*The other side of the Mekong*
01.02.2012 - 04.02.2012 20 °C
In transit (Vientiane to Luang Prabang via Vang Vieng)
Luang Prabang, the UNESCO World Heritage Site and jewel of northern Laos, is an eight hour bus ride from the capital. Of course the easy-to-find buses are the expensive ones for tourists, and I am barred from going that route by every stubborn, contrary bone in my body. Instead I schlep around Vientiane, backpack on my back and day pack on my front, in search of an alternative. I eventually settle into a snugly packed minivan, having negotiated a price about half the tourist rate but two or three times what the Laotians are paying. This irks me slightly, but some things can’t be helped. I was hoping to practice my Lao on the way, but no one seems very talkative. We are packed so tightly that reading would feel somehow antisocial, so I stare amicably out the window.
About halfway to Luang Prabang lies Vang Vieng. At first noticed for its dramatic cliffs and beautiful rivers, it has become major destination for party hearty tourists. I have decided to skip it – drunken tubing does not sound like my scene, nor frankly does it sound much like Laos. My decision is validated as we reach town and suddenly on all sides I see English signs, bars, tubing companies, and sunburnt white people walking around in next to no clothing.
Let me now note that Laos is a pretty conservative place. On hot days when I would wear shorts and a tank top back home, here I wear a long skirt or light pants and cover my shoulders with a sarong. Now then. We presently pass four girls wearing bikinis under tank tops with arm holes gaping halfway down the sides and material so thin as to be effectively see-through. Two of them sport extremely short shorts, the others simply wear bikini bottoms. I would like to be polite here, but I can really only describe it as four girls with their asses hanging out on the street. Viewed from my vantage point, squeezed as I am into a row of Laotians, it seems so disrespectful to Lao cultural norms that it embarrasses ME. I am simultaneously tempted to document it with my camera, but that might seem a little weird. Anyway, I could not post the photo because it would sully my blog. Instead, and directly related, here is a sign commonly found in the area, and with good reason:
When we stop in Vang Vieng and the only other Westerners disembark, a Laotian passenger ask me if am getting out here as well. “Baw, khoi bpai Luang Prabang,” I respond – no, I am going to Luang Prabang. As we drive on, there is a marked change in their attitude towards me. Namely, they grow much more friendly. I can only assume they have a certain stereotype of tourists who go to Vang Vieng, and to be fair, I have just seen why. It makes sense that they warm up to me only after I skip the notorious party town. When we break for lunch, I take out chicken and sticky rice I got at the market this morning. One man remarks with surprise, “gin ahahn Lao” – you’re eating Lao food. There seems to be a perception that Westerners don’t like Lao food. I am only too happy to dispel it, replying between bites, “Douy, ahahn Lao sep lai” – yes, Lao food is really good!
Back on the road, the scenery grows ever more mountainous and fascinating. We pass houses perched improbably on sheer cliffs. Patches of cultivated land on such steep slopes that I can not imagine humans traversing the terrain to plant seeds or gather the harvest. Little girls kneel in fields, scythes in hand, swishing away. People walk along the road carrying baskets of sticks, bundles of grass and/or babies on their backs. Many of them are downright old, and it strikes me that in these remote villages where everyone must work on a daily basis for communal survival, there is no ‘retirement age.’ You work until you cannot move. Until you die. What a strange concept for the Western mind.
In late afternoon, I watch transfixed as a group of villagers nimbly ascends a near-vertical mountainside via a ‘stairway’ of nothing more than footholds chiseled into the hardened dirt. At dusk, villagers bathe at simple roadside pumps. The men bathe in underwear, the women in sarongs, the children simply naked. It is a cool evening and that is assuredly cold water. Life here is so poor, so simple. Then, as darkness descends, we pass wooden huts lit from within by the glow of televisions. Even the most remote villages are beginning to have TV’s and cell phones. Change coming to Laos.
It is well past dark when we arrive. I of course have no room booked. My seatmate, Phouma, with whom I have struck up a bit of a friendship, suggests I stay at his hotel and offers to walk me into town and show me around. I hesitate. Being blessed/cursed with this independent streak, I always prefer to shop around and find the best deal. But it is late, I don’t really know where to start looking, and I have a sneaking suspicion that lodging in Luang Prabang may be on the expensive side. In the end I decide to stay at Phouma’s hotel, which is somewhat outside town and costs 50,000 kip (about $7) per night. As promised, we walk into town, he treats me to some tasty eats at the night market, and I am once again indebted to the kindness of strangers.
The next morning I get my first look at Luang Prabang in daylight. (I also discover with a couple quick inquiries that I got a good deal on lodging, rooms downtown being around 200,000 kip per night.) The city has a European air with cobblestone streets, winding alleys, charming cafes and elegant boutiques selling local Akha textiles and Hmong silver. Sounds nice, right? And it is, it really is. It is absolutely beautiful. Yet. After my time in the south, and after yesterday’s journey through remote mountainside villages, the sight of white tablecloth restaurants makes me fume, “This is not Laos.” To be fair, it certainly is, and the city is absolutely worth seeing. But it is not the side of Laos that interests me. Which poses the immediate question of what to do. I ascend the stairs to Wat Phousi, a temple built beautifully onto/into a mountaintop, to think.
Beautiful views, but no brilliant ideas. I wander listlessly back down into town, find an internet café to let folks know I am still alive, and then am quite at a loss. I sit down to a very falang breakfast of a smoothie and a baguette and glumly open Lonely Planet. It lists a bunch of museums and temples, all of which are surely lovely and interesting… but I am not in the mood. I am feeling lonely, aimless, and unreasonably aggravated by the incongruous concentration of English menus, fancy hotels, upscale stores and tour operators advertising elephant-trekking-village-homestay-waterfall-boatride extravaganzas. Beautiful as it is, downtown Luang Prabang feels somehow contrived – a movie set erected for the benefit of the many visitors. The locals accustomed to working with tourists speak English – decidedly out of keeping with the rest of my time in Laos. Most disturbingly, there is nothing to explore.
I wander over to the Mekong and sit down on the riverbank to collect my thoughts. From my perch I observe a steady trickle of Laotians descending the stairs from town and boarding a canoe. Most of them are carrying goods from the market in the traditional configuration of two baskets hanging from a pole over their shoulder. When the canoe is full, the boatman motors across to the other side of the Mekong. This gives me an idea. As the next boat, fills up, I get on. No one seems to be paying as they board, so I don’t either, and I do not ask the price, figuring whatever the Laotians are paying I can afford. When we reach the opposite bank I see the other passengers paying 2,000 kip (about 25 cents) each as they disembark, so I hand the boatman 2,000 kip. He tells me it is 5,000 for foreigners. I shake my head “no way” and stalk off. I am still in a lousy mood.
On the opposite bank of the Mekong is the town of Ban Xieng Maen which has, to my satisfaction, not one tourist shop or English menu. That said, it is not particularly interesting. I pass on through town and find myself on a dirt road with no inkling where it leads or how far the next village is. This seems about right. I walk slowly in the mid-morning heat, occasionally diverting from the road to explore the landscape, trying to figure out what is poisoning my mood and let it go.
I pass through several villages consisting of the typical simple wooden huts. I do not see many people; they are probably avoiding the heat. But in one village, several children see me and call out, “Sabaidee!” I wave back and return the greeting. Then they run over to me saying, “Pben!” I am confused. Their hands outstretched, they repeat, “Pben, pben!” Then I get it. They want me to give them pens.
Great. Westerners just love showing up in remote locations and handing out crap. Pens must be en vogue these days because the kids see me and immediately want one. Giving out pens, instruments of learning, probably makes tourists feel good about themselves. I’ll admit I did it the first time I was asked; I found it charming, thought of the writing implement as a tool for learning, and figured the eager young students must lack pens to do their schoolwork. Only later did it occur to me that the pen was a mere toy and a point scored in the game of “Getting Things From White People.” To be sure, pens are a step above candy. I recall reading somewhere, “Don’t hand out candy unless you will also arrange for modern dentistry in the village,” and I fully agree – well put. Yet even giving out something as innocuous as a pen reduces Westerners to sources of stuff and kills the potential for meaningful interaction.
I am ready to move on, but am not sure how to extricate. The children are practically dancing around me and chorusing, “Pben!” I could give one or two away, but I do not have enough for everyone and can foresee this quickly becoming a problem. I say, “Baw mee” – I don’t have – but it does not seem to help. I end up handing them a couple Clementine oranges from my backpack... making me no better than any other Westerner handing out stuff as a fall-back way to interact with locals. I wander on, my mood still in the form of an inward scowl.
In the next village, Ban Na Kham, I am invited to join a game of Pétanque. It is a lively game and a friendly offer, but the players are all men and are all drinking Laolao. I quickly realize in time my participation would entail that I drink as well, so I politely decline. It seems like time to turn back anyway. As I wander back through the village I get a friendly wave from some teenagers sitting in the shade. They are preparing bamboo filled with kow neow (sticky rice), repeatedly scraping the outside of each bamboo tube and leaving only a thin layer of wood that can be easily pealed away to reveal the sweet snack inside. They pull up another stool, offer me water, and we chat in a sparse mixture of my Lao and their English. I also exchange a few words with their father who is presently a bit scraped up from a rot-lom (motorcycle accident, a word I learned in a more hands-on manner than I would have liked). As I leave, they press a kow neow-filled bamboo tube into my hand. I thank them warmly and leave smiling.
One reason I love wandering around aimlessly is that without out really trying, you get to see how things work. For example. This morning I watched people bringing fruits and vegetables from Luang Prabang across to Ban Xieng Maen and selling those goods in the Ban Xieng Maen market. Walking the dirt road connecting the outlying villages to Ban Xieng Maen, I saw people heading for town empty-handed and returning with baskets full of produce. Goods thus seem to radiate outward from Luang Prabang to the little village vegetable stands.
As I am mulling over the local food distribution network, I recognize an old woman I passed earlier when we were both going in opposite directions. She has two baskets balanced on a pole over her shoulder, empty this morning but now full of leafy greens. She recognizes me too (how many random white women are walking alone along this dirt road?) and we smile at each other. Thinking she has a long, hot walk, I offer her some water. After she drinks, she takes two little cucumbers out of her basket and places them in my hand. I am moved. I say, “khorp jai lai lai” (thank you very much) and give her my last Clementine, but it still doesn’t seem like enough.
We smile again and part ways. I bite into the cucumber, which is somehow still cool and refreshing inside despite the heat of the day. As I walk on, I meditate on the phrase “cool as a cucumber," finding new meaning in it. Meanwhile, I seem to have quite lost track of my bad mood.
Back in Ban Xieng Maen, I realize it is well past lunch time and if I want to avoid tourist prices I’d better eat on this side of the Mekong. Near the boat landing, a Caucasian woman sits eating a grilled fish. I ask her how it is and she responds in a French accent, delicious. I get a fish too, sit down with her, and we have a lovely chat in French for the next hour. As for the fish, it has been stuffed with a lemongrass herb mix and grilled to perfection. The result is so delectable that I have to take a picture of the chef. (Notice the child sleeping in the background?)
Back in Luang Prabang, I return to Wat Phousi to catch the sunset view. On my way up I stop to watch a turtle ("tao") beside the path, and there get into a conversation with a middle-aged Lao man who is walking the stairs for exercise. He speaks fairly good English, but realizing I speak some Lao, he engages me in Lao. We end up walking around town for the next two hours while he gives me what may be my best-ever Lao lesson. He is speaking to me in sentences – slow and simple, to be sure – but I understand! I LOVE that light bulb moment. I remember having it with Spanish and French. When a string of sounds begins to register as words, and when a string of words starts to congeal into a sentence.
After my best-ever Lao lesson, my teacher heads home and I head to the night market for dinner. I immediately realize I have ended up squarely back in tourist-ville, though of course I should not have expected otherwise. Nonetheless in good spirits and in the mood for company, I get dinner from one of the stalls and sit down to eat with a nice French couple in their twenties (and boy is French coming in handy here in France's former colony). After dinner I go for a drink with an Italian who seemed engaging at first but cannot stop talking about himself. My need for company sated, I call it a night as soon as I politely can.
I now have a problem. When I walked to and from town last night, it was with Phouma. Moreover, I gratefully accepted his offer of a ride into town this morning. I thus never fully paid attention to the route, have never done it alone, and now have only the vaguest idea how to get back to my hotel. I have been traveling alone for months, you would think I would be in the habit of tracking of my whereabouts, yet I still manage these lapses. Amazing.
I set off in what seems like the right direction. I turn at a couple points that seem like the right places to turn. I continue on thinking, "this sure seems farther than I remember." It is 11pm. I have long since left behind brightly lit and well populated downtown. The streets are quiet and the houses dark, as people have gone to bed. Which is not to say I feel in any danger. Only problem is, there is no one on the street from whom I can ask directions. I pass some teenage boys playing cards but they do not know of my hotel. Next I see a boy closing an auto workshop and ask him. He asks his boss, who has heard of the hotel and thinks it around the next bend in the road. This fits with my very vague memory, so I resolve to go a bit farther before giving up. (And then what, return to town? Could I even find it?)
A dog suddenly runs up to a fence barking bloody murder. I nearly jump out of my skin, curse and quicken my step. Heart still racing, I think I see a familiar-looking sign and sloping gravel driveway. I approach, hoping and willing it to be the right place… Relief. Home sweet home. Boy am I glad to be here. I sink into bed and fall into blissful, blessed sleep.
Kuang Si Waterfall
On my second day in Luang Prabang, per instructions from my friend Jon, I undertake to visit Kuang Si Waterfall. I am happy to have a good reason to get out of the city. Just need to arrange transport. The options are to hire a tuk-tuk, rent a motorbike or ride a bicycle. I opt for the bike; it is cheaper, better exercise, and 35 kilometers each way sounds reasonable, right?
I am soon being left in the dust (literally) by countless tuk-tuks carting my smarter/richer/lazier counterparts to the waterfall. Some slow down to see if I regret of my cycling ambitions and want a ride; I wave ‘no thanks’ and pedal stubbornly on. But it is slow going. My rented bicycle is mediocre. Likewise my physical fitness. The way to Kuang Si seems to have more uphill than down. I begin to fear that by the time I get there I will have to turn back around. After about half an hour, I discard my pride and wave at the next tuk-tuk. The driver quotes an absurd price, I negotiate a reasonable one, he secures my bike to the roof, and off we go. I suppose I have given up and taken the easy way out, but I experience not the slightest hint of regret as the rushing air cools my sweat.
We halt in a paved parking lot filled with tuk-tuks, cars, motorbikes and bicycles. Food stalls and souvenir stands surround the entry to the waterfall area, and there are a lot of tourists. The falls are beautiful, but the place is unusually developed for Laos, more like what you might expect in Thailand. Happily, Jon gave the following additional instructions: “Facing the big falls, on your left, 2/3 of the way up, take the secret path to the secret pool.” I set out along a side path and in two minutes am alone.
During my wanderings over the next two hours, I find not one but two secret pools, neither of which I can be certain is Jon’s, but both of which are special finds. At the first pool, I have a beer and a Lao lesson with the man who manages the surrounding farmland (national parks in Laos seems to blend fairly seamlessly with other land uses). He and his wife, in yet another moving moment of kindness, invite me to share their afternoon meal. And thanks to some new words from my best-ever Lao lesson last night, we are able to communicate about where their children are studying and working.
The second spot I find is pure magic. Dark green foliage drapes heavily around pale sapphire pools. Fading late afternoon light filters weakly down through the tree canopy. There is no trail leading here, and not a soul in sight. As I slip into the water I catch my breath a bit from the cold, but there is nowhere on earth I would rather be.
I finally tear myself away from my Shangri-la; time to head back. My most memorable swim is followed by my most beautiful bike ride. Parts of the road run along the Mekong, there are very few passing vehicles, and the sunset paints the Mekong irridescent purple. I pedal slowly all the way back to Luang Prabang breathing in the soft evening air (and trying not to breathe in the bugs that are an integral part of night riding).