January 9, 2009
Laos (Around the World Trip)
…the next morning, we boarded NOT the (non-existent) AC mini-van, but a pick-up truck taxi with several other foreigners, and it dropped us off at the bus station, just in time for the regular slow bus, albeit at the (AC van) inflated price. Our hotel guy had sent us off in the taxi with the bus tickets and didn’t even blink. Welcome to Laos .
This bus made our overnight trip to Bangkok look like a cruise ship. Rob opted to put his backpack on top of the bus, and I managed to cram mine in the overhead racks. There were ceiling fans on the bus, which somehow were never turned on, but the windows blew plenty of air onto us, luckily, considering the bus was crammed full, with even a person sitting in the aisle. I’m not sure how Rob fit his knees into his window seat, but I sat sideways into the aisle to give him a little more room. We left a little late, and immediately stopped again to take on another passenger and a whole load of boxes that were tied to the roof. The road was much improved in spots, but it seemed like the construction crew had chosen to finish the easy parts of the road first, and leave the tricky bits for last. So the two-lane road would suddenly drop off once in a while into a dusty one lane track, and then just as suddenly be a road again. The view along the road was pretty interesting, as we worked our way into the mountainous northern area, and along the way were many Lao villages, but I’ll save my descriptions for tomorrow’s journey, and stick to the horrible bus ride. We stopped a couple of times, once for lunch at a tiny shack serving drinks and some sort of soup, but neither of us was hungry. We didn’t drink too much either, as the need to visit the bathroom while on a local bus is kind of torturous. The journey didn’t take 8 hours, but neither was it over in 3, and we settled on 5 hours, finally pulling into a bus station and wondering if we had arrived. Rob’s urge was to take off walking, but this time the main town was almost 12 km away, so we caught a tuk-tuk. In the quiet town we found our cheapest room yet (hence the iffy hot water system), and waxed rapturous over pineapple fruit shakes and stir-fries at a guesthouse restaurant.
Jan 4 – Luang Nam Tha, Laos
The thing to do up here in Northern Laos is to go on a trek with a local guide and visit the surrounding villages, which seemed much more authentic than anything in Thailand. Now, we were still a little gun-shy of organized tours, and opted not to do it, and for a second wondered why we had even made the torturous bus ride all the way up here. But of course, in every town it is possible to rent a motorbike, and that sounded like a much better idea. Since in Laos they drive on the correct (right) side of the road again, even Rob felt comfortable doing the driving, and to double our chances of surviving an equipment breakdown in the boonies (i.e. at least get back to town), we got two scooters.
Our first discovery of the day was that we were Trillionaires, at least in Lao Kip. Since $1 converts to roughly 10,000 Kip, we soon had a lot of Kip in our wallets, or at least it seemed like it. The downside to the weird exchange rate was that there didn’t seem to be any coins at all in Laos (I’m a coin collector), just bills as small as 2000 Kip, or 20 cents. So at one point I counted 23 Kip bills in my wallet, but when I added it all up, it was only worth about $4 total. Very deceiving.
The next thing we did with our scooters was head back to the hotel room for another layer of clothes. We had finally come far enough north that it was a little chilly at night, although not cold by any stretch. The weather seemed similar to the Yucatan , and the added sweater was enough to keep us warm on the bikes. It was just this hint of chill that had probably saved us from suffocating on the bus rides…opening a window brought in fresh cool air (until midday, anyway) rather than sticky heat.
Finally we were ready to explore the area. We were in a wide river valley, not very far from the closed border with Myanmar (Burma). Around us were gentle green hills that stretched between Thailand to Vietnam, and north all the way to the Himalayas in China. There aren't too many roads in this part of Laos, and there really isn't much traffic either, unless you count the scooters and bicycles that most of the population uses to get around. We headed north out of Nam Tha, on a road leads to an even smaller town, and then probably eventually ends. The road followed a green river, and along it at regular intervals were small, primitive villages, usually surrounded by a stretch of rice paddies and small gardens. The houses are small one room wooden structures built on stilts, with a wood floor, bamboo slatted walled, and a thatch roof. Under the house they use the area to store wood, motos and dry laundry. I'm sure some of the houses had electricity, but just as many probably didn’t, and a lot of the cooking seems to be done over fires, as there is cut firewood everywhere. We passed many, many people doing laundry and bathing in the river (fully clothed or wearing a sarong), and when the river wasn’t close enough, each group of houses seemed to have a communal faucet for the same purpose. Chickens scratched in the dirt, potbelly pigs wandered around loose, dogs laid down in the middle of the street, and life seemed to move really slowly. It was all really primitive, probably more so than we've ever seen. Layers of rice seeds (we think it was rice) were drying on tarps out in front of the houses, and women were gathered around them chatting and shooing off birds with a big stick. One of the women showed us how they crush the hulls off the rice by jumping up and down on something that resembles a teeter-totter, and the other end pounds a hammer into a big vat of seeds.
Our main difficulty here was still that we couldn't speak a word to the locals...and they weren't about to start spouting English. But they seemed friendly enough, and we gathered our courage and stopped the scooters next to a yard full of kids. Rob soon had them laughing at his wordless antics, and charmed them by taking pictures of the kids and then showing the LCD screenshots to everyone. There was a new house being built, and we saw how they would cut a bamboo pole in half lengthwise, and then splinter the halves until they were flat instead of circular. These wide pieces would eventually be woven tightly into a solid wall. From the yard, we made our way down to the river, where we had seen a laundry operation in process, and found ourselves crossing the small river by means of a bamboo bridge, which is probably remade every year after the rainy season floods. More pictures and laughter, and it was getting easier to interact with the locals, even without words.
There were quite a few people working in the rice paddies as well, although most of the fields still contained dry stalks from a previous crop. A few had been flooded, and there were people up to their knees in mud, working with shovels and a large tiller, trying to turn over the sticky clay soil and ready it for the next planting. The rice fields, and indeed even most of the garden plots, were located in what is probably the floodplain of the river. The small fields were layered with clay walls, made completely flat to allow for uniform flooding. There were plenty of cows and water buffaloes wandering around, and it seems they even make the buffaloes work once in a while, by harnessing them up to a single plow, and plodding down the muddy rows. Some of the fields were green with new shoots, and workers were gathering the baby shoots into small banded bundles, and then planting these bundles into larger flooded plots. It all seemed like a very muddy process, and this wasn't even the rainy season yet.
What we noticed overall about northern Laos was that everyone seemed uniformly poor. Most of the population seemed to be subsistence farmers, and even the towns were dilapidated dusty places with a few half-stocked storefronts and a tired fruit and vegetable market. Over two days of travel, nothing really stood out from the rest. Nam Tha, where we were staying, but only slightly livelier in terms of a few backpacker hotels and restaurants, but the night market was a motley collection of about 10 vendors, with half the building standing empty. We looked at the guidebook, and discovered that the town that we were staying in was bigger than the one we would be heading to, and got even more concerned.
When we got back to the town that afternoon, we realized two things; that the electricity was off, and that the bus station was way out of town and no one really knew when our bus would leave in the morning. So before turning in the scooters, we made a trip out to the station, and in the falling darkness and no lights, all we could see were the fires of the darkened houses and stores.
Jan 5 – Bus rides go from bad to worse
What goes up, must come down…and there seemed to be no quick way out of the mountains. Once back out to the bus station, we found our next nightmare.... The bus at first glance appeared to be an improvement on the last one, but really only in a bit of extra leg room. The dingy curtains and faded flower print on the seats told stories of better days, and tiny windows gave us a bit of air, but definitely no AC. We got on early and headed to the back of the bus (more chance of having our own seats), but that turned out to be a mistake. The dropped aisle was cluttered with sandbags that were maybe filled with seeds or something…everyone walked all over them and it didn’t seem to do them any harm. The bus filled to bursting until every seat was needed, and some duffel bags that were stashed in the backseat were also thrown into the aisle to make more room, along with a suitcase wrapped in a garbage bag. The bags were filled with poofy stuff, could have been pillow stuffing, who knows, but we walked all over those as well. I could have sworn that something crunched the first time the suitcase was stepped on, but it could have only been the plastic ripping, because after that it was mercifully silent. The level of stuff crammed into the aisle was now approaching several feet deep, and every time we got off or on the bus, we had to maneuver our way over it all. I avoided stepping on the suitcase, at least. One of the last things added to our load was a couple of scooters, lifted up to the top of the bus with ropes and (hopefully) tied on tightly.
The ride itself was probably worse than I imagined something could be, and perhaps better than something that we have yet to experience. The local lady right behind Rob didn’t seem to feel well, and at regular intervals it sounded like she was throwing up, either into a bag or out the window…I didn’t dare look. After a couple hours we stopped on a deserted stretch of road, and everyone got out, spread out, and relieved themselves in the bushes. I was a bit envious of the men at that point, as you might imagine. At roughly lunchtime, we pulled into a fairly large town at least in Northern Laos standards, and stopped for an undetermined amount of time. A whole row of tiny shops offered soups and grilled chicken and the normal range of street foods. Each shop had a fan twirling lazily over the displayed food, in an attempt to keep off the flies, and the whole sun-drenched scene looked like something out of the twilight zone. It was about that time when a count of our Kip let us know that we only had about $5 in the local currency, and as it was a Sunday, none of the exchanges were open. And I think that there are more ATMs inside of Disneyworld than there are in the entire country of Laos. Our guidebook had informed us that Baht and Dollars would also be accepted all over Laos, so we had plenty of cash, but here they didn’t seem to take anything but Kip. The ride and the heat and the food sitting out in the open turned our appetites off again anyway, so our $5 went towards a cold drink and a can of Pringles. Add a few cookies and that became our food for the day. During the lunch stop, a whole stack of toilet paper rolls and more boxes were loaded up on top of our bus alongside the scooters.
The road itself wasn’t much of an improvement, if any, from our bus trip a couple of days ago. This pavement ended at regular intervals as well, and since this was the dry season, the smell of the dust hung in the air over the road, and coated the bushes and houses with a thin layer of grey powder. Rob tried to keep the window shut on the gravel sections, but without some air blowing in our faces, the bus became stifling, and soon there was a hint of grey haze hanging in the aisle as well. At one point we were just a couple of miles from the China border, and there was very little traffic besides the occasional scooter. The last straw was probably when a tire right under us suddenly gave out and went flopping onto the highway. Our drivers seemed to be well versed in changing tires, and it actually didn’t take too long to get underway again. But somehow the projected 8 hour trip ended up taking over 10 hours, and it was completely dark when we pulled into another out-of-town bus station.
Jan 6 -8 – Luang Prabang, Laos
Wow, if most of Laos could be compared to a desert, then getting dropped off in the middle of Luang Prabang could seem like the proverbial oasis. It was a tourist mecca, to be sure, and there were blocks of streets lined with small guesthouses, and a whole strip of tourist restaurants lined the main street. We stood blinking in disbelief for a second, wondering if we had been transported, then found a room with a real mattress on the bed, and decided to stay for a couple of days. I can’t say we did much…the bus rides had really wiped us out. We did rent a scooter and head out to a waterfall, visiting a few more villages along the way. And we walked around the town, and ate on the banks of the Mekong river, but mostly we tried to figure out where we were going from here. I finally convinced Rob that our circle around Laos and Cambodia might be murder on our seat bones, and that we should drop into a travel office and look into some local flights. There are local airports in a lot of the small towns, and after seeing the condition of the roads around here, it’s not surprising. Turns out there is a deal if you buy three flights or more at the same time, and after considering the fact that with 3 flights we could save about 5-6 full days of local bus rides, it was and easy choice, and we made reservations for a flight to Cambodia, and from there to Bangkok and down to the Thai island of Ko Samui.
The most interesting part of Luang Prabang was the tourist night market. Between the hotels and the restaurant strip was a section of street that must have been a ? of a mile long, bordering a wat and a museum. In the morning the street is devoid of life, but in the afternoon it is closed to traffic, and vendors start setting up shop. Each vendor has a collapsible red tent, and lights are strung under the tents until the whole thing looks brighter than an airport runway. It takes hours for them all to set up their goods in perfect rows, including jewelry, t-shirts, carved wooden bowls, kids clothes, bags, and most often, brightly colored silk scarves in a thousand different designs. We must have walked through the market on our way to the stores and restaurants 20 times over a couple of days, and finally I couldn’t resist…I sat down to bargain for some silk scarves. There were so many beautiful ones that it was hard to decide, and for those of you asking for scarves…I hope I picked your favorite colors!
Jan 9 – Over the hills
Ok, so we did book some flights, but we had one bus ride remaining, because Rob wasn’t quite ready to leave Laos yet. This time there was actually a fast bus between Prabang and Ventienne, and even though it took 10 hours instead of the advertised 8, it wasn't too bad. I think I'm saying that just because the scenery made up for the hours. We found ourselves on a narrow highway perched on the edge of huge cliffs, and the hills could have been the steep sides of the Alps (without the snow). The limestone karsts from the Thailand coast were here as well, and the steep-sided fingers of stone poked their way out of the surrounding hills. We hadn't expected to find scenery like this at all on this drive, we thought that we would be dropping down into the flatlands. Compared to these mountains, the hills in northern Laos seem more like the rounded Appalachians. Villages were perched right on the steep hillsides next to the road, but most of the hills we could see were still very wild...considering we were on the only road in the area, and that barely more than a paved trail. We did eventually drop back down to the floodplains of the Mekong river near Ventienne.
Jan 10 – Ventienne, Laos
Laos is hard to define, and I don't think I've done a very good job of it here, but maybe the pictures will speak for themselves. What Rob keeps mentioning over and over is how lucky we are to have a place like Tinum in our lives. We've seen a lot of backpackers on our travels, all of them hoping to find a place like we already know. They pay to have a guide take them out in the jungle and stay with a local family, and shower under the community faucet, and eat with the family. But I know most of them also can't speak any of the language, so it is an interaction lacking in communication. For us to be able to walk into Tinum, fit in, and speak the language...is something more than we would be able to find here...and we are grateful to know something like that.
But our previous experiences shouldn't make you think that they take anything away from what we are seeing here in Laos...it is a world completely worth exploring as well. The capitol city of Laos is Ventienne, but it seems anything but a capitol. If you suddenly found yourself in this city and were attempting to discover where in the world you were...then you would maybe guess that you were visiting a small town. There are no skyscrapers, no McDonalds, no major thoroughfares, no...well, not much of anything. In Thailand, there are probably more than 4,000 7-Eleven stores in the country by now, which is enough for one store per city block, in every city in Thailand. There are also a good smattering of KFC's, McDonalds, and probably other fast food joints. I think that there is not one McDonalds in the entire country of Laos, much less a normal grocery store. While some of you may see that as a relief, stop to think about it for a second...can you imagine life without well-stocked supermarkets and grocery stores? It's really hard to imagine, even as we are visiting its reality.
But Ventienne is still an interesting city, and Rob enjoyed walking around the markets and wats. Of curious interest to us was a replica of the Arc de Triumpe, built out of cement that was donated by the US and intended for use as an airport runway. Hence the replica is locally known as the "vertical runway". I used our time in the city as a chance to rest and stock up on a couple of paperbacks books and some internet time.
***As you can see, Laos is now history, and we are headed to Cambodia...***