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Through Laos
Stung Treng (Cambodia) to the Mekong River (Laos), Feb-10-09 / Feb-24-09

Today starts a new phase in our journey with the father and mother of Ivonne. We are leaving Cambodia and cross the border to Laos. The start point of today is the town of Stung Treng, in the north-eastern part of Cambodia, one hour by car away from the border. The formalities at the border are easy and straightforward, so in no time we have the exit stamps in our passport. But to get our passports back from the immigration officers, we have to pay them one US-dollar bribe money per passport. It is their way to increase their income.

We have to cross a no-man’s-land of several hundreds metres before we reach the Laotian immigration post. It is also relaxed over here. We have to fill in some forms, and after paying again one US-dollar per passport, we are officially in Laos. We have to wait one hour before the bus arrives that takes us to the small island of Don Khong, one of the four thousand island in the Mekong River in southern Laos. We stay there one and a half day, and that is enough to explore the island. The next day we take the bus to the first town of significance in Laos, Pakse. It is a local bus, so it is a great way to experience the bus-life in Laos. The bus stops frequently and is filled-up like a can of sardines. Besides people, the bus also transports a lot of goods, including thousands of bananas on the roof. It is extremely funny when the bus stops and tens of women try to find their way trough the bus to sell their merchandise. The environment through which we are driving is barren and sad. It is the dry season, which means that the entire green colour in the environment is gone. For a matter of fact, most trees are gone by deforesting activities that also took place in this area. The remaining bushes are burnt once in a while and nobody knows for what reason, because the land is not used for agricultural activities afterwards. In many part of Laos there is a permanent haze, as result of the ‘slash and burn’ deforestation techniques. That means that you have seldom a clear view. It is a sad sight. We are sleeping in Pakse and take another bus the next day to the town of Thakheak. But our real destination is the little village of Na Hin, which is the best starting point for independent travellers to the caves of Tham Kong Lo In these caves is one of the longest underground rivers in the world. The length is a little bit more that seven kilometres, and you can navigate this river by canoe. The caves are beautiful and indeed one of the most special natural wonders in Laos.

By canoe through the underground river of Tham Kong Lo
The bus ride to the Laotian capital of Vientiane is relaxed. The environment doesn’t change a lot and stays mainly sad and colourless. We spent several days in Vientiane to see the highlights of the cities. The city is laidback, but not very special. We got to know the Laotian people by now as friendly and quiet people. Most travellers find that the Laotians are friendlier than the Cambodians, but that is a thesis that we do not support. We found the Cambodians open and laughing people, while the Laotians are more closed and reserved. The faces are often expressionless, probably as result of the ongoing communist regime. After Vientiane we travelled further north to the town of Luang Prabang. This is the tourist draw of Laos. It is a former King’s city and is by now added to the Unesco’s list of World Heritage Sites. The town is indeed very nice, but lost a lot of its authenticity. Most of the life that is going on in the city is related to tourists. Most businesses are hotels, restaurants or souvenir shops. The number of tourists is huge and dramatic. They are available in all genres, from young backpackers with tattoo’s, to old men and women who are trying to climb the stairs of a temple with their walking stick.

Luang Prabang became a mix between an open air museum and an amusement park. What the damage is that tourism can cause to a city, is especially visible when you go in the morning into the streets to see the mendicant route of the monks. The mendicant route means that all monks of the city, walk a route in the early morning through the city, to receive food in the form of a donation from Buddhist residents. The residents do this to increase their karma. This is one of the highlights of any visit to Luang Prabang and for that reason tourist come into the streets early in the morning to put it on film. Dazzled by the thought to make a picture of National Geographic quality, many tourists lose all the respect for the local culture and traditions. Tourist do not keep an appropriate distance, use the flash of their camera, put the lenses in the faces of the monks, and even lay down flat on the ground to make a picture with a frog perspective. It seems to be so sad, that some tourists don’t want to walk a lot, with the result that they follow the mendicant route by tourist bus. And the sad thing is, people can not say that they didn’t know that it is not the right thing to do. Everywhere in the city you will find posters where local authorities ask tourist to show some respect for the local culture and values. But it doesn’t seem to help. We wonder how long it will take before the government intervenes. Maybe never, because as often: money talks.

Monks just after their swim in the Mekong River

Our last stretch in Laos is the boat ride over the Mekong River from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai. This is probably the most touristy boat ride you can make in Southeast Asia. We had the plan to make a boat trip over the Nam Tha River (from the town of Luang Nam Tha), but unfortunately, the river level was too low. So we decided to join the backpackers and embarked to boat to Huay Xai. The trip is done in two long days, of then hours each. The night is spent in the small village Pak Beng, somewhere in the middle of the trip. The route over the Mekong River is nice, but not as special as most travel books want you to believe. Most forests are gone as result of the deal that is made between Laos and China. China agreed to construct some roads in Laos, in exchange for unlimited access to the Laotian forests. And again we can’t repress the thought: “the world is being ruined”.


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