26 days   summer 03

Kind of travel: alone in a wholly independent travel

When: heart of the wet season (2003 summer)

How I moved: by minibus, by bus, by pirogues and by moped

Where I slept: in dormitories and huts

What I liked: "not pushy at all" attitude of the people, feel a laid-back country, its safety, the low clouds on the green montains, tubing on the rivers, bathing in the waterfalls, hanging out by moped, the fellows I met....

What I dislike: the f...ing superhumidity and hotness, that made my brain melted.

What you do need: nothing more than few T-shirts, some pants, and, if you wanna enjoy the travel, don't bother for the hygenic local conditions and for the water snakes!


I don’t really know why it’s years that the idea of hanging out in Indochina buzzes in my mind; attracted by this cluster of nations so known as stages of some past human madness (from the ‘65-’73 war to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge), on the opposite so few mentioned in their actual situation.
At the beginning I was mainly focused on Vietnam and Cambodia, but then, for several reasons, despite already handing an expensive Vietnamese visa, I swapped the Hochi Min country with the earth of the elephant: Laos.
To fly to Bangkok rather than directly to my goals was the only way to save bunches of euros and if you add  I had to wait the Laotian visa for 5 days in the north of Thailand you figure out why part of my travel passed through the former country.



I prepared this trip for months before leaving: first of all reading pages and pages of funny reports to plan my itinerary and at the end I completely changed my way following my instinct and some funny fellows known on the road (thanks Leigh, thanks Enn). But this is the fun of travelling… "Travellers don’t know where they are going, while tourist don’t know where they have been"
Moreover I straived to carry just the indispensable stuff on my shoulders encompassing gears for my daily fight against supposed mosquito swarms. But evidently they were on holiday somewhere else and, as every travel (maybe even more than others), I utilised just a part of my 19 Kg bag….. this freaks my out every time I come back!!!!! (equipment tips)
I’ve promised myself next travel just two pairs of slip and a toothbrush (I’ll borrow the paste) in a plastic bag ;-))



Landed in Bangkok, still jetlagged and already sweat soaked, I jumped on a unexpected deluxe train heading to the north. The next morning I was in the exotic and touristy Chiang Mai where I spent some relaxant days waiting for my Lao visa and getting my feet massaged. My passport wandered through Thailand for four days before coming back to his fu**ing worried daddy in Huay Xai (the Lao border) at 7 am brought by a moped-boy coming from "whoknowswhere". Right here I crossed the Mekong river getting in Laos and experiencing a 30 years gap of development in 500 meters of water. No more roads here in Laos, in particular in the rainy season! That’s why I had to get packed for two days in a crowded (and touristy) slow boat to reach Luang Prabang. But I had fun, especially because most of the guys on the boat where travellers plenty of interesting stories experienced around the world. And what about the nice village of Pakbeng where the boat stops for the night?
No way to describe the charming Luang Prabang and the sublime noodle soups I had for breakfast, lunch and dinner.(read how I manage to cry eating a noodle soup!) Definitely it’s not the most off-of-the-beaten-track place I’ve ever seen, it’s really worthwhile though! I think it’s here I had my best days during this travel. In fact I knew Leigh (canadian no-fear guy) and Enn (dutch tough girl) who I travelled with for the next two weeks. Me and Leigh tasted every sort of thing was sold as food: the "snake juice" and even the unchewingable fried hen legs; but the point is that we appreciated most of them…. uhm… left alone the stinky dried rats; frankly I felt to throw up just glancing (and smelling) at them (read the funny story). The three of us decided to get to north to the Muang Ngoi Neua village where we sweated for some days, tubing down the river, swinging on the hammocks and watching the village kids playing,… I mean such things like hunting 3 m long water snakes ;-)). Then back to the civilisation, namely to the "built just for tourist" Vang Vieng and the nice Vientane. And south again till the four thousand island arcipelago at the border between Cambodia and Laos, where we settled down on an island for a bunch of days.
Here my travel fellows got caught by the idleness of sucking coconuts and drinking Lao Lao whisky laying down on a hammock overlooking the Mekong. If I had time… I’d be still there.. but Cambodia was waiting for me (bye bye dudes, I’ll miss you). It has been an hassle to cross the border (read!!) and I immediately experienced how these two countries differ.
Cambodia few years ago came out from a 30 years war, and this obviously cannot be devoid of consequences: while Laotians are far far more laid-back and smiling, in Cambodian I felt a kind of melancholy. It took one day to get to Stung Treng by a kind of wooden boat floating on the Mekong and this was definitely an off-of-the-beaten-track leg. I got well impressed by this colonial town far from everywhere, where I knew my first cambodian friend who took me to know his mother in the darkness of his "hut"(read). Then another day to Kompong Cham, still sailing, but now on the roof of a fast steel boat... no way, the first steel boat I’ve seen in the last 20 days!!
And finally one day more through the dusty bumpy roads of the flat Cambodia to get to the famous Siem Reap, where I stopped some days enjoying the eases to be in so a touristy place.
Then again on the road for the last bumpy hours before reaching the Thai border, where a four lane highway takes you to the crazy Bangkok, where I spent three days sweating and sorting out images, thoughts and memories crowding my mind.




"Laid back": definitely it is the right word to define Laos. When I crossed the border with Thailand in Huay Xai I felt to live a thirty years gap back to the past. The Thai tractors to cultivate the rice fields were substituted by the plough pulled by an ox, the well paved road by the rivers and the soft seats of the buses by steel benches fixed in the back part of the camions, but unliked Cambodia there was no confusion in all this.
While the north part of the country is characterised by steep and impenetrable mountains, the south is as flat as Cambodia. I think generally the north being wilder is more charming, but in the south there’re place like the four thousand islands archipelago that is worth to be visited. I was impressed by the safety of this country despite its poverty: I’ve never had or heard any problem as concerns stealing or scams, and the attitude doesn’t lead you even to suspect about it. Also the capital, Vientiane, that usually is the less safe place of the country, is calm and pleasant. Further the country is so cheap that hardly you’ll have to bargain like hell to save money, unless you are broken.
My best memory is the tubing, I mean floating down a river by the inner tube of a tractor, in a wild tributary of the Mekong in the north of Laos.
In conclusion to enjoy Laos you must go there with the purpose of admiring the atmosphere more than looking for some highlights, otherwise the risk is to get disappointed, instead of being charmed, by the simplicity of the country.



PS: If you’ve planned to go to Laos or to the North in July or August I hope you like sweating as hell. I mean that kind of humid hot that doesn’t let you to sleep unless a fan blows on your body the all night. Good luck!  



Funny stories








I was with Enn (tough Dutch girl) and Leigh (funny Canadian) when I spent some days in the village of Muang Ngoi Neua plunged in the mountainous green north of Laos. It was so hot and humid that we didn’t manage (frankly we didn’t even try) to do nothing but snoozing on the hammocks under the porch of the hut that was our accommodation. Time flied observing village life: men carving the wooden boats, fishing in the river, kids playing chasing each other, women pressing the corn, washing the clothes….I liked this simple quite life, disturbed just by the quick daily thunderstorms.
One of my best memory is the tubing we did in the river on whose bank is set the village. We rented a huge inner part of a tractor tyre and a boat took us some km upstream. Dropped off we just floated back to the village. It was wonderful being in the middle of this large red quite river that flows around steep wild mountains. We floated two hours in one of the most remote places I’ve never been. The riverbank is inaccessible: no hut, no trail, nothing. Just green dense forest everywhere. The sun was beating so much that several times I got off the tube and I swam in the river even if a little bit scaring. One funny thing happened after the tubing when we were laying down on the hammocks resting for the daily effort: a small kid passed in front of us grasping a kind of black stick. I got curious and coming near him I realised he was dragging a, at least 2 meters, dead water snake. The kid had caught it on the same river where, few hours before, I was enjoying my bath.
In the same village during the night me and Leigh didn’t sleep that much because of the noises. It was a kind of swish but I didn’t figure out the source. In the morning one of the first words I heard waking up was Leigh cursing since in the night time some strange animal had gnawed his cap that he had left on the floor. Which animal remained a mystery, but the next morning it was Enn’s turn, in fact her handbag got holed by the same animal who reached and stole her chewing gums.
We almost forgot about this, till the day we were on the way back to Luang Prabang sit on one of the truck lao people use as buses. A lady got on carrying a big stinky box that she put right in front of me. It was so stinky that I almost felt to throw up and one man was laughing looking at me. Still giggling he opened the box and picked up a big black flat stinky dried rat!!!!!!!!! Shit!! It is was so disgusting! Maybe not still happy he showed me the box full of such crap rats.
I still don’t know the purpose of drying the rats and carrying them to Luang Prabang, but since then I’ve not appreciated a meat noodle soup anymore.
At least I understood which animal was to blame for the gnawing in Muang Ngoi Neua.




I was just arrived in Chiang Mai trying to figure out how to get a Laotian visa as soon as possible when I met a woman, who run a hostel, saying she could provide it for 30 $. I decided to trust her (frankly I didn’t have other chances) and I left her my passport paying in advance. Unfortunately it was Friday hence there was no way to have it before Tuesday. It meant four days but, at least I could get it in Huay Xai, the town at the Lao border where she had another guesthouse. I was worried of separating from my document at the beginning of such long trip, having just a piece of paper as receipt and I was looking forward to get it back.
Time flied while I was hanging out in the north of Thailand thinking where my passport could be, like a daddy anxious for his kid. Finally it comes Monday and I went to the indicated guesthouse in this small town in the middle of nothing asking at what time I should have picked up my passport with the visa the day after.
"Boh?? Maybe at 7 a.m., maybe at 9 a.m., maybe at 11 am, maybe tomorrow"
"What?? But my boat to Luang Prabang is at 9 am and I’ve to buy the ticket in advance before it gets fullbooked!!!"
"Don’t worry you can buy the ticket anyway"
"That’s for sure,!!!! But what about getting back my money if I don’t receive my visa in time??"
Here started a persuasion about having promised they would have taken the ticket back. It was pouring the next morning at 6 am while I was standing in front of the guesthouse "reception" (I mean a scrap wooden table) plaguing the girl for my visa. I think she was eager to kick me my ass the fifth time I asked her how I would have known when my passport were received. But she didn’t and told me to be patience. Every minute to me seemed hours thinking about my boat. And what about if nothing would have happened?? Where the hell should I have gone to complain??
No way! At 8.30 am a young guy came riding a moped through the muddy puddles with a bag containing my passport! Yeah!! I was excited when I crossed the Mekong on one of this narrow unstable pirogue, but I turned quite upset when I saw it was possible to get it at the border for almost the same amount of money. And you don’t even need the pictures!!
Shit !!!
The last but not the least, the boat left Huay Xai more than four hours later; lots of efforts for nothing.





After two weeks hanging around Laos finally I reached the four thousand islands archipelago , called si phan don, placed in the very south, almost at the Cambodian border. I settled down on the Don Det island in a nice hut with the typical hammock under the porch overlooking the Mekong. On this island there is the only laotian railway (just 5 km) built by the France at the beginning of the 20th century and abandoned since the 1945. This made me curious and I wanted to follow its way through the forest. Now I can say it has been a bad idea; better going on swinging in the hammocks. I rented a bike and started following the trail. Of course not many rails were left being dismounted by the locals to build small bridges and houses. At the beginning the trail was just a little bit bumpy, but nice. Then it becomes very difficult to be spotted and I diverted a little bit to the riverbank. Here I decided to reach it again so I headed to north without following a real trail in the forest.
"It’s just a matter of some hundreds meters", I thought.
I was wrong!
I penetrated the dense forest pushing my bike trying to open my way. After 30 minutes of struggle against the wildlife, completely sweat and scratched everywhere I realised I couldn’t prosecute on that way and it was better to turn back, but how to find the way back?
It took more than one hour to reach a real trail opening my way, in the meanwhile obviously it started pouring, and consequently I started cursing. Anyway I didn’t want to give up following the rail so I did, riding the bike in this extremely bumpy way under the rain. Definitely the end of the former railway didn’t worth that much effort, nevertheless it was a matter of proud: I wanna get my goal!!! And I managed reaching an isolated village , I mean ten houses, settled nearby the former railway terminal. Then I realised I didn’t want to tremble, jolting and jumping for the all way back and I looked for a divert. I follow another trail, it seemed quite easy till I reached a kind of bridge. There were some rails, stolen by the railway, passing over a channel something like six meters long and four meters deep. It just walking on them keeping the balance, it wouldn’t have been a problem if I hadn’t have the bike. Anyway I tried: I put the bike on one rail and holding it I did one step, then motionless I moved the bike 20 cm, and another step….
When I was almost in the middle I panicked!!!!! I felt to lose the balance, and I froze up in that position.
Since I didn’t know what to do I start calling help. I knew for sure some kids were around. In fact in one minute, during which I didn’t move, two small girls came to me and started giggling watching a white blond guy completely soaked in dire straits keeping a bike with one feet on each rail ! Fortunately they helped me taking the bike. It wasn’t that easy even for them walking on the two rails with the bike. But they managed. It became quite dark when my trail joined with the bumpy one where I passed before and not that far from the point where I left it. "Ok, there is no way to skip it" I though So my ass started again being beat while riding, but unfortunately not for short time, since in few hundreds meter my bike punctured!!!!
I had to push in the darkness for almost five km completely soaked and dirty of mud.
I think Enn and Leigh, my travel mates, are still giggling thinking about this adventure I told them when, very pissed off, I reached the hut in the evening. After two months I received an e-mail from Enn where she was still teasing me for this.










Most of the tips suggested here are somehow connected with the fact I travelled in the wet season (may-august), when the daily thunderstorm and the humid hot are your inseparable travelmates



As very travel I strived to tuck in my backpack only the essential, but travelling I realised how many useless stuffs I brought. Consider it was so hot that I never need something heavier than a light sweater for the flight. In addition you can have one kilos laundry for 1$ in most of the guesthouses. And finally you can buy extremely cheap clothes everywhere. Isn't it enough??


Depite I met many traveller walking everywhere with the flip flop, I don't raccomend you to do it. Even they can be convenient for the hot, leeches and all the dead or alive insects on your way will stick to your feet. One the other hand I recognised my trekking shoes were too heavy. The best is to use some sport shoes bringing a pair of flip flop.


Almost every day usually in the late afternoon it rained heavily. Hence don't forget a small umbrella and a waterproof wrap.


Just God knows how much I sweated! In the day and in the night expect to be always soaked. There's not so much you can do with the clothes, but if you organised your activities in the early morning (before 10.00 am) and in the late afternoon (after 16.30) maybe you'll survived;-)
Further the best is to get a dorm in a basement, they were the fresher place I had been!


In most of the places there're only generators working few hours. So don't forget a flash lamp and some candles to read in the night swinging on the hammock


Travelling I met other travellers who got a kind a boring eye infection. Especially a girl I met while I was on a boat to Muang Noi really seem to suffer. If you are sensitive to such things bring some medicine


How boring are this stuff about visa!!!!!! Where to get it, waiting for it, pay for it, extend it...... It was an hassle for me the laotian visa, but at the end I realised I could get at the Huay Xay border!! (read about the story)



Luang Prabang maybe is not so "off the beaten track" as you could think about a town in the mountainous north of Laos, but definitely it’s a place you cannot dislike. This small town is plunged among green mountains at the junction of the Mekong and the Nam rivers. I still remember the view view that I admired from the top of the hill towering from the town centre: the contrast of the red colour of these snaking large rivers with the bright green of mountains and the golden glittering of a big temple that towers far away.
I immediately understood I would have had nice time in Luang since I arrived at the harbour by boat when nobody bothered me and I felt relaxed by the place; "laid back" is the right word to adjective the Laos and in particular this town. I settle down in a fresh 15 beds dorm where I spent some nights knowing a lot of guys travelling around the world with tons of great stories to tell.
And what about the food? Excellent!! The best moment of the whole day was the dinner: strolling in the main way and tasting everykind of strange stuff from the stalls adobating the long street. A lot of excellent fried stuff and the snake juice, I mean a jar plenty of reptilies dip in a superalcholic fluid.
Luang Prabang is quite rapresantative of the laotian atmospehere, being quite small it’s not in contrast with the surroundings despite tourism signs here are as much evident as nowhere in the north of the country: travel agencies, internet café’, renting places, photoshops, souvenir shops but concentrated in the main way without spoiling the whole town. Anyway I think to have a representative idea of the Laotian reality you must travel also in the coutryside outside Luang Prabang.
It’s so funny spent the day looking at the laotian life of the town: orange wrapped monk walking with their umbrella, the young girls driving the mopeds with the umbrella to cover from the sun and to keep their skin as white as possible or kids dancing in the school gardens following the rithm of the typical wooden xilophon.
These are my memories of Luang Prabang.



The flat area of the four thousand islands archipelago is so different from the mountainous north of Laos and so similar to the typical Cambodian landscape. Here the Mekong enlarges till a 14 km width where a lot of small and not so small islands emerge. Most of them are not reachable unless you have your own pirogue but the main two, Don Kong and Don Det (or Don Khon) are connected by a kind of public service.
Life on the island for a traveller means rest rest and still rest: swinging on the hammock in the veranda of the hut overlooking the Mekong, drinking Lao Lao whisky, tubing in the river and in the late afternoon biking or riding a moped (only in Don Kong) to see how life is there, especially in Don Det. I promise you, it's quite rural: in Don Det there's no electricity (just generators) and the water is pumped from the river. I still remember that morning I was woken up by the deafening yelling of a pig whose nuts were cutting off just outside my hut.
And what about when I managed to follow the former railway?? (read the funny story)

I think this part of Laos is so different from the north, that if you like this country and you want to know it you cannot miss!!