Another guesthouse, another set of rules on the bedroom door. In this hotel, I’m not allowed to stick naked pictures on the wall. Damn it.
I’m bang-smack in the middle of Laos, in a place called Thakek. Back in 2007, Tom and I did The Loop, a 500km scooter trip on red dusty roads, staying in beautiful bamboo and wooden-housed villages. I’ve come back to see what’s changed.
The countryside around Thakek is still one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen, with its huge jungle-covered limestone rocks. Like years before, I hire a scooter. But this time it’s monsoon season and I’m alone. The rain lashes down on me and thunder crashes so hard around me that it feels like the sky is going to collapse. I drive against the pelting rain, frightened of the mightiness of Mother Nature, but with an enormous smile on my face as I experience the Earth’s powers.
The dusty roads become bright red little lakes. As I struggle not to fall into the half-metre deep water, I nervously grip the handlebars, which of course also happen to be the accelerator! Somehow I stay upright, and gradually learn to relax and drive the bike through the murky waters, not knowing what’s underneath, but having faith that it will all be ok.
When I get back to Thakek, I sit opposite a man in a suit in a restaurant. He tells me he’s from Laos and has moved to the area for work. His job is funded by the World Bank, and that lots of countries are investing in Laos right now. I ask him what he thinks about the dam projects that are going to scar the country forever. He tells me, “Before, the water from the Mekong just flowed into the sea. Now we are keeping it. It’s good.”
Like elsewhere in the country, signs of foreign investment are everywhere in Thakek: there’s rubber tree plantations, expensive SUV cars, newly built mansion-sized houses, and a new, fucking huge dam which has drowned communities. Thakek has also become a Special Economic Zone. “SEZs are where governments give international companies subsidies, tax breaks or cash handouts to encourage them to set up factories in an area. The politicians get rich off of corporate bribes to make this happen. The workers then get paid shit wages,” Chris tells me in an email.
Onwards I travel, south on a bus towards Pakse. It’s a long journey, and as darkness falls we stop in a small town. Food sellers jump on, eager to sell their sticky rice, bamboo, and disgusting dead duck on skewers. The driver isn’t in the best of moods, and spitefully decides to accelerate and speed out of the town whilst the sellers are on the bus. They try to scramble off, and one woman jumps off as the bus is moving, but four others, all children, don’t dare to jump. The kids are all under 12 years old. What shocks me the most is that none of the passengers say anything to the driver, who has kidnapped the children. By the time the driver stops, he’s driven over 20km from the children’s town and it’s pitch black outside.
As I reach Pakse, I jump into a tuk-tuk with some locals. I am the last to be dropped off in a very dark street. The driver blocks my exit from the tuk-tuk and whispers sinisterly, “100,000 kip.” He’s young, cocky and trying to intimidate me as he attempts to extort money from me. Unbeknownst to him, it’s not the first time that someone’s tried to do this to me. I get angry and shout at him, slam 20,000 kip into his hand, push past him and storm off. In all of my time in Laos, I have never seen anyone get angry in this gentle country, and I have never seen anyone shout. Later on, I wonder if I could have stood my ground without shouting.
My final stop in Laos is a beautiful little place called Champasak, mostly unknown to backpackers. The only other tourists here are a few white-haired European men, and I immediately categorise them as sex tourists just because they’re: a) alone, and b) old European men.
I’m here to see stunning Wat Phu, which is a ruined Khmer temple, similar to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but without the tourists.
A few days later, I get a boat and a bus to Cambodia (see my blog post about this awful border!). I’m excited about re-visiting my all-time favourite country: Cambodia. But as I explore the town of Kratie and the island of Koh Trong, I miss the beauty of the Laos countryside and the sincere smiles of the Lao people, which have been replaced by the cheeky smiles of Cambodian locals. In Cambodia, I can’t work out whether people are laughing with me or at me.
I’m alone, sitting at a street stall at 9am and it’s already over 30 degrees celcius. As a woman cooks my vegetable fried rice in a meaty pan (I don’t dare to ask a street vendor to go and wash out her pan!) and bus touts and taxi drivers hover around me, I think to myself, “I really can’t be bothered with travelling.” It’s true that if you think negatively, then you only see everyone and everything around you as negative and gloomy.
This feeling of darkness stays with me as I travel through the chaotic, dusty roads to Phnom Penh, 25 people in a 15 seater mini-bus. Seven years ago, these streets made me feel so excited. The feeling of gloom lingers as the bus driver deliberately tries to short-change me and tuk-tuk drivers run towards me, fighting for my custom. As I try to cross the road and fight the Phnom Penh traffic without being knocked down, I wonder, “What the hell am I doing here??”