Laos

{This was an email I sent out to my contacts on my first trip to Asia in 2002}

we’re currently sitting in steamy bangkok in the hottest time of the hot season. its about 100 degrees fahrenheit out during the heat of the day, with 100% humidity. this helps the smog to be more oppressive. we’re waiting for our visas for vietnam.

we’re staying at a guesthouse on khao san road, which is the backpackers road. its a bit annoying, full of fresh untanned kids falling for all the tricks, and thais who think you’re fresh and try to pull all the tricks on you. it also happens to be the cheapest place to stay. unfortunately you get what you pay for though, and service is not really understood here. you have to pay daily at our guesthouse, and every morning the owner here politely wakes us up by pounding on the door and screaming at the top of her lungs, “EKKYOOOU-ME YOU STAYONEMORENIIIIIIGHT? 405! YOUSTAYONEMORENIIIIIGHT?!?” when you answer yes she says, “HHUUUHH? WHHHHAAAAAAAAAAT? YOUSTAYONEMORENIIIIIIGHT????” and then proceeds down the hall doing the same to each door.

the thais are getting ready for songkran, which they celebrate the 13-15 of april. songkran is buddhist new year, when young kids would traditionally pour water over their elders’ heads and everyone would wash their buddha statues. over the years it has turned into an all out squirt gun fight in the street that lasts a week. if you go outside this week you will get wet. i’ve noticed the vendors have started replacing the general wares they sell on the street with the latest and greatest plastic squirt guns.

aj and mandy have graciously taken our big bags back to the states for us, so all we have now are small backpacks. this has freed us up to leave thailand for good and not have to lug around anything. (we had been storing our bags at a hotel for $3 a week). thank you aj and mandy!

we went to chiang mai with aj and mandy. chiang mai is the second biggest city in thailand, but its small compared to bangkok. its in the north, near myanmar and laos, but not as north as chiang rai. its an old walled city, with a moat around it. the wall is still there, parts of it at least, and it gives the city an old charm.

chiang mai is filled with foreigner backpackers, and its a fun city to spend some time. it has something like 35 vegetarian restaurants and we found a really tasty one. it has the biggest night market i’ve ever seen, biggest in thailand, maybe all of south east asia. its insane — it goes on for miles. we went two nights, spending maybe 6 hours there total, and saw about half of it. its filled with the most amazing amount of stuff. i bought three chinese style buttoned thin cotton shirts with long sleeves.

we took a cooking class in chiang mai where we learned to cook 4 dishes, tom yum tofu (or gai if you eat chicken), spring rolls, red curry and mango with sticky rice. we each had our own wok and were given a cook book at the end. we got to take a trip to the market at the beginning to get the ingredients, which was cool. i could name almost all the herbs at the stall already, and i realized how much i’d grown used to thai food.

we met some nice people at the cooking class, and invited one girl who was traveling alone to hang out with us that night and go to the market. she is irish, and has been traveling now for 15 months. she spent a year in australia on a work visa, and is currently traveling all around asia alone. she’ll be heading back to ireland after she does vietnam and cambodia.

we had originally planned to spend one or two days in chiang mai, then take a bus to the border with laos, and take a boat down the mekong river to the first city on our lao itinerary, loang prabang. we picked up the lonely planet laos book in bangkok and there was a “warning” section stating that the speed boats crash once a week, and are really dangerous, not to mention uncomfortable. you have to wear a helmet and the motor is very loud. they cram as many as 7 people in the thing, so you are sitting with your knees up to your chest as the little boat rockets down the river, disturbing the slow quiet pace of the mekong. we decided against it and were left with three options:

1. fly on bangkok airways. this is expensive, and only left on sunday, meaning we’d have to spend longer in chaing mai, and have to speed through laos.

2. fly on lao aviation. this is cheaper than bangkok airways, but apparently lao aviation planes do not use radar and find the airport by memory. sometimes they cannot see the airport due to clouds and circle the area until they find a hole in the clouds to descend through, as to not hit one of the mountains in the area. they’ll do this until they a: land, or b: run out of gas, and are forced to land at a different airport.

3. or take a slow boat which would be the same as the fast boat, but not as fast. (8 hours a day for two days down the mekong, versus one day for 7 hours).

we flew bangkok airways.


loang prabang is commonly referred to “old asia” meaning the asia before cell phones and western television. its quaint.. there are no street lights. the city closes down at 9pm and everyone goes to sleep. at dawn everyone is awake, old women in conical hats and sarongs sweep the streets with brooms made of grass, the monks go out and take alms and people set up shop.

songkran seemed to have started early in laos, at least in loang prabang. kids were waiting for us on the street, and timidly shot water at us out of little plastic water guns. mandy decided she’d join the fun and took her water bottle and punctured a hole in the cap. when the kids came up and shot a bit of water on us, she turned around and drenched them. they were a bit surprised!!

the first day, water bottle in hand, we took a boat ride down the mekong to this cave that has been used for centuries as a buddhist shrine. it boasts some three thousand buddhist sculptures. its basically two large caves with tons of statues of buddha. we stopped at a village before we got to the caves which originally used to produce whiskey or baskets or something before tourists got dropped off there on an hourly basis. now the village depends on tourists buying hand woven fabrics and cold drinks. i bought a 100 kip note from when laos was part of french indochina. the note was written in french, but had no date on it. it stood out to me by its sheer size, its height actually, imagine two one dollar bills standing on top of each other, the bill is almost square.

after the caves we went across river to another village and had some food. an old man came around and gave all us foreigners some local whiskey made with herbs, which tasted like pure alcohol. (if you opened your mouth you could feel it evaporate). it tasted pretty awful and i only had a sip.

alot of the people still speak french. when the french ruled over vietnam, cambodia and laos the people who wanted higher education had to learn in french. now young people learn english, but many of the older gentlemen we met would ask us if we could speak french, for they knew that better than english.

the local currency is the kip. it used to be worth something at one point… but now the biggest bill, the 5000 kip note, is worth about 50c. that means if you want to actually buy anything, you have to carry around a wad of kip 8″ thick. its similar to cambodia, but people still use the kip here, versus in cambodia people prefer the u.s. dollar over the riel.

we left loang prabang on bus heading to vientienne. we planned to break up the 12 hour bus ride with a stop somewhere in the middle – overnight in vang vieng. we’d heard about the busses in laos, but were unprepared for what awaited us…

we were advised to show up a few hours before the bus was scheduled to leave, for they leave when they are full. the bus left at 5:00pm. we took a tuk tuk (rickshaw meets motorbike) to the bus station and twice were dumped on by large buckets full of water. (the second time was from a construction site, the water was full of cement.. fun)

we arrived at the bus station at 3:30. think dirt parking lot with an chalk board with lao written all over it and a counter where you buy tickets. we bought our ticket to vang vieng, which was about $4. we were told somewhere the ride would be about 5 hours. our bus is already there, so we decide to board it and get a seat.

all the seats are already taken except the back seats. we were warned not to take the back seats, for the suspension on these busses which were built in the 50’s wasn’t so hot, and the ride was a bit bouncy, not to mention you would be sitting right above the engine, which can get quite loud.

we sat there in the bus, which was about 10 degrees hotter than the outside, which was about 100 degrees, for 1.5 hours watching the bus fill up. and fill up it did. we watched people load large boxes on the roof and cram them in every possible square inch inside. we watched a guy haul a motorbike onto the roof. the bus filled up so every seat was full, then they brought out the stools and sat people in the aisles. there were about 40 seats on the bus, and about 60 people on the bus, and about 5 more sitting on the roof when we finally left loang prabang at 5:00 pm sharp. we pulled out of the lot and took the next right turn directly into the gas station. why they didn’t think of filling up the gas while the bus was sitting there for 3 hours i do not know. they filled up the tank, and 3 large containers which they put back on the roof. i guessed there would be no gas stations along the way.

the ride was cramped and hot, but after an hour or so it got a lot cooler. we went up into the mountains and had a dramatic view of craggy peaks and hill tribe villages before the sun went down. at night in the mountains it gets quite cool, and the fresh air coming in through the windows was wonderful. the air in the valleys is thick from smoke from the slash and burn techniques the locals use to tend to their land.

the road was a pure “S”. turn to the left, slide in your seat, sharp turn to the right, slide the other way, sharp turn to the left.. every now and then you’d look down to a steep ravine on the side and a valley below, with the driver thundering along on the wrong side of the road, because it was easier to take the turns. we almost got into an accident twice. the first was some kids who were playing in the road outside their village, our driver went to the wrong side of the road to avoid them, while a large truck was turning around the blind corner. the second i believe was due to a heard of cows.

we stopped many times along the way. once at a guy’s house who answered the door in a towel to greet all 60 of us on the bus. i believe he accepted a package. i think the bus also acts as the postal carrier, for there are no trains, and this is the major highway (think paved road) that runs from the two biggest towns in laos. we stopped a few times on the side of the road for everyone to pee. people climbed out windows because it was easier than getting out the aisles. we stopped in the chill air at a village where there was an open air restaurant on the side of the road. people jumped up and proclaimed “kin kow” (eat rice). and people got out of the bus and ate hot bowls full of noodles and meat with sticky rice.

there were speakers taped to the metal walls with wiring strung along the side of the inside of the bus which they blasted lao and issan music out of the whole ride.

when we finally reached vang vieng 8 hours later we were exhausted. we found a guesthouse and slept well. until the chickens started up at 4am. then the ducks at 6, and finally the neighbors decided to hack down a tree at 7. then burn it at 7:30.

we walked around vang vieng when we got up and had some food at a vegetarian restaurant. all of their vegetables are from an organic farm, about 10 km away. if anyone is interested in learning organic farming techniques, you can go live on this farm and have free food, and pay 1$ a night for a bed, in return for 3 hours of work a day, and they will teach you all about organic farming. you can also learn lao, and teach english. they’re doing a lot to help teach the villagers that its not a good idea to burn everything in site.

we walked over to the bus stop and caught the remaining bus ride to vientienne. this was similar to the other ride, but more people this time. no stools in the aisles, you had to stand. and there were three people per two person seat.

we stopped many times and picked up and dropped off people on the street. to catch the bus here, you just walk over to the road and wait. when the bus drives by you flag it down and get on it. when you want to get off you yell and it stops. in towns while the bus would stop and people got on, vendors would walk over with plastic bags full of drinks and eggs on sticks and shove them in the window and yell at you telling you to buy.

we arrived in vientienne 4 hours later and were welcomed by scores of tuk tuk drivers asking us “where you going” from outside the window, following us even as the bus was making its way into the lot. they pushed their way onto the bus to try to get customers, and harassed us so that we had to duck into a nearby restaurant.

we ended up at a guesthouse nearby that charged way too much for their rooms and were rude to us. we stayed for two nights. in vientienne we checked out an old temple that the siamese decided not to wreck when they invaded laos a hundred years or so ago, because its architecture was so similar to thai. inside was about a million little buddhas inside cubby holes in the walls. there was even a section of buddhas that had been broken during the various wars.

we left vientienne on a took took to the “friendship bridge” that connects laos and thailand over the mekong, about 20km away from vientienne. this is the only bridge laos has with thailand. we crossed the bridge and took a bus to nong kai, and a minibus to udon thani. (ooo-don tah-nee). we flew to bangkok from udon thani, saving about 60$.

we hung out in bangkok for aj and mandy’s last day. mandy is small, and was really excited about being able to shop for clothing in a land where everything fits her. she bought a bunch of new clothes at the local mall where the cool kids shop.

now we’re waiting for our vietnamese visas. we’re flying into hanoi, in the north of vietnam on friday. we’ll be there until the 25th, when we fly back to bangkok to leave for tokyo on the 26th.

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