Thursday, June 6, 2013

Laos, intro

Before going into posts detailing our 2 weeks trip in Laos, I feel like I need to throw my thoughts about the country and it's very likely to be in a random order...

1. French colonialism
Laos was a French colony for a while as part of IndoChina. I haven't checked history books but it seems like it came as a package with Cambodia and Vietnam without the strong will from the French to take over.

Anyway, I just wanted to point out what is left of French colonialism:
- a lot of baguettes! Lao people are quite good at making bread, I found it better than in Vietnam (where it is super light)
There are sandwich shops everywhere.
- yellow mailbox, ok they nearly look cream or very pale yellow now but they probably haven't been painted for a very long time...
- dairy products, that's another thing we had discovered in Vietnam, getting yoghurt for breakfast is pretty common in Laos as well.
- driving on the right side, an exception in south east Asia!
- all official building's name are in both Lao and French.
- the sacred lunch break! Every museum, temple, administration closes for lunch, with a bit of luck it's only for 1h sometimes more... (Everything also closes really early, we have been kicked out of museum at 4pm several times!)
- the locals play p├ętanque! But they don't seem to be drinking pastis while playing... What a waste!


2. Laos transport system
Transport is not Laos best selling point but to be honest, it was better than expected!
There are no trains so traveling is done by buses (or internal flight when we thought it was really going to take too long), but buses can take all sorts of form in Laos. They also require a lot of traveling to bus station in the 4 corners of each town and then a lot of attempt at communicating as nothing is indicated...

First we went from Vientiane to VangVieng by a local bus but with A/C. We were the only tourists, it was old but relatively clean and very spacious. Not a bad choice (despite our taxi driver to the bus terminal telling us that it will be terrible with no A/C...)
Our bags and R made the bus easily but I nearly missed it as the driver was not keen on letting me make a quick run for the toilets before leaving!
It made frequent toilet breaks where I was explained by an old Lao guy that women had to pee on one side of the road and men on the other, very organized...:-)

Then for the journey to LuangPrabang, we looked for a VIP bus after hearing all sorts of horrible stories (6h drive in the mountains on a not so flat road...), unfortunately there were none available at the required time so we settled for a mini bus. Full of tourists (only 9 but that's full) it was cramped,  really small we couldn't fit our legs, kept on banging our head on the ceiling, but no one was sick and apparently that's worth mentioning on that route!
During the trip, we heard even more terrific stories about people traveling from Thailand to Laos with bags of (live) snakes under their seats!!!

Down south, to get from Pakse to the 4000 islands I had planned everything, I wanted a Cambodian bus, apparently newer and more luxurious, guess what?
I ended up on the back of a truck, it's a bit of an upgrade from a tuk tuk but it does look terrible. It can get packed with way too many people for the space, animals, and as we saw refrigerators, and other random items. We even met with a Spanish guy who had just come back and told us he had travelled on the roof! That's where he got more space...
Finally when we got going we realized that we must have picked up an unpopular time as ours was pretty empty, no chicken, no snakes!  It was fairly comfortable, the drive was 1h quicker than planned, and really apart from the dust, it was one of the best drive!
I could continue but after that, history repeated itself, more local buses with A/C, more traveling on the back of trucks...
Conclusion, tourist buses are not always the best, may be these enigmatic VIP buses that we never took were the best option, I guess we'll never know...

3. Life in Laos
Again I don't have figures, data or facts to prove it but I'm ready to bet a lot that the rate of heart attack due to stress in Laos is one of the lowest on the planet!
Sure, it's not a rich country but everyone seem well fed, we only saw a couple of begging people in Vientiane and after 3 days, we noticed they were always the same 3 ones!
People seem to live following the Carpe Diem philosophy. Napping is a national sports (so is re-re-re-making roads), work hmm I'm not sure really, as per usual in this part of the world, there always seem to be 10 times the required number of people to do one thing and we observed no Monday morning rush to go to back to the office...

4. Lao prices
We had been told Laos was a very cheap country and in many places it's true. But from time to time out of nowhere, there is a rather significant price (for Laos) tagged to something and it's impossible to negotiate (actually negotiating doesn't seem to be something they do in Laos)
First we found out that renting a motorbike is LuangPrabang was around 15$ a day when we had payed 5$ 2 days before in VangVieng. Then the stamps for postcards were tagged at 1.5$ when it's 0.3$ in Sg.
After that it was the boat to cruise the Mekong...

It appears that some prices have been fixed by the government to target tourist wallet and as it's government orders, no negotiation and no one would offer anything lower!
Suck it up tourists! Let's hope it goes to the people at some point and does some good!

That was a summary of my first impressions of Laos, I'll now move on to tell you about the different places we visited. Talk to you soon!

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