A minivan loaded with other tourists picked us up at our hotel to take us to the bus station. We got dropped off at the station and this local guy whistled us over and said we needed to walk to another area. We all grabbed our bags and followed him past the station down these back alleys to this desolate corner in a warehouse district. There were about 15 tourists and we were all wondering why we were not at the station anymore. A few minutes later a busted up bus came barreling down the road. We loaded on and a guy working the bus motioned for all of us to go to the very back seats. Normally, you can spread out and sit wherever, but he was very adamant that we all squeeze together at the back. Laura and I got stuck on the very back row with 3 other people. This is the row that sits right over the engine. An Australian girl, named Belinda, was one of the people on the back row with us…we would all become very close through this bus journey.
Our tickets said that it would be an aircon bus, but there was no air conditioning. Some of the seats we were in were broken, so those people tried to move to the seats up front. The guys working the bus however, would come storming back yelling in Vietnamese at them and motioning them to get back in the other seats. They would even come and grab peoples arms and throw the bags to the back of the bus…it was very aggressive and I was beginning to wonder what kind of bus we were on. I felt like Rosa Parks in the back of the bus because there were locals in the front seats, but the white people had to go to the back. No one knew what was going on and why the bus crew was so mean to us. There was no English spoken...we sort of felt like prisoners…it was all very confusing. After driving for a few hours, we pulled over to a shop and the bus guys started loading goods on. They loaded on bags of rice and animal feed all down the aisles and in the other seats. It was to the point where we had to crawl on top of these bags to even get out of the bus. They put bags under our feet as well so we just basically sat on top of them. Every few hours we would stop and load more bags on. At one point, we pulled over on the side of the road. A few of us got out to use the restroom. We waited at this point for awhile until another truck pulled up next to us. The bus crew started loading all of our bags that were on the bottom storage onto the roof. Then they loaded a lot of coolers from the truck onto the bottom. We had no idea what was in the coolers. After they filled the lower part of the bus up, they chained it together and locked it. Then one of the guys took a hammer and busted the lock in so there was no way to open it. I am not sure what was going on, but it appeared that we were “smuggling” something across the border…..why would they bust the locks in? And why did they make the cooler transfer on the side of the road miles away from any town? It was weird.
At about 2am we pulled over for a rest stop and saw 7 other tourists on the side of the road with their bags. Apparently, they were on a bus to cross the border, but the bus dropped them off 1 hour ago and told them to wait for another bus to pick them up. They looked a little freaked out like we were and weren't sure what was going on. They were going to be getting on our bus. I had no idea where they were going to sit as the rest of the bus was filled with cargo. They ended up having to sit in the aisles and riding on top of the bags of rice. The ride was 24 hours long with no aircon and we were crammed on top of each other surrounded by cargo. Since we were sitting on top of the engine, we were sweating profusely. I had to close my eyes and meditate to a happy place for hours at a time so I wouldn´t go crazy. In all the months of travel, this was the worst bus trip so far. But alas…..we crossed the border and arrived to Vientiane, Laos. The one positive thing out of the bus journey was that we met Belinda…aka “Super Onesy” (which I will explain later in the blog). Laura, Belinda, and I would end up traveling together through Laos.
The vibe and culture in Laos is a complete polar opposite from Vietnam. It is like all of a sudden you can take this breath of fresh air, release the tension in your shoulders and relax. I absolutely loved my time in Vietnam, but it is a fast paced hustle and bustle type atmosphere….in Laos….you just chill out! There was no traffic, no honking, and no vendors at every street corner hustling you for a buck. In fact, if you wanted any type of service you had to go looking for it yourself. Even in the restaurants, you had to get up to tell the waiter you were ready to order or wanted the check. Some people refer to the Laos people as “lazy”, but I think they just relax and take life at a slower pace. I was immediately drawn to the vibe and knew that it was going to be an enjoyable, slow paced month of travel….a much needed time to chill out after Cambodia and Vietnam.
In Vientiane, we all found a dorm room for really cheap. I had not stayed in a dorm room since Australia so it was kind of fun for a change. Ah…the dorm life. You meet so many interesting characters when you stay in a dorm. This particular room had 18 beds in it. To my left I had the new age hippie girls who had dreadlocks, hairy armpits and nose piercings, but all of the latest technology like cell phones and iPods. They had these banjos and musical instruments that they would spend hours tuning and talking about playing, but never actually played them. To my right I had the Nigerian who would dress in a suit everyday and stroll around town. He would also talk on his cell phone in a very loud voice at all hours of the night. Then we had the Chinese, who we nicknamed “plastic bag man” because he wrapped everything he had into little plastic bags and felt the need of wrapping and un-wrapping them all the time. Word of advice….if you stay in a dorm, avoid plastic bags as they can be really annoying. Then there was this other Asian guy who had his bicycle and had cycled through 35 countries already. And let us not forget the crazy Australian man who looked to be in his 70s. He would sit on the balcony next to the no smoking sign and puff on marijuana joints 24 hours a day. Tons and tons of characters…..
One day I went to go visit the COPElaos rehabilitation center. It is an organization to help Laos victims that have been injured by UXOs (Unexploded ordinances) from nearly 100 years of warfare. During the Vietnam War, there was a “secret war” that took place in Laos. There were strict regulations on where the Americans could drop bombs in Vietnam, but there were no regulations in Laos. To demolish supply routes and combat Viet Cong in the Laos territory, the Americans bombed the hell out of Laos. In fact, Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world! Unfortunately, the American public would not be aware of this until many years after the Vietnam War. So many bombs were dropped that it is said that spanning 9 years, a plane would drop bombs every 8 minutes. Of all the bombs dropped, one-third did not explode. This has made for a very messy situation. The bombs have made much of the land unusable for crop growing, and to subsidize their income, villagers now collect scrap metal from the UXOs to sell on the black market. Each year, there are many deaths and injuries due to the UXOs detonating when tampered with. Most of the injuries happen to small kids who are curious about the foreign metal objects stuck in the mud. It is really sad because even though the wars are over…Loatians still live with the atrocities of the aftermath…much like the Agent Orange in Vietnam. The rehabilitation center is a place for victims to go and get wheelchairs or prosthetics made for them and to spread awareness to villages about how dangerous the UXOs are. I watched an amazing documentary called “Bomb Harvest” which won a few awards. If you get a chance you should check it out to get a better understanding of the situation over here. Also, if you are looking for an organization to support and maybe donate money to this holiday season, COPELaos is legitimate and I truly believe they are making a lot of progress to spread awareness, help victims, and deal with the undetonated bombs still in the country.
In Laos, there is a government run curfew each night for 11:30pm. All bars and restaurants close at that time and you must return back to your guesthouse. But the curfew doesn´t stop locals from enjoying Beerlao and one of their favorite activities…bowling. We decided to hit up the local bowling alley one night. It was absolutely hilarious….they blare western hip-hop music, drink beerlao, and bowl for hours. I forgot to bring socks, so when we arrived; I had to buy a pair of socks at the alley. Once again, I was reminded how big I was compared to Asian people. The socks barely fit around my feet. In fact, I had to cut the ankle part so that it did not cut off my circulation. Ahh……the joys of being a fat American in an Asian country.
After Vientiane we headed North. There is this infamous party town in Laos called Vang Vieng. It is world famous for its tubing. You rent these tubes and go down the river and the locals throw a rope to you and pull you into their bar. I have met a few travelers along the way who said it was the most amazing week of partying they have had....and that the town changed their lives. I have done my fair share of partying in my days and was pretty sure this place was not going to change my life....but why not check it out for a few days, right? The busride was only a short 3 hours. This peculiar guy sat next to Belinda. I think he had a really bad case of ticks and possibly teret syndrome. He was constantly making weird noises and doing these hand motions all over the place. I thought to myself how difficult it would be to travel alone with a problem like that. As we arrived into Vang Vieng, he got up and stormed to the driver....all of a sudden he began yelling histerically " Let me off this fucking bus you fucking crazy people...I know you are trying to kill all of us. I know what you are up to. Let me off this bus. FUCKKKKK.I am going to the police...I know you are trying to kill me. Let me fucking off NOW!" The bus stopped and he got off and started walking calmly down the street. I was in shock at the situation...I had no idea what this guy was about to do. Clearly he had major issues going on and even though I sympathize that he has a disorder, he probably should not be traveling alone. I was really glad he was not on the 24 hour busride...that would have been interesting.
The town of Vang Vieng was this weird vortex of tubing, partying, and re-runs of Family Guy, Simpons, and Friends. It seriously felt like going to a circus on hallucinogenic drugs. Because of the government curfew, everyone partied by day and slept at night. Apparently, about 15 years ago it was a famous town for foreigners to come visit, get high on Opium and chill out for weeks. There was even a spread in National Geographic about this lush "off the beaten path" chill-out town. However, once the government cracked down on the drug use, the town had to find another way to make a living....so they turned their market towards partying and tubing for young backpackers. After a few days though, I started to see how the whole town really worked. When you get to a bar or restaurant, they will hand you 2 menus. One is the food menu and the other is a drug menu. You can get "happy" pizza or shakes, opium, marijuana, or mushrooms. I am not big into the drug scene, but if you were...then this place would be heaven. Then the bars choose between playing re-runs of Family Guy or Friends. And you then sit for hours vegging out at the TV. Some of the bars have negotiations with the police and pay them a certain amount of money each month to stay open past curfew. If the owners think the police are nearby, they will pick up the drug menus and stop dealing....However, if a policeman catches you smoking a joint or doing drugs of some sort, you can either pay them $500 out of pocket, or go to jail. There is a little bit of corruption going on. The tubing is even crazier....it is like tubing in the Guadalupe but on steroids. The bars on the side of the river are insane....with mud wrestling pits and colossal rope swings. I stuck to drinking the booze and hung out on the sidelines in awe of the craziness happening around me. All I could think about was how easy it would be to get seriously hurt.
There are foreigners chilling in this town for competitions on duration. For instance, there is this guy named Trent who has been tubing for 265 days straight. His goal is to do it for a full year....tube everyday for 1 full year!!!!!!!! I couldn't even imagine. Then we met this girl named Becky who had been tubing everyday for 80 days. I mean, don't get me wrong....the tubing was a blast and this town is a party haven, but to stay there for that long did not make sense to me.
After a few days in town we had met so many people and had our local hangouts. I would walk down the street saying hi to new friends and I felt this weird acceptance. If it was this easy to fit in....then I could begin to see how it may be hard to leave for some people. I would walk into bars and the owners would come up and put there arm around my shoulder to say hello....we were getting free drinks and hanging with locals. I knew it was time to leave before it got too comfortable. Vang Vieng is a wild town...not like anything I have ever seen. I am glad we checked it out and I had a blast, but it was time to move on....
We decided to continue up north to get back into the culture and Laos life. We headed to Luang Prabang, the enchanting city that is under UNESCO World Heritage for helping to preserve the culture. The town is beautiful. It is filled with french colonial buildings, temples, and the Mekong River. There are 1000s of monks walking around each day. At night, there is this night market that sells textiles and goods from the nearby villages. There are food stalls at every corner and you can eat like a king for only a few dollars a day. I spent my days here strolling the streets, visiting nearby waterfalls, and riding bicycles. It is such a pictruesque city and I am glad that it is under the UNESCO World Heritage. This means that they are doing what they can to preserve the culture, architecture, and local traditions. There are regulations on the amount of cars and trucks in the area and building styles etc. So much changes in underdeveloped countries when tourism is introduced, that I think it is good that they are working to keep the charm of the city intact. One day I was walking through a Wat...or temple...and noticed a group of young monks working on cutting some wood. The monks must have been around 12 years old. I was trying to find a particular building and decided to see if the monks could help. I had no idea what the etiquette was in talking to monks...I knew that I was not allowed to touch them, but I figured it was ok to ask for directions. I walked over and pointed on the map and asked in English where the building was. All the boys were kind of giggly and tried there best to help me. We exchanged a few words but I felt funny so I didn´t pry to much in the situation. As I was walking off...I had to laugh...they seemed like ordinary 12 year old kids to me, but they were monks! It is a normal thing for men to join the monkhood for a period in their lives. Some do it for only a few months, while others dedicate their lives to it. During the rainy season (when there is not much work in the fields), families will send their kids to be monks for a few months because they will get educated and fed well. It is rainy season now...so the temples were filled with them. I have tried to take some pics of the monks and there are a few photos on Picasa.
After days of wandering around the world heritage city, we hopped in a minivan that would take us to a town called Luang Namtha 9 hours away. It was another interesting transport experience. After about an hour we had a flat tire. The driver fixed the tire and Laura mentioned how now we had no spares left. I thought to myself that the chances of another blow-out was extremely low. Well...it wasn´t 1 hour later that all of a sudden I heard this loud pop and then the van started rolling unevenly. Conveniently, we had the blow-out right next to a tire store. I truly think that the tire store set up booby traps for passing cars to create business for themselves. It was all just to perfect of an accident. We sat in the town for 2 hours while they worked on the tire and waited for some part. Finally, we were on the road again. Driving through the small villages was a sight to see. When it is raining, naked kids play and splash in puddles everywhere, men fish off the side of bridges, woman nurse their babies while selling vegetables on the side of the road. You see the daily village life while looking outside the windows while traveling. A few hours later we were flying through a village and there were all of these kids on the side of the road waving to us...all of a sudden a dog jumped out into the road. The driver tried to miss it, but there was no way around it. Thump Thump and then a howl beneath our feet. We totally hit and killed a dog in front of about 20 village kids. I was mortified.....it was awful! We kept on driving.
Luang Namtha is a northern town known for its trekking and rafting tours. I was interested in doing a trek into the hill tribe villages to see what their culture and life was all about. Our first day in town, Belinda had this great idea to rent motorbikes. It was only $4 to rent a bike for 1 day. I had been avoiding renting a bike because of my segway accident a few years ago. I just don´t have the confidence on things like that. Belinda assured me that it was super easy and a total blast. We went to the rental place and the lady asked me how much experience I had. I told her I had never driven a motorbike in my life...and did not know how to drive manual either. You think that would be a clear sign not to rent to bike to me, but instead, the lady just smiled and said "I teach you". Next thing I knew, I was on this bike going down her driveway wobbling from side to side. I really didn´t feel comfortable, but Belinda kept telling me that it gets easier the faster that you go. FINE....I decided to just do it. There was not a lot of traffic in town and I was just going to take it easy. Well Belinda was right. After a few minutes, I built up my confidence and was having a total blast on the bike. We cruised through all the town streets then went and visited temples and villages outside of town. I have totally been missing out on not renting bikes before. It is much easier then driving a segway. At the end of the day, we had gotten pretty far out of town and needed to head back before sunset. Belinda turned her bike around, but then all of a sudden her handle bar got stuck and she lost control and crashed straight into the ditch. She flew off the bike into the side of the hill. It all happend so fast and I was so worried that she was hurt. I ran over to see if she was ok. She popped up and said she was fine and was more concerned about her bike. She couldn´t afford any major damages. I knew that she was in a bit of shock, but at least she wasn´t too hurt. The bike was mostly ok except the basket was banged in pretty good. Once we knew the bike was ok and that she wasn´t hurt badly, we both started laughing histerically. It was one of those laughs like...holy shit...that could have been real bad. Belinda was wearing this one-piece demin outfit where the shorts and shirt are all connected. We call these "onesies". I kept replaying her accident in my head and seeing her fly off the bike in her onesy. That is when I nicknamed her "Super Onesy". THANK GOD she was ok!!!! After the accident we went back to the hotel and woke Laura up from her nap to help us make-shift the basket back to the way it was. We got it back to almost normal and they didn´t notice anything when we returned it.
The following day, Laura and I set off for a 2 day trek to visit local hill tribe villages. Belinda stayed behind because she didn´t have any hiking gear. We were joined on the trek with a french gay couple. When I first introduced myself I asked them what their names were. In thick french accents they told me their names. I had NO IDEA what they said. In my head I was like"yeahhh...no idea what they just said...not even going to try". After a little while though, I finally asked them to write their names down for me since I am more of a visual learner. They were Fred and Oliver....hahahah...just goes to show how thick the accent was that I couldn´t figure out those simple names. They were a very nice couple and since Laura knows french she was able to translate conversations between us.
It is the rainy season now so the trek was extremely muddy. We slipped and fell down paths and stepped in mud that covered our shoes. Another downfall to the rainy season was leeches. I felt a few on my legs and would try to get them off. At the end of the day when I took my pants off, I had leech marks all over my legs.....soooo gross!
The hike was a very unique experience. The hill tribe that we visited was named Lanten. The villagers are very poor and they spend their days harvesting and growing crops, raising farm animals, and maintaning the village. There is no electricity and they bathe and drink water from the river. I took this time to ask questions to our guide, Ef, about the villages and the Laos government. The villages used to burn down forests to grow crops and then after the season was over, move to another area and repeat the cycle. The government finally cracked down for environmental reasons and now give the villages a small sum of money so they do not move around so frequently.
As for the government, I think Laos is similar to Vietnam in that they are called Communist countries but that it is merely a title and free market situations exist. In the reading I have done, Laos receives a huge amount of financial aid from other countries including the US. Without this aid, they would be one of the poorest countries in the world. To try and help the country from the inside out, the government began introducing free markets so that they can improve and compete with the rest of the world. I have really tried to read books about the wars, governments, and histories of the countries I have visited....trying to better understand it all. Eventually, the communist governments seem to turn back to free markets in order to give the people a better quality of life. At least that is the conclusion that I have come to at this point...I still have much research and learning to do.
Fred and Oliver had done a lot of traveling and been to many villages in Nepal and Burma. Oliver brought balloons for the kids and crayons and paper to draw and interact with them. I was told not to bring things to the villages so that the kids don´t have expectations from foreigners. Tour companies suggest bringing toothpaste or pens for school. However, whether we are supposed to or not, they LOOOVVVEED the balloons. All the kids came running out of their huts waiting to get a balloon. I have tons of pics of the kids on Picasa that you can check out. Most of the kids are naked or wearing really torn clothes so keep that in mind when viewing the pics.
We learned about the rituals with coming of age, marriage, and village leaders. I tried to ask the guide as many questions I could think of....I was just fascinated with the basic lifestyle. In all of my travels, the one thing that has been the most apparent is that we are all still human. No matter how much money you have, your education, your religion, or government.....we all still laugh, cry, love, hurt, want, and need. For me, this village was one of the closest things that I have seen where they spend each hour of the day getting their basic needs met...Food, Water, Shelter. It is so different then the life I live back home. We have so much time on our hands that we create activities and material goods to satisfy us. We struggle with obesity, stress, depression....This village doesn´t even have electricity!
Ef lived back in the city. He was better off then the villagers, but still did not make much money. I think he said that he makes a few $1000 a year. It felt weird when he asked me how much my camera cost and I told him it was $400 because that is a huge part of his annual income. Ef also asked me a lot of questions. He wanted to know what it felt like to fly in a plane, see snow, and be able to travel between different countries. He explained to me that I am able to visit his country, but that he would never be able to come to the US. You could tell that Ef understood the world a little more then the villagers did. His job was to be a tour guide to foreigners who flash money around like it is paper. Meanwhile, he tries to work enough to afford school and english classes and still lives at home with his family at 25 years of age. It is always hard to talk to locals when they start to compare their lives to yours. I do not have a lot of money for an American...but in Laos I am extremely wealthy.
My time in Laos has been interesting and entertaining. Everyday it seems something interesting happends. On a different note though, there are some things happening back at home that I am missing. My dad´s fiance has just been diagnosed with breast cancer. I had prepared myself to miss good things, like weddings, birthdays, and my nieces growing, etc....but I didn´t prepare myself to miss situations like this. The hard thing with travel is you are away from family and home. I wish I could give Jatana a big hug and let her know I am thinking about her.
I have a few more days in Laos and then I part my ways from Belinda and Laura. My friend Jeremy is meeting me in the Philippines for a 2 week "holiday". After that, back to flying solo ...........