Leaving Thailand was bittersweet, I must admit (albeit a bit more bitter than sweet). After 3 unforgettable months there, I entered southern Laos on a 5-hour bus that I had to stand for the entire time, as I was the last passenger on board. Welcome to Laos!
To me, this place seems like a much quieter, less touristy, and more rural version of Thailand. The people are similar in that they’re generally very welcoming and warmhearted, however I found Laotians to be a bit shier and more conservative than Thais. Still though, you’ll come across a warm smile and a “sabaidee” (hello) on just about any Laotian street you walk.
Pakse was an absolute ghost town by comparison to the places I had visited in Thailand. The first thing that I noticed here were the advertisements that foreigners had posted around the city trying to sell their motorcycles. The Mae Hong Son Loop in northern Thailand had created an itch that I just couldn’t scratch. In the weeks following the loop I’d catch myself casually daydreaming of what it would be like to see Southeast Asia by motorcycle. The whole thing was inconceivable before – there was no way I’d buy a bike here, that’s absolutely ludicrous…right? By the time I got to Pakse though, I had decided that it wasn’t ludicrous at all, and that if it were right for me to pick up a bike over here it would fall into my lap at the right time. I was trying to make a conscious effort to not let my search for a bike dictate my trip through Laos. It turns out I had zero self control in this regard, and I did exactly that, and pretty much let my search for a bike dictate my trip through Laos. My search first brought me to:
Don Det, 4000 Islands //
I wasn’t initially planning on seeing this area, but I’m really glad I did, even though the primary reason I went was to take a look at a bike that I saw an advertisement for in Pakse. It turns out that the bike was a no-go, but hey, staying riverfront on the Mekong at $5/night was well worth the trip. There’s really not much to do here besides lounge in a hammock, float down the river, and ride around on a bicycle. A few days were all I needed here.
The Bolaven Plateau Loop //
I had heard of this loop a week prior when I first arrived in Pakse, but I sort of wrote it off without researching it because I was so dumbfounded and blinded by my search for a motorcycle. Big mistake, and I’m glad that I caught it, because this was easily the highlight of my trip through Laos. The Bolaven Plateau Loop is a 400 km trip that stretches across Laos’ extremely rural Champasak province, with waterfalls scattered every 15-50 km. I set off on the loop with a Swedish friend I met in Thailand, Adam, who just so happens to know my cousin who lives in Göteborg, Sweden. Ridiculously small world.
Following the Bolaven Plateau Loop, I returned to Pakse to have one last look around town for a motorcycle. With no luck, I was forced to head northward on one of the sluggish local buses through central Laos up towards Vientiane, the capital. There’s absolutely nothing going on in Vientiane, except for this delicious bowl of noodle soup:
Vang Vieng //
From Vientiane I headed northward towards Vang Vieng, Laos’ party capital – home to the world famous tubing. The vibe here plain sucks. Within the city are guesthouses upon guesthouses serving up fish and chips, pizza, and cheeseburgers to their either hungover or shit-faced customers, all of whose eyes are fixated on the big screen TVs playing reruns of Friends. I kid you not, within a quarter mile radius there were at least 10 joints that all looked like this, which made the central block of the city a bit repulsive. The scenery around the area is beautiful and without a doubt worth exploring though. On my way out to visit the nearby lagoon, I spotted a black motorcycle with Vietnamese plates and a for sale sign slapped on it. Pretty sure my heart skipped a beat. A rural road far from the tourist center – this was the last place I was expecting to find a bike. A few test rides and a trip to the bank later and I – much to the dismay of just about all of my family – HAD PURCHASED MY BIKE!!
Days after the purchase of my new little beast, I geared up and fixed a few minor things on the bike, and headed 185 km north to Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ride up was gorgeous, though unfortunately really smoky due to this region’s slash-and-burn season through March and April. The city of Luang Prabang was charming, though extremely touristy. Out of everywhere else in Laos that I visited, the remnants of French colonialism were most apparent here, with extremely upscale French eateries, spas, and hotels. I spent my time here eating delicious street sandwiches (the first real bread I’ve had since I’ve been in Asia), visiting the impressively blue Kuang Xi waterfall, and sorting out my Vietnamese visa.
One of the more poignant experiences of my trip thus far was a visit to the UXO Laos Visitor Center in Luang Prabang. UXO stands for unexploded ordnance – something Laos has been ravaged by over the years. Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world (per capita), which sadly to admit I had zero clue about prior to arriving here. During the Vietnam War, parts of Laos were invaded and occupied by the North Vietnamese, who used areas like the Ho Chi Minh Trail to run supplies from the north to the south. In an attempt to cut off these supply routes, the U.S. dropped 2.5 millions tons of bombs throughout Laos from 1964-1973. 580,000 bombing missions over 9 years – that’s one planeload of bombs dropped every 8 minutes over a country that’s slightly smaller than the state of Oregon. If you’re not familiar with the way that cluster bombs work (one of the primary types of bombs dropped on Laos), here’s a run-down: large canisters (like these) carry hundreds of smaller munitions called bombies (like these), which are about the size of tennis balls. When these large canisters are dropped, they open mid-air, projecting the smaller munitions over an area about the size of a football field. Roughly 30% of the munitions didn’t explode though, leaving the country scattered with around 80 million unexploded bombies. Since the war ended in 1973, 20,000 people have been killed or maimed by the unexploded ordnance. Roughly 300 people die every year. A quarter of the victims are children, who stumble upon the bombies while playing outside. Laos is already an extremely impoverished country – the majority of the population relies on a self-sufficient farming based lifestyle. However, because of the UXO, these farming communities can’t access the agricultural land that they need to provide for themselves, their family, and their local markets. And when the extremely bold do farm their land and face a UXO accident, they struggle to find rehabilitative support from a health institution. As a result, the economic situation of many rural communities in Laos remains stagnant.
What’s being done to help?
– Organizations like UXO Laos, MAG, and GERBERA aid in the risk education and clearing of the UXO in Laos.
– COPE is the provider of prosthetic, orthotic, and rehabilitative services, working alongside the National Rehabilitation Center. Unfortunately, these are the only two organizations in Laos working in this regard.
– Foreign aid: Laos spends US $30 million annually clearing UXO, assisting victims, and educating communities about the risks of UXO. Official U.S. aid to Laos for the purpose of UXO clearing totaled US $12 million for the 2014 fiscal year. Since the end of the war, the US has provided US $74 million for UXO programs in Laos. 32% of this has been allocated within the past five years.
To think of a young child in a rural village whose life changes forever when he steps on a bomb that was dropped 40 years before he was even born is tragic. This is an extremely saddening situation for a country whose people I really admired for their overall warmth and hospitality. My visit to the UXO center was humbling and I told myself that I’d do my best to draw attention to the issue and suggest that others educate themselves on it. That being said, if you’re ever in Luang Prabang or Vientiane, please pay either of the UXO Laos centers a visit, you won’t regret you did.