March 23 – April 13, 2003
Halfway through my bus ride from Hanoi to Vientiane I’d had enough. For the last 10 hours I’d been perched uncomfortably on my non-reclining, child-size chair, with the guy in front of me lighting up cigarettes every half hour or so. The bus windows were all closed because it was cold and raining. I couldn’t stand up because people were sleeping in the aisle. It should go without saying that there was no toilet. After reaching the border we had to wait two hours for it to open and when we all finally pushed our way inside the shack the Vietnamese border guards required US$1 to stamp our passports and let us out of the country. After paying the bribe (it was well worth it) and clearing customs, Helene and I waded through the mud, and came on a truck transporting dogs. There were hundreds of them crammed into tiny cages with snouts, tails and limbs sticking out all over the place. Only the ones on the top of the pile were still whining and yelping. The truck driver laughed as I took a photograph. Dog meat is on the menu in this area of the world, and these guys were clearly on their way to dinner.
Most of the time I appreciate my travels, but at that moment I wasn’t feeling very appreciative of anything.
Things started to pick up within hours. The sun came out and the bus windows were opened. Helene and I found a nice hotel in Vientiane and had some good noodle soup for dinner. Neither of us was sure what to expect from Laos. It’s an extremely poor, landlocked country with one of the smallest populations in Asia. “Boring,” one set of travelers had told us. “Incredible,” said another set.
We spent a few days in the capital before heading to Vang Vieng, backpacker’s haven extraordinaire. It’s a beautiful spot on a river, where the principle tourist activities are walking, caving, smoking drugs, drinking beer, flirting and tubing. If you go tubing you can save energy and do them all at the same time. For $2 Helene and I each got a huge inner tube and a lift downstream. We climbed onto our tubes and joined the dozens of other tourists who were already in the process of floating back to Vang Vieng. For those who hadn’t come fully prepared for the trip villagers have built bars in and on the river. “Beerlaos beerlaos beerlaos,” they call as you float by, and sometimes, more quietly, “smoke…smmmmoke”. There’s also local whiskey (creatively called laolao) on offer and at intervals are restaurants you can pull out at, caves you can climb to, and cliffs you can jump from. We met three backpackers who were floating down the river for the third time in a week. “It’s awesome,” said the Canadian, beer tucked in his crotch and 50 cent joint behind his ear. His buddies ï¿½ one from England, one Australian – were debating whether or not they needed to buy more weed, and how to split the cost. Just then, we hit some rapids, and the wallet Helene and I had been keeping dry got soaked. “Don’t worry,” cried the Canadian as we floated away, “they take wet money!”
From Vang Vieng we headed to Luang Prabang, leaving the water to race through fire. Slash and burn agriculture is the norm in Laos, and it was the season. The landscape is supposed to be quite striking, but we couldn’t see any of it and it felt like we were living in a chimney. In a nod to safety, tanker trucks carrying fuel were pulled over at the side of the road waiting for fires to burn down a bit before continuing. Our bus driver showed no such reticence, whipping through flames as passengers hastily pulled down windows. “The bags, you asshole!” screamed another tourist, reminding me that my bag was also on the roof of the bus. But the driver just went faster, grinning so his face looked like it would split.
In Luang Prabang charcoal was filtering down. Bits of ash were piled up in the gutters, then splashed with water as kids geared up for the New Year ï¿½ when everything and everyone gets doused with water in celebration. Helene and I spent a few days in the picturesque little town before moving on.
Our guide book, or, “The Book of Lies” as I’ve heard other people calling it, told us we hadn’t seen the “real” Laos until we got out of Vientiane, Vang Vieng, and Luang Prabang.
Thus chastised we hopped a bus to Nong Khiaw and then a boat to Muang Ngoi. The village has some of the indicators of authenticity ï¿½ no cars, trucks or motorcycles, no internet, electricity only for a few hours each night, impossible to find a guesthouse with attached bathroom (Helene almost balked at this last one, but I talked her into it). We saw fence posts, foundations and (memorably) a large boat made out of scavenged bombs that were dropped during the Indochine and Vietnam/US wars. We also saw lots of banana pancakes and young tourists in loose, ugly, cotton pants.
A lot of people come here for trekking, but Helene and I, feeling the heat and being lazy at the best of times, decided trekking was out. After arrival we did work up the energy to walk to some caves we’d heard about. The scenery was pretty spectacular (if still a little hazy) and when we got to the caves we bumped into some travelers we knew. “Keep going,” they told us, “there’s a small village a half an hour or so on.” So we did, and before long we were met by a pack of small boys who dragged us along saying “Guesshow, guesshow”. They led us right past the tiny village (lovely, very authentic, right down to a two-year-old dragging a chicken on a string) to where they thought we should be. Perched on the edge of some rice fields, a distance from the main village (give someone credit for foresight) was a cluster of bungalows, and a bamboo platform filled with young western tourists wearing ugly, baggy cotton pants, strumming guitars, and drinking beer. Just seeing them I could tell what was happening. This place would soon go the way of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. “Too touristy,” the voices would say ï¿½ we’d all be heading somewhere more authentic soon.
On the way back to our guesthouse we stopped for a swim at a subterranean swimming pool in one of the caves we had passed, then hustled back before all the light was gone. “How was your trek?” asked our friends when we saw them. I was absolutely thrilled. Here, all this time I thought that walking was different from trekking, and it turns out it’s not.
Several “treks” later, we headed back to Luang Prabang where we booked a slow boat trip up the Mekong (two days and one night) to head back into Thailand. We showed up at the appointed place and hour only to find out that the travel agency had screwed up and we had missed the boat. They didn’t tell us this, of course. Instead they stuffed us in a van and we spent two hours racing along dirt roads chasing boats up the river. We’re not dumb. We clued in eventually. But the van was always one step behind, with boats disappearing around the next curve.
We were left on the side of the river, hot and sweaty, our bags covered with mud when a miracle occurred: a huge slow boat putting along with only one passenger, an elderly European gentleman. He’d chartered the whole boat, so I pulled out my best manners to beg for a place, while Helene negotiated payment with the captain. In the end it worked out, and we were treated to the company of one of the most interesting people we’ve met on our trip. Our new friend was alone in his boat, he said, because he’d told his travel agent he hated package tours. They’d taken him very literally. He was a seasoned traveler and had lived all over the world. It wasn’t long before we found out that until recently he had traveled with his wife. “In fact,” he said, looking at his watch, then giving me a small smile, “she died one year ago today.” We spent three days together and at the end I knew quite a bit about his lovely wife.
Most of the time I appreciate my travels, but at some moments I’m absolutely gleaming with joy. I left Laos in a completely different frame of mind than I entered it: thrilled to be where I was, sharing it with Helene, and to have several more months on the road ahead of me.