Laos is everything I love about traveling and has invigorated me and makes me want to go on forever. Alas, if only money were free…

The journey from Vietnam was quite an ordeal because the same flooding that affected my trip to Hanoi had also destroyed the northern road to Laos. We therefore bused halfway back down Vietnam, where the bus company took us to the border and put us on a local chicken bus. After busing all through the night and part of the next day, we 8 tourists were pretty tired. We did end up bonding a bit through shared misery as the bus bounced along for 10 more hours down a dusty road to a random town on the Mekong River/Thailand border, nowhere near our intended goal.

Despite the hassle of bad roads and shoddy buses, there’s something raw, yet pure, about travel in Laos that gives me the stamina to endure. Everything here is a welcome relief after the fast-paced, organized, efficient, hustle-bustle of Vietnam. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Vietnam. But after a month, the constant honking on the streets, loudspeakers spewing news and propaganda, and the ceaseless bargaining for every purchase to avoid paying the hyper-inflated tourist prices really started getting to me. The People’s Democratic Republic of Laos is the complete opposite.

The buses leave late, the people walk slow, and nobody charges us (the tourists) anything other than the real price (compared to 400% inflation for tourists in Vietnam). As we bounced along through the hot, dusty countryside, I couldn’t help but grin at the fact that I was finally traveling again – independent and away from organized tours and people speaking English to sell me stuff.

The 8 of us arrived in Savanaket, on the Mekong River and had dinner together. Laos food is very interesting, and a little sketchy looking. They specialize in BBQ “animal on a stick” which means that if it lives, and you can skewer it, we can eat it: sparrows, bats, rats, squirrels, crickets, and so on. I haven’t tried everything yet, though grilled crickets are VERY tasty and make a good snack on the bus.

The next morning we bused through the day to the capital, Vientiane. We spent 2 pleasant evenings dining along the banks of the Mekong and relaxing under the clear skies. It seems the rainy season just ended and I haven’t seen a cloud for a week – good luck in Laos where the dirt roads become impassable after heavy rain. In Vientiane I went to a Buddhist temple where I enjoyed a relaxing herbal steam bath to relax my muscles after jolting along the nasty roads.

A quick 5-hour ride north brought me (with two English guys) to Vang Vieng: possibly the most relaxing and peaceful place in Asia. Seriously this was paradise – a tiny, slow-paced town with no tourist touts, set along a peaceful river, surrounded by green rice fields and huge limestone domes, each covered in thick jungle. We spent 5 days there, each day riding bikes through small villages and exploring different caves and swimming holes. The people are amazingly friendly, yelling “sabaydee!!” (hello), as we pedal past. One day we rented inner tubes and spent the afternoon floating down the river for miles as it meandered past massive cliffs and through green jungle until we got back to town in time to enjoy a delicious Beer Lao on a deck over the river as the sun set over the green landscape. Have I mentioned it was paradise?

It was hard to leave, but duty calls so we moved north to the old colonial town of Luang Prabang. After 2 days here, visiting Buddhist wats (temples) I’m ready to travel on to new things, so tomorrow morning starts my 2 week journey into the wild north of Laos.

Thanks for reading!

Chiang Mai, Thailand

The past 2 weeks in Laos were the highlight of my trip so far. After leaving Luang Prabang in the middle of the country, I traveled a half-day northeast with the British guys I met in Vietnam, stopping at the tiny town of Nong Kieu. Travel in northern Laos is really rough since none of the roads are paved, and most haven’t been graded since the end of the rainy season so they’re viciously rutted out. There are no buses because an ordinary bus couldn’t handle the terrain, so all travel is done instead in old Chinese-built pickup trucks with a row of narrow, hard benches bolted down the length of either side of the truck bed. The beds have a roof over them, sometimes made of steel, sometimes bamboo, but there is no back support whatsoever. Fortunately, we were broken into this crude form of travel lightly as two of us got to ride in the cab in front. The 3 of us just rotated from misery in the back to relative luxury in the front every few hours. The tucks always have bald tires and really bad brakes and steering. Occasionally the driver poured some liquid into a tube in the dash and we finally figured out that it was brake fluid – it’s a good thing the terrain was flat as we meandered along a river through a valley of dense jungle and occasional fields, never really needing the brakes.

As we strolled through the tiny town before sunset, we were greeted with our first taste of the far north. The children, totally trusting and unafraid of us “falang” (the Lao/Thai word for foreigner) ran toward us to yell “sabaydee” (hello) everywhere we went.

Our guesthouse, with a deck over the river bank, was the perfect place to chill out as we enjoyed our traditional Beer Lao as the sun set behind the steep green mountain slopes. In front of the guest house were 2 huge, 500-pound American bombs used as decorations. As the owner of the guest house put it, they were “souvenirs, gifts from Mr. Johnson”.
Actually, nearly every house in the area uses bombs as decoration: flower pots, steps, fences and so on. They also melt down the metal to make tools and boat propellers. As the story goes, Laos is the most bombed country ever in history, with enough bombs dropped by the US to give every Lao citizen half a ton of metal for themselves. Between about 1965 and 1975, the American bombers dropped a plane load of bombs somewhere in Laos every 8 minutes, 24-hours-a-day for nearly 10 years! The statistics are staggering. Most of these were dropped during the US secret war concerning the fate of Laos where both the North Vietnamese and the US totally disregarded the neutrality of Laos set in the Geneva Accords. It’s one thing to read about this stuff in the history books at home and a whole other thing to be here and see people with missing limbs and to see countryside 30 years later still totally devastated and treeless, pockmarked by bomb craters. Imagine the thousands that died in Laos (a country not even at war), from US bombs trying to “save” the people. Many of the bombs were dropped indiscriminately by US pilots who were ordered to return empty to the bases in Thailand after bombing flights to North Vietnam.

Anyway, enough anti-American rhetoric. I love my country, but the more I travel, the more people I see whose lives and cultures have been destroyed by US policy (Nicaragua, Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, El Salvador, Bolivia, Colombia, etc…).

The next morning some children, running barefoot across the dirt, invited me to play soccer with them for a while. We ran through the village, panting and laughing, chasing the ball past bamboo and thatch homes as chickens and pigs scrambled to stay out of our way. It was neat being in a place with no telephones (the nearest was 15 miles down the road) and no televisions, Internet, or anything.
From there we continued by boat a few hours up river to an even smaller town with no electricity and no roads or cars. Once again we found a tiny guest house (the room was $1 total for all 3 of us!) with a great deck facing the river. Another lazy afternoon gave way to a refreshing Beer Lao at sunset as we lounged in hammocks watching an elephant at work across the river, hauling logs from the jungle to the water’s edge as the driver sat on its huge head “driving” the gentle beast. In Laos, the villagers always head to the river at dusk to bathe and we watched the kids, naked and covered in ochre-colored river silt, frolicking about as the men and women, wrapped in traditional sarongs, washed themselves.

Suddenly, the laughter and tranquility was interrupted by frantic shouts as the adults started pulling the kids out of the water. One young man jumped in his canoe, and standing in the bow, started paddling for all he was worth toward the middle of the river. Our curiosity peaked as we watched the spectacle. Then we saw it. In the middle of the river, swimming toward the village, was a snake that found a watery grave as the man in the canoe paddled up to it and standing tall with the paddle high over his head, swung the sharp end of the paddle down with ferocious might and cleaved the snake in two. We stared wide-eyed as life resumed to its normal slow pace along the river bank as if nothing had happened.

Another boat trip took us further north and up river past striking cliffs and valleys covered in dense primary jungle. The hum of the insects was audible over the boat engine as we plied the muddy waters. Along the way we passed more tiny, isolated bamboo house settlements where muddy children waved at us as they swam. The villages, in small valleys, were surrounded by bald hills where the traditional slash-and-burn agricultural practices had scarred the beautiful landscape. Pink water buffalo gazed at us lazily from the water’s edge as we continued north a few more hours to the unremarkable town of Muong Kwua.

After an uneventful night there, we continued by a rough road in a packed pickup truck to the town of Uduomxai. Here I said farewell to my British friends and immediately caught a connection to Luang Nam Tha where I got lucky and caught another truck to the small town of Muang Sing. In 12 long hours of rough roads, I managed to catch three connections which I thought would take me 3 days to complete. This bought me some time to relax for a day in Muang Sing as I arranged a trek into the surrounding hills to visit some non-Lao ethnic minority villages.

The night before the trek I went with a Belgian guy I met and enjoyed a wonderful massage and herbal sauna at a bamboo thatch hut on the outskirts of town. The massage and sauna cost about $2 and was worth every penny as the woman rubbed the knots out of my Lao-road-destroyed back.

Hill tribe trekking in Laos is still in its infant stages (compared with Vietnam and Thailand) and I was really excited about getting in to some villages that aren’t overrun by travelers. The 2-day trek cost about $20 which is a hefty pile of Lao “kip” (the currency) since the biggest note is only worth 50 cents – which means you practically need a separate bag to carry your stack of money.

My small group left town with 2 guides and we hiked under blue skies for a few hours, reaching the first village by lunch. This area is the middle of the “golden triangle” of opium poppy cultivation and and there are even heroin refineries tucked away in the hills. There was a lot of literature around town before we left on the trek warning travelers not to smoke opium while in the minority villages because it sets a bad example to the village youth who might get addicted. The case seemed valid enough before we left, but in each village we got to, we saw plenty of people, including the village chiefs, smoking opium all day long. I was already accustomed to getting drugs offered me every day, but had never seen opium being smoked before (neither had any of the others in my trekking group). As we sat and ate in the chief’s house we couldn’t help watching the elaborate preparation process as the chief ground, mixed, and then smoked opium the whole time we were there.

The first 2 villages we walked through were interesting, but the villagers were quite wary of us and we didn’t have much interaction. These villages are pretty remote and only see about 10-15 small trekking groups per year. We continued into the afternoon through rice, cotton, and sugarcane fields, reaching a jungle-covered mountain. The trail wound through the jungle where we saw a cobra slither into the undergrowth.

We hiked for a few hours until we reached another village set in a clearing at the crest of the mountain. The path into the village was guarded by a crudely constructed “spirit gate” which keeps the evil jungle spirits out of the the village. As falang, we had to walk around the gate and weren’t allowed to touch it lest the villagers needed to sacrifice a chicken to appease the pissed-off spirits. This village of the Akha minority people was quite different from the others. As soon as we strolled, tired and sweating, into the village, the people ran out to greet us, smiling and waving as we walked past the bamboo/thatch homes built high on stilts. There were about 30 buildings here, each built on stilts and all constructed without nails, instead using interlocking rough-hewn logs.

The Akha women wear ornate head-dresses decorated with early 19th century French Indochina silver coins. The women were a little shy but the men and children were extremely friendly. After resting for a few minutes we walked down a different trail to the “shower” which was a piece of bamboo stuck into a mountainside spring so that it spouted out the cool, clear jungle water. We rinsed off and hung out for a while with some villagers who were coming up the trail from the day’s hunting and gathering. They proudly showed off the day’s catch: various fruits and vegetables as well as 5 or so small green jungle birds which had been caught in the ingenious little bamboo traps that they set throughout the jungle. Later that evening the chief gave me one of the traps as a gift to take home. They carry their goods in interesting backpacks made of a large bamboo woven basket attached to a wooden yoke which fits around the person’s neck like an oxen yoke. I carried one of the women’s backpacks up the hill and I must say that a piece of wood around my neck just couldn’t quite compare to the soft padding of one of our western-made backpacks.

Back in town we ate dinner (freshly killed chicken, eggs, rice, veggies) with our hands in the traditional manner on the floor of the chief’s house using large banana leaves as placemats. After dark, all the youth of the village (each family has about 10 kids) gathered on a small hilltop under a spirit pole for the evening socializing and singing. We sat with them under the stars and played various games.
Without television(or anything requiring electricity), the villagers have invented loads of games and tricks using a piece of rope which they tie into a complicated series of knots around their hands or feet and then untie the whole tangle with one swift pull of the rope in a certain spot. They got a great laugh out of me trying to duplicate the knots and when I yanked the rope I always ended up with a hopeless tangle binding my hands or feet together. Later they taught me a wrestling style game where one person has to keep his hands locked together while 2 or 3 others twist and jerk to try to pull the first guy’s hands apart before he throws them off. They got a kick out of wrestling me (the rest of the trekking group just watched) because I’m a foot taller than them, but they’re all really strong from years of hard work and subsistence living. We headed back to the chief’s house where we slept on the bamboo floor, falling asleep to the sweet smell of opium as the chief smoked into the wee hours.
We awoke the next morning to the smell of opium smoke and the clatter of pouring rain. It rained for a few hours and when the sky cleared we said our goodbyes and continued hiking down a new trail through the damp jungle. The jungle takes on a whole new character when it’s wet and smells of raw, pure earth and foliage. The evaporating moisture collects into white mist which flows between the trees like ghosts and settles into valleys as a stark white contrast to the green jungle. Breathtaking really. At one rest stop, we noticed leeches crawling onto our feet and legs but brushed them off before any of them latched on.

Further down the trail we reached another village where the people were once again quite wary of us. When I took my sandals off to go into the chief’s house for lunch I noticed blood oozing out from between my toes. It turns out a leech had been feasting on my blood and had left an open wound. It’s no big deal though, because they don’t hurt and don’t carry any diseases. Once again the chief smoked opium the whole time we were there, but this time he showed us all the paraphernalia and explained (the guide translated) the process of obtaining opium resin from the poppies and then refining it into heroin. This chief was actually a druglord/dealer and was quite wealthy by village standards. He even had a solar-powered TV and stereo. We hiked for a few more hours until reaching another village and then a road where we took a truck back to town.

The next morning I took a truck a few hours back to Luang Nam Tha and spent a boring afternoon there waiting until the next morning to catch a truck to Hauyxai on the Mekong River/Thai border. The cramped pickup bounced along the rough, brutally dusty road for 8 hours though pristine jungle. Along the way I saw an elephant showering itself in a creek. We weren’t near any villages and I didn’t see any people around it so I think it might actually have been a wild elephant. The truck continued through occasional villages as the road sometimes went through rivers or crossed small creeks on bridges made by loosely spanning some logs side by side to cover the gap.

While passing through one village the driver ran over a turkey, spewing its guts onto the dusty road. We stopped and the driver got out and joined the crowd of villagers as they paid their respects to the limp pile of feathers. After about 10 minutes of this (nothing happens quickly in Laos) the driver paid the owner of the turkey 10,000 kip ($1) for her grief, and we continued on our way.
When we finally reached Huayxai I was covered with brown dust from inside my ears and mouth to between the toes. My clothes are still filthy from that ride even though I washed them. The dust is so fine that it’s like dye and permanently fuses into everything.

The next day I took a boat across the Mekong Tiver and entered Thailand where I went straight to 7/11 and bought an ice cream cone and a bag of Lays potato chips. Yummy western treats. The crowded 2nd class air-conditioned bus from the border to Chiang Mai seemed like luxury after the trucks of Laos. On the bus it got really crowded at one stop but nobody wanted to take the open seat next to me. Lots of people were speaking and the only word I could understand was “falang” (foreigner/gringo). The Thais not involved in the tourist industry can be quite shy and like to keep their distance from falang. Finally some brave soul moved next to me, vacating his seat for one of the others. Maybe I just smelled really bad?

I spent today in Chiang Mai arranging my visa to Myanmar (Burma) and bought a flight to Rangoon for Sunday which will give me almost a month in Myanmar before I fly home. Tomorrow I’m taking an all-day Thai cooking class and will trek a few days after that as I wait for my visa to process.

Thanks for reading. Sorry this got so long but there was a lot of stuff I was excited to tell about.

Chiang Mai, Thailand


One more thing about Laos. I had another interesting meal in Laos before I left. I was sitting on my hotel balcony at dusk and the family that runs the place was eating dinner up there. They invited me to snack with them as the friendly Lao people usually do if they’re eating and someone else isn’t. On the table was a huge section of wasp nest, with each hexagonal larva-cubby covered with a protective white film.

I learned how to eat it by watching them: first you peel the white film off the top of a little nest hole. As Forrest Gump once declared, “life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.” Well, life is also like a wasp nest, every time you peel the white film back, there’s a new surprise. Sometimes it’s a formless white grub/larva about an inch long. These are the most sought after because they’re the juiciest. Sometimes you get a fully grown, 2-inch long adult wasp that’s still bright white and hasn’t yet sprouted wings, though the legs and HUGE brown eyes are fully intact. It’s weird making eye contact with your meal just before you eat it. These are also specialties – the flavor is so intense that with each wasp I couldn’t tell if it was shockingly delicious or so viciously disgusting that I wanted to retch my guts all over. Hmmm…it doesn’t taste anything like chicken, or like anything else for that matter. Least desirable are the black, evil-looking adult wasps ready to fly away. Thankfully I was not expected to eat those. The one saving grace of the experience was that the laolao (potent rice whiskey) was flowing freely to wash the wasps down.

Anyway, in Thailand I had a few days to kill waiting for my flight to Myanmar so I bused south to the magnificent ruins at Sukothai. This sprawling complex, set amid lakes and shady lawns, was built in the 14th century by the first independent Thai (Siamese) civilization. These people defeated the Khmers, who built Angkor Wat, and established the “golden age” of Siam. I rented a bike and rode around viewing the old temples and massive stone Buddha statues, stopping to rest under shady trees when the sun was too intense.

I’m back in Chiang Mai, ready to fly to Myanmar. The oppressive military regime in Myanmar made Internet illegal in the country to keep its citizens ignorant of the world, so there will be no emails coming from me until I get back to Thailand on November 21. Take care everyone…