13 months and 13 countries later, we are in Laos. Like with any country, we visit a part of this one. Unlike with any other country so far, one of the reasons we have chosen this part - the south - is because of uncertain stability in the north. In the 1 month preceding our entry to Laos, we learn of 2 incidents in the north of the country. The first is reported internationally, the second is not.
The Lao capital, Vientiane, is close to a Lao-Thai border crossing and across from the town of Nong Khai in North-Eastern Thailand. To the north of Vientiane, Rte 13 leads to the town of Vang Vieng. Rte 13 then continues on to the town of Luang Prabang. When entering Laos by the Vientiane border crossing, Vang Vieng is the gateway to further north for trekking and visiting Lao hill tribes, and to further northeast to the Plain of Jars. We planned to visit all these areas.
The first incident on Rte 13 occurs around the beginning of February 2003. A bus from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang is stopped. For 10 minutes, there is shooting. Several (at least 8-10) Lao are killed. Two Swiss cycling behind the bus are killed. We first learn of this incident from a small news story on the CBC website: initially the nationality of one of the foreigners is uncertain, possibly Canadian. We then learn more of the incident from a few news stories in the Bangkok Post.
The second incident on Rte 13 occurs around the end of February 2003. Again, a bus from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang is stopped. Its passengers are mugged. "Only" Lao are affected in the second incident so it is not reported internationally.
By the time we reach Nong Khai on the Thai border March 6 2003 and then Vientiane on the Lao border March 10 2003, rumours run ablaze with these incidents and more: Have all the buses out of Vang Vieng been cancelled? Are there armed escorts on the buses? Were another 30 people killed? Confirmed information is scarce and information therefore can only be spread from traveller to traveller. Since the first incident, buses on Rte 13 to the north are continually stopped by plainclothes military carrying large guns. Many, not all, foreigners are travelling south instead of north. And, we are some of those.
The difficulty of this situation was having to make a decision on travelling in the north with a scarcity of information. This stretch of Rte 13 and the connecting stretch of Rte 7 to the Plain of Jars have historically not been secure. For all we know, there could never be incidents on these stretches of road, or there could be frequent incidents as with any other stretch in any other country which are not reported for whatever reason, perhaps because they are the norm: every traffic accident fatality is not reported in the Canadian news yet it is considered safe to drive on roads in Canada. Foreigners are not restricted from this part of Laos, therefore it is up to each one to weigh her/his own comfort levels of amount and reliability of information vs personal safety vs acceptability of risk.
Two incidents in a relatively short time period on the same stretch of road in an area which has historically been insecure are, for us at this time, too many. We were incidentally to have been in the north of Laos during the time of these incidents in February 2003, but were not because we spent longer than expected in Thailand. Because our plans are flexible and because Laos is not the only or focal point of our travels, we decide to not visit the north of Laos ... this time.
Instead from Vientiane, we travel south, spending enjoyable days in the areas of Tha Khaek, Savannakhet, Champasak, and Si Phan Don. This route almost allows us a continual view of the mighty Mekong river. This route interestingly also almost allows us a continual view of Thailand during our 2½ weeks in Laos because in the south of Laos, the Mekong is the border between Laos and Thailand. In March, it is the dry season, therefore the Mekong is at its smallest. In the dry season at the southern tip of Laos, the Mekong recedes, leaving behind thousands of islands of all sizes: Si Phan Don or Four Thousand Islands. In the rainy season between May and November, this part of the Mekong becomes a staggering 14km wide.
We spend 6 days on the island of Don Det in Si Phan Don. Don Det is small - we walk the length of the island in 1hr - and remote: no thoughts of ATMs or banks, internet cafes or telephones, because there are not even roads, electricity, or running water. It is on Don Det that we miss the beginning of the US/UK war on Iraq. In contrast to the aforementioned scarcity of news regarding the instability in the north of Laos, we experience isolation from news when we learn of this war 1 day after it begins. Instead of being bombarded by war news like we would have have been if in Canada, we satisfy our curiosity via short-wave radio, following crackly and staticy news updates on the BBC.
We were driven to find out as much as we could about the events in Northern Laos because of their direct local impact. In contrast, the media coverage of the US/UK war on Iraq does not have immediate consequences for the region in which we are travelling. The war news rather falls into a category of have-to-know because it is world news.
When we return to Bangkok March 31 2003, we are saturated by news about the war from the web and newspapers - still no direct impact on us. Yet another world headline unexpectedly awaits us and overthrows our plans: SARS.