Tales from a Broad #5

Nong Khai to Laos (Part 1)
Monday, October 30, 2000

Greetings again from Chiang Mai. I’ve been out of contact in the wilds of Laos for the last couple of weeks and unable to email because it’s brutally expensive to email in the middle of the jungle. So, in an effort to give you a complete overview of what I’ve been doing since we last spoke, I’ll divide my Laos logs into two separate updates. Much to tell.

I feel as if Laos has chewed me up and spit me out. It’s such an amazing place and the last two weeks have been both really hard going and very rewarding.

First, let me start where I left off.

You last heard from me when I was in Khon Kaen, which is about four hours south of the Thai-Laos border. I was going to stay there for a few days getting my Laotian visa but saw the town and decided to hightail it out of there. Awful place. So, I took the first bus up to Nong Khai, which is right across the Mekong River from Laos’ capital of Vientiane. I was originally only going to stay one night there but fell in love with the place and ended up staying three.

Nong Khai is a busy little town, but there’s really not much to do. I was staying at a guesthouse called the Mut Mee. It’s right on the river and has a great restaurant and sitting area that you can watch the sun come up. The place was beautiful, and run by a Brit ex-pat named Julian who married a local woman and has lived in Thailand for 12 years. Days were spent reading, writing and talking to Julian and other guests. About ten of them were a group of young people who spent their time traveling around Thailand giving local children four day camps where they can talk English and learn a bit more about western cultures. Interesting idea and great people.

The one really interesting thing about Nong Khai is a sculpture garden about 5 km outside of town that is easily accessible by rented push bike. Salakaewkoo was built by a Laotian man who moved over to Thailand. Legend has it that he was walking one day and fell into a cavern, landing on the lap of a guru who had been meditating for years in the cave. He spent quite a few years with the man, learning about his ideas about life, before he left to start his sculpture gardens. The one in Nong Khai is his finished product. There is a second one in Laos that is less developed.

So, this guy just started to build sculptures out of cement. Mixing Hinduism and Buddhism, he tells the story of the life of Buddha through sculpture, some of them more than eight stories tall. The climax of the garden is the wheel of life, where the artist tells his theory on human’s evolution to nirvana, and how that can only be achieved by following the teachings of the Buddha. Really interesting stuff, and one of the most beautiful, strange and eerie things I have seen in all of my travels. Great photos were taken. The artist died in 1996 but about 100 followers/volunteers still live on the grounds and maintain the sculptures.

Nong Khai was just a great place to relax for a few days and gather myself for what I knew to be a challenging few weeks ahead. I knew it would be tough going in Laos, and when you’re on the road, you really have to listen to your body and rest when it wants you to rest. Nong Khai and the Mut Mee was the perfect place for it. However, I eventually tore myself away and decided to head into Vientiane. It’s literally just across the bridge from Nong Khai and, as it’s Visit Laos year, visas were US$30 upon arrival for 14 days.

I don’t think many people know much about Laos, especially those of us who don’t remember the Vietnam war (pathetic!). I certainly knew close to nothing, so I did a bit of a crash course on the country when I entered it. Laos has a tribal history like most of Asia, and has had various wars with neighboring countries over the past several hundred years. The French colonized it in 1893 but it gained full independence in 1953 (but great baguettes still remain!). Laos has a population of about 5 million people, most of them subsistence farmers. People here are poor and barely getting by. Two thirds of the country is covered in dense jungle and infrastructure is basic at best.

Laos is run by a communist government, although they allow free trade and are accepted as a full partner in most of the Asian trade and relations groups (ASEAN etc). However, the government has arrested several pro-democracy students and several have left to gain political refugee status in Western countries. When you’re using the internet in Laos, you’re strictly warned not to access porn sites or sites with anti-government messages. They mean business.

Laos also has the dubious distinction of being the most bombed country in the history of war. The whole Eastern border that Laos shares with Vietnam is where the Ho Chi Minh trail is and I’ve heard a statistic that enough shells where dropped on the country starting in 1964 to cover the whole country in six inches of metal. Many areas are still no go as hundreds of thousands of bombs remain undetonated. 130 deaths on average per year are caused by exploding bombs.

So, with this information in mind I entered Laos and stayed a night in Vientiane, the capital of the country. Vientiane can best be described as….dusty. Not a lot goes on there, however one good discovery was made. A Canadian couple have moved to Laos and started up two bakeries called Healthy and Fresh. One is in Vientiane and one is in Luang Prabang, which I will visit later. The food was amazing and some of the best chocolate chip cookies I have ever come across made me a very happy camper indeed. However, with nothing else going on in the city, I decided to take off the next day for Vang Vieng, which is about 130km north of the capital.

The bus ride to Vang Vieng was an experience I will never forget. Sitting on bags of rice, I endured the worse three hours of cookie-chucking transport I have ever come across. Barf bags are handed out as a matter of course, and both locals and foreigners alike took advantage of them. Even my stomach of steel was feeling a bit dubious. The scenery, when you weren’t too ill to notice, was breathtaking. Beautiful mountains and rice fields galore.

I was practically chucked out on the roadside in Vang Vieng and made my way into the city. Vang Vieng is a tiny thriving little town on the Mekong. Tourism has bolstered the local economy and there are good guesthouses and lots to do. One day was spent floating down the Mekong on an inner tube, another was spent exploring local caves stuffed with images of the Buddha. The town has become a sort of a backpackers ghetto, as you see less locals than foreigners, but it’s a nice pit stop for a few days.

My biggest complaint about Vang Vieng was my guesthouse. It was on a beautiful location on the water with a massive mountain just on the other side of the river. However, there was a group of travelers, country of origin unknown, who insisted on blaring techno music until 4 am each night. I didn’t get any sleep for two days and they refused to turn down the music after my complaints. It’s not so bad that I lost sleep, but I was ashamed to be a foreigner. Their music must have carried down the valley and across the river where many farming families have shacks and homes. They must have been kept awake as well. I left Vang Vieng filled with shame.

But don’t worry, things get better. Tomorrow I’ll tell you about another bus trip from hell, this one nine hours, and my adventures in Northern Laos.

Stay tuned!