Into Laos, where life takes a more simple turn

The border crossing into the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos passes smoothly. 35US dollars and a few forms later, and we’re procured ourselves a months visa. As our time is running out, we’ll only be using up a couple of weeks of it to ride down to the capital, Vientiane, from where we’ll be catching the night train to Bangkok, and our flight home. We cross paths with a few logging trucks, loaded with thick, long trunks of hardwood bound for China. There’s a reason. Most of the paved roads in the north of the country were financed by Chinese logging companies, to feed China’s insatiable appetite for raw resources. Even if it means stripping Laos bare…

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We’re still riding with Christof, and together we make our way to Na Maw, the first sizeable-looking town on our map. In China, even the smallest settlements marked are now generally large, identi-kit towns crammed with a strip of restaurants, ugly hotels, and a colourful and aromatic goods-packed market. But here in Laos, everything bar the few larger cities is little more than a collection of sprawling wooden, bamboo or mud-structured villages, often candlelit or powered by generators at night. Living conditions have suddenly become far more basic. In the darkness, we find ourselves a simple guesthouse for the night – a couple of hard beds and a mosquito net with a little veranda – and dine on some rubbery chicken. It’s a meal that’s far removed from our banquets in China; dogs weave through our legs hoovering up any scraps, and are less picky about all the gristle that defeats us.

In fact, it’s a huge transformation from one country to the other. Concrete buildings have largely been replaced by wooden ones on stilts, wrapped in wicker lattices, and cultivated fields by rolling jungle scenery and palm leaves. There’s barely a car on the road. Naked and semi-clad children, on the other hand, are everywhere, cheeping like chicks in unison, both ‘sabadi’ – the Laotian greeting – and ‘bye bye’ – whenever we pass. Scampering out of bamboo huts to get a closer look at us and waving frantically for attention. So, no one child policy round here. Women bathe in the rivers or at communal taps in the villages, wraped up in sarongs to cover themselves. Piglets scruffle about under the stilted houses, and roosters squawk whatever time of day it may be.

In the morning, some young novice monks in orange tunics and yellow sashes, their heads shaved, walk through the village collecting alms, offering a few half hearted prayers in return. The street is soon filled with a texture of noises: radios warbling, alarm-clock roosters, kids yelling, loudspeaker announcements, trucks rumbling past and thai pop… By chance, we meet an English speaking Laotian working for a mining company, who draws us a map of an unpaved backroute to Phungsali we’d been considering, set in the tribal north of the country.

Perfect. Just the kind of adventure we’re after…

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Christof discreetly took a photo of the novices. Like most children, they’re didn’t look particularly pleased to be up so early…

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