Category Archives: Laos

Southern Laos, an Unexpected Experience

Savannakhet, what can I say. There wasn’t much going on here, but it had quite a bit of French architecture still around. There was a temple that we biked out to that had some of Buddha’s bones there. An important thing for many people in the area. The town can boast for its two room dinosaur museum, where a very energetic lead archeologist gave us a small tour including the back room where they work with bones. In this town could also pick up a delicious sandwiches for cheap, especially if you didn’t mind having pig liver.

Laos has been full of surprises at every turn. We left Savannakhet for Pakse on a local bus. The difference between local and VIP buses is that the local one stops every 100m through a town instead of every few kilometers to see if anyone else needs a ride. Extra money for the driver, and slow progress for the rest of us. As we were getting close to Pakse the bus pulled over at a “bus station” and dumped all the tourists off telling us this was our stop. We were 8km from town and 15km from the bus station. Conveniently a tuk tuk was there and could take us the rest of the way for more than what our bus tickets cost us. With no good choice the nine of us got in and he started down the road until we made it to a gas station where he demanded money so he could get gas. A couple immediately payed up but Megan and I threw up a stink and wouldn’t pay until the end. No one else decided to pay either. After five minutes of arguing most of us unloaded all our stuff to try and find a different ride. The tuk tuk never got gas but took his few people to their destination. We went up to a guy with a pickup truck to see if we could get a ride and he was super nice and helped us out. He wouldn’t even take money for giving us the lift to town. We made our way to the bus station where 20 of us and a motorbike crammed into a tuk tuk that drove us to Ban Nakasang, 3.5 hours. It stormed on us for part of the way so we had a good time just trying to stay dry. Once we made it to our destination we got a ferry to the island and quickly scoured for some food. It was a long day.

We had a nice bungalow on the riverside and enjoyed a nice day in our hammocks reading. Relaxing!  Getting up early the following day we hiked over to the neighboring island Don Khone. We made our way to a small beach area with a few restaurants and only one other tourist where we were invited over for a free lunch. The very happy local offered us snails, sticky rice, and hot chilli sauce. Being polite we tried them and I found them pretty tasty, but it was hard to pull them from their shells with a toothpick. The local had a blast talking to us even though we only understood about ten percent of what he sad. The other tourist that looked most excited about the snails ended up taking a boat ride with us to see the Irrawaddy dolphins when a local fisherman offered us a ride considerably cheaper than anything we could have booked. This was pretty amazing. The river was full of eddies and rapids surrounded by lush islands. As you made your way down the river you would see a large group of water buffalo going for a soak, fishermen bringing in a nice catch, or large reed patches swaying to the wind. On the opposite side of the river is Cambodia and all the official tours included a permit to venture into their area, something we didn’t have. When we reached the area where sightings normally occur we were dropped off on a rock in the middle of the river in Cambodia while the fisherman went to get gas. Fortunately we were able to see the dolphins but they were about 100m away. While on this rock we had three other Cambodian tour boats come over and unload a bunch of excited people. The tour operators didn’t care that we weren’t legally there but were concerned we had been abandoned. All the tourists took our pictures as we were clearly more fascinating than rare dolphins that are nearly extinct. Moments later our fisherman was on his way back over. The ride back was nearly more enjoyable than going out. There were times you were speeding through some rapids but at the same time you felt as though you were motionless in speeding water. If anything just the boat ride itself was worth the price. After arriving back at the beach we made our way to the Somphamit waterfalls. This area was like a small canyon with copious amounts of waterfalls, but we could see how it becomes one massively wide waterfall in the wet season. You will have to check out the pictures.

After making our way back to our bungalow a local ran up to us excited telling us they were having a free BBQ next door. Invitation accepted! They had quite the party going, and some delicious grilled pork that was butchered fresh that morning.  Makes sense why we heard all the squealing early on.  Enjoying ourselves we asked what the occasion was, and all we figured out was that one of the guy’s brother had or did something. He wasn’t even there with us? We were at the pre-party. A couple of hours later we headed to the other side of the island where there were a lot of people and we were the only small group of Westerners. Bit awkward at first. One guy said we first must give a small gift to someone. We were led up some stairs to a balcony where a bunch of old ladies sat next to a small table adorned with flowers, money, food, and other things. I was the first to walk up having no clue what to do, but I got on my knees and put 10,000 kip (about $1.30) into a small gold metal bowl. The ladies put a small flower on it and said something, so I bowed lower folding my hands together in a traditional way of showing respect and saying thank you. Then they handed me a bag full of some kind of food that ended up being ground sweet corn wrapped in sticky rice and then wrapped in a leaf. Everyone else followed in suit. With snacks in hand we made our way to the lawn to have a seat on some bamboo mats. Already stuffed with BBQ we were hoping to just drink, but they ended up serving us tons of food that we had to eat. Food comma! The evening went spectacular as we enjoyed a party we didn’t understand, had good food, beer, and a very unique experience.

We spent another day relaxing, looking for books, and scheduling our next bus ride that took us into Cambodia.  We did make it across the border, but found that if we hadn’t had a guide the officers would have been very difficult to deal with, as we witnessed with some others.  We had a guide and only cost us $2 more in the end.  Had everyone done that we could have shaved a couple of hours off the crossing.  Did I tell you how hot it is in the middle of nowhere between to small shacks?  We are currently in Phnom Penh, but I will leave the post where it is for now and pickup on the rest later.

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.

no images were found

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!