A Travellerspoint blog

Laos

Avoiding Vang Vieng, evading Luang Prabang

*The other side of the Mekong*

semi-overcast 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:

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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.

Luang Prabang

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.

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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.

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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?)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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Posted by sbw2109 05:03 Archived in Laos Comments (3)

Living at the French Embassy in Vientiane

*And appearing a parade*

sunny 25 °C

I am pleased to report that I completed my tour of Southern Laos and surrendered the motorbike without further incident. Almost. There was this one time I pulled over to put on a jacket because it was starting to rain. As I leaned the bike on its kickstand, I could tell the sloping ground made for a precarious balance, but figured it was just for a moment. Next thing I knew, the bike tipped over as I watched helplessly, both my arms halfway through my jacket sleeves. The right rear view mirror broke (I later replaced it for $5 so the rental company would not charge me). Far worse, when I righted the bike, it wouldn’t start.

Here’s the thing. Laos has a way of eliciting manic emotions from me. No sooner was I sinking into a toxic mood as I battled with the kick-start, than a young woman from the adjacent village was walking towards me, attempting the kick-start herself with full gusto, and suddenly the motor was running and I was brimming over with gratitude. It was kind of like that time I got a flat tire in New Zealand not ten meters from the AA truck. If nothing else, this trip has confirmed I have strange luck. Which is probably how I wind up living at the French Embassy in Vientiane. As background, one more minor event towards the end of my motorbike odyssey:

My last stop on the way back to Pakse is Tad Gneuang Waterfall, the site of my first Lao lesson; I want to visit to my friend Boualy, and get another installment of Lao learning of course. While cooling off down by the falls, I also end up talking with a French girl named Cora who works at the Embassy in Vientiane. She invites me to call on her when I pass through the capital, saying I should just go to the French Embassy and ask for her by name. I would have expected an email or contact number, but I am starting to figure out that nothing here works the way I expect.

Entering Laos by way of the south provided a particular introduction to the country. Everything is less developed than what I grew accustomed to in Thailand. The roads are rough, the houses basically made of sticks, the role of public toilets most often fulfilled by the great outdoors, etc. There are few westerners to be found outside the main cities, and likewise few Laotians who speak any English. Now, after some ten days of feeling like Laos is truly the ends of the earth, I board a ‘VIP sleeping bus’ for Vientiane. The sleeping bus is set up with beds on either side of the aisle, two people to a berth. I’ve heard tell of some sketchy situations, but happily, I am sharing with a Lao girl around my age and nothing untoward transpires.

Arriving in the capital I am utterly flummoxed to find large government buildings, proper paved roads, enough cars to cause traffic, and coffee shops with English-speaking staff where people on laptops browse Facebook courtesy the free wi-fi while sipping a macchiato. A bit of reverse culture shock, I suppose, and not at all in keeping with the Laos I have come to know. It’s kind of a downer, actually. Especially when I check into a hostel and am suddenly surrounded by a bunch of other backpackers who are either coming from or going to Vang Vieng (a once-tranquil landscape now known for hazardous tubing and excessive drinking, usually enjoyed simultaneously). I leave my stuff in the hostel and go trudge around town. My eyes soon glaze over from tourist restaurants and travel agencies and I am feeling a bit despondent. It is only out of a sense of wanting to keep my word that I dutifully find my way to the French Embassy and ask for Cora. Then suddenly she is walking out to greet me, is so happy I came, will show me around town this weekend, and would I like to stay with her in her apartment here? – Really, it’s okay? – Yes of course, she just needs a copy of my passport so I can come in and out.

And so it is that after one night in the hostel, I move into the French embassy. Inside the high walls, the grounds inside are landscaped with colorful flowers and large graceful trees, and the buildings are white with blue shutters. Cora’s apartment is the closest thing to a home that I’ve seen in a long time: I have my own room where I can unpack (a pretty quick undertaking when one is living out of a backpack so it is more of a symbolic act), a kitchen where I can make tea (another small yet important detail that really makes me feel at home), and a living area where we sit drinking said tea and chatting.

Friday night we get dinner at a local French expat hangout with a live band and excellent French food. Just like the good old days, I can’t help thinking, the colonizers bring their homeland with them to the jungle. But I’m not complaining – my omelet is delicious and the vibe is good. On Saturday we go to a temple at the edge of town where there is a sauna and meditation workshop. There is sitting meditation, which is old hat for me, and walking meditation, which is something new. Walking, we all do it all the time, seems like such a simple thing. Walking meditation, I discover, is altogether different. It’s not “hard,” exactly. But it is mindful, which I suppose is precisely the point. I find myself focusing on each subsequent millimeter of my foot as it makes contact with ground, the slow transfer of weight onto the new standing foot, the seamless peeling up of the sole of the other foot… You don’t cover a lot of ground this way, but it’s cool. Try it sometime.

Afterwards, just outside the temple, we stop to watch a game of “Kataw” in progress. It is like volleyball but played with your feet, and the physical feats it demands are easily worthy of ESPN coverage.
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Other highlights of the weekend include:

Cora taking me to some of her favorite restaurants. This one is a little café tucked away down at the end of an alley, picturesque as you please, serves good Laotian food and great coffee. In addition to being most grateful for this kind of insider local knowledge, I really enjoy Cora's company. Her taking me in this weekend is one of those random acts of kindness where you hope to someday reciprocate and/or just 'pay it forward.'
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A youth soccer game between a French team from the capital and a Hmong village half an hour’s drive away. Multiple generations of the village come out to watch, and the cows mostly stayed off the field. Afterwards, the French team presents the Hmong village with some balls, nets and extra practice equipment. Neither team could speak more than a few words with the other, but Laos is reminding me time and again that goodwill doesn’t always need language.
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A concert followed by parade of antique cars. Apparently Vientiane has a sizeable community of both Laotians and foreigners who enjoy restoring and maintaining old cars. Naturally, they wanted to stage a parade with said cars. Naturally the parade kicked off with a concert given by a French band playing American rock numbers in a parking lot flanking the Laos National Assembly and the famed golden Pha Tat Luang temple. And naturally, when it came time for the queue of cars to drive off, Cora and I were invited to jump into different cars and join the tour. Our caravan made a slow loop through town, honking and waving as we passed the Patuxai monument, drove along the Mekong, and eventually completed the circle. And that is my story of living at the French Embassy and appearing in a parade. That's 'my' car in the photo below, and check out the photo gallery for a few more pics of Vientiane!
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Posted by sbw2109 06:00 Archived in Laos Comments (2)

My Salavan home: Tata Guesthouse

*How to eat snails. Plus, what you miss by sleeping in*

sunny 21 °C

I would love to be able to say that I drove a motorbike around Southern Laos without mishap. If there were to be a mishap, I would like to be able to say I was not at fault and that it was due to circumstances beyond my control. If I were to be in any way responsible for any kind of mishap, I would hope I had a good rationale to justify my decisions... Alas, as it is, I went too fast over a too-rickety bridge, my favorite light blue shirt is ripped, my arm is bruised my favorite shade of dark blue, and all I can say is, “I knew better.”

I have no light blue thread, so instead I select light pink. As I sit in the open air lobby of my guesthouse sewing my shirt, an adorable little girl comes and sits beside me. I take out some colorful molding clay (just something I carry around, you know) and we start making things and trading the Lao and English words for fish, apple and the like.
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I don’t know the Lao word for ‘live,’ so I ask her where she sleeps. She says, “here,” which I take to mean her parents run this guesthouse and she lives here. Presently, the man who showed me the room, her father, appears and says to us, “gin kow” - time to eat. He is inviting me to eat with them. I shyly say okay, thank you, and join them at a round stone table. His wife brings out a tray with several dishes and basket of sticky rice. “Ahahn Lao,” she says - Lao food. I nod and smile enthusiastically - yes I want to try Lao food!

The father’s name is Roiyan (pronounced roi-YAN). His wife is Maniyum (pronounced man-ee-YOOM). Their daughter is Tata (pronounced ta-TAH). Which makes sense when I recall that the lodge is named Tata Guesthouse - very sweet. This being my first Lao meal with Lao people, I wait to see how it works. Roiyan takes some sticky rice, balls it up in his fist, dips it into a main dish to soak up some broth, and pops it in his mouth. Maniyum spoons some food into Tata’s and then her own bowl. From this I gather that you can either dip sticky rice in the food, or spoon it into your bowl. Very well. Besides sticky rice there are three dishes: A salad of minced chicken, some hard-boiled eggs, and a bowl of… snails. They are in a dark, murky soup with some greens. I have never eaten snails before but - not about to insult my hosts’ hospitality - I follow their lead and sip a spoonful of the broth.

The first impression on the palate is that of river muck. On the second and third taste, I detect more salty and earthy notes to the flavor, and it begins to grow on me. Roiyan spoons a couple snails into his bowl, picks one up, puts it to his mouth, and sucks the snail out of its shell with two quick little slurps. I observe this, then try it myself. A full minute later I am still trying, generating all the suction I can muster, the muscles in my mouth are fatiguing, and the snail is not even close to coming loose. Who would have thought it was so difficult to eat snails? Meanwhile little Tata, who of course has no problem slurping her snails, brings me a toothpick. We all laugh as I concede defeat and manually extract the creature. I now have this gummy thing little grey on the point of my toothpick. Still unsure if I want to eat a snail, but feeling like I am committed now, I pop him (her?) into my mouth. The verdict: Not too slimy, and pleasantly chewy. No wonder the French like them. I bet I would enjoy escargots in garlic and butter even more. As we continue eating I periodically try sucking the snails out of their shell, but each time have to resort to the toothpick. Here is the family, Roiyan and Tata effortlessly eating snails.
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Over dinner, we exchange English and Lao words. I am not shy to get out my notebook and write new words as I learn them. Tata also has a notebook for learning English in school, and I think her parents appreciate that I teach her some English. When we have all eaten our fill, Maniyum brings out a box of long, brown, hard-shelled fruits. Tamarind, or “makkham” in Lao. I have had tamarind-flavored sauces before, but never the fruit itself. Maniyum takes one, peels the crackly skin off the sticky fruit, and hands it to me. I take a bite. Sweet, a little tangy, and really delicious. This gives rise to my first proper, spontaneously uttered Lao sentence: “Khoy mak makkham” - I like tamarind.
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I wake up around 9am the next morning. Roiyan is around so we sit at the table and chat, getting by on his partial English and my nascent Lao. I am wearing a tank top and have forgotten about the massive bruise on my arm until he points and inquires with concern if it hurts. “Noy neung,” I say - a little. He asks if I have put medicine on it. Assuming he means to ask if I have cleaned the minor abrasion, I say yes, I put alcohol. “No, no good enough,” he pronounces. He disappears behind a door, returns with a small tin of something that smells like Tiger Balm, and very gently applies it to my arm. I am touched. Literally and figuratively.

Roiyan asks me if I will leave today. Probably, I say. He encourages me to stay one more day. I say I’ll think it over, and head to the market for breakfast. I wander through, amazed as always at the variety of foods and random objects you find in Asian markets. I finally pick out a noodle stand with a central location, order a bowl of phoe, and just sit and watch. To my right, a woman squats by a pile of neatly folded siins (traditional Lao skirts) and bargains with her customers. In front of me are piles of various vegetables, their proprietors weighing and selling when customers appear and otherwise talking with their neighbors or just sitting quietly. The aisle has a constant stream of people of all ages, all of them Lao – I am the only white face. I watch their eyes, hair, clothing and affect as they pass, and they regard me with equal curiosity. Some smile, others look away, and the children tend to just stare. I take my time over the phoe; it is a good prop for my real mission, which to sit here and observe. I try to get a feel for the rhythm and flow of the place, feeling like I am peering through a hole at a different planet. At some point the thought strikes me: “These people, everyone making up this exotic and fascinating picture around me … They are here every day, shopping and selling, then they go home and make food for their families… This is their daily life I am voyeuristically watching, not some movie set erected for my entertainment.”

I am starting to suspect that Laos rewards the patient traveler, that the simple act of waiting and watching can lead you to interesting experiences. I will stick around Salavan one more day and see what happens. This afternoon I decide to head for a weaving village called Toumlon that looks to be reasonable driving distance. Key fact about road travel in Laos: Distance is not the whole story. The map is really, really not the terrain.

First I reach a section of highway that is being resurfaced. They have placed large tree trunks clear across the road, even some sections that look perfectly intact to me. The road is somewhat elevated, and by these blocked off sections are tire tracks leading down to a gravel/dirt detour alongside the paved road. The slope down to the side road is way too steep for my comfort, but since all the other cars and bikes are managing, I hold my breath and go for it. I make it down in one piece. On the way back up, I have to put the bike in first gear and help it along with my feet. This repeats several times bypassing several segments of roadwork. I finally reach the turn-off leading to Toumlon and heave a sigh of relief, thank goodness I’m done with the on-again-off-again road for now.

The road to Toumlon soon becomes dirt. A very rough dirt road. I bump slowly along for half an hour, the only other occasional vehicles I see are trucks and tractors. Finally, I reach what looks like an X-games motocross adventure course. There is a steep slope down to a nearly dry riverbed littered with large rocks. I am fairly certain that even if I were to make it down without breaking the bike or myself, there is no way I would get back up. Not looking to have two motorcycle accidents in two days, reasoning that I have already seen a weaving village, and figuring God gave me a brain so I could God-forbid use it once in a while, I make an about face.

I go back along the bumpy dirt road, back along the on-again-off-again highway, and begin to relax my shoulders only once I regain the highway leading back to Salavan. I am once again passing lots of intriguing paths leading off into the forest. With plenty of time to spare until evening, I pull over, park the bike in a small clearing, and start walking. The path looks like it used to handle 4WD vehicles but in recent years has not been maintained, perhaps only for foot traffic. With golden afternoon sunlight filtering through the trees, this could be a trail in any national park. I wonder who uses it now and for what. When I stop walking, in the absence of my own footsteps it is eerily quiet. After about half an hour, I sit down in the middle of the trail to listen to the forest, watch the spiders and ants, and study some Lao (I always have my notebook handy and am adding words and studying daily).
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I get back to Tata Guesthouse as night is falling. Instead of going into my room and closing the door, I sit down in the lobby to read, then make some more clay animals with Tata. Presently, just as I was hoping, I am invited to eat with the family again. The menu is abut the same as yesterday. Roiyan shows me again how to eat the snails, just those two quick slurps. It looks so very easy. I try again hoping for better luck tonight, but am unsuccessful. Still, I attempt to suck out each snail the Lao way before resorting to the toothpick. On the fourth snail, I accidentally do something different and feel the meat of the snail flicker out and touch the tip of my tongue. So there IS a trick! I experiment with my inadvertent innovation. Turns out you have to kind of roll your tongue, partially cover the opening of the spiral shell, then vacuum. Closer, closer, this feels like it may work… All at once, like magic, the animal is shoots out of its shell, and with a slurp-pop and I have him in my mouth. “I did it!” I cry in my excitement, holding aloft the empty shell. We all laugh, then document the occasion with a couple more photos.
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Meanwhile I am now managing pidgin sentences in Lao, making possible the following negotiation. Maniyum goes to the market every morning to makes papaya salad, and I ask if I can go with her tomorrow. She says yes. I ask what time she will leave. Six in the morning. I have gotten in the habit of sleeping until I feel like getting up, usually around 9am, but the prospect of visiting the market with a local as opposed being a total outsider is sufficient motivation for an early rising. I say thank you, dinner was very tasty, see you at six tomorrow morning!

Mornings at Tata Guesthouse: What you miss by sleeping in

I have begun to suspect that a lot goes on in Laos while I am still snoozing. To my detriment I have been too lazy to seek out what I may be missing. Today, though, my alarm goes off at 5:45am. I instantly regret committing to an early morning showing. Bleary-eyed, I dress and wander out to the stone table shortly before six. It is still dark.

Roiyan appears and tells me, maybe-I-think, that he is making rice. Whenever I do not understand something said in Lao, my first hope is that the speaker will simply show me to whatever they are talking about. Sure enough, Roiyan leads me through the family’s living quarters and out to the backyard where a woven basket sits steaming atop a charcoal fire. He lifts the lid for me to see that beneath the billowing steam is khow neow, sticky rice. He takes three small handfuls of the khow neow, forms them into three little balls and places them on a leaf. This he places, along with a candle, some incense and a bottle of water, at the base of a tamarind tree. He lights the incense and says a quick prayer. The family’s living area has an altar, a shelf secured to the wall about eight feet off the ground. Using a stepladder to reach, Roiyan repeats the offering on this altar.

Next, Tata runs out into the yard stark naked. She sees catches sight of me and smiles as she skitters over to a large water drum where she scoops up some water in the plastic bowl, takes a sip, then gives herself a little shower. My room has a telephone style shower with a heater so I can take hot showers, but of course the family does not live like that; most people in Laos wash themselves with a bowl and a basin. I am fascinated by everything I am seeing, but wonder if I am intruding. No one seems to be uncomfortable with my presence, so I decide to just be a fly on the wall. Maniyum now appears in her night clothes, goes over to a little cooking area (the “kitchens” here are hardly recognizable as such to the Western eye), and spoons some cooked vegetables into a plastic bag, which Roiyan takes from her with a nod and a smile. This he brings out front along with the basket of sticky rice and a bottle of water. I follow him out to the road. Now he is trying to tell me something, but I cannot understand. He pantomimes carrying an object at hip level with both hands. From his and Tata’s faces I can tell this is something quite obvious to them, that I should really know what they are saying, but I cannot get it. Once again, I use the wait-and-see strategy. Presently, ten saffron-clad monks file down the street, each one carrying at hip level a large beaten metal bowl. So that’s it – monks. Head bowed respectfully, Roiyan places a handful of sticky rice into each monk’s pot. The last monk takes the bottle of water and slowly pours it out, all the monks singing a chant as the stream splatters on the ground.

It is 7am. Time to go to the market. Maniyum and Tata get on her bike, I follow them on mine. We drive ten minute to her stall, which seems to be shared with another business which sells khow neow (sticky rice) baskets and assorted furniture. Maniyum begins sweeping the area (though to be honest, everything in Laos is so perpetually dusty I am amazed that people bother sweeping every day). Tata helps wipe down the tables. Maniyum now assembles her ingredients and starts throwing things into a mortar and pestle. First she puts several chilies, adds some sugar and spices, then grinds. Next come a couple small tomatoes, a handful of shredded papaya, a quick pour of some mystery liquid, and another round of mixing. She puts the results it in a bowl and presents it to me with a basket of sticky rice. Ah, sticky rice. Tasty and filling, it appears to be ubiquitous in Laos, eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I’m pretty sure it is the nutritional equivalent of having about six bagels with your meal, by the way, but I don’t much care.

The papaya salad is spicy and tangy, and the sticky rice is perfect for soaking up the juice. Tata and I eat while Maniyum chats with her neighbor. And I chat with them - I am able to communicate that I am heading for a town called Sekong today, and one further south called Attapeu tomorrow. They are impressed with my Lao, especially when I tell them I have been studying for all of five days. Then they go back to talking rapidly with each other, but to my delight, I understand when Maneeyoom tells her friend that I “pasaa gang Lao, gin gang hoie” – I speak Lao well and eat snails well. I swell with pride on both counts.

Before I leave, Maniyum presses some more tamarind into my hand. She refuses to let me pay for the papaya salad, or for that matter my dinner the last two nights. I am sad to go. I want to tell Roiyan and Maniyum what kind and special people they are, to thank them for letting me into their lives. I want to see what Tata will look like in five or ten years, want her to come visit me in the US someday and I will help her more with English. Instead, it is all just smiles and hugs.

Posted by sbw2109 14:28 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Road trip! - Southern Laos by motorbike

*Abusing the rental bike and my physical person*

sunny 21 °C

Having passed my ‘test day’ on the motorbike without incident, I decide the road trip is on. I pack up, check out, and carefully secure my pack onto the back of the bike with a long rope. Once I am satisfied with the rather elaborate system of loops and knots, I strap on my helmet and throw a leg over the bike. The bag immediately slides to one side, pulls the bike over, and it hits the ground. This is observed without comment by several Lao people seated nearby. I sigh, right the bike and try simply wearing the pack on my back with its weight resting on the seat behind me. This works fine. I nod at my taciturn audience, leave the guesthouse, merge onto the main street and get out of town. Here comes the cliché moment in the movie: Just me and the open road, wide sky above and mountains around… I totally get why people take motorcycle trips. This is exhilarating.

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I keep passing intriguing little turnoffs, and what’s the point of traveling by motorbike if not to explore the such things? I take a little trail leading off into jungle and the main road instantly feels miles away. The terrain is rough, I’m not sure the bike was made for this, but it must lead somewhere, surely just around that next bend… Half an hour later, after bumping the bike gingerly along what I have termed my ‘self-guided off-roading jungle trek,’ I have found nothing. Well, nothing other than intricately patterned butterflies and gorgeous forest views at every turn. I regain the main road without incident, thinking I rather like roads that get me using all four gears.

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My next stop is a village where women weave traditional cloth in an open air pavilion just off the main road. A nearby sign proclaims, ‘model healthy village.’ They immediately try to sell me their work, pushing a little hard for my taste, but are kind and friendly nonetheless. I feel guilty I did not come to buy, and wish I could explain my backpack is heavy enough. And as it is, all I can communicate is that I am from the United States and I am currently en route from Pakse. At which point I realize, to my near-shock, that I am having partial language success: My attempts are being understood!… But they are garnering responses I can’t begin to understand.

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I eventually thank them and drive on, musing that something about the weaving village felt a little Truman Show-esque: Here is a perfect box into which you can drop your well-intended tourist dollars in exchange for some authentic local handicrafts and leave feeling virtuous. My inner optimist scolds: Hey, this brings money into the community while supporting a traditional lifestyle, what’s your gripe? The cynic grumbles, I don’t know, it felt somehow inauthentic, and I suspect their pushy selling behavior comes not from their traditional culture but the growing number of white visitors… I go back and forth for a while reaching no grand conclusion, but the whole thing gets me questioning what I expect villages to be like, what is ‘authentic,’ how I expect people to react to me, and whether that is reasonable.

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Next I take a road leading through a village and then to a waterfall. At first I have the very beautiful and tranquil spot to myself, and I marvel over the view. A young French couple shows up, and I practice my French on them. Then a boy and a girl from the nearby village arrive, and they practice their English on me: “Bhen!” It takes me several repetitions to figure out they are asking for a pen. I am happy to oblige with a spare from my backpack. We play around for a while, the boy shows off with his slingshot, I teach them how to use my camera, and the whole encounter is quite lovely and charming. (If I may foreshadow, since I am admittedly publishing this late: At the time this pen thing seems simple and harmless, but it comes back to haunt me later.)

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With the sun beginning to sink, I head for the nearby Tad Lo waterfall, reputedly a popular backpacker spot, figuring I'll to find a guesthouse there. As I approach, I quickly see that it is quite the backpackerville. After a day of driving through remote countryside and rustic villages, the sight of squarely built guesthouses, English signs and people walking around with big backpacks (nevermind that I have one myself) somehow offends me. This is not Laos. No way I am staying here. Inordinately angered by this scene, I decide I will just see the waterfall then turn right around and leave.

The falls are reached via a wooden bridge built as follows: The bottom layer of boards lie perpendicular to the length of the bridge. On top of that are two tire tracks made of boards running lengthwise. Picture it like this and you get the basic idea -
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- but picture it with narrower tire tracks, half the tire track boards breaking/missing, and some of the base layer lacking as well so in places you can see clear down to the water below. Now then. Rather than parking the bike and walking across, or even driving slowly across using my feet for balance, in my aggravation I proceed with a ‘get this over with’ attitude. I can already tell the waterfall is totally un-spectacular, and why did I even come here…

My front wheel falls into a gap in the boards, twists, and sends the bike shooting off to the side side. I wrestle for control, lose, and go careening into the railing, my backpack throwing me forward and adding mass to the collision. After the impact, once I realize I am okay, I am furious (at myself of course). I look around fuming, noting several backpackers in a café overlooking the river. I can tell they saw the accident and perhaps have some mild interest or concern, but no one comes over to see if I am okay. Lord I can’t wait to get out of here.

I gather my scattered belongings and senses and take stock. I will have some colorful bruises but nothing is broken; good. My pack has a couple rips in the canvas; okay. The bike still starts, but the gear shift is somehow caught such that it will not drive; NOT okay. It appears one of the foot pedals is bent and blocking the gear shift. I take out my Leatherman. At this point, two young Laotion men pass by. I try to ask in very broken Lao if they know a repair shop nearby, or how to fix what’s wrong. We spend the next fifteen minutes fidgeting with the Leatherman and ultimately jumping up and down on that bent foot pedal. I am ready to give up when suddenly it works. I thank them profusely in every language I know how.

It is almost night. There are guesthouses everywhere. I should really stay here. But I cannot bring myself to spend one more minute at Tad Lo. Thus I am back on the road, driving in the dark, bugs hitting me in the face, in a really toxic mood. The next town, Salavan, is about an hour away. I have time to lecture myself: “Nice job, Sharon. Really, brilliant going there. What, you couldn’t spare five minutes to walk? And why are you in a bad mood now? You put yourself in one, that’s why. What are you going to do when you get to Salavan? I know you, you’ll schlep around with your big backpack in the dark trying to find the best deal on a guesthouse which will save you about three US dollars and make absolutely no difference in your life. You know what? Don’t even start. Just find the first decent place to sleep and take it. Think you can handle that?”

I reach Salavan, start passing guesthouses, and randomly pick one to ask the price. A man with a kind demeanor shows me a comfortable looking room and quotes the price at 50,000 kip, a little less than $7. I hesitate – I could probably find something for 30,000 or 40,0000 kip – but recall my lecture and decide to stay. I drop my stuff in the room and settle down in the open air lobby area with a needle and thread to sew the tear in my shirt.

Posted by sbw2109 00:30 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Crossing over

*Introduction to Lao language and culture*

22 °C

I like to check out the market when I arrive in a new town. It is usually interesting, easy to find, will give you a feel for where you are, and has something good to eat. My first act of orientation upon waking in Pakse, Laos is thus to wander through the market. It is enormous and baffling. I must have grown accustomed to the Thailand markets and without realizing it come to recognize at a glance the fruit stands, vegetable stands, flowers-and-incense stands, knick-knack shacks, and so on. Here in Laos, I cannot quickly ‘read’ what I am seeing. It is just different enough to confuse. My eyes bounce from vibrant chilies to veritable mountains of cabbages to trays of cooked fish swarming with flies to a woman lifting a squawking chicken by its feet… This place feels so foreign. If I want to get a sweet snack (which I prettymuch always do), I don’t even know what to ask for. To make matters worse, people here clearly speak much less English than in Thailand, making it harder for a newcomer to access. My thoughts swirl. I am in a new country, I need to learn the food, I need to learn the language, I need to learn the culture, I need to learn… basically everything.

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My Thai language efforts were highly unsatisfactory, perhaps thwarted by the whole tonal thing. I managed to learn the numbers and a few other essentials like horng nam (bathroom) and ka-nom (dessert), but my attempts at any more sophisticated communication were generally met with laughter or – even worse – blank stares. Very disheartening. Lao is likewise a tonal language, so I am already glum about my prospects. I would need to find a Lao person who speaks good English (rare here) and is willing to patiently coach me on the difference between kai to mean far, kai to mean close, kai to mean egg, and a couple other versions. It also wouldn’t hurt if (s)he could explain the food, social customs and such… Really, what I need is a language and cultural broker. Good luck, I say sarcastically to myself.

On the upside, I do know one word that will be of imminent use: Phoe. I stop at a small roadside food stall and manage to make myself understood. Five minutes later I get a steaming bowl of noodles and broth. On the side is a heaping plate of mint, basil, lettuce and green beans alongside. It is delicate, fragrant and warming. (Yes, I have just come from the market where the vegetables are sitting in dusty piles on the ground. Yes, it is highly unlikely that these greens have been thoroughly rinsed in distilled, safe-for-tourists drinking water. And yes, I happily ignore this knowledge.)

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After phoe, on to business. One of my last acts before leaving Koh Phangan, having mastered the automatic motor scooter, was to gain some familiarity with the semiautomatic variety. Not wanting to spend too much time at it – there were vacant hammocks waiting to be occupied – I learned just enough so that I could later rent one, drive off, and learn on the road. Time now to implement. After a quick look around to gauge prices, I hand over my passport in exchange for a 100cc Honda Wave. It is the lowest motorbike on the pricing totem pole so I know it is not exactly state of the art. But I am not exactly the most discriminating driver, this being my third time ever.

My fondest wish is to do a road trip, but I decide to be responsible: I will first take a day to make sure I actually can drive the thing. I head about an hour down the road, and all goes well. I feel pretty comfortable, and actually prefer having gears. There are now several waterfall turnoff’s nearby. Figuring any waterfall will do, I randomly pick one called Tad Gnuang. As I pay the nominal fee for entry and motorbike parking, I notice that the man taking my money speaks excellent English. Wheels turn quickly and I ask him point-blank for what I want: “Say.. After I visit the waterfall, can I buy you a cup of coffee and you teach me some Lao?” He consents. I spend a few minutes checking out the waterfall, which is a very nice one, then return excited for my Lao lesson.

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My teacher’s name is Boualy. For several years he worked with an ecotourism company in Vientiane, the capital, then returned home to help develop Tad Gnuang. After covering some basic Lao words and phrases, we get into a long conversation about sustainable development and his plans to make Tad Gnuang a community asset where tourism dollars help fund a school, library and clinic, and where visitors can get an authentic taste of local culture. Laos, for most of its history, has been relatively remote but now it is changing by the minute. It is interesting to explore the economic, education, infrastructure, health and social aspects of its rapid development. We discuss all this seated in an open air cafe surrounded by leafy green. A girl is slowly cooking bananas and potatoes over a brick oven/grill. The local coffee, grown right here on the Bolaven Plateau, makes me smile and sit up straight with every sip. Moreover, over the course of our conversation, the family running the place smilingly bring us shots of Lao Lao (local whisky – tasty but strong!), then two roasted bananas, then cups of tea. They are incredibly warm, and like that I am interested in their language and country. I think am starting to get an idea of Lao hospitality.

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I leave only after several hours, and only because it is getting dark. I stop at Pakse’s night market for dinner. Having no idea what anything is, I point to a pot of stuff that looks good, nod yes for sticky rice, and soon find myself with a hot bag of food and nowhere to eat. I drive to a spot overlooking the Mekong river and settle down on a rock. Note: Here in Laos, as in cultures around the world, eating is a highly social activity. Families share meals, period, and I think Laotians find it a rather sad sight when foreigners dine alone. Not five minutes pass before a man from a shop across the street comes over and indicates I should join his family at a table in front of their shop. They bring plates and utensils for my food (which I was eating with fingers out of the bag), hand me a bottle of water, and sit with me while I eat, attempting what little communication is possible with my ‘noy neung’ (‘little bit’) Lao. I am wowed, to say the least. I eventually thank them, return to my guest house,and fall asleep thinking that most of what has happened today, I cannot picture happening anywhere else I have ever been.

Posted by sbw2109 03:21 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

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