A place in time

Trip Start Jun 20, 2012
Trip End Dec 19, 2012

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, Louangphabang,
Saturday, September 22, 2012

Probably the two most commonly known things about Laos are 1) it is the most bombed country in the world (courtesy of the US) and 2) there is extreme river tubing in Vang Viang where tons of foreigners die every year. This of course might put a lot of people off visiting Laos (or for some they would be the reason). Either way that's a tragedy because Laos has so much more to offer than drunken tubing and war torn landscape.

In all fairness Katelyn and I didn't experience either of these things. The landscape we saw was pristine and seemed, for the most part, to be untouched by machinery of any kind. And we definitely didn't do the tubing thing. First off we were short on time and decided we had other priorities. Second, I had no desire to float down a river where the current is so strong it's a struggle to get out even if your completely sober and physically fit. And third the government just happened to shut it down two weeks before we got there. Yes my adventure seeking friends, I'm sad to report that the Laos government swooped in and shut down all the bars (burned a few to the ground as well). In case anyone is unaware the tubing was started by a local organic farmer. He had travelers, or hoofers, come and work on his farm in exchange for free room and board. As a treat he would give them inner tubes for them to float down the river at the end of the day as a way to relax. Well soon other travelers caught on and of course businesses swarmed in, people started charging tourists to float down the river and all kinds of bars (selling legal and illegal substances) were set up along the river. So within a matter of years it went from being a way for expat farm workers to relax to an all out insane river party. And as you can imagine when you mix alcohol, drugs and a fast flowing river bad things start to happen. I guess last year they had something like 28 deaths, one of which was the son of an Australian official, and that of course put a lot of pressure on the Laos government. So now it's a ghost town, which if anything, makes it more of an attraction to me, but as I said we were short on time, having stayed two weeks longer than planned in Thailand, so we had to cut a couple of things.

So instead of going to Vang Viang or the plain of jars or the four thousand islands in the south we stuck with Vientiane, the Capitol, and Luang Prabang, Laos' most popular city. We were only in Vientiane for three days but that was more than enough. Our hostel was pretty central, which is always a plus and we immediately made friends with three of our roommates: Graham, Andy and Patrick. We all went out for lunch and dinner and then later made a night of it. We actually had quite an adventure that first night.

We were all sitting down by the Mekong river just talking and minding our own business when all of a sudden we find ourselves surrounded by about ten army officials some of which were toting some heavy machinery. I definitely had that moment of panic where all I could think about was how much we would have to pay them to leave us alone. Luckily we had made friends with a Chinese guy who spoke laos and was able to communicate. The officials said they had to search us because Vietnamese and Thai were known for holding people up at gun point at night and they needed to make sure none of us were carrying weapons. Well I knew that was a load of crap because NONE of us looked Vietnamese or Thai. I think they were looking for drugs because boy did they search us thoroughly. They were respectful at all times but they looked in every pocket. At one point the guy searching me found my tampon. He seemed extremely confused by it so I kind of mimed what you do with it. Well this upset him so much he immediately stopped searching me and moved on. Once again, saved by the tampons. Eventually they were satisfied, lowered their weapons and moved on. We couldn't believe our luck. You hear stories about corrupt government officials but these guys didn't harass us in the slightest. Now, thank our lucky stars that no one had any illegal substances on them because we would have all been royally screwed in that instance. But all they did was search us and go on their way. Of course all of us had mini heart attacks in the meantime but we survived and came away with a great story.

The next couple of days we did some sight seeing and a lot of hanging out with great people. Our second day we went to what some call the "vertical runway." I guess the US government, as a "we're sorry for blowing the hell out of your country" gesture donated enough cement for Laos to build a brand new airport runway. But Laos decided they much rather use the cement to make a completely useless monument in the center of Vientiane where tourists go to have a good view of the city and buy a crap ton of kitsch. I think it's quite brilliant really.

Then our third day we went to the National Museum. Now it's not the best museum but it's interesting all the same. There are your standard traditional artifacts from the different areas and tribes that you see in most national museums. However, their recent history is told completely through pictures, from world war one all the way to present day. The thing I found most interesting was that America was always referred to as "the imperialists". It kind of differs from our own mindset of who we are, don't it? After the museum we spent the rest of the day at a coffee shop where we basically just talked and talked. Then that night we went and watched Andy try to complete a burger challenge at a local restaurant. He had to eat a burger nearly twice the size of my face. He was only able to do half but he gave a very good effort. And it was nice to know that America's not the only place that likes to waste food in this ridiculous manner. We ended up giving the leftovers to some local tuk tuk drivers, cuz lord knew Andy wasn't gonna look at a burger for at least a month.

The following day we flew to Luang Prabang. We could have taken a ten hour bus but after all the stories we'd heard we decided to save time and heartache and just fly. We instantly loved Luang Prabang. Its a quiet little town riddled with temples and surrounded by rivers and mountains. It is the perfect place to simply relax. We did do some sight seeing as well. For example we went and saw these positively stunning waterfalls, visited the most famous of the temples, Wat Xieng Thang, and strolled through the night market. But mostly we simply enjoyed being in the town and living at a slower pace. We were also fortunate because we met up with Andy and Graham and basically spent the next few days hanging out. We went to dinner almost every night at "the House", which had the best chicken kebab and pasta carbonara. We even got roped into playing a game with the restaurant owner and some locals. The game is a lot like bocci ball but I have no idea what it's called. At one point we ventured across the river, which I did not enjoy in the slightest. Our final destination was a beautiful restaurant with the best ambiance. However, in order to get there you have to slide down this wall of mud, get into a long boat whose edges are only ever a few inches from being submerged in water and then scramble up another ledge of mud on the other side. While it wasn't the most enjoyable experience I'm glad we did it. We basically spent a lot of time eating, walking around and lounging at Joma coffee shop. It was nice spending six days chilling out in a chill city with chill people. We still went and saw things but it was never rushed. Instead we really got a feel for the city and it's people, which is one of the best things you can do when traveling.

Once again it was gut wrenching to say goodbye to Andy and Graham. It's like we had become our own little wolf pack. And although we were staying at different guesthouses in Luang Prabang we literally did almost everything together. We even spent an entire day at the coffee shop talking, playing games on our devices and eating. As always we could have been "go go go" and seen twenty different things, but like I always say, "it's not what you see it's who you see it with," and we saw Luang Prabang with some good people. My one regret is that I didn't go bowling the last night they were with us. As seems to be a theme on this trip I got sick and spent the night with a fever and immense stomach cramps. It would have been fun to go bowling in Laos. Talk about strange. I guess since curfew is 11pm in Laos all the bars in the city have to close. However, outside the city is a bowling alley that stays open until 3am. I guess that's something I will have to enjoy next time.

I really do wish we had had more time in Laos. It may not be on everyone's top list of places to visit but it should be. First of all the people are lovely and very friendly. Second, the country is absolutely stunning. And third it isnt as busy and crazy as many of the other countries are. Of course that is changing quickly as more and more people discover just how fantastic it is. The infrastructure still leaves something to be desired but I think eventually it will develop and someday it will be just as easy to travel in Laos as it is in Thailand. But the question is: do we really want that? Part of the appeal to Laos is that there is still an untouched quality about it. You still have to take 10-30 hour bus rides over rough terrain where you may or may not have to get out and push the bus through some mud. And there is something to be said about the fact that I did not see one McDonalds or Starbucks while I was there. I think there are a lot of benefits to globalized tourism. It encourages people to go out and see the world and experience different cultures all the while broadening their minds. And I firmly believe the best thing anyone can do for themselves is to travel outside their comfort zone, so as to really appreciate what they have and understand what others don't have. But what happens when everything is easy? Isn't part of the excitement and adventure lost? What happens when tourism takes over and a beautiful river turns into a place filled with drugs and alcohol? It becomes more about the party scene and the actual scenery gets forgotten. Oh and people die. Now, while I don't think all outcomes are that drastic, extreme tourism definitely is a killer in many ways. It can destroy some of the purity and uniqueness of a place. But I digress.

Anyway, Laos is beautiful and still has some of its purity, despite the bombings and a certain reputation. And while I was shocked with how many tourists I did see I don't think it quite tainted my experience. I would go back in a heart beat and hopefully someday I will.
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Mike Barnes on

I feel a slight bit of pity for the man who dared to search your pockets!

Thanks again for sharing your experiences and impressions. Very interesting and a nice reprieve from DC law firm life.

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