No Money For Lao-Lao!! (Aug 21st – 25th)

Beep……Beep……Beep! The alarm to the watch went off at 4:30am and after a long nights sleep we awoke refreshed despite the wee hour. By 5 we were walking the short distance to the bus station. Michelle and I reunited with Claire, Helen, and Maryanne who were already starring at our bus with puzzled looks!

First of all it was a mini-bus (meaning more like a van in this part of the world), normally no big deal, but the entire back half of this thing was literally stacked from top to bottom with cargo crates and enormous bags of who knows what. Not only the back, but racked on top and wedged under every seat there was also miscellaneous supplies crammed in. Personally, I had what felt like potatoes condemning me to sit with my knees up near my chin. Despite my discomfort, oddly I had one of the most comfortable positions while the other 27 passengers were sardined into the remaining 11 seats!!!!!!!!!!!! Some where standing with their heads in awkward angles at war with the ceiling while others had to sit on the lap of someone snug into a crouched position. One guy was even sitting in the open window with his feet dangling inside, the rest of his body exposed to the elements (and I mean elements with crazy dust then torrential rain). For me, I had one way to sit in and in that mold I had to remain for get this, an 11 hour journey! Michelle, who was wedged in the back (middle really because of all the crap) constantly had boulder-size bags of (perhaps) clothing ram her forward with each confrontation between tire and pothole (and that means constantly). This bus on the moon would have yielded a smoother ride. Fortunately, everyone had a smile, especially when the bag of Lao-Lao (Laoan Rice Wine) was passed between foreigners and locals alike (9 foreigners and 19 locals)!

After penetrating the Laoan/Vietnamese border, several rivers began criss-crossing the road, and for many of them we had to disembark the vehicle. One river caused the bus to stall out in the viscous mud, while a much different rocky river bed tilted the top heavy jalopy (because of all the gear strapped to the roof) onto 2 wheels in a pendulating motion I thought for sure would lead to searching down stream for lost luggage. One particular pot hole managed to knock off our spare tire which resulted in an additional pit-stop lasting over an hour in the intense, shade deprived heat.

By 5:30pm, with everyone’s limbs in a neurapraxic state, we finally approached the last of a maze of rivers where we gladly traded the mini-bus for a boat to take us to the town of Muang Khua on the adjacent bank. With monsoon season about to unleash, we booked it to a guest house where a room for rent was only 16,000 Kip, that’s less than $2 (9,000 Kip = $1)!!!

From the bus ride over, we already knew Lao was light years apart from the rest of South East Asia we visited so far. Electricity for the entire little town shut off at 7pm. In addition, the border crossing we chose recently opened up to foreigners in May, so only a few travellers have entered into Lao in this region of the country (The South Africans we were with where actually the first Africans to ever cross). This meant the villagers weren’t dependent or adapted to tourism yet, allowing for a very tranquil and relaxing environment. All 9 of us foreigners (3 English, 2 French, 2 African, and 2 Americans (us!!)) decided to reunite for dinner at a tiny riverside ‘restaurant’ (basically someone’s house, and the only place to eat at that) where Michelle and I shared an order of Lap-Lap with sticky rice. Lap-Lap, Lao’s signature dish, is a spicy mixture of ground meat chock-full with herbs. You can get it with chicken, pork, or fish but beef is the most traditional. It lived up to it’s depiction of being spicy, but was served at a room temperature when I was hoping for a more filling, warm meal. Plus, there was an over-whelming cilantro type flavor that left me longing Thai-curry instead of Lao cuisine. The sticky rice needs no introduction and Lao custom is to grab out chunks from a communal pot with your hands, roll it into a ball, then combine with a pinch of Lap-Lap and enjoy. Nonetheless, it was a satisfying meal and fun evening, but it was much more money than we expected! ATMs we found out where only available in Lao’s capital of Vientiane (a 3 days journey) and we literally only had about five more dollars in Kip. it was odd that Lao offers such cheap rates for rooms ($2) but about $4 per dinner plate. Thailand for instance, you can get a bowl of curry for about 50 Baht, that’s $1.50. We basically were already running on empty!

Back in our room I went out to use the shared bathroom and guess what I found? no, seriously…..Guess! Ok, I’ll give you a hint (or just the answer), it was a huge Tokay Gecko!!! not giving this guy any chance of escape, I flung out my hand like lightning to a keyed kite and captured the orange spotted, foot long lizard. After 8,000 pictures and just as many smiles of happiness, I released the little guy back to his natural environment, the wall! Finally, a Tokay Gecko, now if only I can scratch the Reticulated Python off the list. I’m workin’ on it guys, give me a break here!

Early next morning I went out and bargained with some boat owners using hand gestures and funny faces to see how cheap I could get five of us down river to Nong Khiaw. Michelle searched for a place to exchange some miscellaneous moneys she had (like Malayan Ringits and extra Baht) but returned with the same useless papers. Claire, Maryanne, and Helen were interested in going down river as well, and after going back and forth with a certain boat driver for at least 10 minutes, I got him from 800,000 to 500,000 Kip. Between five of us, that’s about $10 a piece, which seemed still like a lot for the 4 hour boat ride. Being more money then we had, Helen let us borrow some cash which was extremely nice of her. Unfortunately however, we now found ourselves chained to the group until perhaps Luang Probang (where there is word you can do cash advances on credit cards at a certain guest house…cross your fingers).

The boat ride was indescribable. The terrain made the Amazon look like a homogeneous desert. The towering cliffs shrouded in the clouds were covered in foliage with all different hues of green. Occasionally we would be greeted by waves from children playing as we passed unexposed villages perched on the hillsides, while the mostly abandoned river banks denizened herds of wild water buffalo bathing in mud. The sun shone through the collage of clouds creating spots of shimmering red water radiating as we splashed through. Lao to me had the most beautiful landscape so far in Asia. Away from the heavily deforested areas, there were Kodak moments in every direction. I felt so privileged to be amalgamated in such a majestic place!

Four hours later just as promised, we made it to Nong Khiaw. This town was slightly bigger than our village stay the night before and was equipped with a mini-bus station to boot (I’ve never used such a Canadian expression). We checked the departure times for tomorrow to Luang Probang (which we realized ran basically every hour), then found Sunset Guest house for another $2 a night room. To the bill I also had to pay for some laundry I dropped off since my cloths were beginning to wreak worse than the Manila Bay Front. When everyone was settled, Michelle, Claire, Maryanne, and I went for a walk down a nestled road between sunlit peaks and babbling creeks flowing through rice paddies. While sharing the pavement with a herd of 7 buffalo tended by 1 ten year old boy, we heard what sounded like a waterfall coming from behind a wall of jungle trees. We all went to interrogate the interior and Claire decided to capitalize on the opportunity and pop a squat. To make a short story long, this place immediately brought back nightmares of Cat Tien National Park in Vietnam because the ground became squirming with relentless, blood-thirsty leeches! Just as I felt one of the little vampires attach to my ankle, I heard a load shriek soon followed by more repetitive screams as Clair hobbled back to the road holding up her pants! Maryanne decided to join the commotion by freaking out as well and when calm Michelle and I (all to familiar with these devils) returned to the road it humorously looked like the two women where hopping around on hot coals! Giving them a few minutes to recollect their nerves and for us to stop laughing, we walked back to our guesthouses to call it a night. Having only borrowed 100,000 Kip, we didn’t have enough money to buy dinner, so rather than paying for a meal we picked a couple Pamalos (enormous looking grapefruit type citrus) to eat. On semi-empty stomachs we fell asleep under mosquito netting in another hidden and enchanting little Laoan Village.

We slowly awakened (Since the Africans wanted to take the 11am bus) and peacefully packed up our stuff, then bought sticky rice with the few remaining kip (pennies) we had. The other three soon joined and we hopped into another crowded public transportation vehicle. This time it was more of a pickup truck with modified benches stretching towards the tail gate, with a metal room on top where our luggage was roped. Off to Luang Probang we went, now me with the unlucky seat as I was stuck sitting on an old collapsing box. Unable to see out the side due to the overcrowding, time dripped away slowly and the four hour trip seemed to last longer than watching the movie Titanic with a girl you don’t even like!

Finally, in Luang Probang we tuk-tuked to a guest house where the three ladies planned to stay allowing Michelle and I a place to drop off our backpacks for a few hours. We all started walking the foreign-friendly town and eventually (thank goodness) came to a cash advance office where we were able to gratefully repay Helen. This meant no more ‘leeching’ (get it….. ya, lame I know) off the Africans and time to blaze off for our own. We exchanged hugs and emails, then detached from our parasitic ways, rediscovering a sense of freedom we never want to sacrifice again.

With two hours to spare, before an overnight bus would escort us to the Laoan capital, we ate our first independent meal by splurging on some Laoan Curry (which ended up having a strong Indian influence (lacking coconut)). Afterwards we rented a tuk-tuk driver to taxi us around for the remaining hour which turned into nothing more than a photographic safari to hunt the elusive orange monks that inhabit the streets and temples. After taking some award-winning photos, we picked up our backpacks and were dropped off at the bus station. We bought a few snacks, then boarded the double-decker as the sun started to set on our approaching overnight jaunt.

Six am arrived sooner than expected since we awoke to the clamoring of people frantic to depart the bus. We rolled out the door, still with half open eyes, and leaped into another tuk-tuk to take us to the central area. There, taking the recommendation of three English girls traveling during their gap year (year between high school and college), we planned to drop off our packs at a nearby guesthouse and depart for Bangkok on another overnight bus leaving later that afternoon. This was perfect, now we basically had the whole day to explore Vientiane!

We started our discovery at a delicious little bakery where we ordered a traditional Laoan breakfast consisting of Keish, Croissants, and Coffee (can you sense a hint of French colonization?). Not in any hurry, we began strolling the sidewalks passing packs of street dogs and noticed the hierarchy amongst the individuals within the group. After using the internet and stalking more monks in their natural habitat, we ate lunch at an unbelievably delicious vegetarian buffet.

Vientiane was definitely the smallest capital I had ever been too, even smaller than a capital of a U.S.A state. It was fairly clean and had a nice feel, but didn’t have anything scream out uniqueness. Manila, Bangkok, Hanoi, and Phenom Phen were rich in flavor and truly a treat to roam through, while Vientiane seemed bland in comparison. Lao is definitely worth visiting in my opinion, but more for its back country and villages. Get outside the capital and be prepared for spectacular scenery and surreal smiles. Unfortunately, with the deadline of meeting my brother and Ruthless down in Southern Thailand by Aug 28th, our time in Lao was severely cut short. However, in our four days of traveling across the country we made good friends and really experienced a glimpse into what Laoan life is like. The food, landscape, customs, and character were exposed before our curious eyes that left us a strong feeling of the country’s identity. We boarded our overnight bus to Bangkok and bid farewell to the lovely country of Lao!

One Response to “No Money For Lao-Lao!! (Aug 21st – 25th)”

  1. Mike G says:

    Crazy man………you seriously need to find a place where you can upload some pictures.

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