Memo to Self: ‘Keep Right Stupid’. Yes, here in Laos they like to drive on the right side of the road. Riding on the right isn’t a challenge, it’s forgetting to ride on the right that seems to create the problems. Hopefully I’ll remember and not become another painted outline on the road.Vientiane is a great city, but leaving it is easy, Highway 13 North. The roads are busy, busier than I can ever remember. Congestion, lots of cars, many of them shiny and new. Billboards to the side of the road explain why. ‘Cars 4 Cash’ - ‘Cash 4 Cars’ – ‘No Deposit + Easy Payments’. The world of Easy Credit has arrived here in Laos and I’m suddenly feeling like the poorest kid in town. Laos is starting to mirror Thailand, but with longer skirts and slightly shorter smiles. Even the rural farmers are the same. Each and every one of them is a pyromanic with a penchant for setting fire to anything that’ll burn. I twist the throttle wide open and try to outrun the choking smoke, but all I seem to get is a lot more noise. It’s another 150Km to Vang Vieng, but fortunately I’ve got a 30 Day Visa .... No need to hurry.
The density of buildings reduces and the road imperfections increase, but the Suzuki Smash just seems to fart along like a vegetarian grandmother. Random detours down sandy tracks and across bridgeless streams add interest to a maximum speed of 80Kph and away from the tarmac, the Suzuki starts making me smile and reminding me that I’m free. All is good in the world.
Vang Vieng is an interesting town with a local populous of older grandparents and younger kids, and a tourist population of twenty-something Europeans who appear to be strangers to grooming. I feel like the oldest Farang in town riding the slowest scooter in Laos, and it's probably true. Vang Vieng reminds me of Goa thirty years ago, but without the beach and the blow. It’s a good place to kick-back with cheap rooms, stunning views and a relaxed approach to everything. Beyond the town, rough tracks lead to swimming areas, deep caves and tall mountains. With a total disregard for Health & Safety, Kids jump from high bridges into not so deep rivers below and European travellers swing from high rock faces on unreasonably skinny ropes. But, nobody dies and everybody seems to smile.
At the side of every track, I find constant reminders that life in Laos hasn’t always been quite so carefree. Shell casings litter the area, hopefully dormant or defused, but there are no guarantees. During the Vietnam War, the US dropped 280,000,000 bombs onto Laos, that’s 47 bombs for every man, woman and child in the country, and according to the Mine Action Group, at least 20% of them failed to explode and many remain deadly to this day.