Attention novice backpackers! The country of Laos is pronounced ‘Lao’!! Just so you know. I crossed the border at Boten at first light, a golden temple welcoming me into the land of a million elephants. Laos is the unsung hero of South-East Asia, a shooting star-shaped country that straddles the Mekong River all the way down to Cambodia. Like Afghanistan, Laos is an artificial construct, a buffer zone between two empires – Laos being invented to keep the French at arm’s length from the Kingdom of Siam (now Thailand). It didn’t work, and before long the French had annexed the country and the various tribes (including the Hmong, the people next door in Clint Eastwood’s excellent film Gran Torino) fell under the tyranny of The Tricolor.
Although in the grander scheme of things that was nothing compared to the suffering meted out by the Japanese during WWII and the subsequent thumping from the Yanks between 1965 and 1973 when the place was carpet bombed day and night in a vain attempt to weed out the perceived North Vietnamese hiding there. Walnuts and sledgehammers come to mind. To this day, Laos remains one of the most heavily landmined areas in the world – a clean-up job the American government still refuses to carry out.
This would be my third visit to Laos, the first being on my round-the-world trip in 2002 and the second being the quick border-hop I did from Thailand in the October of 2010. The first time I was here I took a two-day boat ride down the Mekong. It was great. This time, as though making up for my cheeky Odyssey border-hop, I would be travelling down from the northern border with China all the way to the capital, Vientiane.
It’s maddening the amount of time and money I wasted visiting these places first time around, only to come back again a year or two later. And here was me dreaming of a nice straight line connecting Uruguay and New Zealand, hitting all the countries of the world on the way.
At the border I met a couple of Israeli backpackers who were hoping to catch a bus to Vang Vieng, a town a hundred or so miles north of Vientiane. I told them that my bus was going that way, and they ended up catching the bus with me. Apparently, I was the first backpacker they had met who didn’t have a go at them for the Israeli-Palestine situation. Yeah well you don’t visit every country in the world without broadening your mind when it comes to the vast scope of world politics, and I can’t help but feel that the microcosm that is Israel has been used as a whipping boy by closet anti-Semites and tyrannical middle-eastern dictators and rabble-rousers for far too long.
Anyways, the drive through the mountains was spectacular and much more pleasant than the last time I did the trip from Luang Prabang to Vientiane on a coach – that time there was a guy constantly being sick out of the window and HACKing up at the top of his lungs all the way to Vang Vieng. I recall there was a cheer when he finally got off.