slice-of-thai.com Journal 3/4/99: Lao

This is an entry from my travel journals about Thailand and Laos.

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3/4/99

Finally went to Lao (Laos). I crossed the "Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge" to Vientiane, the capital city.

There is an elaborate and slightly scary set of steps involved in doing Thai customs, then crossing the bridge, then doing Lao customs. Each country has a set of bizarre rules and requirements that seems to change weekly. Lao customs required that you have a passport photo, $30 US (yes, US, they won't take even their own currency!), and they require you to have gotten a stamp at a place in Thai customs about which there is no information or warning at Thai customs. Many people had to go back. An American guy who had been back and forth more than once just totally lost it and started yelling at them; it was embarrassing for all around. In Thailand and Lao, losing your temper never does any good at all, as this is seen as a major loss of face on the part of the yeller.

As with most other people, I made the mistake of changing 500 baht into kip at the border. Currently there are 6200 kip to the dollar (27 baht to the dollar) on the black market (which everyone uses!). The largest note in Lao is a 5000 kip note, and they are quite rare, so you usually get 1000 kip notes. Later, in Luang Prabang, I saw people making everyday bank transactions and they typically deposited and withdrew rubberbanded packages of notes at least 4 inches thick.

On the Lao side of the bridge is a cool intersection that only occurs in a few places in the world—a place where the two lanes make an X with a signal inbetween them so that the British-influenced Thai roads can be connected to the French-influenced Lao roads. Ok, you have to be a geek to appreciate that one (at least Spencer will :).

Speaking of French, there was surprisingly little French anywhere in the country, except for signs for this big French insurance company. People of a certain age group tend to speak French only, while younger people all speak English and don't know any French. Not surprising given the history.

I did notice one thing though—the French built all their colonial administration buildings in (surprise surprise) the French colonial style. When they got kicked out, the Lao government moved into these buildings and proceeded to erase a lot of the western influence in the country. But, when they build new administrative buildings, they continue to use the French colonial syle! Kind of odd.

I also noticed that of the English and French signs, which were much less frequent than in Thai, a large percentage of them were for the such and such "relief project" or the United Nations such and such Project or the IMF something or other project. It seems that this country is under some serious major aid. I also heard that those running the aid projects, especially the UN ones, are incredibly corrupt and pay themselves $60,000 annual salaries, which is rather like millions in the US.

Vientiane is rapidly undergoing transformation to a modern city. It is really fascinating because half of the city is still dirt roads and some shacks, while half of the city has now been paved. You get a rare opportunity to see the effect that paving has on a place. You can walk down a nice quiet dirt road, look down the creek over a bridge and see a lush, animal and fish filled area with some nice shacks. Then you get to the paved part (literally the pavement just starts, about 8" above the dirt road!) and suddently creeks turn into awful polluted trash alleys with few plants and no fish. Suddenly you enter a noisy, smelly place where business can thrive and tuk tuks threaten to run you over each minute. Progress.

Vientiane has some wats which look simiar to Thai wats but have certain architectural features unique to Lao. They have several historical museums (which used to be wats), and all of them have one thing in common: the "history" of the structure present on the (barely) English sign outside the wat directly contradicts popularly believed history in the west. One wat is believed to be the only one to have survived a certain attack from the Thai. The sign says that the wat "was destroyed by the foreign agressors."

Along a similar line is the revolutionary museum, which for various reasons I didn't get time to see, but I am told it tells the story of Lao from the Lao People's Democratic Republic point of view. It is certianly most biased but makes you think about how unbiased our history books are. The revolutionary museum does not mention the occupation of Lao by Vietnam!

I went past this large monument which bears an undeniable resemblance to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. I payed the 200 kip admission fee (3 cents) and went up to the top, where you could see they were slowly but surely replacing all the fancy European flower motifs in concrete and wood with Buddhas and other Lao symbols. It looked like there used to be a large marble ballroom with smooth marble pillars in the center of the monument. They were tearing this ballroom to shreds.

On the terrace at the top of the monument, there were many high-school-age Lao soldiers with guns who would really rather we not look out a particular side. We later figured out this was because some dignitary was entering a nearby building. I suppose the same thing happens wherever Clinton goes, but it was a bit scary to see these kids in the same role.

In the tower I saw a Lao family and was surprised to hear them speaking fluent, native dialect English. The mother turned out to be from Utah—she escaped when the place went communist, and this was only the third time she has brought her family back to see Lao.

Nearby, I had a neat purple drink made from the root of the lotus flower. This drink has some ancient properties in Chinese medicine, something about making your body "cooler." And durian fruit is supposed to make your body "hotter," so I guess it's good to eat these together :)

3/5/99

Most of Vientiane bears a strong resemblance to Thai cities, so I had to get out of there to see some of what previous travellers told me about Lao.

I got up real early in the morning to catch the bus to Vang Vieng, a small town (though one of the largest in Lao) up the one and only paved inter-city road in Lao.

At the bus station, I saw a most amazing sight. After purchasing my 60 cent bus ticket for the 5 hour journey, I waited for about an hour and a half on the bus while the Lao people loaded bags, sacks of grain and rice and flour, animals, furniture, and everything else you can imagine on the top and under the seats of this stuffed bus. The bus had two rows of seats for two people each. They put at least 3 people on each row and often whole families. The seats were bench seats, so they did this trick where they pull the seat cushion towards the center aisle to create yet another seat floating above the aisle. They then completely filled the aisles with people. Mercifully, I had chosen to sit in the back next to the door, where they had only put 7 people (farangs: it would have been 9-11 if they were Lao people). My feet were on a sack of rice they brought out and put on the floor so that 4 more people could "comfortably" sit there.

This is the absolute norm in Lao because this bus is absolutely the only way to get to Vang Vieng and they are so desperately poor that they cannot afford more buses.

This bus journey was relatively uneventful. It was extremely hot and uncomfortable and the conductors came prepared with a bunch of plastic bags for the 3-4 people who yakked on the journey (not used to long travel?).

I got a chance to see the Lao rural mail system first hand. When the bus approached a village where someone had mail, one employee would stand on a ledge on the outside of the bus, lean way out holding the letter away from the bus, yell something, and then drop it on the ground (all while the bus was moving full speed of course). I recommend that you not scent any letters you send to Lao villages because the dogs will probably receive it before the villagers.

The driver had a tape with Lao music but unfortunately it was only 30 minutes long, so we heard these songs, well a lot.

Along the way we saw tens or hundreds of villages. All of them after the first half an hour out of Vientiane were just simple places with all thatch huts on stilts.

In Thailand, you have to go to Chiang Mai and pay 1500B for a three day trek to see something that even approaches this level of simplicity, and even then the villagers in Thailand all sported English-language t-shirts and knew how to hit up farangs for candy and money. In Lao, I found the villages I visited (except for some major tourist traps right out of Luang Prabang) to be friendly and genuinely unfamiliar with and happy to find out about farangs.

I also found that, even though these people were amazingly poor, I did not see anyone who looked hungry (bones showing) or sick. In fact, nearly everyone I saw looked quite happy. This even applies to the villages at which our bus broke down (more later), who were not expecting us. I suppose it's possible that the villages along the main road are more prosperous, but it was interesting to see that people can live happily in the 3rd/4th poorest country in the world. By comparison, the villagers in the Thai hill tribes all had this thread of mistrust, or at least pretense, when dealing with the farangs because they were out to sell things to the farangs and they had seen too many farangs for their taste. And the "villagers" of Bangkok, with their cars, motorcycles, gas masks, and 10x bigger incomes, were the least healthy and happy of all.

While on my trip, I was too chicken to get off the Lao tourist track, but someday I may come back and just go and visit some village. I met many people who just set out and stopped somewhere, and they had a great time. But don't tell the Lao PDR: it is technically illegal to house any foreigner without signing in with the police; wouldn't want the wrong kind of ideas to spread around the countryside.

As in Thailand, the bus stopped many times in markets, but in this case the merchants had to hold up the goods to the windows because there was simply no possible way to leave the bus without a major reorg.

Arriving in Vang Vieng, a sleepy town with some beautiful 1000 ft tall limestone (karst) formations sticking out of the ground, we found the guesthouses to be unbelievably nice and modern, and comparably priced to Thailand. The food was way cheaper than Thailand and very good. In Vang Vieng, most travelers go visit the caves or just hang out. The town can be entirely walked in 20 minutes and the bicycle journey to the caves takes you through really cool rice fields and villages.

At sunset, everyone in the town comes to this one point on the river. The Lao people wash their clothes and take baths in the river, they drive the buses into the river to clean them, and all the farangs hang out at this one bar to watch the sun set. It is very chilled out.

Sunset in Vang Vieng: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Sunset in Vang Vieng
Click here if image does not load automatically.

I only spent one full day there and I wish I had spent more (mostly due to the climate in Luang Prabang, more later). Some people spend a day floating down the river in an inner tube.

3/5/99-3/6/99

In Vang Vieng, the accomodation is really great. My guesthouse for around $4/night had palatial rooms with marble floors, clean working western flush toilet and shower, and friendly service. It seems that all the tourist-related stuff in Vang Vieng is only as old as tourism was most recently allowed in Lao (around 4-5 years?) and all the equipment is American. In other places in Lao, where they have older guesthouses, the places are much more dark and dingy and the equipment is all Soviet (yes Soviet, as in CCCP, not Russian!). On two occasions in Lao my room had a big, klunky air conditioner with three dials covered in cyrillic writing.

Another odd thing was that all of the 12-15 restaurants in Vang Vieng had identical-looking signs and menus. It's as if either they were all owned by the same people or some guy came through offering his translation and sign making services to all the places in town.

Food in Lao is incredibly cheap, even compared with Thailand. We regularly had multi-dish meals bigger than we could eat for 10,000 kip ($1.60). Laab/larb (a sort of mint salad made with some kind of chopped meat, usually beef and lots of peppers) seemed to be the most common meal. They also did really cool things with fried eggplant and watercress.

In Lao and Thailand, there is sticky rice and then there is the traditional steamed rice found in Chinese restos in CA. Most people I know in California call steamed rice "sticky rice" because steamed rice is sticker than the Uncle Ben's rice they're used to :), but this is not the right name. Steamed rice in Lao and Thailand is most often jasmine rice. Sticky rice comes in these little 4-5" tall, 3.5" diameter cylinder-shaped wicker containers. It sticks together more fiercely than steamed rice and is not wet to the touch. You grab a wad of sticky rice right out of the container with your right hand (very important given certain other Lao/Thai cultures :), squish and roll it into a ball in your hand (which supposedly changes the flavor), grab some laab or other food off a plate on the table in your right hand, and stick the lot into your mouth.

There is also sweet sticky rice, which is an excellent dessert I mentioned in an earlier mail. This is sticky rice with sweetened, condensed milk and lots of sugar added. Sweet sticky rice is often served with mango or a yummy custard.

Certian dishes seem to demand one rice over the other. Sticky rice is more often the right one in Lao and northeast Thailand, whereas steamed rice is more the thing in central and southern Thailand.

The nicest thing about Vang Vieng is that there are no tuk tuk drivers. I don't know if the Thai and Lao tourism authorities realize it, but the mosquito-like taxi, tuk-tuk, and motorcycle taxi drivers with their disrespectful, animal-call-like jabs to attract tourists have to be one of the most taxing and irritating aspects of travelling in Thailand and Lao. The fact that the tuk-tuk, motorcyle, and non-metered taxi businesses exist entirely on the non-informedness of new travellers about market rates makes it even more annoying. It was really very nice to be in a town that was (almost completely) free of these pests.

I travelled through most of Lao with a group of two Americans, a 35-year old brit, and a 22-year old Vietnamese woman who seemed to be his girlfriend (or maybe wife, we never got around to asking) but who looked more like his daughter. The brit had lived and worked on oil rigs in Bangledesh and had some truly amazing stories about the poverty, low value of human life, safety, hygiene, and other aspects of life there. Sounds like a good place for the truly hardcore traveler (i.e. not me). One example: Bangledesh is the only place where he has seen used toothbrushes on sale at the market. Everyone in my group had been to Vietnam multiple times so I also heard a lot of stories about that.

In Vang Vieng we rented bikes and went to look at some caves. The caves were ok but more interesting was the trip to the caves, through dry, stepped rice fields with little dividing mounds to hold in the water (when there was any) and field houses on stilts. We got to some of the caves by some roads with villages with thatch huts on high stilts. It was very hot and most of the villagers were hanging out underneath their houses. One villager had figured out that they could make some cash selling refreshments in a shady hut on the way: the end of innocence?

The limestone (karst) formations stick up from the ground like big fingers, some of them thousands of feet tall. We climbed to the top of a smaller formation which also contains caves. There was a really nice 360 degreee view of the rice fields, cows and water buffalo fields, snaking river and town of Vang Vieng.

Vang Vieng View: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Vang Vieng View
Click here if image does not load automatically.

From this point you could yell something and listen to it echo about 6 or 7 times as it wrapped around an adjacent karst formation. You could yell to the left of the formation and your word would come back to you a second or two later from the right!

One day we rented bikes. They had fancy 15 speed bikes for 2000 kip a day, and simple no-gear girl's bikes for 2000 kip a day. We later learned a hard lesson about why the prices were this way: the general insufficiency of transport in Lao seems to extend to bicycles. One of our bikes broke (re-broke probably) a bearing, the brakes did not function at all on antother, and on my bike the seat descended to kindergarten height just as we left town, leading to one of the most painful bike rides I have ever taken.

So we learned an important rule for renting things in Lao: the fewer gears, cogs, bearings and other devices, the better.

We went to one cave that was a few kilos out of town. Next to it was a popular village swimming hole with incredibly clear water. There was a large tree over the river with a foot-thick branch perfecly positioned as a ~10-15 foot diving board. We spent many hours here cooling off and watching Lao kids from 5-21 entertain themselves.

Just What We Needed: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Just What We Needed
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The tree also had a higher foot-thick branch at about 20 feet. A couple of farangs, most often egged on by expectant girlfriends, nervously shimmied up the tree and out to the higher perch, stood staring in disbelief for a few minutes, and sometimes even jumped in. After this 2display, some local Lao kids of about 10 years or so arrived, ran up to the high perch, and jumped right in multiple times! Then these kids walked up to the high perch and shimmied up another branch, only about 5 inches thick, to a branch about 35 feet in the air that could just barely hold their weight (it sagged about 2-3 feet when a kid stood on it). From here the kids launched off for 2-3 seconds of airtime to the clean blue water below. Quite amazing. And quite embarrassing for the showoff farangs! Some other Lao folks also did backflips into the water from the shore.

There were some Lao girls there and they mostly swam in sarongs and their villages' traditional vests. Based on the culture section of the Lonely Planet we sort of expected all the Lao to be swimming in such modest costume, but the boys all swam in swim trunks/shorts only. A modern compromise?

There is also supposed to be a Lao custom whereby women cannot be physically above men or else something bad happens to the man's sprit, but this seemed to not apply at the diving place because the girls dove also.

Returning back to the town at night, our fellow brit traveller was in the major doghouse with his Vietnamese girlfriend/wife cuz she didn't want to go biking and he stayed out too long, so we left him to appeasement and went to get some more cool Lao food :) They seemed to have mended things the next day.

3/7/99

Many breakdowns occurred on the bus trip to Luang Prabang today. I took the special, extra expensive farang bus (20000 kip: $3.20) but it seems no bus works here.

The trip was supposed to be 7 hours but ended up taking about 12. During some of our breakdowns, we were at cool villages. The kids in many of these villages were actually afraid of farangs at first; they shrunk backwards as we piled off the bus and stared in amazement at the strange clothes, hairdoes, and behaviours of the foreigners. There was this one stout German lady with a dyed butch haircut which the kinds found particularly amusing.

During one breakdown in the middle of nowhere:

Lao Breakdown: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Lao Breakdown
Click here if image does not load automatically.

we watched a few trucks and buses go by, then all of a sudden, with at least ten minutes of driving up incredibly steep switchbacks to the nearest village, some kids showed up! They must have been hiking all day to get here. Perhaps they do this every day to get supplies. They made fun of us and moved on.

Then, we saw a Lao guy on a rusty, gearless old bike with a chicken on the back. The bike had no basket, only a flat platform on the back, so he was constantly pushing the chicken down so it would sit on the platform and thus not fall off. This guy was pedaling the slopes as well, most amazing.

Finally, we saw this totally crazy Danish guy on a nice tenspeed who it turns out is doing a Himalayan bicycle tour, biking all around the mountain range for at least 5 months. He had already been to Nepal and India, was forced to skip Burma by immigration, and was now in Lao. He travelled with only his bike and 20 kilos of supplies (mostly spare parts). He had only an extremely rough highway map of Lao with some informal color shades indicating vague topography. He just biked and biked every day until it started getting dark and he stopped in the next village. According to him, the villagers were invariably happy to see him, feed him, and sometimes he even slept in their huts (he had a tent if not). Most amazing.

We broke down so many times that this Danish guy actually beat the bus to the first major town on the way to Luang Prabang. At this point, he turned down unpaved route 9, the only road left in Lao which international governments consider unsafe because of bandit activities. What a loon. But a persistent one :)

One breakdown later, 4 Israelis on the bus decided to get off and try hitchiking. In an hour or two they passed us in a mercedes which we later found out took them to Luang Prabang for free—good deal!

Most of our breakdowns revolved around some hissing, broken metal link in the deisel engine. At first they tried to hold it in place with their hands as we drove. This was a no go, so at a certain town they removed the link (they had a large set of tools but no spare parts on the bus), and the bus driver took off with a link on a motorcycle. About 2 hours later he returned and had welded the link together somewhere. We were off again; this bought us another 2 hours before the weld broke. Now, stranded in front of a village, we meet another bus and debated whether we can all fit on the other bus. Rejecting this idea (fortunately), the bus drivers communed for 30 minutes or so while they engineered a rickety little splice consisting of a piece of plastic pipe and two pipe clamps. It was like that scene from apollo 13. This kludge managed to get us all the way to Luang Prabang.

I am absolutely certain that the bus left the next day in exactly that condition; I think these breakdowns are an absolutely normal, day-to-day occurance, and they will keep driving them until the vehicle has no moving parts left.

It was night by the time we pulled into Luang Prabang, and we could see literally hundreds of fires from the bus windows. As we soon discovered, Lao has a major, out of control burning problem. The locals set fires for many purposes:

The fires are all controlled fires (well mostly :) but there are just too many of them.

I think this technique worked OK in Lao when there were no roads and people farmed only enough for their local community, but now that a paved road goes to Luang Prabang, there is endless demand, too much farming and hunting, too many fires, and as a result major air pollution.

Each night in Luang Prabang, I found it very difficult to breathe and my eyes were constanly burning. Many of my travelling companions had the same problems. One developed a sore throat and lost his voice. I got sick the day I went back to Thailand and I wouldn't be surprised if this was related.

During the day, as we were touring the wats all over town, there was a constant rain of ash and soot. Views of the beautiful (I assume :) Mekong river valley were constantly obscured by the smoky haze.

The sunset in Lao always consists of an unbelievably red disk of sun in a burning red sky. This is not orange or yellow like California, it's bright red like the Chinese flag, from all the haze.

Apparently Luang Prabang, and many other Lao towns, are like this constanly during the dry season and often at other times. When the rainy season comes (May-September?) the haze is mostly washed away. so I guess I'll have to come visit Lao then.

I suppose Lao has bigger problems to worry about, but it is still quite amazing to me that they haven't found a way to get people to stop burning things. I've heard that many of the UN organizations are trying to introduce field tilling and other techniques, but these techniques are more expensive and the UN organizations are too busy with their own corruption, so there is no improvement.

3/8-3/9/99

Today we found a better hostel than the dark, converted Soviet-era office building we found the first night. Our old place was advertised with touts at the bus station (at which we arrived around midnight) and the owner practically begged us to ask for a lower price than his asking (it was clear his rooms were empty most of the time). Our new place was a nice clean place with fully working bathroom, etc. for $7/night.

Other than the air, Luang Prabang is very nice. The smallish town (maybe a day to walk the whole town, if you could stand to be in the heat all day) has a very high concentration of wats, something like 35 wats. We rented bikes (simple ones this time) and checked out the place. Here's one of the more well-known wats in the Luang Prabang style:

Luang Prabang Wat: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Luang Prabang Wat
Click here if image does not load automatically.

We visited many wats. At one there were some Danish women showing their vacation pictures to some youngish monks. The monks were completely captivated by the photos of their skiing holidays, saying things like "is that snow? wow...I would like to visit this place!"

It was clear that tourism was relatively new to the folks here: menu and sign translations had an endlessly amusing variety of errors, prices were uneven, and there was not the incredibly irritating range of tuk tuk driver cat calls ("hey you!" "my friend!" "where you go?" "sir! I can help you!" "go waterfall?!") and scams that you find in nearly every town in Thailand. In fact, only one tuk tuk driver seemed to be clinging to Lao's un-admitted-to capitalist imperative: his English was better, his tuk tuk bore colorful signs like "forget the rest, go with the best," he actively searched out customers and he used customer recommendations to develop a little network. Someday, he will be the king of a vast, inauthentic tourist industry in Lao.

We took a boat across the Mekong and walked through a nearby village. Child labor laws are evidently not in force here because we saw many 8ish kids carring one wood plank each to the site where the family was building a new hut. One boy gave his wood to his sister and proceeded to direct all the kids while looking very busy and important—clearly a future manager.

The Mekong river is huge; during the dry season, hundreds of feet of river bed are exposed and the locals farm this land until it gets deluged again! Here's a similar seasonal farm on the adjacent Khan River:

Khan River Farm: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Khan River Farm
Click here if image does not load automatically.

Kids and adults spent many hours filling buckets and carrying them up to water the crops. As in Vang Vieng, the river is shower and sink for many locals. Quite commonly you would see someone bathing right next to someone else washing watercress in the muddy waters.

In many Lao villages, we saw what looked like election posters with pictures of respectable looking citizens and descriptions. Each poster also had a picture of a domino. We guessed that this was for the (large percentage of) citizens who could not read the description or name but who wanted to vote. It was not clear whether these votes really meant anything given the less than democratic government, but then again when you are standing in one of these villages, especially one with its own water and no electricity, you get the definite feeling that they don't care one bit about the Lao government and many may not even know about it.

We went to a (khan) riverside restaurant, one of the fancier joints in town, that had traditional Lao music all night and nice views. The food was ok, not fantastic, and the rat scurrying across the floor did not win a vote of confidence. We then realized that the Disneyland effect reaches even to Luang Prabang and we went to a humble resto at the edge of town that was so good we came back the next day. I recommend Malee Lao food (and so does the Lonely Planet) if you are in Luang Prabang.

Lao Transportation Guide:

As we were all improvising our trips on the spot, we explored the cost and trouble of going to some more remote towns in Lao, off the one paved road from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. There are essentially two options:

Personally I chickened out and stayed on the paved road.

3/9/99

In Luang Prabang, as many other Lao towns, the livestock roams the town freely. Nobody in town needs an alarm clock because one of several hundred roosters is sure to rouse you from bed sometime between 4am and 6am. From our guesthouse balcony we had a wonderful view of some homes, a shop, and what looked like a preschool and gradeschool, and so in the morning there was quite a lot to see.

Luang Prabang: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Luang Prabang
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Luang Prabang: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Luang Prabang
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The deep, saturated yellow morning light made the whole place seem like an alien planet from star trek. The school kids arrived (on foot usually) in droves to play outside the school buildings. Street vendors arrived to sell little doughnuts and other sweet green gooey items to crowds of children on the dirt road outside the school. Tuk tuk drivers plied the dirt road looking for airport-bound tourists. Roosters and hens fought for real estate by the house across the street while the 15-20 people who seemed to live there streamed out on their way to work. The schoolbell rang three or four times over the course of 20 minutes before the teachers finally had to come out and round up the children. Every morning I was serenaded by the very young students next to my window chanting a Lao alphabet song. This song combined each consonant with 3 or 4 vowels to form real words in the Lao language. As there are roughly 45 consonants, well, let's just say it's a long song.

Our project for today was to visit a large waterfall 20 kilos out of town. We rented the driver/guide services of an aspiring capitalist mentioned earlier. On the long dirt road, we passed through many young, fast-growing teak plantations that have now replaced all of the old, slow-growing teak in Lao. These fast-growing teak trees can be harvested in 10-15 years and the wood is mostly used to build houses. The Lao (and colonizers) have completely harvested and sold all the old teak, which can take 60-100 years before it is ready for sale at a high price. A shocking number of these plantations were on fire (weed control). It became very difficult to breathe, and even more difficult to imagine Lao people putting up with this sort of atmosphere for any length of time.

Our driver was old enough that he spoke better French than English, and so a Francophone American in our group sat up front rapping with him.

We got a flat tire. With an unsurprised shrug that one of us might use when we hit some traffic in the San Francisco bay area, the driver popped out and quickly replaced the tire with an even more worn tire displaying not a single visible tread, all the while mumbling about how expensive new tires are (roughly $50, which is a hell of a lot in this place; for our tour, we paid the driver his asking price of $5 total for 6 people for the whole day). If we understood correctly, he was going to patch his collection of 5 tires until there was no rubber left.

The waterfall itself was beautiful and relatively isolated from the smokey air. It had three enormous levels, the lower two with turquoise ponds suitable for swimming and caves hidden behind the waterfall. We hiked up to the second level, crossing some steep, rounded, slippery moss-lined stairs which could keep a California injury lawyer employed for decades. The water under the falls was at least 8 feet deep and you could hang out right under the water and get a nice back massage.

On our way out, we got some really amazingly hot som tam (sliced-up papaya and Thai pepper salad), and the ladies there chopped up 6 coconuts for us with a big crocodile-dundee-style knife, converting the large just-from-tree coconuts into little round cups of coconut juice with flat bottoms and little access holes just big enough for a straw. After we drank the juice, they chopped the fruits in half and we scooped out the soft fruity coconut insides with a spoon.

On the trip back, the driver stopped at a somewhat unspoiled village to get some supplies. A crowd of about 30 kids arrived waiting to be amused, not at all afraid of farangs like the villages at which we broke down on the way to Luang Prabang. I got out my tin whistle, which I can barely play. This kept the kids mesmorised for a good two minutes, until one of them spotted some little spring-necked miniature doggies on the driver's dashboard. This was good for about 60 seconds and then they moved onto looking at some cool paintings and drawings which another member of our group had made at the waterfall. Many of the kids were sucking on little stalks which we're assuming were sugar cane. We then went on to the driver's village and then back to Luang Prabang for another blood-red sunset.

3/10/99

Today we paid the same guy $1.50 each to get us to Pak Ou caves, a tourist location a bit north on the Mekong river. We travelled north in an extra-long-and-narrow boat, longer than the typical Thai longtail boats, for nearly an hour. Also unlike the Thai longtail boats, this boat had an actual rudder controlled by a somewhat rickety cable system running the length of the boat to the bow, where the captian sat. Looking at the supplies on the bow, we could see that the captian also lived and slept on this boat! The Pak Ou caves, chock full of Buddha images, were fairly interesting but we had all seen at least 2 other such caves in Thailand so it wasn't the most exciting part of the trip. On the way back the captain stopped at an extremely spoiled town at which they sell full-sized bottles of Lao Lao whisky and related poisons for $1/bottle. It was kind of fascinating seeing how they make the stuff in big oil drums over open fires, but the vendors and villages were as used to/sick of farangs as the trekking villages in Chiang Mai in Thailand (more later).

After this tour we wandered to the top of a steep hill in town with the unfortunate name of Phu Si. From here, when the air is not completely full of smoke and ash, you can see all the wats in town and you can watch the Khan and Mekong river snake up and intersect. There is (of course) a small wat at the top of the hill that, when lit up at nighttime and viewed from the ground, looks undeniably like a floating version of Cinderella's castle. Given how annoyed I get when people refer to mission architecture in California as "Taco Bell," I'm sure the Disneyland reference would anger the Laos quite readily, but it does give you the picture.

As we were playing on the abandoned machine gun turret at the top of the hill, the town suddenly exploded in an amazing fanfare of rhythmic drum beats and bell ringing: by blind luck we happened to be on the hill at 4pm on a Buddha day, which happens once every two weeks or so according to the lunar calendar. The surround sound effect of 35 wats beating drums and ringing their bells as loud as possible was truly amazing. The symphony continued for 20 minutes or so. One guy had climbed the hill just to meditate to this sound. Ringing and drumming on Buddha day seems to be an important duty for the young monks (novices), and it's possibly their only energy outlet all month! I would highly recommend that anyone travelling to Luang Prabang arrange their schedule around this. The lunar phases are superimposed on any normal Thai or Lao calendar; generally the Buddha days have little Buddha pictures by them or are a different color than the other days.

That night we ate again at Malee Lao food. All entrees were excellent. Some I wrote down include:

3/11/99

Today I said goodbye to the group I had been traveling with since Vientiane (they took an airplane to Chiang Mai in Thailand). I wanted to get back to Vientiane and Nong Khai and so I decided not to have another bus adventure but instead to try out Lao Aviation, one of the least safe airlines in the world. This airline uses obsolete Chinese aircraft with Soviet (yes, Soviet, not Russian) spare parts. To pay for the flight I needed 55 US dollars—they wouldn't take baht or kip. But the bank would not give me US dollars for my traveler's checks. I had to get a special note from the airline giving me a special dispensation to receive dollars from the bank, since they were going right back into a Lao company. Such confidence in their currency!

In the Lao Aviation office and the (one) bank, paper forms and large paper ledgers dominated the business. There was an archaic 286 PC in the Lao Aviation office with some printed documentation for Microsoft Word 2.0, but I don't think they ever used the computer. In the bank, the 4" thick wads of bills people deposited and withdrew were kept in a flimsy cabinet full of money. Instead of having a computer system they just hired around 50 people to staff the place. Instead of packets flying around a computer network, they used an endless series of super-thin crinkly paper forms with mysterious color codes and spaces for signature and countersignature. Somehow it all worked though.

At Lao Aviation I met a guy (also buying his ticket to Vientiane) who had worked in the US Immigration office in Bangkok for many years handling requests for immigration from Vietnam and Cambodia to the US. He had many interesting stories about POWs and others who helped the US during the war but who the US now denies are either a. alive, or b. entitled to entry into the US, because the people in question were involved in covert operations that the government still denies ordering. At one point he got so miffed about this that he sent a memo with a list of names and situations to his superiors in Washington. While they ignored the memo, someone leaked it and it made the New York Times and other papers! Now (many years after that incident) they have closed down his office and he is travelling Thailand and Lao looking for photography jobs (his other hobby).

When he was working in Bangkok, he got a bunch of photography jobs from Lao advertising companies because he is the only person they could find with a 4"x5" (professional) camera! Lao is quite far behind in many areas and photography/print technology is definitely one of them.

I visited the city's royal palace museum, which is pretty cool as long as you follow around one of the package tour groups that had English guides :) The Lao government took the king, queen, and prince of Luang Prabang and stuck them in a cave to eventually die 10-20 years later of insufficient medical care. The museum says they "retired to their summer home." Several young Luang Prabang residents I talked to are convinced that the king and queen were lazy, ineffective rulers who didn't care about the people, but I suspect this is what they were trained in school. One 21-year old Lao told me this while we were standing in the huge 50-foot tall golden (colored) building built to house the royal funeral chariot and other items used to honor the king, which is part of the 25-room palace museum containing all of the king's belongings. Quite an odd contrast.

Today I also went to the Luang Prabang royal museum, a 25-room palace of the personal belongings, royal thrones and other equipment of the now defunct king and queen of Luang Prabang. The place is pretty cool as long as you follow around one of the package tour groups that had English guides :) The Lao government took the king, queen, and prince of Luang Prabang and stuck them in a cave to eventually die 10-20 years later of insufficient medical care. The museum says they "retired to their summer home." Several young Luang Prabang residents I talked to are convinced that the king and queen were lazy, ineffective rulers who didn't care about the people, but I suspect this is what they were trained in school. One 21-year old Lao told me this while we were standing in the huge 50-foot tall golden (colored) building built to house the royal funeral chariot. Quite an odd contrast.

Walking around town later that day I was flagged down by a 17-year old monk (novice) at one of the lesser known temples. After having the usual practice-English conversation, the monk asked me if I knew about math. He showed me his math text and pointed to some algebra problems he couldn't solve! We ended up talking about that and his English homework for about an hour. His favorite topic was definitely English slang. On the back of his textbook (which was really more like a flimsy paper pamplet of about 20 pages) he had written a list of English words/phrases he got from somewhere, ranging from "butt" to "asshole" to "vagina." He of course wanted to know what they mean (fortunately he already knew the worst ones). I found this quite surprising and unmonkly at first, but then it occurred to me that given 3-4 years of meditation, separation from women and lay men, the kid has to get his dose of mischief from somewhere!

I was reminded of the 35ish monk with whom I had walked all around Bangkok at the beginning of my trip. He said he was a very bad boy so his parents sent him to become a monk. After one year he begged his abbot to let him go and his abbot refused. After two years he begged again, no luck. After five years or so he discovered that he liked being a monk and he had been one ever since (20+ years). Perhaps this kid is on the same track.

Anyway, after we traded some slang the kid told me that he wants to learn more English but nobody in the class except the teacher had a dictionary. The students relied on a 5-6 page section of words at the end of their flimsy "textbook." The monk then asked fairly directly if it was possible for me to get a particular dictionary when I go back to Vientiane and send it to him. This also seemed rather unmonkly. In fact the whole day raised more questions than it answered: Was the monk trying to get me to help him with his homework or do his homework? Was the monk being greedy asking for a book? Should I have refused either request? Will the monk share the dictionary with his fellow students? Are things a lot more laid back for Lao monks than Thai monks? Anyway I said I would send him the dictionary. It ended up costing me about $15 book and $5 shipping from Vientiane and about 1 hour of time. I decided after some thought to remove the price tag from the book before sending it. It was uncertain whether he had any concept of monetary value, much less whether he thought this would be an expensive thing for a farang to purchase and send. Certainly by his peers' standards, $20 is a large gift. In Thailand, lay people would contribute anything a monk requested without a second thought, regardless of the cost (and would certainly remove the pricetag). This is in part because a Buddhist gains merit by contributing to their wat, but also because in Thailand a monk will barely ever ask for anything, and in fact one of the monk's precepts is that he personally can own only a small list of things (certain number of cloaks, alms bowl, ...). Are things different in Lao? I'm not sure. A week later, a Thai monk I met on a bus out of Nong Khai told me that Lao Buddhist monks were not as strict in adhering to their precepts, but he could have been biased. Guess I'll have to go back to do more research :)

Later that day I went back and we went into the young monk's quarters to look at some more English. The novices live in what is essentially a walled chicken coop, sleeping in hammocks and doing their homework to 45 W light bulbs in breezy quarters. It occured to me that this might be illegal in the US but was par for the course here. The monk asked lots of questions that indicated that he did really want to learn the language (am/pm, irregular verbs, ...). Then he pulled out this page from the New York Times, which he apparently keeps hidden under his hammock, containing a full page advertisement for a how-to sex video (sort of Dr. Ruth type thing)! He wanted to know what certain sentences mean. In most cases I had to explain to him why the sentences did not say anything risque as he had hoped. I remember hearing exactly the same thing from my French teacher about some French rock song lyrics I found in high school (and I didn't believe her then)! The monk also wanted to know what each field of the order form meant. I told him, but I didn't have the heart to tell him that they wouldn't deliver to the Lao People's Democratic Republic (and just forget explaining that the product was an NTSC videotape and not a book :). More questions: where did this kid get this stuff? Was he sharing it with the other novices or were they more straight-laced than him? I left my return address in the letter with the book so it will be interesting to see if he ever sends me anything.

Also that day, I rented the services of an English-speaking guide I had seen multiple times in the last few days. I had become quite frustrated that at the many temples and museums in Lao, there were few if any English signs and no English speakers. For $12 (quite a high fee) we went around on his motorcycle while I flooded him with questions. One thing I wanted to know: in all the wats I visited (and in many I would see in Thailand after that) there were wall murals depicting horrible scenes of people climbing thorny trees, getting lead poured down their throat, etc. Above those were murals depicting the Buddha's life, and above those and/or in the back of the temple there were murals depicting what looked like people, angels and gods. My guide explained that the icky scenes depicted what would happen to a lay person if they violated each of 5-8 basic precepts that apply to all Buddhists (in this case, no lying and no adultery). The Buddha life story panels included references to Hindu gods.

All the murals very clearly relied on notions of heaven and hell, afterlives, gods (including the Hindu gods), angels, and redemption—-none of which can be found in the Buddhist scriptures. It was clear that Buddhism for the lay person in Lao (and at least parts of Thailand) was much more than the faith described in the Pali texts that monks must learn. Buddhism gets mixed in with the local spirit-oriented beliefs. In Lao and northeast Thailand people:

The man who ran my guesthouse in Nang Rong, Thailand was a rebel in this respect. He had no spirit house, and received flack about this from his neighbors. He saw these spiritual beliefs as superstitious and outdated, not appropriate for a Buddhist. He was perhaps the only example of religious nonconformance I saw in all of Thailand and Lao, quite refreshing!

3/12/99

All those early-riser brit types told me that if you get up early enough (~6am), you can see hordes of monks come out of the ~35 wats for their morning alms rounds. I attempted this but must have been minutes too late cuz I only caught the tail end of one procession. The guide I hired yesterday told me the monks wander around collecting rice from people's households, then some of the lay men come to the temple with other goods (veggies, etc.) to cook the monks a meal.

I headed to the airport for my morning flight to Vientiane. The Lao Aviation airplane was indeed rickety. Most seats were busted in some way; the seat in front of me always reclined all the way, the seats were so close together that I could not sit straight, and my seatbelt mechanism did not latch closed (hmm, should I tie the straps together or is it better to have a quick escape route?). Throughout the flight the plane revved and calmed with a 1.5 second period as the plane bobbed up and down. There was of course virtually no view due to all the haze below. But we did manage to arrive safely. This time.

In Vientiane I headed to a (wonderfully aircon!) advertising office with the American guy I had met in the Lao Aviation office. We left our bags. I went out to get and mail the dictionary for the monk, and we had lunch with the French owners of the ad company. They showed me some magazine articles about this crazy adventurer who had infiltrated Cambodia to get an interview with and pictures of Pol Pot; turns out the crazy adventurer was using my American friend's 4"x5" camera. The crazy adventurer guy had borrowed it since, as before, this American was the only one anybody knew of in Lao or Cambodia with a 4"x5" camera!

It was more or less at this point, as I stood in Vientiane on a scorching day in the middle of the dry season, that I finally came to terms with the monetary value of certain comforts like air conditioned rooms and taxis. For the rest of the trip (especially as the temperature rose into the hottest part of the dry season) I would choose these comforts much more often and without the slightest regret.

About 2pm, I took off on a sort of motorcyle/tuk tuk hybrid called a jumbo to the Thai-Lao friendship bridge. The jumbo's tiny engine could barely move me, the driver, my heavy bag, and the big metal passenger cabin welded on to it, but we did get there.

A Jumbo and a Tuk-Tuk: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
A Jumbo and a Tuk-Tuk
Click here if image does not load automatically.

I repeated the strange customs rituals in reverse, re-entered Thailand across the X-shaped traffic exchange, and discovered that I had lost the 90 day visa I spent hours getting at home because I forgot to fill out some form which I had never heard of. I got a new 30 day tourist visa and tried to figure out where I would be in 30 days and how I would get an extension.

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