I arrived in Laos and Laos didn’t even know it. In fact, I was in Laos for about an hour, had lunch and a beer before I decided I should get a visa. I hopped in the car and started asking around: Where do I get my passport stamped?
I had entered Laos by barge.
Most people don’t enter Laos by barge. They cross the Mekong by way of a long-tail boat, which is a long, thin vessel with a prop shaft a mile long. It makes a whining roar that destroys the hearing of all humans and fish in a 10-mile radius. Well, fish don’t have ears, so… whatever happens when their lateral lines go kaput. Deafinned? The boats are loud.
The truck barge lets you off about 3 kilometers upstream from the long-tail dock. All of the customs paperwork is located at the long-tail dock, amassed and cached by the beady-eyed Lao customs officials in their little air-conditioned caves, the bastards. You must be born of some sort of reject stock to be a customs agent. They’re the same everywhere, soulless creatures conjured up from some bureaucratic level of hell and called into being for the express purpose of making your day slightly worse.
I had been waylaid by one of these fiends on my way out of Thailand. Way back when, entering from Malaysia, the bloated border guard demonstrated a distinct lack of interest and/or knowledge when processing my papers. (You can read about that in my Malaysia post.) The ghosts of customs past had followed me up the entire length of the country. The spectre of – shriek! – incorrect paperwork had manifested as I tried to get my car aboard the barge for the 4-minute river crossing.
I was missing a piece of paper that would allow for my car to leave Thailand. But nobody had given me this piece of paper on entry.
I insisted to the guard on duty that my Carnet de Passage, that everloving customs document that dragged my car through customs in Iran, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, and, some 2,000 kilometers earlier, Thailand, was all that was needed to guarantee happy passage of the car across borders.
No, the devil insisted through the small booth window, the CDP was only for importing the car through customs.
Right, I countered, which is what cars go through whilst passing between modern nation-states. No, he persisted again, the CDP is for customs. Where were my car’s immigration papers?
“Immigration papers? People immigrate. Cars, and other tangible products and commodities, sir, are imported and exported.”
This would not do. Cars needed immigration papers at this border crossing.
The dance went back and forth for about 15 minutes, me kowtowing to his power, and him almost visibly inflating with dominance at every acquiescence. I tried to comply: Fine, just tell me what document I need, and I’ll fill it out. I’ll sign it in blood. Just stop with the torment. It’s 600 degrees outside and I have to pee.
“You need to get the papers where you entered the country.”
Various fuses popped in my brain, and I stood staring at him like an immobilized android.
Eventually my words came to me. “But… that’s 2,000 kilometers away…”
His response: “Not my problem.”
“So wait, wait. I can drive back from where I came, but I can’t leave the country – even though I don’t have papers that permit me to be in the country?”
About halfway through my sentence he had turned and slithered back into his freezing lair, leaving a trail of slime in his wake.
I leaned my head into the small window. A blast of cold air made me light-headed. I called after him, “What the hell am I supposed to do, then?”
He ignored me. Another official batted me away from the window and back into the heat like a dog, lest I let inhale one more lungful of their precious frigid air.
So I did what a dog would do. I stood there staring forlornly into the distance for about 10 minutes, whimpering softly to myself, until he came back. He had a document in hand, and he was smiling at me. “Just fill these out and you’re good to go,” he grinned magnanimously.
The evil spirit had been expunged in the back room (I expect by someone with more authority than he) and he was now my best friend. I was on my way. … But I had to get my CDP stamped first, because though my car was now clear to emigrate (?) from Thailand it had to be checked by customs. I didn’t expect this to go any better.
I climbed the steps to the customs office and poked my head in the door. The official was sleeping soundly at his desk. He awoke with a full body spasm when I cleared my throat. He looked mildly ashamed when he saw me, his wide eyes betraying the guilt of a lurid dream. I whipped out my form. “You need to sign here, here, and stamp here and here.” He shrugged and started stamping, offering a self-satisfied smile when he handed the form back to me, as if he had just aced a math test. Job well done, indeed.
And that’s how I left Thailand.
And that’s why I found myself drinking a beer in Laos, steeling myself for another round of customs.
Fortunately, the border staff in Laos were surly but unmalicious. After the usual runaround, I was officially a tourist in the poorest country in Southeast Asia.
Laos is faced with the resource curse. In particular, the country has an abundance of timber, which is gleefully felled by the Chinese and Vietnamese. Only 3% of Laos’ old-growth forest cover remains. The pressure to turn 200-year-old trees into $10,000 tables is a tempting business indeed. Driving from the Thai border to Luang Prabang, I saw many hillsides stripped bare, though Laos is so generally verdant that I would have never guessed the deplorable state of things.
There are a lot of plants in Laos, but not a lot of wildlife. The rural inhabitants, who comprise about 75% of the population, eat it all. Bush meat is a staple protein for most villagers – squirrels, birds, whatever tries to get away. Compared with the work involved with raising cattle, scampering forest critters are easy to trap, and pretty tasty to boot. I remain unconvinced on the last point. I ate some barbecued bat near Vang Vieng. It tasted like char, and biting in produces an explosion of internal organs that have been heat-rendered into slime. Not for me.
It’s quite a treat driving that section of Laos near the border. The roads are even good sometimes. The Chinese need to truck their new coffee tables up to Shanghai and Chongqing somehow. I had the freshly paved sections virtually to myself. The days were sunny, but the heat was buffered by the occasional shower and tempered by the rush of air walloping past the sunroof and open windows. Listening to CCR on repeat, I ate longans by the bunch, chewing absentmindedly on the lacquered seed before it became too bitter to stand, then cracking open another compulsively, its sticky juice dripping on the steering wheel and drying like glue in little sweet splotches on the dash.
Luang Prabang is Laos’ showcase city. It’s a relaxing town full of wats and quiet streets. Every second building is a hotel or restaurant, and thus the place feels like a giant temple-filled amusement park. As Laos’ UNESCOed face to the world, many well-heeled tourists come here to get massaged at expensive retreats that describe themselves with words like “sumptuous,” “rustic” and “soul-soothing.” After the massage, lux travellers might meditate, do some yoga, or buy a Lao infant or two.
But it is a pretty place, no doubt. I stayed for a week at a pleasant family-owned hostel and became good friends with a Lao guy who worked there. He took me to a birthday party at a little family home about an hour outside the city, where we drank lao-lao, the national moonshine. His grandmother had been brewing a batch in the shed and selling at about a buck a litre. That’s the same price as water.
Now, I’m no moonshine connoisseur, and my palate is hardly refined, but I can authoritatively say: dat shit be nasty. We chased it with Beerlao, the excellent national beer, and ate a bunch of laap. By we, I am of course referring to the men. The women, birthday girl included, were busy inside preparing the the food. The men, bravely – heroically, some would say – shouldered the duty of getting monumentally drunk in the middle of the afternoon.
Outside of Luang Prabang are some excellent waterfalls. Entry to the waterfall park also buys you access to a the Bear Rescue Centre, which houses a number of Asiatic bears rescued from the illegal wildlife trade in Laos. Unlike other critters, the bears aren’t used for their meat, but rather harvested for their bile, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine. I’ve long lived by the adage that a pint of bear bile a day keeps the doctor away, but after seeing what the bears go through, I’m cutting back to a half-pint.
Highway 13 Highway 13 is the backbone of Laos, and somewhat of a tourist attraction in its own right. The scenery here is excellent. Rolling hills are blanketed in dark, dense tangles of trees and brushstroked with broad palm leaves in shimmering green. Where there is a piece of flat land, chartreuse fields of flooded rice plants glow in the sun under hills and hummocks creeping with vines and other vegetation.
The drive is slow-going, partly because it’s so tempting to stop regularly to take in the view. At one point, I parked the car at a ridge and ate lunch on the roof, staring out over a crumpled green valley. Huge timber trucks lumbered up the incline behind me, leaving an echoing silence in their wake as they careened down the other side of the hill . Lines of puffy clouds embraced the crests of small blue mountains that undulated toward the Thai border. Blue up, green down, all overseen by a great bright oculus sitting atop a dome of sky.
The notorious Vang Vieng. Western tourists come to drink themselves into a torpor, drinking beer at breakfast the next day in a Bacchanalian relay race.
Ten or fifteen years ago, Vang Vieng was just a sleepy little village. A handful of Western volunteers worked at a tiny organic farm upstream from the village centre. For some R&R, the owner of the farm had scrounged up some tractor tire inner tubes and offered them to the volunteers, who used them to float languidly down the Mekong on their days off.
One day, someone brought a couple beers along. Soon after, an enterprising Lao saw this and set up a little shack on the shore, selling booze to the growing group of Westerners floating down the river. The rest, as they say, is capitalism. The riverside is now populated with up to a dozen bars, built of thatched reeds and ramshackle timber. Call Me Maybe echoes down the river, and days are wiled away pounding free shots of lao-lao, drinking buckets, and getting particularly fucked up on mushroom or opium shakes.
The alternative activities, if you were to guess at first glance, consist of curling up in a hungover ball to watch Friends or Family Guy, which play on loop every single bar and restaurant. The nightlife takes place on a small island, where bars sell cheap booze and are staffed by Westerners who get paid in… cheap booze. One guy who may or may not have worked at a bar – he went around pouring liquor in people’s cups, for free – told me he had been there partying for three months, with intermittent trips to Thailand to renew his visa. Perhaps it’s Old Man Hodge talking, but one or two days of this profligacy was more than enough.
“Fucking awesome place, mate, right?!?”
It’s a great area, at least. There are amazing caves and waterfalls and trails all around. Shame few people actually go to them.
Lao people are supposed to be the laid-back, irie inhabitants of SE Asia. They take bor penyang (“no worries”) pretty seriously, but recent waves of tourists crashing into the country have eroded some of their natural goodwill, specifically toward Westerners. Thailand has had 40 years to deal with the great white menace invading their country; Laos is only just realizing the full extent of the damage that tourists can do.
The irritation at Westerners was most obvious in Vang Vieng, where Laos suffers the worst of what we have to offer. In recent times, some two dozen tourists have died every year, normally from rope swinging into shallow water while three sheets to the wind. The Lao people often maintain animist beliefs, and it’s at the point where locals won’t even go down to the river anymore because it’s inhabited by the ghosts of so many dead young Westerners.
One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster, as the song goes. One night in Vientiane and the world’s your… what’s like a really lame and boring oyster? A clam? A mussel maybe? Anyway, prepare yourself for the hedonistic, no-holds-barred, closed-at-11:30 nightlife of the Laotian capital.
There’s so little to do in this sleepy place that you end up drinking more than you might in another capital. Or, as my friend Eeva and I did one night, you can directly fund the North Korean regime by eating at Pyongyang.
More to come…