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Travelogue of a Trip Through Laos

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A trip through Laos - Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, Pakse and a trek through mountain villages

The day before leaving on this trip I got the bad news that I probably have CTCL - a form of lymphoma. It didn't exactly spoil the trip, but did leave me a bit distracted. I hope it doesn't show too badly in the quality of my site.

June 12, 2003
Passing through Narita airport, I saw only an occasional mask worn by a traveler – really pretty rare. Guess the SARS thing isn’t too much of a scare here. I like that there are internet kiosks next to the gate even though I don’t need or want one right now.

June 14, 2003
In Vientiane now. Had an interesting experience having breakfasts with people celebrating the monthly full moon with the Buddhist monks. The people bring food, a feast really, to feed the monks. After the monks eat, then all the people eat. One old man invited me to join them and eat with them. The food was placed out in one very long mat with people lining both sides. The group of people that knew each other and that I was with numbered about 10. Some of the food I didn’t know how to eat. There was fish and crayfish, rice, and many other things I didn’t recognize. I had eaten a nice breakfast that morning, so wasn’t hungry, but felt honored to be invited to join them. This temple was near Wat Luang, but I don’t know its name.

After breakfast, I wondered around Wat Luang and met a Buddhist monk that was about 18 years old. Like so many of the foreigners we are likely to meet in such situations, he was eager to practice his English.

June 15, 2003
Later in the day, I went to eat lunch in one of the thatch-roofed covered open-air eating stalls along the Mekong. The Mekong itself isn’t much to see here right now. There is a long expanse of greenery between the shore and the actual river. That area I’m sure is filled with water once the rainy season kicks in. Rainfall hasn’t been a hindrance to me at all so far. The first night here it rained for about an hour at night. It also rained sometime during the night last night.

While waiting for my lunch there, a cripple I’d seen the day before as I was looking at some of the temples approached. I invited him to sit with me and have some beer and lunch. His legs are somehow deformed and he moves by dragging himself along with his hands and arms.

As we sat there one of the young girl peddlers came along with a basket of various things for sale. I bought a set of fold-up reading glasses for 40,000 kip ($4). I can’t read now without reading glasses and know there’s a reasonable chance of losing or breaking the ones that I have on this kind of trip. These glasses fold up into a really compact little case. The cripple told me that a Lao could’ve bought them for 15,000 kip. If I hadn’t been in such a good mood, I would’ve told him that he should’ve negotiated for me then, since I was being kind enough to buy him lunch.

When I receive my bill, it was for 36,000 kip. That was the cost of two lunches and two tall Beerlao. I placed four 10,000 kip bills on the tray and the waitress carried it off. She returned a moment later with three 10,000 kip notes and pointed at the bill, then fanned out the three notes to indicate that I hadn’t paid enough. I insisted I had given her four notes, showing her with my fingers and shaking my head no since she didn’t speak English. I wasn’t going to be scammed. Eventually, she said “sorry, sorry” and took the three notes.

I had booked the Lane Xang hotel through the Internet for $30/night. But the hotel had not received payment, so wanted me to pay them. I explained that it would be easier for them to get the money from the Internet company than it would for me. Eventually, they called someone and seemed to get it straightened out. Fortunately, I had only booked through the Internet for one night because the walk-in cost for a room is only $22. That’s a lesson. Also, oddly – the room rate is $25 if paid in kip, so it is better to be prepared to pay in US. That room rate includes free transportation to/from the airport or bus station.

Another thing about currency here – they give a better exchange rate for large bills than they do for small ones. When trying to change money, they have a table showing the exchange rates for various numbers of dollars. I thought this referred to the amount that was being exchanged. But no, it referred to the size of bill. That seemed like a scam to me (and still does) but where I did my exchange, the woman insisted it referred to the size of the bills being exchanged. Also, some places give better exchange for travelers checks than for cash. This isn’t typical around the world.

After a couple of days in Vientiane, I took a bus to Vang Vieng. The ride is very interesting and the scenery is quite nice. As we drove, I could see the beautiful karst landscape getting closer and closer. The mountains are of various shapes, some very steep on one side, so they looked very asymmetrical. We drove through many little villages on our way and past many beautiful green rice paddies and fields with water buffalo wallowing in water holes. At one point a guy was riding an elephant up the “highway”.

Our bus broke down in Phon Hong – wheel bearings in one of the rear wheels starting making noise. Wouldn’t want a problem on these mountain roads. We had about an hour to kill there – not enough to see much and there really didn’t seem to be all that much to see, either. While killing time there, I stopped in a motorbike shop to price one of the 110cc bikes that are everywhere in the country. They quoted me a price of $480, but brought it down to $470 with negotiation. But I was just really interested in determining the price.

I’ve read that there are places in Laos where the people are unaccustomed to seeing beards. Vang Vieng might be one of them, though it seems unbelievable since they get so much tourism. But I have gotten many unusual stares. One of the boatmen that operate the boats at the river crossing approached me and after saying “excuse me” a couple of times asked me how old I am. I figured it was because my beard is now so gray.

June 16, 2003
Today I crossed the Nam Song River and rode one of the tractor contraptions to Poukham cave (15,000 kip for the ride). The cave was like any other cave, except it’s quite a climb to get up to the mouth of it, since it’s up on the face of the mountain. Like so many of the caves in this part of the world, it had a Buddhist shrine inside. Down at ground level, there is a beautiful clear pool of blue-green water to swim in. It’s so clear that it’s possible to see many large fish swimming there too.

I made the long walk back – about six kilometers – I wanted to see the countryside. It wasn’t such an easy walk back, because when I got back to the river near Vang Vieng, I had to wade across part of it to get to the spot where the boatmen operate the crossing. That main crossing costs 2,000 kip each way.

The scenery near Vang Vieng is quite nice, but I don’t find the people particularly friendly. Some are downright unfriendly. My first night here when walking back to the Nam Song Hotel, someone said something to me in Lao and I responded with the Lao hello – Sabbaddee. In response, I got a jeering laugh – apparently I’d been insulted.

My first night in Vang Vieng I stayed right on the river at the Nam Song Hotel. This place cost $25 and the woman running the place didn’t offer very good service. The next night, I got as nice a room in town for $4 at the Malany.

 

June X, 2003
I guess it's kind of obvious that I don't keep track of the calendar while on these trips.

The road from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang is absolutely spectacular. The mountains are incredible and the mountainside villages are sprinkled throughout. On the road, I saw many men carrying rifles as we drove, some apparently AK47s. At one point there was a burned out hulk of a bus. I wondered if this was the place where a bus was attacked in February and 12 people killed. Author’s note: if you’re considering making this trip, you might want to check the US State Dept’s travel advisories for this region. A new alert was issued on
August 5, 2003, in response to several bomb attacks that have killed and injured people over the past few weeks.

Once arriving at Luang Prabang, I was surrounded by the usual array of moto drivers. One showed me pictures of his hotel and it looked nice, so I agreed to go to it. The only room they had left was the “big room” – it didn’t even have a room number, that’s how they referred to it – “the big room”. It was $8/night but it was a very nice room. Three beds in it (which of course I didn’t need), but it had a refrigerator, AC, a balcony with nice chairs that looked out over the street, and beautiful wood paneling and chandelier. It also had these beautifully carved wood chairs and sofas with cushions. The room had a lot of character. The only down side was that it had a private bath that was not attached to the room, but was a short way down the hall. Loved the room, hated the bathroom.

I rented a motorbike and cruised around the city.

 

June x, 2003
Today I went up the Mekong in a boat that I had to myself. If I could’ve joined a group I would’ve saved money, but there wasn’t anyone else around that morning. First, we went to Xang Hai – the whiskey village where they make Lao Lao. But I wasn’t interested in that. I did buy a tablecloth weaving here.

We went on to Hoy Khe village – a Hmong village with 42 families. It had a 5 room schoolhouse. They had an unexploded bomb casing hanging outside the school – I suppose to teach the kids to be careful of such things. There are still a lot of what they call UXO here – unexploded ordinance, pretty much all left from the Vietnam war. The village elder here told me that 10 people had died of Malaria here recently. I took a picture of an old woman here. The village elder claimed she is 99 and with her face, it’s believable.

June x, 2003
I started a 2 day trek today with Jay, our guide, and Aimee and Hayden – 2 Australians. There was also an assistant guide, but I didn’t get his name. The trek is into the mountains west of the Mekong. In many places, the trail was through thick brush. In the few places it opened up, the view was quite nice.

We got a late start because Aimee and Hayden showed up late. And then they still hadn’t eaten, so went to get some food. Very aggravating.

We first went through a Kmou village. But the attraction was t he Hmong village high up into the mountains. Phuluang Tai is a beautiful village with a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains. These people seemed to have seen very few westerners. The children all surrounded us at a safe distance and then would run when we turned to look at them. One of the children approached me with a bag of five soft drinks and a note in English requesting we support their service. I bought one and began drinking it while surrounded by about 18 kids. So I decide to buy the rest of the softdrinks and had the kids share them in groups of 4 and 5. It was a real pleasure watching the kids enjoy the drinks and share them so willingly.

Later I was stopped by people and brought into their homes until it became so dark that I couldn’t find my way to the home that we had been initially taken to. It was really quite a large village and all the homes looked alike.

June 25, 2003
Today I rode a motorbike to Wat Phu Chompassak. It was quite an adventure. I first had to ride to Ban Muang – about 30 km from Luang Prabang – and then cross the Mekong on a narrow motorized boat, wide enough for one motorbike. From the crossing, it was another 8 km. Wat Phu Chompassak are ruins that date back to about the 5th century. They are pre-Angkor ruins. I found the ruins interesting, occupying a Cliffside in the country. All of the portals in the walls have carved figures with a lot of details. There was obviously much more here long ago than there is now – stone remnants from the buildings are lying everywhere, many with carved figures.

June x, 2003
Yesterday I arrived in Pakse. (Ride from the airport is $2). I rented a motorbike for $18 for two days. First I drove north of town and road dirt roads through several little villages. It was an interesting ride because virtually everyone stopped what they were doing in the fields and stared at me as I passed. The people in the fields were either all planting rice or plowing the fields with water buffalo pulling wooden plows. The rice paddies were quite beautiful with the mountainous backdrop and the growing rice a deep green. But the biggest pleasure of all was seeing so many friendly happy children. Everywhere I went, whenever the children would see me they would break into face wide smiles and wave. Very heartwarming.

The best place to rent a motorbike here is the place next to Lao Che Heun Hotel. If you negotiate well you can get one for $18 for two days. The Lane Kham Hotel wouldn’t budge below $10/day.

American style breakfasts can be had at the Pakse Hotel, which looks like a nice place to stay, with a sign that says $10/day. The lobby and restaurant are quite nice.

Where else can you go and have chickens crowing in the middle of a city?

The plastic bottles of water they sell here are so flimsy, and filled to the brim so that when you open one and try to drink, you squeeze the water right out of the top. And yet, as I sit here in the Sedone restaurant in Pakse, I can see 2L soft drink bottles labeled in the Lao Sanskrit that are not only not filled, but are filled to various levels well below the brim – looking as if they were filled in the back room. I can tell you this – if you like beer, there’s a very good chance you will like Beerlao. This is really quite good beer and I would gladly drink it on a hot day in the US.

This morning I wanted to get a picture of the Lao flag flying next to the flag with the hammer and sickle. This is, afterall, a communist country. I saw the flags flying in a small government compound, so walked in and was circling the flagpoles tyring to get just the right shot when one of the government officials approached me and told me “no photos”. I protested lightly – had to be careful here – that I wanted a picture of the Lao flag - but to no avail. Hell, I was even wearing my Lao PDR t-shirt. But no problem – the two flags are also flying outside of the new central market, which happens by the way to be only about 1/3 occupied.

I have to say that this is a place of contrasts – especially when it comes to people’s reactions. In some places I have gotten the most overtly friendly welcomes of anywhere I’ve ever been and in other places have received unveiled hostility. Other places there has been intense curiosity, sometimes intense suspicion.

Yesterday I drove the motorbike where I think no white man has ever gone before. In the morning I again drove north of Pakse – trying to find again some of the interesting villages I’d seen earlier. I’ve noticed that the rice paddies have an interesting symmetry and asymmetry. Symmetry in the repetition of squares and rectangles. Assymetry in the varing sizes and levels – with adjacent paddies often being maybe a foot different in ground and/or water level, each being separated by a mud wall that is often being tended by someone with a “shovel” that looks a bit like a hoe with the end bent to a right angle from the handle. Often I’d see only two people planting rice seedlings, but often I’d see groups of six or eight, probably an entire family. Each person would have a bundle of seedlings and would plant each about a foot apart, bending over to plant each by hand. I often also saw people plowing the paddies and using a single wooden plow being pulled by a water buffalo.

I found the timing of my trip to be perfect – with some paddies untouched, others being plowed, some being planted, and still others being a beautiful deep green with growing rice.

While looking around north of Pakse I saw a man and his son, both obviously very, very poor, trying to net snails from the mud puddles and paddies. They had a net about 3 or 4 feet wide stretched between two parallel wooden poles – one held by the boy and one by the man. They’d dip this net through the paddies and puddles – some only maybe 5 feet across to catch the snails. While at Wat Phu Chompassak I also saw children with a bucketful of snails they’d caught. This also reminded me that while on the trek into the mountains, I saw children with a bag full of what looked like stinkbugs. Our guide told us they caught them to eat. In the food stalls in some of the cities, they also sell baked or fried crickets to eat.

I decided to go to another place called Um Muang, well south of Pakse. However, when returning through Pakse for lunch, I got waylaid by a Chinese woman that had a sob story and wanted money. I wouldn’t give her money, but eventually, I gave her a ride to the northern bus station, which cost me a lot of time. By the time I got back to Pakse and had lunch, I couldn’t get to Um Muang in time. But I drove a dirt road toward Ban Phapho, supposedly one of the last towns that still use elephants for agriculture. But this too, was too far away to reach with my remaining time. But while driving the road, I did see a scorpion cross the road. It was probably five inches long and was entirely jet black – very sturdy looking little beast. On the road I also saw a dead snake – interesting looking because it had a very slender body and thin neck so that the head looked unusually large.

In Pakse, my best dinner was at the May Khoum restaurant (Vietnamese). The Lonely Planet guide finally had something right about Laos. The roasted duck there (is not roasted, but stewed) is absolutely delicious. I also had very good Phao (right name? – noodle soup) at the restaurant outside of Wat Phu Chompassak. I was caught here in the rain, so stayed for lunch. Which reminds me – at the Wat, I met Amy, an American girl. When I got back to Highway 13 from the Wat, there was Amy trying to get a ride into Pakse. So we loaded her bags onto the bike and she and I (with my bag) made the long ride back into town.

In Luang Prabang there was a Lao woman – a very beautiful Lao woman – that was with a man I think was Chinese. Whenever I saw them the woman would smile and flirt with me. Here in Pakse there is a beautiful woman with an old caucasion man. She too flirts with me whenever I see them. I don’t understand the relationship, but think it must be a prostitute with a paying customer.

Most of the women here wear sarongs, which are basically large pieces of cloth they wrap around around themselves from the waist down. This is the traditional Lao style of dress for a woman. It’s amazingly variable and practical – sometimes looking quite modest, other times looking quite sexy. The Sarong in its most traditional fashion seems to be a dark solid color with some design in a band along the bottom edge – maybe 4 or 5 inches wide.

The waiter at the Pakse hotel, a young guy probably not much more than 20 or so, who had helped me before with directions to Wat Phu Chompassak, told me about the white guy and the beautiful Lao woman. The white guy had met her in Luang Prabang. So it seems she was bought and brought with him to Pakse. When I saw them last she smiled as they passed and she looked back after passing. Then she said something to him and they stopped and both looked back. They then continued into the Chompassak market. A short while later she came walking back quicly and looking upset. He was following closely behind. I’m quite sure they had an argument about me – one I didn’t encourage with anything more than a smile to her. Even before then I had decided I should buy the two of them a drink – without any intention of trying to take his bought woman. I’m not going to split hairs – people come together for a lot of different reasons – comfort, care, warmth, who am I to judge them. And I didn’t want to interfere.

When I did finally buy them a drink, I discovered that he was from Germany and was in Cambodia to study, of all things, snails. He had this belief that there were far fewer species of snails in Southeast Asia than had been reported in the definitive book on the subject, that many of the separate species reported were really one and the same. He was not a scientist himself, was a retired businessman, but had for many years a hobby of the study of snails. So he was traveling the country gathering specimens. He had met her years before in Luang Prabang and whenever he returned, he would pay her to travel with him and serve as interpreter. He claimed there was nothing else between them. And yet there clearly was. He paid her 500 Euro for two weeks – as much as the typical Lao would make in a year.

June 27, 2003
Here’s a switch. You can eat for less at the Pakse airport than you can in Pakse itself. 6000 kip for eggs and a baguette. Not bad.

Glad to be finally leaving Pakse. Didn’t really care that much for the town itself, but had an interesting time exploring outside and around.

Now it's on to Siem Reap, Cambodia and the temples of Angkor.

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