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Taking It Slow – Northern Laos

There are some people and places that you just cannot rush. Sometimes this is because the terrain, weather or lack of infrastructure is preventative; sometimes it’s because the people just like to take things slowly; more often than not it’s a combination of the two. Laos is a prime example of a slow-moving people in a sometimes tricky environment, trying hard to get to grips with the ever-speedier demands of modernity as it begins to affect their daily lives. But the people of this beautiful country are not the surly, lethargic type. More so they are simply happy to do things at the pace they’ve always been done, and their happiness and relaxed tempo is infectious.

We’d arrived in Laos after a sardine-tin of a bus journey, and were happy to find a half decent room in our overnight stop of Muang Khua. Although we’d got off the main tourist trail here in this remote northern village on the Nam (River) Ou, the size of the place and the large handful of western tourists (many French) gave a distinctly traveller-town feel to the small number of restaurants and bars. Here, when our food eventually arrived, we enjoyed our first Beer Lao and our first taste of Lâap, a beautiful and spicy salad with minced chicken, full of garlic, mint, coriander and chillies. Then, like a scene from a 60s American TV show, a local dog followed us down to the river and guided us through the gardens and back streets of the village, where we were met with smiles and greetings at every corner. As we got back to the restaurant, the animal almost seemed to give us a nod as it left us to pad back happily to its residence. Typically for Laos, there was no tip required. An impressive footbridge and picturesque scenery sent us to our bed with our pulses already slowing to Lao pace.

The next morning we had been told to turn up at 8.30 for the ferry-boat downriver to our next stop of Nong Khiaw. The long narrow boat had a much narrower plank of wood low down on each side of its bows, and it was on this we sat for quite a while before the driver decided it was time to leave. Sadly devoid of the seemingly prerequisite chickens for this voyage, we were relived to be able to pick a couple up further downstream. According to the man who sold the tickets, the ride was due to take three hours. After just 15 minutes of a somewhat cramped low plank journey, that was beginning to seem like quite a long time. In reality also, the total ride was nearer five hours. Still, you can’t rush in Laos.

In between shifting buttocks to allow blood to continue flowing to the parts it must, the journey showed an old-fashioned kind of life on the river, backed by some incredible mountainous scenery. Workers panned for gold on the shores, masked divers fished, water buffalos wallowed and children played with such joy one would think it was their first trip to the water. Behind them, the land of Northern-eastern Laos, still littered with thousands of unexploded American bombs from half a century ago, loomed with giant limestone karst shrouded by cloying fog. Still time ticked more slowly as the boat progressed towards its destination, its noisy petrol motor the only nod towards anything vaguely modern.

Surprisingly, our joints and limbs functioned enough on our arrival at Nong Khiaw for us to establish that, in this larger but equally charming town, there was no means for us to get any cash. This was a problem as we’d already spent most of the kip we had changed at the border. After inordinate inspections of our remaining $20 note, various potential money changers decided its slight rip would be too much trouble to explain to the bank. In the end we had to rely on the kindness of other travellers (thankyou Kim and Francoise), as well as a deal cut with the very nice owner of an Indian restaurant who needed someone to pay for his phone calls to Madras and would swap cash for a PayPal transaction, and a natural 24 hour wait for a cash advance from the only hotel in town with a visa machine. You can’t rush these things.

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Eventually solvent once again, and happily free of traffic for almost the first time in Asia, it was once more onto bicycles. As we rode around the neighbouring villages with few cars and motorbikes on the road, it was a pleasure to take our time (like Laos time but slightly faster) and greet plenty of friendly locals along the way. After all, our limbs wouldn’t get much of a workout the next day as, armed with a pillow each, we were to catch another small narrow riverboat to Luang Prabang. The estimated journey time: a mere seven hours. No rush.

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Buses Across Borders – First Steps Into Laos

Unless you’re still at a nightclub, very loud European trance music (with accompanying DVD pictures) is not the sort of thing that makes 5am a more pleasurable hour. Still less comfortable, is to have this inflicted on you at this time in the wee small hours whilst effectively being stuffed into a tin can. Nevertheless, it seems that this might be what it takes to get into northern Laos from Vietnam on a small bus.

We’d spent the day before on an equally small bus travelling ten hours from Hanoi to the north-western town of Dien Bien Phu where we were to stay the night. Mercifully, this was less cramped affair; although there were moments of concern, such as when we assumed that the man necking shot after shot of vodka during a rest stop was the replacement driver (he wasn’t), or when the bus began to leave within a minute of our badly-timed noodle soup order arriving, or when we were unsure as to whether our destination was the same town we’d originally headed for, or when were to sitting next to a box that moved and chirped. But all that was simply the jitters brought on by language issues and uncertainty. Things were different as we boarded the bus to get us across the border.

Firstly, we were an international contingent of passengers, with French, Australian, Israeli, Canadian and Dutch travellers joining us in the bus. We were all there early of course, hence the DVD entertainment. Then the locals turned up. Then more. Then more. Then some with enormous boxes. Then a few more. With babies. By the time we’d reached the Laos border control, with its painstaking handwritten-in-triplicate bureaucracy, the bus designed for twenty was carrying around twice that number. It made Friday afternoon on the tube seem like a yoga retreat.

Nonetheless, we were in Laos and with some truly awful Vietnamese comedy keeping the locals on the cramped vehicle happy, we bumped down the unmade roads, picking up and dropping off people and goods in between fording streams and taking motorbikes off the roof.

Eventually we reached our destination. That is to say, we were politely shunted off onto a tiny ferry boat which took us across to the village of Muang Khua, where we would stay the night. Here buses and lorries crossed the Nam Ou on a platform secured against the current by a zip-line type mechanism and shunted across by a tug. In finding dry land on the far bank we finished a journey that we will remember for a long time to come.

In both Vietnam and Laos we passed villages and scenery to remember. Stilt houses tucked up against rivers, rice paddies and mountains. Water buffalo aided the many workers in the fields. Women’s dress changed from the high-heels of Hanoi to the head-dress of the rural north-west. Everywhere children waved. It may have been cramped and occasionally confusing and unnerving, but this was another occasion in our travels where the journey itself was the experience.

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If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em…

Our time in Asia has yeilded one universal truth: you’re nothing here without a motorbike. But, we’re not too keen on the traffic or the insurance issues related to driving the things so, as we head off each day to meet our new friends (more to follow soon) we’ve decided…if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!

(ps if you can’t see a video below click the picture instead to take a look!)

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The Wheels On The Bus Go…?

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Brazil loves its buses. Not in the same way that Peru loves buses, with their cracked windscreens, dodgy sandwiches and terrifying overtaking. Not in the same way that Bolivia loves buses, with their cliff-hugging ruggedness, wild temperature swings and unfathomable toilet stops. Not even in the same way that Argentina loves buses, with (as yet unconfirmed) reports of their wine swilling, bed-seats and coverage of vast distances.

No, unlike their long-haul all-terrain specialist neighbours across the continent, Brazilians seem to be enormous fans of the humble urban bus. Conductors man turnstiles on every vehicle; taxis are outnumbered. In Rio, drug gangs pay for buses to run in favelas. Meanwhile in Sau Paulo it’s more than likely that, to add to another startling but unproven fact about that staggeringly gigantic metropolis, there are more buses there than any other city on the planet.

On the beautiful island of Santa Catarina, where we’ve been for the last week, the buses are efficient and regular. What this infrastructure shares with the rest if Brazil though, is its complete lack of information and incomprehensibility to the stranger. You need a map of the area burned into your retinas to match the place names with your intended destination. Bus stops are desolate, timetable and route-mapless places.

Why does this really matter though? Obviously for the slack-timed loafers like us it’s not important. Surely if we waste an hour getting on the wrong bus and then another walking down a very back road strewn with discarded TVs and dead animals, only to find that the next bus takes us five more miles in the wrong direction, we’ll still have time for a delicious caipirinha and a fresh plate of prawns? Well yes, and we were advised to get a car, but it’s not really us who we’re worried about. Olympic Games anyone? FIFA World Cup?

If you’re perhaps an employee of a media organisation, looking for a little trip out to one of these tournaments (we know you’re out there!) then you need to do at least a few things. First, get your Portuguese phrase book out and get swotting – the language, and no doubt the accent are both pretty tricky. Second, do like Zezinho and get some maps (and maybe bus routes) tattooed onto your limbs. Third, have a little preliminary visit to Santa Catarina and wash down your seafood with a caipi. It’s got to be worth it, even if you don’t have the free time we do…

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