Journal 2/12/2003-2/14/2003: Innards of Lao

This is an entry from my travel journals about Thailand and Laos.

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12 Feb 2003

Time to get out of Phongsali...

Between Phongsali and anywhere in Laos there is but one road, an unnamed concrete and dirt freeway connecting to route 4. Each traveller who had arrived that way, covered in dust, told me horror stories about the journey on the giant 4-wheel drive open caged pickup truck with no suspension whatsoever. Yet they all aspired to a higher plane of existence, that offered by the mythical bus which, it is said, sometimes graces the route offering its passengers heavenly comfort and blissful protection from the elements. On a tip from the hotel guy, I got up at 5am to see if indeed the prophecy was to be fulfilled.

Sadly, I just ended up sitting at the bus station like an idiot for 3 hours. Apparently the bus only goes from Phongsali if it had come from Udomxai the day before. And the bus only comes from Udomxai if it has enough passengers to be worth the journey, which is basically never.

So at 8am I take my medicine and get on the truck, along with what seems like a surprisingly small number of passengers. Also like an idiot I sat in the very back because the back was open and offered me the best view (I had resigned myself to dust and had brought a dustmask and carpenter's goggles for the occasion). As we ploughed past the boring town to a much nicer mountain road and villages, I got a first, spicy taste of what was in store.

The truck rolled over its first pothole, a tiny little dimple in the road, not even exposing the dirt below. All of the passengers behind the rear wheel were flung into the air literally 1 foot, and then our asses were re-introduced to the barely cushioned bench seat as it was again flung upwards from a second pothole, putting in jeapordy the future descendants of all male passengers. The second pothole we hit, a few seconds later, flung me up so high that I actually stood all the way up and began to fall forward. Over the next half hour I would attempt a variety of methods of becoming my own personal shock absorber, ranging from the "jump up before the pothole" method, which failed because you could not predict which potholes the rear wheel would use as an excuse to launch you, to the "stay attached to the seat nomatter what dammit" method, which was simply impossible due to the forces involved. Eventually, as is often the case in SE Asia, the only technique that worked was to just relax and let yourself be tossed about; if you get injured, or fall out of the truck, it was meant to be.

As with all other such cases, the Laos just took the beating without a sign of distress or weakness. As the bags on the grungy wood floor of the truck rearranged themselves every few minutes, the passengers hardly batted an eye.

After about 30 minutes we turned off this "paved" road to an unnamed, several hundred kilometer long dirt road, and I was just jumping with anticipation. As it turned out, this was the smoothest road I had ever been on in Laos; the truck raced forward at a high speed with nary a bump anywhere. In this case, the lack of applying modern technologies and materials was the key element of the road's success. Just like 10-speed bicycles in Vang Vieng and air-con buses in north-eastern Thailand, you just don't want the frills if you want to be comfortable.

In many places this road was a giant, foot-thick muddy slick, totally impassable to motorbike or car, but this vehicle and its experienced driver ploughed through without ever getting stuck. It also occurred to me that these muddy parts, left over from rains on the previous day, were also responsible for the fact that there was almost no dust to be found anywhere along the dirt road—a complete miracle.

We passed through low hills and many interesting towns located only on this road. Many of these towns must be completely unreachable in the rainy season; I wonder how they manage to stock up food and supplies for that many months each year.

Then we started heading up and down steep hills. When we had conquered about half of the route and were officially in the middle of nowhere, it was time for our regular scheduled breakdown. In this case, the brakes failed. The vehicle slowed by transmission power to a stop on a steep dirt road.

At this point all the passengers, knowing instinctively that this would be their home for at least an hour and possibly all day and night, did not skip a beat—they immediately hopped out of the truck and got out their lunch as if this were the pre-ordained dining spot. Passengers divided into a few groups and shared sticky rice, chili mixtures, dried pork, and other delicacies on banana leaves they placed on the side of the road.

Meanwhile, the old, experienced truck driver and his son/grandson (who performed certain duties in the back during the trip, such as re-arranging the luggage when the truck tossed it around) proceeded to unscrew this one-inny-two-outie sort of metal dongle from under the dashboard, place it on a big branch lying across the road, and bang on it with a rock. This didn't seem to be helping so they opened up their "toolbox," a rusty swinging-door compartment next to the gas tank which contained a random smattering of bent screwdrivers, ripped, grease-covered fan belts, and miscellaneous screws and other metal objects which fell out and buried themselves in the thick dust of the ground.

One of the "engineers" got out a needle nose pliers and forced the end of the pliers into the metal dongle, but this didn't seem to give them joy. Occasionally another truck would come, and the driver would hold up the dongle and ask the other driver if he had any suitable pointy objects he could stick in it. Alas, nobody ever did.

Every once and a while, a sealed, air-conditioned, $50,000 sport-utility vehicle with some sort of "development" logo, U.N. logo, or "Lao Aid" logo would pass by, full of white people and a Lao driver, and totally ignore us, covering the diners and their food with dust and not even slowing down. Some aid that is. It really amazes me that Lao people do not attack these vehicles for the blatant financial blood-sucking and hypocrisy that most of their organizations represent.

While all this was happening, a curious, distant rumble slowly revealed itself to be thunder. Although there was blazing sun and not a hint of wind, the thunder grew more and more frequent, really putting a doomed air over the ministrations of the driver and his family.

As we ate, some pigs and piglets appeared out of nowhere and rooted around, waiting for us to discard our food and plastics, or use the toilet. A chicken and a kid on a bike also visited. A pair of Laos came careening down the hill in motorbikes. To save gas, they had their engines off!

Now the driver and his growing audience of Lao male adults thought they had something, so it was time to screw the dongle back into the dashboard. But apparently it was not so easy to test it, because they needed some pressure. The old man poured some of his precious supply of spare brake fluid into the reservoir on the dashboard right by the drivers' side window, and then shoved a damp rag loosely in the reservoir opening, as they apparently no longer had the cap.

The old man then pump, pump, pumped the brake pedal like an EMT administering CPR, but alas the patient did not respond. In fact more of his brake fluid was leaking out of the dongle.

So the kid reached deep into the toolbox and got out the defibrilator, an old bicycle tire pump, at the end of which they had glued this curious funnel fitting made out of a drinking water bottle. They pushed the funnel against the brake fluid reservoir opening and pump, pump, pumped some more. But their faces remained as flat-lined as before. Out came the dongle and they were whacking on it again.

Two of the female passengers, who spoke neither Lao nor English and who I am guessing were adventurous Chinese travelers, finally gave up their mission to avoid using the toilet and disappeared to some distant location to do their business. One of the passengers decided that he would try his luck at walking—somewhere—and we never saw him again.

Mother nature cranked up the pressure a notch with a cold, whistling wind and some more of her thunderous threats. The pit crew fidgeted with the dongle some more as it went in, out, in, out, pumping, banging, my god something's gonna make this truck go.

Finally it happened. As the first drops of falling rain sent up little cloudlets of dust from the ground, the Laos picked up the remains of their lunch and flowed back onto the truck with one confident, sweeping motion. The driver's boy immediately snapped into action, deploying the translucent plastic rain shields that were hidden just under the roof, and an additional tarp on top of the truck which compensated for the huge number of holes in the built-in plastic roof.

By the time the boy was done it was absolutely pouring. There was no speck of dry dust remaining on the ground and the Chinese girls came running from their private haven back to the protection of the tarp. The pit crew also relocated their operation, stick, rock, pliers, and all, with us in the front of the the truck bed. The boy returned to the truck with his t-shirt and shorts absolutely sopped and with a giant drop of water dangling from each thorn of his spiky hair, completely at ease and without trepidation over what the evening chill might do to him. Cold, wet air reached in from under the bottom edge of the side tarps and slid up the backs of our shirts as we pondered whether our butts were going to get wet.

Suddenly an iron tube of the truck cage rang out like a bell. And another, and another, until there was a horrendous pelting sound like a ton of ball bearings had been dropped on a tin roof. It was hailing! And not just little wussy sno-cone shavings but big, marble-sized chunks of ice! The stuff was so dense that an inch-thick layer of ice now covered the dirt ground that, a few minutes ago, was too hot to walk on barefoot.

I do not know if this was typical but I certainly never expected to see it in South-East Asia! I put on my raingear but again felt silly, as the Laos were just letting things flow and stayed in whatever thin layers of clothes they had put on that morning.

After a while, the hail subsided back to rain. Another 20 minutes of fidgeting and the pit crew ran with the dongle back to the front. The tarps hid our view of what was happening in the crowded cab but from the jiggling I'd say some pumping was involved. The truck started, stopped, started again. And we were off, about 3 hours after "lunch." Did we have any brakes now? Who knows.

After another 5 or 6 hours of mud and "paved" roads, and after about 20 more people had piled into the truck, guaranteeing that everyone had at most one buttock of seat to sit on as they squirmed to avoid the nasty bamboo spikes sticking out of the 10 enormous bags one passenger had loaded on the truck, we pulled into Udomxai in total darkness.

I checked into one of the many guesthouses in town which, it turns out, was also some kind of experimental breeding grounds for mosquitos, particularly the bathroom where it's best not to look up. This guesthouse sounded nice because it had a hot shower. When I resigned myself to malaria and got myself all ready in one of the bathrooms, I turned on the tap and realized there was no electricity. Sigh. I'd get my shower in the morning. The next morning I got up when there was supposed to be electricity and returned to the little bathroom, only to discover that there was no water—for some inexplicable reason, the local public water authority provides water only for 2 strips of 2 hours per day, leaving a total of 1 hour in the very early evening (before any buses or trucks of dirty tourists arrive, of course) when you could potentially even get a hot shower. It's traveling in places like Lao that opens you up to these possibilities you never even considered before.

I had returned to civilization in one way—for the first time in 12 days I could get my smoothie fix!

Wandered around town that evening and was amazed to find that they have internet access.

13 Feb 2003

There's not much in Udomxai. It is a major ground transportation hub where many farangs must stay overnight becase they can't get from where they were to where they want to be in one day. The locals wish they would stay longer, and try to dress up the descriptions of the dumpy wats and markets as much as possible. There is Chinese writing all over town, even more than Phongsali. There is one wat on a hill with a very nice view of town.

I went to the immigration office to try to extend my visa, which was to expire in 2 days. As before I got some cranky officer who had probably been assigned this job as a joke, who told me I'd have to go to some other town to extend my visa, a town which is more than 2 days away. Thanks a lot bud.

At this point I was getting weary of this form of travel and decided to high-tail it out of the country rather than continue on to the north-western tourist destinations of Luang Nam Tha and Meung Sing, where I probably wouldn't be able to extend my visa either.

So I took a pair of local pickup truck taxis about 200km south to Pakbeng, on a route that I think probably doesn't see too many tourists.

The view and villages were interesting and for the first 150km or so, the road was quite good. In a number of places, the roads department was re-paving the road and so there was only one lane. They block off the half of road that is currently wet by simply cutting down trees from the side of the road and laying them over the wet pavement—a technique which wouldn't quite fly in California!

I swiched to another pickup truck taxi for the hard part, the last 50km which takes half the time. This road had not yet been re-paved and it was about as bad as the Phongsali road, though much more tolerable because the vehicle had a teeny bit of a suspension. There were also frequent breaks—every 5 minutes or so, the driver would stop the truck, get out, walk to the right rear tire with a little 6" long crescent wrench, and tighten the lug nuts holding the wheel to the car, which had by that point become completely loose. Did he not have a lug wrench?

When we arrived in Pakbeng it was sunny but also raining profusely, and as I walked down the one street with my heavy pack towards the boat dock, my thongs slipped on the evil muddy pavement about once every other step. After about 200m I finally hit some guesthouses.

The owners were not even looking my direction and seemed surprised to see me. Pakbeng has the distinction of being on the Mekong river about half-way on the incredibly popular slow-boat tourist trail from Huay Xai (the Lao city which is a legal border crossing with Thailand) and Luang Prabang. Basically all the slow boats stop in Pakbeng for the night. So, this poor town sees hundreds and hundreds of farangs pull in around 6-7pm each night, and leave at 7-8am the next morning. The entire town's economy is geared around this traffic.

So they were quite confused to see a farang at 4pm coming from the "wrong" direction. I slid and wandered around the clump of 5 clean but very dumpy and mosquito-y guesthouses and hoped for something better. There was one more guesthouse all the way down at the boat dock and up a hill so I checked that out. It had a much nicer room with bathroom inside for 300 Baht (interestingly, they quote all their prices in the Thai currency of Baht, because most of their customers still have not changed their Thai Baht money into Lao Kip yet).

After I accepted my room and got the key, the guesthouse boy who showed me the rooms, about 12-14 years old, asked if I wanted any "services." I looked at him funny and he clarified that he wanted to know if I wanted to buy ganja or opium off from him. This would be the first of about 6 different times that someone in town would offer me ganja, opium, heroin, methamphetamine or other substances. Sometimes I would be trailed while walking along the main road with little words whispered in my ear, as on Haight street in San Francisco. Apparently, there are a lot of Hmong villages around Pakbeng which manufacture methamphetamines (yaa baa) and somebody has figured out that they can make a fortune selling that and other drugs to irresponsible tourists passing through town. The town is developing a reputation with backpackers as a drug spot.

These drug salesman are merely the front line, and drag farangs to opium dens and other places where they try and "upsell" the farangs to harder stuff. I met one guy who had purchased some ganja on the street, and as soon as he did there were 4 other guys knocking on his guesthouse door (how did they know?) selling him other kinds of ganja. That guy also went to one of their dens and observed that all ages of local kids are involved, and many of them are taking the drugs themselves and becoming addicted.

I went to the boat pier, which sits at the base of a a very steep hill leading to the road and the guesthouses, and watched the daily ritual as the first slow boat pulled in. It seemed like every little 8 year old kid in Pakbeng was there with me, ready for some kind of action. It was the cheap slow boat, the 50 foot long one where they cram a hundred farangs into a tiny space for 7 hours, and tie their bags to the top of the boat. There's only one door to this boat so the farangs are basically trapped there for at least 10 minutes while they wait for the other passengers to file out across the rickety wooden plank to shore.

As soon as the boat was anywhere near the shore, the little kids all hopped onto the roof, climbing over each other like fish in a coy pond to seize the farang's luggage (without asking of course). They carried the luggage, quite often bigger and heavier than them, up the 100m sand slope and waited at the top for the farang to arrive. The farangs, every one of them, looked with up with horror and trepidation as they saw their bag being pilfered.

They were even angrier to find that the little brats expected, and fluently knew how to ask for, money for the "service" they had performed. Many farangs were angry but the kids played the innocent-and-cute card so well that many farangs could not resist handing over the 10 baht (25 cents, 2,500 kip, full dinner at the night market) per bag they were demanding. Some of the kids tried to tag with the farangs as they went to their guesthouse and occasionally it got ugly as the farangs tried to swat them away.

I was glad I arrived early, because the rooms in all the guesthouses, grungy or otherwise, disappeared in an instant. Pakbeng usually sees three boats per day, sometimes four.

While the kids played their "farang game," I also spent some time at the dock talking in Thai to the driver of one of the luxury slow boats associated with an expensive hotel in Luang Prabang. He sees this kid game every time he comes through and agreed that it puts a very bad face on Lao tourism, espeically given that it's most people's first impression of Lao.

That evening I visited a cool farang bookstore which an Australian lady and her Lao husband had recently set up in Pakbeng. It had a quiet, new-agey atmosphere with interesting farang books and pillows, and they sold a variety of local herbal Teas and other farang Coffees. I blabbed with the lady for some time about the lack of good learning books for Thai and Lao and we actually had a long conversation about Thai/Lao grammar, in particular the use of classifiers. Don't know how much of my knowledge actually applied to Lao but we'll see :)

The lady said they were having trouble breaking even. They had yet to figure out something they could sell to the Pakbeng crowd that would be popular given that the people just want to leave the next morning. Movies are right out—everyone's too tired. Massage is OK but at the moment there are no professional masseuses in town, and picking a random Lao to be the masseuse can be problematic. Smoothies are out because she thinks the ice is toxic and doesn't have the money to buy her own icebox. Tours and treks of any kind are right out. The coffee/tea business is OK but takes a lot of money in power and equipment. Internet is out because the local mayor has locked up the rights to that business, not to mention the only availble retail real estate space left near the boat pier, which was supposed to be "conserved" land, for his cronies. She's new in town and being a farang is basically at the bottom of the business/corruption totem pole.

The lady also told me of another cool scam she hears about from the boat customers who file in every day. In Luang Prabang or Huay Xai, upon boarding the boat for the first time, the boat captian (and often a Lao policeman in cahoots with the captain) annonuces that everyone on the boat must buy "insurance" or the boat will not go. "Insurance" costs 50B or 100B per person, depending on the whim of the captain. They have little insurance application forms from a real insurance company, complete with a unique number on each form, to make it look real. About half of the people on the boat purchase the stuff, the captain and policeman pocket the money, and the boat goes anyway.

It's really amazing how certain places like this, bottlenecks on the tourist track, attract so many scams like bits of gunk in your brake system. I saw the same ugliness in Phang Nga Bay in southern Thailand.

By the time I reached Thailand on the 14th and 15th, I had heard of so many of these scams and so many people falling for them that I decided to type up a little poster at the local internet cafe, print it out, make 70 copies, and distribute them to travellers going to Lao as well as travellers going the other direction, for distribution in the feeder towns of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. I told people to hang these up in as many farang restaurants and guesthouses as they could (which is hard because most of the guesthouses are complicit in the scams and will simply rip the signs down). I found only 2 establishments in the Thai border town of Chiang Khong who were willing to hang up the sign (because they sold neither visas nor boat tickets).

I also posted my scam warning on the Lonely Planet website, where I had gotten some descriptions of some of the scams. This is basically the only tool we travellers have to break these scams, until the next version of the Lonely Planet book comes out and everyone just reads about them. The poster looked like this (with nicer fonts):

|Here are some scams to be aware of as you make 
|your way to Laos:
|- Laos Advance Visa Scam: Upon your arrival at the 
|Huay Xai immigration office by boat from Chiang Kong, 
|you can get a 15 day tourist visa yourself. You must
|provide USD $30.00 (or 1500 Baht) + $1.00 + 2 visa photos. 
|If you are in Thailand, don't be fooled into paying tons of 
|Baht/USD for a visa that's readily available at all the major 
|points of entry. It seems that those with something to gain 
|will try to scare you into giving them 1800+ Baht or $45 
|for an overnight service for a visa when it's totally 
|unnecessary. Plus, the 15-day visa on arrival line is 
|shorter than the visa holder's line at the Laotian border,
|so don't believe those who say that it's hard. You only 
|need an advance visa for special cases like 30-day duration.
|When you get your visa at the 'visa on arrival' counter, 
|be sure to go to the 'immigration' counter as well to get your 
|entry stamp, to avoid large fines when you exit Laos. 
|[Source: 10 Feb 2003 post to Lao section of Lonely 
|Planet Thorn Tree website, edited significantly]
|- Boat/Bus Advance Booking Scam: Don't buy a 
|boat or bus ticket anywhere but on the boat itself
|or on the bus itself, or you'll pay much more for it.
|Our boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang cost 800 
|Baht for an advance ticket. Everyone on it had paid 
|the same and been promised a way better scene
|| than what was given. It took a total mutiny to get 
|the boatmen to stop at the Pak Ou caves as per the 
|booking and we had 26 people on the boat including 
|4 with no seats--this on a "special boat" that was to
| have had 20 giant individual seats + food + stops 
|as pictured on flyers. Our friends who purchased 
|at the river in Laos paid 500 Baht for a nicer boat 
|(though equally as crowded) and had zero problems
|with their trip, except for a minor nautical accident
|(which resulted in some wet luggage and the crew 
|liberating all the beer and sharing it with the 
|passengers, nice guys). There are many, many 
|kinds of slow boats departing on different days--go 
|to the pier and see what you will get before you 
|purchase. [Source: same as above, edited significantly]
|- Boat Insurance Scam: when your slow boat captain
|(and, often, a Lao policeman who's part of the scam) 
|insists that you must purchase insurance in order for 
|the boat to leave, he is lying and will pocket some or 
|all of your money. Do not buy the worthless 
|insurance--the boat will leave anyway. [14 Feb 2003]
|- Pakbeng Luggage 'Welcoming Committee' Scam: 
|on arrival in Pakbeng, a horde of small children will
|grab your large bags off the top of the boat, carry
|them about 50m up the steep hill above the boat dock, 
|and then expect you to pay them money for the 'service'
|they have done for you. They don't want to steal your 
|bags, but on the other hand they never asked for your
|permission. There's not much you can do about this
|scam since you will be stuck in the line of people 
|exiting the boat until long after they've got your bag.
|[14 Feb 2003]
|- Pakbeng Drugs: (Not a scam but worth mentioning) 
|Lots of teenagers in Pakbeng will try to sell you drugs. 
|While this may seem hip, we have seen that many of 
|these kids are skipping school and/or becoming 
|addicted themselves. Our presence and our money 
|are at least partially responsible. Consider this, and 
|Lao's stiff drug penalties, before you buy. [14 Feb 2003]
|Brought to you by a fellow farang.

14 Feb 2003

Got up extra early to see if I could take a luxury slow boat instead of the normal one. Lucky for me, there were tons of extra seats and the captain I had talked to the day before was happy to fill more seats for $7, just $1-$2 more than the crappy boat. In general if you are traveling in Lao it's a good idea to go west on this stretch of the Mekong, the less popular direction, as demand is less and the advantage lies with the buyer.

This boat was the works. I think it was called the "Luang Prabang Grand" and it was connected with an expensive hotel in Luang Prabang. This was the type of boat that all the people on the crappy boat were promised, but didn't get. It had only 20 seats, big, giant, cushy reclining seats which went almost all the way down. With spotless white seat covers.

There were only 14 people. Half the boat had no seats at all and you could wander around. You could order saucers of tea or coffee, and little dry snacks, at the bar staffed by 4 very bored looking Lao women. There was a little table where we played scrabble for a few hours, where it became clear that native English speakers have a decided advantage. There were a lot of Dutch people so then they played Dutch scrabble for a few more hours (turns out the letters are all the same). There was a real bathroom, with running water of sorts and a western style toilet!

This was the only boat ride I have ever taken ever where I didn't want it to end. We snoozed and watched the beautiful river scenery go by. The captian and his trainee operated the steering wheel in the front, which although it probably cost 100x more, and although the boat was twice as long, still employed the same kludgy spliced combination of chain, rope, and aircraft cable as the Nam Ou river slow boats to transfer control to the rudder at the rear of the vehicle.

After 6 or 7 hours of paradise we arrived at Huay Xai and watched each other's bags as we were shuttled through the various steps of boats to Lao immigration, boats across the Mekong, and Thai immigration at the border town of Chiang Khong. Most folks immediately sought transportation to Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai but the lady at the bookstore conseled me to relax in Chiang Khong's Bamboo Riverside guesthouse in for a bit instead. Turned out to be really good advice...

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