The land of the whole hearted people
16.08.2012 - 07.09.2012 35 °C
After a short fling in Cambodia which didn't end in the best of ways, I entered Laos in rough mental state. I wasn’t sleeping, my mind was muddled and I was driving Dana nuts with my sobering demeanour. But there’s nothing like the beautiful landscapes and warm hearted people of Laos to set one’s mind at ease. As soon as I crossed the border, Laos’ good vibes began working their magic. Before long, my worries were gone and my head was clear.
Leaving Cambodia also meant leaving behind two travel mates. The Dutch trio was dissolved as Lara and Naomi went back home to the Netherlands. Dana and I were continuing the journey into Laos as a duo. However, only a few days after parting ways with two Dutch girls, we were joined by another. On the bus to the Laos border, we met Mendy, an interior designer who is responsible for designing the sets on Holland's most watched TV program. Mendy was energetic and high spirited. Her positive attitude spread like a disease to those around her. Dana and I were quickly infected.
We crossed into Laos late in the afternoon and soon arrived at our first destination, Four Thousand Islands. While encompassing about three thousand nine hundred and fifty islands less than advertised, this large twist in the Mekong River is home to some of the most laidback riverfront havens Laos (and likely all of Southeast Asia) has to offer. The islands define relaxation with only a few small slow moving villages, lots of palm trees and some fantastic yet not overpowering scenery.
Our daily schedule consisted primarily of reading next to the river, eating, and taking long hammock naps. However, we also managed to fit in a few activities. On our first day we rented bikes and rode out to a large nearby waterfall. We then set off towards the end of one of the island to catch a sight of the Irrawaddy river dolphins. They are a rare animal which can only be found in this small area of the Mekong River. On the way to the viewing area, however, the tire on the bicycle of a South Korean guy who had joined us for the journey popped and we were forced to turn back. Dana, being Dutch and naturally an excellent cyclist, dragged the broken bike behind her while she rode her own. Mendy jumped on the back of my bike and we started a gruelling trip back up the hill to our bungalow.
The next day we took a boat across the river to check out what the locals claimed to be the biggest waterfall by volume in Asia. A couple moto drivers picked us up at the dock and shuttled us to the attraction. Along the way, my driver taught me how to count to ten in Laos. Dana's driver tried to get her to touch him inappropriately. At one point, our bike broke down and I had to push it at a running pace to get the engine started again. We made it eventually but discovered that the waterfall was not actually a waterfall at all. It was just a large area of brown rapids.
We returned to the island and rented bikes for another try at catching sight of the irrawaddy dolphins. This time, we made it to the riverbank without any mishaps but were told that the dolphins were on the Cambodian side of the mekong. Renting a boat and paying for a ‘Cambodian visitor pass’ was necessary to get there. We were sceptical but the price was reasonable so we coughed up the cash.
We waited on the opposite bank of the river, cameras set and eyes peeled for more than a half hour. We soon began to loose hope. I started to wonder if the whole attraction was just a scam. But as the sun approached the horizon, a bizarre dorsal fin broke the surface of the thick brown water. Eventually, a dozen or so dolphins began taking turns surfacing for air. They were funny looking animals. Like a cross between a dolphin, a shark and a fish. The boatman told us that they are some of the only remaining river dolphins in the world and there is very few of them left. I guess it was worth the trouble to see them.
Early the following morning we began our journey to Vientiane with a stopover in Pakse. The small town had a decent riverfront setting but not much else going on so we decided to grab an overnight to the capital instead of spending the night. Our sixteen hour overnight bus was equipped with a small musty mattress that Dana and I had to share. It was a cramped space and smelled a bit foul but we were comfortable enough. That is until rain water began trickling through our window and into our bed. We arrived in Vientiane tired and damp at around 6 AM, met Mendy who had arrived a day earlier, checked into a hostel and took a long nap.
Vientiane is considered to be the most relaxed capital city in the world. With only a quarter million inhabitants who seem to sleep in their shops more than work, the city is worthy of this reputation. Many travelers must pass through Vientiane in order to reach Laos’ more popular tourist attractions but few stay for long. There are some European style cafes and restaurants but you don't see many foreigners on the streets. I quite enjoyed the atmosphere. It was different from any other Asian capital I had been to yet and even if the city was lacking tourists, it still had a few tourist attractions. The most famous sight was a green Buddhist park set on the Mekong and filled with many bizarre Buddha statues. It was designed by some eccentric religious nut back in the 1950s. One could call him the Gaudi of Laos. Some of the statues were beautiful, some were interesting to look at and some were downright weird.
Our hostel was small but full of characters. We had a good mix of Europeans, North Americans and Australians. The hostel manager was a Canadian business consultant who had been nabbed by the hostel owner while traveling through. He took a big group of us out to a local restaurant for Laos style lemongrass grilled river fish. It was delicious. One bite and I was instantly addicted. The dish probably accounted for half of my solid food diet from Vientiane onwards.
After dinner, a few of us were interested in grabbing some drinks but were informed by the hostel manager that Laos has a countrywide midnight curfew. It was half past twelve and Vientiane’s few bars were already closed. Luckily, there was an alternative available. He spoke of a bowling alley tucked into the hills west of the city that served cold beer Laos until the wee hours of the morning. A group of us made the trek there for some drinks. I can’t say any of us were stars on the lanes, but the cold beer Laos was worth the embarrassment of throwing all those gutter balls.
After our brief stint in Vientiane we caught a bus to Vang Vieng; a riverside town that has become one of South East Asia's staple party capitals. Vang Vieng used to be a small climbing settlement frequented only by a few adventure seekers. Now it is overrun by drunken post-graduates who come from far and wide to float down its notoriously dangerous river in a flimsy home made tube. I had heard a lot about Vang Vieng throughout my travels. Everyone coming from Laos proudly wore an 'In the Tubing' wife beater and most had a tale to tell about the place. Some stories were funny and some were disturbing. Many warned me of the town’s dangerous reputation. Apparently, every year around fifty tourists die tubing down the river, pulling drunken stunts or overdosing on random drugs. I met a few travellers who sported minor party injuries and many who had anything from cameras to passports stolen. I had the feeling this was a place I had to be more cautious than usual. I would soon see why.
Upon arriving in Vang Vieng I was immediately taken aback by its draw dropping beauty. Those that described to me Vang Vieng’s many dangers had failed to mention its giant karst limestone mountains and crystal blue lagoons. The landscape was stunning.
After we checked into a guesthouse we were joined by a few friends. All in all we had a great group. There was Dana and Mendy, the two Dutch girls, Nick, a South African who joined us on the bus as well as Jambo and Julian, two British guys we had met in Sihanoukville. Jambo and Julian were two of the funniest guys I had ever met in my life. They were a twenty four hour a day British comedy duo. There was never a dry moment when they were around.
As is tradition in Vang Vieng, before hitting the river we hit the market to adorn ourselves in cheap techno color tank tops, short shorts and fake Raybans. We also bought cheap waterproof pouches that did little to keep our valuables dry.
I was a bit sceptical about the tubing as we made our way to the tube rental office. After all, I had heard quite a few disconcerting stories. Nonetheless, our first day on the river turned out to be a lot of fun. Since it was low season, only three of the seven river side bars were open but there were more than enough people to keep them packed all day long. The drill was simple: jump in your tube, float down the river, stop at a bar, buy a bucket of redbull and vodka, dance yourself silly, play some ridiculous drinking game, use a rope swing to jump back into the river, find your tube, float down to the next bar, repeat.
I was being careful not to get too intoxicated for fear of doing something too stupid. After all, a stupid mistake here could cost you a lot more than a funny story. The bamboo platforms on which we drank were flimsy and unkempt, the current was swift and sharp rocks loomed below the surface of the dark brown water. I quickly came to realize how Vang Vieng acquired its reputation. Some people were totally smashed by noon, falling off the platforms into the river or off tables they were dancing on. I saw one guy fall so bad that I am sure he broke a rib. He refused to return to the town until his friends abandoned him to follow a group of Swedish girls down the river.
No one seemed to care about the well-being of anyone else. If someone was injured, few offered a helping hand. Most would just laugh and return to their drinks. But I guess that’s the way it is in Vang Vieng. Someone has to pay for all of that fun and I, must be honest here, it was a helluvalot of fun.
This was the highlight of the day was floating down the river at sunset. We formed a giant raft and belted out various famous tunes at the top of our lungs. The playlist included anything 'Three Little Birds' to 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. The 'Riverband' was officially established as a seven piece vocal group that sings drunken covers of classic hits.
We reached the drop off point just after sunset and returned to the hostel for a quick nap and a shower. We didn’t have much time to spare. We had been drinking all day and without a fresh supply, we were dangerously close to going from drunk to hungover. It would take at least a full day to recover from that dark abyss.
An hour later we were at 'Bucket Bar', Vang Vieng’s most famous late night spot. This large open air club consists of a splintered wooden dancing platform surrounded by bamboo huts and hammocks. Overlooking the platform was a precarious looking tower outfitted with giant ear thumping speakers. Perched on top was a glazed eyed DJ who looked as though he had been spinning tracks since last Thursday. The space slowly filled as tattoo covered dudes and body paint laden girls came to replenish their blood alcohol levels with all sorts of strange concoctions. No matter what you ordered from the bucket bar, you never knew exactly what you were going to get from the bartenders. As midnight approached, every other establishment in Laos was forcing its final customers out the door in time for the curfew. In Vang Vieng, however, the party was just getting started. As midnight passed, torrential rains began to pour. The crowd responded by storming the platform to dance wildly in the downpour. Everyone seemed to be competing to be the craziest party animal Vang Vieng. It was a long hard fought battle in which there was no clear winner. By two in the morning the battlegrounds were stained with body paint and liquor. It was a strange, unique and wonderful atmosphere. Unfortunately, as is often the case in such situations, it was not to last.
Eventually someone got too drunk and started picking fights. One of the Laos bar workers was amusing himself by pushing people off the dance floor. Everyone could see him doing this since he was wearing a Spiderman body suit and was easy to pick out of the crowd. Eventually, a drunken British tourist took offence to his antics. He grabbed an umbrella and started threatening the bar worker. What he expected to do with the umbrella nobody was really sure. Nonetheless, Spiderman backed down. That is until, a couple minutes later, Spidey returned with a thirty inch machete. Another Laos bar worker pulled a pistol from his pocket and held it casually by his side as he leaned against the bar smoking a cigarette. Vang Vieng’s dark side was making itself known. The party ended abruptly as everyone quickly made for the exits. To my knowledge, the drunken Brit escaped unharmed.
The following day we soothed our hangovers in one of Vang Vieng’s big blue lagoons. We swam, we relaxed and we sang 60s rock anthems. Even the Riverband has band rehearsals. A couple hours later, we were back in the guesthouse for a nap before hitting the town once again.
The bucket bar was our first order of business. As we ordered our first drinks, Jambo and I joked about creating ultra-egos for the night. He wanted to be a movie director so I agreed to call him Jared Steinsteele and pretend he was my favourite Jewish documentary producer. I jokingly promised to set him up with a girl by acting as his biggest fan. A couple hours later, we were drunk enough to actually go through with it. Steinsteele had been chatting with a girl for a good twenty minutes and it was time to put my years of improve training to the test. I apologetically interrupted him and his new friend by yelling "Has anyone ever told you, you look like Jared Steinsteele?" "Yes, I am him, you know my work?" Jambo responded. "Yeah, of course! Im a HUGE fan.” The girl already looked impressed… "Really!? What's your favourite one of my movies?" This question was not part of the script and caught me off guard. I just said the first two words that came to mind... "Monkey's Grip!" What did I just say? It was an absurd response but Jambo didn't miss a beat. He turned to the girl, "Oh of course, it’s about the rare Laos gibbon. That’s why I am here actually, I am shooting a sequel." We went on like this for a good ten minutes. Eventually, I couldn't contain my laughter and had to excuse myself. I returned to the bar to watch from a distance with Dana and Julian. I told them how ridiculous our story was. We all doubted Jambo could make anything out of it. Nonetheless, as the girl drew closer to him, it was clear he had somehow made it work. They soon disappeared. That was the last we saw of Mr. Steinsteele for a while. Later that night, when our crew reconvened on the roof of the hostel, we laughed until sunrise over how such a ludicrous scheme had actually worked. Only in Vang Vieng.
The next day we hit the river once again. This time, however, our tubes were stolen and we never made it past the first riverside bar. We had to pay a boat man to shuttle us back to town before sunset. I quietly wondered if he was the also the one who stole our tubes.
With our feet dragging, we all stumbled back to the bucket bar again that night. However, it was quite clear that we had reached our party limits. We were tired, cranky and unable to fight off hangovers which had been chasing us for three days. As I was ordering my third beer I saw a Laos worker loading a pistol behind the bar in plain site. When I asked the bartender what was going on she made some joke about how someone had not paid for their drink. I took my beer to go, went back to guesthouse and decided I had my fill of Vang Vieng.
This place really does have a dark ugly side which made me not want to stay for more than a few days. I expected to see the occasional tubing injury but I was very surprised to find so many weapons around. In East Asia, guns are generally few and far between and Laos is supposed to be one of the most relaxed countries in the world. I also did not like the lack of care shown by travelers towards fellow travelers in Vang Vieng. It was unsettling to see people abandoning their injured comrades to continue a battle for party supremacy. With that said, I had a great group of friends and a fantastic time that I won't soon forget. The place produces an atmosphere that is unlike anywhere I have ever been. Dana had so much fun she decided to apply for a job at the bucket bar.
I think we spent the right length of time in Vang Vieng; long enough to witness its dark side but not too long to get swallowed by it. We caught a bus out of town towards Luang Prabang with a head full of good memories and little more than a lingering headache. The journey north was spectacular. Our minibus winded through dense jungle, bizarre limestone formations and remote mountain top villages. We arrived in Luang Prabang after dark and found a comfortable room with air conditioning and a TV. It was the first time I had been allowed such luxuries since leaving Saigon more than six weeks earlier.
The UNESCO world heritage sight of Luang Prabang is Laos’s visitor hub. It’s what people from far and wide come to Laos to see. Unfortunately, it’s often all they see. The reasons why everyone wants to visit Luang Prabang are clear. The ancient capital is beautiful, full of history and surrounded by beautiful scenery. There is plenty to keep a visitor entertained for at least a few days. However, the town is quite touristy and does not accurately represent Laos’s friendly and welcoming people. I felt as though most who live in Luang Prabang are only interested in capitalizing on its constant influx of tourist dollars. I found the people elsewhere in Laos to be much friendlier and much less concerned with my wallet. Nonetheless, Luang Prabang’s ancient temples, riverside cafes and mountainous surroundings are well worth a few days visit.
After four days in Vang Vieng, Danna, Mendy and I were in need of a long sleep. We did not even make it out of our guesthouse until the late afternoon. Even then, we only managed to see a couple temples and grab a snack in the night market before retiring to our rooms once again. But the following day we got a good taste of what L.P. has to offer. We awoke early at 5:00 AM to watch the daily offering ceremonies. Orange robed Monks marched through the streets with shiny metal bowls. Locals and tourists waited on the periphery to fill these bowls with sticky rice and other goods as the monks passed. This long held tradition is common in strong Buddhist countries since monks are forbidden from spending money (although I could have sworn I saw one of them with an iphone). I got some great pictures of the monks but, to be honest, the whole spectacle was pretty ridiculous. With the amount of pictures being taken you would have thought the monks were on a catwalk not upholding a religious tradition. Aggressive sticky rice vendors worked the crowd charging tourists a premium for the chance to give a monk some food. It was rather sad and I returned to my room before it was finished.
After a quick nap we organized a tuk-tuk to take us to a famous waterfall an hour outside of town. The ride was uncomfortable but the towering falls were an impressive sight. We undertook a daunting climb to the top of the biggest waterfall which included a precarious walk along the water’s edge supported only by a flimsy bamboo pole. At the base of the river were some sun bear enclosures and large natural pools. We were enjoying a relaxing swim in the warm water until little man eating fish started attacking out feet. That was a queue to head back to town.
Upon returning to the city we climbed to the top of the central hill to catch the sunset with a sea of Korean and Japanese tourists. From this vantage point we could take in all the green rolling hills and deep blue rivers which encircle Luang Prabang. The rooftops of town’s countless temples turned gold in the waning sunlight. The view was outstanding.
After dark we joined a few other tourists for dinner at a riverside restaurant. During the meal, a tall young German sitting at our table collapsed and began vomiting. He told us he had been biking all day in the heat and had not drank enough water. We assumed he had heat stroke and got him to a clinic. It was only several months later, after I was struck with a similar episode, that I realized he had many of the tell tale signs of Dengue fever. Nonetheless, he seemed to be feeling a bit better when we brought some electrolytes to his room later that evening.
The following morning I was enjoying some B-list movie on my twenty year old TV when Dana burst into my room spewing Dutch swear words. Dana only swears in Dutch when she is truly pissed off so I knew something bad had happened. “Vang Vieng was closed down by the government today.” She said, practically yelling. “The tubing, the bars, the parties, it’s all being dismantled.” She had a job lined up at the Bucket bar and was planning to return to Vang Vieng that evening to work. Clearly, that was not going to happen now. I felt bad for her but was not terribly surprised by the news. After all, Vang Vieng was an enigma in Laos. One of the craziest and most dangerous party towns in the world located smack dab in the middle of a communist country full of Buddhists. How long could it last really? If it stays closed for good, we were likely some of the last tourists to ever have had the true Vang Vieng experience. This is probably not a story to tell my grandkids.
With her plan to return to Vang Vieng thwarted, Dana decided to continue into Thailand with Mendy as I continued north towards China. This meant that it was time for us to finally say goodbye. We had travelled together more than six weeks, a lifetime in my books. I am a solo traveler at heart and a couple weeks of joint travel is usually more than enough for me. I think Dana would probably say the same. But there was something special about our relationship. We often disagreed but never argued. We kept each other company but never got on each others nerves. We simply got along well. I felt the same way about Mendy. She radiated so much positive energy I can’t imagine someone not getting along with her. I was lucky to meet them both. But with conflicting travel plans, it was time for us to finally part ways. To avoid anything too emotional, our goodbyes were short and sweet as they boarded the afternoon river boat bound for Thailand. While I watched them sail away, I remember hoping I would see these friends again one day. This was a feeling that was becoming all too familiar.
I returned to the guesthouse to pack my bags and continue the adventure alone. I was looking forward to it. There is something so liberating about venturing through Asia solo. However, as soon as I boarded the bus to Northern Laos I was joined by another group of travelers; Dario, Melissa and Marie. We all got to know each as our bus winded its way north to Nong Khiaw. Dario was an American from New Orleans who had been teaching in Bangkok for a year. He had taken a week off work for his birthday to travel Laos. Marie was a Belgium woman in the midst of a trip around the world. Melissa was an Aussie arts graduate who took off to South East Asia days after receiving her diploma. We had plenty of time to chat since our bus broke down about three times. We finally pulled into Nong Khiaw’s bus station in the early afternoon. The station consisted of a broken sign, a run down shack and a dirt road. If I had blinked I would have missed it. As was typical in Laos, the landscape surrounding Nong Khiaw was outstanding. Giant limestone cliffs sloped steeply into a lazy river. Lining the hillsides overlooking the water were a few basic bungalows and mom and pop restaurants. The village had no more than a thousand residents. They seemed quite happy to see us. We rented a few river side bungalows for a couple dollars apiece. Electricity was only provided for half the day but who needs electricity when you have a river side hammock and a neon coloured sunset. I slept well that night.
The following day was Dario's birthday. He convinced us to join him on a trek into the jungle. He had heard about a trail near Nong Khiaw on which you hike up a series of waterfalls. It was aptly named the One Hundred Fall Trail. A guide in the village offered to take us for about $35 each but we decided to hire a boat to the starting point and pay a local farmer to show us the way. This turned out to be a good alternative as we only ended up spending about $10 apiece. After my experience in Four Thousand Islands, I was expecting the ‘Hundred Fall Trail’ to consist of at most ten or twenty waterfalls. However, by the time we had made it to the top of the trail, we had surmounted much more than a hundred. Some were only a meter high, others towered metres above our heads battering us with warm jungle water. There was no trail next to the falls. The only way up was through the river itself. It was treacherous and challenging at times but a very unique experience. It took us over three hours to reach the summit. As I gazed out over the mountain slopes and cascading waterfalls below, I felt completely euphoric. I had never done anything like this. Little did I know that the trip down would be far more difficult than the way up. The trail down the backside of the mountain was like a waterslide of mud and leeches. We struggled to keep our balance on the steep slippery slope, pausing every few steps to remove bloodsucking creatures from our bodies. When we finally made it back to the river, our guide gave us all a shot of lao lao to celebrate a successful hike. Lao lao is a type of rice whiskey that tastes like what I imagine nail polish remover tastes like. Upon returning to Nong Khiaw, a few beer Laos were definitely in order. At dinner I bought Dario and myself another larger glass of lao lao to celebrate his birthday. One glass and we were tipsy. A couple hours later we were left with churning stomachs and horrible headaches.
The following morning our small crew travelled two hours up river to Myung Ngoi, a tiny vehicle-less village that is only accessible by boat. This mini paradise quickly became one of my favourite places in the world. Perched on the hillside above a winding river, the village had a small Buddhist temple at one end, a giant limestone formation at the other and one dusty old path connecting the two. Lining this path were rundown shacks, small shops and mom and pop restaurants. There were two small generators which provided electricity only from six to nine in the evening. After nine you needed a torch to get around. It was the kind of place where one could simply sit in a hammock and think about nothing for hours. We spent most of our first day doing just that. Our basic bungalows afforded stunning views of the sunset over the river.
After dark we found the village’s only ethnic restaurant. It was owned by the town’s only Indian man and he served us some fantastic curries. From where he got the ingredients I have no idea. We returned to the bungalows with bellies full and wide smiles. My smile disappeared, however, when I realized that I had left my camera at the restaurant. I sprinted back to find the doors chained shut and the owner no where to be found. My heart sunk. Theft is quite common in the small villages of South East Asia and I had the feeling I would not be seeing my camera again. I didn’t care about the device itself but the thought of loosing the hundreds of pictures saved on its SD card was sickening. Everything depended on this one little Indian man. The restaurant was empty when we left and he was the only one that could have found the camera. The fact that he quickly closed shop and disappeared was certainly not a good sign. To be honest, I wouldn’t have blamed him for keeping the camera. The money earned from selling it would be equivalent to a couple weeks income from his small restaurant in low season. It was enough to feed his family for a month. I was sceptical to say the least. If that wasn't enough, the Indian meal left me with stomach cramps and diarrhoea.
After a difficult night I awoke early the next morning and went straight back to the restaurant. The doors were still chained shut. I asked a local shop keeper where the restaurant owner had gone. I was told that he had gone to Nong Khiaw for the day… probably to sell me camera. I would have to wait until the evening to find out if this was the case.
I joined Dario and Marie on a trek to try to avoid thinking about my precious photos. Of course, the trail was full of beautiful scenery. Being unable to snap any pictures was driving me nuts. We hiked through rivers, caves and across precarious bamboo bridges eventually arriving at Ban Na, a tiny little village surrounded by a valley of electric green rice fields and steep limestone cliffs. This was the worst place in the world to be camera-less. Fortunately, Dario and Marie took plenty of pictures. The place could not have had more than a few hundred inhabitants. Curious eyes peered out at us from the windows of basic bamboo shacks built on stilts. On the ground below these shacks, monkeys chained to their columns harassed the local chickens and pigs.
The town had a small eatery and, much to our surprise, the old woman who invited us in produced an English menu poorly written on a napkin. I guess we were not the first foreigners to venture into this neck of the woods. The food was basic and overpriced but we were paying for the scenery.
As the sun began to set, we rushed back to Myung Noi to avoid hiking in the dark. I went straight back to the little Indian restaurant to see if the owner had returned from Nong Khiaw. He had finally unlocked the doors and was sitting at a table counting dollar bills. I walked in, looked him dead in the eye and politely asked whether he had seen my camera. He gave me a fake dumbfounded look. "I clear the table but I don’t see no camera…" I could tell he was lying and my blood began to boil. When he saw the anger in my eyes, I noticed a small smirk beginning to form on his face. He threw his head back and began laughing loudly. I didn’t understand what was so funny. He reached beneath the table and pulled out the small black case containing my camera. "I know how horrible to loose pictures, be more careful next time" he said. I was so relieved that I gave him a hug. I was truly surprised. I had left my camera at a mom and pop restaurant in one of the poorest regions of the world and had it returned to me by the owner. The story epitomizes my experience in Laos. Anywhere else, I probably would never have seen that camera again. Laos, however, truly is a country full of honest and friendly people.
The following morning our small crew disbanded. Dario was returning to Bangkok, Melissa was heading south to Vientiane and Marie was on her way to Vietnam. My mission was to reach Oudomxay, a trade city near the border of China. The town was not far and the journey seemed simple enough, however, the trip turned out to be far more challenging than expected.
It started on a boat from Myung Noi to Nong Khiaw. The boat was so over booked that I was forced to sit on a steel sheet next to the rumbling engine. The ride was not much more than a couple hours so I was not terribly concerned. I just put in my head phones and enjoyed the beautiful scenery. When I arrived at the bus station, I was told that the usual daily bus from Nong Khiaw to Oudomxay was not running because there were not enough travelers to warrant its departure. The bus driver had gone drinking instead. I was directed to take a bus to Pak Mong about an hour down the road and transfer. When I got to Pak Mong I was told I had to wait two hours until the bus running from Luang Prabang to Oudomxay made its stop at the station. Transfers and long waits were something I had become accustomed to. In fact, I had come to enjoy the time to myself. I got some noodle soup and delved into a book. Four hours later, however, I was starting to get a little worried. Another hour passed before the ticket vendor came to fetch me. “Bus here!” he yelled. I followed him into the parking lot but there was no bus in sight. “Where is it?” I inquired. “There!” the attendant pointed at a small steel caged tuk-tuk. “Big bus stuck, must go tuk-tuk.” I gave him a look of disbelief. For anyone who hasn't been to the country, Laos’s tuk-tuks are some of the most uncomfortable forms of transportation in the world. This particular vehicle was basically a mini two door truck with a small cab attached to the back. The rear was enclosed in steel bars and has two steel planks running down either side where people were meant to sit. It’s the kind of vehicle you would expect to see transporting bushels of wheat, not people. Typically these things can hold eight people at most. For this journey, they managed to pack seventeen of us in there. Many succumbed to sitting on the hot aluminium floor or on top of each other. I had a little girl sitting on one leg and a grandmother grasping the other steady herself on the bumpy road. I was quite surprised to see another foreigner on board. There was an older Japanese man sitting opposite me who was clearly as dumbfounded as I that we had been sent out onto Laos' treacherous pothole-filled dirt mountain roads in a tuk-tuk. We were traveling over as bumpy and windy a road as you can imagine in a vehicle which had the suspension of a go-cart. I was being thrown around like a rag doll.
Of course, after only an hour on the trail, the tuk-tuk broke down in a cloud of smoke and steam. The driver’s solution was to pour water on the engine. This worked for about forty five minutes until the engine cut out again. The driver crawled under the cabin and fiddled with the transmission for a while. Eventually, the small beast roared back to life in a cloud of thick black smoke. We were back on our way. The tuk tuk broke down four times in total. Each time we were forced to wait for a half hour on the side of the trail while the driver performed another mechanical miracle. I was frustrated at first, but after a while I started to find it all quite comical. The broad smiles on the faces my Laotian travel mates certainly helped ease the tension. Nobody appeared irritated or in a hurry. Everyone seemed to be content getting to where they needed to go. The means did not really matter. This was Laos.
Six hours after we left Pak Mong, I emerged from rear of the tuk tuk bruised and battered. It had been a long day. Since leaving Myung Noi, I had covered no more than a hundred and fifty kilometres and yet it took me almost twelve hours to get to Oudomxay. A cold beer Laos was well deserved upon arrival.
Oudomxay is a trade town near the border of China. There is nothing particular special about the city. It was simply a place I had to stop for a night in order to reach the Chinese border. Upon arrival, I quickly found a cheap room and ventured out to find some dinner. Curiously, I was hard pressed to find a restaurant that sold anything either than noodle soup. As I perused the streets in search of a hearty meal, I heard a foreign voice calling to me from a hole in the wall restaurant down the road. It was a young German fellow beckoning me to his table. He seemed friendly enough so I joined him for a few beers and some noodle soup.
He was a recent high school grad who had just begun a contract volunteering at a UN sponsored drug rehab center in Oudomxay. For a young high school grad, he really did know a lot about world affairs. We spent most of the night drinking beer and discussing the world’s woes. When the restaurant closed he took me to Oudomxay’s only club. It was a smoky Chinese style karaoke bar with a dance floor, some lasers and a disco ball. Drunken locals and Chinese traders took turns singing sappy Chinese love songs. After I had downed enough drinks, I found ‘Black Magic Woman’ in the song catalogue and decided to give it a try. I sang it with all my might and, while I am certainly not a good singer, the locals seemed impressed by the effort. I was given a round of applause and a few free drinks.
Early the next morning I caught a bus to Luang Namtha. This area is famous for hill tribe and wildlife treks. Since it was raining heavily when I arrived I didn't bother booking a trek into the park. Instead, I found an internet café and caught up on my reading and writing. In the evening, I walked the town’s main drag in search of some food. I ended up at the town’s only foreigner hangout. It was guesthouse with a small restaurant/bar. I found a quiet table, ordered a plate of fried rice and finished the last chapter of ‘Life of Pie’. Before I left, I offered my finished book to a couple of Australian girls who were sitting at the table opposite mine. This was a habit I had gotten into since I know how difficult it is to find English books in Asia. We got to talking and soon discovered that we had coincidently booked tickets on the same bus leaving for China the next day. They were waiting at the bus station early the next morning when I arrived. It turned out we were the bus drivers only patrons. The trip to the Chinese border was a long one and we had plenty of time to chat. Like me, they had been living in a small Chinese city for the previous year. They were on there way back to China to fly home to Australia after a short foray into South East Asia. Since we all had the ultimate goal of reaching Kunming within the week, we decided to stick together.
As the bus approached the Chinese border, my time in Laos was coming to an end. I was sad to be leaving. Vietnam was beautiful and Cambodia intriguing, but neither held a candle to my experience in Laos. I spent a month in the country and I easily could have spent one more. The people were so kind and laidback. I was rarely hassled or forced to bargain. The landscape was stunning and diverse. There was enough going on to keep a traveler entertained and yet the atmosphere was perpetually relaxed. The travel was a bit rough at times but, even in the midst of the most challenging journeys, I just couldn’t help but feel content with life. That’s the wonderful thing about Laos. It’s the kind of place where you are happy to be uncomfortable. Where the restaurant takes two hours to deliver your food and you enjoy every minute of it. Where, despite many frustrations, it’s impossible to stay frustrated for long. What a gem of a country.