Laos

Laos Currency:

Official rate:
US$1 = 250 kip

Street price
US$1 = 500 kip

Equivalent to sterling
£1 = 600 kip / 1200 kip

Wednesday 8th January 1969

The first thing we saw of Laos was a large sign at the top of the river bank saying "Bienvenue a Laos" Once the boat had docked at the jetty on the Laos side we had to climb the steep embankment up wooden steps to Laos immigration.

Neither of us had shaved since our visas had been issued and by now our stubble was starting to look like beards. Despite the dire warnings from the Lao Consul in Bangkok, the immigration officer wasn't the least bit concerned about our beards and stamped our passports with barely a second look. We tried to change some money, but the immigration officer told us to wait until we got into Vientiane because the rate at the border was not good. The official exchange rate in the bank was 250 kip to the US dollar, and for traveller's cheques that was all we could expect, but for cash on the street the rate was 500 kip. It was possible to change money in almost any shop and the street rate was so widely used that if anybody went into a bank to change cash they would be advised to go elsewhere. It was a strange state of affairs. For this reason I have called it the 'street rate' rather than the 'black market' rate.

There was no traffic around and we were not sure on what side of the road they drove in Laos. Being a former French colony I assumed that they would drive on the right, but with their main trade being with Thailand, it was also possible that they would drive on the left. Undecided, we stood on the left side of the road to wait for something to come along. Within a few minutes a truck came along down the centre of the road and we stuck our thumbs out for a lift. The driver stopped and we clambered into the back. We didn't need to ask where he was going because there was only one road and traffic going in that direction could only be going into Vientiane, eleven kilometres away. The driver's steering wheel was on the left, which gave us a clue that they probably drove on the right, but we still watched with eager anticipation for oncoming traffic to see which side of the road he moved to. When he eventually met something going the opposite direction, he pulled over to the right, confirming that the French influence had prevailed.

The driver dropped us off somewhere in Vientiane. Not having a map of the town we were not sure where the cheap hotels where so we dusted off our best school French and asked some people if they knew where we could find a hotel "bon marche" (very cheap). Much to our surprise they understood us. They took us to their car and drove us to the Hotel Vieng Vilay, where after a bit of haggling we got a room for 300 kip per night each.

Once again, we had to share a double bed, but it was a really king size bed, so it wouldn't be too much of a problem. We also had the almost unheard luxury of a wash basin in the room. The first thing we did was to try to put up our mosquito nets, but the nails were just a bit too far away for our strings to reach, so we tried to move the bed. As we pulled the bed away from the wall the whole thing collapsed. There was an American in the room next door and when he heard the crash he came in to see what it was. When he saw what we had done he just collapsed laughing. With his help we managed to put it back together again and we even managed to get our nets up.

The next thing was to change some money and go for a meal. There was no trouble finding somewhere to change money. Because there were so many people vying for our valuable dollars we thought we would be able to haggle for a slightly better rate, but the rate was 500 and even though we tried a number of places, nobody would budge from that figure.

After we had eaten we returned to the hotel to write some letters home. My hands were a bit greasy from the meal so I went over to the sink to rinse them. As I was turning the tap to run the water, the sink fell off the wall and the lead supply pipe cracked. Water started spraying everywhere and the more I tried to stop it, the faster it seemed to run. The American next door hearing the commotion came in to see if he could help. When he saw what was happening he once again folded up laughing. It seems that have us move in next door was the main source of his entertainment in Vientiane. I ran downstairs and brought the concierge up to sort it out. He went out of the room again, presumably to the stop tap because a few minutes later the water stopped running. Having cut the water off he removed the sink and sealed up the broken end of the pipe, promising to fix it again tomorrow. That was the last we saw of the sink because he never returned to fix it again while we were staying there.

The next morning when Louis went out to get some bread for breakfast he returned with a French baguette that had cost just 50 kip. It was so delicious that I then went out to get another one. We then went to try to get some information about boats along the Mekong. We had been told that there were regular freight barges travelling down the Mekong to Savanaket, so our first call was to the office of the large French shipping line Messageries Maritimes. They referred us to the tourist office, who told us where the river freight boats departed from. We caught a bus to the dock where they were moored and enquired as to when the next boat was going to leave. We discovered that next boat to Savanaket was not due out for another six days. Rather than wait around Vientiane for almost a week we decided that we would have to hitch hike to Savanaket. There were busses, but they were very ramshackle and from what I had heard about them, they were also very uncomfortable. We would try to hitch hike and if we found we were unable to get lifts then we could always get on a bus. No matter how many people they piled on board, they were never full and could always find room for a few more, even if it meant travelling on the roof.

We had spoken to a few people in the Thai Song Greet who had done the trip and had heard a few conflicting reports as to how safe it was, mainly because the road between Vientiane and Savanaket was crossed by the so called 'Ho Chi Minh trail'. There was a unconfirmed story going around about an American who tried to hitch hike south through Laos and apparently came across a group of Viet-Cong who demanded to see his passport. When they discovering he was an American they beat him up, robbed him of everything he had, and left him naked at the side of the road. At least they didn't kill him. The consensus of opinion was that whether the story was true or not, because American and Australian troops were fighting in Vietnam it was not safe for them hitch hike, but citizens of other non-involved countries were quite safe. Britain had declared that they were not prepared to get involved with the war in Vietnam, so we should be safe (we hoped).

We spent the next day looking around Vientiane, which didn't take too long. It was a sleepy sort of place and the French influence was very evident in the tree-lined streets and general architecture. We went to the morning market, but it was about 11 o-clock when we arrived and it was obviously a very early morning market because the last few stalls were just packing away by the time we arrived. We also went to see a monument that had the nickname "The Vertical Airstrip". I don't remember the real name, but it got its nickname because US Aid had given Laos a sum of money to lengthen the airport runway. The powers that be decided that the runway was already long enough for the planes that currently use it and didn't see the need to have a massive runway capable of landing intercontinental flights, so they spent the money on a tall monument instead, hence the name - vertical airstrip.

The next day paid our hotel bill and checked out. We managed to get the bill reduced by 50 kip each per night to compensate for the missing wash basin. Before setting out we bought a load of sweets to eat on the way and a melon to eat straight away. We caught a bus out of town then started hitching and got two lifts in quick succession to Thadeu, the customs post where we stopped to have a cold drink. They told us that this was not the main road South, but not to worry too much because it would join up with the main road soon, though there wouldn't be as much traffic. Despite this we got our next lift after waiting only 10 minutes from the first car that came along. Not long after the customs post, the sealed road ran out and from here on we would be travelling on dirt roads. Although there was very little traffic along the roads, whatever came would stop to pick us up if they had room. The driver of our second lift spoke excellent English, having lived in America for two years. He went out of his way to take us 30 km to Nason.

The next place was a river crossing called Ban Hai. There are very few bridges in Laos and whenever the road has to cross a river there is a ferry. These ferries can usually only carry a few cars or one truck at a time, so sometime a small queue builds up. There are usually a few shops and eating places at these ferries on each side of the river selling drinks and food to the waiting drivers. The lift that took us to Ban Hai was only going to deliver to the shops at the ferry and once we had crossed over we had to get off and start hitching again. We had to wait over two hours to get the next lift because all the vehicles coming across the ferry were full of people. While waiting we were able to relax and read, after all we always had about a quarter of an hour's notice when a vehicle came across on the ferry. One of the locals even offered to put us up for the night if we hadn't managed to get a lift by nightfall. Fortunately we didn't have to take them up on their offer because we managed to get a lift in an army truck to Thabok where we decided to stay for the night.

We started to look for somewhere to stay and some locals offered to put us up for the night. The whole family lived in what was like a large thatched hut. The children tried to teach us to count in Lao and we tried to teach them in English. Needless to say, the children learned much better than we did. We also taught them a few sentences of English and they picked it up very well.The parents slept in their own room, but the rest of the family and what appeared to be a few friends slept on the floor in the main room. It was not long after 8 o-clock when we all settled down for the night. There was no electricity and it made sense to get to bed soon after dark and wake up by a cock crowing at first light the next morning.

Although it was still very early, by the time we got up everybody else had been up for ages. I went out to get a wash and when I returned Lou was already eating breakfast. After we said our goodbyes to our hosts, who refused to accept any money from us, we walked to the edge of the small town and started hitching near a small café. While waiting for something to come along we had a drink of ovaltine. A petrol tanker stopped, but only had room for one of us. We didn't want to split up but the driver indicated that there was another tanker not long behind and that he would pick the other one up. I agreed to let Lou go in the first tanker and waited for the next one, but when it came along a few minutes later, it was full and went straight past. I had to wait for more than an hour before a jeep came along and gave me a lift to the road junction at Paksan where Louis and I had arranged to meet.

Louis was waiting at the road junction for me. We were now back on the main route to Savanaket, not that it looked any different or busier. It was still a dirt road and didn't seem any wider than the one we had just come along. Louis had managed to buy some melon and bread and we tucked into it for our lunch. While we waiting for something to come along, a formation of bombers flew over heading East, presumably American Air Force flying out of a base somewhere in Thailand, on their way to bomb North Vietnam. Not long after they had flown over we could hear in the distance what sounded like "crump, crump crump", which was probably the sound of the bombs being dropped on the Vietcong positions. Shortly after that the planes flew over again on their return journey. While we waited there, formations went over and back again quite regularly, and each time we could clearly hear the bombs being dropped in Vietnam, which was not all that far away.

There was also the armoured tank like crawling insect that started to make its way across the road. It looked like a large beetle and was about an inch and a half long. We both watched it with interest as it zig-zagged its way towards us. When it was half way over, a car came past and one of the wheels went right over it. We thought that would be the end of it and after the car had gone we expected to see squashed beetle on the road, but it was still walking along as though nothing had happened. When it got near to us we both tried stamping on it just to see if it really was as tough as it appeared, but it completely ignored us and just carried on unperturbed by us both to stamping and jumping on it and eventually it disappeared into the undergrowth.

Our next lift was in a Peugeot estate car. There were already five men in the car and we climbed into the back and sat on some crates with our luggage between us. The car didn't have Lao number plates and I couldn't work out where they were from. The men didn't seem very friendly and before we had gone very far they demanded to see our passports. When they saw we were British their attitude changed and they became very friendly. They wouldn't say where they were from and just laughed when we asked them. They drove very fast over the corrugated dirt road and before long we came to a ferry where there was by Lao standards a long queue. There were cars, trucks and busses all waiting to cross and hawkers were going up and down the queue selling all sorts of thing. The driver bought us a can of beer each, the first beer we had drunk since leaving Bangkok. One of the busses that pulled alongside us in the queue there were some Australian girls we had met at the TSG and we chatted to them through the window. Their bus was packed and they had paid 1500 kip each for the fare to Savanaket. They told us that the bus didn't seem to have any suspension and the ride was the most uncomfortable they had ever been on. Our lift wasn't much better but at least we were seeing much more of Lao life and it wasn't costing us anything.

I got out for walk while the car was in the queue and after asking some of the locals I discovered that the car we were in had North Vietnamese number plates. This left me feeling very concerned about the contents of the crates we were sitting on. Once we had crossed the river they drove non stop until just after Thakek, where we were dropped us off at the side of the road, they then turned left down an almost invisible track and disappeared into the bush in an Easterly direction. When we looked at the map we discovered that in relation to Vietnam, the spot where they had picked us up was just to the north of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). They had driven around the DMZ on the Laos side of the border where they could travel freely and we were now just to the south of the DMZ. Presumably they were now heading East to infiltrate into South Vietnam. Thinking back to when they had demanded to see our passports I suddenly realised that probably the story of the American hitch hiker was true after all.

It was mid afternoon when we were dropped off and we stood at the side of the road for ages, but nothing came along with any room in it. There was a village a few hundred metres off the road and a few of children came to watch us. I noticed that one girl had a splinter in the back of her hand so I used the tweezers in my first aid kit to remove it. She went away again and shortly afterwards came back with her mother who had brought a meal for us. The girl was now carrying a baby girl and she had what seemed to be an infected cut on the palm of her hand. The cut was full of dirt and I used one of my antiseptic pads to clean it out, then put a sticking plaster over the wound. Before long we were surrounded by loads of people with a variety of ailments all hoping that we would be able to cure them. We still didn't have a lift so one of the locals went and got his car to take us into town. Half way there he stopped and left us in the car while he went into a house. He wasn't in there very long but when he came out again he seemed to be in a trance.

We decided not to carry on with him and got out of the car. We then discussed where we were going to spend the night, as it was now getting dark. Louis wanted to walk back to the road junction and see if the people from the village would put us up, while I wanted to walk further into town and find somewhere to stay. We had an argument about it that I eventually won. We started walking into town and asked a man if they knew where there was a hotel. Detecting our poor quality school French, he answered us in fluent English and offered to let us spend the night in his house which was not too far away. We walked to his house and put our bags inside. He then excused himself because he had somewhere to go so we decided to go out to find a place where we could eat. He directed us the bus station that was nearby and we had a meal in café just opposite. While we were eating we got talking to a doctor who also spoke excellent English. He bought us a drink and moved over to our table to join us. We chatted for at least an hour and when we got up to go the doctor paid our bill.

Back at the house, the owner introduced us to his wife, then showed us to a room with two really comfortable beds in it. There were no nails in the wall to hang our nets and we spent ages getting them up. We even had one corner tied to our packs. Washing facilities were crude. We had to scoop some water out of a large earthenware pot and get washed in a bowl. It was still only 8.30 pm by the time we got into bed, but in Laos everybody seems to turn in early.

In the morning our hosts gave us breakfast and also packed some bread for us to eat later. After a few lifts we stopped at a small village where we took a photograph of a group of children standing outside a typically Lao house. One of the children brought along a tame monkey and I held it while Lou took my photograph. He took ages setting up his camera during which time the monkey shit all over me - twice, much to the amusement of the children. We soon got a lift in a US aid truck all the way to Savanaket, where we were dropped off in the centre of the town.

Savanaket was a bustling place, much busier than Vientiane. Presumably because there was a frontier with Thailand nearby and Savanaket was the border town. Unlike Vientiane where the river could only be crossed by boat, there was either a ferry or bridge over the Mekong at this crossing, because there were plenty of trucks and cars in the town with Thailand registration numbers.

We started to walk out of the town and soon got a lift in the back of a truck full of tyres all the way to Pakse. Another passenger on the truck was a Lao student who was studying English and he spent the whole way getting some free practice. The road was very bumpy and sitting on top of the tyres the bumps were amplified. It was very hard on my back and to compound things even more, I was suffering from regular stomach cramps. I had been constipated for the last few days, probably due to the condition of the toilets we had been using I somehow didn't feel like going. After bouncing up and down on the tyres and the cramps, I was really glad when we finally arrived in Pakse just as the sun was setting.

In Bangkok we had been advised to spend the night in a Wat (Budhist temple) by the river. The monks were delighted to allow us to stay and crowded around to practice their English on us. I hadn't showered since leaving Vientiane and was desperate for a good wash, so I stripped down to my underpants and went down to the river to bathe. The part of the embankment we were on was very slippery and before I knew what was happening I had slid down into the river, followed close behind by Louis. We took advantage of the situation and had a good wash and a swim around before going back to the Wat. Because our towels had gone into the river with us, we had to dry naturally in the warm night air before we could get dressed again.

The guy in Bangkok had also recommended us to eat in the Hong Ky restaurant, which we eventually managed to find with a bit if difficulty. The meal was awful, but the owner Jesse Cheng spoke fluent English and was able to give us some good information about the road to the Cambodian border. He even said he could get us some Cambodian money at a very good rate. He gave us some string to put up our mosquito nets and we arranged to come back again the next morning when he said he would have the Cambodian money for us. It was after 10 by the time we left the restaurant and the streets were deserted. We got back to the Wat and using our new string we put up our nets and went to sleep on the reed flooring.

Tuesday 14th January 1969
We got up at 7 and went for a swim in the river. Our towels had dried out overnight and this time we were careful not to go near the slippery bit. We then went to the Hong Ky for breakfast, but by the time we were ready to leave, Jesse had still not arrived and nobody else knew anything about changing money. We didn't want to wait around so we started walking.

We got a series of lifts and eventually ended up at a road junction where any traffic that came along would turn off before it got to us. Eventually we got a lift in a truck. Lou got in the back but the driver wanted one of us in the cab. It soon became obvious why. There was no windscreen and the door kept flying open once or twice a minute. My job was to keep closing it again and I was kept busy throughout that lift continuously slamming the door. The driver had said he was going to the border, but when we got to Khinak he stopped and told us to change to another truck that he was going to travel in from there.

In the next truck there was a German guy we had met in the TSG in Bangkok. He had been waiting for the driver to come along and we were soon on our way. The driver took us round to the immigration office to get our passports stamped out of Laos, then headed for the border. On the way we picked up two more hitch hikers who were walking along the road, a Kiwi who introduced himself as Titch and an Australian called Mike Phillips who was a medical student in Perth.

Five kilometres down the road we came to a passport check. We all had to get out to have our passports checked, and to make sure that we had got them stamped back in Khinak. The official started writing all the details in a big book and it was taking ages. After he had taken Louis and Mike's details, the driver said he couldn't wait any longer and drove off without Titch and Me. As the truck was leaving Louis shouted that he would wait for us at the border. We had to wait patiently for the official to write everything down in his book before we could leave. Our luggage had gone with the truck so we didn't have to carry it and once we had our passports handed back we set of on a 6 kilometre walk to the border. While we walked no other traffic passed so we couldn't hitch hike and we had to walk all the way. Not having to carry our luggage we were able to make good time and despite the heat we covered the distance in a little over an hour.

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