|Many people joke that Lao PDR stands for Please Don't Rush and while that might not be true it's undeniably the most laidback country in Southeast Asia. People are constantly sweet, friendly and cheerful. Schedules are loose, if present at all. The word for restriction might not even exist. Even the rain appears to fall in an 'eh maybe I'll stop, maybe I'll pour, maybe I'll just keep drizzling like this' manner. Most of all, absolutely no one is in a hurry to do anything or go anywhere. With such a pervasive easy going attitude, it's almost impossible not to adopt a similar mentality... or drive yourself nuts resisting. So in this good natured land of smiles and Sabidees, I learned to release my fears, free myself from over planning and learned to simply go with the flow. Don't get me wrong, Laos is severely impoverished; I think the poorest and least developed place I've been yet. But I find the desperation found in other areas to be minimal and the population seems if not content, accepting of their very basic lifestyle. Tourism has caused change as it always does, though more slowly and less dramatically than in other places. Governmental corruption, education, healthcare, sanitation, inequality and other major problems plague to an extreme, but the associated worries don't seem to weigh quite so heavily and life just feels lighter than in Vietnam or Cambodia. You can almost sense the entire country shrugging its shoulders and saying 'we'll do what we can and it'll all be fine.' Coming from the drastically different Thailand, I was very happily eased back into the third world by entering via Luang Prabang.
It was nothing like I expected and somehow better than I imagined.Though technically considered a city (I think actually Lao's third largest), it seems more like an overgrown village and if I'm being honest, a Stepford-esque one at that-- extremely clean, well maintained, very comfortable. In its charming, understated way it ensnares your senses and quietly captures your heart. Flowers bloom in a riot of color, filling the air with the sweet scent of jasmine and frangipani. The riverside is low key and unbelievably beautiful with a panoramic backdrop of lush mountains that lure into the countryside. Picturesque architecture lines the streets, a perfect hybrid of French colonial and Laotian shack, leading from the surprisingly uncrowded main road into cute little alleyways. Temples emerge every few feet, though like the rest of the city, they are unassuming and subtle. An abundance of great food and shopping awaits, equally plentiful but nowhere near as overwhelmingly congested as somewhere like Hoi An. Even better, the sellers are infinitely less aggressive in their approach; thanks to responsible business owners who clearly love their city and much collaboration with UNESCO, it truly creates a purely enjoyable refuge. Very very nice work, guys. Yes, I know it's not "real" Laos (although the more outside the tourist district one ventures the more authentically village-like it becomes) but in this case, who cares. I, like so many others, am enamored. Arriving just before dusk, there wasn't time for much more than a brief stroll through some of the Old City before darkness crept in. The famous night market had just started setting up and an hour later was in full swing, a huge place teeming with eye catching items for sale. Happy to see few of the typical souvenirs over-saturating other areas, I quickly decided this is where I'd do the bulk of my present and personal buying to send home. If any of you happen to visit SE Asia in the future, here's a little purchasing tip: get there early because first customers are considered lucky and you'll be able to negotiate a better price than normal (though good luck trying to hardball those adorable vendors). If they take your money and use it to tap all of their wares, then your timing was right. I navigated a seemingly endless array of beautiful items trying to find something each friend and family member would like. Ultimately, I think I was a little too successful and returned to the guesthouse with several kilos of merchandise. As in the rest of the country, the city sleeps early. Even the last bar closes a little after 10pm, giving way to silent streets and soft air that lulls you into dreamland.
The days felt just as relaxed as they pleasantly passed. For the first time in a while, I felt like I had the luxury of filling them at an any pace I wanted. One was spent at a very popular waterfall, amazed at the shallow scalloped pools and deeper swimming areas that guided a gentle hike towards the top where a huge cascade appeared to stretch forever as it extended to the sky. At a very random bear sanctuary tucked info the jungle entrance I met two great girls from Holland, later idling away the evening hours with them. It turned out one was moving to a city in Australia where one of my best friends lives and getting a little nervous about the solo endeavor (Mo, I'm not sure if I told you I shared your contact info- sorry- but if she gets in touch, be her friend)! Quite a few hours passed wandering to the outskirts of town, which not only provided beautiful views but an introduction to some of the less visitor-centric areas of LP. Another market, many wat visits, a lot of coffee and fruit shakes and plenty of strolling filled the in-between moments, as did two morning alms observations. Also known as Tak Bat, this is a sacred occurrence at dawn every day when the monks collect food from the townspeople who line up waiting for them. Due to its vast quantity of monestaries, Luang Prabang has become an iconic destination to view the procedings... which has turned this blessed event into a bit of a curse. Unquestionably it's a beautiful thing to watch. The world is still at 5am, slightly hazy and dreamlike in its unawakened state. As the first streaks of light tinge the sky, hundreds of monks file into the streets looking like a second sunrise in their vibrant orange robes. But as tourists tend to do, bad behavior has been the bane of all those who participate. Instead of hanging back and uninterruptedly looking from afar, visitors push right in the middle of things, following the monks way too closely, snapping photos with flashbulbs in their faces and sometimes even walking right into the temple doorways before the procession begins. Inexcusable to treat anyone in such a zoo-animal-on-display kind of manner, let alone disrespecting important religious figures in such a significant community tradition. Understandably the monks are extremely uncomfortable with the circus it has become and have repeatedly attempted to stop this practice if it can't be better regulated. I wasn't going to return the next morning but then did after being assured that no one minds being observed, as long as it is at a distance and without being disruptive. However out of respect to all involved I didn't take pictures at either one; the ones you'll see are from Google. More so than anywhere else I've been, Lao cities heavily retain their French heritage. LP does this especially well-- it was particularly surreal to nibble a fantastic croissant while sipping cafe au lait in a cafe across from Wat de Seine afterwards, while watching the monks busy about as those in embroidered sarongs slurped noodle soup and chattered in the local language all around me.
Amplifying my disgust from the Tak Bat detractors was a visit to the UXO (Unexploded Ordinances) Museum, where I learned of yet another gut wrenching episode in the 'America bombs the shit out of Southeast Asia' trilogy. Very few people-including myself until recently- knows that as a direct result of the war with Vietnam, Laos is the most bomb contaminated country in the world. The US would use this innocent land as a dumping ground for over 240 million cluster bombs in addition to other undetonated ammunition. Now these UXOs lay dangerously outside of schools, homes, hospitals, etc. threatening to destroy countless lives. Something small as building a fire or digging to plant crops could kill you if it happened to be over a buried bomb. Economic growth and development is stalled due to the inability to farm, lay new roads and accomplish many other relatively simple but necessary tasks. I'm flabbergasted at the vast extent of destruction one horrific war against just one country could inflict on many people and places. What's really starting to eat away at me is that there's been pretty much no impact on our soil, as our leaders have quite literally torpedoed their beliefs, agendas and weapons into places far far away, then went home to eat dinner in picket fenced houses with their families where there was no risk of subsequent danger. This wipe-our-hands-clean philosophy seems to still apply as I've noticed that beyond not doing much of anything to help clean up the mess, even in regards to the many internationally funded educational films, donations, research, programs and other support initiatives across the affected nations, America is notably absent from almost all lists of participating countries. And again, I'm repulsed that this was not only executed but so blatantly covered up and lied about, preventing most from realizing what the US has done and is doing around the world. Its own citizens know the least about our foreign affairs, embarrassing to be sure but also the byproduct of what seems to be a very intentional effort to keep us mentally isolated and distracted from a mind boggling variety of currents events. The most obvious example was the first to cross my mind; when's the last time anyone's heard anything about what's going on in Afghanistan or Iraq? Troops are still there and things are happening but it's certainly not on the agenda of reported news. I'm not so sure freedom of the press is such an alive and well concept anymore. Starting to get pretty agitated between the morning alms and museum, I decided to literally and figuratively cool off at yet another gorgeous waterfall-- this one smaller, more local, less frequented and my favorite of the two. Feeling throughly refreshed, I returned to Luang Prabang and beelined for a small, unobtrusive coffee shop that had caught my eye earlier. This turned out to be a very good caffeine fix because not only was it excellent cofffee, but I also happened to meet an awesome American expat there. After chatting for awhile she mentioned a friendship with the owner, explaining how he was the only person growing beans in Northern Laos; he initially started this as a way to help convert the hill tribes from the slash & burn agriculture adopted once growing opium became illegal. She then mentioned it would be easy to get me unroasted beans if I was interested. Ummm definitely yes. And so, late that evening, the first two kilos of coffee became the latest addition to my backpack. In the meantime, I needed to get my rapidly accumulated mass of purchases to La Poste. But I had somehow misread their hours and by the time everything had been gathered and lugged back to the town center, it had already been closed for a few hours. I was leaving at 7:30 the next morning so this was more than a slight problem. As I stood staring at the building like an idiot, amazingly someone switched on the light from inside and opened the locked doors. Turns out they were having some kind of party in the back and were nice enough to let me ship everything, despite being very off duty. Even better, as my box was being expertly packed by the unnecessarily helpful guy, the girl who had been assisting with the all paper details reappeared with a cup of beer for me. While a small anecdote, it encapsulates all I love most about Laos-- the incredibly sweet and accommodating people, relaxed atmosphere, and basic lifestyle (as demonstrated by lack of a credit card machine at the only post facility in the country's most touristed city). To top off an already wonderful last day, I was greeted at the guesthouse with a fruit dessert the owner had made for me, saying he knew I liked local food because of we had talked about my wet market visits and wanted me to try this regional speciality. Along with an unexpected and shy goodbye hug from the young night shift employee I had befriended by giving cold medicine to, it was a perfect farewell gift from a near perfect place.
Looking forward to experiencing what the Laos outside of Luang Prabang was like, I hopped into a minivan headed four hours north to the small town of Nong Khiaw. Between cracking up as we bounced down the horrible "paved highway"with potholes so big you could fit a car inside and piles of rocks obstructing most of the road itself, two Dutch guys and I played a hilarious version of I Spy... which included sights like four people and two pigs on a motorbike, a monk puffing a cigarette, plus an elephant assisting with road construction. Yes, you read that last one correctly. Nong Khiaw itself is jaw droppingly stunning, a cute little town completely surrounded by abstract limestone karst formations and emerald peaks. After finding a finding a bungalow right by the riverfront, I headed to a restaurant for lunch where I bumped into a pair of Swiss girls who were also on the ride up. It was quickly clear that I got along really well with these best friends and joined their twosome for the rest of our stay. Randomly we were approached by a guy who was trying to round up a small group for trekking the next day. One of the most genuinely nice and interesting people I've met, he's from Mexico but studied in France and is now a lawyer in Germany. I immediately agreed and then spent the next hour talking Julie and Tamara, who aren't particularly outdoorsy and have been struggling with the overall conditions in Laos, into signing up as well. The hiking part ended up being a beautiful disaster, one of those instances when you're fairly miserable at the time and then end up having a great memory once it's over. Taking a boat to a nearby village, we all loved seeing a drastically different way of living and playing with the children. But then our guide made the mistake of warning us about leeches, thick mud and overflowing stream crossings. At this point the Swiss misses backed out and decided to stay in the village, which I maybe should've done as well. Holy crap; the walk through the rice fields and up the mountain was gorgeous but fraught with thick mud traps and watery muck pools that threatened to ensnare with each step. Everyone was having a tough time trying to avoid falling but being my embarrassingly uncoordinated self, I was by struggling the most. Once at the multiple waterways it took some treacherous stumbling across slippery rocks and logs to finally force me to give up and just wade through, which actually made things much easier. Then we hit the bouldering portion and my newfound fear of heights resurfaced with a vengeance as I scrambled up the wall of rocks standing between us and reaching our waterfall destination. Luckily I was with an amazing bunch of people who all became my guardians, offering helping hands, guidance on where to step and cheers of encouragement as they sheparded me like a little kid throughout the day. Of course it started pouring the last hour back, creating even worse conditions and thoroughly soaked trekkers. Screw you monsoon season. Needless to say, I returned looking like a creature from the black lagoon.
Muang Ngoi was next on the agenda, a teeny speck of a place only accessibly by a spectacularly scenic boat ride about an hour upstream. Again it was raining and freezing for most of it, but trying to figure out how to cover the sides by rigging tarps the driver kept gesturing to as he chain smoked provided comic relief. Even more gorgeous than Nong Khiaw but extremely rustic, I was happy it had at least received electricity a few months prior. Though not as opposed to roughing it as Tamara and Julie, it turns out I very much prefer a level of comfort that includes things like lights and excludes those such as swarms of insects blanketing my toiletries. The village is essentially one short dirt (during rainy season, mud) road with some shack-like homes scattered on either side. I was sludging through the goop rapidly covering my feet and ankles in search of a place to stay, when the cutest old lady of all time emerged from a guesthouse and beckoned me over for a look. Her combined with a clean room including a balcony overlooking the river and (sometimes) hot water... sold. I adore this wizened, fiery, wrinkly woman. I think she took a liking to me too because little homespun presents became a daily occurrence, as did visits to my balcony where she talked to me and told stories in Lao. I couldn't understand a single word but her emphatic gestures and facial expressions, coupled with an exchange of smiles and arm pats, were enough. My time in this off-the-grid place was short but great, wandering for hours in the surrounding areas to a weaving village, small cave, plus an unsuccessful attempt to find another recommended little village to visit. Awestruck all entire day by the unobstructed views and breathtaking terrain, it's impossible not to constantly stop and marvel at the mere fact that you're actually there. Before departing for the dock in return to Nong Khiaw (there's no direct way back to 'civilization' from Muang Ngoi, nor are there options besides the the sole early morning boat) I gave my new elderly friend a pair of elephant earrings nearly identical to mine; she had made it very clear that she hated my backpacker cliche of jumbled bracelets but liked the silver studs, earning a big hug. Heart melt. But getting back to Luang Prabang was going to take much longer than I thought and catching an overnight bus from there to my next intended destination nearly impossible. This is when I learned that with the exception of a few VIP busses and travel agency managed minivans, the transportation in most of Laos runs on a very open-ended schedule and is of varying mode-- sometimes it's a bus, sometimes it's a van, sometimes it's a jumbo tuktuk. Usually they give a time span for departure, in this case approximately 1:30-3:30, depending on how quickly the seats fill. If there's not enough people, you're not going anywhere that day. While in my head it would only make sense to at least try and coordinate the boat from Muang Ngoi with the van out of Luang Prabang, apparently that's just a silly Westerner way of thinking. Since we didn't actually hit the road until after 4, I decided to forgo my stopping point in the famously beautiful and infamously party crazy town of Vang Vieng in favor of one more night in my favorite Northern city and book a last minute flight to Pakse in the South.
Can you judge a city by its airport? Kuala Lumpur's clean, contemporary, foreign brand-laden international terminal alongside a more basic and somewhat grungier domestic one seems to fit its dual personality. Sleek, modern and brimming with places to shop/eat/get massaged/even see a doctor, Bangkok's hub hints at the consumer culture so pervasive that megamalls are even attached to each metro station. Like Phnom Penh itself, Cambodia's main airport seems pretty nice and on par with most mid-size ones on the surface but beyond the front entrance it's a different story. Luang Prabang's is a reflection of its cute, small, endearing nature. Now, a delayed layover in Vientiane further confirmed this theory that had been bouncing around my head over the last few weeks. Especially considering this was in Laos's capital it was the saddest, most bare bones one I'd ever seen, reminding me just how impoverished the country really is. Upon finally landing in Pakse, I made a beeline for the bus station. Starting a trend of playing things almost completely by ear, I had planned on visiting three different places within a few hours of the centrally located small city, and decided to start with whichever bus left first. This ended up being Tad Lo. So a few hours of hanging around a pretty sketchy area where the women get what looked like infection inducing pedicures while picking nits out of each other's hair and the men's English vocabulary seemed to consist solely of "Where you go, I have tuk tuk " and "I love you," I hesitantly boarded the most disgusting bus I hope to ever set foot on. To put this in perspective, I've ridden alongside multiple species of livestock, sat in the aisle on giant burlap bags filled with who knows what, had people's nasty bare feet inches from my head, and a whole mess of other less than ideal driving conditions. In this case, with large holes in the floor leading straight to the road below, chunks of each seat missing and piles of grime caked on every surface from the fans spewing it, I'm considering it a win that it made it there at all. Considering the amount of times we screeched to stop for DIY repairs, the only thing that seemed to be in good shape was the speaker blaring karaoke music for almost four hours straight. Oh and did I mention the oh so obviously safe choice to tie a bundle of burning incense to the windshield wipers? But it was almost all worth it for the unique experience of staying in the still semi undiscovered little hideaway. The village itself is a total trip, such a non destination that you get dropped off on the side of a road and need to walk 2km to actually reach it. Ironically one of the only times one really wants a tuk tuk or moto taxi and they're nonexistent, but the only-in-Laos pastoral scenes along the way made my shoulders ache less and time go by faster. Once actually in the agriculturally based community, the whole place can be covered by foot in less than 10 minutes. Located on the Bolvan Plateau's fringes, huge hogs and their piglets meander around at their will, often snuffing at your feet as you eat breakfast. Cows and goats roam freely, puppies frolic everywhere and I've even seen a goat face off with a dog. The days are quiet, busiest when families head to the fields in the morning then return early evening. Ramshackled houses sit on stilts with most of home life taking place underneath. For whatever reason a small backpacker enclave has sprung up and while its positive reputation definitely peaked my interest, what solidified its spot on my itinerary is the coffee. Home to some of the best beans grown in Asia but extremely hard to find as single origin outside the region, it's so good that some other countries even import and roast it, then claim it as their own (cough cough Vietnam). But with visiting a few farms my only real task, I had enough downtime to do whatever with. Among its many other great qualities, one of my favorite things about Laos is there's not really a whole lot of sight seeing or must-do activities. Since I generally only have 2-3 days in each place, there's always a time crunch to fit in as much as possible; it's been a really nice change to just let each day slowly unfold. With only a vague idea of what I'd like to get to, it's lovely to wake up without an alarm dictating when and linger over a cup of coffee while either reading or chatting. Eventually I'd motivate myself to get out and wander for a few hours until I started getting hungry, then head back to the village for lunch before setting out in the other direction until the fading sunlight warned me to turn around before the sky turned black. My only big real organized day on the plateau happened spontaneously, spurred by an exceptionally strong and rich roast at a nondescript place one morning. The owner spoke unusually good English and also happened to do tours, which of course led to a caffeine fueled expedition soon after my last sip. By far the best coffee visit I've had, Mr. Vang's is a small, traditional homegrown farm and roaster without any of the cookie cutter tourist tours that make others so uninformative after awhile. Clearly passionate about what he does, he gave me a very comprehensive lesson about the three varieties grown there while extremely patiently answering my barrage of questions about ideal climates, soil, altitude, planting methods, organic vs. conventional, root systems, harvesting, drying and roasting methods. Plus the end product itself was outstanding. And so, another 2 kilos of green beans were added to my backpack. Afterwards Palamei (the guide) and I popped into a nearby weaving village to visit the family of a super sweet girl I'd randomly met on the plane to Pakse. A long walk around the area followed and I was struck by what an open door policy everyone seems to have, without any of the territorial property lines or unspoken privacy rules we have back home. You can cross through strangers 'yards' and poke around, or even walk straight into their home uninvited-- as demonstrated by a sudden stop to see a newborn baby. I'm slightly embarrassed to say I lingered in the doorway and kinda recoiled when urged to hold him; apparently my feelings toward children hasn't completely changed. One final stop at a massive waterfall and the day came to a close, a particularly great one not just for the coffee but also the conversation that lasted throughout. It's not often you get to hang for that long with a local who can speak almost fluent English and it was a rare treat to exchange cultural tidbits, ask questions, and get a sense of what each other's lifestyles are all about. The next morning I came back to Palamei's for breakfast and we ended up practicing the roasting technique Mr. Vang had taught us, then enjoying our achievement with some of the other guests. Oh happy day.
Mentally prepared for the long walk to the bus pickup and even more challenging ride back, the journey was less painful than the one there. I then traveled another hour to the wonderful little town of Champasak, a far less touristed but I think infinitely better place to stay than Pakse. Framed by mountain views this small town situated along the river is a quiet oasis of tranquility, once home to the royal family and now only containing completely charming remnants of its glory days. Livestock wandering aimlessly, two wide dirt roads, and crumbling French architecture in muted colors are a perfect setting against the backdrop of faded plateaus. A stark contrast to its neighboring city and even the tiny but cramped villages, the place is so sleepy and sparse it feels somewhat deserted. Accommodation and food options are really limited, as tourists who actually stay there are few and far between. But everything else more than makes up for it. I absolutely love it there, definitely finding that one special place for me in this already great country. After spending almost my entire time in Laos staying in let's just say 'minimally' constructed huts, I was longing for a comfy bed, relatively bug free rooms and a few luxuries like hot water. Ironically I got an email from Agoda saying I had hit a level of points accumulation, which was enough to make a two night stay at the only really nice place in town a mere $12 each. Done. This turned out to be an excellent decision, not only because the hotel was fantastically comfortable while still feeling like it perfectly belonged in the once grand town, but it also led to my meeting three amazing people who collectively turned out to be one of the highlights of my time in Laos. The first morning at breakfast was how I met Lester, an 83 year-old Brit who was a professor and now helps run an agriculture focused NGO, currently based in Pakse to help farmers in the surrounding area identify and treat crop disease. Lester is phemonal human being-- your classic adorable, good humored, twinkle in the eye, grandfatherly kind of guy. But beyond that he's adventurous, energetic, caring, generous and given a lifetime of living in remote and exotic places, completely fascinating yet remarkably humble in his accomplishments. An absolute pleasure to spend time with. I don't remember exactly how we got to talking, but I do know I ended up leaving for my day's excursion three hours later than planned as a result. Tearing myself from this man who kinda made me want to want to move to England and hang out with old people for the rest of my life, I set out for the nearby Wat Phu-- A petite set of ancient ruins from the Khmer civilization (Southern Laos borders Cambodia- right near where I was supposed to initially cross over- and this area was once part of their empire). A similar style to Angkor but on a much smaller scale, it's a wonderful place to visit for a few hours: uncrowded, peaceful, beautiful and on picturesque grounds of large ponds and lush grass against a mountain outlined horizon. A trend in the majority of the most impressive Buddhist religious sites, a looooong ardarous climb up steep mountainside stairs leads to reward (one must suffer to reach enlightenment). Stunning views await at the top, which can be admired from all angles as you explore the temple remains and other various remnants scattered about the edges of a cliff-adjacent forest. After a wonderful afternoon there, I returned to town for another bout of wandering before heading to a small spa for some reflexology. Owned by Nathalie, a tres magnificique French lady, it had been raved about by the young hotel manager Mr. Kai. After a few week of being illness free I was starting to feel a little run down and some of my old symptoms creeping up again, so a little alternative healing seemed like a good enough idea. Besides, in 1.5 days I had almost run of out of new things to do. So far this trip has taken me exactly where I needed to go exactly when I needed to go there and true to form, I'm so glad I went. What a lovely place by any standards, even more so considering Champasak's size and lack of visitors. But not long after we started I suddenly got really dizzy and lightheaded, along with that annoying racing heart thing again. I tried to ignore it, but when Nathalie poked her head in to see how everything was going she took one look at me and immediately stopped the session. The kind hearted woman led me into another room, poured some tea and insisted on spending the next hour soothingly chatting with me until I felt well enough to leave. Though she seemed more nurturing than worried at the time, I later learned she had spent a lot of time using the reflexology zones done before I started feeling sick as a starting point to research possible causes. She also contacted Mr. Kai, who came to my room multiple times that evening to check on me and make sure I had his home number; apparently they both slept with their phones in case I needed to be driven to the hospital in Pakse.
After rallying enough to meet Lester for dinner, I woke up doing slightly better but decided to follow Nathalie's advice and put off going to the remote 4000 Islands for another day. Downstairs I was informed that Nathalie had called to see how I was doing and was now on her way over to visit. We spent quite some time together that morning and despite great conversation, I could tell she was really concerned, acting like Dr. House in trying to figure out what could possibly be the underlying issue. Late afternoon she rang to say two volunteers at a French clinic had come in for massages and they unanimously agreed I should cross the Thai border into Ubon Ratchathani, four hours away by bus from Pakse. Honestly I didn't think it was necessary, plus was sick of rearranging plans and missing out on things because of this stupid unidentified illness. But how could I refuse after she had arranged a free ride into the city, put together a list of bus times and looked up the best hospitals in Ubon? Taking this path would only mean missing my last stop in Laos anyway, one and located inconveniently at that. Since the universe seemed to be nudging me in a different direction yet again, off I went.