Listening to the rice grow in Laos

Trip Start Feb 18, 2004
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Trip End Dec 05, 2005


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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Wednesday, July 20, 2005

I had some time to kill between doctor's appointments and didn't want to spend it in Bangkok so thought I'd go to Laos since I missed that when I had to return to Bangkok early from Vietnam. Laos is landlocked - surrounded by Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and China. It has the Mekong River to separate it from Thailand and Cambodia and mountains between it and Vietnam. This helped the country to stay more isolated and less developed. I read a passage that said "the Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch and the people of Laos listen to it grow". Laos is much more slower paced than it's neighbors and a good place to chillout. A hippie quote is "Laos isn't a place; it's a state of mind".
During the Vietnam War, Laos was heavily bombed by the U.S. trying to stop the flow of Vietcong and supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. More bombs were dropped on Laos than the total used by the U.S. during WWII. Ya, they pretty much devasted that country too. There is unexploded ordinance all over. Another traveler was telling me in some areas at least one person dies per week coming across an unexploded bomb. It sucks as a traveler not being able to just wander off the trail and explore the beautiful country, but imagine all the kids playing around who undoubtedly come across these bombs. And after all this, the people of Laos still seem to bear no ill will towards visiting Americans.

I flew from Bangkok to Luang Prabang on July 12. At the airport, I met a Canadian named Shane and we shared a taxi into town with an older English couple (the English were quite clueless). Luang Prabang is Laos' second largest city, but only has a population of 25,000. It's quite easy to just walk around the central area so I wandered and checked out a few of the temples. A market sets up each evening along the main street with the locals selling mainly touristy stuff. Shane wanted to go out that night for drinks so we went looking for some sign of life at the bars/restaurants. We weren't finding much so Shane said we should go back to a bar we'd noticed with good specials. Went back there and there were two couples at tables outside but no customers inside so I said we should sit outside. Shane wanted to sit inside so we did. Cheesey music was playing. Checked out the drink specials and they're all fruity concoctions. The bartender brought over a couple free shooters for us and that's when we noticed he was a very feminine male. I was asking if a whiskey-coke is considered a "cocktail" for their special but it wasn't and he said I could only get one of the fruity drinks. A song by Wham came on and at that point Shane insisted we leave immediately so we downed the shooter and ran. I got to make fun of Shane the rest of the evening for taking us to a girly-boy bar though.

In the morning I caught a slow boat up the Nam Ou river to the village of Nong Khiaw. The scenery along the boat ride was very beautiful.

I met a few other travelers on the boat ride and we all ended up at the same guesthouse with a deck overlooking the river. Quite nice place to just hang out each evening. One of the guys, Terry, was a bit older and has been traveling off and on since the '80s ("before there were guidebooks"). He had all kinds of interesting stories to share...though he would keep talking and talking. We went out and checked out a couple caves a bit outside of the village. Apparently government officials hid out here during the war (one of the caves was labelled as the bank). A couple kids and an older guy acted as our guides. The older guide said he was around 12 during the war and hid out in the caves during the bombing - he said it was a nightmare. All around the caves were picturesque rice patties (and leeches to get ya while walking around).

Walking around the area, the people were friendly and would say "hello" (or sabaidee) not trying to sell you anything. Even the guides took us around and never asked for money. That would be unheard of in most other countries around here!

Back to Luang Prabang, this time by bus. I had left my passport there to get a Chinese visa done and paid extra for 2-day service but of course it wasn't ready when I returned. The people in Laos are never in a hurry so that seems to apply to all things. I had to yell at the guy a bit to ensure that I could pick it up first thing in the morning (since I was leaving). Went out to Kuang Si Falls that afternoon. It has turquoise waters and nice pools for swimming in. I hiked way up by the top of the falls to the source. I later found out if I had continued walking I would have come across two more waterfalls (d'oh! no map!). Ran into Shane again in LP and we found a better place to go out that evening and chatted with a Scottish couple he'd met earlier.

The bus ride to Vang Vieng was interesting... I sat in the back row and was next to a Laos kid inhaling fumes on one side and another Laos guy who kept crowding into my space on the other. The kid inhaling fumes would keep spitting into a bag and eventually started spewing. I moved seats. From that point, I was next to an Aussie guy from Melbourne. Got to VV, checked into a guesthouse and immediately went out tubing with the Aussies. It was awesome! There are makeshift bamboo bars setup at various points along the Nam Xong river. The people at the bars shout "beerlao" and pull you in with a bamboo pole.

The first one had a cool zipline for jumping into the water. Down a bit further we just stopped at a bamboo shack and met some English and Scottish. Everyone was very friendly and social (you have to understand that often travelers just stick to their "group" and don't often strike up conversation with others). They were all asking about the wound on my hip and the eye surgery. Had a couple more stops meeting more people and had to hurry to the finish before it got dark. I met up with the Aussies, Max and Graham, again for dinner. Max was wobbly from too many beers and as we were reading the menu out front of a restaurant he actually stood there and wet himself. !!! Needless to say, he went back to the guesthouse and was too embarassed to come out again. Vang Vieng has lots of restaurants/bars in it's little main street area. At least three of them show Friends episodes all day long. Looking around in the evening, that seemed to be where most the people were but sitting around watching tv didn't sound too exciting to me.
I went tubing in the morning the next day for a quick run down to pickup the life-jacket I had forgotten at one of the bars (to save myself from having to pay $20 for it). Not many people tubing that time of day. The water was high and fast from it raining the night before. I went out again in the afternoon and started off with a couple Scottish guys I'd met the day before. Stopped off with them at a few of the bars and ran into more people I had met. There was a bar with a rope swing that seemed to be the most popular. People hung out there for ages...think they would've stayed if it never got dark (some probably stayed even after it got dark). Finished just around dusk again. In the evening, I got my haircut at one of the many barbershops in town (just barber chairs in an open building frame). The guy cutting my hair kept trying to sell me marijuana. It was weird.

I woke up to rain so thought I'd skip kayaking to Vientiane and just ride the bus instead. Got a minibus there as it's faster and just a wee bit more expensive. Vientiane turned out to be much more of a city than I was expecting (I thought I'd heard there were only a few paved streets). It was busy with traffic, nearly all the streets were paved and again had the tuk-tuk drivers hassling you for rides. I went out for a quick look around to see some of the sights. Ran into Shane again and found out from him the ASEAN conference was going to start in a couple days and the airport and borders may be closed to foreigners as of July 20, so we made plans for a hasty retreat the next day (July 19). Vientiane has a restaurant called the Scandinavian Bakery that is really good. Ate there for lunch, late snack and breakfast. Back at the guesthouse we met a drunken, happy Japanese guy and a guy from Seattle that was an ass. They met up with Shane and I later and a restaurant for dinner and drinks. The guy from Seattle went on about how he hates how so many women in America are overweight...all the while his belly is hanging out of his shirt. And he's talking really loud saying he doesn't care if the women around hear. He'd also keep interrupting conversations to talk about himself. Ya, he was a dick. Anyway, he eventually left and I got to talk to a cute Irish girl (though her boyfriend was there with her).
Had breakfast at the Scandinavian Bakery then Shane and I had to figure out how to get to Udon Thani for our flight. Got a tuk-tuk to the bus station. Bus to the border. Leave Laos via immigration. Shuttle across Friendship Bridge. Go through immigration into Thailand. Shuttle to a bus stop. Tuk-tuk to bus that took us to Udon Thani. Tuk-tuk to airport. Phew! Actually wasn't that bad. Then got to fly on one of the discount airlines to Bangkok...the kind that makes you wonder if you're really going to make it.
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