After trekking about Thailand with our fellow Contiki travelers, it was time to leave the relative Land of Westernization behind and head into the truly wild.
If you had told us one day we would be taking a riverboat through Laos and then strutting about in Cambodia we would have punched you straight in your face.
Because that is how we were raised to deal with liars. Swiftly and decisively.
But here we were crossing the border into Laos, which consists of having your passport stamped on the Thai side of things, boarding a tiny little motorized canoe and zipping across the Mekong river several hundred yards.
Welcome to Laos baby.
CROSSING THE NEUTRAL ZONE
Once on the other side you line up in what can best be described as “chaos” on the Laotian border crossing. Laos is an extremely poor country and tourism is a relatively new phenomenon, particularly in the rural areas.
As a result they aren’t equipped for the influx of tourists from all over the world lining up to see the sights of their lovely land. So we all stood in line for what seemed like hours, winding up a staircase, across an outdoor waiting room and up to a wicket.
We handed over our passport to a grim faced border guard who then motioned for us to go stand in a group of about 50 worried looking and newly temporarily passportless tourists.
Nothing freaks out a backpacker like taking away their passport – no matter what the reason. As a result everyone crammed against the glass nervously shifting their weight from foot to foot and waiting for their international identity to come safely home to roost.
At this point the second phase of the chaos – described hereafter as the “no rhyme or reason visa issuance department” took over.
Having no desire to try and pronounce the unintelligible European and Western names, the military border guards simply held the passport up to the window once your visa had been approved.
The group of people huddled around were left to squint and strain to make out their passport from a couple dozen feet away.
If some kind traveler closer to the bulletproof glassed wicket didn’t take pity and yell out your handle, you might never see what was going on at the window and could remain there for hundreds of years.
When some kind soul did call out someone’s name “Thomas Somecat – Australia!” shrieks of delight could be heard as the lucky winner pushed their way up to the front of the crowd and into Laos.
TOURISM MEANS BIG BAD BUSINESS
We were lucky enough to have some chats with English speaking local Laotians and found that many are shocked by the influx of tourists and their seemingly synonymous demands for alcohol, drugs and prostitution.
Tourism is a double edged sword in the remote towns of Laos and Cambodia. While it provides a much needed influx of capital it is also dark and destructive for the mostly local Buddhist culture and forever changes these sleepy places.
One bar in the tiny town of Pakbeng – above – was little more than a dark room and a laptop hooked up to the speakers. Yet as they were the only bar in town and our riverboat had ported there for the night, they were able to charge $4 US to those looking for beers.
At the same time there were a bevy of local ladies cloistered in the corner, batting their eyes seductively and selling services you could never discuss at Thanksgiving dinner with the family.
All the while a group of local toughs walked slowly by the front patio the entire night, motioning to patrons and yelling out the different products they were selling.
As a fella gangsterly dressed in a Lil Wayne tee shirt, we must have seemed to be an easy mark as we were offered everything from weed to heroin to dolphin blood to be freebased directly through our eyeball and into our bloodstream.
For the record we passed on all of the above but absolutely CRUSHED their tiny supply of Rice Vodka and orange Fantas.
IMAGINE THE REVERSE
As we sipped our “vodka and orange” we couldn’t help but ponder how we would feel if the situation was reversed. Say we were kicking it in an economically depressed town on the North Saskatchewan River.
All of a sudden boatloads of Laotians were stopping in for the evening as their watercraft halted for the night and they began drunkenly roaming our tiny town looking for all the trouble that their wallets full of cash could buy.
What would we think of the travelers after a few years? What would we make of local ladies being inducted into the oldest profession on earth? What of the kids we grew up with suddenly becoming super drug dealers only too happy to peddle the different flavours to the new arrivals? Would we resent them and consider them to be destroying what was once a peaceful way of life?
On the other hand we would may appreciate the sudden economic activity. There is little else you could do with an empty room, a laptop and a sound system that could ring out the kinds of numbers the Hill Bar in Pakbeng was making that night.
A backpacker bar or tiny restaurant is cheap to set up and very lucrative if enough people stop in. Hundreds of these types of small businesses are are doing big business in areas with very limited prospects. But at a pretty high price to the quality of life for many of these folks.
Besides not every tourist is looking for anything stronger than the Strongest Bucket in Laos and fewer still are looking to find comfort in the arms of a Professional. Tourism didn’t invent drugs and prostitution but it certainly does supercharge it.
We were impressed in both Laos and Cambodia with how nice and how helpful the locals were. In their shoes, we don’t think we would be nearly as kind to some giant white dude walking around with a permanent beer in his hand.
While our guard was initially up for pickpockets, trick-scammery or worse we didn’t feel anything but 100% safe the entire time.
They did however have hilarious hotel rules that they demanded everyone follow. #5 and #6 strike us as particularly hilarious and should be adopted by hotels worldwide.
Actual stuff that happened on the tour and a reprieve from our socio-economic musings.
And by request and our earlier promises: the spider eating. We promise.
OH YES AND
Happy Valentine’s Day Jordan Eberle.
That box of hair you get delivered from the Thai Postal Service is from yours truly. Hopefully you like it, we have been carefully collecting it all year.