The next step of our journey, further north, is to Luang Prabang, the ancient capital city of Laos, sitting on the Mekong and surrounded by mountains. The journey takes 6 to 10 hours, depending on how you elect to travel there – local bus, air-con coach or minibus. We opted for the minibus – the fastest option – which cost us a massive $8 each. Because four of us were travelling together, along with 2 others from the same guest house, we had our own minibus, rather than being cramped in with 20 other people – definitely a bonus when the road got windy and twisty half an hour out of town. And it stayed that way for the next 6 hours!
Although Laos was badly affected by the Vietnam War, there don’t seem to be many signs of militarization in this part of the country. Of course, there’s the usual posters and placards celebrating the great sacrifice made by the army to forge the People’s Democratic Republic, with goose-stepping soldiers waving flags around, but in real life there are few uniformed signs of the military. But in the hills north of the capital is where the Mhong villagers have been fighting a sporadic campaign against the government. A year ago it even got as far as some of the rebels taking a few pot shots at passing buses.
So now, armed militiamen prowl the edges of the road, casually carrying AK47’s and RPG’s, in a show of strength to keep the rebels away. And with armed men seems to come corruption, with the minibus driver having to drop packets of cigarettes at each militia post we passed.
The Mhong (or some say Hmong) villages which we passed through we some of the most basic we’d seen anywhere. They all clung to the side of the road, perched over the mountainsides, because they could get electricity that way. But they had no running water or other conveniences, and seemed poorer than many of the villages we’d seen in India.
All of the houses were really basic – reed walls surrounding floors built on stilts. Out of the back was a drop of a few hundred feet, and out of the front was the edge of the road – they literally stepped into it as they left their front doors. In the afternoon, as we passed through each village, the women were gathered at the pump, filling buckets with drinking water, and washing themselves and their clothes right alongside the road.
As it is the middle of the dry season, the fabulous mountain views have disappeared, to be replaced by the white smoky haze created by the slash-and-burn fires in the area. Apparently we’re luck – in March it gets so bad that people are constantly coughing, and almost wears a handkerchief over the faces. It was a sad journey, for all of these reasons, on top of which was the road, a narrow strip of tarmac wide enough for a single vehicle in many places, and twisting all over the ridges of the mountains. We were all glad to get into Luang Prabang and get out of our seats!