I took a bus to Laos. Just a short jump across the boarder from Hanoi to Vientiane; it took 24 hours. The air-conditioning was broken and by the end of the trip the smell of body odour hung in the air like a weight. The trip was not completely uneventful. Just before we crossed the boarder the bus stopped for about three hours in the middle of the night. As we stopped, about 15 Vietnamese men emerged from the various shadows and started loading up every empty section of the bus, and some not so empty sections, with all kinds of weird products, from Soy milk drinks to car radiators and most things in between. By the time we left again the roof was piled about 3 meters high with goodies and there was a large box under my seat. They told me the box was full of yogurt, but I was sure that I was being used to ferry large quantities of crack cocaine across the boarder. However when I got to Laos, I discovered that this fear was unfounded, there is no way anyone would waste their time smuggling drugs into Laos, the Laotians have plenty of their own already. The first thing I was asked when I headed out into the streets of the capital Vientiane was 'do you want something', and something literally meant anything.
Vientiane was the vibrant capital of Laos, heaving with about 100 000 people, a little bigger than Bendigo, it was a chilled out and relaxed place, especially after the craziness of Vietnam (Laos population is 6 million, practically deserted by S. E Asian standards, compared to Vietnam's 80 million in about the same geographical space). I spent most of my time in Laos hanging out with an Aussie called Tracey (good, Aussie name), two English girl, both called Sarah, which made it easy when I was drunk, and a South African called Henry. One night in Vientiane, the whole gang headed out for a night on the town and discovered a nightclub where all the young, hip and rich Laotians head for a night on the town. We quickly made friends with a few of the locals, who despite not having the best English, seemed to enjoy having a few Westerners hanging around, particularly the girls. I think they felt that hanging with us, as there were only a few Westerners in the town, made them the coolest guys in the bar (this is definitely the first time my presence has actually made someone cooler). Anyway, these local Lao guys made sure we always had drinks, took us to a local karaoke bar on the outskirts of town after the night club closed down, and then organised a Ute to get us all back to our guest house at the end of the night.
After a couple of days, the gang and me headed to Vangviang, one of those tourist town that could technically have been anywhere in the world (if you shoved it all in the back of a truck overnight and set it up again in Mexico, it wouldn't be out of place, and most of the tourists wouldn't have noticed the difference). It was a town full of Westerners, many more westerners than Laotians, and full of bars and restaurants showing Western DVDs and serving pizzas and burgers. I did get to see the new Mike Moore movie bagging George Bush though, which was nice. While the town itself wasn't a highlight, around Vangviang was amazing. The gang mentioned earlier, who had become my possie while in Laos (or I had become part of their possie, I never can tell), all headed caving, kayaking and swimming in the areas around town. I managed to land flat on my back diving off a 7 m high bamboo platform built next to the river, I was trying to show off doing back-flips I think, and had a couple of nice big bruises on my back for about 2 weeks. I think I will rely on my wit to impress people from here on; it is worth a shot and a lot less painful, at least for me.
I then headed off on my own, leaving the possie behind, to Luang Prabang, a town in the centre of Laos, famous for its many Buddhist temples and French colonial architecture. I spent a few days just hanging out and walking around town and spent half a day checking out some of the waterfalls around town. The waterfalls, like most of the natural scenery in Laos, were pretty spectacular. Like the rest of South East Asia, drugs are really in your face here, possibly worse in Luang Prabang than the rest of the region. One night I headed to the local market to get some dinner, I swear that at least 20 people offered me opium in 10 minutes, most of whom where little old ladies over the age of 70, or women in their 20s with a baby strapped to their back. I must look like a smack addict to have garnered so much attention, I will have to lay off the booze and get a few good nights sleep.
After three days in Luang Prabang I headed back towards Thailand. It took me three days, completely out of contact with the outside world, on an aptly named 'slow' boat (according to the timetable), which stopped at every village along the way (although there weren't that many). The boat ride is a bit of a shocker, slow and cramped. The boat managed to get us to the Thai boarder just after the boarder crossing closed after two days on the water, but luckily the skipper's friend had a guest house for us to all to stay in just near the crossing; very convenient for us, and for the skippers friend who got to drastically overcharge us. Laos was an amazing country, and despite the cramps in my legs from being squashed all day, the boat ride to Thailand was amazing. Laos still has heaps of real, thick, dark, foreboding, and almost deserted jungle that we passed on the boat, it felt like heading into the heart of darkness (for those who have read the novel, or seen a movie adaptation of the novel). Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of that Laoation jungle, or what evil it leaves in the hearts of Aussie boys who dare to sail into its interior. I will let you know.