Monthly Archives: April 2013

Water Bucket and Beer in Hand

It seems that a month has gone by since our last post with all that we have done. Computer labs are just one of the many things that aren’t worth keeping open when there’s a giant party going on!

Our last post was when we reached Luang Prabang and were just seeing a sneak preview of the Laos New Year celebrations. For the three and a half days we were in Luang Prabang, we wore our bathing suits the entire time. With nothing else to defend myself, I kept the plastic cup that my fruit shake came in. It was perfectly deceiving! Random buckets and large tubs filled with water lined the sidewalks and served as base camps for armies, so I filled my cup and we walked. People thought I just had drinking water until they tried to get me wet and got it first! Sometimes I would scoop water right out of the bowl full that was about to be dumped on me, or race around and steal from their source. Often this surprised them enough that I got away free! The best ones were the people that were standing on the curb with a bucket full and paying attention to an upcoming car without noticing us walking up from the sidewalk, in which case I would sneak up and tip the bucket right back on them. But no matter what we couldn’t avoid being drenched constantly! Water guns and buckets were everywhere. Buckets were dumped on us from passing trucks, from behind fences and over walls, from innocent looking bystanders and tiny children… you get the point. It was nice to see that people of all ages participated equally, accepted all as fair, and took everything with a smile.

Trucks, old jeeps, and tuk-tuks cruised the streets packed with people dancing, tires touching wheel wells.

Outside our hotel on the second day the owners and their family supplied the water and buckets. They were one large group you couldn’t get away from, so we joined them! Bryan went all out, especially taking aim for the unfortunate drivers with their windows down! Vehicles stalled from water intake and some just quit altogether.  We met Tina, now a US citizen but originally from Laos and cousin to the owner, who informed us about the meanings to it all and told us her own story. The water symbolizes washing away the old and welcoming the new (they must have a lot to wash away). The little birds in cages and small live fish in buckets that we saw being sold everywhere were similarly symbolic in releasing the old and welcoming the new (they were all released). Tina also told us about how she escaped Laos in 1978 with some relatives after finishing college due to communist oppression. Once they made it out of Loas they were kidnapped in Thailand where they starved and (pause, we drink offered beer, continue) begged for three days that they could get money from her cousin in the states. For six weeks (pause, buckets poured on us, continue) the men came with guns to find out if the money had arrived yet. If they were not able to get money, (pause, Tina runs in the street to get pay back, continue) she claims she would have been sold to the sex slave just as another cousin of hers was. But they got the money and made it safely to the states. She told us in multiple ways she is so grateful to the U.S., and stated her hopes that Laos will become a nation she can be proud of but, although it has come a long ways (pause, admire and laugh at the free spirit teens dancing in the back of a passing truck, continue) since then, she is very unsure about its future.

After Luang Prabang we took a bus to Luang Namtha where we decided to spend a few days doing nothing and saving money. This town is far North, not far from China, and is close to Nam Ha National Protected Area. The town itself is small and was especially quiet because most the locals were still out of town celebrating the New Year. We had a hotel with a nice patio that was surrounded by tropical plants, perfect for sitting and doing nothing. On the fourth day we set out to see what trouble we might find on a three day trek into Nam Ha, which is said to be some of the thickest jungle in Laos and still has some larger wild animals. The trek was a really fantastic experience, and as of yet our best paid “tour”. The food was carried and made by locals and was fantastic! Our first lunch consisted of sticky rice, spicy eggplant, pork, and cooked vegetables, spread out over banana leaves and eaten with our hands at a bamboo hut. After a few hours of hilly hiking we reached our first camp of a large bamboo shelter for sleeping, one for cooking, and a small one holding a “western toilet” (I feel for the person who had to carry it up there). There was a really cool spider in that last hut, not far from your face if you used the toilet. In the photo album there is a picture with Bryan’s hand by it for scale.

Our second day we had to work those legs pretty hard, but well worth it. We spotted a large, very poisonous centipede that was shedding its skin and, partially immobile, being attacked by large ants. Our guide saved it. We also saw a couple very large spiders up in trees. One was approximately the length of my hand!
At the end of the second day we came to the first of two secluded villages where we were given the option to buy some things from the women and children like bracelets and woven bags that they made. It was a weird but humbling feeling to be sitting there with half of the children surrounding you being naked and staring blankly at you, and with a group of men in their underwear walking by to go fishing.

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That night we stayed in the neighboring village next to a small river. It was beautiful. Pigs, dogs, and chickens roamed around us and children played in the water. The people from these two villages have to walk the same trail that we took on the third day for any supplies, to refil the Beer Laos stock, or for medical needs. It was about a four hour trek up a small mountain and then back down to reach the highway. That was the only day where we could get much of a panorama view because of the denseness of the forest. One thing to note is that we saw a whole lot of evidence of “slash and burn” farming that is taking root with all the people in Northern Laos, including these remote villages. Much of it is for Chinese exports. We passed by several areas that were freshly burnt and still burning. One must understand that these people are trying to make a living, so some of it is to be expected, but we were seeing really large areas, and far too many areas, of slash and burn everywhere. Unfortunately the forests aren’t going to win because the Chinese have a hold on Northern Laos (it was pointed out to us that Chinese own much of the property and many of the businesses in town) and the government is too corrupt. When we asked our guide how many tigers still live in the area, he answered “1 or 2”.

In other news, we made it this morning back to Vientiane after 24 hours on a bus and one break down. Nothing big, just no headlights or other electrical. But they fixed it! We will be here for a total of 12 hours and then will be on a night bus to Savannakhet in the South. Wish us luck!

Happy New Year!!!

Have quite a bit to catch-up on as computers have been a bit harder to get on and wifi speeds have been super slow.  We made it to Laos in a record 24 hour bus ride.  It could have been a bit faster but going across the border also included a nice trek from the Vietnam border station to the Laos border station.  Also, we had a three hour stop to pick up about sixteen locals to squeeze into the already “full” bus.  Once we made it to the bus station we hooked up with some others to make a fun Tuk Tuk ride into the city center of Vientiane.  Vientiane is the capital but it is pretty quiet and almost seemed like a small town.  The currency here is called the Kip and rates about 7,700 to 1 US dollar.  Sort of throws you off after you have been dealing with such bigger numbers in Vietnam.  That night Taner, Janett (a German couple), Megan, and I got to enjoy some scrumptious crickets and larva with some Beer Lao.  If there wasn’t any seasoning they just would have been crunchy and tasteless.  The larva in specific were just like paper.

The next day we rented some bikes and cruised around town with Taner and Janett taking in the sights.  It really only takes a day to do that, but is really enjoyable as it is pretty easy to get around with traffic being so much less than Vietnam. We stopped at the Patuxi which is a large tower structure made from concrete that the US donated to Laos to build a new airport runway. While we stopped there a large school group showed up and about every student had a survey for us to fill out. It was nuts! I didn’t think we would ever escape them. We had to b.s. our way through nearly all of it, hope they got a good data pool! Vientiane has a really nice and lively night market as we enjoyed some scrumptious grilled sausages and other balled meats that I couldn’t figure out what they were.  Probably pork mixed with something else.

Back on the bus again.  This time it was only a few hours, but for Megan it might as well been twenty-four hours.  This bus ride was really fast through constant forty-five degree turns.  About half way through Megan was getting motion sick.  I felt pretty bad for her as I was just mad because I couldn’t read or watch the tablet with the constant hard turns and bumpy road throwing us around.   Luckily we made it to Vang Vieng stomachs intact.  Vang Vieng was known for it’s river tubing and copious amounts of bars lining the river.  Here recently they closed nearly all the bars down on the river as about once a month someone would die tubing.  Megan and I actually found it most relaxing  and quite enjoyable. Not that I couldn’t enjoy a few cold ones while drifting a little over 4km in about 3.5 hours, but the absence of blaring beats and hundreds of inebriated backpackers was ok. Just recently before the river bar restrictions were put in place, they were averaging 800 tubers a day. We heard they are now averaging only 100 tubers a day. In the evenings we hung out at some restaurants that continuously play either Friends or Family Guy non-stop.  It was hard to leave as the fresh fruit shakes are so amazing. The next day we rented some mountain bikes and cruised out through local villages to check out some caves.  The first one wasn’t too impressive but the second one was pretty awesome.  It took us a better part of an hour to circle through just the main cavern.  Outside the cave there was a real nice “blue lagoon” with clear, cool water.  It was nice to take a dip in it after the workout of riding the bikes out there.  To bad there wasn’t an identical lagoon back in Vang Vieng.

After two and a half days in Vang Vieng we hit the road again on a six hour minibus ride to Luang Prabang.  I think I much prefer a minibus to a full bus,  but it looks like Laos has a bunch of road work to do up north.  Some of the pot holes could have been mistaken for ponds, or maybe our driver just took a more scenic route???  We were a bit worried when arriving in Luang Prabang because it is the beginning of their New Year so we didn’t know if we could find accommodations.  Fortunately we did, but prices are pretty high.  Either way Megan and I are enjoying the festivities.  The New Year lasts for three days, but here they sometimes extend it out for a week or better.  During the holiday the entire city, or country for that matter, turns into a massive water fight.  Everywhere you go people are squirting you with water guns or literally throwing buckets of water on you.  It doesn’t matter who you are, but they will stop if you have something that can be broken like a camera but one doesn’t take that chance.  Just taking a Tuk Tuk from the bus stop to city center we had a few buckets of water chucked our way.  To say the least we were soaked before finding a hotel.  Tomorrow is suppose to be a big street party, the next day is some pageant, and the following day another party.  Woot!  I think they have the US beat on a good New Years celebration.

We have found that the Laos people are much nicer and considerate in general than the Vietnamese.  It may be because tourism hasn’t hit Laos as hard yet. It also appears there may be more of a middle class, but that might be because we are seeing more cars and less motorbikes. All in all we just enjoy all the smiles and hellos we have been getting.

Megan and I are heading farther north after this and then back to the Southern portion of Laos.  More than likely we wont really have any internet for some time so it might be a bit until the next post.  I should have all the pictures since we left Vietnam up in the next 24 hours. Enjoy!

Just a quick update

Not much new going on over here.  Megan and I have been wandering around Hanoi this last week looking at some small pagodas and temples.  Most of our time has been relaxing at coffee shops and people watching.  This is all probably a good thing since most of our tours have put us a bit over on our expenses so we have been able to cut back a bit this week to make up for it.  There are some street stalls that we found where you can get a beer for a little under a quarter a pop and we have been able to scout out some small places that have excellent food for less than a dollar.  There is one family that makes an amazing beef noodle soup, but they yell at you if you eat it wrong.  “No Soup for you!” 🙂  The beef soup doesn’t have much liquid in it, but they give you another side soup to dip some bread in.  I like to pour a little bit of the soup into the beef soup bowl, but one the guys yells “no” at me.  I really think it makes him mad. Yesterday we went to a super market so we could find a better array of products.  That was an adventure as we finally rode on a motorbike and took a taxi.  There was a rather long bridge we had to cross but you cant walk across it.  The motorbike was a bit nerve racking because three people on a small bike hauling through heavy traffic is not too much fun.  It was a bit funny because up until this point we have continually had people coming up to us offering to drive us somewhere, but when we needed to cross this bridge we had to hunt people down.  Today Megan and I are loading up on snacks for our 20+ hour bus ride tomorrow to Vientiane, Laos so wish us luck!

(yummy sandwiches!!!)

“I’m From Antarctica”

Not all Black Hmong tribe people know where that is.

As soon as we had exited the bus in Sapa, we learned that the many women surrounding us in traditional costume were going to be people we needed to ignore. At times it seemed that with every step we took in Sapa, we would be surrounded by 3 or more of these women repeating “Where you froooom?” and “You buy from meE!”. As soon as we walked by a few, they would leach on and follow us until we could convince them that we would not buy from them, which was sometimes a difficult task.

We are still learning how to take advantage of situations like that to learn about people, while not making them pissed off at us for not buying. We want to learn about the locals of the places we go, but it is difficult, for example, when they are shoving bracelets in your face demanding you buy. That is where our trek from Sapa helped us out. After breakfast our second morning in Sapa, we were taken to a hotel where we would meet up with our guide and three 22 year old girls from Isreal who would be accompanying us. I was surprised a bit when our guide appeared wearing the same traditional clothing as the many women buzzing around us like flies at a picnic. Instantly I knew I needed to change my mindset.

It turns out that the women we were seeing all around town in woven clothes and leg wraps, our guide included, were Black Hmong people who are spread between a few villages in the mountains. They are just one of the many minority tribes that are dispersed throughout the mountains near Sapa. We would be visiting one of the Black Hmong villages, along with a Red Dao (prounounced zow) village.

We begin trekking, and our group of 6 instantly became a group of 12. As we walked farther out of the city, all kinds of things were going through my mind, like “why they heck are these women following us? Maybe they are just heading back to their village at the same time as us. Do they really think we’re going to buy something as we’re trekking? Shouldn’t our guide be telling them to go away and leave us alone so we can enjoy ourselves?” As we begin to walk through rocky terrain and ballancing on the edges of muddy rice terraces, these other Black Hmong women became our personal assistants and keep us from falling. I begin to relax and chat with them a bit more as they could speak pretty good English and they weren’t trying to sell us anything. My thoughts changed to, “Maybe they assist the guide. Maybe she gives them a cut. It is pretty slippery terrain and most of these tourists don’t look much like hikers, they need the help.”

Our surroundings were phenominal! To one side we had the largest mountain in all of Vietnam towering over us, we were dropping into a valley were the walls were carved into perfect terraces, some filled with water, others dry and neglected as it is not the growing season yet, but all beautiful. The fog, which was always present, was high and the views were clear. We got many pictures and did a lot of staring in awe. Eventually we reached the village of where our guide and assistants lived. I snapped a picture of the lady who had been helping me along, and in the background on a terraced mountain side is her home. It looked beautiful. We ate a Pho lunch at a place meant to get large groups of trekkers in and out quickly, but it was pretty good. When we arrived for lunch our ‘assistants’ told us they had to go home now and began shoving things in our faces and saying “You buy from meE!” OH NO! I felt so horrible, I had built relationships with these people over the last 12 kilometers. I told my lady no. I told them all no. I felt so bad. We continued on to the Red Dao village, where after marriage, the women shave their eyebrows and heads and wear red cloths on their heads. We reached our homestay, which was just a larger building with many beds, around 2:30pm and had the rest of the afternoon to ourselves. Bryan and I roamed around and then sat and watched children play, chickens peck, dogs sleep, and fog roll in. It was very peaceful.

We had a nice, large dinner with the girls from Israel and enjoyed chatting with them for a few hours. It was really fun to learn more about Isreal, share pictures, and share perspectives. We also got to drink a lot of “Happy Water” (rice wine) with the girls and the husband of our guide. It was fun! We found out our guide, Lala, had been married 5 months, her and her husband are both 18, and they are pregnant! In their culture, the newly married couple lives with the husband’s family for the first 3-4 years.

In the morning, Bryan and I watched the fog roll out, children play, chickens peck, and dogs eat. After a nice, big breakfast we continued on to another village, over much muddier terraces completely filled with water. Bryan’s foot was as wide as the edge we had to balance and walk on, and the women and little girls (yep, this time two little 10 year old girls joined us as ‘assistants’) walked through the water and held us up when it got slippery. I tried so hard not to let the little girls help me, but there was a point where both Bryan and I needed a hand so we didn’t fall in, and the only one around was a 10 year old. (There is a sign in the center of the park in Sapa that asks that you please never buy from children because it encourages them to not go to school and they could be forced to work.) We passed by a large, but dry, waterfall. It was very large, so I’m sure it is very beautiful when it is running. At lunch a couple of the girls from Isreal decided to buy something from a couple of the women to thank them for the help. They regreted it! As soon as they showed interest, we literally had about 20 women surrounding our table all yelling prices over the others and shoving their purses and bracelets in the girls’ faces, and ours. It is how they live, but I can’t help but feeling it is very sad because tourism has done this to them. It was really nice getting to know some of those women on the first day, learning about their lives and getting to ask questions, and sad seeing them flip a switch and going into sales mode where you couldn’t talk to them about anything else.

Back in Sapa we enjoyed relaxing with some good drinks and food. Our last day there was off and on rain, and the fog was so thick you could barely see a car coming at you. We hopped around between cafes, restaurants, and stores. Bryan started playing games with the Black Hmong women who were trying to sell to us that day. When they would ask “Where you frooom?” He told a couple of them he was from Sapa, which made them laugh, and then he told an older woman he was from Antarctica! I could barely hold my giggles in, and I think she caught on pretty quickly because she started laughing and walked away! The second person he used the Antarctica one on had no clue where it was. When they would ask us to buy something, he would hold the bottle of water out and repeat back at them, “You buy from me!” One woman told him, “when you in our country, you buy from us, when we in your country, we buy from you.” Bryan told her she would never go to our country so she should buy from him now. She didn’t like that. Another woman said OK when he offered the water bottle for trade, and we think she would have done it, but we started laughing and she did too!

Bryan didn’t mention in the last post that we really enjoyed talking to the lady that sold us the trek tickets. We came across her in the first restaurant we went to on the first day in Sapa, and she was so great about giving us advice and just chatting. She was really eager to show us the new hotel her family is building, so we actually got to go walk around the construction zone, up to the third floor, with construction workers and hazards all over the place! They will be doing 7 stories and only had 6 so far. It was done through a combination of cement and bricks, and it appeared the electrical and cables all went right through the cement. Very interesting! She told us they would probably have an example room completed by our last day in Sapa, but she was busy that day so we didn’t get to see it.

Also there are a ton of new photos up [gallery].