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In this offbeat travel book, Mark rides buses, trains, and boats from Australia to Azerbaijan, via the likes of Luang Prabang and Chachoengsao, Chengdu and Coober Pedy. He catches a cargo ship across the Indian Ocean, risks a dicey gauntlet of terrorists and Chinese tanks, has beers with a naked ex-Soviet officer in Kazakhstan… And he wears flip-flops for the whole journey. Why? For no good reason — though it does mean saving money on socks.
VIENTIANE TO LUANG PRABANG
The songthaew — a pick-up-truck-cum-bus — to take me to the station to catch the bus to Luang Prabang should have been at my hotel at 7 am, but it arrives half an hour late. The driver, a fat, gruff bloke, comes into the hotel reception looking like for breakfast he’s chewed a wasp.
“Luang Prabang?” he snaps at me.
“Hurry up! Quick! Now!”
Non-native speakers sometimes sound blunt and rude when they speak English — and fair enough; tone and nuance are difficult to learn — but this bloke is just a dick. Which he confirms when we get to the station by trying to palm us off into a cramped minivan for the trip north — us being me and the other foreigners from the songthaew. Seven of the ten do what he says and squeeze into the minivan. Me and two others stand firm and say we’re not taking a minivan when we paid for a VIP bus.
“No big bus! Take minivan! Quick! Now!”
Still we refuse.
“Take minivan, get there 5 pm! Take big bus, not go long time! Get Luang Prabang tomorrow!”
We continue to protest, much to his annoyance.
The minivan leaves without us. A minute later, we’re pointed to a VIP bus ten metres from where we’re stood.
I say VIP, and that’s what it was called by the agent who I bought the ticket from, and even what it says on the ticket, but it’s a dilapidated Chinese bus — the signs onboard are in Chinese. VIP, luxury, premier — such words should never be trusted by a traveller. But it’s not always outright deception; the bus, shit as it may be, might really be “first-class” in that country. “Bus” and “minivan”, however, if they sell you the former but try to put you in the latter, that’s a scam. They’re nouns, not adjectives, and not open to opinion.
It’s not that I’m so precious that I can’t handle minivans — I’ve ridden in plenty, for four, five, six hours, even as long as nine — but, for this journey, a minivan would be rough. Google says it’s 350 km and a seven-hour drive. But while Google might know who Alexander Fleming is, it doesn’t know how crap the roads are in Laos. I bet you my right bollock that it takes twelve hours.
We set off, and I’m soon asleep, knackered as I was working until 4 am because the internet only moved out of first gear after everyone else went to bed. After an hour on the road, I wake to find us pulled over by some trees. I peer out the window, wondering what’s up, and see the bus driver stood outside with his back to the trees; he catches my eye, and a smirk spreads across his face. I look about him, and he takes a small step to the side. I strain harder to see what’s going on and realise he’s stood there to cover a woman who’s peeing. His grin widens, and he winks at me. I look away — but it’s too late: he thinks he caught me trying to peep on her. I wasn’t, though, honest.
On the road again — the road that’s windy and bumpy — I’m again looking from the window, watching Laos roll by: red earth and green trees, lots of palms, lots of commie flags, dusty, flyblown, scraggly villages with clusters of wooden houses and shacks, balloon sellers and ice cream vendors, roadside diners with Pepsi signs, mechanics and noodle stands, little stores that sell fags and biscuits and tampons, with red, glass-fronted fridges with shelves of bottles of Beerlao and Fanta, school kids idling their way to class — others three, or even four — to a motorbike, temples in verdant grounds with ornate gateways, muddy brown rivers, mangy dogs — flea-bitten, nipples hanging — songthaews and bicycles and tractors. From the scenes, you’d think we’re on some random backroad, but this is Route 13, the main north-south highway — the busiest road in Laos. It has no markings, no barriers, and is just two lanes wide, and is full of potholes — craters even. There are plenty plodding alongside the road, and there are more motorcycles than cars — the latter too pricey for most. Trucks, there are a lot, thundering and swirling gritty dust as they haul their loads from China and to China.
We curve through bucolic countryside, then it’s more wild, more trees, and hills start to roll, and then come karst ranges — green, jagged, towering, and dramatic, like something out of Lord of the Rings. At the foot of these ranges, and beside the Nam Song River, is the low-rise scruffy town of Vang Vieng, and there we break for a while. I was here before for a weekend, a few years ago; back then it was nuts …
The area is nature at its finest, is full of caves and lagoons, but that was just a bonus, a pleasant backdrop for debauchery. People came to go “tubing” — riding tractor-tyre inner tubes down the river. And to make the tubing more fun, they got totally blitzed for it. At ramshackle wooden bars that sprang up along the river, bars that pumped techno and trance, young ’uns in body paint and bikinis mooned and got their tits out as they binged on Beerlao and home-brew Lao-Lao (45%) and shroom shakes, and smoked opium and weed. The bars, to draw in clientele, built crude towers and zip-lines and swings and slides so that the fucked-up people could launch and somersault themselves into the river. When night came, they’d return to town and zone out in one of the cafes that showed Friends on repeat — all day, every day — as they toked more spliffs and ate “happy” pizzas. Then to a club until 4 am — free shots of Lao-Lao! — before a short sleep at a £3-a-night hostel. Then wake up and again go tubing.
Until, in 2011, 27 selfish people spoiled it for everyone else by dying. Diving headfirst into the rocky river — some did that. Others drowned. Then there were the overdoses. That was a bad year — and the number is probably higher, as the 27 were just the ones that died at Vang Vieng’s little hospital and not those that were transferred to Vientiane to try to save them — but the deaths had been steadily stacking up for years. It got so bad that many locals stopped going to the river, too scared of the legion of ghosts that had settled there — the dead ravers and stoners in purgatory, phantoms mooning while doing shots of Lao-Lao. Throw in the thousands of injuries per year too — the broken necks and legs and the gashes and the like — and all the ones that tripped so hard they lost their mind, and the Laos government — under pressure internationally — had to stop the fun. So, late in 2012, it all shut down. All the fun stuff, anyway, and now that you can only enjoy the natural beauty of Vang Vieng and go rock climbing and kayaking and all that other outdoorsy bollocks, there’s not much point to the place.
It went from a tranquil farming village to the capital of backpacker degeneracy to an ok-but-you-can-skip-it-if-you-want spot. Next — Vang Vieng 4.0 — will be the Chinese iteration. That train line — “Thanks, Daddy China.” — one of its stations will be here, and it will bring millions of Chinese to Vang Vieng. Many millions. And while the Chinese will likely show their bums and tits less than the white degenerates — “Dan, ya cunt, look at me crack! Wahey!” — it’s debatable whether they’ll be better for the locals. Because the Chinese travel on tours, and keep to their own: The tour guide is Chinese. They stay at Chinese-owned hotels, and they dine at Chinese-owned restaurants. The money, it all goes back to China.
And if, as is likely, Vang Vieng is “awarded” the status of SEZ, then the locals will anyway be booted out. It could become Laos Vegas. Actually, Laos Vegas 2, because already there’s one: The Golden Triangle SEZ. It sits in a remote corner of Laos, at a point where Thailand, Burma, and Laos share a border. Carved from the jungle in the mid-2000s, it’s a lawless playground of casinos and hotels and bars, under the control — a 99-year lease — of Chinese “entrepreneur” Zhao Wei. Its centrepiece is the Kings Romans Casino, a palatial building with greek columns and classical statues, with ceilings covered in frescoes; where boutiques stock tiger skins and ivory, and where bear paw soup and tiger bone wine are on the menu. Those that visit are mostly Chinese, as are most of the employees — even the prostitutes. And bills are paid in yuan, not kip. It attracts those who want a good time, and also those businessmen who dabble in what’s not 100% legal, those who trade drugs, wildlife, people. It’s not Laos, and it’s not China, so the laws of neither are applicable — at least, not in practice. What happens in Laos Vegas stays in Laos Vegas.
The Vang Vieng residents would just vote that down, you say; maybe protest — “Hell, no, we won’t go, stick your tiger bones where the sun don’t show!” But communism doesn’t favour votes, and as for protests, ask all the protestors in prison about that. The government wants a SEZ; they’ll have a SEZ. Just like they did with the railway. The Lao people weren’t consulted for that — a huge piece of infrastructure through the spine of its land built and owned by a foreign power. There was no referendum. The government wanted the railway; they’ll have the railway.
The bus pulls out of Vang Vieng, and we ride on under a skyline dominated by the hulking rugged karsts. Fields here, fertile farmland; rice-growing villages, buffaloes, shacks on stilts, mud. It’s old Asia undiluted, a landscape undateable, and as I watch it slowly unfurl, I watch too the figures in the landscape, the baggy clothes and wide-brim hats, the sun hot upon them; bent backs working laboriously — ploughing, digging, hoeing — a spine-breaking routine, the same routine as their grandfathers’ grandfather, and also the same toiling routine their grandchildren will adopt. These people, they are Laos: some of the 80% of the six million Laotians that live in rural villages and work the land.
Strung along the road, patchwork houses; their front doors just a few metres from my gaze. No glass in the windows; sickle-and-hammers flying. Some, though, a few rungs up the ladder: solid and coloured — blue, green, orange; verandas and carved doors, with pick-ups out front, shiny and new. I see caged cockerels and fish hung drying, stacks of firewood and yellow crates of Beerlao, gasoline in whisky bottles at DIY gas stations, dogs flicking away flies with their ears, and meats grilling on oil drums halved — chicken, goat, bat. Pigs and cows are loose, bananas and papayas growing, also mangoes and pineapples, and there are many dumb-faced big-horned buffaloes, and, at one point, an elephant crosses the road. At spots are little stupas, which in Laos act as headstones. Within are ashes, the ashes from the open-air cremation of the corpse. The body is burnt on a pyre, along with the person’s belongings. The whole village comes to see. They eat and drink and gamble for three days, at a funeral that’s more of a party, then the body is burnt.
After the town of Kasi, upwards we slowly travel, on a road still dusty and neglected, a road that barely disturbs the scenes through which it takes us, hugging the contours of mountainsides unrelentingly steep. We turn and turn, to rise and rise, up, up, up, high into a raw, green landscape. Precarious ledges edged, and there are no barriers between the abyss and us. The turns, and maybe the heights also, are too much for the old guy in a seat near to mine; he starts to vomit into a little plastic bag. The bag soon whiffs and the contents start to spill over the top.
Straggling, unkempt villages passed that are sad in their simplicity — remote people, remote lives. Hard-pressed peasants, but some at least have satellite dishes. Waifs wash roadside at communal water taps while babies are bathed in buckets; other babies slung on backs — here, there are no prams. Some men with shovels digging into rocky earth, and some idly sitting the hours away. Whether working or sitting, they smoke. Even the very poorest of the poor can buy fags priced at £0.30 a packet. And Lao-Lao at £1 a litre. The government on this point is wise: Communism without affordable alcohol and fags, it wouldn’t have lasted a year. Deprive them of their freedom, of 7-Eleven, of hope, but deprive them of booze and smokes, and they will revolt. They smoke, and they play around on their phones. It seems they all have one; not iPhones, but cheapo Chinese smartphones — their fingers and thumbs tap-dancing across the screens. It’s seen as progress — access to the internet = the wonders of Wikipedia = they can educate themselves out of communism and poverty — but the truth is they’re used like toys: Play games, update Facebook, watch music videos and porn … Everyone has a phone, but no one is any better off for it. If anything, they inhibit progress; for most, they’re a distraction from being productive.
About that, I don’t intend to patronise; I don’t mean to say that they’re wasters blowing the chance of a better life — playing Plants vs Zombies when they could be reading Alexander Fleming’s Wikipedia page. Rich indeed would that criticism be coming from me, coming from someone as unproductive as possible. Someone who, when he’s not drifting around on buses, making ill-informed observations about the world, makes websites move up and down on Google. All these people in these villages, these people who can dig, farm, make things, who can build and mend and hunt, are more productive than I am. Fact is, I can’t do much, like most who have been to uni. I read some books and passed some tests, but skills, real skills, skills the world needs, well, no, I don’t have them. And neither do you if you’re a banker or a salesman or a consultant, which are a sort of scheming rather than a useful skill. Me, you, many: we exaggerate the importance of what work we do: “Oh, great, you’re a graphic designer. But can you eat a logo? No? Wear it? Sit on it? Do any-fucking-thing with it? No? Yeah, I know, it’s a cool logo, very cool, but the world doesn’t really need cool logos. No, not even very cool logos.” We get away with it for now as, at this point in history, the planet is alright and the people at peace. But a 2:1 in Business Law from Bournemouth University — yeah, that’s me — ain’t worth shit when the icecaps melt or the Fourth Reich rises. Then, I, you, many, will be exposed for what we are: inept fools.
I see one man stood alone by a wooden shack; he wears a nineties Chelsea shirt and has what appears to be a homemade prosthetic stump. Our eyes lock for a second, and I imagine a thousand things about him — what he thinks, what he longs for; what he loves and what he hates — and I wonder what he thinks of me, if he thinks what most other people think: that I’m a twat. Then away I go, and we pass out of each other’s life. But, for a while longer, I think of him, of what must be a hard life up here — hard even without that pirate leg. Life’s largest problems are universal — unrequited love, sickness and death (your own and others), bills to pay but not enough money to pay them, your partner cheating, friends letting you down, your phone screen cracking — but he has those and then some: A bad leg. A shit house. Grafting for a couple of quid a day — and no pension nor month of vacation nor promotion opportunities. “Life’s so unfair!” is said when looking up at the people with more. Travel makes you look down at the many with less. Not just a passing glance — a bloke begging, a scruffy fuck on a bus — but hour after hour. At home, it can be ignored — the hobo asleep on the pavement. But for hour after hour? No. Especially when you’re on a bus and poor is the only channel the window shows. And it makes me think, Yeah, life’s so unfair, and it’s unfair in my favour.
And that bloke knows it. Not so long ago, he didn’t; not really, anyway. He may have been aware vaguely, but with no TV and no internet and no backpackers passing by, what was not Laos was just tales. For all he knew about other places, the UK or US may as well have been the moon. He didn’t know, had no way of knowing, what London or New York were like. The moon, actually, he knew better: at least he’d seen that. Then came the internet, and came Google and YouTube. Now he knows. If you don’t know better is available, where you are and what you do seems fine, and you can be happy with that — ignorance can indeed be bliss — but once you know, then what?
I wonder, what if I somehow offered that guy a shot at the UK? Arranged a visa, paid for his ticket. Would he uproot from his village that’s all he’s ever known? Here are his family, his friends, his memories. Would he leave it all behind for an unknown future in a place that he wouldn’t understand, where he wouldn’t be understood?
“Phet, the UK: fancy it?”
“Yes! It’s my dream. Skyscrapers and theatres and black cabs, tea with the Queen, watching Lampard score at The Bridge, and living in Notting Hill with Hugh Grant as a neighbour. Sign me up.”
“It won’t be quite like that.”
“What do you mean?”
“London, for a start; you won’t be able to afford to live there. You’ll have to live a little outside of London. A bit more north, where it’s cheaper.”
“A bit more north than that. Maybe Carlisle.”
“Oh. Well, at least I’ll be rich.”
“Bad news, my friend: you’ll be poor. At best, you’ll get a job as a cleaner, as a labourer, perhaps in retail. Minimum wage it will be: £6.50 an hour.”
“£6.50! An hour! That’s more than I earn in days now. I can buy a BMW and cocaine and hookers.”
“But taxes, national insurance … And rent will suck up a lot of it.”
“Rent? I won’t own my house like I do here?”
“You’ll never own a house in England. Not even in a shithole like Carlisle. They cost over £100,000, and the banks will never grant you a mortgage, what with you being a toilet cleaner or warehouse monkey.”
“If I rent, what sort of house will I get?”
“You mean what sort of room? You’ll only earn enough for a room.”
“Room? But I can’t fit all my family in a room.”
“Your family, they can’t come.”
“My goat? My chickens?”
“That sucks. But, I guess, I’ll make friends there.”
“Not likely. You can’t speak English, and also the locals kind of dislike immigrants. We put them on the front of newspapers and call them scum.”
“It doesn’t sound so great. I mean, I’d lose a lot of the good stuff I have here, and I don’t really see what the upside is.”
“It’s not all bad. The pubs are good, and, err, yeah, the pubs. Oh, and lots of nice crisps that other places don’t have: pickled onion, prawn cocktail, Worcester sauce …
“The pubs stock Beerlao?”
“No. We drink Carling.”
“Carling? It’s better than Beerlao?”
“It’s kind of weak and pissy.”
“I’ll stay here.”
And I think most would, most would stay here. Or maybe leave, then soon come back — even if back is a dirt floor shared with chickens and dogs, a hard bed to lie on, an open fire, and outside their door a litter of junk and a road noisy and muddy and traversed through the night and day by heavy trucks. Why? Because the majority of people stray not. Where they’re born is where they live. They’re tied to “home” at first by birth and later by the fear of living elsewhere. And it’s maybe not so bad here. They have their Lao-Lao, their nature, their community, and a lot of time to enjoy those things. I see them smile, watch them laugh; they’re no less happy than people in Birmingham, and I know from my time living in Thailand that people there were also at least as happy as people elsewhere, people to who life was more than fair to. It’s not mutually exclusive to be happy and poor. People have been happy throughout history without many of the things we today consider essential for happiness — an ensuite and scented candles, a deluxe grilled cheese sandwich toaster … Even they, who have seemingly nothing beyond basic, have more than 99.9% of the world had a century before now. They are better off than your great-grandfather. And those cigarettes, they really are cheap.
On the way down, progress is even slower than on the way up. Tight, blind bends, and increasingly precipitous mountain slopes. The brakes and tyres creak and screech under the pressure. We stop a couple of times, and the driver, with concern on his face, gets out to inspect the thinning tyre treads, crouching and rubbing his hands over them. At one point, he checks under the bus, laying on his back and poking things with a metal rod. After that, he has a cigarette, and we crack on like everything is dandy. The saying, If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, shouldn’t be applied to brakes and tyres — don’t wait for them to break before you fix them. Later, we get stuck behind a gravelling truck, which is slowly reversing down the wet road adding much-needed traction. Our driver hasn’t the patience to wait, so we overtake and push ahead on the slippy road. This is definitely dangerous: this bus, this road. Particularly this stretch now, but I’ve seen evidence through the journey: I saw a car in a ditch, totalled; and stray wheels and bumpers, shattered glass. But what to do about it? Walk? No. You take the risk if you want to travel. It might be your bus that’s one of those that plunges into a ravine, but it might not be. And if it is your bus, you might be one of the two dozen killed, but you might not be. And if it is my bus, it is me, well, they’ll burn me on a pyre, burn me along with my flip-flops and laptop, so at least my Dad won’t be pissed about the £10,000 to post me back.
As it is, it’s not my day to meet my maker, and we arrive at Luang Prabang at 5:30 pm. A nine-hour journey, not the twelve that I bet you. To claim your prize, send a self-addressed envelope to: