Trip Start Feb 20, 2002
26Trip End Nov 18, 2002
-- "Oh My Buddha!"
I settled into my room in Vientianne, the capital of Laos and immediately decided it best to rush around town to soak in as many temples as possible before sunset.
I'd been in Laos less than a day but judging by it's wats (temples) I imagined that Laos must have been in a fiery competition with it's neighbouring Buddhist country, Myanmar, to win the which-country-has-the-most-Buddhas contest
I loved Buddhist countries. People were unbelievably friendly and tolerant. Laos was no exception. I felt at home from the second I sauntered off the airplane. Smiling faces and helpful locals filled every Foe shop, tuk tuk and Pagoda. At that moment I decided that I would retire in a Buddhist country when the time finally came.
-- Rockets away!
I have always been lucky but since I left home on this adventure, my luck was unusually baffling. I had managed to Forest-Gump my way into 4 countries, just in time for the biggest of national festivals in each. Holi (India), The Water Festival (Myanmar), The Sihk's new years (Myanmar), Liberation Day and the Hue cultural festival (Vietnam) and in Laos, the day after I fall from the sky into this new country, the Rocket Festival was in full swing. The Rocket Festival was one of the largest Lao Festivals. During the festival locals constructed giant rockets ( which bore a striking resemblance to pipe bombs ) and mounted large bamboo launchers to blast them over rain flooded rice fields, supposedly, to provoke the Gods to rain down crop feeding water. It turned out to be a huge drunken carnival mixed with high explosives. A dangerous combination in any country. Several scorched hands and arms, the result of rockets gone bad, were evidence to the volatile nature of the festival. Everyone took part in the festivities. Young, old, men, women, police and even monks gathered around to cheer as the brave men mounted the bamboo constructions to propel their explosive inventions into the sky
"You girls want to go to the the rocket festival?" I asked the two Japanese girls I'd shared a quick pint with the night before. They were fiddling with their guide books with a lost gaze in their eyes when I blurted out the offer.
The two girls spoke little english but enthusiastically accepted the offer, which was a major financial ( and social ) relief, seeing as it cost a relatively huge amount of Kip ( Lao Currency ) to hire a tuk-tuk for the day. As we amassed a small fortune of Lao Kip for the journey, we hired a non-english speaking tuk-tuk driver to take us to the small villages around Vientianne. The small distant villages had the best celebrations due to their distance from flammable edifices.
The virtual lack of english made it very difficult to accomplish the slightest task. Ayumi spoke a little english, Miyoko, spoke Thai, and the tuk-tuk driver spoke Lao. Luckily Lao and Thai were very similar, which enabled me to pass requests through a spiderweb of conversation to Ayumi in english, which would then be translated into Japanese to Miyoko, then to Thai for the tuk-tuk driver. The reverse would then trickle it's way back to me with an approximately accurate answer
The tuk-tuk driver took us to one of his friend's house, where a dozen Lao women and men were in full celebration, drinking a fluorescent yellow Lao Rice drink and BeerLao. We joined the troop for a good 6 hours, dancing the night away in their living room ( which resembled a western garage ) to Thai Karaoke.
"Drink! Quick!" the Lao women shouted to me as I sipped my beer.
"Ummm, ok. Errr give me a second" I said feeling oddly pressured by the 8 Lao men and women waiting to share my glass.
Drinking in Laos, with locals, took on a strange tradition. One designated person would first take a glass, fill it half way with BeerLao, sit on the floor next to you and wait as you chugged it back. It was severely shunned to slowly sip the swill and taking more than 30 seconds to slam it back would provoke a massive onslaught on condemnation from the others. Unfortunately this custom has the result of leaving you extremely intoxicated after only one hour of festivities
The night ended relatively early. Once the MuayLao kickboxers failed to show up for the scheduled fight, due to an excess of BeerLao I would imagine, we headed back to crash down into our beds for a, very, solid night of sleep.
-- Temple Temptation
Champasak, a small village in southern Laos, was a good 900km south of Vientianne. Deep, south. Hours away from my current nomadic resting place in Vientianne and the complete opposite direction from where I was headed. To make things worse, the journey to Champasak involved, a grueling 14 hour bus ride to Pakse, a 4 hour cargo truck journey to Champasak City and a one hour bicycle ride to the temples.
"Hmmmm... what to do." I thought, staring at my military surplus, rusted green ceiling fan, spin erratically.
My guide book described the temples as being "Angkor-like"
Hung-over from the previous night's rocket-festival festivities, I teetered dangerously close to cancelling my plans to head south. After hours of self-procrastination ( and rehydration ), I mustered all the strength I had left, strapped on my backpack and jumped into a Jumbo ( A strange Lao contraption which can only be described as a motorcycle with a bone-rattling human-cage strapped to the back ) to make my way to the bus station.
At the bus station I stumbled upon a cargo bus that was headed south.
"3.50$ to Pakse", I couldn't complain about the price. Laos was cheap. 3.50 for an 800km trek south was well within my daily budget restraints. I would also have a seat on the bus, which seemed like a fair deal.
As I climbed into the lime green transport bus, 3 Lao men were tying down the last of 300 bicycles to the roof. The bus was full of Lao men and women, mammoth cargo bags piled to the ceiling and a Honda Dream motorcycle was rolled down the isle and strapped to my bench. It was a notch above sitting on a rice bag but I'd done worse, this would do.
Sweat trickled down my face dribbling into a puddle on my lap the second I sat down
The bus roared and chugged down the main road south. Judging by the amount of rain I'd seen since I arrived, the rocket-festival must have been successfully convincing the Gods to pour down on the country. One hour into the journey blindingly bright white lighting illuminated the inside of the bus and thick sheets of monsoon-style rain came crashing down pounding the bus like a drum. A blessing, appeasing the energy-sapping heat, and a menace, threatening to draw our overstuffed bus into the bottomless ditch caressing the gravel road.
To my delight, we arrived a shocking 3 hours early in Pakse. ( A bus in Asia, early? ). Backpack slung over my shoulder and day pack tightly strapped to my chest, I quickly ran into the dark night to the first guest house in sight and snuggled into 6 hours of welcomed shut eye. Morning came quick, at 6am I was off again to find a bus to Champasak. No buses, but fortunately, a cement truck was on it's way south. 0.75 cents US later, I was piled into the back of the truck and settled in on the softest cement bag I could find.
The back of the truck was piled, 3 bags high with cement
Despite the fact that all Lao people so far had been overwhelmingly nice to foreigners, there must have been some anti-US sentiment deeply buried in the Lao subconscious. Lingering resentment from the Vietnam War perhaps. Laos had been bombed during the war by the Americans in an attempt to stifle the Ho Chi Minh trail which had been rerouted from central Vietnam to Laos and Cambodia by the North Vietnamese Army. The Americans dropped an ungodly amount of ordinance on Laos. It was said that Laos had been the most heavily bombed country ( per capita ) in the history of warfare. As we chugged out of the bus station, which was infact no more than a mass of red dirt with a few food stalls, I saw something that seemed oddly out of place. A Bin Laden bumper sticker. The bus next to us wore a menacing image of Bin Laden, complete with a 747 airplane flying victoriously overhead, pasted on it's bumper. Bin Laden's face would re-immerge on t-shirts and jackets in markets throughout Laos. One shirt read "RECKONING DAY" under a prominent portrait of Osama.
We were chugging down the dirt road, still wet from the constant drizzle, when I spotted an overturned cement truck that looked, disturbingly, like the one I was straddling. It was laying upside down in the ditch, the back compartment was completely collapsed and cargo spewed from the windows onto the wet grass
The truck floated across the Mekong on a make shift ferry and I finally managed to touch down on solid ground in Champasak as cargo was unstrapped from the roof of the truck.
One day and a half had passed since I'd left Vientianne for Champasak. I was almost there.
After checking-in at a local guest house which was a pleasant 1.35$ US a night, I rented a bicycle and peddled my way out to the temples. It was the final leg of my journey.
It was funny, even though I had spent almost 2 days getting here, sitting on cement bags, chickens and assorted livestock, the journey had been quite pleasant. I must have been getting accustomed to the odd Asian styled bus travel. I think I may have actually enjoyed it.
Note to readers, having spent a significant amount of time on cargo buses now, I would advise against sitting on cement bags
Champasak was a small, quiet town with an almost-deserted feeling. 30 minutes after arriving, I had already decided to extend my stay here and take in small-town Laos.
Due to the hardships of actually getting to Champasak, only a small trickle of tourists occasionally wandered by. During my entire day at the temple I had only seen 3 other backpackers. The feeling of being almost completely alone in the jungle amidst ancient ruins, made for a fantastically authentic and almost surreal experience.
I rode my bike through the Lao country side, passed grazing cows, children fishing in the Mekong and countless ricefields, to arrive at the temple. The 1400 year old temple was nestled into a mountain and slopped down into a near by rice field. Stunning, collapsing doorways, serene carvings of Hindu gods and green snaking vines bursting from solid rock surrounded me as I climbed the mountain side to the central stone temple. The temple was deserted, aside from a Lao excavation team busy unearthing a giant stone statue from behind an idle Buddha
I ran around the temples like a small child bouncing from stone to stone, crashing through overgrown jungle and unloading 4 rolls of film. My heart was beating at a hurried pace, the excitement was so intense that I dropped my Digital Camera from 6 feet up. It crashed down onto the ancient temple stones and barely survived. Closely examining it afterwards, it had suffered a massive dent to its outer shell but had valiantly survived. When I finally stopped my excited rush through the temples, I was dripping with sweat, smiling, giddy with the excitement of being completely alone and overlooking the sloping temple. Several hundred meters below me, the complex stretched out onto the rice fields. I layed on the grassy edge of the cliff for hours and gazed out onto the temple coated horizon listening to my "temple music". Enya.
I finally returned to my guest house, waving hello and shouting "Sabadee" ( Hello ) to the passing Lao villagers on the cycle back. People were unbelievably friendly in Laos, as with most other Buddhist countries. I stopped to play with some children in a rice field as the sun set behind us and snapped a fistful of photos of them as they laughed wildly and gladly assumed bizarre overexaggerated poses.
The next day I strung my new green hammock up along two fixtures on my balcony and wasted the day away by sleeping under the shaded veranda of my very basic room. The ambient tranquility and complete lack of tourists in Champasak was addictive. Huib, my Dutch friend who I had travelled with through Myanmar, weeks before, was in Laos and we had been emailing for weeks. We had arranged to cross paths in Vientianne one day later.
Thankfully, this incentive precluded me from casually lazing the remainder of my stay in Laos on the hammock in Champasak.
I flashed 8$ US to the hotel owner to persuade him to drive off to some distant, rarely touristed temple ruins in the jungle. He would then moto me off, across the mighty Mekong back to Pakse before I would take a bus to meet Huib in Vientianne.
At sunset, we ventured off to the temple, a minor disappointment. The temple had one redeeming item of interest. A multicolored crystal shrine that is said to cast a bright beam upwards from reflecting moon light off of the nearby Mekong river. Back through small Lao villages we thumped the moto over potholes and mud pools to finally make it 200km north of Champasak, to Pakse
-- North bound, like sardines.
I awoke early to catch the bus to Vientianne. Bus schedules were notoriously incorrect and everyone had a different opinion of the best time to catch a ride back to the capital of Laos. By now I knew that the best thing to do was just to show up at the bus stand and ask around for a ride. If a bus wasn't on it's way out, a cargo truck, be it cement, livestock or produce, would be going your way.
I was lucky enough to arrive at the red dirt, unpaved bus station at 6am to find a passenger bus on it's way north.
The bus, a ratty school bus look-a-like was a tight fit. My knees were doubled up against my chest as I tried to get comfortable in the tiny space allotted between benches. Half way to Ventianne ( 8 hours later ), I notice that only my seat was deprived of leg room. The quickly assembled, ex-communist era throw-back bus seats weren't all equally distanced apart from each other
The ride was relatively comfortable. 16 hours, non-air conditioned ( of course, being in Laos and all ) and reeking a foul stench, but comfortable.
When I arrived back in Vientianne, I made sure to leave a note for Huib who was to meet me at my guest house the following day.
"Mr. DiCaprio!" I shouted as Huib walked into the guest house where I'd been waiting for him.
"Mr. Owen!" he replied.
We had a running joke since Myanmar, one of many. Apparently I resembled Micheal Owen ( a soccer player ), and Huib, had an uncanny likeness to Leonardo DiCaprio. Our attempts to convince the locals of our secret identities never really got us that far but always provoked shy giggles from the locals and was a great ice breaker.
We spent breakfast catching up on events that had passed since we'd parted in Yangon, Myanmar. I debriefed him on my Vietnamese adventures and he, his Northern Laos expedition
We fell right back into our old routine, laughing and reminiscing. It seemed as though we hadn't seen each other in years.
It rained, as it always did in Laos, all day. Huib, was a food technologies graduate in Holland and an avid beer brewer ( and consumer ). To pass the morning away, we made a quick run to the BeerLao brewery for a tour and free sampling and then sat, listened to music and planned our next day of activities at the rocket festival. The festival was in it's second week of celebrations.
I hadn't planned to spent that much time in Vientianne but I could always spare an extra day to suck back BeerLao with Huib for a second sampling of the Rocket Festival.
Maybe it was the strange meat from the Morning Market, or perhaps the smelly Durian fruit we attempted to eat. The source of the pain wasn't known, but my tight, bloated stomach was a sure indication of things to come. I'd been sick enough times to know what this foreshadowed.
A mad dash to the toilette confirmed my suspicions. Another case of nuclear-diarrhea. AArrrrrrggggg.. The 3rd nasty affliction of this type since I'd arrived in Asia 3 months before.
"Not again! I've been ok for 2 weeks... please no more... PUUUULEASE!!!!" I prayed. As my stomach cramped and wrenched, I knew it was too late
That night, I went to bed at 7pm. A futile attempt at gathering my energy for the next day's copious drinking in the rice fields during the rocket festival. Sleep only lasted a meager 5 hours. At midnight I awoke, trembling in a cold sweat. The sheets were soaked with perspiration and my head was swirling. Memories of Delhi came rushing back. I layed in bed until sunrise, attempting to convince my stomach that it could muster the strength for the full day of festivities we had planned. When 8am came around I knew that I wouldn't last one hour at the festival.
"How's it going?" Huib asked rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
"Not good..." I brought Huib up to date with the last night's battle with my immune system.
"I hate to say this but I don't think I can make it to the festival, I think I might head straight to Vang Vieng and spend a few days recovering" I felt horrible cancelling at the last minute like that but, a day in the rainy rice fields, drunken and nursing a bad case of gut crunching diarrhea was just something I couldn't bare
I was tired, my head was pounding and stomach wrenching. I couldn't stay in Vientianne any longer, gathering my last strengths I managed to make it to the Morning Market to finally catch a bus north.
Huib was going to be spending a few more days in Laos then he was off to Bangkok. As luck would have it, I had a one night stop over in Bangkok, one week later, and we made plans to meet, yet again, in a new country.
"Cool, so we'll call up Andrew in Bangkok and go out to Patpong for a last celebration".
Huib would then be off to his homeland, Holland, having finally finished his 7 months of travels through Asia.
-- recovery in Vang Vieng
The bus ride was... memorable. 2 flat tires, engine failures and a faulty horn that would, from time to time, remain stuck in the ever-noisy "HONK" position, plagued the ride
"Just get me to Vang Vieng... Just get me to Vang Vieng", was my desperate mantra.
I looked horrible. My scruffy week-old unshaven beard, heavy dark rings crowning my eyes and Malaria Med induced sunburn rendered me a clinically-certified walking zombie.
Vang Vieng, a small town situated half way between Vientianne and Luang PraBang was said to only exist due to it's constant influx of backpackers. I imagined that it must once have been a quaint little village. Today it had been turned into a backpacker's haven. Movies, Internet and Pizza, it wasn't exactly an authentic Lao village as I'd seen on the bus ride north and in the south of Laos, with stilt houses, livestock and naked children playing in the street but it did still have it's charm. The town was surrounded by giant Karst formations ( essentially big mountainesque rocks ) that pierced through the clouds and surrounded the town like a warm blanket. I checked into the first hotel I saw. A bungalow complete with a family of ducks, pigs and goats outside of my window
It rained fiercely everyday in Vang Vieng. Sick and in a slump induced by constantly gray skies, I found a cozy corner in a local backpacker restaurant and watch more movies than I would have thought possible within such a short time span.
-- "Tibet or not Tibet"
The rain pouring down left plenty of thinking time. I took advantage of the down time to plan out my schedule for the upcoming months. Unfortunately, Tibet was not looking promising. The timing I had worked out before I had left Canada was precisely timed for a short tour in Tibet. Now that my tor had been cancelled, the odds of being able to land in Kathmandu, find a Tibet trek that was ready to go and also fit my time lines was next to nil.
"Nooooo!!" I slowly started resigning myself to the fact that I may have to skip Tibet.
-- To the Caves!
During a late night viewing of Monsters Inc., yes we had reached the bottom of the movie barrel, I met Gavin, a british backpacker who was keen to tag along for the adventure I'd had planned for the next day
"Ummm, you see, I have this map... er... it's not really exact but it should get us to a cave. It's supposed to be 20 clicks north of Vang Vieng". Huib had scribbled down a map to a cave he'd found, on a piece of paper for me. I had planned to follow the rough route to the cave the next day.
I met up with Gavin in the morning as the rain was finally trickling it's last drops.
"I just assumed we'd take motos not bicycles" Gavin said as I was bartering with a bicycle rental clerk.
"MMmmmm. Well I've never driven a motorbike, have you?" I asked.
"Yeah, once, it's a piece of cake, really, I'll show you."
That was enough to convince me. We rented 2 motorcycles and after a 30 second crash course ( no pun intended ), we were off. It was fairly simple, and aside from having to navigate muddy clay roads, the ride was fairly smooth.
Gavin, being british, had the nasty habit of riding on the wrong side of the road. I waved him back to the safety of the right side of the road before an oncoming truck veered around the corner.
We followed Huib's map north. Passed rice fields, Lao men hunting in the long grass and bamboo stilt houses. Giant forest green Karst formations undulated and towered passed. The ride had gone fairly smoothly, the rain had stopped and the roads, although slick and muddy, were relatively navigable.
When we arrived at the first muddy trench of a road, we were skeptical.
"What should we do?" Gavin asked as we assessed the mushy mass of red slop in our path. The path plowed through two rice fields and was saturated with rain.
We paused. "Let's do it" I answered back. Gavin roared straight into the quicksand-like mush.
He made it about half way, it was then that the lower half of his moto, was buried in red mud. Up to his knees. Mud was flying wildly as he was trying to somehow press on through. It was hopeless.
I ran over to help push. Within one minute of pulling, pushing and grunting, we were fully painted in red slime. A Lao woman passing us, on foot, through the rice fields smiled as we burst into laughter at our situation
Following the map we went on, cutting through friendly villager's garden's to by-pass bits of road which had been saturated in rain.
Finally making it to the first cave, we spotted the fresh Mekong river between two grass huts. We dropped our bikes and rushed over to the river, tearing off mud soaked clothes bit by bit to finally dive in. The Mekong was cold. We washed our red mud stained skin in the water while the villagers all looked at us and chuckled.
"Hey you think there are leeches in the Mekong?" I asked Gavin
"Yeah definitely, you'll need to check yourself when you get out"
My swim was over, I bolted out, did a quick spot check for leeches and dried off, contentedly leech-free.
A cave filled with Buddhas and carvings was opposite our bathing spot. We toured the cave for a few minutes before the rained started to dribble down again. We could only imagine that the roads would get worse.
"Ummm, I think we should head back, it'll only get rougher as the rain comes"
We mounted our bikes and trudged back through the same muddy roads we had just come through
"Owww, damn that burns." The muffler and the back of my leg made contact for only a split second but it was long enough for a huge red gash to burn it's way into my leg.
"Yeah, it's pretty unforgiving, you have to watch that pipe".
We motored off, my leg now scorched with 2nd degree burns.
Using more strategy than brute force, we managed to make it back to Vang Vieng without any disasters.
-- Luang Prabang
The next morning I crammed my now tattered backpack with my gear and dirty laundry. It was sunny outside. Ironically, the rain had finally ceased as I was leaving. Gliding through the towering Karst rocks that I had been gazing from Vang Vieng, the bus arrived in LP ( Luang Prabang ) 7 hours later. After countless 16 hour bus rides, 7 hours flickered by like a blink
The next day, I woke up early and took advantage of the coolness of the lazy morning sun rising above the horizon to wander through the ancient Buddhist temples and bustling markets which speckled LP. Once the sun was in it's full sweat-inducing position, I retreated to my room to lick my wounds.
The burn I had suffered on my leg from the moto in Vang Vieng was now rippled with blisters.
"Yikes, I think it's time to try out my First Aid kit". Money not wasted, my first crack at a first a kit. I'd always had one but had never actually needed to use it. I opened the booklet and deciphered the complex instructions for diagnosing types of burns. From my feeble attempt at self diagnosis, I derived that I definitely suffered a 2nd degree burn and potentially a 3rd degree burn. The seemingly gray line between 2nd and 3rd degree burns was too blurry for my untrained eye to distinguish. The wound was starting to turn dark but it was hard to tell how bad it was. I applied the prescribed layers of fuzzy white gauze, non-adhesive sterile dressings and pin'ed the makeshift wound-shield shut. My lower leg was now wrapped with a thick layer of white gauze that would immediately draw any onlooker's eyes downwards. My leg had been properly mummyfied.
-- Leaving Luang Prabang
For my last day in Laos I was eager to rent a moto again to venture out to the countryside
"What can I do in Luang Prabang without any money?" I asked the woman working the desk at my guest house.
She paused, squinted her eyes thinking deeply and finally chuckled before saying, "You can walk around town?"
"Hmmm, yeah done that. "
Walk around town... Something I'd been doing for days. Fortunately, there was one Buddhist temple that I hadn't visited. I gathered my day pack and wandered over.
"I am going to spend the rest of the day here, in the monestary." It wasn't extravagant but I'd decided that the rest of my stay in Laos would be at the monestary. It was free, quiet and ... well, free.
The temple was big, dark and empty. Ancient Buddhas were piled seemingly at random places in the temple and a giant golden Buddha sat in the center surrounded by offerings. I dropped down to the floor, folded up my legs in the now-familiar Lotus position, pressed my back against a giant, cold marble pillar and closed my eyes.
"Sabade" said the young monk
"Sabade" I acknowledged, opening my eyes to his bright orange garb.
"How long you stay in Laos?". I was glad to have some company. My meditation skills hadn't gotten any better since Sri Lanka and after 3 hours of failed attempts at successful meditation, I was slowly itching for some company. We talked for hours. About his life, my life, Buddhism and any other topic that idled the time away.
"Would you like to come to my room. I have some Buddhist scriptures that will provide more insight". The temple also doubled as a monestary were a dozen monks and novices, studying to become monks, lived.
We sat in his room, lotus like, legs folded inwards and read scriptures as young novices peaked into the room giggling and whispering "Falang". ... "foreigner".
The monk explained that as followers of Buddha, they only ate twice a day. During the morning and lunch. It was lunch time. He had already done his early morning alms run and been given rice and spicy fish curry. I was starving, broke and thrilled at his offer to share his alms.
His room was glowing orange from hanging robes, colorful orange flowers and tangerine drapes. the kind monk folded a paper swan and, hands opened, offered it to me along with a traditional Lao bracelet he'd weaved the day before
My flight to Bangkok was rapidly approaching. I gathered my things and searched for something to give him in return for his kindness, before leaving the monestary. Rummaging through my day pack I found a Canadian flag I had intended on sewing to my hat before going to Isreal.
"I'd like you to have this". He refused to accept any gifts but after much insistence on my part, he reluctantly accepted.
Leaving the temple for my flight to Bangkok at a fast paced shuffle, young monk novices draped in orange, ran along the stilt walkway shouting "Sabadee!" and giggling following me out of the mammoth stone archways enclosing the monestary.
Things to come...
"TALIBAN". The bearded Arab man clad in a bright blue turban yelled, arms raised in the air. His voice crackled as he shouted. Panic set in. He paced up and down the aisle of my Malaysian Airlines flight as we approached the Patronas Towers. "Shit they're going to crash the plane into the towers!" I realized as the shouting slowly grew in intensity. My hands were shaking and dripping in cold sweat. This was it, I held my fork which I had secretly kept from my inflight meal and stared at the man. I had always envisioned myself being calm and resigned to the fact that I was about to die when the moment finally came but I couldn't stop my right hand from trembling. I tried to think of how I could subdue the man when the time came. It would have been hopeless. I was sure that I was about to die...
Sound scary? It was. The flight to KL from Bangkok was the first time on my voyages, well ... in my life for that matter, that I was certain that death was very close, only minutes away. I'll complete that thought in my next entry for KL.