The Jewel of the Mekong

Trip Start Nov 05, 2008
Trip End Jun 23, 2009

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Vietnam challenging part of hitchhiking through Laos was getting drivers to realize that I was actually hitchhiking and not some crazy tourist just holding up a sign and waving. I left Pakse with my bags and a sign on which I had written "Savannakhet" hoping to save some cash and meet some interesting people along the way. As if I haven't been stared at enough as a white tourist in Laos, now I was holding up a sign and wandering the outskirts of Pakse. The first guy who stopped for me was delivering newspapers in his truck and took me to the bus station about 8km away. The second person was a woman on a moped who took me about 10km and started to veer off to some random village off of the main road, so I told her to stop and I continued walking north on Highway 13.

After these short rides, I started to think that people would only be taking me short distances, but my luck would change soon.
The next car that stopped for me had three people inside, including a man who was born in Laos, but has been living in San Francisco for about 40 years as a painter and art teacher. His name is Samboun and he was traveling with his father and stepbrother who's family has a house in Savannakhet.

They were very happy to give me a ride and within 5 minutes of talking to Samboun, he invited me to stay with his family that night. It took about 3 hours to get to Savannakhet and I'm pretty Samboun was talking for all of it. We stopped along the way for food and water and I started a soccer game with a group of kids, so Samboun took a picture of us. He's one of the nicest people I've ever met and loves to travel, so we had plenty to talk about. I was a little hesitant about the whole situation at first because I was so fortunate to meet him and get a ride, but at the end of the drive felt very secure. I ended up staying at his family's house for about 4 nights, helping them cook dinner and learning how to speak Lao. They had the cutest dog, named Fino as shown in a couple pictures. The daughter at the house spoke very good English, which helped a lot. Her name is Nick and she took me to the That Inhang festival. The festival includes performances of traditional Lao music and dance as well as a sports competition featuring football, boxing, tennis and local traditions including a drumming competition. In recent years an international trade fair has been organized to coincide with the event, featuring exhibitions of products from Laos, Thailand and Việtnam. It was pretty packed at night and fun to walk around with Nick and her friends.
In between my stay with the family, I did a 2 days trekking trip which included ahome stayy in a village called Ban Phonsim. It basically involvedd 4 of us walking through the jungle for 5 hours , eating berries, nuts, leaves and listening to stories about the area.
After a lunch break, we continued through the jungle and eventually made it to the village, Ban Phonsim. The village has about 3,000 people, one school and one temple. We helped them prepare dinner and a Baci ceremony in which we made lanterns out of banana leaves and bamboo. During the Baci, we drank shots of Lao-Lao whiskey, which is the staple rice whiskey of Laos and dirt cheap. Some places just give bottles of the stuff away for free of sell them for 50 cents/bottle. Some of the neighbors in the village attended the ceremony and wished me and the other westerner good luck in our travels by tying bracelets around us and chanting a few words in Lao. I had about 15 bracelets around me, but it has been gradually falling off, so I have about 5 now.

The next morning, bright and early, we went to the temple for the morning ceremony of giving alms to the monks, which lasted about an hour. Then we went on a tour of the village and saw how they make rice and weave silk for clothes. We also visited the school classroom which were just getting underway, so we observed their math lesson of the morning through the windows, but tried not to be too distracting to the kids. The trek ended a couple hours later at the That Inhang Festival, which I had already been to, but not during the day. This is where I randomly saw a pair of Red Sox socks on display.

After one more night with the Minixai family, I left Savannakhet and continued my hitchhiking journey and started walking north in the direction of Thakhek. The truck that stopped for me was a local bus that charged me $1 to take me 2 hours in the right direction. The truck had no room inside, so I stood on the back the whole time sort of like a trolley in San Francisco, except on a highway in Laos...I tried to make conversation with one of the locals on the bus, but I think I scared him away. The Lao language can be very tricky which pronunciations, so you have to be careful what you say. I thought I was saying to his guy: "my name is Luke" (Khawy Seu Luke) but if you say "Seu" a certain way, it means "buy" and if you say "luke" a certain way, it means children. So basically, I was telling a local that I wanted to buy his children. Now I know why he didn't wanted to talk to me.

The next ride was a minivan going to Vientiane with 3 locals who spoke no English and blasted obnoxious Lao pop music the whole ride. Then the driver all the sudden asked for 20 dollars to take me any farther, so I declined and got out in Thakhek, a random with beautiful scenery in the background, but nothing to do in the town itself. I tried to hitchhike more that day, but no one wanted to stop for me, but I crashed in a guesthouse and tried again the next day.

More hitchhiking adventures coming soon...
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Where I stayed
Somboun's family house
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