Star Date: October 2006
Hello Dear Family & Friends!
"Earth provides enough to satisfy man's need,
but not every man's greed!"
As we crossed the border from China into Laos the gears of the
machine slowly ground to a halt. From one of the most
progressive and populated countries in the world to the least
populated and underdeveloped in S. E. Asia, we immediately felt the
change. After 30 years of communist rule, the Lao People's
Democratic Republic is lagging behind its advanced neighbors.
In fact our first ride to the next town over the border came to a
sudden stop when
the driver decided he wanted to go home instead of driving us to our
destination. We had to
hitch hike with 2 trucks to make it to Luang Nam Tha. We
couldn't imagine a Chinese business person passing up a chance to
make a profit. Not unlike seeing a small Lao cafe turning away 6
hungry young tourists because they were closing in 1/2 hour
(everything in Laos closes 45 minutes early). A chance for the
biggest sale of the day lost. Even our plane, one of the 5 daily planes from
the capital city, left 20 minutes ahead of schedule, so the pilots
could get home sooner. More water buffalo here than "Chinese
buffalo" (noisy roto tiller-type tractors), in the peaceful countryside. So it goes in laid back Laos.
Breathe easy. Relax. Not unlike
the 'Hang Loose' attitude of Hawaii, we felt like we were back on
the Big Island.
Monsoon incarnate. Usually the rainy season means that the skies open up once a day, afternoon or during the night, and dump their heavy load for an hour or so. After one day in Luang Nam Tha someone turned the tap on full and forgot to shut it off. It poured for 48 hours, the road was under water in both directions, and 5 people were drowned in the raging river. With electricity and water out for 3-4 days we simply battened down the hatches, read, and relaxed. We had no where to go. A travel agency we saw had posted the motto: "Wherever you go - there you are!" And like the name of the funny little coffee shop/laundry in town, "This is Here." Don't tax your brain. Why worry? You are already here, or was it there or??
The Lao people are friendly, smiling and rich in many ways, but it was here that we noticed the glaring poverty of Laos. The markets were lined with women selling a meager array of items, such as 6 homegrown eggplants, 4 cucumbers, or bundles of weeds on their blanket. That is also when the gastronomic adventure began: barbequed bird's heads on a stick, toasted bats, vats brimming with pungent fish sauce, buckets full of frogs, snakes, leeches, bugs; bowls of large writhing grubs, some of which turned out to be wasp larvae still squirming in their nest. All served up with optional "cow dung gravy", (tangy I hear). I kid you not, this was explained to us by a monk practicing his English. Maybe the name of the restaurant "My Dung" meant more than we knew. Moving or not, it was put on the menu. In China most animals in the market were domesticated, here most were from the wild. Like a vegan's bad dream, you could literally observe samples of the fauna of Laos laid out on market tables. Near towns there are so few birds left in Laos that birders we met told us it isn't even worth looking. You go to sleep with the lullaby of cicadas but strangely you don't wake up to the morning tabernacle choir of birds like in Hawaii. Just a few moving fast, to stay out of the range of small guns and boys with slingshots. Back to the forgotten issue of overpopulation of the globe. More and more people need to eat more and more food and build more and more houses. The planet suffers under the weight. Not having seen an elephant in a month in the "land of a million elephants", we wondered about their fate? Monks at one temple told us they could eat meat but not elephant or water buffalo. Before that I hadn't even thought about eating elephants. Certainly more meat than barbequed sparrows on a stick. Where did this survival mentality come from? Maybe years of poverty, after spending 10 or more years hiding out in the forests and caves, helped develop a taste for the unusual. Funny what hunger will do.
Luckily 75% of this rugged country is unmanaged vegetation,
25% primary forests, and 14% set aside as parks. Aside from
eating anything they get their hands on, Lao people live lightly on
the earth and consume very few of their country's natural resources.
The forests are full of wild elephants, bears, leopards, tigers,
deer, and jackals. Supposedly there are 437 types of birds and
320 different species of fish. Poverty encourages illegal tree
felling and exotic animal smuggling but thankfully the rugged
mountainous forest regions provide a haven for these endangered
species. Low impact, environmentally supportive trekking and tours are being
developed in northern parks to provide travelers a glimpse at these
For some strange reason this killing of innocent people and destruction of property caused the Lao people to resent the U.S. and eventually side with the communist forces ( Not unlike the Iraqi people who are 'overjoyed' that we are currently 'helping' their country). A former monk told us that one of the two opposing armies would show up in a village and "draft" the young men. The alternative - be shot on sight! Upon quick consideration they would join and fight against this unknown enemy until, if they were lucky, they could escape to the forest or to the capital city. Homecomings were sad as most family members were dead, homes flattened and family land still full of time bombs. Sad to say I am writing this in the lobby of our little guest house as they are listening to an English channel from Thailand. I can't believe it but the program is bragging about a newly developed American bomber and all it's precision technology. History has proven that there was absolutely no reason for the U.S. to be in S.E. Asia (or elsewhere). I hang my head in shame.
In 1975 the communists helped King Savang Vattana disappear for good and the Lao People's Democratic Republic was established. After quashing the remaining opposition, the new government realized that the model of socialism was outdated so they reformed their strict policies - allowing foreign investment and private business (but not political opposition). Trade embargos by the U.S. were finally lifted in 2004, with hopes that these tough survivors can dig themselves out of poverty. A country of isolated and diverse ethnic groups, there may even be some elderly folks in the remote mountain villages who don't know they aren't part of Siam any longer. Winners write the history over a glass of scotch, randomly divide up countries on maps with crayons, and make the rules. And so it goes, and goes.
Having most recently been part of Thailand, the Lao people align with the culture of their Thai neighbors, which currently happens to be loud soppy love ballads and dramatic modern Thai TV., what is approved by the government that is. The shy Laotian men rev their engines in the small neighborhood bars and after a couple of glasses of 'lao lao' (rice whiskey) start singing loudly, often Karaoke style, to a DVD of lively Laotian or Thai music. Up north there is a strong influence of the Hmong and Mien tribes, with a few still dressed in traditional clothing and elaborate hand done silver jewelry and head dresses. Toothless smiles greet you, in between puffs on long bamboo pipes. Much of the traditional art and ancient relics of Laos have been 'borrowed' by wave after wave of passing colonists over the years. Rare items are tucked away in private international collections. Thankfully antiques are for sale but many, especially the Buddhas, cannot be exported.
The trip up to the mountains of Muang Sing a washout, we took the first available minibus to Udomxai then Nong Khiaw. In Udomxai we spent the afternoon with a representative of the United Nations, from Zaire. Their mandate was to try to provide alternative livelihoods for farmers once the government stopped them from growing opium. Providing the farmer with a handful of cattle, he was now supposed to support his family. Interestingly enough opium is a large cash crop in Tasmania, where it is legally grown for the pharmaceutical companies. Introducing cattle into a region is like opening Pandora's Box. Instead of feeding villagers from a small plot, the forest has to be slashed and burned to provide grazing land, the water table becomes polluted from the waste of the animals, giardia or dysentery is introduced into the untreated drinking water, etc. It takes 20 times more land area to support a pastoral meat eating culture then a vegetarian one. As we slowly made our way through villages by public bus we were amazed to see all these small herds of cattle hanging out near the road, leaving large piles everywhere, as they lazily moved along through the small villages which hugged the roads. With all these forests available this seemed odd until we figured out that the cows could easily set off an unexploded ordnance. They keep them along the roads for safety, until by luck, they are able to clear cut an area. The narrow path established for the road construction is naturally cleared of bombs first and may be the only safe area for miles.
Nong Khiaw, a sleepy little village along the Nam Ou River, caught us in it's net for several days. Relaxing on the veranda of our thatched hut, watching the sun play on Phu Nang Nawn (Sleeping Princess) Mountain beyond the river, we feasted our eyes as hundreds of colorful butterflies created a living kaleidoscope against the brilliant flowers. Most people rushed up river to pack together in Muang Ngoi Neua, missing this low key place to hang out for a few days. To our delight we discovered some of the best Indian food thus far at the end of our lane. From Madurai, South India, Raj was the cook, 'maitre d', waiter, and great all around chap. We give him a 4 star rating and later searched out the other Nazim restaurants throughout the country. We persevered in arranging a boat down the river and had a memorable 7 hour ride south to Luang Prabang, past remote villages, fishermen, Pak Ou Cave Grotto, and impressive limestone peaks. We even saw a tree full of a dozen or so shiny, wet boys waiting their turn to 'dip their skinnies' in the 20 ft plunge.
After the remoteness of the mountains and jungles of Northern Laos, Luang Prabang was an unexpected treat. Influenced by the French and now the steady stream of tourists, few strange culinary items were evident, instead baguette stands and bakeries lined the streets. The daily Hmong Night Market offered a choice of 3 different tasty vegetarian buffets - 50 cents a plate. Like the interesting and unique British couple we hung out with, (our own 'Genie' and Tanya who had just finished 1.5 years traveling in India), at first we were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of tourists. Initially we had each secretly wished to be back in China or India respectively, places you could easily get lost in the scrum of humanity. Anonymity, amid curious smiles. Used to saying a rousing "Hello" scores of times each day, we were stunned as foreigners looked blankly at us following our cheerful greeting. Then it became a game to see if we could change the stressed, sometimes sour faces into a smile. If not, who cares? If you greet someone with a smile and they scowl back, who is going to have a better day?? We did a quick check and found that we didn't stink, there wasn't spinach between our teeth, and unlike coming out of the freezing mountains into Chengdu we didn't have red & yellow plastic bags on our feet. What a strange lot we foreigners are and how puzzling we must appear to local Asian folk. Often grouchy, complaining, and bossy, tourists sometimes leave a bad taste in the mouths of well intentioned locals. Some become jaded and after what we observed I can't say that I blame them. With the steady stream of westerners, locals were no longer fascinated with our presence and for the most part ignored our passing. It was only when exploring away from the tourist areas that we once again found the unassuming, pleasant Lao people. With only a few major paved roads in the country people get bunched together in Laos. River travel is slow but pleasant on some routes. Off the pavement is often impassable especially in the rainy season. We heard horror stories of 26 hours of mud, pushing the bus in knee deep goop, sleeping overnight in their seats, then finally completing the 14 hour journey 12 hours late. The Chinese government is helping finish Highway 3 from China to northern Thailand. In fact many international NGO's are involved in helping these quiet people improve their standard of living.
Luang Prabang, is a striking blend of intricately decorated Buddhist temples (wats) and shady lanes of French buildings, complete with shutters and balconies overlooking the river. It was declared an UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. The Old Quarter, between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers is surrounded by lush emerald forests and presided over by Phu Si Mountain. The Royal Palace Museum, with its strict dress code, is worth a couple hours of getting to know Laos better. Wats are decorated with 'nagas' or mythical serpent-beings, as in so many countries worldwide. Venturing away from the quaint but tourist filled Old Quarter found us exploring side streets and markets, strolling along the Mekong, and climbing up for the view from That Comsi. We stopped by the intricately decorated Wat Xieng Thong and scores of others in our wanderings. We interpreted ancient symbolism and chuckled at the modern, gory hell and damnation murals in Wat Winsunalat. Fear sells. It works very well in every country and religion. (We laugh but what fears are we each attached to?) We chatted for hours with affable saffron robed novices and monks at the temple with our favorite name, Wat Sop!? We spent a pleasant day walking out to explore the eclectic, serene Forrest Wat (seen from the top of Phu Si) and shoulder to shoulder with the rowdy locals we cheered our favorite team during the annual long boat races. With 60 paddlers in each long open canoe, it was an exciting event to watch, reminiscent of the outrigger canoes which we had paddled in Hawaii. A wat, temple or golden stupa on every block added to the mystery of this once forgotten land. Most of Laos practices Theravada Buddhism. Many Lao males choose to be ordained as monks sometime during their life, from one month to 3 years or longer. This may explain the wide variety of sincerity, or lack thereof, witnessed in these saffron robed look alikes. It's nothing to turn around in an internet cafe and have all 10 chairs filled with a sea of young, excited saffron.
We caught a minibus 32 km. out to the stunning 600 ft. high roaring Tat Kuang Si Waterfalls. Thundering over tiered limestone precipice into turquoise pools below it was impressive with the high waters of the rainy season. Walking through the jungle, we stopped by an enclosure full of Asian sun bears all playfully standing for a banana treat. A worthwhile project is underway to help these recovered animals survive in the wild again. Drop by and give your support to them and the magnificent tiger near by. Poachers get large sums for these precious creatures and work by people such as June and Jude from England, give them a chance at survival. The power and majesty of this large tiger was mesmerizing but we were happy for the fence between us. This isn't the luxury with many remote villagers.
We took the challenge of climbing up the strenuous mud path on the right side of the falls. Soaked and muddy we gasped at the view from the top. Rainbows, rushing water, velvet green jungles hiding limestone mountains. We decided to see if we could get a better view further across. One step led to another and before we knew it we were holding onto bamboo branches in the middle of the falls, hanging on the edge, looking 600 ft. straight down. Hey, we were already half way there so we held on to the bamboo branches and slowly made our way across, careful not to slip over the falls. Once on the other side we hung out on a branch for a while simply admiring this magical place. Thinking that there had to be a path down the other side we soon discovered that it wasn't passable. Not wanting to backtrack we decided to follow a small trail heading into the jungle, obviously frequented by cattle or water buffalo. Caught up in the magical moment, like "Mr. Magoo", we happily walked along the trail oblivious to tigers, poisonous snakes, leeches, opium patches, unexploded bombs, or whatever else might be lurking. Actually if you stay on the paths you are pretty safe, for the most part that is. We walked for what seemed like miles until we came to a clearing with a small bamboo footbridge across a stream. A perfect place to have a picnic lunch of our usual fresh vegetable salad. Dangling our muddy feet in the stream we heard bells and went to have a look. We came upon a thatched hut in the jungle with two extremely surprised villagers. "Where in the world did they come from?" was their first response. After 'visiting' a bit they happily sent us in the right direction. Down the mountain we went on a larger dirt path past enormous first growth trees, water falls and green rice terraces. The 3 or 4 men that we bumped into along the way were startled at the sight of us. After passing through a Hmong village we circled around to catch the 5p.m. minibus back to town. A spontaneous 'circle tour' of Laos, a la Joseph, that will remain with us.
We struck out in a different direction from Luang Prabang and got closer to the real Laos. Mystical Plain of Jars, surrounding Phonsavan, was worth the long bus ride. We visited the delightful rural areas of all 3 sites with a former monk as a guide. While hiking he told us about life as a Buddhist monk, good and bad. Lao people usually don't feel comfortable opening up to foreigners, as government dissention is forbidden. But out here everything was open. Climbing up a hill we were greeted by 9 ft. high, two to five ton stone jars, standing sentry over the surrounding valleys. The energy amid the old trees and these giants was obvious and strong. Funerary urns? Storage jars? Their ancient craftsmen vanished over 2000 years ago and with them the secret. Eastern thinking and western thinking are often very distinct. One obvious difference is the eastern collective, tribal or communal thinking, whereas in the west we encourage success of the individual. While standing on the hill Joseph mentioned something about when he was first traveling in Asia in 1960. Phommee casually said, "That was long ago. I wasn't in a body then." Looking at life from a completely different angle was apparent in that simple statement. Can you imagine someone in the west dropping that sentence in passing conversation? The differences of cultures are often subtle and rich.
We knew we were back in the real world when in the truck or 'sawngthaew' from Phonsavan to Vang Vieng, I was enthusiastically offered twisted intestines with fish sauce, only minutes before we slammed on the brakes to purchase squirming cicadas strung like necklaces on bamboo twine,. Forget the baguettes with such a menu available. The area around Vang Vieng was beautiful and worth a stop on the way to Vientiane. If watching reruns of "Friends" while getting stoned or drunk isn't your style, the natural beauty of the limestone mogotes, river and lush foliage outweighs the fact that this has become a backpacker party hangout.
Vientiane, the capital city, was spared bombing during the war so many French colonial houses, monuments, wats and the lofty shimmering golden stupa, That Luang, still remain. We discovered a tasty vegetarian luncheon buffet run by warm, welcoming Phot and his family. All you can eat for only 15,000 kip. It's worth the walk down the tree lined road past the Presidential Palace. Try catching the sunset over the Mekong, strolling the paths along the river, visiting the Patuxai "Arc de Triumph" monument, the peaceful but unusual Buddha Park or Wat Si Saket. Our month long visa expiring and places to explore we left this slow moving, gentle jewel in S.E. Asia. We will return to explore southern Laos later as we meander our way across Indochina.
And so it goes...............................................Next Northern Vietnam. Until then, Keep Smiling, which is easier, if like Gandhi suggests, we try to keep our needs simple. Take care and thanks for keeping in touch! We always enjoy an email from our family and friends around the globe. Glad you are enjoying our travels as much as we enjoy sharing them with you!.
Love, xoxox Nancy & Joseph
$1.00US = 10,000 kip
Luang Nam Tha:
Philaylack Villa, Ban Wat
That, phone: 856-71 253 025
for more info on helping save Laotian wildlife.
It is necessary to hire a guide to actually get you to the Plain of Jars #2 and #3. (#1 is well marked). For an enjoyable day in the countryside try Interlao Travel. Ask for Mr. Ken, organizer and Phommee Vibysack, guide (former monk).
"Vegetarian Buffet": Phot and family serve excellent vegetarian food between 11-12:30pm. Menu available at other times.
Chindamay Guesthouse, BanHaiSok
Sihom Rd., phone:856-21 262 125
Internet Service and Budget Laundry: modern, inexpensive internet around the corner from Chindamay.
Leego Air Service - best prices in town and extremely honest. Family owned and run by Phetdavanh. Along the river near Fatima's Indian Restaurant, next to Nancy's Travel. phone: 856-21 261 877