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January 21, 2004

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Our journey across Laos continued. We passed thru the rugged country in a pickup truck, over dirt roads, mountains, to the country's border with Vietnam. We wondered how many opium fields lay nearby. Laos is the world's third largest opium producer (behind Afghanistan and Myanmar). Business took off during the 1960's and 1970's during the Vietnam War. Even the CIA got into the business by directing US aircraft to transport opium and heroine; the CIA used the profits to finance covert operations in Indochina. In 1975 over 60 licensed opium dens existed in Vientiane. Today opium serves as Laos biggest export earner (it was an official export until 1991). Villages all over Laos, mainly in the northern mountainous regions, cultivate opium poppies and sell them for $30 to $100 per kilogram. Villagers also use raw opium sap, oil, and seeds for local foods. Those noodles are addicting!
It's easy to find a ride - any vehicle is a taxi. Open pickup trucks serve as public buses. A few dollars brings you a long way - over 100 kilometers. Villagers generally don't speak english but they smile and offer snacks.
In the afternoon we found the Vietnam border deserted. The guards were off celebrating Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. We ran around the customs house and tried to stamp our own passports. After waiting at the borderpost for two hours, a few drunk guards arrived and signed us into the country. The holiday closed all public transportation. Rain and fog kept us from walking to the next town. Eventually we hitched with a passing vehicle, for an exorbitant $20 fee, and made it to the next town by nightfall.