International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Laos
Laid Plans in Laos
I travel, I make a point of doing what the locals do as much as
possible, you know, be a traveler not a tourist. But sometimes youre
better off just being a tourist. This proved to be one of those
times. I had spent a couple days in Luang Prabang, a picturesque
old French colonial town in northern Laos thats the countrys
main visitor draw.
strolled around the 19th-century mansions, with their wrought iron
balconies and louvred shutters, which now housed enchanting guest
houses and artsy boutiques. I visited the temples with resplendent
mosaics and chatted with student monks in broken English.
I toured the Royal
Palace Museum, which stands much as it did in 1975, when the Communists
took over and the royals disappeared without a trace. I was dazzled
by the throne room, with its walls covered with mosaics of tiny brilliantly-colored
mirrors and I rolled my eyes at the chintzy plastic model of a space
capsule gifted by Richard Nixon. I plunged in the icy-turquoise waterfall
pools outside town.
In the evenings, I shopped at the handcraft market in the street and
took in a traditional dance performance at the Royal Theatre.
Overdosing on quaintness, I was eager to move on. I decided to splurge
and laid out fifty bucks to fly to the capital of Vientiane. I figured
Id save myself a ten-hour road trip and gain some time in my three-week
backpacking trip around Southeast Asia.
The small airport on the outskirts of town seemed unusually quiet, but
everything was laidback in Laos after hustling, bustling Thailand. I
was met with a blank stare at the check-in counter but thats how
everyone seemed here. This socialist regime really casts a pall over
the people, I thought.
Blankness changed to frowns to a whispered consultation with a guy in
an office to a phone call. The manager came out. "Madam, no plane
today. Day after tomorrow."
The travel agent in town had booked me on a nonexistent flight. The
agent arrived somewhat embarrassed. No, I did not want to stay another
two days in Luang. Id had my fill of colonial cuteness. He said
he could book me on one of the tourist minibuses that go to Vientiane.
Aha! I thought. Hes just trying to sell me his expensive tourist
"Isnt there a regular bus?" I asked.
He looked uncomfortable. "Well, yes," he said.
"So, Ill take the bus."
He refunded my money, minus his booking fee, and took me to the bus
Bus stations are never the most savory of stops, even in the best of
places. This one resembled a grimy gas station. And I was the only foreigner
there. I should have paid attention to that.
A man who spoke a little English approached. He helped me with my ticket
and pointed out the right bus. He was the only person who spoke to me,
or even smiled at me, for the next ten hours.
decrepit, diesel-fume-spewing bus pulled up and we boarded. Thinking
I was being oh-so clever, I sat in the rear so I could stretch out.
I noticed the locals were arguing and crowding into the seats in
the front. I should have paid attention to that, too.
I soon found out
why. Shock absorbers were apparently luxury accessories here. As the
bus gathered speed down the road, I was bounced non-stop up and down,
my bum actually rising inches off the seat. I couldnt stay still.
There was no way I was going to be able to take ten hours of this. I
moved up as far as I could, but it was only a marginal improvement.
I then noticed the man in front of me holding up his camera cell phone.
He was using it to spy on me, I was that much of an anomaly. I tried
to bob and weave out of camera range, but he just followed me with his
lens until I finally positioned myself directly behind him and he gave
It was a bone-rattling, mind-numbing ride - about five hours of cliff-hugging
hairpin turns up and down mountains. All I could do was hang on, forget
reading or writing. The trips saving grace was the panorama
enormous shark-tooth-jagged peaks of rocks soaring into the sky, terraces
of lush green rice paddies and locals, conical hats pulled low over
their heads, clopping along in oxen-drawn carts.
We stopped a couple times and made use of the toilets holes in
the ground. I was starving but I couldnt make out what the food
was so I chowed down my supply of granola bars and got hungrier. I did,
however, recognize big black spiders at one stop. An old woman was pulling
them out of a sack by the fistful and dropping them into a vat. With
a slotted spoon, she fished them out, dripping in thick orange oil,
and stuck them in my face. I thought about trying one I really
should do what the locals do - but it was mercifully a brief thought.
I shook my head.
It was night when we finally arrived in the gravel strewn lot that served
as Vientianes bus terminal. I was besieged by taxi drivers and
chose one. I gave him the name of a hotel from Lonely Planet
and he nodded. He then took me to a completely different, more expensive
place, where he obviously got a cut of my room rate. He also charged
me more than the cost of the room for the five-minute ride in his three-wheeled
tuk-tuk. I started to protest, but I gave up midsentence. It seemed
a fitting end to the day.
The next morning, my battered haunches recovered somewhat from the bus
trip from hell, I strolled around Vientiane. It was a shabby, rundown
city. No danger of traffic jams here there were hardly any cars.
Ditto for shops. Businesses seemed to exist solely in the district that
catered to foreigners, the only ones with money to buy stuff, I supposed.
The French are long gone from Indochina they pulled out in the
50s but some architectural vestiges attest to their former
influence, peeling signs like "Ecole Primaire" on government
buildings and the colonial mansions along the riverfront in varying
stages of dereliction. The best tended mansion turned out to be, unsurprisingly,
the Presidential Palace.
Behind the palace I checked out two places of interest. Haw Pha Kaew
housed a collection of Lao art and antiquities, including many ancient
Buddhas. Wat Sisaket, a temple dating from 1818, sat on the same block.
The cloisters interior walls were pocked with 2,000 small niches,
each containing a tiny Buddha. Lining the cloisters sat another 300
the palace I checked out two places of interest. Haw Pha Kaew housed
a collection of Lao art and antiquities, including many ancient
Buddhas. Wat Sisaket, a temple dating from 1818, sat on the same
block. The cloisters interior walls were pocked with 2,000
small niches, each containing a tiny Buddha. Lining the cloisters
sat another 300 bigger Buddhas.
I ventured into
the morning market, Talat Sao, the citys commercial heart, and
trudged up to the Patuxai, a sort of Asian-style Arc de Triomphe at
the end of a wide boulevard dotted with Victorian-style lamps. Further
up the boulevard lay Laos national landmark, That Luang, a golden
temple with a huge spire.
Dusk descended. I sat with the English-language daily newspaper and
French-language weekly - both published by the Ministry of Information
- at a café with some other foreign patrons.
Watching the muddy Mekong wash downstream, I sipped rich coffee
some of the best Ive ever tasted - and tore into a baguette stuffed
with a Spam-like "pate," which seemed to be the equivalent
of the countrys fast-food.
Its not so bad being a tourist, I reflected. Next time, take the
© Christina Hoag June 18th 2009
choag24 at gmail.com
life moments in travel
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