Asia | South East Asia | Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) – don’t worry mom
My visa for the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (motto: Peace, Independence, Democracy, Unity, Prosperity) is set to expire today. This mountainous country is so layered and so fascinating, I’ve decided to stay another two weeks to explore. Laos considers itself Communist, though the most visible signs of hammer and sickle are in the capital Vientiane, where I am now.
Yesterday I took a 14-hour bus ride over a mostly paved road (unpaved only in the guardrail free mountain stretches) from the northern provincial capital of Phonsavan, in the Xieng Khuang area. This city bears the most visible scars (unexploded bombs throughout the province, bomb craters in the hillsides and bomb casings in the villages) of the U.S.’s secret war in Laos. From 1964-1973 the U.S. dropped an average of one planeload of bombs every eight minutes for 24 hours straight. The hotel owner in Phonsavan said that 3 million tons of explosives were dropped on a country of 3 million people! Given all of these statistics I expected a welcome much less warm than those I continually receive. For instance, the same hotel owner invited another traveller and I to eat dinner with his family (sticky rice and ground fish powder with chilies) and afterward he played the khui, a kind of bamboo flute, and sang for us in Lao. When we all went sightseeing, he took along his one month old black shepherd mix (??)puppy, whom another traveller had named ‘Bon Jovi’, pronounced like ‘Poncho Villa’.
The hotel itself was an interesting place, serving among other dishes, baked frog, baked sparrow, and baked hedgehog. In the list of rules posted around the establishment, number three reads, ‘If you are in possession of a firearm, please show it to the proprietor. For example, shotguns, explosives, etc.’
Really Mom, Laos is quite safe.
We visited a 100 year old Hmong village outside of the city (the Hmong were, in effect, the U.S. footsoldiers during the secret war). One of the village men invited us into his home, he had nine children, most of whom were grown and married. Though our guide assured us that the Lao government holds no grudge against the Hmong, the cows in the village looked very thin.
The rivers in Laos, though, are anything but narrow. I crossed over into Laos from Thailand via a two day boat journey down the Mekong River. Currently undammed in Laos, the Mekong is the 12th longest river in the world, and resembles the Hudson in its scale. The lush primary forests made canopy after canopy between mile high limestone cliffs on either bank of the fast moving water. At one stretch in the river, before we sped through a whirlpool, the diameter of which was about half the length of the boat, the captain’s wife threw three stones into the water and whispered a prayer for safe passage. After the boat journey, I heard horror stories of drowned tourists, or for the luckier travellers, drowned luggage.
The boat journey ended in the city of Luang Prabang, spared the worst of the bombing, there is a mix of French colonial architecture set among the plastic chair outdoor cafes overlooking the Mekong. The town is a quiet place of Buddhist temples, some set in the hills overlooking the city, where orange robed novice monks are eager to practice their English.
North of Luang Prabang, some German travellers directed me to a small village, Mueng Noi Neua, set along the Nam Ou River. The Nam Ou is like a two lane water highway compared to the Mekong’s superexpressway girth. In this village, which caters to tourists, another hotel owner, who insisted I call her Mama, poured lao-lao (home brew rice whiskey) down my throat, as we sat in a circle with other villagers taking turns drumming and singing. They sang of love and of the American bombing, and for my part, I tortured them with a few bars of ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Me and Bobby McGee.’
From the village I headed south on a paved road that wove through lazy clouds to a traveller’s oasis called Vang Viene, known for its caving, kayaking, and access to English language movies (Go Quidditch!) and pizza. Eventually I made it down here to the capital, which sits, like many of the places Ive seen here, on the Mekong River.
Across the Mekong is Thailand, where I spent a month before coming to Laos. Midway through my travels in Thailand, I met a Danish traveller relayed to me the following quote he copied from a bathroom stall: ‘Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travellers don’t know where they’re going.’ I can’t say I know Thailand by any stretch of the imagination -in a month I saw only five cities.
In one of them, Chiang Mai, I was able to teach my first English class to a group of novice monks at an all boys school on the grounds of the oldest temple in the city. It was in Chiang Mai that I managed to lose almost all of my laundry. The proprietress of the guesthouse where I was staying had washed and dried everything and locked it in her room for safekeeping. But when it was time for me to checkout the next morning, she was nowhere to be found. I had to catch the bus to Laos because my Thai visa was expiring. 9am, 10am, 11, and then at 12 it was time for my bus. At quarter to twelve her co-proprietor, a Manhattan yoga instructor, informed me that she was probably at the police station answering questions about the murder, last year, of a Dutch tourist in another guesthouse where the proprietress had been working. I left a forwarding address for the laundry and left quickly.
Really Mom, Thailand is quite safe.
I took an eco trekking tour (really luxury backpacking) for 4 days and 3 nights over Christmas. Our guide, and impressive linguist (three tribal languages and English), was a wily Thai leprechaun of a man named Mr. Toon. He fashioned a Christmas tree out of bamboo branches, hung candles set in used water bottles from the leaves, and tied cookies and toffees with red string from the branches. He wore a cotton beard and red domed had – one of our clever trekkers dubbed him Santa Toon.
The majority of villagers seemed unfazed by our presence, and they looked well-off, large schools, buildings tin roofs rather than straw ones, and running water at several taps along the dirt roads. It was difficult to guess what they made of our presence, whether helpful or harmful to their rhythm of life, though I think they looked at us with as much curiosity as we looked at them. As we walked through the rice fields and hillsides, the children called out in a singsong voice ‘hellobyebyehellobyebye.’
We had some cheap thrills on the trek too, elephant riding and bamboo rafting. The whole experience gave me an appreciation for the many uses of bamboo. It is strong enough to build bridges spanning fifty feet or more than can hold motorcycles. It can tied to together to make rafts, strips of it can be cut to hold the planks together. The trunks are beams supporting houses above the ground, the bark can be used to make walls, and strips of bamboo are woven to make flooring, and in warmer areas, walls as well. It can be cut to make cups and bowls, and the roots make for tasty soups and stirfrys.
I spent New Years in Pai, a curious town in a river valley in the north of Thailand. The place exists solely for tourists, many of whom stay months learning massage, cooking, or mediation. When I was there, the town administration began enforcing a rule banning dancing in any public establishment. As there is a mostly classic rock live band scene in Pai, the no-dancing rule seemed quite illogical. As yet no Kevin Bacon character has arrived to set the locals Footloose.
Some of Asia’s largest caves are in this region, and I was able to take a bamboo raft through one stunning series of caverns. The three chambers were each 100 feet high, the stalactites and mites hung in a stately manner. In one we saw a black (tan stripe down its middle) coiled snake, as thick as an average bicep.
Don’t worry mom, it was sleeping.
The only other snake Ive seen, mercifully, was on my first day in Thailand, six weeks ago. I flew into Bangkok from Osaka, Japan and caught the first bus/ferry combo to the island of Koh Chang in the Gulf of Thailand, near the Cambodian border. As my fellow travellers and I combed the beach in search of unoccupied bungalows, a neon green snake, thin as an index finger, slithered into a nearby bush. Weeks later, and Englishman told me ‘its the bright green ones you want to watch out for.’
I spent a leisurely week ‘acclimating’ to Thailand, sipping coconut shakes and looking west from my bamboo hut over the undulating shades of blue and green. The bamboo hut had slight ant infestation issues, but the scenery more than compensated. On Koh Chang I learned to ride a motorbike (a four stroke scooter, but who’s counting) and went snorkeling for the first time.
Snorkeling gave me a strange contrast. The water was choppy where we were diving and when I put my head above water, I was sick from the rocking of the three foot waves and felt slightly panicked. But then when I put on the mask and snorkel and looked down, the fish were a symphony of vibrant electric blues, oranges, translucent purples and the coral felt as though I might be glimpsing the surface of the moon. All was calm.
Don’t worry Mom, I was wearing a life vest.
I am headed for more water, to southern Laos, where there is a place with 4000 islands and freshwater dolphins. From Laos, I’ll make for Cambodia to see the ancient forest temples of Angkor Wat. After that I’m not sure where I’m going…