Laos, 30 August-19 September
‘…It doesn’t take more than a different nationality
Or being in the wrong place at the wrong time
To get abused and accused of committing a crime…’
After spending a few more, pretty uneventful days in Cambodia, between Phnom Penh and the miss-able Kratie (at least during rain season there is truly nothing to do here, except getting soaked wet!), it’s time for us to start the long, dusty and uncomfortable bus journey to cross into Laos. This is the first (and hopefully last!) time that we have to share our already over crowded minivan with a fully grown plant! I cannot guess any good reason why one should travel with a mini tree for hours in a van, but that’s what happened! And yes, the plant survived, fear not! 😉
People had praised the natural wonders of Laos, the kindness and honesty of its people, the relative quietness of the country compared to its neighbours…. Laos was promising to be a sort of ‘paradise’ in South East Asia, everybody’s favourite country! So I was eager to get there and finally relax a little, after one and a half month of constantly being en guard, fearing scams and dishonesty.
Unfortunately, it will not take us too long to understand that things can change quite rapidly in this part of the world (or maybe everywhere?) and what a big mistake we were going to make…
But the first few days in Laos were indeed pretty relaxing! Trying to forget what an awful ordeal getting there had been (and sure enough we got scammed by the bus company, but we’d later realize that losing 1.5 euro each is not such a big deal after all…), our first stop is the island of Don Kong – ‘Big Island’ – in Si Phan Don, or ‘4000 Islands’ in English.
The location choice was made in order to avoid the wild, intoxicated party life of Don Det and actually just rest for a couple of days, enjoying tasty fish meals and admiring beautiful sunsets over the Mekong…. We could hardly have chosen better!
From the mellow life style on the islands, we then moved North, to the still very quiet Pakse. The few tourists coming here are just passers by – there is no way to avoid the town while travelling over land in Laos. But nobody stays here more than one or two nights. Yes, it is really that meaningless, but it does have one strong side (besides the airport which makes it possible for you to quickly and swiftly leave for more interesting destinations!): it’s an excellent starting point for exploring the Boulavan Plateu, a very green and lush areas which is famous for its tea & coffee plantations as well as for some of the most beautiful and highest waterfalls in Laos! Seeing these places made it definitely worth while to give Pakse a couple of days!
A flight later, we reach Luang Prabang, one of the most important tourist destinations in Laos: here is culture, temples, ancient rites, beautiful mountain views, great shopping possibilities, good restaurants… here is where everybody wants to be for the largest part of their time in the country!
‘Laos’ pearl’ is indeed a beautiful and very relaxing place, which offers lots of things to do: from bike tours, to temple hopping, to tons of interesting courses, to contemplating life from the river banks or going day tripping in the nearby mountains.
I would have loved Luang Prabang…. if things had just not got so complicated, scary, dishonest…
Victims of one of the oldest motorbike scams in SEA, that’s what we became in Luang Prabang. We spent over two nightmare-like days arguing with the rental agency, the police, the associated people… begging our consulate for help and assistance… hoping that fighting for our rights would make us come out of this nasty situation in a decent way. But all the words, the documents, the phone calls, the help we did get proved useless.
In Luang Prabang I learnt what racism and corruption really are: if you are a ‘falang‘, foreigner, you have no rights; if it’s local police you’re dealing with, do not expect justice. I do not think I have ever felt so powerless in my life, trapped in a machine that was so much bigger than me and which worked with rules I could not play.
Eventually, we lost the battle. Two sleepless nights, hours of arguing and the situation becoming nastier and nastier made me give up. It’s only money, after all, and hopefully in this very buddhist town kharma will work its tricks and one fine day justice will be restored…. That’s what I tried to convince myself of, at least.
But Luang Prabang left a bad taste in my mouth (as well as a hole in my bank account!), a bitterness and anger I have not truly been able to get rid of, yet. I wish the worst things for Ms. Sai, who scammed us so badly… and I truly want to believe that in the end she will pay for what she’s been doing too many times. Forgiveness and compassion, recommended by Buddhism, are too hard to apply to a society based on scamming ‘falang’ because of what they are, no matter how much money they are already bringing into the country and how big the economic help received by the previous European colonizers still is. Yes, there are some honest people there, but they are becoming a minority.
Laos has obviously taken Vietnam as its foremost model and stopped being the ‘paradise’ it was considered before…. It’s a sad change.
We finally left Laos from Vientiane International Airport on September 19th. I had had more than enough of South East Asia by then and for more than a few reasons! Visiting Indochina had been on my to-do list for several years and I am not going to label the two months we spent there as a completely negative experience. We did see and do great things, and learnt a lot. But in general it was the most tiring and difficult part of the whole trip (as well as of all the travelling I’ve ever done in my life so far!) and I feel no wish to return to this part of the world.
So all I truly, really wanted on that September day was to board the flight taking us to Kuala Lumpur, a different world… a new part of our RTW adventure.