We roll into the border crossing at about 8 a.m. Drowsily, I try to negotiate through customs. No one has any pens. Finally through, I have no idea where I’m supposed to find my bus afterwards. Eventually I follow a woman who’d been on my bus down a misty road until we find it parked to one side. We clamber in and off we go to Vientiane, another six hours or so.
I’m too tired to be picky on finding a place to stay when I arrive and wander into one of the first guest houses I see. The entire family is gathered around the television. I’m shown to my room and then I have to immediately get to work on another Vietnamese visa for when I head to Hanoi. I head out to find an agency to book a flight from Vientiane to Hanoi on Thursday and then wander down by the Mekong for late lunch/early dinner. A British family sat near me and their children were enthralled by the heat lightning across the river. They would chant and wave their arms like tiny magicians, “Lightning come! Come lightning!” until the lightning would flash and they’d beg their parents to see if they were watching their show.
The sun disappeared and the mosquitoes came out so I headed back towards my guesthouse after a short tour around the area I was staying. Tried unsuccessfully to clean sensor but help was on the way! Jess was sending sensor cleaner via DHL to Vientiane (which was the main reason I was coming back to Ventienne to pick it up) and it would take four days to arrive. Hurray!
Next morning, I had a early a.m. bus to meet for my 3 hour trip to Vang Vieng. It’s funny how a three hour bus ride sounds like a blip after 7-17 hour bus rides. I didn’t have time for breakfast so I popped my malaria medication (“Malaaaria! Ma-laaaar-iiii-aaaah” – “Aquarius” is yet again stuck in my head) and got ready to head out. 10 minutes later, I’m vomiting in the toilet. I think back to the boat ride in Vietnam and the fact that that morning I’d also popped a malaria pill with just a banana in my tummy. I vowed to never take a malaria pill on an empty stomach again.
Bus picked me up nearby and we were off. Laos is gorgeous – green and hilly… and, allegedly, the most bombed country on earth.
Arrived in Vang Vieng to a slightly overcast day. It was still early so I piled on my bags and trekked towards the riverside where the guesthouses (many of them brand new) have sprung up. Vang Vieng is a small town on the river with amazing limestone cliffs jutting up out of mostly flat ground everywhere you look. It has a number of cave temples to explore but in recent years it has become known for one thing on the backpacker circuit: tubing. For about five dollars, you rent a tube and a waterproof bag and a tuktuk takes you upriver and dumps you off for a three mile tubing trip. After a breakfast of eggs and delicious French bread (much like the Vietnamese French bread) and a banana shake, I believe it’s time to go tubing.
I’m packed into a tuk-tuk with a couple of Australian boys who have apparently been in VV for weeks. All they do is tube and drink every day. We are dumped off at the starting point and I follow them into the muddy water. We are maybe in our tubes and floating for 2 minutes when we come up on the first river-side bar. As I’m floating past, a young boy throws a rope out to me, which I grab and he pulls me in. I guess I’m stopping. The bar’s dock is teeming with backpackers. They’re all very young and literally drinking out of buckets of booze. I get myself a beer and hang out, trying to look approachable but I’m feeling out of place. Everyone’s drunk and climbing up a ladder to swing on a trapeze or diving into the river or swinging down a firefox cable. I notice a man with a video camera and think that looks like a disaster waiting to happen. Eventually I give up and head out onto the river again. A second bar comes into view and again I’m reined in. This time a group of British girls attempt to befriend me until a guy walks up to them and they all get into a drunken argument about politics.
Eventually, a New Zealander befriends me and we chat a bit before getting back into the river. As we approach the third bar, a slight drizzle starts. The NZ guy beckons me to join him and although the Brit girls also asked me to join them, I went with the Kiwi because he was slightly less intoxicated/annoying. His friends are camped out on a roofed-over platform and I climb up to join them. On the next platform over, I recognize the Australian guys from my tuk-tuk ride. They’ve got about 10 guys crammed under their roof and they’re getting progressively more rowdy and boisterous. Just as I’m introduced to the people on my platform (all either from NZ or Australia), the boys next to us start singing, shouting and jumping on their platform, which gives way with a resounding crack! The guy I'm sitting next to, another Australian, growls with contempt towards the now scrambling guys next door, “Fucking Americans.” I look at him pointedly and ask, “I’m sorry, do you hear one American accent over there? Just one?” The guy hears my own accent (since I hadn't spoken previously) and blanches. “Uh…no.” I scowl at him, “In fact, I believe those are YOUR countrymen.”
When the rain stops, we head out again. This time drifting past the next couple of bars. It’s starting to get chilly when I see the final bar with a terrifically high up trapeze. There’s a bonfire roaring so I get out to warm up – which was probably not a good idea because I then dreaded getting back into the water. Then... well... I decided to try out the trapeze.
Ah, to live in a country with no liability… where water, alcohol and trapezes mix. Don’t worry, I was sober. The trapeze was wicked. You swing back and forth for a bit and then drop into the river – a very deep part of the river. I did it twice. The sun was starting to set then so I gathered up some of my new friends and we climbed back into the river. It got dark VERY quickly so we banded together, holding onto each others’ tubes. As we approached the town, a small child appeared like an otter next to us in the water. She grabbed our tubes and started hauling us towards shore. “I guess we get out here!” I said. We tipped the kid and walked back across the docks to the town. The bars were just getting started. I went back to my guest house to clean up and change and then went to the bar where one of my new friends had told me to meet them.
As I squeezed through the crowd, I passed the guy whom I’d seen with the video camera earlier and overheard him say “…New York…” and stopped in my tracks. “Hey,” I said, “Are you from New York?” “Yeah, I live in Greenpoint (Brooklyn).” I’d met very few Americans on my trip and none from New York so this was very exciting. I introduced myself and got to know Dex, who allegedly works for CurrentTV. Later, we stepped out into the street for a sandwich (so amazing!) and made plans to explore the caves together the next day.
Next morning, after some interneting, Dex rolled up on a rented moped and I hopped on. We scooted out of the tiny town over a small bridge and zipped out into the countryside to the first cave where we were immediately confronted by small children demanding money for us to go the cave. I refused and tried to go around them and they blocked my way. Little jerks. I got irritated and Dex and I decided to skip this cave. We parked near a field because Dex had been told there was an interesting cave on the other side of it. Sloshing through rice patties is not easy in flip flops and I realized I had chosen my footwear poorly.
We couldn’t find the caves and sloshed back again. I noticed Dex had a habit of walking far ahead of me and I started to get irritated. We stopped for lunch and then went to find another cave temple. I took this picture as we scooted over a little bridge where children were jumping into the water below.
Arrived at the next cave temple to find that this time the locals had up a sign so at least it felt more legit (even though I’m sure it’s not legal) to give them money. We walked to the base of the limestone cliffs and I knew that I really had made a poor decision with the flip flops as it was pretty much a straight up climb to the caves. Again, Dex zipped ahead of me until he was out of sight and I was left negotiating wet rock, mud and the possibility of a broken leg with my stupid footgear. By the time I reached the entrance to the cave, Dex was already deep inside. I decided it was against my better judgment to follow him and stayed in the mouth of the cave – I’d prefer not to cash in my traveler’s insurance to get air-lifted out of Laos. The cave really was enormous, with a tiny Buddha in the center and I was disappointed I’d not worn my sneakers.
After about 45 minutes, Dex reappeared and we started to descend – which was even more difficult in flipflops and a camera bag. I had to take the shoes off so I wouldn’t slip, I was stepping on jagged rock and I had to shift my bag down ahead of me for each level so I wasn’t wearing it and off-balance. And of course, Dex absolutely lended me no hand whatsoever and just hopped down the side of the cliff like a monkey and was relaxing on a picnic bench when I appeared. At this point, I was LIVID. I stalked past him to the creek nearby to rest my bruised and battered feet.
We rode back into town in mostly silence. A huge storm blew up and I hunkered down for a nap… not waking up until midnight. Nothing to do really but go back to sleep or go to a bar. I went back to sleep.
Monday, June 2nd
Decided I’d had enough of Vang Vieng and caught an early bus to Luang Prabang the next morning. While waiting for the bus, I met a lovely British girl named Rachel and we decided to sit together. We chatted all the way to LP and figured we might as well bunk together too. Found a guest house down a little alleyway, dumped our stuff and headed out to wander around. LP is adorable. Colonial buildings, temples and the lovely Mekong river flowing by. We wandered down main street and ended up stopping for tea and cookies (at US prices…sheesh) at a cute café. Ended up chitchatting with a nice older couple from Chicago before continuing our tour of town. Rachel currently lives and works in Ventienne for an NGO that specializes in fair-pay for women. The company she works for weaves beautiful scarves, which Rachel designs. She was taking a short excursion to LP to do a little research for design ideas.
We arrived late in the day and negotiated a tuk-tuk with several other tourists. Boy, do they try to get you, those drivers. He tried to demand 5 dollars a person. One person making 30 dollars for a 10 minute ride is just ridiculous. We negotiated down to 3 dollars a person which was still highway robbery. Frankly, I don’t even think taxi drivers in NYC make that much in ten minutes. We ended up on the main drag in Luang Prabang and wandered around until we found a guest house. Two little boys were playing Nintendo inside the main house and didn’t want to get up to help us. Eventually an older woman came out to greet us and Rachel talked to her. We were led back into a small courtyard and shown a little room.
As we set our stuff down and decided what to do with ourselves, a small ginger kitten appeared in the doorway. He heaved his roly-poly belly up over the doorframe and strolled right in like he owned the place. He was so tiny, snack-sized. So I named him Snack. We played with him for a bit until he piddled on the bed… then we decided to head out. Wandered around Main street to get a feel for the town, stopped in the internet café and then had dinner together at a fairly non-descript restaurant. A night market had set up while we were eating so we perused a bit and then headed back. We were both kind of pooped.
Tuesday, June 3rd
Luang Prabang is quite an adorable, French colonial-style village. The next morning we breakfasted at a cute little Scandinavian café where I had an amazing croissant sandwich. Afterwards, we checked out the main street and thought we’d hit up a temple, only to find that it was closed.
Instead, we explored a textiles shop and then headed halfway up Phu Si Mountain (not all the way up as to go to the top cost money and we weren’t feeling that up for the climb.
Later, we perused an outdoor market area and then headed around the corner to a textile museum nearby. Interesting place – featuring costumes of the many, many tribes in the area and continued down the main street until we came upon a café and decided it was tea time.
A middle-aged American couple sat next to us and turned out to be from Illinois. I ended up chatting with the woman and Rachel moved over to chat with the husband until I realized we were missing the golden hour of light. We headed towards the Mekong where we were chatted up by a snake-wine sales guy
and sat for a long time watching the sun set over the fast-flowing river.
Dinner is a shared sandwich (yum!) and a couple of glasses of wine at a local bar.
(such good bread!)
Our waiter is…well… hot. Really hot. His name is John and chats with us quite a bit. He invites us to come by tomorrow night, if we’re interested, and he’ll take us to a local bar.
Up in the morning to find that Snack has a brother – Jack.
Also, there are two boys who appear to live behind our room, just off the courtyard and work for the guesthouse. Before we leave our room, I hear them practicing and singing, “Hotel California” – I just can’t get away from this song. Rachel had to do her own errands and research today so I decided it would be a good time to check out the local scenery.
Everything is so lush and green with gorgeous rolling hills, I thought it would be a good idea to rent a bike for the day (they do not rent mopeds to tourists). I struck out across town and tried not to get nervous by the mopeds whizzing by me. Way out beyond town I came to a fork in the road. I took a right first but after about 10 minutes the paved road became a dirt road which became a mud road, with mud so thick you could barely walk through it – forget biking. I turned around and headed back. Choosing the left fork this time, I had a little bit better luck with the road, although some mud got pretty extreme in places. At one point, I passed a couple of children.
I stopped on the side of the road to figure out where to go when the children passed me and ducked down a little side path. I decided to check it out, I could hear a brook and I was looking for waterfalls. After tying up my bike, I headed down the path and over a bamboo bridge. I wandered for a while before coming onto another bamboo bridge that was really quite scenic.
I stopped to take pictures when several children (not the same ones) appeared below, swimming. I think I startled them. They exited the water and ran past me, one of them pausing for me to take his picture.
I let them get ahead of me, enjoying the sounds of the burbling water – no traffic, no voices, nothing. Eventually I got up and continued down the path where I realized I’d basically walked onto someone’s farm. I waved nicely at the man sitting on the porch of his bamboo hut and turned and walked back. I thought I could hear a waterfall but never did find it. Back on the bike, I continued down the road for some time. The road was getting progressively muddier although the scenery was gorgeous. I really enjoyed the huts with little to no walls, and yet have satellite dishes parked on the thatched roofs. Pretty amazing. Eventually I had to turn around and bike back. It started to sprinkle a little on my way back so I decided to take a quick break in a roadside café where a naked boy frolicked in the dirt and climbed up onto a picnic table in order to aim his tiny boy bits out at passing traffic and urinate. The family was parked inside, watching television while lounging on ancient plastic chaise lounges, not minding their three year old boy playing pretty much in traffic. I noticed this a lot in my travels – small children were on their own as far as dodging traffic and, in India in particular, wandering livestock.
The rain didn’t amount to much so I headed back into town and had a sandwich at the Scandinavian bakery again. Stopped by the guesthouse where I heard a plaintive "mewing" noise to find poor Snack high above me on a fench.
Took him down and brought him in out of the mild drizzle.
Eventually caught up with Rachel and we got ready to go back to John’s café. We weren’t sure if we were going to get John into trouble if he went out with us but we were looking forward to the evening. When he was done with work, his friend Mark showed up and we hopped on the backs of their bikes and headed out. There is nothing quite like being on the back of a bike out in the country on a warm night with thousands of stars overhead. We whirred along, eventually coming to a bridge that was quite narrow. We zinged across and a moment later were at one of the ubiquitous SE Asian bars that are basically just an open-air shelter with tables surrounded by hundreds of plastic chairs.
Rachel and Mark
A good time was had, although we didn’t stay out too late as Rachel was getting up in the early a.m. to go back to Vientiane.
Woke up in the early gray light. Rachel somehow got me out of bed. Every morning we’d been woken up around 5:30 or so by the sound of drums and Rachel told me I should come out and see the alms-giving to the monks. Sure enough there was a line of monks coming down the road, their saffron robes intense in the bleak gray dawn. I said goodbye to Rachel, who whisked off in a tuk-tuk
and was immediately approached by a local woman who wanted to sell me rice and bananas to give to the monks. I followed her instructions (watching some other foreign women doing the same) and sat on the curb, on my knees, feet pointing away from the monks. Silently, they came down the line, opening their bowls to receive the warm sticky rice and a banana.
I went through several containers of rice and bananas before realizing the local woman was royally gouging me. Making money off of alms-giving –the nerve! I refused to give her more money after that and she argued for a moment and then I think realized knew she’s already made a tidy bundle, might as well be “charitable” after that. Eventually the monks wandered back to their temple to eat and I went back to bed.
When I awoke again, it didn’t appear to be getting any nicer out, unfortunately, and today was the day I had booked a tour out to the waterfalls. I met my group after a quick bite at the Scandinavian café (the croissant sandwiches were so good but yeah, I was definitely in a rut) and we were loaded into a van. It wasn’t raining yet but there were some troublesome looking clouds on the horizon. We drove about 30 miles to the Kouangxi waterfalls. There was an enclosure on the walk up to the falls that housed Moon Bears. Pretty cute guys.
There was also a tiger enclosure but I didn’t see the tiger. The waterfalls were simply stunning. You could climb up to see them from above but it was too slippery so I stayed down.
Next, we drove to a Mekong Hill tribe village. This would have been interesting except for the begging for money. For every picture I took, I had to shell out dough. The little girls running around all had garish make-up on (blue eyeshadow and pink rouge).
I didn’t stick around long. Heading back to the van, I saw two girls no older than 8 (or younger?) coming towards me with babies literally strapped to their backs. I snapped a secret picture but the girls heard the camera and demanded money. I wanted out of there fast.
Back in town, I organized a flight back to Vientiane, internetted, uploaded photos and then went walking down by the Mekong.
I watched a couple of boys fishing and took their picture. They started smiling because they realized I was there.
The rain had stopped so there was a very pretty pink sunset. I walked back to John’s restaurant for dinner. John and Mark invited me to go out to a club with them afterwards and I said sure. Very interesting club, had a slide show for Malaysian Tourism going on while everyone was dancing. Mark offered to take me to the airport the next day. Home to bed just as it started raining again.
Friday morning – breakfast and packing, saying good bye to Snack and Jack. The guesthouse boys are practicing “Hotel California again but it’s not quite right. I grab my iPod and speakers and knock on their door. They look pretty happy when their song starts playing and the one with the guitar strums along as best he can. I go to meet Mark who works at a Tourism agency. He puts my camera bag around his neck and I get on back of his bike with my backpack on. It is starting to sprinkle, so I open my umbrella over us as I have seen other ladies do.
Let me tell you, not easy to keep an umbrella open on a moped.
The airport was quite small. I thanked Mark for the ride and went inside. Waiting for my plane, I watched a British couple with their three children. The mother was playing the high-five game with her young son (maybe two years old?) but she wasn’t about to let him win. “High five (slap), up high (slap), down low (he tries to slap, she yanks her hand away) too slow!” At first he was delighted and demanded another go. But after a half dozen times, he was livid – and yet she kept going! This should have been a really annoying spectacle but the entire waiting room was entranced. How long was she going to continue to pull the rug out from under him. The child was turning red faced “Mummy!!!!” Dad was trying not to laugh. Again, again they played, and she didn’t let him win. The child was losing his mind. Finally, the little boy sees a window of opportunity and grabs his mother’s hand when she brings it low and forces her to keep still so he can slap her hand. I think it was a good life lesson – not even your mother is gonna let you win so you have to take things into your own hands.
Back in Vientiane, I headed to my former guesthouse and picked up my Vietnamese visa. Then it was off to DHL to pick up my sensor cleaner that Jess had sent! Hurray! She also, very thoughtfully, had sent along a ginormous memory card that would no doubt last me the rest of the trip. Clutching my booty, I then went to the Airline agency to check on my reservation for that evening. Unfortunately, I had lost it since they hadn’t heard from me! I could go out the next day so I organized with Rachel to stay the night with her. Wandered about Vientiane a little bit – not really much to see.
Stopped for some roadside noodles then went to meet up with Rachel at the chain coffee shop near the main tourist drag and went to dinner around the corner. There were some exceedingly drunken girls in the bar area of the eatery. They provided quite the entertainment with their weaving and slurring and falling on their male friends. Back to Rachel’s flat in a very nice hotel run by the woman she worked with. We chitchatted until the wee hours.
The next morning I hiked across town to a market. I was having a severe luggage problem and this market sold just about everything. Picked up some Beer Laos tshirts and a cheap wheeled duffle. Walked back to the flat and repacked then it was off to the airport for my flight to Hanoi. I was sad to not get a chance to say goodbye to Rachel and see where she worked but I ran out of time. Upon arrival at the airport, I realized I was way over the baggage limit at this point. I did my best to stash everything. I also had a bit of Laos money left so I hit the Duty-Free shop for some Laos coffee for Dad and two packages of some unknown substance that had centipedes on the front for David and Owen. Flight was uneventful but the scenery was so lovely and green.