Laos is trying to kill me
Mar 25, 2017
March 25, 2017
Luang Prabang, Laos
After almost 2 months on the road, we’ve fallen into a pretty straightforward routine. Most days we get up early and, after Debbie eats a croissant and I have some soup with a lot of chilies for breakfast, I look for ways to kill myself.
Take, for instance, today. The Kuang Si Waterfalls are the No. 1 Thing to See while in Luang Prabang. This is for sure because it says so on the side of every tuk tuk truck in town. They will happily take you there – it’s only a 45-minute bounce along windy mountain roads. That presents chance to die No. 1. A moment, then, for a discussion about tuk tuks.
Tuk tuks are glorified motorcycles. Glorified in the sense that every time you get in one and arrive safely at your destination you climb out and sing glorious praises to whomever your God of the moment might be.
In Cambodia, tuk tuks consist of a motorcycle with a small trailer hitched to it. 4 people can fit into the trailer. Two sit backwards. They get to see all the trouble coming from behind that you will soon have the chance to wonder how your driver was able to avoid. The two facing forward are best just averting their eyes.
In Thailand, the tuk tuk motorcycle is part of an enclosed mini-trailer unit, with a full windshield for the driver. They only seat two people and you kind of sprawl out in the thing, half seated on a bench, with your legs splayed in front of you because the ‘floor’ is only about 1 foot deep. The tuk tuks in Thailand go much faster because the windshield makes the driver ‘think’ that he has some kind of protection. He doesn’t, in fact, but as in so much of life, it’s all in the mindset.
Here in Laos, the tuk tuks are most often mini trucks that will seat up to 8 people (or 3 people from Nebraska who have been fed genetically modified corn dogs for most of their lives). Seating for up to 8 allows the tuk tuk truck to stop along the way to where you are headed and pick up other people who might also be headed your way. Or not. In which case, you may be making a detour.
The seating for passengers in a tuk tuk truck in Laos is on benches that run along both sides of the back of the mini truck. Think army truck style seating except the army truck is about 1/10th the size. The ‘padding’ on the benches is designed to allow you to feel every curve in the road, like a finely crafted German sports car. And every bump as well. The important difference here, as compared to the Cambodian & Thai tuk tuks, is that the driver of the Lao tuk tuk truck can’t hear you scream.
Anyway, having yesterday enjoyed the ‘amenities’ of the Lao tuk tuk truck, we went along with the suggestion from Ot, the personal assistant assigned to oversee our safety and wellbeing at our Maison Souvannaphoum Hotel. We allowed Ot to arrange for Mr. Somphoum to take us to the Kuang Si waterfalls in his Toyota Hiace minivan and escort us in cushy air conditioned comfort to see what we could see along the way there.
Today is Shabbat – Ot’s day off. Showing his love and affection for us, however, he came to the hotel this morning to see us off and make sure we didn’t forget to take towels with us to use after our swim at the waterfall pools. I have added Ot to the collection of people that we will be taking home with us.
Along the way to the waterfalls we passed by …. jungle. Lots and lots of jungle. And hills and mountains. Laos is the only landlocked country in SE Asia. It makes up for it by consisting almost entirely of mountains, river valleys, and jungles. Fairly often, a rice paddy is carved into the side of a mountain or laid out in the river valley. It is very pleasant and serene. (Until a piece of UXO goes off, of course, which is bound to ruin your day).
We stopped along the way to visit a Hmong village. The military junta here is wary of the Hmong – an ethnic tribe that lives in the hills and mountains extending across northern Vietnam & Laos. Many Hmong fought with the US under tutelage from CIA advisors against the Pathet Lao communist army in the 60’s & 70’s and they are one of the ethnic groups that suffer discrimination and help keep the Lao government on the ‘Top 10 List’ of human rights abusers.
As a result, the Hmong village was not in the same shape as, say, a village you might stumble upon while ambling through the Swiss alps. At first glance, it appeared to be populated primarily by little girls dressed in traditional Hmong clothing. Each of them stood dutifully next to their handicraft stall. Each of them greeted us identically: “Buy from me. Two dollah. Okay, one dollah. I no food. Buy from me.”
So we bought the entire village. Personally, I don’t think it will fit in our luggage. We’ll see.
As we made our way slowly through the village other people started to emerge. Mostly other small children. And then some of the moms. And then some of the grandma’s. We have noticed that the men don’t usually put in an appearance when we visit local villages. They are usually splayed out on a mat in the back of the home hovel sleeping away in the heat. Or fixing machinery of some sort.
As has been the case everywhere we’ve been in SE Asia, everyone is unfailingly friendly and smiles broadly when you smile at them and greet them with “Sabaidee” (“Hello”, in Lao). They then say something back which either means “Hello, stranger, nice to meet you” or “Why are you speaking Martian to me?”.
After we stuffed the Hmong village into the back of Mr. Somphoun’s Toyota Hiace minivan we headed to the banks of the Mekong River and then straight uphill to reach the entrance to the Kuang Si waterfalls, where the local villagers charge you 20,000 Kip/person to meander over to the falls and spend as much of your day meandering as you wish.
Twenty paces past the entry you come to a bear retreat centre. This is not a weird sounding spa. It’s a place where bears that have been rescued from the snares of poachers in the hills around this area are brought to recover and take refuge. It’s nice to know that there are bears in them thar hills and that while I’m frolicking in the pools that lie at the bottom of the waterfalls they are waiting to pounce on me. I don’t dwell or perseverate on this sort of thing. I just think about it from time to time.
Okay, so now we are on our way to see the No. 1 way to kill yourself in Luang Prabang, the Kuang Si Waterfalls. They suck you in here but good. Here are some of the descriptions by people in their Trip Advisor reviews:
The falls begin in shallow pools at the top and cascade down 200 feet to collect in numerous turquoise blue pools at the bottom of the falls. These gorgeous cascades are sublime. The top of the falls are accessed via trails to the left & right of the falls. The site is well maintained with walkways and bridges to guide visitors.
- Preet from India (2 days ago)
(Nothing there about killing yourself, is there?)
The waterfalls are so beautiful and pristine. You can go for a hike to the source of the waterfall. It’s refreshing to swim in the pools.
- James from Brisbane (a week ago)
(A hike? A hike? Do you even know what a hike is, James from Brisbane?)
Really glad we wore shoes as the ground wasn’t really level.
- Charmaine from Singapore (last month)
(Damn right it wasn’t level – it was vertical!)
It was a pleasant walk up to the source of the waterfalls.
- Rosie from Stoneshire, England (3 days ago)
(Rosie, a pleasant walk is to the corner store to buy ice cream. This was a climb that requires ropes and pitons.)
Make sure you use the left trail if you want to go up to the top. The trail on the right is extremely steep and dangerous, with wet, slippery smooth stones the entire way.
- Carol from Kuala Lumpur (2 weeks ago)
(Finally, some honesty. Except, Carol, the trail on the left is just as horrible!!)
Well, I think you are getting the idea here. The pools at the bottom are lovely, refreshing, tranquil, fun to swim in, gorgeous and have incredible views straight up to the top of the waterfall. We should have stopped there.
Instead, we climbed. How we climbed up, I don’t really know and I don’t want to describe. Okay, I will.
There is this one part where, helpfully, they have carved ‘steps’ into the river rocks adjacent to the falls. Again (and this is a recurring theme in SE Asia) they did not adhere to the measurements for steps recommended by The Stairs Calculator.com. To make things more ‘interesting’, water from the falls was, well, falling over the steep, slippery ‘steps’ as we tried to climb them.
But climb, we did, and to the top we made it. And we looked over the top all the way to the bottom of the falls and we said to ourselves, “Hmm, the view is much nicer from down below”. Okay, there’s that ‘view of the jungle in the distance’ thing going on but, hands down, the view from the bottom was indeed nicer.
And there were indeed great pools at the top for swimming as well (although these had the added bonus of a current that would carry you right over the falls if you weren’t vigilant).
And then we hired a helicopter to rescue us and take us down. Oh, God, how I wish we had done that.
So, you know the steep, slippery ‘steps’ with water from the falls that we negotiated going up? Apparently (and I did not reckon on this at first) it is also necessary to negotiate them going back down. And another thing – and I don’t know how they do this – the ‘steps’ are even steeper and slipperier going down.
I must say, Laos is ripe with development opportunities. I will make a fortune when I build the cable car from the bottom to the top of the Kuang Si Waterfalls. I will be the first to ride it. Until then, here is what I posted in my review of the Kuang Si Waterfalls on Trip Advisor tonight:
Whatever you do, I am begging you, DO NOT attempt to go to the top of the waterfall. You will probably die, if you do try it. And if you don’t and you survive somehow, like I did, I can assure you that you will have nightmares about it for the rest of your life. Have a good day.
- Howie from Edmonton (today)
Here is something: In Laos, Mrs. Anh the laundry lady is called Mrs. Somphet. Weird, eh? She did her best but I think my Pacific Whale Foundation t-shirt from Maui still smells a little like elephant poo.
As I was walking to Mrs. Somphet’s ‘place of business’ (it’s her hut) to pick up the laundry, I passed a sign that reads: “Sayonagagh”. Earlier today, on the hike from hell, as it happens, we met 3 lovely young Israeli’s who were just scampering back down from the top of the falls (is it just me? Why do other people not get terrified doing that?). In usual fashion, we had a great chat about how and where they have been traveling in SE Asia post-IDF. At one point, they mentioned that there is a Chabad house in town. It’s not unusual. Chabad is like the Borg – they are everywhere. For Israeli’s, it’s a place to (usually) find other Israeli’s. Not for the religion, but for the trading of travel tips.
Anyway, so here I am passing by Mrs. Somphet’s laundry house on Shabbat and I see the sign pointing to the “Sayonagagh” and I think, what the heck, I’ll drop in and at least say “Shabbat Shalom”. Turns out the sign leads you to the Sayon Naga Guest House. (Sayon naga gh). Oh well, best intentions, anyway.
Today is Earth Day. Earth Day 2017 is the 60th year we’ll be celebrating together. For Earth Day, our hotel let us know yestrerday that all power would be shut down for one hour tonight from 8:30 – 9:30pm and that candles would be distributed for us to use, if we wished. This would not just be a normal unexplained power outage.
They also invited us to join them for a special celebration of Earth Day, dinner on the front lawn where they’d set up beautiful tables and where we watched a group of young boys perform traditional Lao marital arts dances culminating with the always fun to watch dance called “Swords on Fire that we twirl around and hope like hell don’t burn down the place”.
All in all, we are glad we joined in and were appreciative of the note from the hotel that extended thanks for “sensing the Earth saving moment with us”. I’m all about sensing Earth saving moments. And lifesaving ones, too. Stay away from waterfalls. You’ll thank me later.