This is an entry from my travel journals about Thailand and Laos.
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We passed through the funny intersection where the cars driving on the left side get shifted over to driving on the right side and slid through immigration pretty easily. Soon we were in the capital of Laos, Vientiane.
This town shows its french colonial influence very strongly. The names of nearly every government agency are signed in French and Lao. Many old dwellings in that style sit unoccupied in the center of town, presumably as part of some preservation campaign. Meals involving stuffed french bread baguettes are available absolutely anywhere, and there are french restaurants as well as other european fare. There's a sort of mini arc-de-triomphe monument in town and the spotless, gleaming "Presidential Palace" (no small feat in a town where dust is constantly being kicked into the air) is a giant structure with euro looking columns.
The area of town where we stayed, along the river and near a major fountain, was saturated with guesthouses, vietnamese noodle and spring roll shops, farang-oriented "beer gardens" with horrible live music, travel/visa oriented companies, indian restaurants, and yes even some Lao food restaurants. I guess it's the closest thing Lao has to Khao San road in Bangkok.
Contrary to my last visit, cheap internet access was everywhere. Completely gone was the black market for money exchange, run by old ladies with buckets of money in the street markets, who used to offer exchange rates many times better than the official bank rate. I would see these new trends repeated in Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang as well. Guesthouse prices were significantly higher than Thailand, with $10 being typical for a fairly dumpy room with shared bath (maybe $3 in Nong Khai) and $18 for the rooms with hot water showers, which Micheal and I got.
We passed by the fancy, expensive Lane Xang hotel, and parked outside was this gigantic cherry-red, deck-and-a-half bus with giant tires and huge ground clearance. Inside was a spotless aircon cabin with seats and some sort of sleeper cabins in the back. On the side was some german writing and "Rotel." This must be some new trend in fat farang tourism—it looked like this vehicle was designed to ply the nasty unpaved roads of Lao formerly only accessible to adventurous backpackers via Lao's uncomfortable 4 wheel drive Russian trucks.
We wandered around the "morning" market (really all day), a dusty, crowded affair where you'll find housewares, groceries, medicines, and mysterious but delicious drinks being sold under the same giant corrugated steel roof by seemlingly endless merchants. My favorite here was the lotus root drink, a brown liquid with tons of little honeycomb-shaped disks which is said to "cool" your system (as opposed to durian which is said to "heat" your system). In general the markets we saw in Lao were just a bit more grungy than oudoor markets in Thailand. For example, you'd be more likely to find a market built on dirt rather than a concrete slab.
Over a third of this market seemed to be the farang section, where they sold nothing but silk clothes, little statuettes of the Buddha, elephants, thatch houses, ... basically exactly the same junk you can find at any farang oriented market anywhere in southeast asia. Sometimes Micheal and I wondered if all this stuff is just made in China.
We dropped next door to get a look at something which Michael had been dreading since early December—the ordinary bus that goes north to Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. This is the same bus I described in the last trip report, complete with cargo, livestock, frequent breakdowns, and more Laos than you ever thought would fit inside. Things were much different than last time—the government had obviously purchased a lot more buses as their were vehicles in all different states of repair. Of course, we had no idea which one we would get if we chose to take that conveyance to Vang Vieng.
Another major change in Vientiane is that there are now many other ways to go north, ranging from several private minibus companies (not just $$$ Diethelm like last time) and even a special farang- or rich lao-oriented passenger bus service which charges about 10x more than the ordinary bus (but still way less than Diethelm). This presented Micheal and I with a choice we constantly have to make—comfort vs. the opportunity to see the locals travelling the way most of them do. We would tussle over this endlessly for the next days.
We grabbed a jumbo (sort of like a Thai Tuk-Tuk, a three-wheeled vehicle that is a motorcycle in front with a big shaded metal cage with two rows of facing 4' long seats in the back. We negotiated a price to visit a common tourist attraction, the "Buddha Park." The price for the 35 km return trip and a few hours waiting time was 100,000 kip—less than $10!
On the way our jumbo driver experienced technical difficulties. In fact we think he may have lost second gear entirely. But eventually we got there. In general we found the local public transport in Lao cities to be in a much worse state of repair than Thailand. I guess they're more determined to keep the various vehicles running nomatter what the kludge.
As we listened to teeth being sliced off from the gears of this guy's transmission, we considered what a huge burden it would be to his family if his vehicle finally died. If he spent 9am-9pm making the same rate as he did with us, he would make $38/day, minus gas and food. Presumably the jumbo costs way more than a motorcycle, perhaps $1500.
However we also found (especially in Vang Vieng) that there seems to have been a very recent boom in purchase of shiny new personal motorbikes. This seems to be due to a combination of new prosperity from the tourist boom, as well as the recent introduction of cheap Chinese motorbikes (costing them $500) rather than the expensive Honda/Suzuki motorbikes (which they refer to as "Thai" motorbikes and which cost them $1200). Apparently the Chinese motorbikes only last from 3 months to 2 years but people buy them anyway.
We arrived at the Buddha Park, a bizarre sculpture garden created by the same eccentric monk-yogi-shaman dude who created the Buddha Park in Nong Khai across the border in Thailand (described in report from first trip to Thailand and Lao). This park was specifically designed for children and it was basically a large (maybe 100'x200') concrete playground. There were crazy looking statues, circular statue groups showing the wheel of life in all its different stages, a giant reclining buddha with smaller statues in front each supposedly teaching some sort of lesson.
But most interesting was this giant concrete sphere, maybe 30 feet in diameter, with an even taller Dr.Seuss-like tree sticking out the top into the sky. You enter this sphere at ground level using the single, kid-size entrance. As you crawl around staying level you get occasional glimpses through tiny windows into the dark center sanctum. Finally, tucked away in a corner, you find some rather steep, un-guide-railed stairs leading up to the next level. Now again you are taunted by tiny windows showing that there is more towards the center of the sphere and finally you find an entrance leading inward. In here, barely lit, is a whole collection of statues about worldly life, from kings to normal folk, all tied together by silly nagas and such. In the very center is another barely-sufficient concrete spiral stairway leading down to a very dark room, filled with ghastly images of hell, with miserable sinners forced to climb thorny trees with dogs nipping at their feet, and more skeletons than John Poindexter's closet. Then, either through the center room or the outside hall, you explore upward to other hidden rooms with more angelic statues. Finally a narrow passageway pops you out the top of the sphere and you get a panoramic view of the area, including Thailand (and the other Buddha park) on the other bank of the Mekong.
All throughout this kid structure there are absolutely no guard rails or anything preventing you from falling to your death, which is absolutely the norm here—kids figure out how to stay alive and protect themselves from a very young age (and those who don't follow the rather large percentage of those who don't survive past early childhood). This basic notion of teaching kids survival early and then not spending your life and money obsesssing over contrived and unlikely danger scenarios has a noticeable positive effect on the happiness, calmness, and well-being of everyone who lives in southeast asia.
On the park grounds there was also a Lao monk who had come to see the place, practice his english, and teach some farangs about the stories of the Buddha. His english was pretty good. He said he had been a monk for something like 6 years but next year he was going to stop and look for a job, maybe in accounting (!). Even more than in Thailand, monkhood in Lao seems to offer people the opportunity for free housing and education and many folks use it for that and stay monks for many years. As we would find out later in Luang Prabang, all Lao villages have some form of primary education (usually a tiny schoolhouse with a teacher who drives/hikes in from the nearest town), and then for secondary education the burden is on villagers' parents to pay for transport and living expenses in the nearest big town. Many parents cannot afford this so instead they send their kids to become monks in those towns, where they get a similar education (with only slightly more religious emphasis). Luang Prabang is an extreme example of this; novice monks fill every temple, and spaces for new novices are hard to find.
On the way back to Vientiane from the Buddha park, our jumbo driver took an odd turn off the main highway. Turns out he had broken up with his wife (and she hooked up with some other, richer guy) and he was taking this opportunity to sneak into his daughter's school so he could visit his daughter. We also took this opportunity to visit the school. As we entered the main grounds, all the playing and running and yelling ceased as everyone stared and pulled their friends in to see the farang. As we walked by each classroom at ground level we created waves of inattention as the children whispered "farang!". Everyone in the courtyward was so disciplined. As girls would pass us they would bend their heads and kneel slightly in respect.
We chatted up two of the teachers and the director. This was some kind of private, special primary school (so much for a socialist communist state?) where the teachers had a lot of freedom to teach their own program of Lao, English, history, social studies, and badminton.
One of the teachers asked if we wanted to visit the children in his class (currently scribbling away in their notebooks on some sort of math problem). Upon our entry and maybe one or two words from the teacher, all the children rose in frighteningly perfect unision, with hands held together in the respectful 'wai', belted at the top of their lungs "Good morning sir how are you?" and fell into a totally attentive silence with all eyes on the farangs. Micheal and I stared at each other in disbelief and Micheal said to them slowly and clearly "I'm fine how are you?" And again, as if cogs in some giant phrase-book machine, the class responded "I am fine as well thank you very much." I don't know if they knew what they were saying or if they would have responded the same way nomatter what Micheal said.
This is the kind of rote memorization and flawless performance which makes many (particularly older) people proud of their educational system and makes me shudder.
One of the teachers with particularly good English mentioned that he did some English tutoring at night and would welcome some help. I got his information and planned to come back that evening.
Back in Vientiane I chowed down a quick dinner and rented a motorbike for a return trip to the school. Eventually by asking the same question a lot of times I found my way back there. The teacher was busy at a match of badminton with the showier kids. After that we took off in our respective motorbikes. I was happy to find someone even less comfortable on his new motorbike than me (in his case, a clutch motorbike which he just got and which he stalled regularly). We continued for several kilometers on the same dirt road that I had taken off the freeway, passing village houses and fields. The sun was going down and there was a thin layer of thick fog developing about 40 feet off the ground. The fog created a palette of colors which reflected off the still-submerged green rice fields to create a beautiful effect. Along the way the teacher picked up a passenger (and stalled even more trying to get going). As we passed a rickety wooden cart lashed to a slow mini-tractor we picked up a little girl off the back; apparently she was a student as well!
Finally, we pulled into a fairly nice house (meaning it was at least partially made of concrete and had a tile floor) which had a small, entirely concrete school room bolted on the side, complete with chalkboard. The students sat at two tables in one row, 4-5 quiet little kids at one little table and 4-5 rowdier 12-14-year-olds at the other. After the requisite waiting period for students on Lao time (quite similar in nature to Thai time) we begin. These students also had an entrance ritual; "Good evening Mr. So-and-So how are you tonight?" He announced he had some help tonight for pronunciation etc.
He initially turned the whole class over to me but we resolved that little misunderstanding quickly. Instead we did a question and answer format where the kids had to ask me questions and try to understand the answer. Most of them stuck to the ones they had in their notebook like "how old are you?" "where are you from?" "are you cold?" (since I was only wearing shorts amidst this frigid 65 degree weather) but some were braver and ventured out into "do you have a girlfriend?"
It was hard for the teacher to coax questions out of some of the students. But the youngest girl, in the nicest dress, was clearly the class nerd and willingly walked right up to the farang to wai and ask her questions. I wonder if her notebook was highlighted in 4 different colors. Near the end of the class it was the turn of the smallest boy, who had not said anything at all to date. The teacher made him stand up in front of me and pried each syllable of "Hello how are you?" out of him. I tried to tell the student he was doing well (and the teacher translated) but it didn't seem to help. As the intimidation grew over the course of 2-3 minutes, his gaze fell lower and lower until he could only look at his feet. The teacher and teacher's assistant (perhaps a relative of the student?) were telling him to look up, raise his chin. His shyness and anguish eventually led to total paralysis and at a certain point he retreated to the corner of the room and broke out in tears. At this point the entire room, boys, girls, and adults alike, broke out in ringing laughter at the boy crying in the corner.
Between guffaws, the teacher said/explained something about crying to the students. I wonder if he was explaining that the laughter might seem kind of strange to the farang since, contrary to Thai/Lao, it is not the farang's custom to laugh out loud at a peer who has fallen or failed in order to make him/her feel more comfortable. At any rate I was helpless but to feel sorry for the kid so asked the nerd girl to tell the boy that he spoke English well.
That was about the end of class so after the requisite ritual greeting most of the kids disappeared. I ate dinner with the teacher and what I assume was his family (or maybe just the parents of one of the students, who owned the house with the classroom?). Everyone ate on the floor as in my Korat experience in Thailand. I sat down with legs pointed back, as people seem to do at temple, and after a few snickers from the remaining kids, the teacher corrected me that men are supposed to sit cross-legged (thank god for that!). We ate some eggplant curry and some rather bony chunks of chicken with sticky rice. In general I found that there is a whole lot less meat on the bone of any lao dish or soup that calls for meat, compared with Thailand. Perhaps this relates to their economic situation, not sure.
The teacher mentioned to me how he wants to start an English school of his own on the main road, but he needs instructors and capital. I mentioned to him that there are literally hundreds of backpackers just 20km away in Vientiane who would give anything to live in a real Lao village for a week or a month, teaching English and living with the Laos. I think the teacher didn't believe me. I mentioned he should just post a few flyers to that effect on guesthouses in town but again he was dubious they would let him do that. I think he is somewhat intimidated by Vientiane; he was very much a 'burb kind of guy and it was somewhat expensive for him to even go into Vientiane, let alone do something that requires him to stay overnight. He had an email address but rarely/never checks it, for the same reason.
At some point this guy will figure out that there is a vast untapped pool of nearly free English-competent labor available nearby him.
He may have also been asking for help with the capital part of his dream but was not pushy in this regard.
While we ate dinner, they loaded their VCD player with a cheaply Lao-Karaoke-subtitled version of a Lao folk song, whose video consisted of a repeating sequence of the same 4-5 video clips of very fully clothed Laos doing their very understated folk dance moves in various places in Vientiane. I don't expect this to be hitting the MTV charts any time soon.
After dinner we blabbed for a while and some of the family members went to sleep. They slept on the floor as well, on top of a thin mat with a thick blanket wrapped around them (this is the dead of chilly winter after all).
It was rather late and the father offered to have me stay overnight at their house. While this would be fun, and possibly even illegal without previous government "registration," Micheal and I had to leave quite early the next morning for Vang Vieng so I politely refused. The teacher and his friend accompanied me back to the freeway and nearly halfway back to town.
I arrived back in town with 45 minutes to spare before the town-wide, police-enforced curfew of midnight. Despite this draconian policy, neither Vientiane nor any other town I saw in Lao really has any kind of "slum" or area you don't want to be in at night. I am beginning to understand that dangerous slums are a unique feature of the United States and very few other choice locations in the world.
I'd get in a good 2-3 hours of sleep that night as we awaited our adventure with Lao public transport to Vang Vieng...
Victorious, elated, Micheal stepped up to the ticket counter and purchased a pair of reserved seats on a "VIP" bus to Vang Vieng for about $4 each. When the bus arrived we boarded quickly and gazed in amazement at the legroom and lack of livestock. For some reason, about half the bus had gotten double-booked and the losers piled off the bus on to some other mystery vehicle. At about 10 or 10:30 we were off, careening down narrow windy streets and honking at children as we sped towards Vang Vieng in style. We took a 30 minute pee break at a small town full of vendors ready to service sore travelers. As is always the case in Southeast Asia, there were not actually any public toilets so you had to actually buy something and ask the vendor if you could use their mangy squat toilet (ok maybe you didn't ask that way). At our stop there was also a tall bridge with breathtaking views of a river valley. One company had already set up a rafting operation for farangs.
Around 1 or 2 PM, we pulled off the road to the dusty disused airstrip which runs through the little town of Vang Vieng.
Around this time we had yet another Lonely Planet Moment, an experience you get almost daily as part of any backpacker travel in Thailand or Laos, where you realize that a single book has managed to completely monopolize, and completely homogenize, travel in an entire region. Everyone, I mean EVERYONE has the Lonely Planet and only the Lonely Planet. Every historical or political fact, every guesthouse, every map, every tour operator, every bus route, everything farangs understand about the two countries comes directly from this one source. A guesthouse which is not in the Lonely Planet, or which is not directly next to a full guesthouse which is in the Lonely Planet, might as well not exist, because nobody's going to find it. A guesthouse with an even mildly bad review must rename, and ideally relocate, itself immediatley if it is to have any chance of survival. Guesthouse owners and tour operators will make direct reference to whether something is in Lonely Planet or whether the price has changed relative to Lonely Planet without even verifying that you have a copy. I don't know if Joe Cummings (the pictured author of the Thai and Lao lonely planet) has gotten into the bribery business yet, but by writing his guides in the early 80s and continuing to update them he has earned a position more powerful than that of most local mafia. There are some other tour books for Thailand and Laos, but they are useless because they - only cater to rich tourists (Fodors, etc.) or - lack the incredible backpacker-oriented chapter/section/map organization of the Lonely Planet, or - are not available in every conceivable European language like the Lonely Planet now is. - are not updated every 1 or 2 years like the Lonely Planet is.
It is more than a little scary and depressing that what used to be (even on my last trip) a wide variety of travellers with different sources and insights has now been reduced to a set of clone backpackers all vying for the same guesthouses and hoping that the other backpackers didn't catch the little "slice of paradise" they read about on page 103 and plan to go visit.
Speaking of which, the backpackers poured off our bus and all rushed for local transport to get them first to one of the two Vang Vieng guesthouses which got really good LP reviews. We missed that rush so we just walked. When we arrived at the Nana guesthouse there was but one room remaining. Lucky I guess.
As we wandered around town I realized that Vang Vieng has seriously grown since my last visit. The buses used to pull up to the dirty market, passing by a handful of guesthouses. Now the entire, paved market road, another paved road about 1km long, and another stretch of riverside "beach" that I think was uninhabited before, has been converted to a giant almost khao-san like backpacker town which vastly overwhelms what is left of the actual Lao residential area. The main street was packed with restaurants, and it seemed half of them were called the "sabaidii" ("hello") restaurant. A new feature which I had never seen before was that about a third of the restaurants had Hebrew signs and menus in addition to English. It seems that Israeli tourism was a huge hit in Laos. Maybe they want to get away from the troubles at home. In the internet cafes I heard way more Hebrew than English. The streets were also lined with trekking/tubing adventure shops. And boy had the internet come to Vang Vieng. I counted no less than 6 cafes charging 300 kip (2.8 cents) per minute. Last time there was 1 or 2 but they had to call long distance to Vientiane so it used to be very expensive. Now, giant microwave dishes fly high above the town, no doubt carrying the internet traffic through some kind of government recording device in Vientiane before releasing it out to the internet.
At night, the town grew even more khao-san like. Some enterprising Lao businessman, who perhaps had once worked for the X10 camera people, placed identical rolling roti (banana pancake) stands, complete with clear english and hebrew signage, at 50-100 meter intervals all throughout the streets of the town. I don't think there's anywhere you could have stood without being able to order banana pancakes by simply turning your head and yelling.
In fact, this goes to support a general theory of backpacker travel which is that nomatter where you are travelling in the world, banana pancakes are always available. They may be called roti, or crepes, or flapjacks, but they are always there. This theory is so popular that the backpacker tourist track has come to be called the "banana pancake trail."
The other totally new and inexplicable trend, which we would see repeated in Luang Prabang, is the dart balloon-popping game. A Lao guy told us this trend hit Luang Prabang last September. Not sure when it hit Vang Vieng. Wedged in between nearly every restaurant,you would find one of these parlor games set up. They have nothing to do with Laos, but like Wax Museums in the US, popped up like a foot fungus in every place where backpakers were present. The game setups were all identical. They consisted of a wooden box, about 3' x 2.5' x 6", open one one 3' x 2.5' side. The inside of the box was subdivided by little wooden slats into a 6x6 grid of little 6"x5" cubbies. Into each cubby, the kids running the game would stuff a little oblong baloon just big enough to lodge there. They then mount the box vertically on a wall or easel and invite their customers to toss darts at the baloons for a few hundred kip each. Apparently different colors were worth different amounts and you could win bottles of M-150 (a particularly nasty jolt-cola-like drink with caffeine and other less legal stimulants, which plays a key role in "medicating" the drivers of Lao busses and minibuses so they can make several runs per day). Generally, speaking wherever you would find this game, you would also find some really little lao kid sitting there (frequently sitting inside a cardboard box, for reasons that were never clear to me) blowing up balloons as fast as his lungs allow.
The dart/balloon games seemed equally popular with farangs and with the local Lao kids. In Luang Prabang's night market there was enough demand for this game that there was a whole market area with at least 15 of these games right next to each other. Very strange.
Despite all this "progress," however, Micheal and I came to the conclusion that Vang Vieng has not yet actually been spoiled.
This is because at sundown, lots and lots of local types still come to the same spot on the river which they did on my last trip (see previous report) to wash clothes, wash themselves, wash their vehicles, brush their teeth, and generally goof off, somehow still able to ignore the farangs gawking at them from the platform restaurants which have been built on the shore. As the sun sets over the distant mountains, reflecting off the water and lighting bright red the smoky sky created by the endless burning of everything from crops to garbage, and shadows fall over the still primarly corrugated steel roofs, and as chickens, pigs and roosters make themselves heard over screaming kids playing in their yards and in the schools, you still get the idea that this is a Lao town. Basically, if you just get your butt off of those two main streets (or check the view of the town from the second story of your guesthouse), you can actually enjoy a peaceful Lao scene.
That evening Micheal and I went to the "Organic Farm Restaurant," the town branch of an organic farm a few kilometers north. Most people assume all the food in Thailand and Laos is organic, however this has not been the case for a long time—giant corporations have taken over a lot of agriculture production in Thailand and are essentially free to use whatever chemicals they like to increase the efficiency of their production process, and similar techniques are creeping into Laos. In a recent episode in this saga, a lot of that "questionable" feed that was causing all the stir with Mad Cow disease in Europe actually got dumped on markets in Southeast Asia and now nobody knows where it is.
Some Lao person who is obviously way ahead of his time decided to create this farm as part of a worldwide network of "WOOFing" farms which exchange farm labor for free housing at the organic farm. In addition, the politically correct theme of the farm and town restaurant fits in perfectly with the Vang Vieng backpacker demographic. Quite clever really.
Anyway, the restaurant serves absolutely wonderful food. One of their unusual crops is the mulberry plant. As we sucked down a delicious mulberry shake, we ate mulberry leaves fried in oil with a sweet-hot sauce. They also have mulberry wine and sell organic teas of many different sorts. They served delicious veggie and non-veggie curries and noodle dishes. We would eat here many times.
We ate at an Indian restaurant and then in the afternoon, I finally did something I have been waiting to do (and regretting not having done) since I was here more than 2 years before. I rented a big inner tube and got a tuk tuk driver to drive me 2km upriver to begin a long, relaxing, 3 hr float down the Nam Song river.
This was most definitely the high point of my trip to Laos. I don't remember why/believe that I did not do it before. Today Micheal chickened out because of a fear of possible rapids and schistosomiasis, however after I described the journey he went with me as I did it again the next day. If you wanted, your entire energy output could consist of swirling your hand in the water once per minute to point you forward. It was just totally relaxing.
The majority of this river float passes under the karst formations through Lao villages and fields. As you ease down the river, you pass Lao boys poking their head into the water with scuba masks, weilding rubber-band-powered spear guns, fishing for their afternoon snack (which they often then cook and eat themselves on a riverside campfire they build themselves). You also pass Laos of every age yanking algae (river weed) off of the rocks and collecting the delicacy into bunches for later drying and sale to restaurants and in the market. At a few points you have the option of beaching and walking a short distance to explore some interesting cave, but the vast majority of floaters decide to stay in their extremely lazy and comfortable position. Absolutely no Laos were tubing, and they probably find it strange why any Farang would be interested in such a "boring" venture. Generally if there were Thai tourists, they would show up at the boat dock with their button-down suit shirts and skirts and uneasily teeter onto one of the tiny motor-powered boats for a much faster, hotter, and less interesting tour of the river.
About every 20 minutes you pass some enterprising family who yells out "Beer Lao! Beer Lao! Pepsi!" from a platform they've built on the shore, offering a variety of beverages for those who actually brought their cash with them. One particularly enterprising woman would shout "Hey You! You Come Here Now!" and with that courteous remark she cracked a giant 30-foot long piece of bamboo into the water inches from your tube in an effort to "help" you grab on, so she could pull you ashore, so you could purchase her refreshments, pringles, or cheesy snacks. The food vendors invariably concentrated themselves on banks that occured on the outside of turns just after rapids, which means many of the tubers ended up beaching on their banks even though they had no intention of buying stuff, because they did not have the foresight to paddle their tube towards the inside of the turn. How convenient.
The only negative part of this journey, a bad sign indeed, is that at nearly every stop I was whisper-offered pot, opium, and possibly even heroin by teenage and slightly older boys. We eventually came to realize that these were the only boys of that age group which we saw in Vang Vieng at all. The Lonely Planet rumored of Vietnamese gangs who quietly operate opium dens in town frequented by lame-ass backpackers; perhaps the teenage generation of this town is getting themselves mixed up with that set. Which is a shame because everyone else seems so nice and happy. Oh well.
In the last 30 minutes of the journey we floated by that part of the river which had been taken over by guesthouses. It was very much a standard backpacker scene, with scantily clad (by Lao standards) backpackers sunning on the shore, Bob Marley blasting from riverside bars, and yes, banana pancakes. But the float ended at that very same place where the Laos would come this evening to perform their evening chores.
On my return that evening Micheal and I walked back into town. We passed a broken down bus on the side of the street. In front of the bus, a 4' circle on the ground had been totally blackened with engine oil, and an equally blackened lao was inside tinkering and removing more and more parts. As we would pass this bus the next day, and the one after that, we would see more and more parts removed, the head removed, the crankshaft visible, more and more oil on the ground, less and less of the mechanic's skin visible as his torn jeans turned completely black. Sometimes the mechanic attracted quite a crowd of ladies and gentleman who seemed to form some kind of committee about how to get the thing going again. As I write this on 29 January I'm guessing the bus is still sitting there under their gentle care, and some day it will again ply the streets between Vang Vieng and Vientiane.
We ate at the organic restaurant and I went to an internet cafe to write more of this darn journal. While there I saw another example of how the Internet has increased our, er, reach. A very loquacious and short lady, Lao or maybe Thai, walked in, sat down at the computer next to me, and logged into her Hotmail account. As she read her items she got ever more excited and emitted squeals of joy which attracted looks from around the room. She popped up the picture of some guy and emitted a particularly loud squeal. The guy on the other side of her asked if it was her boyfriend, and after thinking about this question for some time she answered no. She said he was a Lao-American she was "conversing" with and who had just sent his picture. She then launched several copies of Yahoo messenger and starting carrying on various conversations. Thanks to her squeals, the fact that she configured Messenger with a huge font, and the fact that she slowly read out loud everything that she was reading on the screen, it became clear that she was having parallel conversations with different "boyfriends" she had managed to acquire from the traveller set.
She would type "I miss you" into one window and effortlessly switch to the other as she'd push the smiley button and type "so are we just friends or what?", moving to the third window and type "when will you come back?" or some such. At one point she recived an email from another unsuspecting mark who wondered "where have you gone? I miss you and I'd like to see you again. Right now I can't come to see you because I'm broke"—-and just as soon as she read that magic word, she deleted the mail, belting out the Thai expression "som nam naa"—"serves you right."
In her defense, some of the marks at the other end of Yahoo Messenger were downright assholes as well. One of them typed a bunch of crap like "listen here and listen good, I don't want to repeat myself and I want to be understood the first time, you get it?" or such, the textual equivalent of pulling her around by her hair. She rolled her eyes and played along with him. "Ok," she'd type. "I understand."
Her friend, a slightly less loud but also boisterous short woman, arrived at the cafe and read some of the abusive text. She immediately counseled the woman to type "fuck you" back to the guy as soon as possible. On several occasions her friend leaned over the keyboard and managed to type "f" before the woman pulled her off. The woman knew better.
What was she after? Was she an expert man eater leading these guys on until they send her money or something? If so it would follow a pattern frequently seen in Souteast Asia, though I don't think I've ever seen anyone use the Internet to process multiple marks at at time. Being a geek it made me wonder if you could design a tool to partially or completly automate the farang farming process she has developed. You could set up whole factories of people like her...
I had done this on the last trip, however the bike I rented was so broken and the seat so prone to rotating back and forth that I ended up with a 3 day ass ache and I only ended up pedaling for 30 minutes (the remaining 1-2 hours consisted of walking my bike back to the rental place since the seat had fallen down all the way so that my knees were above my heart if I wanted to ride it).
Last time I learned that it was important not to rent the 10-speeds because they have 10x as many things that can go wrong.
By a series of coincidences we ended up at a place that only rented 10 speeds, and rather iffy ones at that. Against my better judgement I rented one with Micheal and we set off across the bridge. Less than half an hour later the bike gave me a wedgie just like before and I just lost it. I jumped off and just turned around, not to fall into this trap again. We ended up not seeing anything down that road and paying the bridge toll back and forth twice, and Micheal wishes me to point out that contrary to standard operating procedure in SE Asia, in this instance I did not just let things flow nomatter how weird they get. However I have no regrets.
So after that abortive attempt we decided to go tubing instead. We packed all our valuable things into a waterproof money belt I got for christmas, and set off to the Organic Farm for more mulberry goods, and coincidentally also the put-in for the tubes. Had another fun time floating down the river. This time I saw a water snake, gliding perfectly smoothly across the river, with his head perfectly level at all times, as if the current and waves were not even there. There were some farangs with heavy backpacks who were wading in the water, and a little Lao kid, and of course the kid was the first one to see the snake. He screamed "snake! snake!" in Lao repeatedly and started throwing rocks at the snake. The farangs didn't quite know what to do. The snake just went away.
That evening we had an appetizer at one of Vang Vieng's few street food stalls, some yummy bbq'ed chicken and a mysterious cold green curryish thing with big pea-like vegetables which Micheal loves. Then we went to one of the Indian restaurants in town, both of which had identical names and menus to ones in Vientiane. The place was a model of efficiency. The 3-4 Indian owners shuffled money, menus and hospitality around as they commended a much larger Lao wait staff, and for the first time ever (and probably last) I saw a full staff of Lao people working 100% of the time, actually running to fulfill the needs of each table and check back with the kitchen. It was somehow unnatural.
Across the airstrip we had seen a loud booming nightclub called "The Moon," complete with a skanky looking bunch of Laos hanging out outside. Around 9pm I just had to see the inside of this place and was surprised to find that it was completely empty. Very strange, who comes here, and when?
The minibus company tells everyone in the whole town that they will pick us up at our guesthouse at "9am." At 9:45 the bus pulls up to our place, of course already pre-packed with tourists who have taken all the seats in the front and on the left (shady) side. We pry our way into the rear row past the 3 other rows which were perhaps designed to be quite safe and comfortable for quadraplegics. We then circled around town for ANOTHER 30 minutes, as the increasingly worried passengers wondered just how many more people they were going to try to sardine in and how. By some later trickery I was able to secure the only seat with any legroom, the "extra" folding seat they installed in front of the sliding door.
Finally we were off and as we accelerated from 15 to 80 as we passed the small children, cows, chickens, and other farm animals of the town after Vang Vieng, our fate became quite clear to us. This minivan driver was totally insane. His driving methods were beyond ridiculous even by Lao standards. He had modified his horn so that in addition to the extra-loud honk it played the squealing up-and-down electronic car alarm sound, and he clearly enjoyed letting this irritating sound rip as much and as often as possible as he careened through innocent villages. You could see the pure pleasure in his eyes as he made small children, monks, and even seasoned farmers turn their head as he approached. I'm guessing he perhaps had only learned how to ride a motorbike because he consistently accelerated all the way through his turns from start to finish, even the 90 degree ones in the thin windy mountain roads. If the road was dirt or gravel he would be sure to go even faster, because that way the back tires would glide across the road and he'd be able to turn even faster.
On the way we passed a horrible flip-over truck accident where the driver and passenger sat covered with blood on the side of the road. Our driver slowed down, exchanged one line with the other Laos who had stopped to help, and then resumed his insane pace unfazed. Two swedish girls in our minivan became so distressed that they worked together to fashion an english question to ask the driver to please slow down. The driver somehow responded that he was just in a hurry because we were about to stop for lunch, which turned out to be utter crap because he drove even faster after lunch. I think that this driver and many others make several trips a day and drink way too much M-150.
Our only moment of peace was at this rest-stop town, akin to a greyhound bus stop, where there were vendors who served really amazingly good curries. To add insult to injury, as we pulled up we could see that the farang bus (and perhaps also the ordinary bus) from Vang Vieng had already arrived here and was just about to leave for Luang Prabang. So not only did we get to pack and wait, and ride in insane conditions, but also the smarter bus riders were also going to get first crack at guesthouses in Luang Prabang. Sigh.
In the odd second or two when we felt we could take our eyes off the upcoming road horrors, we noted that the pointy hills and high vistas were stunning. Often we'd come around some corner to a view even more panoramic than the last of fog-shrounded peaks and river valleys.
Along the way we saw thousands and thousands of fluffy branches lining either side of the road, drying. We also saw ladies and children wacking them against the ground. This area of Lao was the major production area for the natural Asian-style brooms which seemingly only Asian people find to be more useful than the plastic brooms farangs are more used to. Micheal and I pondered what would happen when some chinese businessman makes plastic brooms available to Lao for cheap—suddently this barely arable, mountainous area of Lao would have no industry to support it whatsoever.
When we finally arrived in Luang Prabang, the driver, who claimed that he was "new" to Luang Prabang and thus could not deliver us to our desired guesthouses (what do we get for our $10 exactly?), dropped us off at some random location in the center of town where there were few if any tuk tuks or other public transport.
Ah well, we had finally arrived. We sought out a mid-range guesthouse on a quiet edge of town where I had stayed before, which now had gone up to $20/night for a double (about 1.5-2x what it's worth, as we discovered), and started exploring around town. Luang Prabang shares the French Indochina influence of Vientiane and had its share of colonial architecture and fancy french restaurants and art galleries. For some reason we decided to splurge for some farang food tonight and we went to a wood-fired Pizza place with a french menu. The pizza was surprisingly good considering that cheese is almost universally considered "icky" here and that "laughing cow" is one of the only cheeses that is readily available. We then went next door to the french-menu crepe place and had a flaming crepe heavy on the rum and another dessert crepe with butter and crushed pecans (?). Finally, wandering down the street we experienced the vibrant and large night market, and enjoyed some of our favorite desserts which we had seen in Thailand.
Micheal would spend the next 2 days and I would spend at least the next week exploring Luang Prabang and also hanging out with a former schoolmate of mine and her husband....
Also, since we are travelling in Laos earlier in the "winter" than I had done last year, the air was much, much easier to breathe. No more walking down the street with your eyes burning from all the soot and dust in the air.
Luang Prabang has also changed quite a bit since my last visit. In fact, it was changing drastically before our eyes. Basically everywhere in the town there was moderate to major construction. The road in front of our guesthouse, and the 3 or 4 roads connected to that, went from uneven dirt to dirt paved at mutiple levels to a completely flat, smooth, compressed dirt surface. The beginnings of sidewalks were even popping up. Giant ledges where the street suddenly drops up or down 12-16 inches would appear and disappear in random locations daily, and the local traffic somehow adapted around it each time. We had to be careful walking back to our guesthouse at night because we had no idea what the road was like and where we might fall in a pit or a newly built sewer channel!
The entire strip of road along the mekong, which used to be mostly dirt on the mekong side, and a booming area with guesthouses and restaurants on the street side, is now under construction, with giant tractors and earth movers plying the road all day. The guesthouses in this area seemed to be struggling as nobody wanted to stay there any more. Even the "river view" restaurant, where farangs used to pack to get the view of the sunset over the Mekong while sipping banana shakes, seems to be closed most evenings.
Luang Prabang is one of the few designated "World Heritage Sites" in Southeast Asia, along with Ankor Wat in Cambodia, Sukothai in Thailand, and a few other places. This UN sponsorship program supposedly means that the local government has agreed to restrict development and sprawl in the area in order to maintain "the best-preserved city in Southeast Asia." Hmm. Certain "Class 1" buildings are supposed to be particularly constrained from any kind of renovation which might change the fundamental architectural style or building materials, however the Lonely Planet says that the Lao government has not actually enacted any kind of restriction on construction in any part of the town yet, and there certainly seems to be a lot of it going on. On the bright side, I don't see any 10-story mega-hotels going up. The designation also comes along with some kind of funding to "maintain" the old structures. We saw this in the form of formerly dilapidated and financially broke temples which had been reconstructed. In some places they had institututed brand new programs to train hordes of novices in the nearly lost art of buddhist temple craft (painting, sculpture, stonework, etc.), which is rather important if these temples are to continue to be preserved in the future.
This town/province is so well-preserved because it is totally surrounded by high mountains and difficult passes. It became possible to go from vientiane to Luang Prabang in one day only a few years ago! Although Luang Prabang province has been taken over by many kingdoms, made part of French Indochina, and had its royal family stuffed in a cave to die by the communist government, it has been able to resist most forms of change and modernization.
The town itself is situated at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan river, and occupies a sort of penninsula carved by the rivers. Although it has a lot of guesthouses like Vang Vieng, it has even more temples (32 of them!), Lao houses, and old french colonial buildings, and the tourist stuff does not dominate. The rivers rise and fall at least 30 feet with the seasons, and at this low-tide time of year the banks of both rivers are completely covered with beautiful vegetable fields. Apparently the soil there is very good since it is underwater half the time. At no point have they allowed an individual guesthouse or restaurant to monopolize the river view—there is always a public promenade.
There's a couple-hundred foot peak in the middle of the penninsula with the unfortunate name of Phu Si hill (Ph is never pronouced like f for Thai/Lao words, it's pronounced p, so it's poo see hill). On top of the hill there are some old wats and chedi and there is also a wonderful view of Luang Prabang. You can climb up here in the cool morning and soak in the sounds and sights as the fog burns off. Competing with the endless sounds of motorcycle/jumbo engines, horns, bicycle jingles, and airplanes (Luang Prabang airport is right in town and there are seemingly 6 or 8 flights per day) is a new sound: construction vehicles, hammers, electric planers (in Lao it seems everyone buys raw wood and planes it themselves) and sanders. Also up top you will find an endless supply of novices noodling about in clumps, obviously having been commanded by their monk mentors to go up the hill and practice their English. Occasionally they find the courage to ask a farang where he/she is from and strike up a whole conversation. When things go particularly well they get out their little black book (an item which seems to have been added to a monk's list of allowed worldly possessions since the advent of tourism) and ask for the farang's address. Not sure if they ever use the addresses for anything (hope they never find out about junk mail/spam lists!).
This morning, Micheal and I wandered around town all day. We started at a shallow creek that runs right by our guesthouse, where I sat while Micheal called his family on the phone. We watched a bored puppy chase chickens and ducks arond the levees between squares of rice plants. For breakfast we ate a local specialty, sheets of dried river weed fried with sesame seeds..mmm. Like yummy green potato chips! We wandered out of town across a rickety wooden bridge to an area with no farangs. We wandered past random houses and climbed a hill, popping out at some temples on the other side of the Nam Khan river with a view of Luang Prabang.
A kid ran up and asked for a pen. A harmless request, we thought, he could study some more...so we gave him a pen. He scribbled on this palm to make sure it worked, and then he asked for money. Sigh. We would not fall for that one again. Later we would see some pictorial posters printed as part of the World Heritage program where they instructed farangs on how to dress and behave around temples, how to not make a scene, how to not show skin, how we should not buy drugs or antiques, and how we should "not encourage begging" by giving things only to town elders rather than the children. In various places around Luang Prabang we would see the disturbing degree to which kids have learned to ask for things from visiting farangs, and it was never clear if this was against the wishes of or at the prompting of their elders (sometimes Lao adults would walk by while kids begged, and would say nothing).
We continued on the dirt road that runs along the river bank. We reached a clump of large, concrete, fairly well-off looking residences and suddenly both sides of the road were crowded with tuk tuks, cars, jumbos, and motorcyles. There was a big social event going on in one of the houses, with crowds of Laos sitting on tables outside and on the floor inside, and music everwhere. There was a flatbed truck lined with flowers and a giant flower arch. Later someone would tell us this was probably a wedding reception.
We reached the end of the road, and we turned down a footpath leading to the river bank, we passed a nasty pile of trash the locals had just left to rot/burn on the way down to the river bank. It was quite obvious the locals could have afforded some kind of trash collection (since they have it less than half a kilo away in Luang Prabang), but chose not to organize that—in general, Micheal and I found that folks who live in Thailand and Laos have a totally different aesthetic as concerns putting huge, ugly stinky things right in the middle of beautiful scenery. This extends to their most sacred temples, where you will regularly find huge, ugly power lines or transformers bolted to the most significant part of ancient Buddhist temples. Somehow the locals are just able to "not see" the trash or the wires amidst the green hills or golden monuments.
When we reached the river bank, we saw the same group of kids having a really great time splashing around in the water, doing standing backflips off of rocks into the river, and generally being happy. This is a good time of year for many Laos because it is not raining, and it is also not yet time to harvest or clear the fields. This is the time of year when all Laos, especially village children, have the most time to just goof off and enjoy themselves. Later in the year village kids and adults will often be toiling in the hot fields all day.
By chance there happened to be a man with a boat here and with one hand signal we shared total understanding that he was offering to take us across, back to the tip of the tourist-filled penninsula. As we boarded his boat, a BBC news report concerning the South Korean financial market wafted from his radio, probably not something which concerns him too greatly. As we teetered and tottered the boat attempting to reach our little wooden slat seat, hoping we wouldn't sink either side by the 2 or 3 inches it would take to let water in this narrow contraption, we marveled at how absolutely comfortable and elegant the locals are around all forms of water transport. We watched a novice monk unlash a rowboat, step into it as comfortably as if over a curb, row the vehicle to the precise target across a strong current, anchor the boat to the shore, and walk up the other bank without getting a drop of water on his robe.
We rejoined the tourist masses in the "old temple district" and visited a couple of wats. Micheal and I had been "watted out" for many years so we did not spend too much time there, but some tourists spend their whole time visiting wats, obsessing over the minute and supposedly significant differences.
For a late lunch we ate at the Visoun restaurant, a rather overrated place with a video CD player blasting some absolutely horrible Thai pop and 80s western rock music. The family owning this place is obviously quite rich as the furniture, and the house behind the restaurant, is all top-notch. They even have an electric deep freezer with all the latest dessert pops. The family's teenage daughters, dressed in the best fashions and equipped with customised cellphones and fancy high-heel shoes, hung around the restaurant with the same blasee rich girl expression I had seen in Mah Boon Krong. I guess this is the beginning of Lao's spoiled upper middle class.
The main attraction of this restaurant was the bird. Like many places around, Visoun had a Kun Thong, some kind of parrot or parakeet which is unbelievably good at mocking sounds. This one had spent its whole life at the very edge of this dirty, noisy, dusty town and it was able to perfectly reproduce:
The bird seemed to know which vehicles made which sounds too, as it would always let out a brake squeal when one of the colorful tuk tuks passed by.
The bird also knew some expressions in Lao but I didn't understand them.
We dropped by Lao Aviation to buy a plane ticket for Micheal, who had to get back to Chiang Mai. Although they now have a credit card machine (see previous report), it doesn't work, so their technological state has not actually advanced. I imagine the airplanes are the same too. There was a german guy there who was visibly expressing frustration that he could not get a ticket in his hand and that things were not clear with respect to the broken credit card machine and his reservation—obviously this man has not spent very much time in Southeast Asia.
We went to Malee Lao Food and chowed down on river weed and many other nice dishes. Their menu is just as humorously spelled as before ("pork cut into the small pieces with rice", "fried the chicken with big union"), and I think we actually only got one of the 4 things we ordered due to various other language and mangament barriers, but it was delicious anyway.
Again we wandered around town all day. It was a bit warm but everywhere you went you could buy delicious shakes with banana, pineapple, papaya, mango, apple, starfruit, or orange blended with ice and either condensed milk or sweet syrup.
In general we found the pallette of fruits and foods in the cities we visited in Lao to be smaller than what we had seen in most parts of Thailand. This was presumably due to a combination of our latitude and the quality of roads that might bring in non-local food supplies.
Luang Prabang had several english- and french- language bookstores. One of them on the Khan river had an enormous rental selection which the proprietors had stocked with hundreds of books hitting the backpacker demographic perfectly. You could spend years here reading every trendy south-east asian travel journal, extremist political manifesto, government corruption documentary, hill tribe photo-documentary, native indian/shamanistic/new age experience guide, war novel, and hippie biography that is in print. Interestingly, Laos were allowed to borrow from the collection for free. This place also showed farang movies in various languages at night.
Most places I went, I would ask around to see if there was anyone willing to teach a little Lao speaking, reading, and writing to a farang. I got directed all over the place but never found anyone specifically qualified in that area. Everyone just said "you can just ask any monk and talk to them for hours and get all the words you like." In fact I saw a couple farangs doing just this, building word lists one at a time and scribbling down the Lao they heard using some made-up transliteration scheme.
In my case, I was not so interested in word lists. I wanted to be able to read basic Lao syllables correctly first so that if I memorized words later I would actually be memorizing them correclty and would be able to read them on signs, etc. I was already familiar with Thai and could recognize most of the symbols in Lao writing.
I wanted to find someone who could explain to me the remaining symbols and the much more difficult part that cannot be divined from the writing: the proper tones to use when sounding out the symbols. I never really found anyone with the odd perspective needed to explain the tone rules to a farang, and this is not surprising: to Thais and Laos, the proper tone is an "obvious" thing they learn "intuitively" from a young age without ever learning specific rules. But I did manage to find one guy with whom I spent more than 2 hours over the next week. He helped me practice writing all the vowels and consonants and we started building a chart of tones. As far as I can tell the tones in Lao are even more subtly differen than those in Thai, and there are somewhere between 4-6 different ones. The other thing I had noticed from the first day in Lao is that nearly every Lao person I heard spoke Lao in a monotone fashion containing no tones whatsoever, a strong contrast with Thais in Nong Khai just across the river. Laos also do not use the "krap" and "ka" polite particles at the end of every sentence like Thais.
One place I was referred to for possible Lao lessons was "moradok". Everyone said "moradok". We asked and asked and by a process of triangulation we eventually figured out they were talking about this old building along an alley of the historic temple district occupied by a photo gallery with pictures from an extremely remote Lao village. Neither the villa, nor the exhibit, nor the photographer, nor the street, nor the district were called "moraduk" so we have no idea what that meant (perhaps the guy who used to live there?). Anyway, this was another UNESCO "Class 1" structure, a beautiful old wooden (rose wood?) building on stilts with an outer hallway and two rooms inside. The french photographer's annotated pictures of the village were on display in the hall outside. Some of them showed aerial photographs of this hill tribe in the dry and rainy season, and explained how the much-maligned slash-and-burn method of agriculture, which now contributes to deadly pollution and long-term soil damage in Thailand, is actually sustainable for villages like this which fall under a certain threshhold of people per acre.
One of the inner rooms seemed to be his house and possibly also his lab. The other contained more of his pictures and some bound books and duplicate prints he was selling. A poster described the project, with funding coming from tons of big names in Laos, Thailand, and world-wide NGOs. The photographer lounged away on a triangle pillow in a corner of the room next to an open wall leading out to the shady, tree-filled courtyard, as he and his two french ladyfriends did their best to completly fill the room with smoke, meaningful, exclusionary glances, and murmered french phrases. I could tell from the start he didn't want to talk to me or Micheal, and as I complimented him on his nice prints and asked him if he knew of any Lao teachers in town he pained to respond, or even look at me, as if almost compelled to suffocation by the sheer ennui of existance, or perhaps the debasement of being asked a question in English. After all, he had spent all this effort creating what must be the ultimate babe magnet—a true Artiste, just returned from the Heart of Darkness to tell his heroic tales in a tourist-heavy, steamy southeast asian setting which also happens to be his bedroom—and he wasn't about to let a bunch of sweaty Americans spoil his slice of paradise.
He just told me to talk to the monks.
That evening Micheal and I ran into Sharon, a classmate of mine from college, and her husband Peter, who were travelling all around Southeast Asia and who happened to have just arrived in Luang Prabang.
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