Buses, Burning, Buddhas and Beer Lao

Trip Start Jan 03, 2004
Trip End Dec 2004

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Friday, April 2, 2004

The title of this entry pretty much sums up our Laos experience. Let us explain further...

Buses: We spent a lot of time on buses: a tourist mini-bus with air-conditioning(4 hours from Vientiane to Vang Vieng), one large bus with air-conditioning that was never used except during the first 5 minutes and last 20 minutes of a five-hour bus ride (from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang), a large non-air-conditioned bus (10 hours from Luang Prabang to Luang Nam Tha and back) and a pickup truck used as a bus (two hours from Luang Nam Tha to Muang Sing).

Overall, the road conditions were pretty good for a small underdeveloped country. Laos is a mountainous country, which means many windy narrow roads going up and down passes. This wasn't too bad except for the stretch from Luang Nam Tha to Udomxai where a young boy's vomit in the bus aisle kicked off a chain reaction of vomiting by many of the locals around us. A bus attendee had plenty of plastic barf bags to go around, but he was too late for the boy. The scenery from the bus would've been great except most of our view was hazy from smoke, which leads us to our next topic...

Burning March in Southeast Asia is the start of the hot, dry season and when much of the countryside is on fire. For agricultural reasons, each year farmers burn large swaths of land. We still don't totally understand the reasoning for the slash and burn technique, but it's awfully inconvenient for tourists hoping for panoramic views of lush jungles and rice paddies. We didn't see a clear sky for the 16 days we were in Laos. There was so much smoke, the sun looked like a perfectly round orange circle suspended in the sky. That's just not normal. Vientiane and Luang Prabang were not only smoky, they were also scorching hot. So, we were glad to escape the heat in the northern towns of Luang Nam Tha and Muang Sing.

But don't let us give you the impression Laos was lousy. This laid-back country was a great change of pace from the hassles of Vietnam and the mass tourism of Thailand. There was plenty to see, which leads us to our next topic...

Buddhas Buddhism is practiced widely in Laos and they take great pride in and care of their wats (temples). In Vientiane, we rented bicycles and rode to Pha That Luang (Great Sacred Stupa), which is depicted on many Laos symbols and looks like a cluster of missiles from a distance. This was our introduction to the Lao love affair with gold paint. The entire 45-meter tall structure and the wall surrounding it were painted gold. The stupa was built between the 11th and 13th centuries A.D. and is believed to contain a piece of the Buddha's breastbone.

In Luang Prabang, the former royal capital of Laos and an UNESCO World Heritage Site, you could spend days just visiting wats. There are 32 wats in this small town where the Mekong and Nam Kong Rivers meet. We heard of one guy who was intent on visiting every wat and was checking them off his list as he went. We, however, visited maybe three. (Didn't want to get wat overload.) Each wat was unique. The back wall of Wat Xieng Thong had a colorful glass mosaic called the Tree of Life. Inside comparably plain-looking Wat Wisunalat stood dozens of life-size standing Buddha statues and a huge sitting Buddha whose pointed headdress pierced the ceiling. Writing about all of this sightseeing is making us thirsty, which reminds us of ...

Beer Lao Jill drank more beer in Laos than during four years in college. Why? Beer Lao. It's dirt cheap, "tastes so good when it hits your lips" (the first person to name the movie with that line wins a free Beer Lao T-shirt!), and is available everywhere. In Vang Vieng, one of the main tourist attractions was to drink a bottle or two of Beer Lao while floating down a scenic river on an innertube. It was a bit disconcerting to see these flotillas of foreigners on inner tubes getting drunk as they drifted past traditional Lao villages, but we suppose the locals were making a tidy profit by selling them beers. We decided to forego the "drinking and tubing" experience and just enjoyed tubing. We saved Beer Lao when it was really necessary, like to wash down all the dust accumulated in our throats after a 10-hour bus ride.

Laos has much more than just Buddhas and Beer Lao though. Another highlight was a two-day trek in Nam Tha National Park, which is located near the northern town of Luang Nam Tha. Trekking in Luang Nam Tha began only two years ago, and the tourism office is trying to do it responsibly and regulate the amount of tourists that are allowed to visit the park and to promote cultural sensitivity toward the indigenous peoples.

The first day we hiked to a Khamu village inaccessible by road. Before entering the village, our guide told us about the Khamu people (for example, they practice animism not Buddhism)and how to behave while visiting, including not giving any candy, money or gifts to the children. (This practice has encouraged begging in other countries.) That night, he invited the village chief to join us for dinner and we had the opportunity to ask him various questions about village life. Our tour guides bought food for our meals from the villages we visited, which supports their economy. A staple of Lao food is sticky rice, which is eaten with your hands rolled in balls. Another Lao favorite is laap, a mixture of minced meat, garlic, mint, chili, and lime.

On our second day, we hiked to a second village inhabited by Lenten people, a hill tribe distinctly different than their Khamu neighbors in dress and appearance. Lenten women are tall and thin; they wear a silver coin in their upswept hair for decoration and pluck their eyebrows. The trekking between villages was beautiful as well -- the jungle forest provided a canopy overhead, but we still sweated buckets as we hiked up and down mountains. Unfortunately, after hiking to the top of a mountain, the smoke from burning ruined some great views.

Our recommendations for Laos: Shop for silk wall hangings in Vientiane's morning market, fill up on a plate of food (for only 50 cents!) from Luang Prabang's local market, take a break from the heat at Kuang Si Waterfall outside of Luang Prabang, and do a two or three-day trek with a village stay in the remote northern province of Luang Nam Tha.
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