Vientiane, Laos. Thursday 23th August 2018.
Once I’d settled in at the hostel I got chatting to Jack, a Kiwi who seemed to live there. He’d been busy selling a motorbike to a backpacker when I arrived. It was one of several strings to this interesting character’s bow. The hostel organises tours around the city and it’s Jack that runs them. But his main job in Laos is as a bomb disposal expert. This is a line of work that you don’t come across very often, I have to say. He had been an engineer in the New Zealand army and has continued in the same career, having set up a company with various other members of his family. His work at the hostel keeps him busy during the wet season, when bomb hunting isn’t possible. And there’s certainly plenty of work for them to do. Much of the Ho Chi Minh Trail lies within Laos’ borders and the USA bombed it extensively during the Vietnam war. As with Cambodia, there’s a huge legacy of unexploded ordnance still to be dealt with. But whereas the big risk to individuals in Cambodia is land mines, the threat in Laos is in the shape of cluster bombs. More on that later. I arranged with Jack to go on his tour in a couple of days time. Jack had suggested to me that the Vietnamese embassy might be able to issue me with a permit for taking my bike into the country. That sounded good. I’d decided to try and get across the border from Laos and had been thinking about whether to tour Laos first or head for Vietnam. The thought of the remaining time on my visa ticking away, day by day, had helped me decide to try for a crossing, then tour the north of Laos when I came back. If I wasn’t able to cross then plan B would be to buy a bike and leave mine in Laos. Jack tended to sell Vietnamese registered bikes, bought from backpackers coming west, then sold them to those going east.
To that end I walked down to the embassy, found the visa office and was turned down flat. Hmm. While in there I bumped into a guy named Manu, who’d been staying in the hostel in Ipoh, Malaysia. He was with another traveller so we joined forces and went to look at the Patuxay Monument, just down the road. This building was erected to celebrate Laos’ eventual victory over the French colonists, who came back to SE Asia immediately after WW2, deciding it was perfectly OK to re-occupy the lands that the Japanese had chased them out of five years earlier. To be fair to the French, the other European colonists where no different. With delicious irony, the monument was modelled on the Arc de Triomphe, a really great way of sticking two fingers up to their former occupiers. The info sign claimed it was unfinished and also described it as a ‘monstrosity’. That’s honest, if nothing else. It was certainly a mish-mash of styles, with five mini towers on the roof, adorned with carvings. Once we’d climbed up the several flights of stairs, and fought our way through the souvenir stalls, we got a nice view over the city and could look down the French style boulevard to the Royal Palace.
We parted company and I went for a walk around, checking out Sisaket temple. It was destroyed by the Thais in the mid-19th C but had been rebuilt. It had some nice murals but, once again, photos weren’t allowed. The main feature was that around the top part of each wall were rows of niches, with two tiny Buddha statues in each. Once made of silver, they were now of painted clay. A quick count up, and I worked out there were about 2,000 of them, looking down in stony silence on the activities below. It’s these kinds of features that make these temples worth a visit. It’s tempting to think that it’s ‘just another building with a Buddha in it’. But I enjoy the local flavour they often have, and the imagination and dedication that has gone into their design.
A day of ‘rest’ saw me getting the bike washed for only £1, well earned given the amount of rainy season mud it was encrusted with. I sat down with Jack so he could show me some great places to visit around Laos, gleaned from his ten year long residency there, and mark them on my map. We had a long chat about the nature of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and he told me of some fascinating places along it which I’ll definitely want to visit, rainy season allowing. I also got to know a Scotsman named Dougie who was staying there, and had some fascinating conversations with him, usually over coffee and cake, about his time in the oil industry in SE Asia. He told some horror stories about the nature of the corruption that went on and the fight to deal with it. Another guest there, a local guy, was telling me about a border crossing where he thought I’d get across with my bike quite easily, because the two immigration desks were physically next to each other, as he put it. Normally there’s a section of no man’s land between them. This crossing was at Lao Bao. It sounded interesting and that bit of knowledge was stored away.
Jack’s tour round the city was phenomenally good, I have to say. He certainly knows some of the city’s more obscure corners. We each travelled on our own bikes, so I had to stay sharp and not lose him. First stop was the Inpeng Temple. It’s claim to fame was the two statues, both of women, which had been lost for centuries, eventually being discovered behind the altar here. Who were they? They were the wives of two rival kings who, by means of some clever trickery, prevented a war between them. The story is that the King of Burma surrounded the city of the King of Laos then sent in an emissary who declared that his king was unbeatable. He demonstrated this by plunging his hand into boiling liquid and pulling it out, unscathed. This was a trick, set up by the Burmese king’s wife. The Thai king was ready to give in until his wife said no and told him that she’d drugged the wine the emissary had been given as a gift. The king was pleased as he could now kill all his enemies but, once again, his wife said no. Instead she said to send some men across who would paint a blue spot on the forehead of the king and his guard. When they awoke they realised they could have been killed but were allowed to live. Very strong magic. Peace then prevailed. This story is probably a myth, but it sounds good.
We visited a couple more buildings, one of which was the former KGB head office. Russia had a presence here when it was supporting Vietnam during its war with the USA. Jack pointed out the corner office on the first floor, formerly occupied by one Vladimir Putin! In contrast, around the corner was a building which once housed a café, The Atomic Café, one time hang out of US journalists and diplomats during the same war. Then we rode a little way out of the city to a place called COPE.
The Co-operative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise is an NGO which works closely with the Ministry of Health to help people regain their mobility and,therefore, their dignity and ability to support themselves. Inside was a display focusing on the problems caused by cluster bombs. These awful weapons, like the anti-personnel mines so common in Cambodia, were designed to maim military personnel. But since the end of hostilities they have served only to maim civilians, many of them curious children. Most were dropped by the USA but many were also dropped by Russia and North Vietnam. To the USA’s credit, they are one of the main funders of the efforts to clear up UXOs and other dangerous munitions, including the ‘bombies’ that the cluster bombs delivered. The Russians don’t lend any support, while Vietnamese scrap metal dealers come across the border and use local people to search for scrap metal, mostly war related. We watched a video about this, from 2008. Two of the children featured in it were killed two months later when they found a ‘bombie’, which then exploded. Jack isn’t over enamoured of these scrap dealers, not surprisingly. As a professional he knows all the dangers and isn’t too impressed by people who reap the reward with little of the risk, relying on the poverty of others to do so. He did say that the risk from ‘bombies’ should start to fade away now as the fuse mechanisms start to deteriorate after about forty years, rendering them harmless. Most countries of signed up to the agreement not to use them, although not the USA or Russia, sadly.
COPE have extended their reach over the years and now have mobile units, which means outlying villagers can get treatment without needing to suffer the expense of having to visit a town. They’ve also expanded what they treat to include birth defects, such as club foot. It was fascinating to see some of the old prosthetic limbs that had been returned to them. The originals were made of wood and were amazingly heavy and cumbersome. They had an artificial leg that I was able to strap on to my knee and then try to walk up some steps and across a plank bridge. I can tell you that it wasn’t easy, but would definitely have been better than having no leg at all. It’s clear this organisation does amazing work and although its necessity is depressing, its success is also very uplifting.
On a far less serious note, the next visit was to the Buddha Park. This is a strange place, that’s for sure. It contains all kinds of statues based on themes from Buddhist and Hindu stories and legends. They were all paid for by various citizens, although I’m not sure what their motive would have been. The park is loosely laid out on the theme of the legends that are centred around heaven and hell, and the judgement an individual has to suffer to decide which they will go to. The good news is that hell is only temporary before a person is reborn and are forced to live another life – a form of hell in itself, they believe. The first building was a huge orb which has to be climbed into through a small doorway. Inside there were galleries containing dioramas of people being tortured etc. Getting in and out was torture in itself, with narrow passages and tricky steps to climb, although the roof gave a nice view over the park. At the far end was a tall, narrow building, representing an ascent to heaven, assuming you’d survived the journey through the torture chamber and the judgement circle. None of the statues had been cared for, giving them a more sinister air, very much suited to the theme of the park. Fascinating!
On the journey back we called in at a Vietnamese Temple and climbed up the six levels for another nice view over the city. The monk in attendance encouraged me to ring the big bell, done by pulling back a large piece of wood and letting it swing forward to strike the bell. A nice, loud BONG was the result. Jack stopped at a small shop to buy some fish food, which turned out to be small sponge cakes. We stopped at a Chinese temple to feed the catfish which they breed there before releasing them into the Mekong River. It seems they do like a bit of sponge cake, and who can blame them? This temple is also the only place where open air cremations are allowed, in accordance with Chinese custom. There was one under way at the time.
Throughout the day Jack was telling all sorts of tales of his army days and his time in Laos. He’d been in Timor Leste at the time of their independence bid and was part of the UN Peacekeeping Force stationed there. I won’t say much except that he and his mates didn’t like what they saw the Indonesian army doing to the Timorese and didn’t always keep their blue UN helmets on while they ‘kept the peace’. A truly fascinating day out though, with a chance to see places not included in the tourist guide books.
I was in Vientiane for a few more days. Delayed by a solid twenty four hours of rain and also the need to service my bike. Jack suggested a place that might be able to help and I rode down there one afternoon. It was a large dealership but they were just closing the workshop when I arrived. One of the women there spoke English and I explained what I needed. She said to come back in the morning and they’d be able to help me. And that is what I, and they, did. They supplied me with a bowl into which I could drain my oil. Some rags for wiping my hands. And a container I could use for cleaning my oil filter. There were several of the mechanics crowded around watching me, and I’m sure I was their entertainment for the day. I’ve got quite used to that by now and just went through my well oiled routine until the job was done. They refused payment too, my reward for being such good entertainment.
Time to leave the hostel and get going. It was at this point that I made a discovery that angered and upset me. I went to put something in one of my front panniers and discovered that my jump starter power pack was missing. This small lithium ion battery unit charges up via a USB socket, similar to those that people use with their mobile phones. The difference is that mine was big enough to jump start my bike, or a car for that matter. While the bike was parked at the hostel somebody had gone through the bag, taken that, then done everything up again. I was fuming because I relied on that if ever my bike battery went flat. There was nothing I could do about it so I pushed on, but incidents like these aren’t about the cost, more about the destruction of trust that you’ve develop while on the road.
My general direction of travel was to be south once more, intending to try my luck at the borders down there. I was retracing my wheel tracks but my feeling was that if I couldn’t get into Vietnam while in the south then I’d buy a local bike and use that. I was getting very fed up with being turned away. But I planned to ride one of the routes Jack had suggested, which looped north for a while, then south. It went through some nice countryside, climbing up into the hills and into the forest. Good roads, although I had to negotiate several landslides. People up here were of a different ethnic group to those further south, and looked even poorer. I saw many of them walking home from the fields with baskets on their back containing either tools or produce. A common sight was people walking to or from local streams, having bathed or collected water. On the upside, most houses were connected to electricity. Once again, not too many motorbikes around.
Talking of bikes, mine suddenly began to handle rather oddly. I stopped to check the front tyre, which felt like it was squirming around. Carrying on, I realised it was the rear wheel which was misbehaving. A puncture! My first since I left Japan, I think. Luckily it had happened just by a pull in, where I was able to lay the bike over so I could get the wheel out and fit my spare tube. A staple had gone through the tyre, which itself was quite worn. I struggled a bit to get the wheel back in but it was fixed in the end. That bit of bad luck was followed by some good, in that I found a hotel much more quickly than I had expected. It was, by now, after 5pm.
Next morning was breakfast free, as in, I didn’t have any. And I didn’t really see a suitable café in any of the towns or villages I rode through either. I’d chosen to ride across the reservoir again, simply because I’d really enjoyed it last time and it was the shortest route back to Paksé, where I was ultimately headed. At one point the road goes across a long bridge which has a nice restaurant at the other side. I pulled in for brunch and asked for omelette. It arrived filled with vegetables and was inside a toasted crusty roll. It was delicious and very much needed. Sitting at a table overlooking the lake was an added bonus.
Jack had told me of someone he knew who’d been to the Vietnamese consulate in Paksé and the helpful people there had issued him with a permit for his bike. My aim was to try the for the same result. But I decided to go the long way round. After a night in Savanakhet I headed east to find one of Jack’s backroad trails but when I headed down it I decided it was too muddy and rough to be classified as ‘fun’. Anyway, an idea had come to me. The road east continued on to the border at Lao Bao, only 80kms further on, so why not give it a try? So I did. Before dealing with either of the two immigration desks, I spoke to Vietnamese customs about getting my bike in. The guy there took my carnet, examined it closely and was talking about giving me a permit for thirty days. Was this going to be IT? Was I finally getting IN? No. He went off to speak to his boss, who then called me up to the office and explained to me, in very good English, all the things I already knew. About how the carnet system wasn’t used by Vietnam. About how I needed a permit from the Ministry of Transport. About how he was unable to issue me one. So I ‘about’ turned and headed back into Laos. Same old same old.
One of the guys at Laos immigration said there was a Vietnamese consulate in Savannkhek so it seemed worth calling in there. It was on the way to Paksé anyway. I reached there next morning only to find it closed. It was Vietnam’s independence day holiday. Time for coffee, then on to Paksé, where I located the consulate, and a cheap guesthouse just around the corner. With some time to reflect on where I’d ridden and what I’d seen in was clear that the ethnic differences in Laos were quite marked. Darker skin up in the hills, and a poorer quality of life. Worse housing, fewer facilities. It saddened me that not many children were at school either. Many of them were working alongside the adults, or looking after cattle. Those who lived lower down the hillsides were definitely higher up the social scale. I saw kids walking and cycling to school and people were better dressed and clearly better off. Laos is a relatively poor country still, and it shows.
Next morning I went to the consulate and was not at all surprised when the ‘helpful guy’ was nowhere to be found and that the people in the visa office were unable to help me. In fact they seemed quite puzzled by my request. By now I’d worked out my next step which was to head east again, to a border post that was way up in the hills. Maybe loneliness would make the officials up there more flexible. The route would also take me through some of the country that Jack had recommended. I stopped for the night in a small town after I’d climbed up through the hills, as high as 1260 metres. It was even a bit chilly once the sun had gone down. Opposite my hotel was a building with a tannoy system on it which seemed to be broadcasting a radio station, and quite loudly too. It stopped at about 7pm but then started again at 6am! And it was still very loud. It lasted two hours before going quiet again. But what was its purpose? I have no way of knowing of course, but it had an air of officialdom about it, like something out of George Orwell’s 1984, or 1960s holiday camp broadcasting. Very strange.
Riding even further up into the hills got me to the border post but not before I’d been stopped at a check point, policed by some young guys. They were telling me something I didn’t understand and eventually waved me on. But not before they’d asked me for 100,000 KIP, about £10. I laughed at their joke and rode off. What they were probably trying to tell me was that the border was for locals only, which didn’t surprise me in such a remote place and which I discovered for myself when I got there. No amount of pleading was to get me through so I turned around and headed back. You may think it’s pointless to keep heading to these places without knowing what might happen, but part of the pleasure is always in the ride. I was going through some remote areas, well off the tourist trail, and that was fine by me.
One more border to try before giving up and going back to civilisation to buy a local bike. I’d been told of a Facebook page where backpackers buy and sell their locally bought bikes, so a quite workable plan B was in place. The route to the border at Bo Y took me through the town of Attapeu, which is close to where part of a dam burst recently, causing a lot of flooding and damage to local villages. It had been in the news in July so I was a bit concerned as to how the road might be. Unaffected by that incident, as it turned out, but it had suffered lots of landslides of its own. Careful riding was required, especially when mixing it with the trucks heading there too. One of them was still being cleared up, with me and a truck having to follow a bulldozer through the mud. But we got there eventually and here’s what happened.
I GOT INTO VIETNAM! Finally and at last, on the tenth attempt, things went my way. I wanted to leave my passport with Laos immigration and go over to Vietnamese customs to talk to them, as I’d usually done before. But before I knew it I’d been stamped out of Laos so had no choice other than to give it a go. I rode across no-man’s land and as I entered the Vietnam section I could see the immigration building over on the left, a line of big trucks parked outside it, and a smaller road which was to the right of the truck parking area. I took that one, thinking it was for motorcycles but it took me past all the trucks and the immigration building before rejoining the main area. I saw some shops so parked by them and walked back to immigration. I got my passport stamped, noting that the customs office was in the same building and was busy with other people. I changed up some money and walked back to the bike. One more hurdle to cross, which was the exit barrier from the border complex. They usually just want to check that you have an entry stamp before letting you go. I pulled up there and my heart skipped several beats when I saw a customs officer sitting there. But he was just drinking coffee with his mates. Passport checked, up went the barrier and I was through. I quickly put distance between me and them before stopping for coffee and a chance to breath again. Good Morning, Vietnam!