Tuesday, February 12, 2008
People's Democratic Republic of Laos
Laos is a poor, undeveloped, communist country with a slow pace, cheap prices, the usual corrupt cops and not much to see.
The Beer Lao is about one dollar a bottle, and I would say is probably the best beer for the money in the world. We spent a few days in Vientiane and driving 300 or so miles along the steadily growing Mekong River as it heads south forming the natural border between Thailand and Laos. The Lao people were friendly and laid back, with easy smiles from the people and waves from the children.
We saw all the main sites in the capital in one day, the pseudo "Arc de Triomphe" made with American concrete, the Buddhist temple and symbol of the country Pha That Luang, and the oldest and most important temple Wat Si Saket. In addition we got our visas to Cambodia and Clara had another throwdown cage match with some corrupt communist officials.
As we putted by a police checkpoint hut which they have on all the major intersections in the city the police whistled at us to stop for some unknown reason but we continued on. At the next intersection an officer on a step through 80cc bike pulled up and told us to pull over. Apparently you have to wear your helmet, which I was, but Clara was carrying hers so as to not mess up her hair. He made us follow him back to his hut where he intimated that he would take our bike for a day, and would impound it at the station. He kept saying that we hadn't stopped and weren't wearing a helmet. Clara took charge and kept demanding our paperwork. They guy said his boss would be there in 5 minutes and ignored her. Then she pulled out her camera and took a picture of him which she said she would show his supervisor. This definitely got under his skin. I stayed in the background, turned around and pulled the excess cash out of my wallet and hid it in my jacket in case we were going to have to bribe our way out of the situation, I didn't want more than a few bucks on me. Then a kid whizzed by without a helmet on and they didn't do anything, which we all noticed. Time went by and Clara was insistent. The kid finally gave up and gave us our paperwork back, I thanked him and we moved along.
If you are scoring at home, the current score is:
CLARA 2 CORRUPT COMMUNIST OFFICIALS 0
The Mekong is in low dry season and we could walk across the sand bar to within about 50 yards of Thailand. Clara played with the baby frogs floating about. There are open air riverside eateries where you can fill up on squid, fish, steak, frog legs, fried rice, BeerLao and other specialties for $5 a head and enjoy the views of the river and the lights on the other side. You can overhear Europeans speaking English with their Lao dates, 50 something men insisting they had never been married or in love in their lives, while the women quietly listened and ate up a great meal. Either that or backpackers deciding whether to make a big deal about the fact that no one got what they ordered, but it was all good and cheap anyway so maybe it wasn't worth it to make a fuss since the translations are all lost anyway.
As we headed south down the two lane highway 13 which is the backbone of the country, it quickly became nothing but overgrowth interspersed with tiny villages. The mighty muddy Mekong was on our right, and the low mountains of Laos were on our left. An unseasonably cold wind was blowing across us all day, coming down from the Chinese Mainland. The mountains, or overgrown hills had all sorts of odd shapes, as if a bunch of 3rd graders got to design them. "I think I will make a flat topped one with a pickle coming out of one side", "I think I will make one that looks like a camel with 3 humps". None were very tall, all covered with low trees and bush, with wisps of mist not burnt away by the sun that was covered by high clouds all day. The locals were wearing winter jackets in the 50 degree or so weather.
Many of the local cars have blacked out or mirrored glass, and the motorcyclists mostly have helmets with similar visors. They all obey the traffic laws diligently, and I wonder if they don't want to catch the eye of the police at the intersections. There definitely is an odd sense of too many cops, nothing to do, and nobody wants to get caught in the dragnet. At one intersection, the usual gang of three in the police hut just pulled one guy on a scooter out of the group of 15 or so of us waiting in line. It seemed completely random, and he protested but complied while the rest of the group seemed to try and nonchalantly move out of the way of the chosen one without causing any attention to be brought unto them. Again, no need to have so many police in a country where the vast majority are subsistence farmers.
The only business we could see for 200 miles was rice farming and some logging, and selling fish at the roadside salted and barbequed while stuffed with bamboo shoots from the river.
Still, aside from the police the place has its charms and would be a great place to head off into nowhere on some dirt bikes.
We might have done so....but.....it looks like the great Achilles heel of the R1200GS has reared up. My drive shaft is leaking gear oil at the hub and so we are going to try and limp back to Bangkok before the almighty BMW implodes at 32,000 miles.