During my last couple of months in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, I didn’t hitchhike as much as I usually would. I completely lost the enthusiasm for it – maybe I had hitchhiker’s burnout, so to speak. However, I did do some hitchhiking whilst I was here! These are my tips, or observations, of what worked for me, mostly as a solo traveller:
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.
I’m in Luang Prabang. A man walks past in a T-shirt that says Same Same. The phrase, known to everyone in South East Asia, sums up the backpacker life in Laos. Everyone’s travelling to the same towns, doing the exact same route, staying in the same guesthouses, eating in the same restaurants, and reading the same copy of the Lonely Planet. People are even wearing the same clothes (including me!). Conversation is always the same: “Where are you from?”, “Where are you going?”, “Have you been to….?”
Whilst travelling in South East Asia, you don’t need to use your brain: restaurant menus are in English and every guesthouse will book a bus ticket for you, so you don’t even need to attempt to buy your own tickets. I find myself turning into a Travel Snob: the kind of person who I usually frown upon, who thinks of themselves as more authentic than other travellers (“I’ve hitchhiked through Iraq, don’t you know?!”). Because of this, I decide to get off of the backpacker trail, say goodbye to the Same Same T-shirts and hopefully leave my conceitedness behind.
Cambodia is well-known with backpackers for the scams on its borders. Here’s a quick write-up about my latest experiences of crossing three Cambodian borders.
I meet Sydney for the first time in the night market in Luang Namtha. I tell her about my Grand Plan to travel by boat down the Nam Ou river to Luang Prabang and retrace a journey I took seven years ago. There’s a catch, though: public boats no longer run down the river because a huge dam has been built by an evil corporation. I want to hire a boat to the dam and witness the destruction of what was once the most beautiful area in the whole of Laos. Then I want to hitchhike in the areas where it’s not possible to sail. Sydney’s never hitchhiked before, but within half an hour of meeting, she says, “it sounds fun. Let’s do it!”
Beautiful Laos!! It’s wonderful to be back here. Everything’s how I remember it: small wooden houses, smiley and friendly people, and the happiest children in the world.
Within a few hours of being here, I’m troubled by the language and attitude that some backpackers have towards Laos: an attitude of western superiority, so ingrained in us that we don’t realise that we have this attitude at all. I explain to someone that his use of the words ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ is condescending. Another person says, “These people [Lao villagers] don’t want to continue living in the Stone Age.” Someone else talks about a western organisation that is “helping Lao people to help themselves.” Does this westerner think that Lao people are in such a dire situation that they can only “help themselves” out of their pitiful existence with the help of western institutions?
Luang Namtha is a town in the north of Laos, famous for the Nam Ha protected rainforest and river. I meet some other backpackers and we hire out motorbikes and explore the beautiful countryside and villages. Children smile, wave, and shout “Sabadeeeeeeee!” and adults greet us kindly.