The Laap of Luxury
From Soppong we headed to that backpacker paradise, Pai. We were impressed with the Lomo photographs at Mitthai, a local shop, and we had some of the best ginger tea of our lives at a nighttime stall (the strong $.25 tea came with free spoonfuls of pumpkin, water chestnut, or Thai elephant foot potato in the bottom of the hot glass), but overall Pai wasn’t to our taste. Was it the drunken hippies pontificating around the campfire that soured us on Pai, or all the “Boycott Burma” flyers fluttering around town (as if drinking pineapple shakes in Thailand is furthering the cause of justice)?
In any event, we were happy to head for Laos, arriving in the border town of Hoey Xai on December 30. We spent an evening wandering around the dusty town and enjoying a delicious lemongrass soup – a meal only somewhat marred by the fact that the Lao (like their Thai and Burmese neighbors) prefer their dinner music LOUD. The next morning we were ready for the two-day boat ride down to Luang Prabang, having been warned by Mr. Arimid, the dapper owner of our guesthouse, how to handle the boat insurance scam. “First,” he advised in his precise lilt, “‘Sorry, no money.’ Second, ‘Sorry, already have from my country.'” The warning kept us from paying, but it didn’t keep the insurance salesman from delaying our departure for an hour while he exhorted everyone to pay, threatening to cancel the boat. At some signal from the captain, though, he did an about-face, turning all smiles and wishing everyone a pleasant trip as he departed the boat.
The boat ride was fairly comfortable – we were happy enough on our wooden benches, considering that we thought there wouldn’t be seats at all. Pakbeng, where we stopped for the night, was a bit of a hole, and guesthouse prices were about five times what the guidebooks had indicated. The next day’s journey was quite chilly, as we left early in the morning, and while the scenery was very nice, we prefer people-watching and were happy to disembark in Luang Prabang. A mad rush for accommodation ensued, and for the first night we were stuck in a very dirty $7 room. The next day, though, we were able to move to the very clean $12 hot water Heritage Guesthouse, where we spent a luxurious week.
LP is a beautiful town full of white French colonial buildings with teak shutters and quaint signs in French and Lao. We had lots of great meals: fattening yellow mushroom, kaffir lime, and coconut stews, wild boar laap (the Lao minced meat and herb salad), pate and more laap. We had a fun $20 cooking class at Tum Tum restaurant, during which we got a guided tour of the Phousy market (“That’s dried buffalo skin, and the bright red brick there is a sticky rice and pork blood pudding – like tofu, but blood”), learned to make seven dishes, and gorged ourselves on the results of our efforts.
To further strain the budget, we had expensive and delicious coffee every morning at Healthy Fresh (the standard battery-acid-with-condensed-milk brew gets old after a while), and we bought LOTS of amazing Hmong textiles. Our favorites were the quilted story panels with intricate embroidery and English-language text. We never quite figured out how the Hmong got their stories translated into English, or how true to the original they were, but there were some doozies, including a creation myth in which the offspring of an incestuous relationship are chopped up, buried in the ground, and sprout again as the Hmong. We also visited a Hmong village, where we got to see the local teens wearing their finest finery and playing a desultory game of catch – the traditional courting ritual. Our guide, Sombet, told us that this village had been relocated by the government from its original site close to the waterfall. The way Sombet told it, the locals got a good deal – subsidies and health care training – but without a shared language we couldn’t find out from the villagers themselves.
We were so taken with Luang Prabang that we tried to rent a house there for a month. The big teak house across the river was only $100 a month, so we paid up and envisioned a cozy month cooking over the open fire by night and buying housewares by day, but it wasn’t to be. Before handing over the keys, the Bad Man Mr. Thandy informed us that the police tax has suddenly been raised from $5 to $50. We found out from the nice driver Sombet that this was a bald-faced lie and demanded our money back from Mr. Thandy. We got away from the situation with $95 of our $100 and a bad taste in our mouths and decided to blow town instead of staying for a month.
With our new friends Spencer and Michael, we took a six-hour boat trip upriver to Muang Noi, where we readjusted to budget living at a dollar-a-night riverside cabin. Muang Noi often felt like a Boystown – there were hardly any adults around. We took a “fishing trip” one day – apparently, to our 9- and 12-year old guides, this meant tossing the hole-y net once and calling it a day. We took a lovely, lovely walk past two caves, through a rice field, and into a village of baby ducks, baby pigs, and babies. And fences made of bomb casings. One day we were befriended by a band of kids who put flowers in our hair and tried patiently to teach us some Lao. Three of the kids – Nokeow, Hunh, and Hunh’s baby brother Kamla – came back to our guesthouse with us and we fed them Ovaltine while Erica drew their portraits. Ten of us – three kids and seven adults – had dinner for a total bill of $10, including lots of Sprites and Ovaltines for the kids. We gave them a nice sugar buzz and then got them home just before the town’s electricity gave out at 10 pm.
We were enjoying Michael and Spencer’s company so much that we decided to forego the Pathet Lao caves in favor of joining them on a journey to Vientiane by way of the less-touristed western Xainabuli circuit. We bussed back down to LP for one last turn in the Red Cross sauna (expertly tended by Mr. Poo) and a decadent meal (thanks, Michael!) at L’Elephant. The next morning we took a chilly and bumpy three hour bus ride to Muang Nan, which was a bit of a ghost town. The one government guesthouse in town appeared to be abandoned, but we left our bags in the lobby and set out exploring. We were having a bowl of foe (beef noodle soup) across the street from the guesthouse when a box of just-whacked bats arrived. Three cute little girls played with the bats for a while, stretching out their wings and stroking their soft fur before relinquishing the carcasses to the grill.
We then spent a couple of hours in the company of about 50 local kids on the grounds of a wat. Michael enthralled them with his video camera – he could turn the viewer around to allow them to see themselves – and Spencer led them in a rousing chorus of the pre-school classic tune “Heads and Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” Erica found a bit of rock and drew pictures on the ground for them, while I stared stupidly at two of the prettiest kids I’ve ever seen, twin boys with smart eyes and double-wide smiles. The kids taught us some Lao, which really came in handy, as we weren’t to see any other foreigners on the Xainabuli circuit.
Xainabuli is one weird town: there are communist flags on every other building, and while there are lots of late-model SUV’s and new construction, there are very few services and the whole place has a corrupt feel, a sort of Russian Mafia vibe. We stayed in a truly awful guesthouse, having been turned away from a government guesthouse. We were told it was full, but the town seemed so empty… It was fairly tough foraging in Xainabuli, as we only found one English-language menu during our stay there, and our phrasebook seemed only to list dishes unavailable in Xainabuli. Happily, we were spared from eating the grilled rats we saw in the market by stumbling on a place with a large display case full of vegetables. We pointed to what we wanted, they fried it up, and everybody was happy. Especially happy was one member of the large – was it badminton? – team who descended upon the restaurant for a celebratory dinner. He led the crowd in a lovely grace song and then proceeded to ply Spencer and Michael with shots of beer and lao lao. As we were leaving, he thrust a plate of silkworms in our face. French fries. They taste like French fries.
From Xainabuli we had a terrifically cold bus ride to Pak Lai. We couldn’t speak or look at the scenery; we just burrowed as best we could and waited for it to be over. Normally we resist riding in really cramped trucks, but this time we welcomed each new passenger for their body heat and wind-break properties. After that ride, sleepy Pak Lai seemed like the Mediterranean and we were thrilled after the filth of Xainabuli to check in to our spotless rooms at the Ban Na. We would’ve stayed longer, but there didn’t seem to be anything to eat except fried rice and foe, and gluttons that we are, we decided after a night to rejoin the tourist world in Vientiane. Having been misinformed as to the slow boat schedule, we ended up taking a speedboat for the four hour trip to the capital. I’d sworn I’d never take one of those loud motorcycles-on-water, but the trip ended up being lots of fun. With my new Wranglers, woolly, and ski mask, I was warm enough for once, and we passed ear plugs all around and spent the time singing to ourselves at the tops of our lungs.
I found dusty Vientiane a bit of a letdown at first, but I brightened when we were allowed to horn in on a local’s baci/petanque game. We were trounced, but every time I managed to make a good shot I was kissed on both cheeks by one of my opponents. We also found the country’s only bowling alley, which made a nice reward for taking care of lots of tedious postal and visa business.
We spent the weekend in Vang Vieng, which turned out to be a nice place and not quite as much of a backpacker ghetto as we’d feared (though every restaurant did offer at least two movies a day – and we saw most of them – maybe we were just in the mood for a backpacker ghetto). We had delicious fried fish with spicy basil sauce every night and breakfasted at the Organic Farm Cafe (good bacon!) every day, relaxing from those exertions at one of the riverside sunbathing spots each afternoon. We ran into Paul and Debbie, the friends we’d met back in Bagan, and Debbie joined us one afternoon for a lazy float down the river in big inner tubes. The landscape there is beautiful, the clear river winding though big limestone karsts.
On January 21 we headed back to Vientiane to pick up our Cambodia visas and organize our remaining three weeks in southern Laos (we got a 14-day extension at the immigration office). It was a real pleasure to check into the Dragon Lodge for our second Vientiane visit. At $15 a night, it’s hitting the upper limit of our budget, but it’s the best guesthouse we’ve stayed in so far. HBO and BBC, a good paint job, a sweet owner, and incredibly fluffy and sweet-smelling towels! From silkworms to Sex and the City – how’s that for a well-rounded travel experience?