Sunday, April 28, 2013

Vientiane..A Sleepy Dragon

I continued my journey south to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. It was a short bus ride. Yipee!
Tourists had given me a variety of descriptions of Vientiane. Some described it as a sleepy city, others said it is a communist capital with nothing to see. Me, I found it to be a peaceful city. No high-rises, just a collection of villages where people tend to their own daily activities, no traffic congestion. There is no rush for modernization. I love this! One expat I talked with described it perfectly "Vientiane is a dragon awakening from his dream." The city is moving on its own pace, slow and steady. I wandered along the Mekong River on my first day in Vientiane. There is a great park and exercise path along the banks of the Mekong. I was excited when I noticed the park has installed exercise equipment that is free to use! Yes, free for the public! You know I will be back in the morning to try this stuff out! (It wasn't very good, no weights which is what I am missing.) And of course bring my own equipment, resistance bands. I love the looks on the locals faces as these see me with all these exercise bands! They point and walk up and try them out. One man wanted to try everything. My lack of Lao and his lack of English made for a funny morning. He got really confused when I used the squares on the ground as a exercise ladder. My fancy footwork confused him and I laughed. A retired physicist from the USA joined me to check out my bag of goodies also. It is a great conversation topic.

Three aerobics classes were ongoing in the park. I sat down to watch. Suddenly, a couple people and a cameraman come over and drag me out to the class. I joined in and got a little sweaty. It was fun and I laughed as they filmed my moves. I rocked it! Not really! They all gave me a thumbs up and asked my name and home country. I replied and asked where they were from. Seoul, Korea! I smiled and hoped I did not just do a news story about fat Americans!

I wandered back to my hotel and got lost. I didn't think I needed a map. Guess I was wrong. I ended up lost. I wandered and decided to follow some Chinese tourists...they were headed somewhere. I was excited when I arrived at the That Dam (Black Stupa). This was within a couple of blocks of my guesthouse.
Locals believe this mythological structure was once inhabited by a seven-headed dragon (now dormant) that protected the city from the threat of the Siamese. Another tale says gold once graced the surface  and was taken when the Siamese army ransacked Vientiane in 1828. It is a quiet sight with no visitors. I shot some photos and then started to walk down a street only to be told by a guard that I was not allowed to walk down the block. I asked why and the guard said no and pointed. I looked at his chest and realized it was the US Embassy. I wondered if this was due to the increased threats to the USA from North Korea, the recent bombing in Boston or if it was always patrolled with guards. I was surprised because I remember Lonely Planet had a biking tour that said I could go down this street. Guess not now! I bowed my head and said "Saibadee" and waved goodbye.

Vientiane has a few must see locations and I decided to relax and enjoy the city. I was going to stay over the weekend because that is when you really get a feeling for the city. Since I was staying a little longer and was close to the American Embassy, I decided to use this opportunity to get some extra pages added to my passport. The 5 pages I had was not going to be sufficient for the next 10 months of travel. I went online and made an appointment for 8 am, completed my paperwork. I was ready to visit more sites in the morning.
I started with a stop at the Presidential Palace. There was not much to see. Tourists are not allowed on the grounds and the President does not reside at this residence. As I turned around I saw the Patuxai Monument. I walked Avenue Lang Xang to get a better view.  Some will compare it to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Maybe from a distance. It was built in remembrance of those that fought for Lao independence from Siam, Japan and the French. And it was built with money given to Laos by the USA for an airport landing strip. For this reason, it is nicknamed the vertical runway. 

I also visited a few of the famous temples.  Each was different but they had their similarities. Wat Si Saket was the oldest surviving temple with a cloister surrounding the temple with over 2000 Buddha statues. Haw Pha  Kaew  was once a royal temple and is now national museum of religious art. Wat Si Muang is a temple that is most frequently used by the lay people. This one was interesting because it was home to a copy of the Emerald Buddha. The townspeople come to this temple to make a wish or request to Buddha. There is a small metal version of the Emerald Buddha that sits on a pillow. The person lifts it off the pillow three times as they mentally ask a question/request. If their request is granted, they return to the temple and make an offering of coconuts, bananas, flowers, incense and candles. I witnessed several offerings. I really wanted a photo but I felt it would be disrespectful in a temple.

It was getting hot and I looked at my map. I decided to walk out to COPE (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise) Center.  I knew they showed documentaries about the bombies and I needed a break from the afternoon heat. I arrived and toured the center and then watched the award winning documentary Bomb Harvest ( The movie was great as it followed the lives of MAG (Mine Advisory Group) trainees as they learn to remove and detonate the UXO. The site also has a center where wheelchairs and artificial limbs are made, a gym for disabled individuals and rehabilitation center. I was saddened as I passed several people entering with a missing limb. I even tried to stand and walk with a prosthetic leg. Those of you that know me realize that probably did not go well. It was so hard! Thank goodness I have all my limbs!
I returned to my hotel to cool off before dinner, the 99F weather was killing me! I have embraced the Latin siesta during this heat. Naps are great! Just like the good old days when I wanted to go home after lunch, now I can! Ha, ha, ha!

I planned to rent a bike to explore the villages of Vientiane. Then I saw the hotel bikes and decided to walk. One of the other guests told me it is better to walk because you can go in the shade. On a bike, you are just stuck in the hot sun. So, I walked to Pha That Luang which is the most important national monument in Laos. It is a symbol of Buddhism and Lao sovereignty.
As I was wandering the grounds, I met a young man, Cuong, from Vietnam. We started talking. He was traveling Asia by motorbike! I told him he was my hero! We shared stories from the road. We bonded quickly over our joy of travel. He told me where he was going, Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park). I was also so we eventually decided to go together. He would drive his motorbike and I would navigate.

Cuong and I had a few adventures getting to Xieng Khuan. After a stop by the Loas police and questions where we were headed, roads with large potholes, random cow encounters and a few wrong turns and we arrived at the Buddha Park. We had fun posing witht he statues and laughing at our adventures. We had no fear as we enter the mouth and into the depths of hell, earth and finally heaven. We climbed to the top and arrived in Heaven! Woo hoo! It was a fun adventure with my new friend. We said goodbye at the end of the day and parted ways.  

I am leaving Vientiane tonight on a sleeping bus. Oh yeah, that means I need to take some sleeping pills so I get a good rest and there will be some interesting stories. Travel days are always the funny days.  I may get a Lao sauna and massage if time allows. I will update all of you when I get to Paske. Peace and Love to you all! 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Viva Vang Vieng and the Banana Pancake!

Goodbye Luang Prabang! I left the French colonial city of Luang Prabang with a bit of sadness. I had spent 3 weeks in this town and fallen in love. It felt like home which is strange for someone that is on a round the world trip! I was asked by many of the students what I loved about Luang Prabang. I smiled and told them I loved the warmth of the Lao people, the French colonial architecture, the temples and the beautiful scenery. The restaurants were delicious and had a nice variety of options. And of course there was the morning market with the best fruit shakes and vegetable sandwich you could buy for $3.50. I loved walking home from the English classes past the beautiful lanterns on the streets. I will miss you Luang Prabang but I will return one day.
I had reservations on the 9 am bus to Vang Vieng. I arrived at the bus station and immediately noticed all the passengers were falang (Westerners). Uh-oh. Maybe I made a mistake. I was uncertain if I would like this town and finally decided to stop only because it would be a nice break on the trip to Vientiane. I know, not like me to be reluctant about visiting a fishing/farming village nestled between limestone karsts on a beautiful river. Why was I reluctant? Vang Vieng has a bad reputation for backpackers behaving badly. When Lao opened it's doors to tourists in the 1990's, the little village of Vang Vieng was forever changed. Someone decided the Nam Song River was a perfect location to start floating on inner tubes and it was all history. The town exploded with backpackers. Bars were opened along the river banks, enticing customers with throbbing party music and free shots of the Lao-Lao whisky. Rope swings, giant water slides and zip lines sprang up beside the bars, inviting the backpackers to take their chances with the rocky riverbed in unsupervised acts of drunken youth. The tourists went wild and indulged in alcohol, drugs and partying. Not my scene. I am too old for that scene and I hate when westerners leave their countries to act like idiots abroad. But, as I talked with tourists and did some research I found it may not be so bad. In August 2012, the Laos authorities cracked down on the partying due to 27 tourist deaths and multiple injuries last year. The bars were dismantled and shut down. As I talked to people that had been to Vang Vieng, everyone said it was nice and quiet. So, I booked a ticket to Vang Vieng and planned to stay a few nights.

I arrived in Vang Vieng and went for a walk. Vang Vieng is completely opposite Luang Prabang. No French colonial architecture here. The village caters to westerners with cheap bungalows, restaurants and cheap alcohol. But the natural beauty was breath-taking. I was happy I had stopped. I walked along the river bed and enjoyed watching the village life. There are tourists here but not like the guide book had described. It was quiet and relaxed. The first thing I noticed was all of the restaurants and bars have 2 things in common. First, all of them have beds with pillows and a low table to eat. Secondly, every restaurant has large flat-screened TV's with either Friends or Family Guy re-runs playing. People sit and stare at the tv and drink. I am not sure why they are doing this in the middle of the day. I was guessing they were drunk or stoned and too lazy to do anything in this gorgeous place. But, I did not see anyone partying and loud. I met an Australian couple on the bus and they were staying at the same hotel. We talked and laughed about travel over dinner and drinks. By the end of the night, they had convinced me to go tubing down the river in the morning.

The river tubing starts at 9 AM so, we decided to head over early in the morning. We loaded into the tuk-tuk with our inner tubes and driven to the drop-off point. It was 9:30 AM and we were the only people on the river. The locals stared at us. Guess they are not use to seeing sober people floating on the river this early in the morning! We jumped on our tubes and let the current take us down the river. We were on the river 15 minutes and saw our first bar. We didn't was too early and we wanted a relaxing day. The bars were busy transporting Beerlao across the river. As we floated down the river, we saw where the zip lines, slingshot and slide use to be. These kids had to be wasted to think any of it was a smart idea! No wonder why there were so many accidents! It was sad but I was happy the government had shut it down. The river was beautiful and the view is spectacular! We floated the river in 2 1/2 hours and arrived back in Vang Viang for lunch. We saw others leaving to float the river but it was all small groups of people. At lunch, we noticed everyone was well behaved and not too crazy.

After a shower and a nap, I decided to go rent a bike and see the area. I crossed the bamboo bridge and rode along the river. As I headed down the river, I noticed several children and families were playing in the river. One man told me he was happy that the town isn't as crazy as it use to be. The Lao people are very superstitious and many stopped allowing their children to swim and play in the water. He explained to me that because of the deaths they thought it would bring bad luck to their children to play in the river. Since the deaths have stopped, many villagers allowed their children back in the river. I was happy the villagers can enjoy the river as much as the tourists.
As I returned to town I stopped to indulge in the infamous Banana Pancake. Oh my Buddha! I watched as the woman pour the batter into the pan and sliced bananas on top. it was thinner than a crepe. It was cooked to a beautiful crisp color. Then she cut it and put it in a container. But first she drizzled it with Nutella and coconut flakes. Mmmm! I was ready for this little slice of happiness on a hot afternoon. It was delicious!! I went back to the hotel and took a shower and fell asleep after a fun and active day. I enjoyed Vang Vieng and decided to stay another night so I could spend a day exploring the area and caves.

I said my goodbyes to Kim and Wayne and took off on my morning hike to the cave. I walked through town before crossing the bridge to the cave.

 It was an easy hike to the cave and then I explored the cave on my own. I am proud of myself that I did not freak out too much as bats flew at me. You all know how I hate anything that flies at my head! I kept it somewhat together to look like a sane person. Afterwards, I walked back down to the pool outside the cave. The guidebook had said that a fresh water spring feeds into the cave and swimming was allowed. I looked around and nobody was going in. Everyone was just standing there. A Chinese guy and I decided to at least climb down the ladder and stick our feet in. Brrrrr! It was so cold! I could not go in. The water was beautiful and clear and his guide said the water went about 80 meters into the cave.
I left and decided to explore the area. I wondered around the countryside just enjoying the area.
A tuk-tuk repair shop...with no tuk-tuks! Must do a good job!

Another sun is setting over Vang Vieng. The village is alive and well. Tourists still come but are not as crazy and out of control as in the past. The banana pancake was yummy and I enjoyed my stay in this village. I hope tourists continue to come to this village. Enjoy the activities and the beautiful environment. Long live Vang Vieng and the Banana pancake! 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Pi Mai Lao- Add Water, Get Luck

Everyone in Luang Prabang will tell you that you have to spend Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Year) in Luang Prabang. They get a huge smile and say "It is so fun! You must be here for the Lao New Year!" How could I resist that? I had nowhere that I needed to be so, Luang Prabang it was! I made reservations for a guesthouse before I had left. This way I knew I had a place and set the price.

 So, what is so special about Pi Mai?  it is the Lao New Year. The citizens of Laos remove Buddha images from the temples in order to clean them with flower-scented water, and then take to the streets to douse one another with water. Traditionally, sprinkling water on their elders and monks was done to forgive past sins and ask forgiveness as the new year begins. The water is perfumed with flowers or natural perfumes.  The idea of watering came from the legend of King Kabinlaphom, whose seven daughters kept his severed head in a cave. (Yeah, Laos stories are a little gruesome!) The daughters would visit their father's head every year and perform a ritual to bring happiness and good weather.
Everyone stops working in Laos to celebrate the New Year. The tourist Information Office gave me a list of activities that last 10 days. Yeah, 10 days! I was told only 3 of these days are official public holidays. Some of the restaurants have closed for the week to celebrate with family and friends. The holiday involves removing the Buddha statues from the home and washing them. There are stands decorated and set-up outside each temple to wash the Buddha. The Rose scented water is poured down a ceremonial waterway to drip on the Buddha.
However, the main activity for Pi Mai is throwing water on one another. Water is thrown to symbolize cleansing away the sins and dirt of the past year so one can enter a new year fresh, without baggage. It sounds sweet and beautiful. It isn't! This is an all out down-and-dirty water fight! But it is fun! And I loved it!! Everyone gets involved. Children, adults, grandparents and monks.
It is hot here and the water feels great! For an entire week, each time you leave your guesthouse, you will get wet. Water throwing starts at 9 am. They set-up by the roadside in front of homes, stores and restaurants. As I walked down the street on my first day, I noticed huge barrels, freezers and swimming pools filled with water. There was usually a hose just so you did not run out of water. Most people use water guns, small cups or buckets to throw the water. Every passerby gets soaked. It does not matter if you are a tourist, going to work, have a camera or laptop. You better have it in a waterproof bag because you are a target.

People will get in the beds of trucks and ride around throwing water at people on the street.
I laughed as I realized this would not go over well in America. We are far too uptight for a week of water fights! Relax and have some good childhood fun! The first thing I realized was the children were kept busy all day throwing water at people, motorbikes and cars. They loved it!

The week started off with friendly water thrown at me as the people wished me good luck for the new year. By day 2, the water fight escalated. Little kids had their technique down and loved to whip the water at you. This was all good. I don't melt with a little water. I was able to get some good photos. On day 3, I noticed the tone had really changed. Some of the people had added dye to the water. I realized it was time to leave the camera and bag at the guesthouse, change into dark clothes and just enjoy the festival. Thank goodness I did! The water fights were taking on a new level for the day of the parade. Limited photos of that, way too much water!
 I realized my best defense was to look like I could not fight back. So no water gun for me! Or so they thought! I was sneaky and bought a 1.5 L bottle of cold water. As I would see my attackers approach, I would remove the lid and keep slowly walking. They would run up and douse me and I would chase them down and pour cold water on them! Ha ha ha! They were shocked and laughed. Usually followed with a high five! Success in the sneaky attack! And a nice workout for the day! This was working fabulously! I had a little boy that decided to be my sidekick. It all went well until some innocent looking kids walked by and threw handfuls of flour on us as their sister threw water. I was a gooey white mess! All you could do was laugh and fight back. They loved the thrill of a farang willing to chase them down. This attack lasted a while and then I was out of water. I walked down the block and was pummeled by a group of Laos college students I had met previously.  I asked if I could be part of their group and get some water. They went so far as to fill my bottle up and start handing me glasses of beer! They do not allow you to turn down alcohol. It is considered rude so, I obliged and drank the BeerLao.  The party continued until the parade started. I looked around and young and old were enjoying the events. Western hip hop music and pop music was playing. Everyone was dancing. I laughed as I watched a grandmother "riding the pony" to Gangnam Style with her grandchildren!  

As the parade began, I thought the water throwing would cease. WRONG! It only escalated! Seems that everyone gets doused with water. Monks, Miss Luang Prabang, police officers, and people dressed in traditional outfits. I was soaked by the end of the parade but happy and ready for a New Year overflowing with luck! The students then invited me to their BBQ and Baci ceremony. They started by wrapping a white string around each of my wrists and saying a blessing. They blessed me for a year of love, peace and happiness on my right arm. On my left arm they blessed me with richness that is not measured in possessions. I am to wear these for 3 days and then untie the knots and remove them. I loved it! We ate laap, fried seaweed, sticky rice, chicken curry, Lao fish jerky (not my favorite) and spicy buffalo. It was followed with a coconut cookie. It was all delicious. I walked back to my guesthouse happy, joyful and wet. What an amazing and fun day! This was all repeated again the following day.

The next day the ceremony was held at the Wat's to officially wash the Luang Prabang Buddha. The townspeople dressed in traditional clothes and took silver bowls filled with water and flowers to pour over the Buddha. It was beautiful watching the people arrive and pay their respects. Afterwards, she and her mother and grandmother walked up to Mt Phousi (398 steps) to pay their respects to the monk that founded Luang Prabang. He built the first temple, Wat Phou in 1804.  The 398 step "stairway to heaven" takes you straight to the temple at the top, where there is a wonderful panorama of Luang Prabang and the Khan River. 

The Pi Mai festivities were winding down. No water was thrown and the Lao are back wearing their conservative clothes. I have had an amazing week here in Luang Prabang. I will stay here until the immigration office opens and allows me to extend my visa. I hope that is soon but nobody really knows. Ha ha! Until then, I wish peace and love for all of you!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Floating, Walking and Pushing my Way Back to Luang Prabang

I left Nong Khiaw excited to get back to Luang Prabang for Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Year) celebration. I had decided to take the scenic boat down the river. It had to be better than a minivan with too many people...right? So, I loaded my backpack and walked to the boat dock. I asked how long the ride was and the gentleman told me 5 or10 hours. Whoa! What?!? He did not speak enough English to answer my questions. I decided to go for it and have a new adventure.
All the tourists loaded the boat and we headed down the river. It is really beautiful. We passed children playing in the river, adults fishing and a few looked like they were panning for gold. I had to check the internet to see if that was correct. I verified that the people pan for gold on the Nam Ou! 

 As we floated down the river, the boat suddenly hit huge rocks. We all jerked and the wooden boat tipped to the right. I think I felt 6 huge rocks hit under my feet. I looked down and could see water coming in the sides of the planks!! I started to wonder if I was on the Lao version of the Titanic. I wondered what would happen next. We continued to float down the river for another hour. Then we hit rocks again and the captain headed to shore. The first mate instructed us to get out and take a bathroom break while they replaced the rudder. We wandered around the shore and waited. After about 30 minutes, the captain picked up a cell phone and made a call. This was not going to be good. He handed the phone to a tourist. The guy got off the phone and chuckled. He stood up and said we all needed to hike down the river a few km and they would pick us up later..... Ok. We were off through the wilderness. I knew there were snakes and I did not want to encounter one. I decided to just keep my eyes up and follow the guy in front of me. The hike was ok and a nice break after 3 hours on the river. We got to the next clearing and the boat was waiting for us. Yay! Seems everything was fixed and they rearranged our bags to put more weight in the front of the boat. We waited as they finished fixing the rudder and steering alignment and eventually boarded the boat. At this point the captain said we were half way....another 3 hours! We sailed smoothly for a while. Then, I noticed the first mate stood up and took off his shirt and pants. There he stood in his underwear (jockey's not boxers). Then the captain stood up and removed his clothes. Hmmmmm.....I wondered what was going on. At the same time, 2 naked little boys came running across the river to us. I looked down and realized I could see the bottom. The river was too low. The first mate told us "everyone out. You are all pushing the boat." Ok. Everyone looked around trying to decide if we should remove our pants and shirts. We were a little confused but instructed to get in the river now! So, I jumped overboard. The water was only ankle deep. It felt cool and refreshing. The river current was fast. The rocks on the bed were sharp and we were walking and pushing the boat pretty quickly. I giggled as I looked back and everyone was pushing the boat. That is a memory I will never forget! Some people used this as an opportunity to take photos. I wish I had grabbed my camera but did not think that quickly! We walked for about 30 minutes. By this time we were waist deep in the water. Everyone was cooled off and ready to rest. Many of us really wanted a beer! Too bad they didn't sell any refreshments on board. We all boarded the boat and were back on our way to Luang Prabang.

As the afternoon work was done, many families headed to the banks of the river for their evening bath and to wash there clothes and enjoy dinner. This may seem a little odd that families and friends bathe together. In Laos villages, they bathe in public but adults are never naked. The men always wear their underwear and women wear a sarong. This is a common scene in village main street watering area or at the river. They are very discreet.

The sun was setting as we arrived in Luang Prabang. It was a beautiful day on the river and a fun adventure. Now, I was ready for the Pi Mai Laos celebration to begin! Let the water fights start!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Nong Khiaw A sleepy fishing village

I left Sam Neua and headed towards a little fishing village north of Luang Prabang. Since the trip would take 13 hours, I decided to split the it into 2 days. I made the right decision. Leaving Sam Neua was another interesting experience! I love these days! I hiked a mile straight uphill and quickly confirmed that I need to ditch some of my belongings or send them home. I am carrying too much stuff for that kind of a hike. But I did it! Sweaty and happy I arrived at the bus station in time for the "private minivan" to Vieng Thong. I bought my ticket, heaved my backpack to the man on top of the minivan and waited to load. I noticed people kept coming and giving belongings. The van had a humongous load - it was a mountain on top. How many people could possibly be going on this trip? The driver looked at the 4 of us that were westerners and pointed to the back seat. It was me (I am not a little woman) and 3 guys that were more than 6 ft tall. We squeezed in and prepared ourselves for a long bus ride. The bus had 9 seats. When we left the station, there were 11 of us in the bus. We bounced and swerved down the roads. We came to a village and I see 2 people with luggage waving us to stop. The bus pulls over, the luggage is piled on top and we now have 13 people in the van. A little further down the road, another man waves us down. Yes, we had 14 people crammed into a 9 person van! I now know how clowns at the circus feel cramped into a small car1  We had luggage at our feet and you could not move. The middle row had the seat folded down with 5 people sitting on it. All 14 of us were adults. I giggled and decided this was more dangerous than hitchhiking! It was a long 6 hour bus ride. I was cramped and sore and ready to rest in Vieng Thong for the day.  
Vieng Thong is a small town with a National Park. I walked through town and found the park entrance but it was closed. I guessed it was lunchtime and they would be back at 2 pm. I wandered to a small village about 5 km away and enjoyed watching the people farm and the children play. By the time I returned to town, I needed a shower and decided to skip the park. I cleaned up and went for dinner at a restaurant down the street and then to bed early.

I was awoke at 8 am when the maids came and told me I needed to get out. I tried to argue but nobody spoke English and I just eventually gave in. I dropped my bag at the entry and said I would get it before I left on the 1pm bus to Nong Khiaw. The lady followed me with my bag and threw it outside. I am not sure what I did. The problem was I was now stuck with my backpack until the bus arrived. Ugh! I walked back to another guesthouse that advertised high speed internet and asked what he would charge. I found the other guys that had stayed in my guesthouse....they all got thrown out too! None of us know why. We laughed and figured it was some crazy woman.

I was ecstatic when I saw the bus to Nong Khiaw was an actual bus! I was scared I would be stuck with another 6-7 hour minivan ride. Yippee! The young kids loaded our bags and told us they were taking a 15 minute stop and then we would be on our way to Nong Khiaw. He was a young and was serious about getting to his final stop. He whizzed through villages and we arrived in 4 hours! It was a welcome surprise.  I immediately loved Nong Khiaw and was glad my friends (the McCrosky's) had told me to visit.

It is a village on the Nam Ou River with little garden bungalows. It is small, quiet but has plenty of activities. You can hike, kayak and spend your days laying in a hammock reading a book. I had decided to stay here for 4 nights to rest and relax and just enjoy the town. I walked to the first place and got a cute little bungalow for $23 for all four nights! Yes, less than $6/night!
Granted there is no air conditioning or tv but I don't need them. I have everything I need.... fan, hammock on the porch, free wifi and a mosquito net over the bed. It is wonderful and quiet. I woke up the first morning to the sound of rain on the roof of my bungalow. It was beautiful and I decided to spend the morning reading a book and drinking tea in my hammock. Oh, the indulgences of an unemployed woman traveling the world with no worries! I finished one book and started a second. I am reading books about the countries I am visiting. I just finished Colin Catrell's mystery The Coroner's Lunch. It is great if you want to get an understanding of the Lao life and a it was good read.

After being lazy, I decided to get up, check out the market and get something to eat. Everyone is getting excited for Pii May Lao (Lao New Year). Water guns are on sale and children are already practicing. The Lao new year is a water festival. I will be wet but it is ok as it is getting hotter each day. Today it was 96F and high humidity. Bring on the water! I am ready for the celebration. 
The next morning I decided to go on a half day kayak trip down the river. The guide tried to talk me into a 3 day kayak trip to Luang Prabang with camping on the river but I knew I would never make it that far! The kayak trip was fun and beautiful. I got lucky with a guide in the back of my boat. We passed cliffs and water buffalo and then eventually we were picked up by a tuk-tuk to take us back to Nong Khiaw. It was a nice day on the river. 
The following day, I was off on a hike along the river. I hiked up to a cave but decided not to go in when they told me I would need to rent a headlamp. I am not a fan of tight, dark caves all alone. The hike was beautiful and was a really good workout.

It had  a wonderful stay in Nong Khiaw and I highly recommend this village to anyone coming to Laos. It is beautiful, relaxing and set-up well for tourists and outdoor activities. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Caves of Vieng Xai, Laos

I awoke and was off to the bus station at 7:30 am. Oh, these travel days always have fun in store. What crazy thing will I see today? A small bus was waiting. I heave my backpack up on top and got on board. I was greeted by a friendly face from yesterday's tour group. My Spanish friend and I chatted as 3 other Westerners jumped on board. The little 28 passenger bus had room to spare until we arrived at a few small villages. People kept piling in along with their crops of vegetables or animals. We were full in no time and headed north east to Sam Neua. It was suppose to be an 8 hour ride but I could tell early on that it was going to take longer. We stopped at every town for someone to deliver or pick up something. There were no bathroom breaks just a stop along the side if the road. Find your bush and do your business. Every day I am aware at the advantage men have with traveling in developing countries. For us girls, it is more difficult to find a place to go.
The 8 hour bus hide became a long 10.5 hours. We were arrived in Sam Neua at 6pm. No tuk-tuks, just an empty station. I verified this was the Sam Neua station and asked if it was the north station or the main station. One thing I have learned is find someone that speaks English and ask questions. It never hurts. My Lonely Planet book told me there were 2 and one was close to the city while the other was outside the city. I was told town was 1.5 km so I figured the walk downhill would feel good. My Spanish friend and I started walking and sharing travel stories. It was a nice walk, it would not be pleasant if you were going straight uphill with a full backpack! We found hotel rooms and went to find dinner. Sam Neua was off the tourist path and was not a tourist friendly town. We could not find any restaurants. We finally asked for directions and then walked a mile to a Vietnamese restaurant. I was starving and quickly remembered the northern Vietnamese food was not so good. Dinner was awful so we decided to enjoy a beer before calling it a night. I said goodbye to my new friend and gave him my Vietnamese SIM card for his travels in Vietnam.

The following morning I was up and headed to the bus station to get a bus over to a little town, Vieng Xai. There were 18 caves where the Laotians lived during the war. I asked how far to the bus station and was told 3 km. No problem! I had an hour to get there so I started walking. After 20 minutes I stopped to ask directions. I was told it was 5 km. Ok. No biggie to walk 3 miles. I walked and walked. When a tuk-tuk pulled up and laughed. He said it was 5 more km. I decided to get a ride since I wanted to get the first bus to Vieng Xai. Luckily, I arrived in time and got on the bus with 2 Belgian guys I met the day before.

We arrived in Vieng Xai for the first tour of the caves. Vieng Xai is where the revolutionary leaders of the Pathet Lao resided during the Secret War. There are 18 caves but we only have time to visit 5 which was fine with me. I find everything starts to look the same after awhile. We were given English audio headsets to listen to as we walked from one cave to the next. A local guide went along to unlock the sites, give additional insight and answer questions. The audio and tour was very well done. We visited caves and learned about each of the leaders for Laos independence.
One of the interesting parts was where a woman said that when the bombing started they did not know who or where America was much less why they were being bombed. It took them by surprise. They quickly realized they needed to find caves for protection.  They also realized quickly that anything with colors (white, red, orange) that did not match the natural foliage were bombed. The townspeople got busy pulling all the colored foliage and killing all animals that could identify villages. They only farmed the rice paddies at night and cooked meals early in the morning before it was light and the planes would start the bombing. All of this was to survive. As many as 23,000 people and soldiers lived in the caves.

 Bombs hit the caves. They would adjust and life went on. They even built rooms for the leaders that would survive a chemical attack and bring in fresh air. Many of the leaders children were sent to live in China for safety. The war raged on for 9 years until the peace agreement was signed between the Americans and Vietnamese. In the end, the Pathetic Laos were successful in choosing their form of government.
The children in the village were friendly and I was greeted with a wave and a "hello!" They were so excited to see foreigners they came running to greet us.

Teenagers yelled out and wanted to know where I was from. I told them America and they said "It's ok. War is over. We beat the greatest and strongest nation in the world. We chose our government and everything is ok. Thank you for coming to visit and understand the past." I had heard this in the audio tapes also. I suspect it is taught in school and part of the communist education. I was gracious and thanked them for their kindness which turned into questions about my life in the USA. The one thing that always humbles me is the way other countries look up to America. They do not agree with all our policies and actions but they love that anything is possible in America. They have friends and families in America and want to visit someday. They love the technology and entertainment. One boy explained it as a place where big dreams come true as he showed me he had a Steve Jobs book in his bag. I smiled and realized what America means to other nationalities.

I returned to the bus station on time to have a quick lunch before the bus to Sam Neua arrived at 1 pm. I waited and waited. I asked people using my best Lao. Everyone laughed and said no with a sweep of their hand. Hmmm? What now? My Belgian friends walked over and asked if I knew anything about the 1 pm bus. I told them it sounds like it wasn't coming. I saw an Indian restaurant which was likely to have someone that spoke English. He told me the bus does not come if it isn't full. Next bus would be 5-7 pm from Vietnam, if there were passengers. What?!? We were stranded. He said we should be able to get a private car for 180,000 kip  but everyone one wanted 500,000 kip. Ridiculous! We decided it was time to hitchhike. Not something I have ever done before but what else could we do? After 30 minutes we got a ride half way to Sam Neua. We took it and figured we could worry about our next ride when we got there. We jumped in the bed of the truck and were off!
I forgot how fun you could have riding in the back of a truck! I had not done this since I was a kid. Back when nobody worried about seatbelts and safety. The wind was blowing through our hair. I felt free, reckless and excited. My mother was going to have a fit when she heard about this (Sorry mom!). At least it was Laos! I would never do this in America! (Kids- do not do this! I am a bad example!) The view was beautiful. People laughed and pointed as they saw 3 falang (Lao for foreigner of European descent) in the back of a pickup going through their villages. Children smiled and waved. We arrived at the turnoff and the driver pointed the direction of Sam Neua. We barely crossed the road and we found a ride to Sam Neua with 2 couples in a pickup. We waved goodbye and thank-you to the first driver and jumped in. Success! The second driver flew down the roads. We arrived at Sam Neua in half the time. It was a fun day and luckily a happy ending to my first and hopefully last hitchhiking experience!