden carriage. Long forked bars allowed the driver to control the whole contraption. To turn he must throw the bar to one side or the other, like the tiller of a boat. A lever by his side controlled the throttle. Gears and brakes were similarly basic.
Running through Vang Viang was the Nam Xong River. Its water felt cold as we launched ourselves in on two huge, tractor-tyre inner tubes. Ness looked apprehensive. There were a few rapids but most of the river was tame, having us paddling with our Reefs. Hills loomed over the rice paddies. Life carried on in timeless serenity as we drifted by. Teenage boys fished the clear waters with mask and spear-gun, collecting their catch in small wicker baskets attached to their belts. Older women stood knee deep in the river, bent at the waist, sifting the water for fish. Men with their younger sons were out on their boats, searching for bamboo to repair their houses whilst their wives stayed at home tending their small plots of maize. Every now and then we would hear a commotion as buffalo came stumbling down to the riverbank.
Back on the Bear, leaving Vang Viang behind, the next twenty kilometres were some of the most beautiful in the entire trip. The forested karst landscape and fairy-tale mountains looked dramatic and unspoilt, as in a dream. I could not help but think that this was how the world was supposed to be. We passed numerous small villages, those of the Hmong hill-tribes. The people looked distinctly Chinese with mongoloid features and flat-boned faces. They wore beautifully coloured hats decorated with bobbles and coins. The children waved enthusiastically, jumping up and down as we passed. The villagers’ houses were made entirely of boarded wood or bamboo frames with simple woven leaf walls, all blending perfectly into the surrounding countryside. Prince Charles would have approved. The air cooled as we climbed. Some of the forest was on fire from small-scale slash and burn. But as long as the multinationals and timber companies stay away, as long as the land is still worked by the people who have to live on it, then there can be hope for this beautiful region.
Increasingly mountainous, the road continued as a thin ribbon winding its way around successive hills. At last, dropping into warmer climes, we approached Luang Prabang.
Sitting on the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, Luang Prabang was an extraordinary town, a living time-capsule where the gentle spirit of Buddhism pervaded the very air that you breathed. If one ever needed proof that this religion does not just preach peace but actually practices and lives peace, then one need look no further than Luang Prabang.
The countless wats and monasteries that define the town begin their daily routine in the early hours. As we lay in bed each morning we found ourselves woken by their timeless sound starting with the single, haunting beat of a drum. As if in answer another drum, from another monastery, would add its beat, to be joined by the sound of a gong and then another and another.
Before long this medley of sound would echo, reverberating about the valley; deep, mystical, slowly increasing in tempo and utterly magical. It was this sound perhaps more than anything else that had us spellbound and trapped for over a week. Like the mist rising from the dappled waters of the Mekong, we too would find ourselves rising, driven in an almost trance-like state to walk in the cool dawn air. Long columns of bare-footed, saffron-robed monks, numbering tens if not hundreds, would drift through the streets taking alms from the local people, who in turn knelt by the sides of the road, only too happy to give in this time-honoured way. As these apparitions dissipated in the heat of the rising sun, to return to their monasteries, the sound would abruptly stop, signalling the beginning of the working day.
Louang Prabang (the Great Pha Bang) is named after the most sacred Buddha image in Laos, believed to have miraculous powers that safeguard the country. Twice in its history it has been stolen by the Siamese and both times it has been returned in the belief that it brought bad luck. Before the Pha Bang was brought to the city by King Visoun in 1512, Louang Prabang was the kingdom of Lane Xang Hom Khao founded by the legendary Lao warrior Fa Ngum in the fourteenth century. This translates as the ‘Land of a Million Elephants and the White Parasol’. The symbol of the Laos monarchy is that of a three-headed elephant shaded by a parasol, prominent over the main entrance of the impressive Royal Palace. Inside and heavily guarded is the Pha Bang itself, made of bronze, silver and gold, believed to have been crafted in the first century. Alongside was an interesting room displaying gifts to the King from several of the world’s nations. The Americans had given some moon rock. Sadly the line of kings which ruled Laos for six centuries came to an end in 1975 when Pathet Lao communist forces took over.
Walking eastwards along Xiang Thong, the old city’s main thoroughfare, we came to Wat Saen and its two famous longboats. These are used in an annual boat race festival which is believed to lure Louang Prabang’s fifteen guardian naga, or serpents, back into the rivers at the end of the rainy season, after high waters and flooded rice paddies have allowed them to escape.
Many of the wats in Luang Prabang, far from being ancient attractions, were active monasteries. Peeking into one or two of them we saw monks, generally men in their late teens or early twenties, sitting chatting, their orange robes hung out to dry on makeshift washing lines.
In one of the many simple wooden houses along the street we watched as a woman and her children made Sa paper from the bark, berries, flowers and leaves of the mulberry tree using only a shallow tank of water, a mesh and the heat of the sun. The whole process is entirely natural involving no chemicals. The resultant paper is thick and strong yet partially transparent and light. It is used to produce the most beautiful lanterns in bamboo frames, said to bring good luck in marriage. We bought four in all.
Cobbled back streets, rustic accommodation, friendly inhabitants who live their religion: all combine to give Luang Prabang a unique village feel. Tourism, as far as we could see, had yet to change any of this. Red roofed temples, golden stupas, images of Buddha and a pleasing mix of French-Indochinese architecture sit in timeless harmony with the forested mountains which enclose this little kingdom. Flowing through the middle, and for centuries the only link with the outside world, is the copper brown water of Asia’s third longest river, the Mekong, meandering its way from Tibet to the South China Sea. For the most part the river’s tranquillity is left untouched, the occasional ripple of a fisherman or the chug of a cargo boat the only sound to be heard. However, for a few minutes a day, all serenity is shattered by the ear-splitting din of a blood red, missile-shaped speedboat flashing past at 30 knots with its privileged payload of terrified commuters, fully kitted out in lifejackets and crash helmets.
It was in Luang Prabang we met David and Sam. He was English and she Dutch. We whiled away a number of evenings together, sat with a beer or a coffee in a café overlooking the Mekong. In the late afternoon sunlight played perfectly over the river’s rippling surface, turning it from primrose to golden to orange. David had a sound sense of humour though I was glad there were no Irish sharing our table. He would clutch his stomach as he laughed, cursing his hiatus hernia, at which point we’d joke about the debris in front of him – beer, cigarettes and black coffee – all guaranteed to make his condition worse.
Only too aware that we couldn’t stay forever, we finally dragged ourselves away from Luang Prabang. Coming out of the valley the air was thick with the smoke and haze of a hundred fires. Villages, like thin scars clung to the densely forested slopes, each more remote than the last. Their hill-tribe inhabitants wore odd clothes – black pantaloons and short jackets with turquoise tailpiece and red sash. Beyond Oudom Xay the women wore putteelike wrappings around their legs and elaborate decorative headgear. A huge, pot-bellied sow, her teats sweeping the ground, routed for food whilst her tiny piglets ran all over the road. If it was not pigs trying to get themselves killed it was poultry –cockerels with fan tails or ‘roadrunner’ hens with long striding legs, their chicks close behind – all tempting fate as they zigzagged in front of our wheel. Children were almost as numerous, dumbstruck by the bike until Ness broke the spell waving, leaving them shrieking in delight.
At Na Toei a road branched off to Boten. Blockaded by a flimsy bamboo barrier a policeman allowed us through, another twenty kilometres to a more substantial barricade. Here was a border we had no chance of crossing. We had tried back in Bangkok to obtain visas and written permission to enter with a vehicle, but unless you have six months to spare to wade through the bureaucracy, along with friends in high places, it was nigh impossible to ride into China. Added to this the Chinese refused to recognise the International Driving Licence, requiring you to pass their driving test instead…in Bejing! For now at least all we could do was gaze into the forbidden land, and wonder.
Backtracking to Na Toei we pressed on for a hundred kilometres to Muang Sing in Laos’ far north, deep within the Golden Triangle. The rough, potholed road wound its way through thick, dark forest. We stopped on a rare verge to take in our surroundings. This was a National Biodiversity Conservation area and home to tigers, bears and elephants.
At Muang Sing we peered once again into China only to see the forest glaring back at us. Unfortunately in the last few years the town had become something of a magnet for opium-seeking backpackers. They smoke despite notices imploring them not to. ‘Drug tourism does damage’ warn the posters. Frightening electric storms, raging all night, left the cultivated fields and forested hills shrouded in mist in the morning. We spent the day wandering from village to village, glimpsing the lives of the hill tribe peoples living in this remote region. Thankfully in Laos, ‘hill-tribe trekking’ is far less organised and sanitised than its counterpart in northern Thailand.
Some of the villages were Akha, their inhabitants having migrated from China in the nineteenth century. They are animists and they line the entrances to their villages with bizarre, sexualised male and female effigies, alongside elaborate bamboo gates that must be walked around rather than through. We had been warned not to touch any of the strange objects lying on the ground, as these could be offerings to the spirits. Doing so might deeply offend. In one Akha village a group of children stood and watched but did not approach. One of them, who could only have been five years old, dropped the baby he was holding, on his head. An older child immediately chastised him, grabbing the baby to check him over before cuddling him back to sleep.
Moving on, a small path took us to Pou Don Than, a Yao village. Here the women, young and old, were wearing large black turbans overlaid with colourful embroidery matched by similarly colourful tunics and narrow long skirts. Most striking were the bright red woolly boas worn around their necks. Their skin was a very light brown, their facial features unmistakably oriental but with a finer line.
The women offered us hats and other objects which they had painstakingly hand-embroidered. They were very laissez-faire with none of the hard sell so paramount in more touristed parts of the world. They spoke no English but we were able to communicate with sign language. Hands clapped together meant ten thousand Kip, a flat hand raised, five thousand.
In a further village called Pa Kha two older women approached, curious at our intrusion. One of them was chewing betel nuts which had coloured her lips a bright reddy-brown, like some gaudy lipstick. Her teeth, those that were left, were crooked and similarly discoloured. Her wide grin had me thinking, rather uncharitably, of the witch in the woods in the Hansel and Gretel story. They led us to one of their men, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. He was too intent on making his home-brew to take any notice of us. Steam billowed from a large wooden barrel as a dirty white liquid boiled and bubbled. Fearful childhood memories of Hansel and Gretel refused to go away. A bamboo pipe projecting from the side of the barrel hung over an earthen pot into which the distillate collected. The resultant rice whisky is of such high proof, it is said to turn you blind. So much for diversification from opium.
From Muang Sing, two days on a jungle road brought us to Huay Xai and the border with Thailand. This was a wonderful ride; the dirt road cut a wide swathe through the heavily wooded terrain. Occasional clearings revealed the remotest of villages. On one bend we were stopped in our tracks by an elephant ridden by a small boy astride its neck, sacks of rice chained to its back.
Huay Xai, apart from being impossible to pronounce, sits on the Mekong. In the morning I stood on the loading ramp leading down to the river, waiting for the boat to ferry us across. I was surrounded by yellow crates containing bottles of Beer Laos, the national brew. Standing next to me was an American lad who we had noticed in town the night before. He was no tourist, of that I was sure.
“So what brings you here?” I asked.
“Spose you could say I live here, if I live anywhere,” he answered. He was dressed in low-crutch baggy jeans, a blue T-shirt and matching bandana which fought to keep his straggly black hair under control. His name was Justin.
“You sound American,” I replied.
“I was born in the States but was brought out here when I was four months old. That was in 1975, my mother was Asian, my dad American. I went to school in Malaysia and then for some years in Chiang Mai.” He looked on anxiously as a truck struggled to turn on the slope. A man jumped out of the cab to speak to him whilst the driver continued his reversing. Justin spoke fluently in the man’s own language. They laughed, easy in each others company.
“That bike looks as though it’s seen a thing or two.” He turned to me as the man climbed back into his truck. The Bear was coated in dust and looked particularly rugged at the moment, no doubt proud of the attention.
“Yeah it’s done a few miles. What’s that in the truck?” I enquired. It seemed to be full of sticks.
“Ah, that’s my parents’ idea,” he replied. “They used to be NGOs but got fed up with banging their heads against brick walls. They decided they could do more for the people of Laos and saving the rainforest by starting up their own company.”
He explained how the villagers made brushes by beating suitable ferns on the hard surface of the road in order to shed them of their leaves and seeds. The resulting fine stick, when bound to others, formed the bristles of hardwearing brushes in great demand throughout the region. Certainly one of my lasting memories of Southeast Asia was the swishing sound of people sweeping away the dust and dirt from their patios and doorways at the first light of day.
“My parents aim to cut out the middle man. Ensure that more of the profits go to the villagers who make the product. We’re also involved in encouraging the villagers to grow cardamom. It needs the jungle to grow and so doesn’t involve chopping it down.”
He had attended Chicago University but couldn’t ‘stick it’ as he put it. “It was so cold man. I thought snow was supposed to be white. In Chicago it was every colour but…grey, brown…slush most of the time,” he complained.
He seemed something of a lost soul. A product of the Vietnam war, forever torn between two cultures. He talked of living in California but I couldn’t see it working myself.
The truck had become stuck in some mud again. He rushed off, jumping in the cab to gun it back onto the road.
Meanwhile Ness was having a drink in a café at the top of the ramp. She called me over to meet an eccentric old Aussie called Alan. He was in his seventies, an habitual traveller. When asked how long he had been on his current trip he replied.
His only record was an empty diary in the back of which he wrote where he’d spent each Christmas. He remembered being in England once. He picked up his diary to check.
“’53. London. Bloody crowded. Something to do with a coronation. Yeah, that’ll be it.”
He liked his grog. Recently Alan had started peeing blood and had taken himself off to Bangkok Hospital. They diagnosed cancer.
“The baaaastids whipped out me kidney and left me three and a half bloody thousand dollars poorer.”
Within a week he had discharged himself and caught a bus to northern Thailand. He didn’t look very well, pale and anaemic. He talked openly about ‘kicking the bucket’, possibly sooner rather than later.
“I’ll have the last laugh though, when the Australian Government have to cough up to ship me ’ome.”
At last ‘the big boat’ arrived to carry us across the Mekong and in to Thailand. The customs man made an unusually thorough check of the motorcycle, actually looking for and confirming frame and engine numbers. We followed him inside like obedient cygnets to watch him proudly lift a stand of at least twenty rubber stamps. He scrutinised every one of them with a loving look in his eye before making his choice. He reminded me of a particularly pompous surgeon I once knew, deliberating over his favourite blade. He lifted the stamp, pausing for effect. Just get on with it, this is hardly the Magna Carta, I thought to myself as we both smiled politely.
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Copyright © 2013 Pat Garrod