After relaxing in lovely Luang Prabang, we got up pretty early on the 3rd and caught a bus to Van Vieng - apparently the town of dirty hippies and tubing down river with rope swings and beer lao. The bus ride was bearable, although very windy and the bus struggled uphill - it didn't break down, I have yet to experience this apparently frequent occurence in bus travel in Laos.
We arrived in Van Vieng and walked to a guesthouse - were checked in to a room by owner Noi - a room with three beds, room seemed okay but we were hungry so dropped our bags and headed into town. We returned to our room a couple hours later, and discovered an infestation of 1) cockroaches 2)fleas and, worst of all, 3) bed bugs. The bed bugs did it - we were outta there. Grabbed our bags, walked out in our p.j's, told one of the guys who worked there we were leaving and why. Walked down the street into another guesthouse, it had fleas and bed bugs too. We kept walking, finally found another spot with clean enough beds and bunkered down, extremely hot, exhausted, and a wee ticked off.
The next morning, while waiting for Chis to get out of the shower, Noi from the first bed-bug infested room just opens the door to our new room in this new guesthouse and walks right on in. Hmm, I'm feeling ticked off again. He says we have to pay for the room we left. Rob and I say "No, it was full of bed bugs, if those get into our bags we carry them with us and they are nearly impossible to get rid of." He says "You were there for 3 hours - you should pay." I say "YOU should be providing a clean room!" He attempts a different strategy - a scare-tactic "Fine. Get your passport and we can deal with this at the police station." As my family well knows, Alex in the morning is one thing to deal with. But Alex in the morning without coffee is a double whammy. "FINE! I'll get my passport! YOU wait downstairs!!" Here's where I know he was trying to call our bluff, he stammers, and says "but...." And I say "WAIT DOWNSTAIRS!!" Well I'm all fired up, as you can tell, and he says "Fine M'am. No Problem. No problem." We get ready, we go downstairs, and Noi has dissapeared. Well that was that then, on to the next part of the day.
We got ready to hit the river for a day of tubing, not really knowing what to expect. It's quite an operation actually - you sign up with a tube rental place that get you a tube, drive you up river, and drop you off for a day of floating down river in the sun. Of course, you end up stopping every 10 meters at the thatch hut bars along the way that offer ample amount of Beer Lao (not such a shocker anymore) and rope swings. Not the safest activity to be doing, frankly, but I suppose they haven't had any huge accidents yet - but I do wonder when it will happen. We had a great day though, a lot of rope swings and bad Lao music. What was supposed to be a two-hour float down river took us seven - not a bad way to spend the day.
Although the tubing was fun, as some British travelers might put it - I wasn't all that arsed about Van Vieng. I didn't understand the point of it. Besides tubing, there were a lot of restaurants, many of which play re-runs of 'Friends' - something they seem to be known for so more and more restaurants are doing the same. I was glad we were leaving the next day.
On to Phonsavenh - with the plain of jars, and a chance to see the damage caused by U.S bombs on Laos in 1964-1973. Our bus ride was quite exhausting - we took a local bus for 9 hours - frequently stopping for people to get on, people to get off, bamboo shoots to be loaded, chickens tied to the top, chickens shoved underneath, ugh, and it was extremely hot. Worst of all, Laos people aren't as used to road travel as we are - and their tummies don't deal with it too well. The driver's helper frequently walk through the bus handing out plastic bags for people to throw up in and toss out the window - and it's just another daily event, to them. Poor Christine had two people in front of her, and one right beside her who were sick the entire time. We stopped for lunch and watched in agony at the two frequent pukers fill up on lunch - knowing we would just watch them throw it up 20 minutes later on the bus - and we did. Multiple times. Maybe this is why they blast the absolutely terrible Lao music for the entire ride - to cover the terrible noises going on.
Anyhow, enough of that, we were happy when the ride was over. I immediately found Phonsavenh more appealing than Van Vieng. The feel was more like an actual Laos town. In attempting to get on my feet again after a rocky bus ride, I once again forgot that Laos people are often honestly trying to help you out instead of scamming you like, say, Bangkok - I kept avoiding telling random men where we were staying when they said "where you go? where you go?" I assumed they would like and say it was full, and try to send us elsewhere for their own profit - I guess I was a little cranky after that bus ride, and kept avoiding their questions in an attempt to find a tuk tuk to get to the Kong Keo Guesthouse. Finally a Lao man said to me with a smile on his face "Why don't you tell me where you go so I can help you?????" I chuckled - right, I can trust them here and they must find it so bizarre we haven't gotten that fact yet. "Kong Keo" I said - and he points to a van, it pulls up, and two minutes later we are on a free shuttle to the Kong Keo Guesthouse. Have I mentioned how much I love this country yet? I have to shake this Bangkok protective bubble I still carry around.
We arrived at the Kong Keo guesthouse and met the owner Mr. Kong, a.k.a Krazy Kong. We had a shish kebab barbecue with his brother and others, and went to bed after a trying day of travel. Next day we went on a tour with Mr. Kong and he took us to a waterfall (after a very hot hike), where I took away a memento - a LEECH!! gAHHHHHH, I got rid of the leech, but continued to bleed profusely as we drove towards our next destination - the bomb craters left my U.S bombers over 30 years ago. Here along this beautiful landscape of farms, rice fields, and bamboo were these giant craters left by bunker bombs scattered across the country side. During the Vietnam war, Laos had been targeted as well without the knowledge of the American people or congress for that matter. Although we still don't know the actual story and the real damage done by the U.S on Laos has yet to be recognized by the U.S government, the U.S has admitted, after multiple conflicting stories, that they did indeed 1) bomb the north to stop the Lao communist front, and 2) to bomb the south to mainly target the Ho Chin Minh trail used by the Vietnamese - an area that was quite hidden so they argue they had to bomb large areas - a fact quite evident today, but still makes you wonder if their reasoning for the bombing is true.
There also existed a 'secret city' in Laos where U.S military personnel were stationed and planes took off and landed hundreds of times a day - a secret city which could only be reached by air, and today can be reached by car although the Laos government, in agreement with the U.S for some reason, refuses entry to anyone and refuses to admit the existence of the city. The result of the bombing on Laos though can not be hidden - over the course of 1964-1973, 2 to 3 million tonnes of bombs were dropped on Laos. These bombs included the mentioned bunker bombs which caused big explosions, but also and most problematic today the cluster bombs. A massive metal casing that carries 670 little 'bombies' that need to spin a certain number of times before being set off. Unfortunately up to 30% of these bombies did not explode, and lay waiting under a little dirt in roads, farmer fields, under houses built after the early 70's, schools, and even high up in bamboo trees where the bomb has sat and been raised up further each year. Kids have found them, and played with them. Limbs are lost, lives are lost. Villagers became quite resourceful and began using old metal casings as planters, animal feeders, stilts for homes, fences etc. The also began hunting for and retrieving bombs and selling the metal for money, however = they often would and still do discover unexploded ordinances that only needed the slightest touch to blow. Still today, these bombs scatter the countryside. Many NGOs are currently working in Laos hiring and training locals to spread the word to villagers to not touch unexploded ordinances but rather report them so they either safely remove the bomb or, if that is not possible, set it off in a safe manner. It is difficult, however, to convince villagers of this, especially in such poor areas where the metal could make them quite a lot of money.
So, that's at least the beginning of the story - our guide told us about two books to look into: 1)Shooting at the Moon by ? and 2) The Ravens by Christopher Robins.
I found this all very interesting - we also got to see two documentaries in town offereed through MAG, one of the local NGOs.
After the bomb craters, we saw the plain of jars - but after such an emotional account of the U.S bombing, getting your head to get started on the purpose of these randomly scattered giant rock jars was a little difficult - they were interested nonetheless, and we sat on a jar each and watched the sunset.
After our tour day, we returned to the guesthouse, only to discover THE LEECH WAS STILL ON MY FOOT GAHHHHHHH - I nearly fainted, but luckily others who were better with blood dealt with it for me. I remember having a leech when I was about 7 and reacting in the exact same manner - some things never change.
After our stay at Krazy Kongs, we parted ways with Christine at the bus station as she headed to Vietnam and we headed south to Vientiane. Another gruelling bus ride - 10 hours, very hot, very windy, carsick people, and really loud Lao music. We did, however, get our bus sprayed by some people who are getting an early start on the Lao New Year custom - dump water on people (sounds good enough in this heat!).
Vientiane was unreal - first time in Laos we've seen a stoplight! We only stayed a night, but we enjoyed some good coffee, endured the heat by frequently entering air conditioned cafes, and planned our journey further south. Our room had tv so we earnestly watched the news to find out what was happening in the world - and here I find out the airline I had been planning to use and fly cheaply with to vancouver had gone Bankrupt! Alas, I had to move on booking a ticket because other airlines adjusted their flight prices because they had less competition now. I have a flight booked for June 15th to fly to Vancouver to spend a few weeks. So i have two more months to explore! Yikes!
Rob and I booked a sleeper bus to Pakse, where we will be meeting up with a friend of ours from Chiang Mai - we will all be spending Lao New Year together (April 13-15)! The sleeper bus was something else though, let me tell you...We get there and see these bunk beds lined up inside the bus - okay, doesn't look so bad, I mean the bed does look like it's for a 7 year old but hey, I'll just crunch up my legs, no big deal. The we discover those beds aren't just for one person each, they are for two. Well, if you are 5"5 and 100 pounds, maybe it wouldn't be so problematic, but I'm not. So, it was little uncomfortable to say the least, and over the next 10 hours, I crunched up listening to Lao music (yes, playing all night, apparently it's a much of a drug to the Lao as Beer is) and hoped for thejourney to end.
It did - eventually.
We are now in Pakse, checked in to a nice guesthouse, already made a new friend, AND we've already been invited to a Lao party tomorrow night celebrating the new year!
So happy new year everybody - will check in when the next set of madness has died down :)