We crossed the border from Laos into Thailand by 9:00. We were on the bus to Chiang Mai by 10:30. By 5:00, we were checked into one of the nicest guest-houses (with a pretty pool too!) we've found on our trip so far. And then we set out to drop off some laundry, and by some, I really mean practically every article of clothing we have with us before dinner. And then once again, as we are still a bit sick, we crashed early. You have no idea how lovely a clean (sans deer head with moveable wooden ears) room, bathroom without holes in the wall in lieu of drains, and not having to wake up early feels. Ok, maybe you do, but just to reiterate, it feels great. Except, you know, the colds we're both battling.
Our second day up the Mekong was uneventful. Both of us woke up with full on colds after a day of the sniffles. I slept a LOT (but will spare you of the incredibly unflattering video Andrew took of me sleeping). When awake, I listened to at least five hours of Fareed Zakaria. We stayed in a kindacreepy (but cheap and very close to where our boat docked) guest-house, had dinner with a new German traveler, and crashed early.
I didn't have time to take the slow boat up the Mekong four years ago, so I thought we'd give it a go this time around. Nearly everyone we had heard about it from took it down from the Thai border crossing to Luang Prabang. I think that trip is a little more fun, more backpackers and less time (going downriver instead of up). Not that we didn't have a swell time, but it was one of those days where we weren't sure we were going to make it out of bed at 7:00 in the morning, much less be ready to spend the day on a boat. So sore from the four hour afternoon down the mountains yesterday (not to mention all three days of the trek) I was moving rather slow. Both of us waking up with scratchy throats and runny noses didn't help much either.
Fortunately, the boat upgraded its seats from wooden benches (from what I've heard) to old van seats drilled to wooden planks. And, the boat wasn't that full so we were able to spread out and lounge more comfortably for the ride. Sitting on a boat for 8 hours- slightly sick, and very sore was probably the best travel time management yet… Maybe not the healthiest time management…
When Andrew and I were in Burma (Myanmar, whichever you prefer to call it) last summer, we went on a day trek in Kalaw. It was great, and had we had more time, and knew it was a possibility, we would have signed up for the entire three day trip that ended at Inle Lake. One of the best parts of trekking is the people you meet from other countries and the conversations you get to have that are often more varied than those you might have with your fellow Americans if you will. (Don't get me wrong, it's always fun meeting Americans on the road. I find Americans can almost always tease each other in a way you can't always get away with with someone from a different country/culture.) Anyway, we happened to hit it off with the four French travelers, and we quite liked our guide who was born in India, but has lived in Burma for the past, I don't know, 20 years? And then, there was "this effin' guy."
In other words, aside from actually meeting very cool people and having fun conversations (Tony, Raquel, I'm talkin' to you!) and then looking forward to meeting up with them again… It's sometimes equally wonderful to finish something organized and be back on our own again.
"This effin' guy" was a professor (in his late 50's I'm guessing) from Ukraine. And no matter what the conversation was about, what kind of plants we saw along the way, someone spotting an interesting insect, you get the idea… "This effin' guy" had to jump in and compare, and every time he did, he began with a very authoritative (picture if you will Jon Stewart trying to pull off a Russian accent) "In My Country…" It was so excessive and over the top, it quickly went from eye-rolling annoying to playing along and almost encouraging him to compare just to see what he would say. Especially because he undoubtedly started each statement with "In My Country…"
In Sapa, Vietnam, there was "The Girls Girl." Lena Dunham's French doppelganger turned her nose up at the idea of only visiting a country for two – three weeks. "I want to see everything, and really get to know the culture!" She exclaimed, and then continued to put down short term travelers, even though she was only staying in Vietnam for one month. I rolled my eyes and inwardly suggested she move to a different country for several years.
Here, in Laos, there is Anya. Anya is originally from Germany, but spent the past several years studying at NYU. Admittedly, a fabulous school, but not fabulous enough to have taught Anya everything about everything. Although, after three days of trekking with the girl, I am thoroughly convinced she really does know everything about everything. She certainly talks like she knows it all… She even knows more about American culture than I do! (At which point, I was ready to throw down my backpack and get "Oh No You Din'nt!!!" on her, you know, just to entertain Andrew.)
Let's just say, after two solid days of trekking, and a night full of roosters, my patience with Anya was waning. Although proud of myself for dealing with the leeches, a sticker bush arm piercing, spiders, roosters, mud, dirt, public showers, sticky rice for the seventh time in a row…I wasn't sure how much longer I could last with a less amusing version of "In My Country…"
Luckily, only the morning portion of the trek was difficult, and the final stage of the trek was all downhill, which was easier for me, but that kind of tricky "easy" where you know you'll need to borrow your grandmother's walker or in general will need to avoid stairs or steps of any kind. We were all so excited to get into the truck and head back to Luang Prabang… and then our dreams of cold beers and hot showers were halted. For an entire hour and a half by some Laos road construction. By the time we arrived in Luang Prabang, picked up our things, assessed the dirty laundry situation (see the floor below), showered, called Momma on her birthday, it was past dinner time. We made it through dinner, barely, and then to bed before our early (no roosters this time) wake-up call for the slow boat up the Mekong River.
We decided on this trek, because friends we met and went trekking with in Sapa, Vietnam raved about it on Facebook. After some private messages, I really wanted to give it a go. Tony warned us it would be difficult, about the community shower, and leeches, but said it was totally worth it and a much more satisfying experience than the one (which was still great) we all had together in Sapa. White Elephant Adventures is a bit on the expensive side when it comes to trekking ($50.00 per day) but you trek to more remote villages, that other companies do not visit (getting a more unique experience when interacting with the tribes), and when we met to discuss our booking, small groups and multiple guides (if more than three people) were emphasized. I was relieved. There were too many people on our previous trek in Sapa, and it felt like a hostel room when we slept in rows of beds, not even with the family we were supposed to be "home-staying" with.
Day 2 of our trek was HARD. We were told it would be an intermediate trek, and all of the pictures we were shown had a clearly marked trail in the background, so I didn't hesitate planning on having my DSLR slung over my shoulder (outside of my backpack) for the trek. (Our daypacks are not exactly big enough for camera gear AND three days worth of trekking clothing). This was a huge mistake. Day 2 was advanced. Which would have been fine, had I been prepared (with camera secure in backpack and more appropriate shoes) and it would have been a LOT more fun if our primary guide stayed in view of everyone to show us where to go in the middle of the jungle- not on a trail- but scaling a dried up river bed full of leeches, slippery rocks, rotting trees, and lots of sticker bushes. It was still rewarding, and the second village proved to be an even more amazing experience than the first village, but White Elephant Adventures will not get as glowing of a recommendation as I would have liked to give it on TripAdvisor.
We left Long York around nine in the morning and our trek started out innocently enough, crossing small creeks and walking on trails through some overgrown fields. But then it got complicated. Lee was hungover or couldn't be bothered, but homeboy went FAST and there was always 100-200 meters spanning between him and Jimmy who brought up the rear. Today was the most difficult for me because I was almost always in the middle of the pack, so we weren't sure the best way to maneuver rocks, or we were too busy staring straight down at our feet to keep from falling, that at least I felt, I couldn't appreciate how awesome my surroundings were. Oh, and then there were the leeches. At one point I was in the middle of the dried up river bed, fighting off leeches, while Sabina and Anya waited at the top of the river bed, and Andrew, Sarah, and Jimmy (the other guide) couldn't even figure out how to reach where I was. I'm not going to lie, I was more than a little nervous to feel so detached from the group. At another point, I was trying to catch up with those ahead of me and got stuck and pierced in a sticker bush so badly I couldn't move and had to wait while Andrew removed thorns (one that went in and pointed out of my skin) from my arm. By the end of the day, my arm was so badly bruised, it would have been more believable had I pointed to Andrew if someone asked me what happened.
We arrived in the next village super early (big surprise at the speed we were going) only to discover one more leech on my ankle, and lots of very timid children, who acted as if they had NEVER seen a foreign face before in their life. It's up to each guide as to which village he will take a group. They might not have actually seen foreigners for awhile… And after asking Lee, I found out that he was not Tony & Raquel's guide two weeks before. (Which may explain a lot in our slightly different experiences and feelings afterwards.) More shy than the previous village, the children of Ka Lau Kong always followed, but kept a safe distance from whatever you were doing, or where ever you were walking towards. Unless you took their picture and held up your camera for them to see. Then they would rush and surround you looking at their faces on your screen. Without your camera ready, "playing" with the children made for a fun, yet unintentional game of tag. We never won. I'd like to believe the children were more amused than terrified, but it was sometimes hard to tell.
The village shaman was in the midst of performing some kind of ceremony within the house of a family who just welcomed a new baby into the world!
Interacting with the village children was clearly one of the highlights of the trek. And then, I had enough courage to whip out my new Polaroid/digital camera. I had ordered the camera over the summer, but it wasn't released until the week we left Korea, and only shipped within America. Momma sent it to Hans, and we were able to pick it up from the post office when we visited him in Vientiane. I was too nervous to break it out in the previous village, because there were only children around, and I simply couldn't print enough out to make sure each child got a picture. In other words, I didn't want a fight to break out. But in this village, we walked past an older couple, surrounded by children, and I quickly embraced the opportunity. The first picture I took was of the older gentleman surrounded by children, and then his wife asked for a picture of the two of them, and then she asked for a picture of me with all of the children.
Giving her those pictures was hands down, the most touching part of this entire trip so far. She couldn't take her eyes off of the pictures and just had this huge smile on her face the whole time. We quietly slipped away as she kept looking at them to see if we could find some others who would appreciate a printed photo or two, but most others weren't back from the fields yet, and then it was too dark to go explore.
After a dinner of sticky rice, the same vegetable soup, and roasted duck (that was killed, plucked, and boiled practically right in front of us) we were all beat. We were staying with the teacher in this village. We slept not with his family, but in a house (barn, really) next door. We're not quite sure who the older man was who lived there, and were again anxious to get the mosquito nets up because of the spiders that once again came out of the woodwork. Literally. We split up into two groups of three and slept on two bamboo platforms. It was surprisingly not terribly uncomfortable, that is, until the roosters piped up at 1:30 in the morning, then again at 3:30. It was deafeningly loud. When I climbed out from under the net around 7:00 it made perfect sense (um, not at all) that three of the roosters were walking around INSIDE the barn we were sleeping in. Needless to say, It was not the most restful night of the trip so far…
"If I die from the leeches, will you please sell my photos and make them famous? You can keep some of the money, you know, for more travel, but maybe you can also set up a foundation for women as well?" I sleepily asked Andrew as we walked to the trekking office in the morning.
"The 'This Kentucky Girl Foundation'?" Andrew played along with my impending leech death.
"Hmm… How about 'The Elizabeth Groeschen for Women Everywhere Foundation'?" I responded.
"Or what about 'The Elizabeth Groeschen Foundation for Women Everywhere'?" He countered.
"Ok, I guess that'll work. And the first woman you're going to help is…"
"Linda." He finished my sentence.
"Yes. Linda." I smiled. (Linda, if you remember, is the adorable little one we became friends with in Siem Reap.) and then I frowned, "Please let there be no leeches!"
There weren't. At least on the first day of our three day trek into the countryside/jungleside/farming villages outside of Luang Prabang. There were three snake sightings (they all disappeared before I got a good look at one of them) and there were lots and LOTS of spiders. Today's trek was as we were told, an intermediate hike through a litle bit of jungle, but mostly through paths winding around feilds of sticky rice all the way to our first village and homestay: Long York.
In Laos, people are separated into different groups according to the elevation in which they inhabit. Lao people inhabit the lowest elevation, then Khmou, followed by Hmong who inhabit the highest elevations in Laos. The Khmou village we went to today was called Long York (like New York, our guide kept repeating- although the two places couldn't be any more different). 111 people in 38 families in habit this village. It was the smallest village I've ever stayed in, and they clearly are not familiar with western faces. As soon as the six of us arrived (me, Andrew, and four Germans) with our guides, children came out of the woodwork to follow us and watch us and attempt to interact with us. One of the German girls brought some children's books for them, and even though they couldn't read very well, they were completely wrapped up in the pictures, or maybe the 'newness' of the books. They munched on hopps from the fields and wordlessly taught me how to peel back both shells of the hopps before popping it into my mouth. I'm not sure what all the fuss was about, as I saw many vendors in the market in Luang Prabang eating the same snack. It seemed like a lot of work- biting and peeling back two shells before eating the inner most hopp? seed? inside. But the kids got a kick out of sharing with me, so I entertained them. A lot of our first hour in the village revolved around the kids talking and staring about us, and us doing much of the same.
Exploring the village didn't take long. It was basically two dirt roads lined with wooden, mostly elevated houses. There was no electricity, save one house which seemed to blast Lao music. What looked like an electrical line ran to the house, but we weren't sure why the electrical line didn't run to the village chief's house instead. (Unfortunately, we forgot to ask about this detail.) Some men were in the village tending to the children the day we arrived, which surprised me. Usually, from my own observations, this is always the woman's task in these small villages. After watching both men and woman return from the the fields at dusk, I asked our guide about the responsibilities of the mother/father/husband/wife. He replied that it's up to each family. But if they don't go to the field, then they can't eat later. So generally, both husband and wife work equally hard, sharing almost all responsibilities.
Showers were a community affair. Literally. As there was no running water in each house, one watering hole provided water for the entire village. Everyone filled up their drinking water jugs here, and yes, showered, here. Despite being wrapped up in my scarf (that doubles as a towel, blanket, etc.) and Andrew in his swimming trunks, the entire community seemed to turn out to watch as we tried to clean ourselves up. I would have been more embarrased about the attention, but I was too amused by their amusement. I was also grateful for the baby wipes I had stashed in my backpack, and knowing a private shower was only two days away.
I made friends with this older woman in the village, she was incredibly amused seeing herself on my camera's LCD screen. After I took her picture, and showed it to her, she motioned to the puppy and wanted a picture taken with it as well. Old village women usually like me, for what reason, I have yet to find out, but it's always sweet and makes me feel a little special when they are open and nice to me.
Later, I attempted to pull out my tri-pod to take a picture of us in front of the chief's village. Not only were the children fascinated by my tri-pod, so were the women coming in from the fields. Sabina is taking a picture of me because right at this moment, nearly 25-30 children are surrounding me as I try to set up the tri-pod on an even ground, and adjust some settings for a self-timed picture. It didn't work, but it was an entertaining attempt.
Here, we're all laughing (and moving) at the woman who is standing directly in between the camera on the tri-pod and the group of us waiting to take a picture. She was so entertained by all of us facing her laughing and smiling, none of us knowing how to say "Get out of the way!"
We had dinner prepared by our guides, sticky rice, a kind of vegetable soup (vegetables being some leaves of some sort and mushrooms- it was very good) and one piece of boiled chicken each. It was modest, but filling, and very welcome after our six hour trek to get there. After dinner, Lee asked us if we would like to try the Khmou whiskey. We nodded, yet none of us planned on drinking too much before another day of trekking ahead of us. Lee, had other plans. He returned with a large vat full of fermented rice. as in solid rice. That could get you tipsy with one whiff. Then they poured water into the vat, stuck two long straws into the mixture and after pouring one full glass of water onto the top of the mixture, two people were supposed to drink until all of the water on top was gone. Despite the smell, it didn't taste strong at all, almost like a cider. It was pretty good, but again, I'm all too familiar with the effects of fermented rice beverages, and after a few sips, we all turned Lee down in his efforts to get us to drink more. Instead, we watched as he drank most of the vat, attempted to get Jimmy (our other guide) to join him, and finally succeeded getting the chief's wife to have some, before even she declined any more.
We slept in a little hut next to the chief's house on a bamboo platform under mosquito nets that effectively kept the spiders-the-size-of-your-fists out. These spiders were everywhere once the sun went down. Armed with headlamps (Thanks, Momma) and one handheld flashlight, Andrew, Sarah, and I attempted to go to the outhouse before turning in for the night. You know you have a good travel partner when he holds the outhouse door open so he can shine his light on the larger than life spider on the wall while you squat down to do your business using the light on your head. "You pee like a girl." Andrew teased, and then stepped aside as I held the door open, light on the spider, for Sarah as she took her turn. We all woke up in the middle of the night to rain, some of it coming in on us. Sarah and Toby moved to the chief's house while Andrew shoved me closer to Sabina for the rest of the night. And then, there were the roosters, cock-a-doodle-doo-ing it before dawn and the blast of music from several houses down in the village.
Alternate titles for this post: Tourists suck. or: Reasons why not to use a flash inches away from a monk. or: Seriously? This isn't a parade. or: (upon Andrew's suggestion) You shouldn't be doing that…
"I don't want to get super close." I told Andrew as we walked down the street a little before six this morning to witness the almsgiving. "Right, I want to cross the street." Andrew replied. And so we did, immediately. At first we only saw the line of orange robes, standing, waiting to begin walking. By the time we got closer, the monks had already started, and the throng of tourists waiting, standing so super close to those giving alms was flat out shameful. Maybe standing around, in a small crowd is one thing, but standing so close and using a flash in monks' faces!?! Are you kidding me? I love getting a good picture. Sometimes it can make my entire day. And sometimes if I screw up taking a good picture, I might pout about it for a little while. But I refused to stand inches away from the monks firing off my flash in their faces during what is supposed to be a religious rite.
Which is why, some (ok, a lot) of my photos are blurry or not the best, as I was generally across the street at dawn NOT firing my flash.
Before going out to watch the almsgiving, we knew that we were not supposed to participate unless "it had deep spiritual meaning." Before writing this post, thanks to my limited internet research, I discovered that giving alms is for the lay Buddhist in the community to pay respect towards the practicing Buddhist monks. In a way, it's to connect everyone in the community to achieve Dharma. I'm still learning what that means exactly, but I'm wondering exactly how many of the tourists participating in giving alms (or firing their flashes in faces) this morning were practicing Buddhists and how many of them thought it was an act of charity and then walked away feeling pretty good about themselves for the day. I know, I shouldn't judge. But it was simply appalling how many tourists were not only out to watch and see what it was all about, but the lack of respect towards the monks made me want to pack up my camera and go far far away from all of them. It made me feel dirty for simply being on the other side of the street taking a few blurry pictures.
I was also surprised at how many women approached us to buy food for the monks. Do they not care that we're not Buddhist? Do they not know that you should be Buddhist? Do they simply want to make a buck or two from their bananas?
After the almsgiving, we went ahead and climbed up to a temple perched on top of a hill right in the middle of the town to take a few pictures before it got too hot.
We walked through the morning market, and then slipped into a coffee shop for the day- and by day, I mean morning, because it was only around 8:00 in the morning by this point.
Kuang Si Falls is a beautiful three tier waterfall an hour outside of Luang Prabang. Not only is the actual waterfall a beautiful sight, but the water that collects in turqouise pools down the mountain is equally breathtaking. It's a bit on the tourist side, but there are different pools you can seek out to get away and swim in the cool mountain water. There's also a fun rope swing that attracted quite the line by the time we walked back down to go swimming. The night before we ate dinner next to a girl who broke both of her middle fingers (she enjoyed showing those injuries off) jumping off of the rope. Her double bandaged middle fingers scared me a bit from jumping off the rope, so I wimped out and headed for another pool instead of breaking anything today.
On our way back "home" we heard lots of drum beats and cymbals crashing around from a few steps up into a wat near our guesthouse. We decided to investigate, after all, last time we checked out drum beats, we encountered a dragon in Vietnam. This time around, it seemed like a monk jam session. I have no idea why, but in two different structures, housing big drums, several monks were inside each, beating the big drum, as well as other smaller drums, triangles, and cymbals. It was beautiful, but ended rather abruptly, as if both sets of monks in their respective drum structures had a count going or something, and they all disappeared. Oh Buddhism, so many questions I have for you!
You know you're going to have a good day when you start it off with a chicken, avocado, bacon, and cheese sandwich from a street stall followed by an afternoon strolling around the wats, chatting with monks, cooling off at a pool only to circle back to another street stall: buffet style! Luang Prabang is my favorite city in Laos. It's the one city so far in our travels that I could imagine living in. It's small, but there is quite a bit to do and if you haven't figured it out by now, I'm a sucker for street food. Luang Prabang is full of it. Sandwiches, crepes, noodles, fruit shakes, you name it, it's here and it's delicious! Oh yea, and a night market every night? Full of beautiful silver jewelry and handmade tribal clothing? Yes, please!
We strolled through town with bigger sites circled on a map, a map that was tucked away in a pocket, while we ducked in and out of smaller wats on our way to the bigger, more famous one. While we were taking pictures of one giant gold Buddha, some monks said hello and let on that they were studying English. We sat with them for a little bit in the shade, practicing pronunciation and involuntarily teaching new vocabulary just from our conversation. They were really sweet, three of the four very shy, the outgoing one surprised me when he said he wants to study banking after he finishes secondary school. I wanted to ask so many questions about Buddhism, and being a monk, because I can't speak Lao, I stuck to "Do you like being a monk?" To which he answered, "Yes" and elaborated that it's quiet (except for the morning alms full of tourists and flash photography) and he gets to study a lot.
Wat Xieng Thong is the biggest, perhaps most famous in Luang Prabang. Built in the 1500's by Lao King Setthathirath, until the 1970's it was a royal temple where kings were crowned. It is said to display traditional Lao artwork and is one of the most important monasteries in Laos, even though we only saw one monk there. The wat felt old, and while some details were certainly eye-catching, I preferred the many statues of Buddha within one of the many buildings within the temple walls.
Over breakfast, a girl staying in the same guesthouse told us she had stayed in Luang Prabang longer than planned (obviously easy to do) mostly because she had been going to a local swimming pool for the past five days. We haven't had enough beach time on this trip, so I've been itching for some sunbathing and swimming. La Pistoche swimming pool is a big fat MEH in my book, but it was better than taking a nap in our guesthouse. After the pool, we headed straight for the night market and the 10,000 kip (a little over $1.00) buffet, and maybe a little bit of market shopping.
We woke up bright and early to wait for our bus to Luang Prabang. In true Lao style, er, South East Asian style, a tuk-tuk came to pick us up, crammed 12 people and luggage in before it circled around forty minutes later to our the guesthouse next to where we stayed to pick someone else up. I am no longer surprised by pick-ups like this one. Six hours of beautiful scenery later, we arrived in Luang Prabang, checked into our guesthouse, walked through the night market, got some lap for dinner, and then went 'home' early hoping Andrew's migraine would go away!
I woke up convinced our room was haunted. Despite my general unsettled feeling, at one point in the night, I picked up my phone to check the time and the case was covered in water, yet there wasn't any on the floor. Andrew said he didn't believe me, yet refused to stay in bed during the day to nurse his migraine. We hopped between cafes for breakfast, work, and dinner. Our day was just as exciting as the video is to watch.
Vang Vieng was one of the highlights of my trip four years ago. When I last visited, it was this tiny town, consisting of one dirt road intersection. One road ran from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, and the other ran from that road to the river. That was it. Little bamboo cafes and no frills hotels lined the streets. The draw to this little town, was the Nam Song river that ran through it, and the tubing that was to be had on it. When our bus pulled into the town then, the town had a lazy, hippie like feel to it. Family Guy played on old television sets in one bamboo bar, Friends played in another, both cafes were half full of tourists lounging on huge pillows on the bamboo platforms drinking fruit shakes, eating pizzas, or even sleeping. When our bus pulled into town tonight, the town had a deserted feel to it. Reruns still played on old television sets, but the only people watching them were the bored waiters. It felt deserted and dirty, the cafes looked grungy instead of comfortable. Additional roads led to so many more hotels and guesthouses that had not been there in the past, and the pretty riverfront been replaced with bars, restaurants, and more guesthouses, for who, I'm not so sure…
Four years ago, Upon my first glance, I wondered exactly why I decided to stop, other than a break in transit from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. And then, I saw the line for the inner tubes, and once I secured my own, I took a tuk tuk 4 km north to the river, and saw exactly why I decided to stop. Little bamboo huts, I think five in total when I was there dotted the 4 km stretch of the Nam Song river. These huts served Lao whiskey and coke by the bucket, and at the time, featured rope swings and zip-lines into the water. Some zip-lines looked innocent enough, others did not, and were largely avoided. It was fun. It was really, really fun. Friends I made on the bus from Vientiane and I would float from one bamboo hut to the next, empty plastic bottles on a rope would be tossed out for us to grab onto and get pulled in. Some huts had volleyball and soccer courts alongside the river, others had music blasting, very few were empty.
The only rule, was not to stay out after dark. Otherwise it would be difficult for the children who lined up at the end of the stretch of river to see you and pull you to shore. After turning in your tube, you would likely meet your new friends at the 'Friends bar' or the 'Family Guy bar' for dinner and a nap. Did I mention how fun this was? Because, it was. So. Much. Fun. Obviously when mixing variables like a river, buckets of Lao whiskey, zip-lines, and being in the middle of the Lao countryside (far from a major hospital) precautions should be taken. Like, maybe it's not such a good idea to zip-line if you've had too many buckets… or to use your own judgement that maybe that one rope swing is a little too close to shore… I certainly did. I did one rope swing, embarrassed myself by not being able to hold on long enough to look good, and decided I'd stick to the soccer and volleyball courts instead.
Not everyone took these precautions, and it has been reported that 10-20 people die per year on the river from tubing (more like zip-lining and/or drinking) related activities. One of these deaths was picked up by an Australian reporter this past spring, which was then picked up by other news outlets, embarrassing the Lao government, and effectively shutting down the tubing, destroying all river bamboo bars, zip-lines and slides (which must have been built after my last visit) turning Vang Vieng into a shell of what it obviously built itself up to be over the past four years. Additional roads have been built, 'Friends' now plays in at least five cafes, and the once bare riverside is lined with new villas and additional bars for more debauchery. It is depressing, and nothing like what I remembered.
Obviously, it's unfortunate when anyone gets hurt, and it's beyond awful when injuries lead to death on vacation (or anytime, right?), but I find it curious that the Australian reporter seemed to forget that those traveling to Vang Vieng are the ones choosing to partake in the buckets, the zip-lines, the rope swings, etc. Accidents happen, of course, and I can't reiterate enough, some of the rope swings and zip-lines were quite dangerous- but wouldn't you decide for yourself NOT to climb up to one? Furthermore, when I went four years ago, the Aussies were by far the loudest, drunkest, and most risk-taking of anyone along the river, why didn't she report on that? I may sound a bit harsh, and perhaps this wasn't the case for the main death that she reported on, but if you're going to drink, and then zip-line into a river that you're not familiar with, chances are you shouldn't point fingers at anyone but yourself for making those decisions.
With all of the construction that was going on in Vang Vieng, it's hard to imagine that the tubing is really over for good. The government has reported that it is looking into ways of making it safer, so perhaps the many small businesses that have sprung up are simply waiting it out. For now though, Vang Vieng is not what it used to be, and perhaps it never will be. Andrew and I didn't go on the river at all, due to his migraine and my hope to preserve at least part of Vang Vieng for what it was, and not what it has become to be.
There are some minority villages not far from the center of Vang Vieng, and had I been more ambitious about investigating, we probably would have spent a few days biking around, but instead we settled on walking through a temple, and catching up on our work online- which sometimes, has to be done. At least I got to have some pretty wonderful fruit shakes to go with my blog catch up! Watermelon, Lemon & Mint is a must try, if you haven't already!
The most exciting part of our day was playing, and reading with Eric before we caught the bus to Vang Vieng. So if you're not interested in watching us play with an adorable Lao/American child, maybe you should just skip watching today and come back tomorrow for a more exciting post (maybe) about Vang Vieng- although, be warned, the Lao government has shut down the tubing and the river bars so it might not be as exciting as you- and we'd like!
Buddha Park is also known as Xieng Khuan, or sometimes Wat Xieng Khuan, even though it's not a 'wat' at all. It's a 25 km drive outside of Vientiane, something that I skipped during my last visit, and wanted to be sure to see this time around. The park consists of over 200 Buddhist and Hindu statues, although it's a more compact park than you would expect to hold so many statues- some quite large, as well. Walking through the park, it feels like you're walking through something historical. something old. Not, as Hans snapped me back to reality that the park was built in the 1950's by a priest-shaman who was heavily influenced by both religions that are depicted in the park. The most well known, or perhaps easily identified sculpture is the large reclining Buddha near the entrance of the park.
But the large "pumpkin" also at the entrance of the park was something to behold as well. A large mouth opening lets you into the first of three floors, representing Hell, Earth, and Heaven. Once inside the pumpkin, you can walk around the outer hall and peer into little cut out windows of the respective scenes. I was taking video of "Hell" when I turned my camera sharply and scared myself silly when I saw the guard, spear in hand looking directly at the opening. Yes, a statue scared me silly.
The top of the pumpkin offered a really lovely view of the whole park. We sat in the shade, and took in the view, until I accidentally dropped my lens cap and it rolled down and off the pumpkin, signaling it was time for us to walk down and find it. (We did, just in case you were wondering.)
This dude below might have been my favorite. I have no idea who he is, or what exactly (I'm guessing it's a girl?) he is offering up, and to whom. Again, I'm reminded that I need to study up on Buddhism and Hinduism, especially if I'm going to continue to tease Momma that I'm going to convert. I also was really drawn to this sculpture as well. I mean seriously, what on earth is going on here? It's bananas.
After our 24 hour adventure to Laos, we rolled in thinking a nap sounded nice, but were whisked into the city by Hans and his lovely wife, Noot (I'm totally guessing on the spelling of her name. Should have asked for it when we were there.) She wasn't exactly thrilled to take us out to eat Lao food, because, as she says, "I eat it all the time!" but she graciously obliged. And I'm so glad she did. Lunch consisted of cut up spring rolls, and then meat and veggies (oh lettuce, how I've missed you so!) that you wrap up and dip into different sauces. The peanut was my favorite. They also introduced us to the Lao style of drinking beer- mixed with a little bit of Sprite and ice. Not bad- not exactly Andrew's cup of tea, but I thought it was great! Like a beer spritzer! We lounged around after, played with their adorable son, Eric (easily entertained by rolling a ball back and forth under the bed with Andrew) and then went out for more food! I have to say, there's something satisfyingly cave-man-esque about balling up some sticky rice, scooping out freshly grilled fish away from the bones with your fingers, and dipping it in chili sauce before stuffing your face. Yum.
We could have flown. That would have been much easier than the 24 hours of travel time it took to get from Siem Reap to Vientiane. Flying would have also been much (much) more expensive than our tuk tuk, bus, train adventure. In case you haven't figured it out by now with the expense reports at the end of each post, we're trying to keep to a budget mostly so we can afford this whole year of adventures. The lower the daily average, the more likely we'll last until Thanksgiving of 2013. So deciding between a $250 (at the absolute lowest) flight and a $25 (roughly) day of transit, we chose the latter. Aside from the three hour wait at the Thai side of the border, the day really wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. Andrew says the three hour wait (it was ridiculously hot) was the worst part of our trip so far… but he wasn't sick on an overnight Vietnamese bus, so I can't agree.
9:00 AM mini-bus ride to Poipet (Cambodia/Thai border)…$5.00
12:00 PM border crossing (longest border crossing of my life by the way)
3:00 PM tuk tuk to Aranyathapet, Thailand for a bus to Khorat…$1.30
6:00 PM bus to Khorat (also known as Nakhon Ratchasima)…$6.86
10:00 PM tuk tuk to Khorat train station…$0.98
11:30 PM train to Nong Khai, Thailand (Thai/Laos border)…$12.02
7:00 AM tuk tuk to Thai/Laos border…$0.98
8:30 AM bus across Mekong River to Laos side…$0.65
9:00 AM bus to downtown Vientiane…$0.75
9:30 AM tuk tuk to coffee shop in Vientiane to call/meet Hans…$0.62
(Unfortunately it seems as though Lightroom lost (or, more accurately, while trying to import my images in an organized fashion I lost) tonight's picture of us trying to sleep in a bright florescent lit (all night long folks) over air-conditioned train car. Sorry, I'm sure this annoys you as much as it does me.)