The coolheaded practical girl with the roast meat stall and the machete-sized knife at the corner of the square in front of the train station in the Vietnamese border town of Lao Cai

Just when I walked out of my hotel a brawl erupted fifty meters on near a meat stall. Blows and shouts and a plastic chair flying and then a guy getting away, limping but powered by adrenaline fast enough to stay ahead of the guys chasing him. For a bit, then they caught him after all, and the whole bunch turned around. At which point the girl calmly said ‘oh’ and hid the knife in the small built-in cupboard of her two-wheeled food stall and locked it.

Credit to the people of the consulate of Vietnam in Luang Phabang

While at the subject of people issuing visa’s: credit to those at the consulate of Vietnam in Luang Phabang who hand out a self-produced map detailing road connections between Laos and Vietnam, distances and border crossings open to foreigners.

Helpful, as as always I was of course traveling without a children’s book of Lonely Planet.

Passport stamp

Gone are the days of full-page visa stamps in passports – in East Asia anyway. Visa now come in the shape of stickers. Nice a visa extension in Laos still comes as a stamp. Nostalgia…

It was worth the extra visit to the Immigration Offices. ‘My boss has a meeting outside’, said the lady at the counter of the official in charge when I came to pick up my passport at the appointed time. ‘Can you come back later?’

Dengue in town

Living a simple life here. No air conditioning – just acceptable. No hot water – just acceptable too. There is a laundry machine. The TV is broken, there is no internet – good, it makes me read more. Murakami, Coetzee, Dutch author Verstraten’s book about Korea. To read and write email I go to a coffee shop offering wifi – usually every other day, for a couple of hours. Seems a carefree existence.

But there is dengue in Luang Phabang, someone has died already, he had just turned 18. Laos is often a hearsay country. ‘There are many more victims already, especially in the village across the river.’ ‘The hospital is often full and can’t admit people.’ Clear and solid information is hard to come by.

A car with a sound system drove through town to warn the people. My friends keep their young daughter indoors as much as possible. Outside she is covered in mosquito repellent.

In town people don’t seem bothered by the threat. They wear shorts, T-shirts and sarongs – no clothes that will protect against mosquitoes.

Born as a worrier I wear long pants and socks – all day, every day. They have come to spray the garden (10.000 Laotian kip = 1 euro per household, unless you can proof you are poor), but that makes me wonder which poison it contains and what harm that may do me.

Always something.

Laos, a slow country speeding up – hesitantly

Since French colonial times Laos has been known for its calm. Comparing the people to their Indochinese neighbours it was said that the Vietnamese planted rice, the Cambodians ate it and the Laotians watched it grow. Its unassuming people gave slow-paced Laos a soothing charm.

That charm is not all gone. But things have changed – Laos-style.

Vientiane, the capital, has a new raised boulevard along the Mekong, where before people sat in cafés on stilts and made of wood and with palm leaf roofs. The promenade got them moving. Save for a few boys that have taken up skating it’s no more than ambling though, one shouldn’t overdo it. Twice I see someone jog and for a moment I am perplexed. But they are expats.

Walking in the city nowadays you have to actually watch out and wait for cars before crossing a street. The amount of vehicles has even warranted introducing traffic lights and one-way streets. The newspaper runs a story of parked cars blocking streets and sidewalks.

Having experienced Laos’s laid-back old times, it isn’t nice to see the new times. ‘In the good old days… et cetera’. Well,  that is of course a nostalgic foreigner’s view, Laotians will be happy they are gradually catching up with modern times.

So much so that this time I even flew from Vientiane to Luang Phabang in a jet instead of a prop plane. An earlier attempt a few years ago to introduce a jet was a miserable failure, or of course if you favour that old-day Laos a failure to be cheered. That leased aircraft soon was grounded, word had it either because repairs couldn’t be paid for or because of a lack of passengers.

But this time around with Lao Airlines operating an Airbus and new start-up Lao Central Airlines a Boeing it seems jet travel is here to stay.

Step by step Laos is being swept up by the modern, developed, faster world.

Mekong villages

South of Luang Phabang scattered on the river’s banks villages hide amid trees and bushes.

Ban Nong Bua Kham is a new settlement, in fact three villages put together. The government made the villagers move down to the river to stop encroachment on the forest. It paid for the removal, it installed electricity, a dirt road connects the village with the outside world. But the people can’t support themselves here. Fishing can’t sustain them, the teak wood grown around the village doesn’t belong to them. And so they keep commuting to their old fields.

Some have disassembled and reassembled their old wooden houses, some could afford new cement blocks and corrugated iron.

Nong Bua  Kham village doesn’t look authentic. Yet its people don’t seem part of this more modern world either. The old still weave bamboo baskets. Rice is still being threshed with a foot-powered pestle and mortar. To the children that foreigner is a strange sight. Some laugh and follow him, though at a safe distance. Some shy away and start crying. And some come to see what’s up first, then after all decide it’s better to start crying.

Had Keo village has Had Keo temple where an old monk serves. In every other aspect too it is the typical traditional ethnic Lao village. Houses on stilts, palm trees, ducks and turkeys, people sitting in the shade. Clean and tidy. In all its simplicity it isn’t poor.

The village of Pak Hao sits, its name literally says so, at the mouth of the Hao. Its white waters splash and crash down between giant boulders. But they are swallowed up by the Mekong, slow and brown here, and in no time no trace is left of them.

And there is the village with the boy under the tree.

A stretch of the Mekong that thus far eluded me

I made the trip to the sources of the Mekong and Yellow River in July, though blogposts here date from September. More ‘live’ from Laos now:

I have traveled along the Mekong in Qinghai and Yunnan; and in the north and south of Laos and in Vietnam; and along the stretch that borders Myanmar; and through the larger part of Cambodia; and I have chalked up many other Mekong ‘sightings’. On the way I have seen glaciers and snow-capped peaks, and low-lying flatlands, forested hills and farmland; I have sailed through a half drowned forest, and along a myriad of streams and canals in the river’s delta.

But the stretch south of Luang Phabang had so far eluded me.

There are no public boats. Upgraded roads make bus travel faster these days. There are no tourist boats either. They stay north of Luang Phabang.

I go to the cargo pier out of town, down a small side road that turns into a mud track, winds through a village – the kind of road that seems to lead nowhere but gives me an ah-great-now-I’m-heading-the-right-way sense.

The man in charge of the port says it shouldn’t be a problem. I should just wait, a couple of cargo boats will leave downstream within a few days. He gives me the mobile numbers of their captains. But a couple of phone calls, a couple of days and a second visit to the pier later it becomes clear that after all it ìs a problem. No captain wants to take me. They say frequent stops to (un)load would make my trip lasting days. I say I don’t care, but they don’t give in. I offer money, they shrug.

Something to hide? Illegal logging? Maybe it ’s just my suspicious mind.

I end up chartering my own boat.

The river mostly moves at some purposeful pace. Once or twice it slows down to a near standstill. Occasionally it rushes through rapids. On the brink of the dry season the water level is still high, but the first rocks start to appear above the surface. It takes a skillful person to manoeuvre between them. The man steering my boat is a professional.

There is hardly any traffic. We see one cargo boat all day, and a few small boats taking people a short distance up- or downstream.

Left and right undulating hills, green everywhere though near the river there is no old growth forest left.

On the banks scattered villages, half hidden amid trees and bushes.

I am as exited as all the other times when I first saw a part of the Great River.

Malaysian surprise

I knew of Malaysia as a multi ethnic state of course with an indigenous Malay majority and Chinese and Indian minorities. And that is also how I remembered the country from my first Asian trip more than 20 years ago.

But on a recent visit to Kuala Lumpur I was surprised to see how truly multi ethnic this country is. There were some from neighbouring Thailand, selling great food. There were many from neighbouring Indonesia, working in the palm oil plantations or else running a small business. Or selling great food. I saw a few Laotians – and know that it is rare to meet someone from Laos that far from home. I saw the lone Burmese woman.

Many Nepali work in security. I remembered the departing groups of guest workers at Kathmandu airport – sent off by their families with small flower wreaths and big tika’s, lined up at separate immigration counters, perplexed by the experience of leaving behind all that was known to them. They guard the entrance to the compound where I stay. They open up once they understand we have been to their home town in the Tarai. Same for their Cambodian colleague from Kampong Chhnang who starts telling that his friend has got dengue, and that shifts are twelve hours and the commute is long, and that pay is just 250 $ a month. But that it is more than he can make at home.

Pakistani owned the computer shop. I saw Iranians – students or refugees that wasn’t clear. I saw many from the Middle East.

An Arabian couple joins me in the elevator of KL Tower. She is dressed in black head to toe – only in front of her eyes her veil gives way briefly. I ask him where they are from – ‘Saudi’. I wouldn’t dare to ask her. When we get up there she takes his hand, pulls him with her and side by side and very close together they disappear among the other tourists.

And then I am aware of them everywhere in the streets and in the shopping malls. Young guys in casual western dress and young women in chador with only that narrow opening at eye level. Repressed? Not free? They walk hand in hand, arm in arm, happy as young couples everywhere.