Children playing in a village in Laos

With Love From Laos

Craig with mask on under an umbrella

I kicked the motorbike into life, and rode slowly out of Luang Prabang, heading north in Laos. It was the first day of many adventures, where I would be run off the road by an oncoming truck near Luang Namtha, be sliding on loose gravel traversing steep mountain roads en route to Phonsavan, experience kidnapping by locals when my bike broke down south of Vientiane, then an extortion attempt by police the next day in Vientiane; and then months later, slow motion slides on muddy and slippery trails, much to the amusement of local Lao friends.

Never expected such events and crazy adventures. With my casual work delayed in Sydney due to a mouldy worplace, and more rains predicted, I skipped the undercity electrical work to meet my cousin and his wife in Udon Thani. Their 2 month stay was almost over, with work and home in Europe beckoning their return.

I had vaguely planned 4 weeks away – a week each in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and 3 days in each of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and Bali for Nyepi in late March before back to the bump and grind of work in Australia.

Laos was almost an afterthought. I saw it on the map when researching Vietnam and flights. A quick online search brought up a post declaring 10 best locations in Laos. 10 minutes later, it was included in my itinerary.

So here I was, riding a Vietnam bike from Luang Prabang towards Vietnam. My first stop was Nong Khiaw, a small village on a riverbend, nestled within mountain peaks. It was ricefield burning time, and the smoke haze made my joys of landscape photography less easy. Mostly, when travelling, I keep to myself, with less contact with fellow foreigners. As luck would have it, at a local restaurant I met an English couple dining. I was leaving, and they said hello. Our minimal chat turned into a couple of drinks, and we exchanged local information.

The following evening, we met again. They were leaving the next morning to travel east to Luang Namtha. They wanted to do a 3 day jungle trek there. I was also interested, so I rode to Luang Namtha the next afternoon. Wandering through town after a simple meal at the local night market, we saw each other again. They had booked their trek, and I would join them.

The next morning I booked to join the same trek, and we had a crazy adventure together with a French couple, and 2 local guides. My choice of quality sandals was well-tested when one broke in the first 2 hours. Off came both sandals, and I trekked barefoot for the next 4 hours until lunch, where I repaired my sandal with a piece of cord. On day two we followed in the steps of a wild elephant downriver, its tracks and droppings less than a day old. So close, yet unseen!

Upon our return to Luang Namtha, we learned that Vietnam was no longer a travel option. For me, a closed border meant a week not in Vietnam. Ah well, an extra week in Laos! Great. My new trekking friends decided to travel back to Luang Prabang, and consider their plans. They were looking to get to Vientiane and wait for a departing flight to Europe. Their work commitments and plans were more settled than mine.

I did not really expect Thailand and Cambodia to follow so quickly, and close their borders. By the time I had ventured back to Nong Khiaw, then done a 330km solo ride through the mountains to Phonsavan, I found I was stuck in Laos, and the world had closed down. Strange though it might seem to some, I was not really perturbed with the circumstances. I work casually in quite well-paying jobs, and when they end, I often take time out to travel, usually to Bali or elsewhere in Indonesia. It would only last a month, or 6 weeks at most.

By 23rd of March, the Australian Government was urging citizens to return to Australia while they could still travel. Laos is not on the main travel routes. Most flights mean getting to places like Bangkok or Seoul or Ho Chi Minh first. My memory of the SARS and MERS viruses had me considering that there may be a few difficulties, yet nothing insurmountable. Little did I, or anyone else, know.

With an announced country-wide Laos lockdown imminent and scheduled from April 1st, I made my way to Vientiane, via a few wrong turns, a seized motor, a minor kidnapping (until I agreed to pay the extra money), and a slow ride in a local pickup bus with the bike in the back. Police saw my Vietnam registered bike, and stopped the pickup. They threatened to confiscate the bike unless I paid up. I had almost no money on me at all, and told them to keep the bike. It was broken and worthless. After an hour of waiting in 40 degree sunshine, they let me and the driver go.

As I am not a stranger to Asian countries, I am generally okay with the food and general culture. Laos was exciting and new for me. So I shrugged off any negativity, and following a 6 week lockdown, escaped Vientiane again, travelling throughout southern Laos. I did pass up a chance to fly back to Australia in early May. It was a $4000 flight, with carry-on luggage only (meaning I had to leave my 27 year old trusty backpack and all my camping equipment in Laos), then 2 weeks quarantine, then potentially nowhere to live, and definitely no work available. This was confirmed by contact with my last 2 employers. My children did not need me to do any child-minding, so my Grandad skills were not required. And $4000 could keep me sheltered and fed here in Laos for maybe 4 months.

For over 15 years, I have shunned watching tv, reading newspapers or magazines. Its seldom good news, and more often sensationalist-style reporting. My happy disposition is partly due to not being affected by daily doses of such negativity. My limited newsfeeds described draconian measures, severe restrictions, and entire countries shut down.

Laos is a People’s Democratic Republic, technically a communist country. Even with Vientiane in lockdown, I could still walk to the supermarket, buy from the nightly streetstalls, and go to the local traditional morning market for fresh fruit and vegetables, and meat. I just had to wear a mask every time I left the hostel, sanitise hands and have my temperature taken when going into the main supermarket. All in all, I think I was blessed to have been stuck in Laos for the initial lockdown.

A total of 19 people were positive for the virus, 1 being a foreign PNG worker returning to his job at a minesite. He infected a fellow worker, who infected 2 others. The rest of the cases were returning Lao students or workers, who were infected outside of Laos. No covid deaths, 100% recoveries. (During the April lockdown, 48 people died on the roads in Vientiane city, and figures do not include those that died later in hospital. And none are available for the rest of the country). Now, 103 days later, an incoming worker from Korea tested positive after arriving in Vientiane. He is in quarantine, and the country awaits any further news. (Update – 2 more returning Lao citizens tested positive at the end of July, and international flights have been stopped for August).

I have enjoyed my jaunts, travelling through small villages and amazing scenery, taking photos and writing up my adventures, sharing to friends online. More than ten friends have now expressed a desire to visit Laos in the future, when they can travel again. Local social media in Laos has enabled me to meet a few expats, and join them for several night-time explorations of the mountain and jungle streams in search of snakes, lizards and frogs. Seeing such diversity has been truly amazing.

I did a 2 day jungle zipline adventure in southern Laos, then returned a week later with the staff to do maintenance work for 5 days, staying in a jungle camp. On the 6th day, I went with some Lao staff to a hidden waterfall that few have ever seen. The road was muddy and deeply rutted, unbelievably slippery. Standing in the spray of a massive waterfall, I asked how many farang (white foreigners) had been there. Only one, they said, pointing at me. Wow.

The 8th of August marked 5 months in Laos. Mostly, its been a great adventure, even having my 58th birthday here. Relaxing and travelling, for me, has only been possible because I have very few commitments back in Australia. My children are married and independant, and are used to my regular disappearances. I am already a grandad, and 2 more grandchildren have been born while I am in Laos.

Social media has been great for keeping in touch, so I do not feel I am missing anyone too much. I have met several others stuck here in Laos, who were, or are, quite depressed, and struggling. Most are waiting for borders to open again to continue travelling. Some cannot afford to pay the insane flight costs now being demanded by airlines.

My plans to work continuously and pay off the small house back in Australia have been sidelined, yet I am not alone. There are many Australians with similar issues. At least for me, my living expenses here in Laos are far less than being in Australia. However, if I was back in my country, there would be some financial assistance. Here in Laos, nothing. You are on your own. And I am travelling solo.

I don’t really miss much about Australia. I like Asian food, and mostly if its not too spicy, my body copes well. However, my quick choice of clothing when departing for my supposed 4 week trip has not been the best, given that my tired old underwear resembles sieves when you hold them up to the light, and are clearly unsuitable for the task if I consume too much spicy food which can catch even me out.

I may sound a little crazy, but I do take extreme joy in seeing the few rows of Eucalyptus trees planted here and there. I stop where I can and grab a leaf or 3 and crush them and smell them. It takes me right back to my childhood, playing and hiking in the forests. I do, and always will, love that scent. I do miss the sounds of kookaburras and magpies, as these would wake me every morning back in Australia.

When you are far from friends and family, and far from the familiar, you have to maintain a strong resilience within. You need to cope with change as best you can – let things go, and do not stress.

It has held me in good stead here in Laos. There are many who are hopeful of a border opening soon, perhaps Thailand or Vietnam. These are less on my list, though I really do not have much of a plan. Laos seems a good place right now for me to stay safe. Flights to Australia are few, and wildly expensive. And now returning citizens have to pay for their quarantine. For similar costs, I can use those funds to remain here in Laos, or in Asia somewhere, for another 10 to 12 months.

Currently I have based myself in Pakse, with short trips as I recovered after a fall while solo jungle trekking 5 weeks ago. I put my lumbar vertebrae out of alignment, bruised a kidney, pinched a nerve, and tore some leg muscles or tendons that attach to the pelvis. A hospital visit and x-ray was thankfully only $30. I am far past the 90 day limit for my insurance, so there is no cover. New cover is incredibly expensive, with huge limitations. A severe medical emergency in Laos would require care in a Thailand hospital. Right now, that is an impossibility with all borders closed. 

I was fortunate enough to meet a Lao woman who is qualified in acupuncture. Dr Hong has worked near miracles for me, to the point I can now move around, bend and stretch, and ride the motorbike. Now, I can continue my treks and adventures. There appear to be very few flights back to Australia, all priced about 3 to 5 times the cost of repatriation flights to Europe. Patience is the key to survival, and a positive outlook helps.

two ladies with their babies

If there is something to understand about Laos, its this. The people are friendly, mostly they will help where they can. Language is a huge barrier. There are many ethnic groups that make up the 7.5 million population. In the north, there are hill tribes in villages with no road access. Some are more closely related to Chinese minorities than the main Laos population. In the south, there are a lot of Vietnamese people, and in the far south, Khmer people. Many people live in small villages, and rely on farming for their daily needs. They are incredibly resilient, and I constantly remind myself that the south and east of the country was heavily bombed during the Vietnam War. I have seen bomb craters less than 15km from Pakse.

Life, for many, is about survival. A few have found wealth, either through hard work, business connections, and perhaps a few slippery palms. Old, clapped-out motorbikes get parked alongside late modern Bentleys and BMWs. Yet, the priceless joys of Laos are its diversity and the scenery. It is one of the least-visited countries in Asia, and incredibly under-rated.

What would you do? How would you get by?

Craig Albery

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