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The International Writers Journal: Laos

Laos - A Travel Journal
Michael H Green

The one-minute Mekong riverboat crossing into Laos from Chiang Kong was almost surreal, even in the gray, unorthodox, late November drizzle. Palm trees dominated the lush, green and hilly topography along either side of the river. Seven Thais and/or Lao folk, all indigenous hill-tribe people, sported umbrellas.

Residents from both sides are able to cross the border as they please. They accompanied me, with my backpack on the long-thin dugout canoe. The cool Mekong River refreshed my sandaled feet as I stepped off the boat in shin-deep water. I proceeded up a rainy, tarred yet tattered walkway. To my right I presented my passport through an open window. The customs agent greeted me with a nod, inspected my visa, stamped my passport and bade me adieu with a gentle smile.

In the sleepy, then rainy town of Huay Xai, I sampled deep-fried bananas from a gigantic, fired wok. I then ate chicken vegetable curry from the side of the road. I exclaimed, "Sablai" (delicious). The old smiling man with his tobacco-laden, rotted mouth then graciously and hospitably fed me with Lao-lao (rice-whisky). It smelled of some sort of ominous petrol, certainly not for a fledgling drinker. The kind and charming man was happy to share his homemade concoction. I consumed a few medium-sized glasses. He never let my glass become empty. Tipsy and smiling, not desiring extreme inebriation, I bade him adieu. Homemade rice whisky, (distilled from water and rice) is the only way most can afford an alcohol sustenance.

The town offered a few restaurants where Laos served and travelers shared stories. I opted for a sauna, sweating out my Lao-lao, and then a traditional Lao therapeutic massage. After, in my adequate, clean hotel room with bedside light, I read myself into a deep sleep.
The next morning, after a breakfast of chicken hearts and sautéed vegetables stirred in yellow rice noodles, I walked a kilometer along the river and boarded a long, slow riverboat that lacked amenities. The riverboat’s shelter was a low ceiling, which forced people to hunch over if they tried to stand upright. The cool, mild rain caused the need for sweatshirts. Even with the rainy gray sky, there were vistas. We passed villages and villagers, naked children, waving, smiling and playing in the river. We saw herds of water buffalo, deer, elephants, pelicans, cranes and flocks of other bird species.

The bathroom was a tiny room that fit only the squat toilet. The ceiling was two-thirds my height. The semi-cramped journey lasted 6 hours. The boat would stop in villages, to pick up chickens, dead and alive, and then transport them downstream to nearby villages. At dusk, we’d stop in a village inaccessible by road, bedding down for the night. I slept in a shabby guesthouse lacking electricity. The large outdoor stall, which contained a tub of water and a bucket, a squat toilet, sink and mirror, was immaculately clean. I dined on Chicken coconut curry with three young Swedish girls from Lapland, whom I’d met on the boat. We theorized how domestic problems in Sweden are so much less than in the States partly due to very little religion and parents giving their children excess liberties. For example, they didn’t promote bedtimes, curfews or other rules. They encouraged that their children make their own choices. Hence, the urge to rebel is significantly less.
The next day consisted of 7 more hours on the same riverboat.

The rain stopped halfway along the ride. During both rides I read my novel, chatted with Europeans, smiled with Laotians (major language barrier), and attempted to cram in the Lao language with my limited ‘South East Asian Languages Phrasebook’. As the clouds parted and gave way to blue sky, the vista turned charming. Mountains peered behind small riverside villages of brown bamboo shacks. The men hunted and fished for their livelihood. The women mothered, cleaned and carried. Life here hadn’t changed for centuries.

We passed the famous Pak Ou cave, sitting on the Nam Ou river, the inside of these mystical limestone caves contain a collage of classic local-style, erect Buddhas. The outside depicted an oblong shaped cliff appearing as something from a forgotten fairy-tale read during childhood.
That day roughly 40 of us would arrive in Luang Prubang, the second largest Lao town/city (population 16,000) - most of the roughly 5.5 million inhabitants of Laos live off of the land. I was actually carrying more cash than the average Lao person earns in a year. This is because the entire country is devoid of automated teller machines. To supplement the poor economy, different prices existed for tourists and locals, for almost everything. This was fair, as the prices for tourists were still not remotely comparable to costs at home in the west, - unless something was an import, exclusively for the tourist population.

Many roads are made of dirt. Dust is inhaled while strolling along the road, or riding in a samlor; a three wheeled motorized contraption with two bench seats in the back, easily holding 8 passengers at capacity. Samlors are also called Tuk-tuks. Cars weren’t so plentiful. There were mostly motorbikes and samlors, and mopeds carrying 2 to 5 passengers, often whole families. I walked aimlessly in the early night, observing people enjoying life; dancing, singing, playing music. Culture is centered upon family structure. They appear happier than what I’ve observed in the west. A high-stress lifestyle is much less evident. All seem to possess great respect for one another, bowing, smiling, and lacking aggression. Ubiquitous Wats(temples) symbolize the tranquility of Buddhist society.

I secured a clean room with fan and comfortable bed. My marble balcony provided a view of the Wat atop Phusy hill. Lit at night it looked like something from a sensationalized storybook illustration.

I was out for a morning walk when I sampled fresh, sweet bread from a cart on the side of the road. Then I stopped at a local market stall and feasted upon pork noodle soup with dumplings served with rice cakes, diced lime, string beans, coriander, basil, watercress and lettuce, seemingly fresh as tropical rain, but potentially cleaned with contaminated water. People also sprinkle sugar on main courses. The noodle soup with condiments is a staple that is eaten at all times of the day.
The climate emulates virtual utopia. Early winter produces an idyllic mid-day 85 degrees. Luang Prabang sits at 700 meters above sea level, 18 degrees north of the equator, latitudinally equal to Hawaii and Cuba.

Communication is challenging, as limited English is spoken. Due to prior French rule, the elderly population speaks French. I tried to learn as many common Lao phrases as possible, thus enhancing relations and overall experience. The pronunciations are vastly foreign in contrast to a Germanic or Latin language, especially tonally, although monosyllabic words are fast to memorize.
At night, on a lit street, an exotically beautiful prostitute asked, "Doo yoo wahnt too fuck me?"
Walking alone, obviously not Lao, presumably a walking money bag, I appeared a prime candidate. Just minutes later on an unlit, side street, two young men on a motorbike pulled up in front of me and exclaimed clearly, "Yoo wahnt smoke opium."

In both instances I was able to politely tell them in badly pronounced Lao that I wasn’t interested and bide them good luck. Of course I could have been interested in the former and latter. Granted, the woman’s silk-like skin, voluptuous curvatures, and overall angelica, would have made for a sexual delight, but I needed an emotional bond to accompany my animal instinct. As for the opium, I was in the small region of the world that produces it, but apparently the trend today in Laos is to taint the opium with amphetamines and heroin. This didn’t seem remotely appealing.

I visited Talat Dala. Talat means market. "Smoke, smoke, you like smoke?" Five or six peasant women calmly chanted in serious tones and profiles. It felt odd; I politely said, "No thank you" and walked slowly away, gazing at the seemingly infinite supplies of shawls, blankets, handbags, and great big opium pipes. They wanted to sell me opium and/or marijuana. Up until recently, these two commodities were sold openly on display in markets in Laos.

At another talat, I purchased pillowcases with very unique Lao art, containing awe-inspiring, beautifully embroidered shapes and symbols, designs previously unbeknownst to my eyes. Everyone in the market smiled and requested my attention as I walked past their stalls of wonderfully hand crafted Laotian textiles.

I climbed fairy-tale Phusi-hill at sunset, to the monastery with the pristine view. Northern Laos’ pristine jewel town intersected the Mekong and Nam Ou rivers. Coconut palms wedged throughout a collage of lush, green, mountainous landscape. The sun set over a triangularly shaped mountain range. Just enough sub-tropical cloud formats contributed to a stunning vista. The river sat in front of the mountainous sunset, moon-glowed.

I spoke with a Lao monk, living at the monastery, who for every window had a different, idyllic view of his town. The young Monk intertwines praying, studying English, Spanish, French, Italian and German, and practicing his skills with tourists. He realizes that these languages combined with his natural charm, intellect and discipline could allow for a prosperous and rewarding career in tourism, which was better than doing the land’s typical agrarian deeds seven days per week. His other option is to remain a monk and live teaching, meditating, eating, being, and freely floating through life, at ease.

At the monastery on top of Phusi I felt weak. The night prior I’d been violently ill. That afternoon had brought on a high fever, which rose in an uncharacteristically rapid fashion. Zombie-like, feeling a chilling sweat consuming my skin, I meandered to a makeshift pharmacy. With my phrasebook I managed to indicate that I had a fever. The pharmacist gave me paracitemol/acetominophen/tylenol – three names for the same drug. This brought the fever down. Lacking energy, I consumed garlic soup, garlic bread and ginger tea at a bookstore owned and operated by a cheery Canadian woman who genuinely promoted reading. ‘One is missing out on a great imaginative and infinite world if one doesn’t read at least something every day.’ In the middle of the night (early morning), I awoke vomiting. My body shook fervently, chilled to the bone.

The bug passed, but it would be days before I could engage in the eating of copious forms of exotic Lao cuisine again. I’d been eating everything I’d seen, in shanty, local markets and greasy, roadside, makeshift mini-eateries. Sometimes I’d receive five or six different pieces of china. In the soup floated noodles, beef, fat and other miscellaneous internal body parts. I received a plate of laap moo (minced spicy pork salad containing mint leaves, onions, fresh limejuice and copious chili, diced to perfection). Also on my table was a bowl of spicy sauce, a plate of herbs, a huge basket of sticky rice and a dipping sauce. With this came chopsticks, a tablespoon, a soupspoon, a serving spoon and a fork. Locals gladly showed me how to mix everything together, using all the utensils with proper etiquette. A man stuck a filthy hand into my basket of rice – rolled a rice ball and dipped it into my mound of food and ate it. I then assured him, "Di maak, kop jai lai lai," indicating politely that I preferred to eat on my own. Later he asked if I was single and then offered me the courtship of his stunningly beautiful young daughter. Equally embarrassed, she and I smiled to offset our feelings of awkwardness.

I ventured 29 kilometers by tuk-tuk to Kuang Si Falls. The national park of Kuang Si could surely be classified as a natural world wonder. Infinite cascades tumbled throughout a curvy river. I hiked a steep path to the top and swam in cool, sunless, refreshing pools, while peering down an 80-meter, vertical cascade. Below the park, where the falls continued cascading, I swam in a refreshing 70°F (21°C), turquoise pool, fed by waterfalls that produced currents ideal for stationary swimming. The setting illustrated paradise.

Back in my room, where the air-conditioner began to blare, geckos chirped and scattered to find another warm, square abode. A hairy, eight-legged creature slowly meandered along the ceiling. Hens could be heard cackling above the A/C. The Lao art-deco door with tribal carvings appeared pristine. Otherwise there was nothing more noteworthy to describe of that Lao hotel room, save for the Buddha designed ceiling tiles. I lay on my back, in bed, staring into the Buddhist religious clay shapes of the tiles, pondering. I wasn’t thinking of traveling, of backpacking from new exotic place to place, of Laos and its age-old way of life. I was vicariously reflecting upon my dreams, my visions. They slipped away, forgotten. My thoughts reversed back to current reality, Luang Prabang, a haven for romantics bonding as the sunset embraces the Mekong, and dips into the dusky moon-lit sierra. Dusk then turns to a breezy perfect subtropical night. The lit monastery atop Phusi-hill reigns over the town in surreal splendor. From the street, majestic, stone stairs wind to various sides, steeply up and around Phusi. The dreamy setting lapses one visually back in time. With the recent installation of a paved road leading to Luang Prabang, the town has only until recently begun to change, to embrace the outside world. Satellite dishes and internet connections give people the opportunity to get closer to the outside world, at least in a fabricated sense.
The high fever and gastrointestinal illness had transformed me into a temporary vegan. Stir-fry vegetables and sticky rice I deemed I could live on. Before my illness I’d eaten mystery-meat sandwiches from the side of the road from kind looking women. The locals in the eateries were hospitable. Lao people are happy to invite a foreigner into their culture to eat and dance. I’d eaten non-marinated grilled frog, including the crispy head, hands and rank feet. I’d eaten chicken feet for the sheer sake of embracing culture. They were rancid for me to fathom, never mind consume.
I wished to vomit but wasn’t so fortunate. I tried to ingest fatty water buffalo grilled and marinated nicely; however it was not chewable to my jaw, so I savored the flavor of each piece until I came across a stray dog that was happy to catch the regurgitated buffalo cellulite from my mouth, and swallow it greedily.

Ultra-tasty chocolate banana pancakes are ubiquitous to the touristy streets of Laos, as is fresh pineapple. I sampled tamarind, and miscellaneous fruits, whose names are unknown to me.

Vang Vieng

The six-hour bus ride to Vang Vieng provided some of the best natural scenery I’d ever witnessed. The shabby bus’ large windows allowed a panoramic bliss. We drove up, down and around, on a long ascending, descending and narrow stretch. We saw elephants, buffalos, and lush and green pasture along a jagged, ridged mountain range.

In Vang Vieng I’d rent a tube and be transported 20km north via tuk-tuk along the Nam Song River. Much of the comfortable relaxing journey was in slow tranquil waters, but one needed to glance ahead on occasion as rocks, inclines, currents and rapids lurked in spots and continued for distances. With a good current’s velocity it was possible to spin rapidly, glancing up to see the steep limestone-ridged mountains, poignantly peering up from all directions.

There were stops where locals offered bottled Beer Lao and marijuana cigarettes, but no drinking water, to sooth the sun-baked feeling of one’s body. The palm-sheltered, bamboo picnic table calmed the heat of my sun-fevered skin.

Florescent violet and crimson dragonflies, healthy in size, thriving in the hot sun and lush river flora, accompanied me, at times landing on my body, usually where there was a wet spot, examining my flesh with opening and closing, body-flapping movements.

On another day I’d venture my sunburnt body out on the Nam Song again, this time for the sake of kayaking. The kayaking tour included seemingly gourmet grilled beef and veggie skewers just after the exploration of sunless, cold, pitch-black waters with a flashlight and helmet for when one scraped one’s head on limestone. I was with four others under a cave in the water. After a while, I deemed the situation spooky and pointless. While underneath the water, I couldn’t help but imagine the potential for an Edgar-Allan-Poe-like thriller, culminating as a person begins to go berserk trapped without food or torch in the chilling, claustrophobic and dark cave waters.

Finally, when I saw the blue light in the distance, I rejoiced internally. As I reached the light and swam under the limestone formation and came to the lagoon, I popped my head up and glared at the bright blue azure, the outside world. I instantly deemed myself happy and swam with joy in the pristine, cool lagoon.

After lunch, it was time to complete our roughly 20kms of kayaking for the day. Another stop along the river provided the opportunity for a 10-meters, (30-feet) jump into the river. Everyone did it. Our guide demonstrated and we followed. It was my highest jump ever – I was terrified upon springing from the cliff. The next thing I knew was my body was in a ball, deep in the water, relaxed. I swam to surface and felt electrified.

Vang Vieng featured lazy hammocks and outdoor bar restaurants sitting directly on the Nam Song river. The hammocks abounded, as did Beer Lao, Lao-lao, magic mushroom pineapple shakes and largely twisted tobacco cigarettes tainted with grass, the most ancient herb known to mankind.
The next stop would be the capital, Vientiene, for getting to the Friendship Bridge - the Mekong border crossing into Thailand, and then to Bangkok to fly home. A French quarter reminded one vaguely of Paris. Patuxai (Victory Monument) reminds one of the Arc de Triomphe. It was built in 1969 with US-donated cement that was given for the purpose of constructing a new airport, rather than to build a structure that emulated the Arc de Triomphe. I climbed the many steps to the top of Patuxai, where Buddha mosaic windows and other designs highlight the top outdoor patio. Here I was able to get a geographical grasp of the spread-out, dusty city, as no maps were accurate. This was complimented by the lack of consistent street signs.

Upon returning to the dusty streets, I’d keep an eye down towards the ground, and carry a flashlight at night, as many sewer covers are non-existent. A fall would make one a candidate for dysentery and ringworm.

Vientiane sported more motorbikes carrying families than it did cars. Where the mean income is 300 dollars per year - and gasoline costs almost that of what it costs in the US, it’s apparent that people are in need of ultra-efficient transportation. The city is mostly devoid of traffic lights and crosswalks. Vehicles and pedestrians alike simply and peacefully make allowances for one another. Nobody seems stressed. Common sense dictates that it’s more practical to work together, thus achieving an almost constant tranquility.

Vientiane sits along a shabby section of the Mekong, although the outdoor restaurants along it prepare some Lao-style grilled and baked fish that rival any seafood I’d consumed. Beer Lao on tap was available in the more upscale western restaurants where tourists ate rancid hamburgers and ultra delectable Lao food.

From Vientiene’s bus terminal I’d venture on a mini-local-bus 45 minutes to the Mekong River Friendship Bridge crossing to NongKai, where I crossed via a one minute, mini-bus ride across the bridge, where I’d flawlessly walk through customs with ease, back into Thailand.

© Michael H Green 2003

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