Monday, December 20, 2010

Flying In Laos - Air Transportation

Lao Airlines MA60 On Tarmac At Lunag Prabang, Lao People's Democratic Republic
 Our just concluded journey to Luang Prabang was our second experience of flying in the Lao People's Democratic Republic.  It was our second round trip for domestic flights this year.

Two years ago we took the VIP bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang - 13 hours of which many kilometers were on unpaved portions of Highway 13.  Other than the typical for SE Asia close calls with on coming or passing heavy trucks our journey up to Luang Prabang was uneventful.  The monotony of the transit was broken up by a lunch break in Vang Vieng and several bathroom breaks when required alongside of the road.  Our return trip was more eventful.  We had a young man with an AK-47 assault rifle standing in the aisle for the duration of our trip.  The last armed conflict on Highway 13 from Hmong holdouts from the CIA's secret war of the 1970s was in 2003.  In February 2003 a bus was attacked and 12 people were killed.  Later that year in April another bus was attacked and 13 more people were killed.  Since then things have been calm along the road. However it still remains a long days journey on a rough road from Vientiane to Luang Prabang.  The armed guard was not the only excitement that we had on our return to Vientiane.  As we left Luang Prabang, an attendant checked our tickets and offered each passenger a barf bag; a premonition of what was to come.  Highway 13 is a mountainous and twisty road for most of its length between Luang Prabang and Vientiane.  Across the aisle from us, a female passenger lost her breakfast as well as her dinner from the night before.  Fortunately Duang and I always travel with emergency supplies - baby wipes, kleenex, Lomatril, and toilet paper.  We gave the suffering passenger some baby wipes to clean and freshen herself up.

Another inconvenience about taking the bus for us is that we have to spend a night in Vientiane in order to catch the early morning bus to Luang Prabang.  Earlier this year when we decided to go to Luang Prabang another 10 to 12 hour road trip from Luang Prabang, the bus was not a viable consideration.  We went to the airport in Vientiane and flew Lao Airlines to Luan Prabang - about two hours away by air.  Based upon our Luang Namtha flights, we decided to fly Lao Airlines from Vientiane to Luang Prabang - 55 minute flight.

Our flight to Luang Prabang was uneventful.  Just as before, we flew on a fairly new Chinese turboprop plane - MA60.  The MA60 carries 60 passengers.  Our flight to Luang Prabang was just about filled to capacity.  We arrived in Luang Prabang, LPQ, on time.  LPQ has a single 7,218 foot asphalt runway but is being expanded to add another longer runway.  Luang Prabang's airport has one domestic gate and one international gate.  Actually the gates are more like ordinary glass doors.  To access the aircraft, you exit the terminal out of a normal ground level door, walk to the plane, and climb up a portable ramp to the aft door of the plane.

Our luggage was available in about 10 minutes unlike the 30 to 45 minute wait that seems to be typical at San Francisco Airport.

We were not part of an organized tour or staying at a hotel that had airport pickup so there was no one waiting for us as we exited the terminal.  We walked about 100 meters from the terminal to the public street outside of the airport.  Tuk-Tuks were parked along the street waiting for passengers.  We ended up sharing a Tuk-Tuk with two other people.  The airport was about 10 minutes from the center of town - nice and convenient with no hassle.

Hmong Young Men Take Souvenir Photos At the Security Perimeter of Luang Prabang Airport
On the day that we visited the three outlying villages, we passed by what I thought was a resort hotel on our way back to town.  As we drove by, I realized that it was the airport.  There was a very short road leading to a gate that was about 60 meters from a Lao Airlines MA60 plane.  I had Duang stop the driver and bring us to the runway access road.  Two Hmong boys were photographing each other as I got out to take my photographs.  As often happens over here I was invited to be photographed with them.  I do not like to be photographed but I understand it would be terribly hypocritical of me to refuse to be photographed when I take so many photographs of people.  I suck it up, agree to be photographed, and even manage to smile!

LPQ Facilities and Lao Airlines Aircraft
No one challenged us and it appeared that no one noticed us taking photos. If anyone noticed, they apparently did not care.  In fact many people took pictures outside of the terminal and in front of the aircraft upon arrivals and departures.  Perhaps with the proliferation of cellphone cameras, the authorities have given up on restricting photography at the airports.

Our return to Vientiane was a little more eventful.  Check in and security were straight forward with no complications.  We went into the waiting room, a simple room about 20 feet by 20 feet.  One of our fellow passengers very quickly caught our attention.  He was a young man about 30 years old and was your stereotypical Asian "wheeler dealer" or "lady's man"  I recognized from his language that he was Vietnamese.  He was sitting or rather slouching in a row of chairs.  It seemed that every 5 minutes he was on his cellphone having a very animated and definitely loud conversation.  I found it rather amusing but I could tell that Duang was get aggravated.  After a while a Monk came and sat across from us with his traveling companion.  The Vietnamese guy continued with his loud conversations.  I looked at the Monk and I could tell that he was annoyed too.  After a period of time another man, a Lao, from the other side of the room started a loud conversation on his cell phone.  To me it was like two dogs barking at each other and I started laughing.  Duang nudged me to stop which caught the attention of the Monk's travelling companion.  He said something in Lao to the effect that the people were not good people.

Eventually we lined up to board the plane.  But not all of us.  An airline representative came by and had the Vietnamese man leave the boarding area to speak with the Police or Army outside of the room.  An older Lao man spoke to me in English that he was glad the man had been pulled for questioning.  He also apologized for the man's bad behavior.  I noticed another Lao man, younger with eyeglasses, who kept looking at the Vietnamese man.  Duang was relieved that the loud man had been removed and not allowed on the plane.  She said that she thought that he was drunk.  I then pointed out to her that he was on the plane  and getting into his seat two rows in front of us!

The more that I observed the Vietnamese man the more I became convinced that he was high on "Yaba" - amphetamines.  He acted afraid and paranoid.  He kept leaning over the person seated next to him at the window.  Ha watch on the man.  When we landed in Vientiane, the passenger deboarded and seemed to disappear into the night.  As I retrieved our bag from the luggage conveyor (a single strip conveyor belt about 25 feet long, miss your bag and it falls off the end), the man who had spoken to me before stated that he was glad that the man was gone.

I remarked to Duang that it was reassuring and comforting to know that despite language barriers, the passengers were looking after each other's safety and prepared to take action if required.

Yes, we can and we were prepared to if we had to.

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