Laos: All’s well that ends well

I’m choosing to think of the theft of our computers as either cosmic retribution for all of the shit that America did to Laos in the 60s and 70s, or perhaps just our fault for going to a place like Vang Vieng. In any case, our initial despair and annoyance at the loss of our two MacBook Airs has paled quite significantly – after all, we got to see the Lao justice system at work. And, we no longer have to worry about putting our computers in a safe place so that they don’t get stolen.

Vang Vieng is a river town not far from the capitol of Laos, Vientiane. 5 years ago, the Prime Minister of Laos came to visit and was appalled at the rampant heathenism that had so swiftly descended upon the lovely place – bar after bar after bar along the beautiful river, selling alcohol and light to heavy drugs to tourists floating past on inner tubes. The PM was appalled, especially at the abnormally high death rate – about 20 tourists per year dying in the river. So he shut it all down. 

5 years later, a couple of the bars have reopened (alcohol only) but the economy of the town is still struggling. We thought we’d support the new, more sober Vang Vieng with our old people tourist dollars, plus we had multiple people recommend it to us. It was ok, except all the theft. 

While we were at the police station reporting our own theft, a young Aussie woman was waiting in the lobby, in tears. Her bag had been slashed and all documents, electronics, and money had been taken. In another Lao town, we got to talking to a woman in her 50s who had been assaulted (lightly, but still) on the street, her iPhone stolen. A woman at our hostel in Vang Vieng suggested that we put up signs in the more sketchy bars in town, asking for the computers back for a reward – she said it worked for a few people she knew who had things stolen in Vang Vieng. This is all in a country in which we have never heard of another theft, anywhere. Morals of the story: 1. If you close the drug bars down, people gotta find other lines of work. 2. Don’t go to Vang Vieng. 

We were however, pleasantly surprised by the Lao police. Perhaps they get a lot of practice in VV – there was a separate police station just for tourists. Also, you have to take off your shoes in the station, which is weirdly relaxing. Even the officers in uniforms don’t wear shoes inside. 

Maybe our computers were spirited away in this. (Vaguely related: these took off from the field next to our hostel in Vang Vieng.)
Maybe our computers were spirited away in this. (Vaguely related: these took off from the field next to our hostel in Vang Vieng.)

Anyhow, they did seem genuinely concerned and even came to search our car and room, just to ensure that the computers were gone so they could sign off on the theft report. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much else they could do. No one responded to our ads in the bars, either. Thank heavens, we have backups of our photos. In the end, after playing Sherlock for a while, Luke and I decided the culprits were probably the tourists in the bungalow next door to us, who saw me on the computer on our porch, saw us go to dinner, and picked the lock to the room while we were away. Such is life. As mentioned, we’re actually not too fussed about the situation anymore. We will be even less fussed when we find out how much our travel insurance will pay us for the computers. 

A very Vientiane scene. Note the jungle o'wires
A very Vientiane scene. Note the jungle o’wires

The theme of this post, I think, is “Dismal pie with positive cream on top”. Next up is bureaucracy, which we’ve overall enjoyed. You see, a few weeks ago, it came to the time to get serious about finding a new human for our little car. This requires lots of research. We spent a few days in Vientiane calling into a few ancient expats with car knowledge, visiting customs at the Thai border, dropping into consulates, and just generally doing the least touristy things that can be done. It was fascinating. 

One expat we visited, a Canadian car mechanic married to a Lao woman, has lived in Vientiane for 30 years. He runs a car garage and often stores vehicles for over landers. He wins the dubious title of “least self-aware rascist,” as he was adamant that – wait for it – Asian immigrants were ruining the 100% perfect white culture of his native Canada. Said by a 30-year immigrant, in Asia. Married to a Lao person. With a Lao person in the room. Cringe. 

We did, however, meet several other western expats who were simply delightful. I’m glad there are more of them then there are of previous-paragraph guy, but then again, he had some pretty entertaining cringe-worthy “facts” to share with us.

Continuing on the bureaucracy storyline, our visit to the Lao/Thai border to ask about import/export procedures can be summarized as “befuddling”. Just finding a customs officer amidst the hustle and bustle of a busy, chaotic border involved conversations with about a dozen people, uniformed and not. Sometimes the officers would just smile at us while we asked questions, not saying a word, until we left them alone. Eventually we were ushered through a side gate into a non-public area, and a customs officer came to speak to us across the fence from, bizarrely, the public area. We had a supremely confusing conversation, and then were left to our own devices to make it back to the public area and depart. We learned almost nothing, but we were pretty amused. 

Our next slice of dismal pie has a thinner spread of positive cream on top (I’m on a metaphorical roll, you can’t stop me!). In the last post, I got on my soapbox about American bombing of Laos in the 60s and 70s. Since that post, we’ve visited Vieng Xai and the Plain of Jars, which some of our readers may remember hearing about in the news a few decades ago. 

Vieng Xai is an area with lots of karst mountains – big limestone rocks that poke out of the flat ground improbably (You couldn’t tell I have a geologist for a father-in-law, could you?). Karst formations like this have a heap of really huge caves in them. This is why, in the 60s, the Pathet Lao (the communist resistance movement, fighting the Americans and American-supported Lao factions) chose them for their base of operations. Each major leader had a cave for a home and office, and the entire local population moved their lives into caves, as well. We visited many of the caves, with a Lao guide. Life out on the plains was impossible due to the multiple bombardments per day. People lived in caves for about 8 years, only venturing out in the cover of darkness. People who lived there at the time say that they had to kill any brightly coloured chickens, like white ones, as the American bombers were trained to bomb anything they saw moving (American soldiers have confirmed this). 

Jars, one cloven by explosives.
Jars, one cloven by explosives.

The Plain of Jars was similarly bombed to shreds. The jars are actually ginormous ancient stone burial containers, which sit in groups on the plain. Nowadays, they are also surrounded by bomb craters.

The cream on top of all that icky stuff is the unbelievable grace of the Lao people. Remarkably, they are either forgiving to the point of sainthood, or so dedicated to decorum that they fake forgiveness convincingly. We’ve asked a couple of Lao people – when it felt appropriate – if they harbour a secret hatred for Americans (I go by Australian, here). The answer is pretty much, “nope, it’s over now.” This is something else,

The image we project to the world, sometimes. (An historical photo in the Plain of Jars info centre)
The image we project to the world, sometimes. (An historical photo in the Plain of Jars info centre)

especially given that with the daily UXO casualties, it is certainly not over. It was  nice of our esteemed President Obama to visit recently, bringing UXO clearance money with him, but I’m not sure it would make me less mad. I mean, many of the civilians who were being bombed had never even heard of America, let alone understood t

he political complexities and rationale behind our actions. I would be very interested to hear from people with experience of Laos on this subject. 

Much of our time here in Laos, however, has been relaxingly insight-free. We made our way slowly down the country, first heading east to Vieng Xai and the Plain of Jars, stopping in Vientiane, and then entering the skinny, southern part of the country. 

The Loop
The Loop

We took a few days to do “the loop”, a famous set of roads in central Laos that leads one (often on a rented motorcycle) through gorgeous karst scenery and to 10 gajillion caves. We only saw two, cause we have a limit on caves. The first was a Buddha cave that was so thickly coated in bat guano, I began to question whether rabies could be inhaled. I also couldn’t stop thinking about the dusty statues coming to life, all Raiders of the Lost Ark style. 

dsc01501However, our next cave, Kong Lor, was simply unbelievable. (Not because the statues actually did come to life this time). It’s an underground cave, with a river running through it. One walks through the jungle briefly, accompanied by a Lao guide, then enters a large cavern where wooden 4-seat longboats are lined up on, silently bobbing on the black water. It doesn’t take long to really need your head torch – it is completely and utterly pitch black. Our boat passed stalagmites and stalactites, small beaches, little waterfalls (some portages), huge caverns and small passageways, all blacker than night, if not for the little beams of our torches. There was a section of particularly nice formations that has been lit up with rainbow coloured lights, of which I’m sure Gollum would not approve. However, we thought it was quite nice. All in all, we were underground for several hours. 

You could take this boat to find Gollum
You could take this boat to find Gollum

As much as I recommend NOT going to Vang Vieng, I DO recommend going to Kong Lor. Especially if you’d be willing to secretly abscond from your boat to search for Gollum, because I feel quite sure that if he has survived that pit o’lava, he would be quietly retired in Kong Lor. (Apologies to any poor sods who are not Lord of the Rings fans). 

Next, after picking up a delightful Canadian retired biologist (Jocelyn) and taking her with us, we came to Pakse. It’s just a small, relaxed town on the shores of the Mekong, where we took a traveller “weekend” to sit around, get some work done, and visit consulates for visas. We then took a delightful two day jaunt around the Bolaven Plateau,

Just a teaser.
Just a teaser.

a chilly coffee-growing area with more waterfalls than you can imagine. You’ve certainly heard about the Bolaven Plateau in our last post. It’s an important place to us, now.

Finally, we’ve come to Si Phan Don (aka the 4,000 islands), a group of, well, about 4,000 islands hanging out in the middle of Mekong in far southern Laos. Specifically, we’re on Don Khon. We are spending our time sitting on our bungalow’s porch, watching the mighty Mekong flow past us. We’ll tell you all about it in our next blog. 

We also rode bikes on the island! But more photos next time.
We also rode bikes on the island! But more photos next time.

IMPORTANT CONTINUITY NOTE: We’re not actually in Si Phan Don. Actually, we’re in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I wrote this blog over a week ago, but haven‘t been able to post it – so my next post will cover the lost time. (Yes, I usually do post my blogs in real time, up to date to the minute of publishing. It’s because I like to make my own life more difficult.)

In the meanwhile, Merry Christmas and Happy Hanakkah! We love you all!

Vieng Xai and the Plain of Jars, plus Phonsavon

Vang Vieng


Thakek and “The Loop”: Thalang and Kong Lor

Savannakhet and Pakse

The Bolaven Plateau, and saying goodbye to our car

2 thoughts on “Laos: All’s well that ends well”

  1. Another great post and beautiful pictures. So sorry to hear the loss of your computer but happy that your car found a good home. Merry Christmas to you both wherever you may be, you will be missed and we will be thinking about you. I will be looking forward to your return whenever that may be. Love and Merry Christmas again!!


  2. As always, love your perspective and the beautiful photos. Lots of people here waiting for your return! I loved Cambodia, but we didn’t make it to Laos – too bad as it looks wonderful. Hope you have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


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