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.”