I'm emailing from Vieng Chan (romanized as Vientiane), a major outpost during the French occupation of Indochina and the present day capital of the Lao People's Democratic Republic. Lao (everyone drops the 's') is one of those countries - like China, Viet Nam and eastern Europe - in transition from communism to who knows what (not just capitalism). But the transformation I note here is different, for I am visiting not Lao but Backpacker Lao, a mecca for the young (not so young in my case) and shiftless (for that I plead guilty) set.
It's hard to come up with the precise i-word to describe the backpacker influence here - influx, incursion, invasion, inundation, inculcation, infestation, incineration perhaps make the point. I am talking about the northern half of the country; not having visited the south, I can't access the extent of the blight there.
From Chiang Khong, Thailand, a motorized canoe took me and bike into Lao, across the Mekong River which functions as border. I had purchased a US $13 ticket from a Thai guesthouse for a two day ferry trip down the Mekong to Luang Prabang, where I would begin my Lao cycling. The same ticket sells for about $8 in Lao, but mandatory insurance ups the price to about $11. The Lao agents for the Thai guesthouse where I had purchased the ticket wanted me to pay them an additional $10 for bike transport. International convention seems to be that push bikes are surcharged at about 20% of passenger fare, $2.50 which the boat captain later wanted and which I paid directly to him. Cyclists on another ferry reported that they successfully refused paying this fee; I suspect I could have done likewise.
Aboard the ferry foreign passengers were treated to a pre-launch scam. An entrepreneur was selling accident insurance policies to foreigners who had bought their tickets in Thailand, where mandatory insurance is either included in the price or not required (no one knew which). I suspected this 'agent' had printed up the policy forms and that there was no company behind them. The forms had no chop or company seal nor a license number. The deductibility was 10,000 kip (US $1) and the language seemed to be boiler-plated from a textbook. The salesman pocketed the $1 premium from about half the passengers; he gave up on us hold-outs and the ferry eventually got underway, the insured and uninsured together. (The on-looking policeman, perhaps, gets a cut of the premiums).
The boat trip passed quickly. En route we overnighted in Pakbeng, a village existing for the ferry trade, with a few dozen restaurants and guesthouses. A fellow traveler reported that 4 years ago, the village - then without electrification - had only 2 guesthouses and a single eatery. The change reflects the geometric rise in Lao tourism, much of it at the budget and low end.
Luang Prabang, Lao's city of the north and second largest in the country, has experienced similar touristic expansion. To me backpackers seem to out-number locals, given the former's visibility and the latter's invisibility. I called in at the national museum and the key temples and enjoyed fabulous northern Lao specialties (Malee Lao Food Restaurant is highly recommended). The following morning I started cycling.
Veng Chan, Lao PDR