Laos - 07/11/01


What a fabulous, friendly country! Everyone gives you a wave and a big smile, no tricks or cons to get your money. When they told us that our hotel was closed, it actually was, and when someone said remember me, we actually did. Even being Americans is a country we bombed the crap out of for years didn't dampen anyone's hospitality. Amazing!

We spent our first few days in the small capital city of Vientiane. The high point of our stay was an excursion to Buddha Park. A 24-km tuk-tuk ride brought us to a park beside the Mekong that was jam packed with cement statues portraying all sorts of Hindu and Buddhist deities from a 40-foot long reclining Buddha to life-size statues of crocodiles and snake-headed gods. In Lisa's words, "the whole place was some kind of trippy stage set for a Tim Burton film." The central focus of it all was a giant cement dome filled with life-size statues in tableaus representing heaven and hell. You enter through a giant demon's mouth into hell and ascend dangerously rickety stairs from the underworld up to heaven. When you finally emerge onto the roof, you contemplate a vast view of the entire park while trying to figure out how to get back down without killing yourself.

Vientiane also gave us an opportunity to once again discover our lack of language skills. Although we ran into numerous people who spoke English and therefore helped us right along, that didn't include the owner of a little Chinese place where we stopped for dinner one evening. Ordering from a menu with a very minimal English translation, we decided to go for the dumplings. Sounded pretty safe. The owner was a very nice man and tried to explain something very important about our order. Not having a word in common, we just smiled and gestured for him to bring it on. He explained again, looking more serious than ever. We just told him to go ahead and surprise us. When our meal arrived, it was immediately obvious what he'd been trying to get across. The dumplings we ordered were for at least six hungry people. Embarrassment all around, but we couldn't leave food behind, so we did the only appropriate thing. We forced down at least 50 dumplings (super tasty, by the way) and waddled out of there as if we'd known what we'd been doing all along.

A days bus ride north of the capital is the little village of Vang Vieng. Originally it was just a good halfway point between Vientiane and the other large city in Laos, Luang Prabang. Our 1999 Lonely Planet said that it was a nice quite place to unwind where we might be able to take an innertube ride or explore a cave. Well that one paragraph seems to have caught the attention of every backpacker who's traveled through Lao since 1999. The place is 3-4 times larger with tons of nice guesthouses, restaurants carrying the usual backpacker faire, internet cafes and bars. The tour industry has boomed as well. There are now multiple kayaking tours, cave excursions, trips to tribal villages, and multi-day treks. Not exactly the peace and quiet we were looking for, but we did spend a relaxing few days there.

We took a one-day kayak/caving trip that turned out to be a lot of fun. We did end up showing our utter lack of boating skills at one point though. Our guide told us at the last second where to turn out for tea. We paddled as hard as we could to reach the bank, and the strenuous effort dislocated my shoulder. Lisa didn't know whether to continue paddling or try and help me. While she decided and I writhed, we crashed into an island of reeds, floated far downstream and ended up tramping through knee deep mud up the back to get to the teahouse. Now, when we pulled ourselves to shore, we expected to get a lot of razzing from our fellow kayakers. We sheepishly looked upstream, but no one had time to pay us any attention. Two other kayaks had crashed into the same island and were bearing down on us at high speed, one guy was being swept even farther downstream, and another had completely capsized and was being rescued by our guide. The look on our guide's face was priceless.

At our second cave on the tour, our guide told us to leave our life vests and helmets on. As we approached the entrance we soon saw why; the cave mouth had a fast flowing stream pouring out of it. The only way into the cave was by swimming hard against the current, being careful not to cut yourself on submerged rocks, and watching out that you don't go over the waterfall. We made it inside to an enormous open space with many interconnecting caverns going off into the distance. It turns out that over 2000 Laotians lived in that cave for two years to avoid the bombing during the Vietnam War. What a scary way to live, especially so after we spotted a couple of the giant cave spiders they had to share their home with.

Another day on the bus took us through beautiful green mountains to the city of Luang Prabang; the only city in Laos not destroyed by bombing during the war. It's also an amazing mix of colonial and local architecture. The downtown area is full of beautiful French colonial houses, hotels and shop fronts (parts of it are quite reminiscent of the French Quarter in New Orleans). Interspersed with these buildings are some of the most beautiful Buddhist Wats (temples) I've ever seen. Many of them are covered with elaborate carvings of deities painted a flaming gold. When the sun broke free of the clouds (rare indeed during the rainy season) you needed sunglasses just to look at them. The other decorating technique often applied were elaborate mosaics constructed from multicolored glass tiles. They tell stories from religious texts and Laos' past and even included some impressive battle scenes full of elephants and bloodily injured warriors. The old royal palace in particular is full of these mosaics. The one in the throne room took eight men three years to complete. The palace also houses various gifts that the king received from other countries, beautiful treasures from all over the world. In the midst of them all is the section of gifts from the US, with among other things, a carved wooden key to the city of Knoxville, Tennessee. Whatever?

We were having a very hard time deciding how to get from Luang Prabang back to Thailand. Our options seemed to be: a two day bus ride back the way we came, an even longer (and more uncomfortable) bus ride through the north, or two days on a cramped, slow boat up the Mekong. One other option was the speedboat, but we ruled that one out. You have to wear life vests and helmets the whole way because, a couple years ago, a whole boatload of tourists died crashing into a rock at 70 mph. No thanks. Strolling through town one day we came across an ad for a more luxurious ride up the river. It was half price since they were trying to promote the upriver direction (most of their tours were based out of Bangkok), and even though it was over our usual budget, we decided to splurge for Lisa's birthday. We got to the jetty at 7am to discover a beautiful teak boat built for 35 passengers. As we set off, the boat contained just us and six crew. We were it!

It ended up being two days of total luxury and relaxation. Three lovely Laotian meals a day served on the boat, nice thick cushions to lounge on while watching the forest and villages go by, and no worries whatsoever. We even got a night in a way fancy hotel halfway up the river. This was one of our few views into how the other half lives. We also had a really cool guide who took us on excursions throughout the trip. We visited a cave containing over 4000 Buddha images, a village where they brew the local version of white lightning in 55-gallon oil drums (tastes about as bad as you'd expect), a village market where they were selling off large chunks of a water buffalo, including it's head, and he even took us out to dinner with a friend off his at the end of our trip. He also rescued Lisa from the grips of a dangerous one-pound baby monkey. Seriously though, it wouldn't let go and kept trying to get a bite out of her. All either of us was thinking at the time was "should have gotten those rabies shots". Hint to future travelers; monkeys do not like having their pictures taken.

Our luxurious river ride took us up north where we were able to cross the Mekong back into Thailand where we headed back to Bangkok for a bit more of malls and movies before heading to Malaysia. Laos was wonderful, one of our favorite countries of the trip!

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Pha That Luang: the golden stupa of Vientiane

Monk and Demon at Buddha Park

Buddha park, Vientiane

The ultimate balancing act

Ceremony preparation at Wat Ong Teu

Braving the rapids at Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng

Geoff celebrates his millionaire status (in Lao kip)

Wat Xieng Thang, Luang Prabang

Amazing glass tile mosaics

Laos know balustrades

Kuang Si Falls

Some lunchtime pals

Golden Wat Mai, Luang Prabang

Tham Ting Cave; filled with over 4000 buddhas

The Mighty Mekong River

Hmong women

Lao Huay woman in Ban Nam Sang village