19th – 27th February
It’s been a long time coming, but we’ve finally, finally left Southeast Asia. We never meant to spend this long here, or in Laos for that matter.
But, since the Vietnamese wouldn’t let us drive in, Thailand wasn’t exactly an overlanding paradise and it’s been the coldest Mongolian winter for 30 years, we ended up becoming amateur experts on Laos - its culture, scenery and garages - whilst going round in circles.
When we left the UK, we knew very little about Laos – a small landlocked country from which we had to enter China. A couple of our friends had either lived there or visited and had loved it, but we didn’t know a lot else. As of four months ago, our itinerary allowed us about eight nights in the country. We ended up staying for 55.
Luang Prabang, (a city we’d never heard of until Charlie’s friends Andrew & Catherine suggested meeting there for New Year) has won numerous ‘Best City’ awards in travel magazines. It’s easy to see why, encompassing many of the highlights that Laos has to offer: an ultra laid-back lifestyle coloured by brightly robed monks, chequerboard silk handicrafts and traditional wooden shuttered houses. With UNESCO funding and guidance, the city is probably in better nick than it’s ever been.
We didn’t mean to spend 16 nights here (on four different occasions, and the most we hope to spend in one place on our trip), but there are certainly far worse places to have to hang around when our car’s got a knackered engine.
Whatever good things we may have to say about Laos, their mechanics aren’t going to be heading up a Formula 1 team any time soon.
Certainly they’re quick and eager to please, but when it comes to doing a proper job they’re decidedly hit and miss – as our recent 14 day stretch of waiting for a (second) new cylinder head to finally be properly fitted will testify. Luckily everything’s relatively cheap – although when everything needs to be done twice to get it done properly it still ends up costing about the same as the UK.
If you pay peanuts…
Time to leave
We’re glad to be moving on to China as we’ve picked up certain characteristics, courtesy of spending too long in Southeast Asia:
‘Lao bottom’ surely must come top of the list. Nothing to do with the food, but we’ve both got incredibly close to buying our own cushions and carrying them round with us. How on earth the locals cope with a lifetime of sitting on solid wooden chairs or tiled benches is beyond us – we’ll be leaving here with decidedly bruised buttocks…
Ants. Bloody ants everywhere! Automatically checking for ants in the condensed milk before pouring it in your coffee, for instance; or before eating one’s noodle soup. Champasak wins the prize for the most ant-infested town – we counted over 40 in our lunchtime soup there one day…
Glazing over mid-conversation because you’ve spotted a mosquito hovering ominously nearby is another favourite trait.
Granted the driving’s nothing like India, but anticipating the unexpected is still essential. Piglets, puppies, and children are all inclined to dart across roads without warning. But the crazy chickens are by far the worst – seasoned experts at waiting until the last possible second before making a frenzied dash under your front wheels, playing their own real-life game of ‘chicken’. It’s a miracle that in driving over 7,000 miles in Southeast Asia we’ve only consigned one suicidal chicken to the enormous hen house in the sky…
Patience is waning with the dreadlocked backpacker brigade as well – it’ll be nice to lose some of those. We’ve met some delightful, entertaining and interesting people en-route, but Christ we’ve met some ignorant ones too. Southeast Asia is first stop off the boat for the young penniless Aussie, Kiwis and Americans; we won’t be sad to leave them behind.
Finally, it’ll be novel not to have to carry around wads of useless currency any more. At roughly 12,600 kip to £1, and thanks to all our car issues here, we’ve withdrawn in excess of 35,000,000 kip during the past few months – rather a hassle when the withdrawal limit is a measly 700,000 kip! Every single ATM withdrawal comprises a handful of mint, consecutively numbered banknotes. It tells you everything you need to know about Lao monetary policy. When this starts happening in the UK you’ll know it’s all gone horribly wrong and Mr Darling is literally ‘printing money’.
Having spent a second boozy ‘final’ night at The Apsara with Ivan, our sanity saviour over the past week or two, we gingerly drive north from Luang Prabang, hoping to get as close as possible to the Chinese border 300km away, ready to cross on the Saturday morning.
It’s nervy stuff, given that our last two big days’ driving have resulted in being towed to our destination after dark – we really, really don’t want to make it three in a row.
Happily, the journey north is gloriously uneventful. The gloomy provincial capital of Oudomxay, another victim of the Chinese tentacles, actually looks quite attractive basking in the midday sun.
After 200km, our confidence grows, and we push on through the final 100km of remote, forested mountains to the border. The road is terrible – we’re certainly looking forward to the Chinese infrastructure.
We reach the Lao border town of Boten at dusk – tucked away in a narrow valley, a long way from anywhere else. It feels as if we’ve left Laos a day early – Boten has been leased by the Lao government to China (anything for a quick buck!) and now resembles a small Chinese town rather than a humble Lao village. To our astonishment, as we drive in we’re greeted by a visual cacophony of brightly painted concrete skyscrapers, some 12 storeys high. We haven’t seen buildings this large anywhere else in Laos, not even in the capital Vientiane.
It’s utterly surreal. There are no Lao here, only Chinese. Not a Lao restaurant in sight, and you could fit the entire population of a Lao village into just one of the hotels.
In one of the many Chinese restaurants, we point at some ingredients to order supper. The food is good but when it comes to pay everyone’s confused that we’re trying to pay in kip – it’s like it’s a totally alien currency. We don’t have any yuan, so it’s tough. “We’re still in Laos!” we joke with the waiters, but they don’t understand.
A solitary bottle of Beerlao, our last, is the only reminder that we’ve yet to actually cross the border.