This past week has been the most action packed week of the trip, I think. Let’s see if I can recap…
So after talking to some guys in an Internet cafe, I decided that I would head up to northern Laos instead of going directly to Thailand. I’m really glad I did because it has been incredible. I got up in the morning and went to the travel office to wait for the tuk tuk to take me to the boat and I found out that two of the Australians I had gone to see the waterfall with the day before were also going with me. We ended up being the only three people on the boat which left plenty of room for us. The only problem was that the seats were horribly small and you couldn’t sit on them for 10 minutes without getting a sore ass. Then I remembered my hammock. Within 10 minutes, I had the hammock strung across the boat and was relaxing in style. It was an incredible boat trip and because the hammock put me at the perfect height, I was able to enjoy the spectacular views the entire trip (unlike the Aussies who, in a desperate attempt to get comfortable, were forced to lay down and miss it all). All the boats that passed pointed at me and smiled – “That lucky bastard…” And I was. When we were nearly there, we got caught in a torrential rain storm and all the chairs and supplies for the boat people fell off the roof and into the river. We ended up letting down the plastic shields for the boat to protect us from the rain and wind and then spent 30 minutes cruising the river and looking for our lost supplies. And then we arrived.
Meng Keau is a really cool place. It’s tucked away in a river valley and there is a huge bridge built by the Chinese (for trade) across the valley. I found a bungalow for 2 bucks a night (it is soooo damned cheap here) overlooking the river and me and the Australians chatted the night away, played a bit of chess, made fun of the menus and waiting about 2 hours for our food to arrive (everything runs on Lao Time here which requires you to multiply the time something should take by about 10). We chatted with a few medical psychologists from England and it was great fun.
In the morning I headed up to Meng Ngoi which can only be accessed by boat. The boat trip through the valley was incredible and we arrived just after the last bit of fog had burned away. Meng Ngoi rests up on the base of a mountain overlooking the river in the valley and it is quite a bustling little town. Tiny villages like this always have a hundred kids playing everywhere you look. They have a river so there is always someone doing something there and it’s quite fun to watch. People do laundry (including my laundry which I gave to the hotel to clean I later found out as I saw my shirt sitting in the sand on the river bank), clean food, fix boats, fix, swim, even rinse rice to make Lao Lao whiskey. It’s CRAZY!
The Aussies and I went on a day hike to see some caves and visit some hill tribes. That was really cool. The next day, we went kayaking through the valley for about $2.50 each and that was pretty awesome as well. That night I met a Dutch girl and two Israelis and we decided to do a two day trek through the forest the next day. We got up early and headed off with a little hand drawn map I had made from the wall of a tourist agency. We hiked through the valleys and visited some of the villages far out in the forest. There are lots of ethnic tribal villages without electricity that are only accessible by little trails though the forest and we tried to visit a few of the different tribes. There are of course kids running all over the place, accompanied by countless pigs, chickens, ducks, cows, buffalo, cats, dogs and anything else you can imagine. The people all wave as you walk though and most of the kids come up and ask for pens (for school). After quite a hike up a mountain, we arrived at a village deep in the jungle and it was quite entertaining trying to negotiate a place to sleep for the night seeing as we had no guide and didn’t speak any Lao. The chief of the village spoke a bit of English though and he ended up renting his own bungalow to us for $1.50 for the night. We spent the night chatting, watching the life of the tribes people, eating, laughing and being observed by countless kids sitting around watching us and feeding us bamboo shoots. After playing with the kids for an hour of so, I made an English menu for the chief for the wall of his little store and he really liked that. It was Lao New Years and so at about 8:00PM, half the village piled into a hut and they fired up the town generator for electricity (which is also used to simultaneously de-husk rice and feed the husks to the animals by spraying it out the back of the shed). We spent the next 3 hours in a hut packed with Lao tribes people watching cheesy karaoke videos and a kung fu movie dubbed in their tribal language. It was GREAT!
The next morning, we had our breakfast and got ready to leave. We added up our expenses for the night and the bill came to a whopping $2.50 for the night’s accommodation, three meals, candles, tea and sleeping in the chief’s home! It also happened to be one of the best experiences of my entire trip. It was great to see a life so incredibly different from my own. I don’t have the time to put the experience into words, but it was incredible.
So we set off to another village near the river and had to follow a stream through the forest (sometimes there was no trail, only the stream) past some minor villages and places where they were cutting down trees and bamboo (we just heard lots of cracking and people yelling HELLO! at us from the forest), we arrived at the river. Once at the river, we negotiated a price to Meng Ngoi with a guy for a boat and were soon off, until the boat broke down and we had to spend 45 minutes waiting for the guy to come back (he had hopped into another guys boat going back to the village) and telling riddles to each other.
When we got back, Saskia (the Dutch girl) and I headed back into Meng Keau where she caught a bus back to Vientiane and I stayed the night. In the morning, I tried to catch the “8:00AM” bus, but was quickly informed that it was actually a 10:00AM bus which suddenly changed to 10:45AM at 10:00. Zach and Mica (the Israelis I had done the trek with) arrived from Meng Ngoi along with a few others (the bus station was waiting for 10 people who want to go to Luang Nam Tha and wouldn’t leave before that time which is why the time kept getting later. So the next thing I knew, we were all in the back of a pickup truck (which has benches installed and a roof) to Udomxai where we would catch another bus to Luang Nam Tha. The ride was rough, although beautiful, and we had people even hanging off the back of the truck. A few Lao people threw up. At the bus station, we waiting around for a few hours while the bus filled up and then were off to Luang Nam Tha. After several hours of that, we arrived and found a hostel. Our actual destination was Muang Xing but it was too late when we arrived and so we caught the first bus out the next morning.
The bus (pickup truck) was supposed to leave at 9:00AM but it was full so we had to wait for the next one and didn’t get out until around 10:30. While we waiting, we fended off the tribes women walking around selling bracelets (and opium). They are dressed in traditional clothing and try to coerce you into buying their crafts (and the opium hidden below them). Opium is a main source of income here in Laos and you can get it for dirt cheap (from what I gather). Anyways, the two benches were packed, two people were laying at our feet and people were hanging off the back…and they still tried to get more people in. The two-hour ride down the bumpy dirt road was (again) rough and dusty, but we arrived in one piece. We arranged a trek and Zach and I spent the evening playing chess and chatting.
The next morning, we set off for our trek which consisted of two days, one night, with a group of 8 plus a guide through the jungle to visit the various hill tribes there. It was a great walk (although not very demanding) and we had a stay in a village for the night. UNESCO set up a protected forest here and they also set up this trekking program which was put in place to foster low impact tourism. You can only trek with a guide and both the group size and tour frequency is limited to have a minimal impact on the tribal people. It was of course cool to see all the people doing their own things and lots of little kids loved having their pictures taken. We visited two different types of tribes (the Muon and Aka) and they were quite different. It was interesting to learn a bit about their culture and religion, and it was quite surprising to see the women walking around with their breasts hanging out of their shirts (which they do after they’ve gotten married).
That night, we got a massage from the women, which consisted of them pushing on our backs and legs for an hour and then we spent the evening chatting and relaxing. I was lucky because there were two people from Spain on the trip, so I got quite a bit of practice with my Spanish. It was a great group and we had a great time.
After arriving back in Meng Xing, we immediately took a pickup back to Luang Nam Tha where we ran into the Australians again and got dinner together (they just got done with a 3 day trek). After a few beers, we hit the sack and the next morning, we headed off together to the Thai border at Huai Xai. I had heard bad things about this bus trip but nothing could have prepared me for the ordeal. It was absolutely the most entertaining bus trip ever.
It basically consists of 10 hours in a rickety bus on one of the most incredibly bumpy, dusty and winding jungle roads in the world. Half the time you are nearly thrown from your seat from the huge bumps in the road and the other half you are trying not to slide off the seat from the bends. It was supposed to leave at 9:00, but then 10:00, then 10:30, then after it left, we spent an hour getting a tire fixed and when we thought we were then leaving, we ended up back at the bus station where we waited another 30 minutes. We left at 11:30. The bus broke down half way there and we had to get out and wait for a few hours while they screwed with the engine (at which time I took my hammock out and strung it across the inside of the bus and played Zach’s Gameboy – god bless Super Mario Brothers) and that was pretty funny. There was no air conditioning so we had to keep the windows down, but that meant that the dust came in and we all were covered in dirt (and by covered, I mean like, you pat your head and dirt flies up from it into the air). We stopped every hour for no apparent reason and the poor guy’s seat behind me broke early on in the trip and he spent the rest of the time sitting on a metal bar. The worst thing about Lao buses though is the atrocious music. They blare it on the buses and refuse to turn it down. Us foreigners had control of the back 3 rows in the bus and that just happened to be where they had hooked up a home stereo speaker for the bass and force of the music and they had to blare it at full volume so that the people in the front of the bus could hear. We put up with it for about an hour before we just couldn’t stand it any more. I don’t think I can put the horror of this music into words. Lao music consists of the same cheesy beat and the same cheesy guitar chords and solos and some guy or woman moaning in a unendingly monotonous cacophony of shit. I don’t like using profanity in these posts, but I don’t think any other word is more suitable. It’s horrendous. It sounds like exactly the same song, over and over and the speaker is always blown out so that it makes that blown speaker noise the entire time. It cuts right down to the soul, and when you combine this with 10 hours of winding roads and dust, it can make one want to put his head through the window. Or cry. Most likely both.
During a break, I followed the cable to the speaker beneath the back seat and gave it a good tug. I think it could be the most satisfying thing I have ever in my life. Not only did I no longer want to put my head through the window (and cry), but I also received cheers from the back half of the bus. It was a great moment in Lao history.
We finally arrived though and after negotiating a price with the tuk tuk driver to town (lao bus stations are always conveniently placed 5k’s out of town so you have to take a tuk tuk from the station) we ended up in Huai Xai. I grabbed a shower and rinsed the inches of dirt from my body. While I waited for Zach, I watched the Hugh Hefner story on TV dubbed in Lao. I was amazed that they blurred out all bottles of alcohol and even Hugh Hefner smoking! When he put the pipe up to his mouth, his head became a blur. Gee…I wonder what he was doing. What an incredible length to go to for censorship when nearly everyone in this country smokes and drinks. I don’t get it.
So the next day, we ended up crossing the border to Thailand, which is where I am now.
But that is a whole other post in itself 🙂
Ok, ok, ok. So I haven’t been pushing myself so hard. Give me a break. I’ve been in Luang Prabang for several days now and really like it. What have I been doing? Well, I’ll summarize some of my adventures. I made a date with the German couple and some other people I had met on the trip to the waterfall (see last post) for the evening for checking out a pub. We split up after dinner and I never saw them again (I later realized that we never really said where we were going to meet!). No worries. The next day, I headed out on a mission to find out about how to make a call to the states at 2AM (when it’s 10AM back home). No one had any ideas. I found some payphones and eventually figured out that I had to go to the post office to get a card, but they helpfully informed me that they, “no have.”
“So, no one can use any payphones in the whole city?” I asked.
Welcome to Laos.
So I eventually found out that upstairs I could buy a phone card that I could use from my hostel’s phone. I bought it and headed to the hostel to try to explain to them that I would need to wake them up at 2AM to make a phone call. It was pretty entertaining seeing as they don’t speak English. So anyways, I met an Australian girl and two American guys and we chatted for a while. I’ve got quite a few random stories and so I can usually entertain just about anyone for quite a while nowadays, “So, you studied Chinese in Bolivia, but the classes were in Spanish?!” and I ended up making friends with Holly and we spent the next few days together. She is a really cool and relaxed girl and we got along great. After walking around town, we saw a bunch of kids in the river tubing and playing and just having a great time.
“Let’s do that,” I suggested.
So we set out trying to figure out how to get a tube. They don’t rent them here, so we had to find some random kids and convince them to rent us theirs. $4 later, we had a small tube and a big tube and we were soooo tubing down this river, with hundreds of kids staring at us in disbelief. I think we were the first two foreigners ever to tube down the river. They waved at us and swam after us, and we decided to do it again the next day and convinced some other kids to rent us two big tubes the next day. That evening, we went out to the only cool pub in town and had a few beers and met some new people. The next day, we got a massage at the Lao Red Cross (we justified it by saying that the proceeds were going to charity) and then picked up our tubes at the prearranged meeting place and the 17 year old girl there (who looked about 12), gave us a ride in her bus a few kilometers up the river. To make a long story short, we had about 13 kids latch on to our tubes and float down the river with us. We had a flotilla of about 6 tubes in all and we floated for quite a while before heading up in a huge group back through the town and up the river. All the other tourists were staring at us because they were jealous that we had tubes and they didn’t. We actually spent several days explaining to random people that came up to us that we just paid some kids for the tubes and you couldn’t get them at any tourist office. We were (are) famous.
It’s pretty cool. There must be several hundred kids in this river at any given time. They have tubes, and bags filled with air and Styrofoam all doing back flips and throwing stuff and swimming and laughing in the river. There are monks floating by on boats, women and families bathing, little naked boys and girls running around. They just float down the river, then run back up river and do it again. It was cool to be a part of it.
We tried to go to the museum, but when we got there (the second attempt because the first attempt was thwarted by it being 4:30 when they closed at 4:00) and realized that they weren’t open on Tuesdays (of course not). We ate a bunch of deep fried bananas and had a few fruit shakes and then went to the waterfalls (the second time for me) and I got some killer photos and swam in the river, jumped off the top of a few waterfalls and swung off the swing into the water. It was great and loads of fun. Our tuktuk driver ended up stopping for another broken down tuktuk and they took apart the axle before leaving us all and heading back to the waterfall for spare parts so we just hitch hiked back to town.
That night, after having some incredible bbq’d fish at the night market, we all went to the pub again and chatted. Alex and I got into a heated discussion about US foreign policy and the Iraq war and it was fun. It was a bit of a challenge but I won (he in a nutshell said I was right and we changed the subject). It’s always kind of disappointing when I win a debate because I don’t learn anything. It’s kind of a let down, but hey that’s how it goes. Debate is certainly an art form though. I love it.
Today Holly and I bid our farewells and I spent the day on the computer and finished the DaVinci Code on my hammock that I set up on two trees by the river before it started raining, at which point I went to the coffee shop and bought a new book, “Don Quixote,” which is in old time Spain Spanish so it should be interesting.
Tomorrow I either head west or north. I’ll think about it for a little bit more and make my decision. It’s supposed to rain here in the north of Laos for the next week, so I might as well head to Thailand.
Decisions, decisions, eh?
So I did indeed take the bus from Vientiane to Vang Vieng the next day. In the morning, I woke up early, got my flip flops fixed at the shoe repair guy had breakfast and then took a bus packed with tourists to my destination. There were a bunch of drunk English and American 20 year old guys yelling in the back of the bus and bragging how they would be drunk for the next week and I just put my headphones on and tried to tune them out while simultaneously listening for which hostel they would go to upon arrival so I could avoid it.
The scenery was beautiful on the ride over. Vang Vieng is in the mountains and is surrounded by huge limestone mountains in all directions. It also has a river flowing through which provides for some awesome sunset scenery. So when I arrived, I got a nice hostel and headed for the river. They had tons of hammocks on the side of the river and I just laid around, watched the sunset and read Da Vinci Code. Have you read this book? It’s incredible. I have a rule that I don’t read fiction unless it’s in Spanish, so I had my mom bring it to me when she visited and even though it takes a little more effort to read, I’m still glued to it. It’s so damn interesting! I found one in English today in a bookstore so I checked to see how the guy had translated a few of the things that didn’t make sense and then they made sense. Sometimes they get silly with the translations and try to make a tricky play on words in the translated text if there was one in English and it doesn’t quite work. Especially Da Vinci Code where there are all these riddles and codes and stuff. But oh, well.
So I hung out in Vang Vien for two days, went on a kayaking trip down the river and visited some caves, and drank a lot of 20 cent banana shakes.
Then I headed to Phosavan. Phosavan is the home of the mysterious “Plain of Jars”. Yeah, I know, I hadn’t heard of them either until my dad told me about them. From what I gather, some people made hundreds of huge jars out of stone and stuck them in groups all around eastern Laos. So I visited them. It wasn’t much, although it was cool. Just a bunch of big stone jars of all different shapes and sizes and no one really seems to know how they got there or what they were used for. There are various theories, but nothing concrete. More interesting, however, is the fact that there are still cluster bomb bomblettes all over the place in eastern Laos.
During the Vietnam War, the VC were transporting weapons to southern Vietnam via Laos and although the US had signed the Genieva Accords saying that they would not bomb Laos, they still did. Laos had more bombs dropped on it than even Vietnam. If a pilot had been directed to bomb Vietnam and had to turn away due to weather or whatever reason, it was too much trouble to land with a bomb active in the plane, so they would be directed to secondary targets of Laos. It was all top secret and there was quite a fuss when it was found out. But we didn’t have much intelligence as to where things were so pilots just kind of bombed wherever they felt like. Villages, mountains, caves, rice fields. Lots of people died and the real kicker is that only 70% of the bombs dropped actually exploded. So that left 30% of millions of tons of live UXOs all over the country for little kids and farmers to get blown up from even to this day. They actually removed a 6 foot bomb from the middle of one of the Plain of Jar sites a week before I got there. There are these little bomblettes everywhere that some British NGO is trying to clean up but it’s hard. It takes weeks to clear a small hundred foot squared space and this means that people can’t even farm thousands of kilometers of land due to the fact that it’s littered with thousands of bombs. Anything can set them off and even after clearing the land, more are found due to the fact that erosion reveals more. One site had been visited and cleared 18 times and they still had to return. One guy tried to pound a bed post in his house for his daughter’s bed and when he hammered in he hit a bomblette and lost a leg and an arm. He couldn’t get to the hospital for 6 hours because he had no car. Nor did anyone else. It really is a shame, but the most incredible part is that we still use cluster bombs to this very day. Isn’t that how governments work? They are businesses and businesses don’t have compassion, only people do. They will only not do bad stuff if they think the people will get pissed off about it and vote them out. People are calling for a moratorium on their use so that they can study the problems with them and if you want to get involved, check out http://www.mcc.org/clusterbomb/moratorium/. That is just a site I found on google and it makes sense because the Menonites do a lot of work there. I mean, I think America is a great country. I’m not a pacifist by any stretch of the imagination – nor am I anti-war. I’m not against American hegemony, either. In my opinion, I would rather us be in power than some middle eastern country with a few nukes. But when you claim to be one of the greatest nations in the world, you should really start to live up to that image. Little kids may have to die when the war is in progress, but nearly 50 years after? Jesus Christ…What’s more is that due to the fact that people can’t farm the land and people don’t want to invest in a country riddled with bombs, Laos remains one of the poorest countries in the world. So if your parents weren’t killed by a bomb, you might die of starvation. Way to go, America.
It’s been very interesting to travel through these countries. You learn a lot about a lot of stuff that you never learn in the history books. Stuff that we can learn a lot from.
But what’s really interesting is what the people have done with all the metal from the bombs in this country. They have melted down bombs and made silverware and tools. They have cut bombs in half and made tables, chairs, bikes, mailboxes, feeding troughs, gutters, roofs for houses, and anything else you could imagine. It’s genius! Every spoon I’ve eaten with here has been made of aluminum from a bomb. There are also huge shells and mortars everywhere you look. Some spent and some not. One guy even had a rocket launcher in his front yard. Crazy, eh?
So the bus ride over the Phosavan was murder. The road is in horrible condition and it winds in 180 degree angles up and down a road for hours on end. At every stop, people were running out and puking on the of the road. That is, if they had any left after they puked out of the open windows. To my joy, I found when I entered the bus in the morning that it was packed with locals and I would be forced to sit on a little red stool in the isle. You spend the whole time trying not to fall over and sleeping is out of the question. Two year old kids seem to love looking at me and they spend hours doing it on every bus I go on. They laugh every time I catch them looking. So do I. The public buses are always stopping for one reason or another. Overheating. Fire. Bags falling off. People getting on and off or taking a leak. When one guy left, I snagged a seat in the back and was happy. No more stool. To my dismay, however, a guy tried to swipe it when I went out to buy some water at one of the stops. When I got back in, he laughed and said to sit on a stool. I shook my head no and squeezed in right beside him and spent the next 2 hours trying to slyly crush him into pulp. With every bend, I would lean into him whereas I would stop myself from crushing the guy on my right (he was innocent). It was pretty funny because the guy didn’t know if I was trying to crush him or not. He kept looking at me and I just pretended like nothing was up. I was pissed. Try to steal my seat. Sheeeeeet. He finally left and we were all comfortable again.
I wasn’t looking forward to this experience again, as you can imagine – and the ride from Phosavan to Luang Prabang was supposed to take nearly 10-13 hours (all with the same horribly, although scenic, winding road). When I got back from the jars though, there was some guy who said he would take me to Luang Prabang in his comfy and spacious (and air conditioned) Honda SUV for 7 bucks. He didn’t have to offer twice. I ran back to my hostel, packed my stuff and ran back and caught him as he was backing out to leave. We picked up his buddy and were off. They were heading to Luang Prabang to pick up some German tourists for a 200 dollar tour so I was just extra money for them. It was a 6 hour horrible ride, so imagine how it would have been in a bus. I spent the entire time in a zen like trance in a constant near-vomiting state. We stopped and got dinner about 5 hours into the trip. When we arrived, the girl working there pointed out that I was a foreigner.
“Falang (foreigner),” she said.
I just looked and smiled. She didn’t.
She served us food and when I sent my rice back, she said:
“Falang no eat,” (in Lao) which my driver translated for me.
This girl was really skilled at pointing out blatantly obvious and pointless observations. It was great.
So I arrived in Luang Prabang and have been here for two days now. It’s a really nice place and is actually a World Heritage UNESCO city due to the fact that it’s got a ton of French era buildings and really old Lao temples everywhere. They are restoring it quite a bit and it’s beautiful. It’s nice just to walk around by the river and explore. I’ll be here for a few more days I think. Yesterday, I randomly ran into a German couple I met in Vietnam and we went to see an incredible multi-level waterfall in the outskirts of the city. There was a tiger in a huge enclosure there too (it was rescued from a poacher when it was 5 months old). I snapped some good pictures there.
My hostel is 3 bucks a night, but there is no toilet paper in the bathroom (communal) which is really annoying. But I would rather pay 3 bucks than the 10 dollars I had to pay when I first arrived here and spent an hour wandering through the city at 11pm going from hotel to hotel only to find they were all full. I finally found one and just took it even though it was expensive, but woke up early in the morning and found a cheaper one the next day (of course).
So that’s my story. I’m gonna go have another 20 cent fruit shake and get a 3 dollar massage (no sex, mind you – those ones are a few bucks more from what I hear). It takes a bit of effort to find the no-sex places. You have to ask around and read the guide books. I asked a girl once in Vietnam where I could find a massage place, no sex.
She looked at me confused.
“What do you mean? They are the same.”
All the days and cities are starting to blur together. I just spent 5 minutes trying to remember what the name of the city I was in for the past two days was called. But I remembered. Thakaek. So I took the bus from Pakse early in the morning. I talked with a few backpackers that had just arrived for a few minutes then chatted with a guy originally from Laos but who fled when the communists took over and lives in Texas now. He was just visiting. So then it was onto the bus toward a town called Thakaek. It was a pretty uneventful, although beautiful, bus ride except for when the bus almost caught on fire. We smelled smoke and they stopped the bus and ran to the cargo container and pulled out a smoking blanket with a big burning hole in it. From what I gather, they left the cargo light on and the heat burned a hole in the blanket.
“Okay, okay! No problem, we have diesel petrol. No explosion. Back in the bus!”
So I arrived in Thakaek on time and there was a whole lot of nothing to do there but walk around. Their claim to fame is a huge limestone mountain range and caves in the jungle so my plan was to rent a motorbike the next day and check it out. I spent the evening observing the people in the town, got invited to an old man’s son’s wedding (which I didn’t have the clothes for and so I didn’t go) and spent the rest of the evening having dinner and beer with an English couple and talked about our experiences in SE Asia. The next morning, I got up, rented a motorbike (a tiny little moped, actually) and set off into the jungle. I had a handwritten photocopied map of the area and it was quite a challenge to navigate as the map had a tendency to change scale from 1 inch = 100 meters to 1 inch = 10 kilometers without warning. There were also no road signs. So I just took every path that looked like it was well ridden and did a bit of trekking and then ended up where I wanted to go. According to my map, there was a cave at the end of this long road past a few villages, but a guy I spoke with told me it was too far. But I had nothing better to do, so I went. I had to cross a river (on my little motorbike), navigate through the jungle (on my little motorbike), ride over a 15k sand road (pushing my little motorbike) and I eventually saw people after about an hour. Some guys, in the middle of nowhere, were doing some sort of construction. So I got out and showed them the map. One of them spoke a few words of English and told me they were building a school. The first village was a few kilometers down the road. I kept going and eventually arrived. There wasn’t much to this village except a bunch of huts and kids playing around (oh yeah, and a village well) and so I cruised right through, waving to all the little kids. “SABAIDEE!” (hello!) they yelled. “SABAIDEE!” I yelled right back. The kids here are awesome. So I drove through that village and after another 30 mins, arrived at the next. Same thing. When I got to the last village, I asked some people sitting around about the cave and they pointed at the mountain. Apparently I had to stay on the road and it would curve around. When I got into the village, I came across about 40 people sitting around watching some guys build something with wood in the road. Seeing as they were blocking the road, I had to stop too.
Everyone stared at me.
“SABAIDEE! Pachon cave?” I asked.
An old man just stared at me. Then pointed. So off I went. That was awkward…
I eventually found the cave after parking my motorbike in the middle of a dried out rice field (noting carefully where so I would lose it). What a beautiful area this was. Take a look at the pics, I’m sure you’ll agree. Limestone mountains tower above you in huge layered lumps and the mountain sides are dotted with caves. Dried out rice paddies (which I assume they only use in the wet season) stretch out as far as you can see and little grass roof houses filled with hay dot the landscape. The cool breezes from hidden caves provide natural air conditioning as the mountain cooled and musty cave-air sweeps over the your body on its way out. It was an incredible hike.
So I finished with that, and then it was time to navigate back to the main road, a good 30 miles back. The road is murderously unmaintained a too much of it leads to an incredibly sore ass. The bike wasn’t powerful in the slightest and as such, I had to help it the majority of the way. I’m surprised I didn’t get even a single flat tire. Shoot, I’m surprised the motorbike didn’t explode!
On the way back, all the little kids in the all the villages knew I had to come back on that road and so they all waited for me in the city. As I drove by, in huge groups, they all waved and smiled, ran after me and yelled “SABAIDEE!!” Even the old ladies waved. It was really cool. The next 30 miles back were filled with impressive views of the limestone valleys, rivers and streams with women bathing and naked little kids playing in them, rice fields, water buffalo and cows with babies and, of course, dust. Lots of it. It was interesting to see that these little villages had electricity. There was a lone wire leading out to them along side the dirt road (yes, just one wire, like a long extension cord). No Internet either. Jesus.
Back on the main road, I visited a few more caves, snapped a few pics of the area as the sun set (it gets really red and beautiful) and then headed back to the town. I went and visited Ahe, a guy my age who runs a restaurant and we chatted for a while about Laos and his pet rooster (which he takes to work with him). He liked to fight it and cock fighting is an incredibly popular thing here. You see what people are reduced to when they have no Internet?? There was actually no Internet in the whole town and I asked Ahe about that. He said they used to have it, but no one used it and there aren’t many tourists in the town so they closed it. Fair enough.
I spent the evening reading my book from my hammock which I tied to two trees at the hotel (I carry around my own hammock) and then went to bed early. This morning I caught the bus to Vientienne and now here I am. There’s not much to do here, even though it’s a capital city so I think I’ll move on tomorrow to Vang Vien.
Laos is a really interesting place. It is communist, and you see commie flags everywhere but like all “communist” countries here, it’s not really. It’s democracy-less capitalism with a dictatorship. It’s funny how all these counties tried to whole “communist” revolution thing and realized that it just didn’t work and quietly adopted capitalism again.
Another thing about Laos is that everyone has a fire going somewhere. Whether it be the side of the street, the forest, the backyard, or the restaurant, someone’s always burning something. I’ve seen this quite a bit in SE Asia, but it’s particularly common here. There also aren’t as any stray dogs as I thought there would be. South America was filled with them. They were everywhere – and even the capital cities were plagued with them! Here I see hardly any and I wonder what the difference is. The few that you do see look like they are about ready to die of starvation. It’s quite sad.
So anyways, not much more to report.
So where was I? Ah yes, Cambodia. It was the day before I was to take the boat to a city close to the Laos border. I spent the evening riding around and snapping photos of Kratie as the sun set. The way the sun hit the city as it set was incredible. I got some really cool photos. I went out to dinner with Marcus and Layra, with whom I had gone on the boat trip to see the dolphins, and we filled the evening with lively debate about politics, religion, philosophy and psychology. It was great and I got some interesting perspectives from them. The next morning, I got up, had breakfast, said my goodbyes and hopped on a boat. The boat trip was up the Mekong River which is rather shallow, so sometimes the boat had to slow down and weave around invisible sandbars below. Like I said, they have no concept of a lawsuit here in Cambodia, so I was able to spend the duration of the 5 hour trip lying on the roof of the boat with several other passengers, hanging on to the railing and nearly falling off. It wasn’t made for passengers, mind you. I watched Cambodia lazily float by as we made our way to the border. People and water buffalos bathed in the water, people fished, people swam and had dinner by the shores. Kids smiled and waved. It was a beautiful trip.
When we finally arrived at the last city, I hopped into a speedboat (a dodgy boat just barely big enough for me, my bag and the driver and with a huge motor attached to the back) and negotiated a fare for an hours ride to the border: $5 bucks. And with that we were off, barreling through the river with rocket-like speed, dodging sand islands and reeds along the way. The front of the boat was high in the water and a large wave could have easily flipped the boat. The scenery as the sun set was spectacular and as it got darker, I switched from sunglasses to my eyeglasses (as bugs kept smacking me in the face) and saw everything in perfect detail (I keep forgetting how much clearer everything is with glasses on). You could see where the water level gets to in the wet season and the trees were bent nearly vertically from the current (it is now dry season). We eventually arrived at the border, I got stamped out of Cambodia (and was unofficially charged two dollars for “overtime” which I bargained down to $1) and then arrived on the Laos side and was stamped in and charged unofficially $2 dollars for overtime (which I negotiated down to $1.50).
Now, this wasn’t a common foreigner border crossing. Indeed, it was just me and a Cambodian guy and I wasn’t even sure I would be able to cross. There were no tourist accommodations, just a few shanties with locals dancing about yelling “hello!” And it was dark. It was here that I had my first encounter with Laos hospitality.
“Where you go?? Pakse?!” a guy my age asked.
“I don’t know. Sure,” I replied. “How much?”
With a big smile he replied, “No money!”
And with that, I hopped in the back of a pickup truck with 6 other locals and was off. My new friend didn’t speak English well, but we were able to make small talk. He introduced me to his friends and told me they were making a delivery to Pakse (about 2 hours away). We had to stop at the roadside while their stuff was inspected and I was told that the guards were trying to get a bribe. But they didn’t pay and we were soon off, zooming down the road in a new country, with complete strangers to a city I wasn’t exactly sure was anywhere I wanted to go. I stared up at the stars and picked out the very same stars I gazed at back home. It’s interesting how you can be so far from home and still feel so close when you look up at the sky.
“Where the hell are you?” I asked myself with a smile.
About halfway there, the other guys were getting pretty cold and I whipped out my sleeping bag and converted it to a blanket and gave it to them as I had a jacket with me. They were pretty happy with that and we eventually arrived to Pakse around 9:00PM, and they dropped me off at a nice hostel and we said goodbye.
So yesterday, I rented a motorcycle and drove about 150 miles around the surrounding area, called the Bolevan Plateau. The French planted coffee here a long time ago and that is how the majority of the people here seem to make a living. Everyone has their own personal coffee plantation in their backyards and they spend their days picking the coffee beans, drying them out in huge sheets on the side of the road, then roasting them in a wok over an open fire and selling them. They also sell sugar cane. The people here don’t rely on tourism in the slightest and make their money by selling gas (the same way they do in Cambodia, with a little pump), coffee, fruit and the like to people passing by. This is what I couldn’t explain to my mom, aunt and stepdad when I was explaining what was so different about Vietnam. There is such a sweet innocence about a place where people are just living their own lives. Everyone seems content going about their business and when they see you they give a huge wave and yell hello (the kids do, at least. The old people just stare). I was riding quite a distance and going by a pretty poor map I had and thought I was lost for a while as I was going down a dirt road with no signs or anything of the like. But I eventually found my way and made it back to the hostel without a problem. The basket fell off of my motorcycle though. And the bottom piece broke off, but I (at least) made it back in one piece. One thing you notice about Laos pretty quickly is that everyone has a fire going. Everyone is burning something and smoke is everywhere. The smells of this place are incredible – lush, moist green grass, mixed with the smell of burning eucalyptus, roasting coffee, and bananas. The heat from the fires ablaze as you cruise by heats your body and the drafts from the cool and hot air every few hundred feet are an incredible sensation. Riding a motorcycle is so much better than a car. Of course, you have to be careful of the water buffalo, cows, chickens, goats, ducks, geese, and people in the road everywhere (and I mean everywhere). That goes without saying. I had stopped on the side of the road to put on my glasses and about 20 kids, half of which were naked, starting running up to me from around the neighboring houses to yell hello and wave.
Today I woke up early and visited a temple a ways away from the town. It was built by the Cambodians in the Angkor period and was pretty cool. I had to ride about 30 miles and take a little ferry (which was basically a guy with a floating board onto which I rode my motorcycle) and was taken across the river to the other side with the temple where I had to ride another 10 miles.
I got back this afternoon and have spent the rest of the day reading “Understanding Vietnam” which I bought in (you guessed it) Vietnam. It’s quite interesting to read about a country that you’ve visited and I think I’ll read more about Cambodia and Khmer Rouge next.
So I’ve got to run. Enjoy the pics from Angkor Wat (Siem Reap), Kratie, and Pakse!