My time in Laos is nearly at an end, I have one more week and one more destination in a beautiful area at the Southern tip of Laos called "4,000 islands" where I will get some much needed rest, relaxation, and healing (I've accumulated quite a few somewhat serious cuts and scrapes), before I head to Cambodia
. Following the gorgeous waterfalls of Luang Prabang, I headed to what turned out to be the party capital of Laos, Vang Vieng. Vang Vieng is on the typical backpacker trail, these backpackers tend to be 18-19 year olds, just graduated from high school and taking a few months off to "travel." They hop from party central to party central, and avoid the culture of the country they are visiting with a xenophobic and generally disrespectful attitude. Having skipped and avoided all the big party spots in Thailand, I was unprepared for Vang Vieng. Although Admittedly, I did have quite a bit of fun for the first two days; it was shockingly reminiscent of college. During the day people go to a river a couple of kilometres north of the town to take part in “tubing.” The idea is to rent a tube and take a tube from the start point back to town while stopping at the many bars on the riverside along the way. Although most people skip the tube and just hang out at the first few bars. The bars are all manned by young travellers who have decided not to leave. There is not a local in sight. Although the river provides quite a few fun activities such as mud volleyball, a multitude of high trapeze to practice one's acrobatic abilities, a few ziplines and some other forms of extremely dangerous entertainment for intoxicated adrenaline seekers. At night everyone goes to the bar across the river next to town to continue their drinking from the day to obnoxious poorly mixed pop techno music. At around 3:00am the flaming limbo gets lit, responsible for the majority of injured and limping high school graduates that make up a large portion of the population
. In between drinking, people usually spend their time at the restaurants, all of which either play continuous reruns of Friends, or Family Guy. I took part in the festivities for two days and it was more than enough.
I ended up staying in Vang Vieng for one week, however I avoided the party atmosphere and instead rented bicycles with my friends, explored the otherwise gorgeous landscape, trekked through forests and got in some rock climbing. My friends were departing Vang Vieng to head up North and I was headed South. I was back on my own. The question was where to go? I looked in my guide book for guidance. It described Northern Laos and even Southern Laos in great detail, but it did not even mention Central Laos. It was as if 50% of the country didn’t exist. VIP tourist busses and vans head to every interesting location in Laos, from all the sightseeing spots in the north, to the tranquil regions to the South, but not a single one of them led anywhere near the Central area. Perhaps it was due to the fact that until recently, areas in Laos that are closer to the Vietnamese border had a large amount of unexploded bombs that made travel dangerous until they were removed by numerous mine removal efforts. Did you know that Laos is the most bombed country in history? Apparently it was the U.S.A who did the bombing as part of one of their many “Secret Wars” that they always seem to have skipped in my history classes
. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. went into Laos spreading rumors that the Vietnamese were going to take their land and their women to try to gain support. After communism began to spread in Laos, the U.S. began to heavily bomb suspected communist bases and Vietnamese supply lines which in reality were often innocent villages. It is estimated that more bombs were dropped in Laos than all bombs dropped during the entire World War 2 era, 30% failed to explode. Fortunately a massive movement by different countries have contributed to the cleanup of the mines; I actually saw quite a few buildings dedicated to the task along the way. Regardless of the danger, after being in Thailand and Northern Laos, areas that have been completely overrun by tourists and a society that is built on catering towards them, I have been itching to take a road less travelled. My visa was running low, (one month is simply not long enough to explore a country and culture, even countries as small as Laos) but I refused to skip over such a large portion of the country that I was in. I went to a restaurant in Vang Vieng that had a nice collection of dedicated Laos guide books. I looked through them and made a modified motorcycle adventure, drew up a map with directions and took a local bus to the Laos capital in Vientiane, hoping to find a local bus to the central area from there. The capital was similar to most capitals I’ve seen, consisting of more tourists than locals, high prices for cheap things, and of course old lonely westerners escorted by young girls or ladyboys
. I didn’t have much interest in Vientiane; however it turned out to be quite nice. The architecture and food in Vientiane was like being in a French town, reminiscent of the French colonial period. The next morning began early. I took the bus to my take-off point in Thakhek. When I arrived I immediately found a place to rent a motorbike, rigged my pack and my guitar on the back and took off. Central Laos is a gorgeous and incredibly untouched countryside; it provided me exactly what I was looking for. Unfortunately, it will only be a matter of time before this place is discovered by the tourist industry. Jungle covered limestone rocks jut out of the ground at every direction, it would make for perfect rockclimbing, waterfalls and caves are scattered around and present themselves every few miles, and rural villages and farmland pocket the landscape. The area is so amazing and so magical. I began my adventure a little bit late in the day so I wasn’t sure how much progress I would make. I wasn’t concerned, if I couldn’t find a Guest House, I could have probably managed to find a homestay, and if that failed I had my hammock, water purifier and some food. As I drove in the middle of nowhere, the sun began to get dangerously close to the mountains. I was still quite a ways from my first destination. I decided to just make camp somewhere but quickly threw that idea out the window when I noticed the monsoon clouds fast approaching in the distance. I increased my speed and began to look for a Guest House, each one I found was too expensive
. Driving began to become extremely dangerous. It was completely dark and all of the jungle bugs were attracted to my headlight. My vision was filled with bright lines as millions of bugs flew past. When I say bugs, I don’t mean flies or small insects, but massive flying creatures coming in at extremely high speeds (imagine a giant maggot with huge fairy like wings). It felt as though someone was shooting me with a pellet gun. My vision was blurred by the constant new bug flying into my eye. To make matters worse, the road was very potholed and in Laos, all farm animals roam the streets freely. Chickens, goats, cows, pigs all live out their lives free and happy until it’s time for them to be eaten. Unfortunately for me and my lack of clear vision, the cow herds seemed to enjoy sleeping in the middle of the road. It was simply too dangerous to continue so I stopped at the next guest house I could find. Upon driving in, the guy working the front desk wanted me to hang out with him and his friends for a bit, I always jump at the opportunity to hang out with locals and enjoy the nuances of their lifestyle. Afterwards, I went to bed early, tomorrow was a big day.
I awoke the next morning way later than I had intended. It was pouring rain so I waterproofed my bag and my guitar, strapped them both onto my bike, just in time for the rain to stop. I hit the road by noon and enjoyed the next 20 minutes of driving before the trip took a turn for the worse
. As I got deeper into the country side, the concrete road came to an end. I learned quickly that driving a street motorbike on anything other than concrete is not only very dangerous but a pain in the ass in the literal sense. Doing this trip during monsoon season probably wasn’t the best idea either. When the roads weren’t jarringly rocky, they were unsteady, muddy, with puddles so deep that they nearly drowned the bike or slipped and sent me head first into the mud. I only had to drive about 80 kilometres but it took me over six hours crawling through the road conditions. The rocky road was so painful yet the muddy road was so dangerous I wasn’t sure which evil I preferred. Regardless of the miserable ride, I saw some of the most beautiful landscapes and the most amazing simple and quaint villages filled with the friendliest people. People literally gazed in awe to see a Falang (The Asian term for white person, non-derogative although it can be used in a derogatory fashion depending on the context). Being so close to the Vietnamese border, the only tourists they get look the same. I wanted to stop at every village so badly, but I had to beat the sunset. Driving on this road at night would be suicide. I arrived just as darkness filled the sky in the town of Lok Soa. I found a cheap Guest House, went to the night market and had my first experience of legitimate, real Laos food. Some of the best questionable meat soup I’ve had, and I’ve had quite a few questionable meat soups in South East Asia
. I figured I would get some dessert and go to bed early. I searched for a store with an ice-cream chest and finally found one. I walked in and before I could even pay for my popsicle, the owner of the shop/house beckoned me inside and began to feed me. He spoke no English so it was back to hand gestures and charades. Within minutes his kids and several other kids from the neighbourhood came rushing in to see the Falang, they were all between the ages of 5 and14. For a while, they sat right in front of my and stared in wonder, muttering to each other. I wished I had my guitar or something to break the ice. Instead I spoke what little Laos I knew and once the ice was broken, it was all fun and games. I played with the kids for hours. They loved the game rock, paper. Scissors, they were amazed by my ability to wiggle my ears and raise my eyebrows, they laughed at the hair on my legs and arms describing that I was like a monkey, and when I stood up, they couldn’t believe my height (Their father probably came up to my stomach). I taught them the English alphabet, they showed me their pet monkey, which was actually quite sad to see, and their pet duck with ducklings. We danced, sang, and played, and in between playing with the kids, I had great conversations with the parents, who offered to let me sleep at their house, all while not expressing a single bit of verbal communication. There is something truly special about taking verbal language out of an interaction, and just genuinely enjoying another’s company
. There is no need for false idle chatter, nor is there any fear of an awkward moment of silence. It is just completely in the moment, genuine good company. In retrospect, I feel as though I had talked with all of them for hours, and the conversations I had with them were more real and intimate than any of the conversations I have had with anyone along the way. I sincerely miss that family, and I wish I had more time to go back and at least get their address so I could stay in touch.
The next morning I got an early start, I didn’t meet them for breakfast like I was supposed to because I had to drive all the way back to Thakhek and I was wasn’t sure if I would be driving on concrete or less efficient road. The road ended up being concrete straight through which allowed me to cruise at 80 kilometres an hour. I stopped at a huge cave about an hour out of the way that was known for being several kilometres long and having a huge river flowing through it. I chartered a boat and headed into the mouth of the enormous cave. It was the most incredible cave I had ever seen. When I was learning how to rock climb I learned that before I climb onto a stalactite, I need to make sure it is alive by seeing if it has water in it and is dripping, otherwise it is likely to crumble. The cave was full of living rock, waterfalls poured out of non-existent holes in the ceiling and beautiful stalagmites and stalactites covered all surfaces that were not under water. After the experience, I headed home, again racing the sunset and this time losing the fight. I found that driving closely behind other vehicles shielded me from the worst of the bugs and eventually made it back with no injuries other than a very slimy face. I checked into my hotel next to the bus station and drove several kilometres into town to drop off the bike. As I was walking back, I knew it would only be a few moments before a friendly Laos local would stop, ask where I was going, offer me a ride and probably a place to stay or drink
. Within minutes I got a ride and he told me he was meeting his friend for a barbeque which happened to be right next to the bus station. I was starved so I excitedly agreed. I am not sure what he thinks barbeque means, but he took me to a bar, which served no food only beer and woman. He bought me a few drinks and told me that his brother works for some bureau in the government, gave me his information, and told me to call him if I got into any legal trouble in Laos. After about a half hour he bought a girl and I went home.
I caught my bus the next morning to a town in Southern Laos called Pakse, it would only about 300 kilometres away, but the local bus took about 12 hours to get there. It sounds terrible but I had been itching to read my new book, 1984, and it gave me ample opportunity to start it, and finish it. I arrived in Southern Laos, checked into a Guest House and got dinner. Again on the way home I was picked up by a friendly Laos local who took me to his favourite restaurant to practice his English, share a few beers and eat some food. I went to bed early so I could start my Southern Laos motorbike trip the next morning. The trip in Southern Laos is actually quite popular and apparently the “thing to do” around here. As I got started I headed out of town the wrong way and got lost. I found myself surrounded by several Laos Police Officers, who demanded that I give them a “toll” of $20 (that is a huge amount of money out here)
. I had no choice, if I had stood my ground they probably would have found a reason or fabricated one to send me to jail. The landscape itself was unremarkable really; save for a few magnificent waterfalls along the way, there was really nothing to see. There weren’t really any incredible villages like in Central Laos, and the people weren’t nearly as friendly and accommodating as Central Laos, I found them to be more stern and cold shouldered towards tourists similar to the North. Although I was taken in by some Vietnamese tourists in one of the towns I visited who introduced me to Laos coffee. I cut the trip short after a flat tire blew my confidence away from driving my motorbike off-road safely. Right now I am back in the town of Pakse, and enjoying a quiet evening before heading to 4,000 islands to relax and heal tomorrow morning.
Looks like my Camera has got a smudge somewhere on the inner part of the lense, looks like its not as waterproof as it is supposed to be. Unfortunately some great photos were ruined so please ignore the smudge.
I just want to start out this blog by thanking everyone who has taken the time to comment, donate, or read my blogs. It really keeps me motivated and reminds me that I have a family. Travelling alone is really the best thing to do in a foreign country; it keeps the doors open for more interaction with locals and a more cultural experience. I cannot walk anywhere, especially in Laos, without getting stopped and invited to eat, drink, or stay with them. Everyone here is so friendly and so eager to learn about a different culture. These opportunities simply do not happen, or at least happen much less frequently, when I travel with a buddy. So in those moments when I am alone for hours on end, it is you guys, those who read, those who comment, those who care, that keep my heart warm at night. I cannot express enough gratitude to everyone for their emotional and spiritual support.