Status Update:

Current location: Bochum / Germany

50 countries, 1226 days, trip mileage: 124200 km

20 Mar 2009

Laos Part 1: The North


A short 10-minute ferry-crossing over the mighty Mekong river takes us from Thailand into Laos. “Us” meaning: my new travel-partners Holger & Anja, and 2 fellow motorcyclists we met at the ferry-port: David and Mai from Thailand. The visa on arrival for Laos is quick & easy, and within a short time the five of us are en-route to Luang Namtha in Northern Laos.

This is my second visit to Laos, and I’ve been looking forward to coming back here ever since I left this beautiful country with its gorgeous landscapes, its welcoming people, and their relaxed way of life.

The reason why I’m raising funds for Handicap International with this trip has got to do with Laos’ disturbing past (and present): Laos is the most heavily-bombed country on earth, and the tremendous amount of unexploded ordinance (‘UXO’) and landmines are a major problem, particularly in the rural areas, where unexploded cluster ‘bomblets’ are hidden away in the farmland.

The official story: Between 1964 and 1973, in an attempt to destroy the communist Pathet Lao and cut Vietnamese supply lines, the US flew over 500,000 air strikes over Laos. Over 2 tons of bombs were dropped, around 80 million cluster bomblets in total. Between 15-30% of these tennis ball sized bomblets did not explode, leaving up to 24 million pieces of UXO.
The inofficial story is about a US / CIA clandestine involvement, or the ‘Secret War’ on Laos.
Officially, the two countries have never been at war with each other.

14_Laos Hmong Village (Feb 09) 17_Laos(Feb09)
09_Laos(Feb09) 13_Laos, dust-track (Feb09)

For about one week, our route takes us through remote & mountainous Northern Laos, which in large parts is populated by the Hmong minority, and I’ve got to say it was one of the most fantastic and refreshing places I visited during this trip:
Great mountain roads with lots of curves and hardly any traffic; streets lined with natural growth forest/jungle and rice-paddies, and very pittoresque villages with bamboo houses on stilts and thatched roofs. Food was very basic, but nevertheless delicious – most of the time it was noodle soup with egg & vegetables.


Without doubt the nicest part of northern Laos are the people: Whenever we pass through a village, people on the streets start to smile, shout a ‘Sabaidee’ (welcome) and wave their hands. And for the babies, who are too young to realize what is happening, their parents take their hands and wave them together. At times, I wished I was travelling by bicycle, just to soak up all this enthusiasm for even longer.

27_Laos(Mar09) 26_Laos(Mar09)

After this time in the distant mountain areas, the ‘golden city’ of Luang Prabang cames as a little ’shock to my system’ (and to my wallet). Due to its World Heritage status, Luang Prabang now attracts a huge amount of tourists of all ages/budgets. A lot of things have changed since I last came here 6 years ago: the evening market has become much bigger & commercialized, a lot of Heritage Hotels cater for high-end package tourism, and some trendy bars are selling local beer at prices similar to central Rome.

Still, I very much enjoyed Luang Prabang – particularly the relaxed evening atmosphere near the Mekong river, with a yummy baguette sandwich from the market (finally some good bread again) followed by my favourite Beer Lao.


My route takes me down to Van Vieng – a place I was never keen to visit, but hey… I thought I’d give it a try this time. And what a surreal place this is! Imagine a little bit of Ibiza (or Mallorca), place it in the middle of a laid-back, Buddhist country like Laos and you’ll have a rough idea about what Van Vieng is like. People usually come here for some ‘tubing’: going down the river for 4km in an inflated inner-tube. Sounds like fun, but unfortunately the river isn’t really flowing fast or anything. But it’s lined with lots of ‘beach bars’ playing party music. So the ‘tubing’ is mainly about getting from one bar to the next, getting drunk and (once drunk enough to forget about health & safety issues), crawling up a ladder & take a swing into the river from about 10m height.

For those who’re too hung-over to go tubing, the several restaurants offer the perfect hangover-remedy: Literally every 30 meters, there’s another restaurant playing a fine selection of TV-series: Friends, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Futurama… even Tom & Jerry. All from 8am till late night. And to make sure that there’s not too much human interaction happening at the tables, ALL the chairs and benches in ALL the restaurants point in the same direction: towards the TV.

Believe it or not: because of that stupid restaurant next to my hotel, I went to bed AND woke up to the opening music of ‘Friends’. How sad is this? I mean, there’s so many things to do & see in Laos… why would anyone want to go tubing, get drunk and watch TV all day?

45_Laos (Mar09)

I continue to Vientiane, Laos’ sleepy capital, to get my Visa for Cambodia, and to meet up with Holger & Anja again. In the morning of my birthday they surprise me with a yummy chocolate cake, and after a very relaxing day the three of us have dinner together in one of the Mekong river-side restaurants.
Here in Vientiane, I meet up with Elmar, another motorcyclist from Germany who’s part of a group of three. His travel-partners Joerg & Annette had a problem with their motorcycle and need to have it fixed in Bangkok. So Elmar and I team up for southern Laos. Anja and Holger have already continued their route one day before us – but we’ll probably all meet again in Cambodia or Bangkok.

Have a look through the galleries for a few more photographs from Laos: Full gallery - Slideshow