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travelling in laos (another letter from abroad)

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Excerpts from a long letter sent by Katheryn & David who are on their annual buying trip through Asia. Unfortunately, I’m unable to unzip the photos they sent.

Laos is a wonderful country; so far I’ve only met one person who didn’t like it, and he was Austrian, and bitter. Usually we justify a few weeks here by traveling up to Luang Prabang, and buying as many hand-woven scarves as we can carry from our friend Sukhsavanh. Laos is entirely landlocked, with a long, relatively-skinny neck in the south supporting a sideshow-bobstar-burst head in the north that reminds Katheryn of the profile of Side-Show Bob. The star-burst head part has the topography of a crumpled ball of paper, and is stunningly beautiful. The long neck follows the wide vein of the Mekhong River, with the eastern border being a spine of mountains separating Laos from Vietnam. In previous trips we have crossed through Savanakhet and Lak Xao in the middle of the neck, coming and going from Vietnam, but we have never been in the far south.

A 5:45 am train from Bangkok gets us effortlessly to Ubon in eastern Thailand by 2:30 pm. The plan is to do it the easy way, and take the last “Friendship Bus” of the day at 3:30 straight to Pakse, Laos, in time for a cold sunset Beer Lao on the Mekhong. Within moments of leaving Ubon station, the plan has gone awry. I am expecting some motorcycle-based form of taxi to take us the ten km to the appropriate bus station. Instead a lanky cowboy solicits us, and agrees (too readily) on a good price and hustles us out to his  pick-up. A few minutes later we are at a place where transportation leaves from, but it is definitely not the station I had clearly insisted on. It’s a songtaew stand, home of the very-local pickups with two wooden benches in the back for passengers.

There is a lot of commotion, and negotiating, some recriminations, and finally we accept that resistance is futile, and we are crammed into the back of a songtaew heading to some place half way to the Laos border. There we are met by a larger, rougher laos-busvehicle doing the next 40 km to the frontier at Chong Mek. This is a 5-ton truck with wooden benches, and it’s excruciatingly slow. Still, the locals are friendly, and school kids are riding on the roof, and eventually it get us close enough that we can walk the rest of the way to Laos. As it turns out the “Friendship Bus” and its load of much smarter travelers then us arrive just as we check through immigration, and I am able to slip the driver a few baht to take us the last 40 km into Pakse.

Pakse has the last reliable and affordable communication with the rest of the world that we will have for some time to come, and we have to stay a couple extra days making phone calls to India and sending off emails done in caps lock titled URGENT RESPOND IMMEDIATELY or some such variation of attention grabber. When we are satisfied our laos-mekhonggoods have been set in motion we head south to Champasak, a small town 30 km away on the other (west) bank of the Mekhong.

Back in the time when huge snake-kings ruled in under water realms below the river, a prominent natural rock formation on top of a mountain here was believed to be the linga (penis) of the god Shiva. Even before the Khmers to the south were building Angkor Wat, Champasak was the capital of a powerful Hindu kingdom. Nothing is left of it now except for one extraordinary temple, now a ruin, from the 10th C.

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