Day 257, Tues, Jan. 16, 2001 – After a month-long
respite from lizard visitors, Naomi got a nice surprise this morning on the
dressing table. Fortunately I was
in the shower, so I did not get the full volume her scream. We had our usual
breakfast through the teeming streets of old town then tried to call the
director of the Children’s home but could not get through.
We had to pack for the airport and said sad farewells to Hanoi and
Vietnam. At the airport, Naomi had
her final chance to be mistaken for Vietnamese when one of the security guards
approached her speaking the language. When
she changed to English, we realized she wanted to “borrow” Naomi’s
passport and boarding pass so she could buy some duty-free goods.
We thought that sounded somewhat dodgy, particularly since she was a
security guard, so we declined.
*******An hour later we had completed the trade of gloomy wet Hanoi for bright, sunny Vientiane and a sparkling new airport. It was the least crowded and most hassle-free airport of the trip – reminding us of small Caribbean airstrips. Naomi was only in the country ten minutes before being mistaken for Lao by the immigration agent. At least in Laos they do not have quite the prostitution issue they have in Vietnam, so she won’t be mistaken for one of those. Our driver said the airport was built just last year. When we paid him, he refused to take a tip. As I was walking away, he called me back and pointed to a bill I had dropped on the ground. I smiled, picked it up and handed it to him. We like this country already. Our first choice, the Lang Xang Hotel on the river, was full, so we settled for Asian Pavilion, a block inland. It’s one of those old cold war-era concrete blocks with the standard peeling wallpaper, stained carpets, uneven floors with steps all over and a faint musty smell. It would feel right at home in Russia or Bulgaria. Nonetheless, we are happy to call it home as it has a relaxed, casual atmosphere in the heart of the most laid-back country capital we’ve ever visited. Vientiane is the exact opposite of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, very small with sparse traffic and a very slow pace. There are only 130,000 residents, but it seems like one fourth of that. The entire country has only 5 million people, making it one of the smallest in the world. It is the same size as Great Britain with 8% of the population. Unfortunately, what Laos has lacked in size, they have made up for in heartache – some of which continues today. Much of the problem has stemmed from being such a small, land-locked country separating warring giants like the Kingdoms of Siam, Khmer, Burma, China, and Vietnam. Laos is the living example of the mosquitoes and flies suffering when cows and buffalos fight. Capitals, palaces and wats were sacked numerous times. In 1778 Siam stole the Emerald Buddha we saw in Bangkok and in 1828 Siam burned Vientiane and displayed their King in an iron cage for four years until he died. As the British were colonizing Burma and France was fighting with independent Siam over borders, the tiny Laos kingdoms agreed to a French protectorate. Some historians claim there would be no Laos today if the French would have allowed the Chinese and Siamese to carve up the territory between them. The French soon found out that their new protectorate was not as valuable as Vietnam and Cambodia since the Mekong was not sufficiently navigable, the terrain was too mountainous for plantations, and there were no mineral or precious metal deposits. Laos retained its “backwater” status and only 600 French were in the “Land of the Lotus Eaters” when World War II started. When France asked the King to gather his troops to fight the Japanese he supposedly said, “My people do not know how to fight. They know only how to sing and make love” (indeed, Laotians now say they have never started a war). The occupying Japanese forced the King to declare independence from the French, but paratroopers were sent in. Laos finally won full independence in 1953 when France was preoccupied by much bigger problems in Vietnam, which they would soon lose in a much more dramatic fashion. A few political intrigues and coups later, Laos was ripe for the communist movement of the time in the form of the Pathet Lao, supported by North Vietnam and the USSR. To the US, Laos was just another domino ready to topple if they didn’t send millions in support to the rightists. It started with weapons and a few “advisors”, but eventually became the non-infamous secret war. It was a secret because the US did not want to be seen as contravening the Geneva agreement, although China and North Vietnam didn’t care to hide their forces in Laos. US pilots for “Air America” resigned from the military and wore civilian clothes – jeans, t-shirts and cowboy hats. The US pilots and their Laos trainees flew 1.5 times more sorties than their counterparts in Vietnam. By the time Nixon secretly authorized saturation-bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Eastern Laos, the US was dropping $2 million worth of bombs per day – 10 tons per square kilometer, half a ton for every person in Laos. This earned Laos the unfortunate title of most bombed place in history. After the war, the victorious Pathet Lao had purges and “re-education” policies similar to Vietnam, but not nearly as radical as Cambodia. The expected exodus of rightists was easier in Laos since the Mekong was virtually swimmable to Thailand. The royal family was banished to a remote cave for re-education and it wasn’t until 1989 that the prime minister admitted they had “died of natural causes”.
After settling in, we walked the whole center of town in one hour and stopped at a bank to exchange money. We walked out with the fattest wad we ever had – not because we exchanged a lot of money, but because the largest bill is $500 kip (about US 16 cents). We felt like high rollers who had just been paid off by a casino in Vegas. For lunch we had a nice quiche at a French cafe, a remnant of colonial times. We walked around some more along the dusty, uncrowded streets – down to the river, looking past the orange glow to Thailand, a stone’s throw away. A couple of short border wars were fought in 1983 and 1987, damaging the Lane Xang Hotel. Now there is a “Friendship” bridge between the two countries a few kilometers outside of town.
We had dinner in the hotel where they have some wonderfully
named dishes like “boiled bird” and “fried serpent” - we played it safe
with noodles and rice. We
unfortunately came across The Beach on satellite TV. We had to watch
to our starvation of Western entertainment (not counting the fun we’ve had
watching George W. Bush try to speak on CNN).
The story is completely ridiculous - unless of course you’re a Leonardo
Di Caprio fan (if the number of “Titanic” t-shirts we’ve seen all over the
world is any indication, many people in the world are).
The movie was almost redeemed by the beautiful scenery, which almost made
us rethink our remaining days in Thailand, where the film was shot.
Day 258, Wed, Jan, 17, 2001 – Today we rented a moto to get the most out of a day’s sightseeing. We are back in tropical heat, so it felt great to have a cool riding breeze and the wind in our hair. Of course, there is no helmet law here, reminding us of the “good old days” in California (and of course making us miss our own motorcycle). We visited the victory monument, the Laotian take on the Arc d’Triumph, then the golden-spired Pha That Luang (Great sacred Stupa), the national symbol of Laos, with a statue of King Setthathirat out front garlanded in fresh flowers every day. Settharithirat had united Lang Xang: Land of the Million Elephants and White Parasol in the 16th century. We had a great chat with a monk at one of the many monasteries (another fan of my Nepal t-shirt!). He said we will enjoy our trip to Luang Prabang very much.
information guy told us we could hire a car very cheaply to get to there – but
when we went where he said to book it, they never heard of the idea.
After lunch of Thai curry and
noodles, we drove all over the city – which doesn’t really take that long.
Naomi even tried her hand at riding the moped alone – of course we had
to be in a huge parking lot with plenty of soft sand just in case.
The town is very green, with palms swaying over the monasteries and
crumbling colonial mansions turned into offices.
streets are paved, but just off of these the alleys are dirt – we can only
imagine their state during the monsoon season.
There are a few open sewers, but not nearly as many as in India and Nepal.
The sun sets over the Mekong where fisherman ply the waters and kids play
soccer on the seasonal island of sand that forms in the middle of the river
depending on the rain. We had our first Beer Lao (excellent) as it went down
reflected in the water. We sense
that the French were very happy here and expats and diplomats assigned here must
view it as a plum job for beauty and introspection.
For dinner we took a long ride in the warm night to an outdoor grilled
chicken place, Banmala, on one of the canals.
We ordered what most of the locals were eating – a whole grilled
chicken, washed down with ice cold Beer Lao.
Day 259, Thur, Jan. 18, 2001 – We decided to keep the moto for another half day so we could go out to the fresh food market north of town. We love visiting markets as they provide real insight into how people live (not to mention great photos). They had plenty of chickens, ducks, turkeys and pigs in wicker baskets crowing, quacking, honking and squealing a sad symphony of the damned (Yes, we still struggle with being unethical carnivores sometimes). There were sections of fruit, fresh flowers, seafood, dry goods, 10 kinds of rice, hardware, and even turtles in a bucket.
We continue to see more beautiful people than most places we’ve been – they also have sweet dispositions and gentle manners. We see mostly young people, hipsters on motos with sunglasses, kids in crisp blue and white school uniforms and women in traditional silk skirts, usually blue to the ankle then a patterned border below. There are no ao dais as in Vietnam and very few conical hats and there is no wai prayer greeting and bowing as in Thailand and Cambodia. We haven’t seen many old people at all and very few beggars. We went back to the river for lunch in one of the many thatch restaurants stretching a kilometer on the banks. A little girl of maybe 9 took our order and giggled when she asked, “what is your name” in a tiny voice. Unfortunately, that was the extent of her English. With an hour left for our rented moto, we tried to find the back alleys and suburbs where people live. The housing and living conditions are very broad - from old French mansions to marble and concrete blocks with satellite dishes, to small apartments, to bamboo huts. Many of the bamboo and thatch and houses are on short stilts over muddy ground or fields and covered in corrugated tin. We had a brownie at a French bakery, surfed at the internet café and took a walk along the brown Mekong at sunset to take photos. We don’t have to ask these people what’s the most important thing in life, because they’re out here showing us. Four guys play cards in a bamboo tree hut while their girlfriends gossip outside, parents play with kids, tourists down cold Beer Lao and enjoy books as the sun sets, a family shares an early dinner, kids kick a soccer ball. Most people really show their true colors in the glowing hours before sundown. The Italians call it pasiagetta, the Spanish paseo, Americans the gloaming; but it is the same feeling for everyone.
Day 260, Fri, Jan 19, 2001 – Woke to sound of cats in heat or a baby falling down stairs – we couldn’t tell which. Took a cyclo to the bus station, where we boarded the 10:30 bus at 10:00 and it left after 11:00. In between we watched them load all the backpacks on the top, piling all of them four deep in the front, but leaving the back empty – a disaster waiting to happen. They tossed a light blue backpack that bounced off the pile, rebounded on the top, slipped of the side and fell 10 feet, slamming into the pavement. I protested on behalf of the owner and the little kid who did it just smiled. Visions of disaster flashed in our minds wondering if our laptop could survive such a fall. The bus was overstuffed, every seat loaded with about 50% tourists and 50% locals. We sat next to a beautiful family with the week’s shopping, one woman breastfeeding next to Naomi. We later offered her our seat but she declined and got off ten minutes later. At small villages along the way, kids would run out into their yards and wave at the bus – it reminded us of Africa.
It took over 4 hours to get to Vang Vieng, a small town half way to Luang Prabang. Many travelers have discovered that this convenient stop to break up the trip is worth a trip itself due to the beautiful karst formations lining the gentle river, limestone caves, and a gentle, laid-back atmosphere. We joined forces with a couple from our bus, Mark from Ireland and Sonia from England and checked into Pany Guest House for $3 and walked down to the river, where the sun was setting and we had dinner at a café on stilts above the shore. As we realized why the town was such an attraction – so did the dozen other European bohemians kicking back smoking local herb and floating in rubber inner tubes.
Day 261, Sat, Jan. 20, 2001 – Slept in a bit before looking for a tour company to take us to the caves and villages. By the time we finished breakfast it was after 10. Unfortunately, we found out that all the tour companies in town depart at 10. We decided by default to do our own thing and visit caves near the river. We hiked passed a traditional backyard slaughter of a bull - intestines and all - to Luci cave where some local guys offering their services had put up a sign claiming to be the official tourist agency. We met a Mexican guy there who just got back – he said we shouldn’t waste our time and money there and go to Pau Pouk instead. We headed back to the river, paying the tiny toll for the rickety woven wicker footbridge (again) and walked to the Vang Vieng Resort to pay for the use of their private bridge to the Jang Cave. It was worth the trouble, with the scenery of peaceful fields giving way to jagged misty mountains, but we were very hot and sweaty so we wanted to get to the other cave where you can swim.
We hired one of the incredible field tractors used to pull carts, plow fields and ferry people across the shallow river. The driver squatted on his seat and had to reach underwater at midstream to reach the long handlebars as the engine spewed smoke and water on the crowd in back. We eventually reached the other side and started a 7 km ride over red dusty roads, past a couple of villages, over some small streams, bouncing up and down on the metal seats of the cattle cart pulled behind the tractor. We stopped at a small turquoise swimming hole complete with a ladder up a tree and rope swing. The water was very refreshing after the ride and hot day. Afterward the hike up to the cave was rough but short and it was great fun to clamber through the cave like amateur spelunkers. Mark and I explored the depths, but the ladies were a bit claustrophobic. We went for Indian food at Nazims and had a beer or two before turning in – it’s a pretty early town here, but very cool and relaxing.
Day 261, Sun, Jan. 21, 2001 – Today we tried to board the 9:00 bus for Luang Prabang, but that was before “the bus incident”. We showed up early as advised at 8:10, but the bus guy had already sold 50 tickets for a bus with 40 seats. He acknowledged that some people would be standing (for 6 hours), but he would still figure out something for the 10 of us waiting. He sold 6 more tickets and rearranged the by now very irate passengers. They squeezed, pushed and prodded and somehow fit them. In another ten minutes he realized he wouldn’t have enough overflow to have a second bus and miraculously found room for two more, the crowd agreed to flip coins for the seats and we lost. We tried Plan B, looking for a private car, but that was quoted as US$100 (compared to $10 for the bus), then we moved on to Plan C – waiting at the side of the road for the bus from Vientiane that isn’t necessarily supposed to stop in Vang Vieng. We packed our backpacks and waited. At the bus stop some kids were interested in our watches and luggage, but they really freaked out over the “Great Ice-Breaker” – our video camera. They wanted to see what I was shooting, so when I turned the monitor on them, they bust up laughing. They were quite a bunch of hams once they saw the photos of themselves and started making different faces and poses. They reminded me so much of the kids in Africa that we started playing the same games. They really liked “blind man’s bluff” and soccer, but couldn’t really slow down enough for baci ball (with rocks). We stopped playing and anxiously gazed up the road whenever we heard a truck, but it wasn’t until 11:40 that the bus came by. The kids helped us yell and wave the driver down and we ran to the cloud of dust. It was a much older bus than the last one and nearly all locals – only a few tourists.
We actually got a seat - we got the usual stares when we boarded and we didn’t even have to toss our luggage on top. A teenage kid came around collecting the fare and an even younger one was driving. The space between the back of our seats and the back of the seat in front was about 8 inches, which is kind of a problem since the same space on my body is about 30 inches. The bus was made for Asian sizes, but Naomi still had trouble fitting in the seat herself. My legs were in the aisle the whole time and when the ticket kid brushed against them he got a huge laugh out of their hairiness (as did the rest of the passengers). Naomi tried to play show and tell with my arms too, but I declined. At the lunch stop we got out and had an opportunity to get a better look at the bus and gain a full appreciation at how precariously the top was loaded. As much weight on top as it had inside, including a motorcycle and rider kicking back. From there the road was basically a series of hairpin curves interrupted by short bursts of breakneck speed, spurting rubble, and crunched vertebrae. The scenery was spectacular as we climbed into gray karst mountains and green rolling hills and valleys, but it was the most curves we could remember. We spent 4 hours leaning hard to the left, then hard to the right – back and forth, rearranging ourselves every 30 seconds. This of course didn’t keep Naomi from falling asleep, but this time her head bounced on my shoulder instead of slipping off gracefully. We would stop every couple of hours to disgorge guys who stumble to the bushes while the gals squirmed in the bus (score one advantage for the boys). It was fun the first couple hours, but it started to feel like work after that. It still didn’t make us feel nearly as ill as the loudest, scratchiest Asian pop music in the history of mass transit, blaring from distorted tin speakers 3 feet from our heads. It was quite fitting that we were reading a book about the Dalai Lama to provide us the patience and mellowness to make it all the way to Luang Prabang. When we finally arrived, we cursed ourselves for not reserving a room, because the first 6 places we tried were booked solid. We wound up in one of those old $3 places that actually isn't worth it (compared to our previous $3 place). The only room was creaky and dusty and next to the shared bathroom. Since we heard people all night, we were very happy there were posters taped over the window in our shared wall – although we were a bit disconcerted by the sounds emanating from a smiling face welcoming us to Laos.
If you would like to follow our adventure to Laos, please click here: Photojournal January 22 - 25, 2001
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