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Andy’s Travel Diary

Monday, 08 Jan 2007

Location: Route 13, Laos

MapROUTE 13 - M25 IT AIN'T

Route 13. Sounds ominous doesn't it?

Unfortunately it lives up to its name. This thoroughfare in Northern Laos witnessed violent and bloody ambushes of coaches and cars by armed bandits in 1997 and 2003 which claimed 17 lives, including a French tour operator and two European travellers. (Please note - I isolate these cases only to clarify that locals were not the sole targets and that there was good reason my face displayed a permanent grimace for six hours straight).

As we departed Vang Vieng it was reassuring to learn there had been no attacks since. All public buses however are still posted with armed guards wielding AK47's.

Our minibus was demonstrably lacking in such security; all we posessed was a driver who saw no urgency in speeding to our next destination and my pocket knife - one of my leaving presents from my KCC chums. My heart-rate, low since i entered Laos, was now galloping at a rate similar to the time when i took too many Pro Plus to finish my undergrad thesis (which remains unfinished to this day).

Thankfully our minibus seemed to be following these armed, public buses closely. We appeared to be travelling in a convoy. Even so I strategically sank lower in my chair in the vain hope this would help come flying bullets or grenades, and put my Ipod on extra loud. The Magic Numbers soothed me off to fitful sleep for a time until we stopped for one of the obligatory toilet and lunch breaks.

"Do you want some laughing cow cheese?" i squeeked as we pulled up at a cafe and an AK47 with a guard attached stepped off one of the buses; the gun dominated my perception of the relationship. Such weapons are unfamiliar to me, even police are not routinely issued with guns back home. It was alarming and paradoxically increased my insecurity.

Route 13 evokes images of those 14 lane American superhighways; impositions on the landscape that cut through scenery to speed cars effortlessly between destinations without the inconvenience of a corner. Such thoughts, in a country which lacks even one railway are folly. There are no motorways in Laos. Route 13, the main road between the two most populous urban centres in the country (Vientiane and Luang Prabang) is a one lane strip of, occassionally pot-holed asphalt hugging the mountainsides as it winds its way up and over the rugged terrain between Vang Vieng and the former capital.

The journey is an idyllic one that belies its murderous recent past. The route was lined with small, rustic villages and tiny settlements with not a brick building in sight. Shacks of wood and dried leaf housed traditional Laotian peoples - mothers in southeast asian conical hats and ethnic shawls stood threshing grain or leaving baskets of deep red chillis to dry on the roof. The men could be found repairing roofs, building, or slaughtering pigs and cows. The kids were a delight and hung around in large groups, jumping up and down and pointing as we passed, "Farang, farang!" ("Foreigner, foreigner"!).

The scenery was absolutely captivating, some of the best i have seen in South-East Asia. Our van leisurely wound its way up and down endless hairpin turns, at times coming dangerously close to some butt-clenching sheer drops. Sometimes i hate travelling!

The views were cinematic. Far below were deep green valleys nestled between low rolling hills and imposing mountains that stretched off into the distance, a multitude of fading blues. The presence of gun-totting guards posted periodically along the way reminded us of the roads reputation however.

The journey is only about 60km but takes six to seven hours. Ruth and I are now used to long distance journeys and this one was a mere baby. We arrived in Luang Prabang safe and sound (only to repeat the ordeal on the way back to Vientiane!).