The last couple of days have been a change – pretty much flat, though I have had a relentless headwind. I can tell I am getting closer to Vietnam – the trucks are honking their horns quite a bit more. Also, there are significantly fewer stray dogs – today I saw something which made me feel a bit sick. I had read about it last night, so quoting the Lonely Planet guide for Laos –
“The dog trade begins in north eastern Thailand, where stray dogs are caught on a daily basis by what locals and journalists consider a local mafia. The vast majority of Thais actually eschew the idea of eating dog meat, but contribute to the trade nonetheless, alerting dog catchers of stray dogs in exchange for cash or plastic buckets. The trade is technically illegal, but local police choose to look the other way, claiming that stopping the drug trade or illegal immigration is a better use of their resources.
A typical truck can hold as many as 1000 dogs, with five or more crammed into each cage. The dogs aren’t fed or given water during the trip, and many die along the way. We encountered one of these trucks during our research and the sight of dead dogs and the smell of fur and excrement coupled with the constant howling and fighting was disturbing.
Arriving in Vietnam, the dogs can be worth 10 times the price for which they were obtained in Thailand, making the trade highly lucrative. It’s estimated that this particular trade in dog meat is worth US$3.6 million a year.”
It was one thing reading about it, but seeing/smelling/hearing it is quite another. I think I’d better learn the Vietnamese for “No dog meat”!!
Like normal I have been getting up early to start riding in the cool of the morning, though thankfully the days are not as hot as the last few weeks. Early mornings in Laos are a lot quieter than in Thailand and as a result it is harder to get some food, even after 2 hours of pedalling at 8 am.It has been interesting seeing the significant amount of development along route 13, though almost all of it is Chinese (the Chinese script is totally different from Lao). This is obviously benefiting the local economy, but I can’t help thinking China is exploiting the developing country that is Laos. The big news in S.E. Asia in the past few days has been that newly issued Chinese passports include a map of China’s territory, which includes disputed waters off the coast of Vietnam and the Philippines. As a result, both countries are refusing to stamp these new style passports, instead issuing visas on separate pieces of paper.
I stayed a night in one of Laos’s hydro-electric boom towns – Khoun Kham which seems to have a ridiculous number of guesthouses, as well as several ‘work camp’ settlements which popped up for the hydro workers. I got chatting to a couple of locals outside their shop (where a glass of Beer Lao was thrust in my hand for the third time that day) who were civil engineers on the hydro project. After a while chatting about the local area and Laos’s plans to turn itself into a hydro electric nation powering S.E. Asia, I got accused of being an NGO which I found quite quite amusing.. “You are not like other tourists…” I think that’s a compliment. I’ll take it as such anyway!
The next day was nothing short of spectacular scenery passing between two high jagged ridges. The whole area however was full of fenced off sections of land – pretty much everywhere that wasn’t road or a village. Unexploded bombs has basically made the entire area a no go area. It certainly made stopping at the side of the road for a pee a bit more of an adventure than normal….
Most likely the last night I am spending in Laos is in a town called Lak Xao (direct translation 20km, which is rather confusing as it’s not 20km from anything significant). It’s another dust bowl town with a thriving market and something not seen for several days – a roundabout. By the way it is navigated though, it looks like most people have never seen one in their life…For dinner I opted for the tried and tested method of going to somewhere that looks busy. Getting my phrase book out resulted in much confusion until I realised everyone was Vietnamese, not Lao. Showing an interest in the dish that was on one of the tables, the family of at least 8 insisted I joined them (I have a feeling it was dog meat – It certaily didn’t taste of any red meat I’ve had before). Much frustrated communication and laughing followed and at the end they refused to take any kind of payment. I bought a bottle of water and refused any kind of change. Another random night with fantastic people. They were very different from the Lao people – more forward and direct, but still friendly with it.
The next morning I headed up to the Lao border with Vietnam where I was pretty much the first one through, as everyone else had to get their vehicles checked. Amazingly, I managed to get through without forking out any bribes. I think they must have cleaned up their act following the slating the border crossing gets in the Laos Lonely Planet.
First impressions of Vietnam are good – friendly people, not getting ripped off like I expected (perhaps that’s just the touristy places). I can’t seem to exchange my Laos money (kip) for Vietnam money (dong) though.I can buy it using over 10 currencies, but can’t sell anywhere! So if anyone know’s what I should do with half a million Lao kip, let me know.