Saturday, October 02, 2004

Having established that Laos is both poor and technologically backwards, it is no surprise to learn that it is a country where NGO's (Non Governmental organisations - or in laymens terms: charities) undertake activites everywhere. Walking around the place one can see signs of this on the sides of jeeps - which look out of place anyway; on signs erected alongside completed projects; in advertisements in the local press; or in the conversations of the volunteers who drink at certain bars. So reliant has it become on these organisations however that it appears the peoples attitude there has grown to one of: "let the NGO's sort it out". Nowadays little development of infrastructure is undertaken there that is initiated and completed by government alone.

I ended up last week in the northern Laos town of Luang Nam Tha. There's not much there except the opportunity to partake in the government organised eco-treks, which center around hill tribes. Eco-trekking supposedly limits the numbers of tourists that might engulf a village and ensure the tribes are not changed by it - although how true that last point can be is questionable. I cannot say too much about this personally as I didn't go on one in the end. The cost is very high and since such a project by its very nature makes it illegal for any other trekking firms to operate around the area the government holds a monopoly on this business. I wonder how much is "eco" and how much is economy - the numbers of visitors to this part of the world is extremely low so I wonder how important "eco rules" on group size actually are. We wanted to do one but we were only three and didn't want to cover the cost of the fourth missing person - four being the minimum size to get the lowest price per person!

So I went away from Luang Nam Tha having done little more than research a trek I never did and headed straight for the Thai border by bus. It was a 200 kilometer journey; hilly but not mountainous. The estimated time was nine hours! When I got to the bus station they were replacing the engine and the front of the bus was pretty mangled up. The 9am bus finally departed at 10.45am, the sealed road lasted about five minutes before the long thread of dirt track and mud was embarked upon. A television sat in the aisle next to my feet; further forward lay some large sacks of an unknown grain or cereal; the back seat, always a desirable lying down possibility on any bus, carried luggage and produce rather than passengers. The overhead luggage rack - fastened to the roof by strings in parts - creaked with rhythmical loudness throughout the journey.

By midday we had required our first bulldozer. We all piled out: 30 or so locals and about six of us falang (Westerners) - we stretched ourselves by the beautiful scenery and waited for a fortunately nearby bulldozer to go to work. It cleared a landslide remarkably promptly. We crossed some streams and rode through some large ponds or small lakes over the following hours before one proved too much. For the second time the bus was cleared whilst the bus driver attempted to climb an extremely muddy patch of dirt road which should normally be attempted by four wheel drive, not by rickety two wheel drive passenger bus. After much revving and careering about a rope was produced and tied to the front. In these situations the Western travelers are always the first to eagerly volunteer their services. Presumably for the locals such an inconvenience has long ago lost its novelty and become downright frustrating. There were four of us western males and all of us and three or four locals grabbed the rope and started our tug-of-war with a bus, a muddy bog, and the laws of gravity (helped by whatever horse power our driver could produce). Success and celebration before we all cursed the fact we did not give our cameras to the two Western girls to capture the moment.

A third evacuation occurred for the inevitable flat tyre (to be replaced by an equally decrepit looking specimen) and us four Western lads heaved the flat to the rack on the top to the approval of the Laos locals.

Laos bus tyre changing. A ridiculously common sight. This looks much like the bus we were on, but here there seems to be a dissapointing lack of Western assitance in proceedings.

It was a good journey in truth. When one goes through rural areas, all the kids run out to catch a glimpse of the bus. When they spot some Westerners they all wave and shout "helloooo!!!", and we all try to wave back before we are out of sight. That's Laos for you. We arrived at the Mekong side of the Thai border at about 11pm tired and arguing whether Mekong is properly pronounced May-kong or Mee-kong. I said it was the former, everyone else said I was mistaken and being foolish. But look! Look at this....

Never doubt me!

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