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South-East Asia : The Mekong

Meandering the Mekong: The semi-alternative guide to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia

by Matt Thomas

Recent History, Politics and Economy

Mixed to say the least. From what I could gather foreign powers have never taken too much interest in Laos, aside from a brief American dalliance during the Vietnam War which means that even today the occasional land mine is accounting for villagers limbs. Laos is in the top twenty poorest countries in the World, and outside of Luang Prabang, and to an extent the capital Vientiane, it is easy to see why. It is dominated by mountains which in turn make it difficult to navigate. There is not much to entice the foreign investor. Contrarily though Laotians, for want of a better phrase “do not seem that bothered”. The vibe that I got even in tourist areas was that if the tourists come, they come, and if they don’t we will sit around and drink beer Laos (which is delicious) either way. It was also the only country I came across in South-East Asia where I was told a shop or café was closed, and the attitude when a group of travellers turned up wanting rickshaws, was that instead of them all taking a person each and making some money, they’d rather not and just let you all cram in with one driver.

Cambodia needs some love. The horrific genocide of the early seventies still resonates. Namely because the perpertrators are yet to be convicted and their court cases are ongoing. To summarise the main protagonists of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime have been on trial for some years, but the majority of them have blamed lower ranks for the atrocities and they remain powerful and active in government. The people remain frustrated and there are frequent protests as to the degree of nepotism exacted by the government and higher classes. This remains a poor country highly dependant on tourism. I found the people to be very polite, to the point of being nervous, as a nation the country is simply still trying to regain its confidence. The beaches in the south in particular are rife with children selling artisanl items on the beach, and you know full well they don’t go to school and perhaps who collects their money at the end of the day is anyone’s guess. Similarly I found it strange that in many bars in the South on Ko Rong and Sihanoukville for example, the servers were western while the Cambodians did the actual work in terms of drink making and food preparation. Things are improving here but very slowly.

Vietnam is by far the most advanced and economically powerful of the 3 countries mentioned here. Ho Chi Minh City personifies this as a vibrant, buzzing energetic economic hub. The streets pulsate with tenacity and determination. The beach resort of Nha Trang is thriving, especially with Russians, and the tourist trail up to Hanoi, taking in Hue, Danang and Hoi An is equally busy. Of course Vietnam has a climatic advantage of the heat being less oppressive, the country more easy to navigate, better natural resources and a sizeable coast line. Don’t let all this fool you though. Vietnam remains a relatively poor country by modern standards. Go a few streets back from the main strip to Ho Chi Minh and the bars are still populated by girls and older western men. This is a communist country, although this is mainly felt in the north and then predominantly in Hanoi where this is more eerie and dare I say threatening. In the south you would hardly notice.

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Siem Reap, Cambodia

Dangers and Annoyances

Theft, taxi drivers and mosquitoes. Next..

Getting off the beaten track

Kampot on the south coast of Cambodia provides very welcome respite from the tourist traps of Sihanoukville and the islands. A small riverside town of 30,000 people, it is home to an excellent array of bars and cafés, a cinema showing English films on a twice daily basis, and plenty of options in terms of cycling around the local countryside. Great accommodation options are all within walking distance of the town centre and transport links to Vietnam are excellent.
Battambang, Cambodia’s second city does not attract many visitors, some people that I met would venture that this is for a reason. I would say that after partying in Siem Reap for a few days this isn’t actually the worst thing. It is home to a burgeoing bar and restaurant scene on the far side of the river as well as a decent smattering of local cafés and restaurants to while away a couple of days recharging your batteries.
Vientiane, Laos’s capital city isn’t visited by everyone who prefer to more adrenalin fuelled partying that Van Vieng has to offer. It is worth a little bit of your time though. The Buddha park, albeit an absolute mission to get to is an excellent site of Buddhist statues and carvings of all shapes and sizes. Similarly if you just want to relax for a few days there is a very cheap and acceptable public swimming pool that is virtually empty during the daytime. Finally there is the excellent COPE centre, a free museum in English and brilliantly presented with varied and innovative displays, dedicated to victime of land mines and other accidents meaning they need limb replacements. Again, like many sites in Laos, they seemingly don’t want you to find it but take the time to trek across town and you will be rewarded and feel obliged to make a sizeable donation.

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Don Khong, 4000 Islands, Laos.

A Warm Welcome (generally speaking)

Tourism is South-East Asia’s lifeblood so for the most part the people are nothing but lovely.

Transport

A sense of humour is important to cope with the multiple, and seemingly endless stops on long distance buses that double as delivery vehicles. This is especially true in montainous Laos where it will take 10 hours to go 300km. Bear in mind bus companies probably don’t pay their people that much, so they’ll make up for this by carrying out local deliveries and overcrowding the buses wherever possible. The trains in Vietnam are excellent value for money.

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Sapa, North Vietnam

A final word

With an all year round climate, a welcoming population and highly traveller freindly infrastructure; this is probably in terms of value for money, activities, sights and the whole package, the best extended area for the traveller in the world.