Laotian smiles, spreading like ripples on water: In Laos the roads are bad, the food worse and the accommodation terrible. Julia Wilkinson found respite in the warmth of the people

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The Independent Travel
AS SOON as I saw him, dressed in battle fatigues with a gun in his belt, I knew he was my kind of man. When you want to go places in a land like Laos, you need a guy with guts.

'It'll cost you,' he said, as we sat discussing the chance of an adventure. We had arrived at Phonsavan, the one-street capital of Xieng Khoang province in north-east Laos, expecting the usual bland, official tour. But our appointed guide, Sousath, had hinted at more.

'It'll take 10 hours of driving,' he said. 'The roads are bad, food worse and the accommodation terrible.'

'Sounds good,' we coolly replied. Sousath sized us up as we put our money on the table. 'You'll be the first English visitors for years. And women at that - hah]' We could tell he was tickled by the notion. 'I'll arrange the car. We leave in an hour.'

The itinerary our Laotian travel agent had arranged was instantly forgotten. The Plain of Jars, a field of prehistoric stone burial jars, would have been the highlight. But Sousath had offered forbidden fruits: Sam Neua, capital of neighbouring Houaphan province, off-limits to tourists.

You can see why it is a sensitive spot. The Free Lao Front first based their Vietminh-supported resistance against French colonial forces there in the Fifties. It is where a clandestine Communist Party was formed in 1955, and where the Pathet Lao established the headquarters of their liberation movement. They operated from hundreds of caves hidden in limestone peaks at nearby Viengsai, close to the Vietnamese border, burrowing deep to escape the bombs the Americans dropped on east Laos during the Sixties and Seventies on their way back from bombing Vietnam. A few years after the Pathet Lao finally took power in 1975, King Savang Vatthana was sent here for 're-education'. He was never heard of again.

Sousath did not need to ask twice. Burial jars could wait.

The first thing that strikes you about the countryside of Laos is its emptiness: only 3.8 million people live in a land a little larger than Great Britain. Its population density is one of the lowest in Asia (neighbouring Thailand is seven times more crowded).

The next thing that strikes you, in the north-east at any rate, are the bomb-cratered plains and scattered bomb casings, some put to good use as fences and flowerpots.

We passed no other traffic on the road, and few villages. At the crossroads to Luang Prabang, even the asphalt gave out and we plunged into a sea of pot-holes, stopping only at a poor Hmong village where low-bellied black pigs scuffled in the dirt and the children ran away from us in fear. An old woman slowly moved among a field of opium poppies, scraping the pods with a bamboo tool.

It was dark by the time we floundered into the empty streets of Sam Neua. In the spartan government guest house, the surly manager refused us rooms and the only other hotel in town looked as if it had not seen a guest for decades. Sousath disappeared to find the caretaker and reappeared in a fury, firing his pistol into the air.

'This is terrible place]' he yelled. 'The manager is sleeping with his girlfriend. He won't bother to get up]' He fired another round into the darkness. That did the trick: crawling with apologies, the manager appeared. 'Sometimes,' growled Sousath, 'you have to show who's boss.'

Barricading our unlockable door with a table, we collapsed into fitful sleep. Doors and shutters slammed as the wind howled through the hotel. In the shifting light of dawn, I heard the melancholy sound of a pipe; in my dreams it seemed more like a cry.

But next morning we felt ready for anything; even the dead animals for sale in the market did not faze us: two rats, three squirrels, a bunch of parrots, a cluster of frogs. 'See anything you fancy for lunch?' asked Sousath.

But the authorities had other ideas for our lunchtime jaunts. They did not like Sousath's al fresco travel plans: they insisted we take a government escort to Viengsai. And, no, we could not spend the night in a village or visit the Vietnamese border. Our adventure, from now on, was under their control.

Still, nothing could spoil Viengsai's extraordinary landscape. An hour out of Sam Neua, limestone peaks and pinnacles rose from the red-earth valley like a battalion of giants. No other place in Laos and few in Asia have such formations. The most obvious comparison - to Guilin in China - is appropriate in more ways than this, for both places served as Communist strongholds, their plethora of caves in the peaks sheltering hundreds of thousands of people. Viengsai itself was once a cave city of a million.

And now it is half-forgotten, derelict. As we drove beneath its entrance arch of rusting metal drums, we were met by a government official. But there was little he could show us: a statue of a worker crushing an American bomb under foot; a faded fresco of Lenin and Marx; a few roadside stalls selling cans of Chinese beer and tinned sardines from Thailand. It was hardly stirring stuff. Only the limestone peaks around us still looked grand and powerful.

We tramped through the undergrowth towards one of the secret caves. Graffiti in four languages was scrawled across the entrance: messages of support from visiting foreign Communists - 'Hasta La Victoria siempre]', 'Soyez les bienvenues]' - and blood-red Laotian words of hate - 'Go Home Villain Americans]'

In silence we pressed on towards the Vietnamese border. Clouds curled around distant hills beyond a plain of dry rice paddies. When we stopped at the Lao-Thai village of Meuan Kang, the people were astonished and afraid. Then one recognised Sousath and the smiles spread, like ripples on water.

'Come to my friend's house,' beamed Sousath, and led us into the wooden stilt-house of Boon Son, where the bamboo floor creaked and a central fire glowed. A dozen villagers followed and the conversation buzzed as Sousath told them who we were. 'They have invited us to supper. Everyone will celebrate tonight.'

We lingered in the shadows while women hurriedly prepared food, bringing forward a table laden with a ceremonial flower display and the head of a hastily slaughtered pig on a plate of rice. 'Come,' cried Boon Son. 'This is baci, our traditional welcoming ceremony. Here is our best rice wine, drink]'

We crouched round a clay jug of lao-lao, a home brew of fermented rice liquor, and sucked the sweet wine through long bamboo straws.

'Now to the table.' The room fell silent as everyone looked towards old Sen Ping, the village elder. 'Welcome to Meuan Kang,' he murmured. 'We want to thank you for coming to visit us, and to wish you good health and hope your dreams will come true.'

Taking two slips of white thread that hung from a branch of the flowers, he slowly tied the thread around our outstretched wrists: 'We wish you a safe journey, and hope you will come back to us one day.'

Yes, yes, murmured the villagers, and suddenly we were engulfed by them, each one uttering phrases of welcome as they tied their hopes and wishes round our wrists: 'Welcome]' 'Good health]' 'Long life . . .' 'May you have a good husband . . .' giggles, '. . . lots of children . . .' peals of laughter, '. . . and grandchildren, too]' And 'May you have happiness.'

The rest of the evening was potent with drink and goodwill. I forget how many times we were ushered to the lao-lao jug, how many times the old men raised their glasses to toast us. 'You foreigners have come to us like angels from the sky,' laughed one intoxicated elder, 'and will disappear just as suddenly, what a surprise, what a treat.' And he pressed his palms together and gave a little bow.

The evening grew dark, grew late. 'We must go,' said Sousath at last. 'It is two hours' drive back to Sam Neua, and we are forbidden to stay.'

'One more bottle,' cried our host. 'One more round of lao-lao.' So for the last time we crouched round the jug and bent the straws towards us. And then we were back in the rattling van. As we hurtled through the mist- bound hills, I thought of old Sen Ping, nodding by the fire, while the melancholy sound of a pipe cried in the wind.

LAOS does not go out of its way to encourage tourism. As in the old Soviet Union, all visitors must take an organised tour accompanied by a guide and driver. Due to the mountainous terrain and poor roads, most travel outside Vientiane is on Lao Aviation flights. Accommodation is bed and breakfast in modest hotels. Tours can be arranged in either the UK or Bangkok.

From the UK: A tour and visa take a minimum of two months to arrange, through Regent Holidays, 15 John Street, Bristol BS1 2HR (0272 211711). Regent offers a range of tours, such as a five-day trip for around pounds 413 or eight days for pounds 588. The flight to Vientiane is extra ( pounds 570 via Bangkok on Thai International), as is the visa fee ( pounds 30).

From Bangkok: If time is short, you will need to apply in the Thai capital. Cheap flights to Bangkok are available from many agents, such as pounds 360 on Aeroflot through Discount Air Travel (0983 760017) or pounds 389 on Philippine Airlines via Major Travel (071-485 7017).

You can approach the Lao Embassy direct (193 Sathon Tai Road, Bangkok 10120), but the opening hours are highly erratic and you will almost certainly be told to go through an agent. A reliable one is Diethelm Travel (14th floor, Kian Gwan Building II, 140-141 Wireless Road, Bangkok 10330). Diethelm has a range of standard tours, such as three days for about pounds 378 or six days for pounds 705; fares between Bangkok and Vientiane are extra. If everything works perfectly, you may be able to get a visa within 48 hours, but travellers are strongly advised to allow two weeks.

Health: No vaccinations are compulsory, but precautions are recommended against tetanus, polio, cholera, typhoid, hepatitis and malaria.

Guidebook: Lonely Planet's Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos ( pounds 9.95) is more than two years old, but is still the most reliable and comprehensive guide.

(Photograph and map omitted)