International Writers Journal: Laos
- A Travel Journal
Michael H Green
Mekong riverboat crossing into Laos from Chiang Kong was almost
surreal, even in the gray, unorthodox, late November drizzle.
Palm trees dominated the lush, green and hilly topography along
either side of the river. Seven Thais and/or Lao folk, all indigenous
hill-tribe people, sported umbrellas.
both sides are able to cross the border as they please. They accompanied
me, with my backpack on the long-thin dugout canoe. The cool Mekong
River refreshed my sandaled feet as I stepped off the boat in shin-deep
water. I proceeded up a rainy, tarred yet tattered walkway. To my right
I presented my passport through an open window. The customs agent greeted
me with a nod, inspected my visa, stamped my passport and bade me adieu
with a gentle smile.
In the sleepy, then rainy town of Huay Xai, I sampled deep-fried bananas
from a gigantic, fired wok. I then ate chicken vegetable curry from
the side of the road. I exclaimed, "Sablai" (delicious). The
old smiling man with his tobacco-laden, rotted mouth then graciously
and hospitably fed me with Lao-lao (rice-whisky). It smelled of some
sort of ominous petrol, certainly not for a fledgling drinker. The kind
and charming man was happy to share his homemade concoction. I consumed
a few medium-sized glasses. He never let my glass become empty. Tipsy
and smiling, not desiring extreme inebriation, I bade him adieu. Homemade
rice whisky, (distilled from water and rice) is the only way most can
afford an alcohol sustenance.
The town offered a few restaurants where Laos served and travelers shared
stories. I opted for a sauna, sweating out my Lao-lao, and then a traditional
Lao therapeutic massage. After, in my adequate, clean hotel room with
bedside light, I read myself into a deep sleep.
The next morning, after a breakfast of chicken hearts and sautéed
vegetables stirred in yellow rice noodles, I walked a kilometer along
the river and boarded a long, slow riverboat that lacked amenities.
The riverboats shelter was a low ceiling, which forced people
to hunch over if they tried to stand upright. The cool, mild rain caused
the need for sweatshirts. Even with the rainy gray sky, there were vistas.
We passed villages and villagers, naked children, waving, smiling and
playing in the river. We saw herds of water buffalo, deer, elephants,
pelicans, cranes and flocks of other bird species.
The bathroom was a tiny room that fit only the squat toilet. The ceiling
was two-thirds my height. The semi-cramped journey lasted 6 hours. The
boat would stop in villages, to pick up chickens, dead and alive, and
then transport them downstream to nearby villages. At dusk, wed
stop in a village inaccessible by road, bedding down for the night.
I slept in a shabby guesthouse lacking electricity. The large outdoor
stall, which contained a tub of water and a bucket, a squat toilet,
sink and mirror, was immaculately clean. I dined on Chicken coconut
curry with three young Swedish girls from Lapland, whom Id met
on the boat. We theorized how domestic problems in Sweden are so much
less than in the States partly due to very little religion and parents
giving their children excess liberties. For example, they didnt
promote bedtimes, curfews or other rules. They encouraged that their
children make their own choices. Hence, the urge to rebel is significantly
The next day consisted of 7 more hours on the same riverboat.
The rain stopped halfway along the ride. During both rides I read my
novel, chatted with Europeans, smiled with Laotians (major language
barrier), and attempted to cram in the Lao language with my limited
South East Asian Languages Phrasebook. As the clouds parted
and gave way to blue sky, the vista turned charming. Mountains peered
behind small riverside villages of brown bamboo shacks. The men hunted
and fished for their livelihood. The women mothered, cleaned and carried.
Life here hadnt changed for centuries.
We passed the famous Pak Ou cave, sitting on the Nam Ou river, the inside
of these mystical limestone caves contain a collage of classic local-style,
erect Buddhas. The outside depicted an oblong shaped cliff appearing
as something from a forgotten fairy-tale read during childhood.
That day roughly 40 of us would arrive in Luang Prubang, the second
largest Lao town/city (population 16,000) - most of the roughly 5.5
million inhabitants of Laos live off of the land. I was actually carrying
more cash than the average Lao person earns in a year. This is because
the entire country is devoid of automated teller machines. To supplement
the poor economy, different prices existed for tourists and locals,
for almost everything. This was fair, as the prices for tourists were
still not remotely comparable to costs at home in the west, - unless
something was an import, exclusively for the tourist population.
Many roads are made of dirt. Dust is inhaled while strolling along the
road, or riding in a samlor; a three wheeled motorized contraption with
two bench seats in the back, easily holding 8 passengers at capacity.
Samlors are also called Tuk-tuks. Cars werent so plentiful. There
were mostly motorbikes and samlors, and mopeds carrying 2 to 5 passengers,
often whole families. I walked aimlessly in the early night, observing
people enjoying life; dancing, singing, playing music. Culture is centered
upon family structure. They appear happier than what Ive observed
in the west. A high-stress lifestyle is much less evident. All seem
to possess great respect for one another, bowing, smiling, and lacking
aggression. Ubiquitous Wats(temples) symbolize the tranquility of Buddhist
I secured a clean room with fan and comfortable bed. My marble balcony
provided a view of the Wat atop Phusy hill. Lit at night it looked like
something from a sensationalized storybook illustration.
I was out for a morning walk when I sampled fresh, sweet bread from
a cart on the side of the road. Then I stopped at a local market stall
and feasted upon pork noodle soup with dumplings served with rice cakes,
diced lime, string beans, coriander, basil, watercress and lettuce,
seemingly fresh as tropical rain, but potentially cleaned with contaminated
water. People also sprinkle sugar on main courses. The noodle soup with
condiments is a staple that is eaten at all times of the day.
The climate emulates virtual utopia. Early winter produces an idyllic
mid-day 85 degrees. Luang Prabang sits at 700 meters above sea level,
18 degrees north of the equator, latitudinally equal to Hawaii and Cuba.
Communication is challenging, as limited English is spoken. Due to prior
French rule, the elderly population speaks French. I tried to learn
as many common Lao phrases as possible, thus enhancing relations and
overall experience. The pronunciations are vastly foreign in contrast
to a Germanic or Latin language, especially tonally, although monosyllabic
words are fast to memorize.
At night, on a lit street, an exotically beautiful prostitute asked,
"Doo yoo wahnt too fuck me?"
Walking alone, obviously not Lao, presumably a walking money bag, I
appeared a prime candidate. Just minutes later on an unlit, side street,
two young men on a motorbike pulled up in front of me and exclaimed
clearly, "Yoo wahnt smoke opium."
In both instances I was able to politely tell them in badly pronounced
Lao that I wasnt interested and bide them good luck. Of course
I could have been interested in the former and latter. Granted, the
womans silk-like skin, voluptuous curvatures, and overall angelica,
would have made for a sexual delight, but I needed an emotional bond
to accompany my animal instinct. As for the opium, I was in the small
region of the world that produces it, but apparently the trend today
in Laos is to taint the opium with amphetamines and heroin. This didnt
seem remotely appealing.
I visited Talat Dala. Talat means market. "Smoke, smoke, you like
smoke?" Five or six peasant women calmly chanted in serious tones
and profiles. It felt odd; I politely said, "No thank you"
and walked slowly away, gazing at the seemingly infinite supplies of
shawls, blankets, handbags, and great big opium pipes. They wanted to
sell me opium and/or marijuana. Up until recently, these two commodities
were sold openly on display in markets in Laos.
At another talat, I purchased pillowcases with very unique Lao art,
containing awe-inspiring, beautifully embroidered shapes and symbols,
designs previously unbeknownst to my eyes. Everyone in the market smiled
and requested my attention as I walked past their stalls of wonderfully
hand crafted Laotian textiles.
I climbed fairy-tale Phusi-hill at sunset, to the monastery with the
pristine view. Northern Laos pristine jewel town intersected the
Mekong and Nam Ou rivers. Coconut palms wedged throughout a collage
of lush, green, mountainous landscape. The sun set over a triangularly
shaped mountain range. Just enough sub-tropical cloud formats contributed
to a stunning vista. The river sat in front of the mountainous sunset,
I spoke with a Lao monk, living at the monastery, who for every window
had a different, idyllic view of his town. The young Monk intertwines
praying, studying English, Spanish, French, Italian and German, and
practicing his skills with tourists. He realizes that these languages
combined with his natural charm, intellect and discipline could allow
for a prosperous and rewarding career in tourism, which was better than
doing the lands typical agrarian deeds seven days per week. His
other option is to remain a monk and live teaching, meditating, eating,
being, and freely floating through life, at ease.
At the monastery on top of Phusi I felt weak. The night prior Id
been violently ill. That afternoon had brought on a high fever, which
rose in an uncharacteristically rapid fashion. Zombie-like, feeling
a chilling sweat consuming my skin, I meandered to a makeshift pharmacy.
With my phrasebook I managed to indicate that I had a fever. The pharmacist
gave me paracitemol/acetominophen/tylenol three names for the
same drug. This brought the fever down. Lacking energy, I consumed garlic
soup, garlic bread and ginger tea at a bookstore owned and operated
by a cheery Canadian woman who genuinely promoted reading. One
is missing out on a great imaginative and infinite world if one doesnt
read at least something every day. In the middle of the night
(early morning), I awoke vomiting. My body shook fervently, chilled
to the bone.
The bug passed, but it would be days before I could engage in the eating
of copious forms of exotic Lao cuisine again. Id been eating everything
Id seen, in shanty, local markets and greasy, roadside, makeshift
mini-eateries. Sometimes Id receive five or six different pieces
of china. In the soup floated noodles, beef, fat and other miscellaneous
internal body parts. I received a plate of laap moo (minced spicy pork
salad containing mint leaves, onions, fresh limejuice and copious chili,
diced to perfection). Also on my table was a bowl of spicy sauce, a
plate of herbs, a huge basket of sticky rice and a dipping sauce. With
this came chopsticks, a tablespoon, a soupspoon, a serving spoon and
a fork. Locals gladly showed me how to mix everything together, using
all the utensils with proper etiquette. A man stuck a filthy hand into
my basket of rice rolled a rice ball and dipped it into my mound
of food and ate it. I then assured him, "Di maak, kop jai lai lai,"
indicating politely that I preferred to eat on my own. Later he asked
if I was single and then offered me the courtship of his stunningly
beautiful young daughter. Equally embarrassed, she and I smiled to offset
our feelings of awkwardness.
I ventured 29 kilometers by tuk-tuk to Kuang Si Falls. The national
park of Kuang Si could surely be classified as a natural world wonder.
Infinite cascades tumbled throughout a curvy river. I hiked a steep
path to the top and swam in cool, sunless, refreshing pools, while peering
down an 80-meter, vertical cascade. Below the park, where the falls
continued cascading, I swam in a refreshing 70°F (21°C), turquoise
pool, fed by waterfalls that produced currents ideal for stationary
swimming. The setting illustrated paradise.
Back in my room, where the air-conditioner began to blare, geckos chirped
and scattered to find another warm, square abode. A hairy, eight-legged
creature slowly meandered along the ceiling. Hens could be heard cackling
above the A/C. The Lao art-deco door with tribal carvings appeared pristine.
Otherwise there was nothing more noteworthy to describe of that Lao
hotel room, save for the Buddha designed ceiling tiles. I lay on my
back, in bed, staring into the Buddhist religious clay shapes of the
tiles, pondering. I wasnt thinking of traveling, of backpacking
from new exotic place to place, of Laos and its age-old way of life.
I was vicariously reflecting upon my dreams, my visions. They slipped
away, forgotten. My thoughts reversed back to current reality, Luang
Prabang, a haven for romantics bonding as the sunset embraces the Mekong,
and dips into the dusky moon-lit sierra. Dusk then turns to a breezy
perfect subtropical night. The lit monastery atop Phusi-hill reigns
over the town in surreal splendor. From the street, majestic, stone
stairs wind to various sides, steeply up and around Phusi. The dreamy
setting lapses one visually back in time. With the recent installation
of a paved road leading to Luang Prabang, the town has only until recently
begun to change, to embrace the outside world. Satellite dishes and
internet connections give people the opportunity to get closer to the
outside world, at least in a fabricated sense.
The high fever and gastrointestinal illness had transformed me into
a temporary vegan. Stir-fry vegetables and sticky rice I deemed I could
live on. Before my illness Id eaten mystery-meat sandwiches from
the side of the road from kind looking women. The locals in the eateries
were hospitable. Lao people are happy to invite a foreigner into their
culture to eat and dance. Id eaten non-marinated grilled frog,
including the crispy head, hands and rank feet. Id eaten chicken
feet for the sheer sake of embracing culture. They were rancid for me
to fathom, never mind consume.
I wished to vomit but wasnt so fortunate. I tried to ingest fatty
water buffalo grilled and marinated nicely; however it was not chewable
to my jaw, so I savored the flavor of each piece until I came across
a stray dog that was happy to catch the regurgitated buffalo cellulite
from my mouth, and swallow it greedily.
Ultra-tasty chocolate banana pancakes are ubiquitous to the touristy
streets of Laos, as is fresh pineapple. I sampled tamarind, and miscellaneous
fruits, whose names are unknown to me.
The six-hour bus
ride to Vang Vieng provided some of the best natural scenery Id
ever witnessed. The shabby bus large windows allowed a panoramic
bliss. We drove up, down and around, on a long ascending, descending
and narrow stretch. We saw elephants, buffalos, and lush and green pasture
along a jagged, ridged mountain range.
In Vang Vieng Id rent a tube and be transported 20km north via
tuk-tuk along the Nam Song River. Much of the comfortable relaxing journey
was in slow tranquil waters, but one needed to glance ahead on occasion
as rocks, inclines, currents and rapids lurked in spots and continued
for distances. With a good currents velocity it was possible to
spin rapidly, glancing up to see the steep limestone-ridged mountains,
poignantly peering up from all directions.
There were stops where locals offered bottled Beer Lao and marijuana
cigarettes, but no drinking water, to sooth the sun-baked feeling of
ones body. The palm-sheltered, bamboo picnic table calmed the
heat of my sun-fevered skin.
Florescent violet and crimson dragonflies, healthy in size, thriving
in the hot sun and lush river flora, accompanied me, at times landing
on my body, usually where there was a wet spot, examining my flesh with
opening and closing, body-flapping movements.
On another day Id venture my sunburnt body out on the Nam Song
again, this time for the sake of kayaking. The kayaking tour included
seemingly gourmet grilled beef and veggie skewers just after the exploration
of sunless, cold, pitch-black waters with a flashlight and helmet for
when one scraped ones head on limestone. I was with four others
under a cave in the water. After a while, I deemed the situation spooky
and pointless. While underneath the water, I couldnt help but
imagine the potential for an Edgar-Allan-Poe-like thriller, culminating
as a person begins to go berserk trapped without food or torch in the
chilling, claustrophobic and dark cave waters.
Finally, when I saw the blue light in the distance, I rejoiced internally.
As I reached the light and swam under the limestone formation and came
to the lagoon, I popped my head up and glared at the bright blue azure,
the outside world. I instantly deemed myself happy and swam with joy
in the pristine, cool lagoon.
After lunch, it was time to complete our roughly 20kms of kayaking for
the day. Another stop along the river provided the opportunity for a
10-meters, (30-feet) jump into the river. Everyone did it. Our guide
demonstrated and we followed. It was my highest jump ever I was
terrified upon springing from the cliff. The next thing I knew was my
body was in a ball, deep in the water, relaxed. I swam to surface and
Vang Vieng featured lazy hammocks and outdoor bar restaurants sitting
directly on the Nam Song river. The hammocks abounded, as did Beer Lao,
Lao-lao, magic mushroom pineapple shakes and largely twisted tobacco
cigarettes tainted with grass, the most ancient herb known to mankind.
The next stop would be the capital, Vientiene, for getting to the Friendship
Bridge - the Mekong border crossing into Thailand, and then to Bangkok
to fly home. A French quarter reminded one vaguely of Paris. Patuxai
(Victory Monument) reminds one of the Arc de Triomphe. It was built
in 1969 with US-donated cement that was given for the purpose of constructing
a new airport, rather than to build a structure that emulated the Arc
de Triomphe. I climbed the many steps to the top of Patuxai, where Buddha
mosaic windows and other designs highlight the top outdoor patio. Here
I was able to get a geographical grasp of the spread-out, dusty city,
as no maps were accurate. This was complimented by the lack of consistent
Upon returning to the dusty streets, Id keep an eye down towards
the ground, and carry a flashlight at night, as many sewer covers are
non-existent. A fall would make one a candidate for dysentery and ringworm.
Vientiane sported more motorbikes carrying families than it did cars.
Where the mean income is 300 dollars per year - and gasoline costs almost
that of what it costs in the US, its apparent that people are
in need of ultra-efficient transportation. The city is mostly devoid
of traffic lights and crosswalks. Vehicles and pedestrians alike simply
and peacefully make allowances for one another. Nobody seems stressed.
Common sense dictates that its more practical to work together,
thus achieving an almost constant tranquility.
Vientiane sits along a shabby section of the Mekong, although the outdoor
restaurants along it prepare some Lao-style grilled and baked fish that
rival any seafood Id consumed. Beer Lao on tap was available in
the more upscale western restaurants where tourists ate rancid hamburgers
and ultra delectable Lao food.
From Vientienes bus terminal Id venture on a mini-local-bus
45 minutes to the Mekong River Friendship Bridge crossing to NongKai,
where I crossed via a one minute, mini-bus ride across the bridge, where
Id flawlessly walk through customs with ease, back into Thailand.
© Michael H Green 2003
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