The following are two emails sent by Karen to her family while we were in Laos. They're included here just to give a bit of the, er, flavor of our travels in this most beautiful—yet still very much developing—country.
We just saw on CNN that the weather is a mess again. You should see it here; it's hot, in the 90s today.
We got to our hotel (in Vientiane) about 6 am...after 25 hours on the road! Going from southern Laos (Tadlo) to northern was hell! We got up at 4am, and left about 4:20 to walk to the "bus station" (really crossroads), and found that no busses would arrive until after 7 am...so we watched the woman who had a store there open up shop, get her family up, and she gave us a ton of rice (she made more than usual, I guess).
7:30am we got in a tuk-tuk for a 60 min ride to Salavan, where we got a 10am bus for Khong Sedone. This bus was so incredibly crowded! No leg room, and our legs went to sleep many times during the 3 hour ride. At one point I p/o'd a monk (Buddhist) because I almost sat down in front of him...they have to go thru a big cleaning ritual if a woman touches them. But I didn't touch him! Anyway, he stormed off the bus, just a grouchy monk. We made up for that karma-wise by letting an old blind man have my seat while I sat on our backpacks. I also let many others share the backpack with me! Got off the bus about 1pm in Khong Sedone, then waited 45 minutes for a bus to Savannakhet. That was where hell started. Interminable. They are slowly paving the road, but not much is done yet—so we were riding in the dust for almost 6 hours. Every once in a while there was paving—probably 20 miles of the 130 we travelled. We averaged 15mph! Luckily part of the project is that the Japanese are building bridges and those are finished. We must have crossed 25-30 bridges with Lao/Japan signs nearby.
So we arrived at Savannakhet at 7:30 pm and had already decided that if there was a night bus we'd just go on into Vientiane, rather than break up the journey. And there was a night bus leaving NOW. Not even time to pee! Which was okay (we thought) because the road is paved into Vientiane and we thought it would only be 4-5 hours...no such luck, even though it was paved and we were going about 40-45mph! We arrived about 5:30a.m. The bus kept stopping, but we were afraid to get off to go to the restroom because we didn't know how long we'd be stopping. Also, Laos still has lots of landmines, so stepping of the side of the road to answer nature's call is dangerous. Finally, 18.5 hours after we used the toilet in Tadlo that morning, we got to pee again! That must be some kind of record! Boy did things look brighter after that, even though it was the middle of the night and we didn't know how much longer we had to go!
We were in a hotel by 5:45am, in the shower at 5:45:30am and in bed by 6:00 am for a short nap. We'll have to make up for it tonight. We're clean, but our packs are filthy. The dirt is reddish and is everywhere. Hope to go to Phonsavan via air on 12/31, then to Sam Neua (weaving) and be in Luang Prabang by 2 Jan.
Internet is so cheap here...150 kip/minute (8000 kip = $1US), it was 700 kip/minute in the south.
Jan 8, 2001
Well, the river trip up the Mekong was okay, I saw a few birds, and it was sunny and warm and we had nice co-passengers. The downside was Pakbeng, where we had to spend a night about 1/2 way through the journey. A real pit. A guesthouse had been recommended, but as we got there at the same time as a boat with 40+ foreigners (going into Laos), we didn't have much choice. I can't believe it would have made much difference...there's only so much that can be done with a town located on a cliff with no running water or electricity!
First thing, we get off the boat and start up this steep hill with our packs, and there's a sleazy looking Lao man trying to sell us hash! Then, the toilets were disgusting, no sinks anywhere, and the rooms were very basic and not so clean (we're travelling with our own sheets and pillow cases this trip—I must be getting old!). Anyway, on the trip we met 2 women who were so funny; and they managed to get a room worse than ours (with rats). We stayed at the same guesthouse w/ them when we got to Thailand, then went to Chiang Rai together and had dinner before saying goodbye last night (they're heading north to do some trekking, we're heading south to do some shopping!).
Last night at dinner, we were reliving the boat trip, and Pakbeng came up again, and Laurel (one of these women) said, "Well, obviously the first man we met had the right idea...buy the hash, smoke it all, and then the toilets, rooms, rats and dirty restaurant don't matter." I thought that was a very good point!
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