Laos has been a really nice change of pace – compared to Vietnam and Thailand, this place is the most chilled out country ever. In fact, the local joke here is that the official name of Lao PDR (People’s Democratic Republic) really stands for Lao – Please Don’t Rush. But really, what do you expect from a country that only has a population of roughly seven million? In Vietnam, people selling you stuff were all over you and would bargain to the death; in Laos, you’ll be lucky if someone will even pay attention to you long enough for you to try to buy something, and bargaining is basically a two-step process: you ask the price, and make a counter offer – if your counter offer is accepted, great, if not, they may or may not be energetic enough to make another counter offer. But whereas in Vietnam or Thailand you’ll get three or four rounds of price changes, there’s pretty much a maximum of two in Laos. At first the lack of haggling and a constant chorus of “Tuk Tuk Sir!” was disconcerting, but after getting used to calmness again, it really is pleasant. As odd as it sounds, we’ve grown accustomed to being constantly bombarded with offers and learned to not only be comfortable with it, but to use it to our advantage; now that we actually have to go ask for stuff, we feel a little weird. Coming home is going to blow our minds! You mean I have to actually pay the full $2.35 for a coffee?
Anyway, I digress. Laos is a lovely place, and the people are wonderful. For Southeast Asia’s poorest country, it sure doesn’t feel like it. Whereas in Cambodia, we were constantly encountering gaunt-looking mothers begging for food or kids missing limbs selling books, in Laos, we haven’t encountered anything of the sort. Having been in Laos for a few weeks, we’re going to make an assumption that the people in the cities we’ve visited are fairly well off, and that the poverty is only a measure of economic output – the people in the ancient rural villages really don’t contribute economically, but they seem to be happy. More on the rural villages in the next blog.
Vientiane – This is Laos?
As mentioned in the previous post, we got off the plane and were greeted with the smoothest airport entry in existence. And the lack of excitement pretty much continued with the rest of our time in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. While we stayed two nights in Vientiane, we really don’t have a lot to show for it.
On our only full day in Vientiane, we took a walk around the city and took in the sights, of which there were few. We visited an ancient Buddhist temple, which was, to use Southeast Asian lingo, “same same but different.” By now we’ve seen dozens of similar temples, and though beautiful, this one wasn’t much different from the rest.
The highlight of Vientiane, believe it or not, is a relic from it’s time as a French colony – Vientiane was once the capital of Indochina, and the French constructed an imitation of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe and Champs Elysees. The architecture of this Arc de Triomphe was really beautiful at a distance, as it definitely was reminiscent of Paris’, with a quintessential Asian architectural touch. Up close, however, it was a mess. Because of Laos’ turbulent past (they achieved independence from the French in 1948 and really haven’t had much of a stable government since then), the Arc was never finished. Thus, in the underside, half of the pillars have really ornate stone carving work, and half is bare, unfinished concrete. When climbing to the top, the inside is an ugly shop selling tacky Lao souvenirs, and the top of the Arc looks like a bomb went off. Some of the rebar in the concrete is pointing out and bent, and there’s old construction materials and old signs sitting everywhere. For the major tourist attraction in your biggest city, I’d expect a little bit better show.
The last thing we were going to see and kind of regret not doing is going to see the Buddha Park. Laos is deeply religious, and apparently in the 50’s, one of them went on a tyrade and created an entire park of interesting Buddhas. Unfortunately, it was also 30 km out of town, and our patience for seeing more tourist attractions in the ridiculous heat and humidity had waned. Not only that, but the tuk-tuk drivers wanted $25 to go there and back, not to mention the entrance fee, and we were feeling a bit too run down to attempt the cheap public bus. So, we went and drank $1 Beer Lao instead.
The Town of Vang Vieng
Vang Vieng used to be a small, sleepy town where people travelling between Luang Prabang and Vientiane would stop to break up the ridiculously long and uncomfortable journey. However, while it’s still a stop, it has been invaded by 18-year-old Brits looking for a cheap alternative to Ibiza. Ok maybe not Ibiza, but close. There are basically two main things to do in Vang Vieng – hang out at one of the many restaurants or bars showing reruns of Friends, Simpsons, or Family Guy, or go tubing down the river. I have to say, this place really was enjoyable. To be able to just chill out at a bar and watch mindless TV for a while really was nice and relaxing, given the torrential pace of our trip. And the amount of TV watching you could do was really limited to about two or three episodes, so you really didn’t waste that much time.
The Quest for the Blue Lagoon
On our first full day in Vang Vieng, we decided to opt out of tubing and save it for the next day, and exhaust ourselves instead. Waking up at 7 a.m. to beat the heat, we rented a couple of cheap cruiser bikes and headed off in search of the fabled “Blue Lagoon,” supposedly a beautiful water hole with crystal clear water and a beautiful, giant cave behind it. We headed off down the road, and after a few hot kilometres, we saw a sign directing us off the road towards the Blue Lagoon. Great! That wasn’t so hard! After biking another kilometre or so down a windy path, we ended up in a rice paddy, at which point my pedal broke going over the big lumps separating the paddies. Great. We were greeted by a local guy who said he’d guide us over to the cave and take us to the Blue Lagoon to swim, but not before relieving us of 40,000 Kip (about $5).
Well, we saw the “lagoon” before entering the cave, and it wasn’t all that inviting. It was more of a puddle with rocks for the bottom. We entered the cave and went for a bit of spelunking, but this cave wasn’t anything magical… something was up. Upon exiting the cave, Kenna went for a swim, but myself and the French couple we met along the way stayed out. After getting back to our bikes, the guide helpfully pointed us in the direction of the real Blue Lagoon.
So off we went over more rice paddies and down more small paths. Eventually we got back to the main road, and it wasn’t too long before we came upon another sign saying “Blue Lagoon.” This one looked like the real deal – first of all, it had an authentic tollbooth demanding 10,000 Kip each, and it had a rope swing, but it wasn’t all that blue. We ended up having lunch here and going for a quick dip. While we were eating, a mentally challenged Lao boy came up to us, and all he could say was “Buh.” “Buh Buhhhhh Buh…..” He pointed to my sandwich (which we had purchased earlier in that day in the town), and which wasn’t all that appealing anyway, so I gave it to him. Eventually, he left us alone.
After lunch, we saw a sign for the cave that accompanied the fabled Blue Lagoon. We started hiking up the path, which required us to hike up the side of a mountain to get there, and the next thing we know, “Buh” and two little 8-year-old boys are hiking with us. Oh good – guides. We were fairly uncomfortable with this, as we knew they would expect a hefty payday at the end, and we tried to hard to get rid of them, but only one of the little boys got the hint. “Buh” and his little brother stayed with us. “Buh” was bit of a disaster himself – he kept tripping over things and actually fell through one of the rickety ladders and cut himself. Eventually, we headed into the cave, and were actually pretty happy to have them as guides, as we would have never gone as far as we did without them. This cave was slightly better than the other one, but still nothing to write home about (even though we seem to be doing just that right now…). The kids forced us into some fairly small tunnels to get around, which really freaked us out to be in these cramped tunnels guided by a slow kid and an 8-year-old. We got out of there, and paid them off.
Disappointed with how things turned out, that this fabled “Blue Lagoon” was really a waste of our time, we headed home. But no sooner had we passed the tollbooth for the previous lagoon, did a Lao girl point us the other way down a fork in the road. Dammit we were had again! So we continued down that road for another few kilometres, and finally arrived at another tollbooth. This one, as it turns out, was the real deal, as the parking lot was filled with tuk tuks and bikes and people jumping off the many rope swings. We had finally arrived at 3 p.m. Quite terrible, considering we had left so early in the morning.
This Blue Lagoon really was beautiful. The water was crystal clear, with a beautiful blue hue, and really cold and refreshing. Unfortunately, moments after we arrived, the afternoon post-tubing drunk crowd also arrived, and turned the place into a giant party. Having biked all over the countryside overheated, dehydrated, and exhausted, we weren’t in the mood for that. We even missed the real cave, which was supposed to be amazing, as we were just too tired to climb up to it. Tired and disappointed, we napped for a bit, and headed home in the sunset.
“In the Tubing – Vang Vieng”
Next, it was time for the reason everyone comes to this sleepy town – the tubing. We meant to have an early start, but as often happens in this town, breakfast (along with the requisite Friends reruns) took quite a while, and we didn’t end up hitting the tubes until noon. We thought that was ample time…
Tubing basically consists of showing up at the tubing shop, hoping in a tuk-tuk, which drives you up the river a few kilometres, at which point you are dropped off, and the normally quiet Lao countryside is transformed into a daylight nightclub. The first bars aren’t shy about what they want you to do – they hand you free shots of Lao Lao (terrible Lao whisky – ‘Lao’ actually means ‘alcohol’), and encourage you to jump on the trapezes and have a great time. We’re not really accustomed to drinking at noon, so we started off slow and had a beer. But as often happens, we joined in with the trapeze action and pretty soon were doing free shots of Lao Lao.
I have to say that this is one of the funnest things I’ve ever done. I imagine if you had all your friends here, it would be unreal. We met up with a friendly British couple and spent the day with them, tubing, stopping at bars, grabbing a bucket, swinging off trapezes or waterslides, or shooting slingshots for drinks, rinse and repeat all day long. The tubes had to be back at 6 p.m. – we thought 6 hours was plenty of time to tube 3 km, but apparently we were wrong – we ended up bailing out of the river early and grabbing a tuk tuk back to the shop. This place was like a giant waterpark for adults, complete with booze. You’d think that tubing down a river hammered while jumping off adult-sized waterslides and rope swings would be stupid – and you’d be right. But damned if it isn’t a really, really good time.
The next day, we boarded a bus to Luang Prabang – the only city (if you can call 30,000 people a city) in Laos that the majority of tourists visit. The ride there was uncomfortable to say the least and involved a very confusing start. At first, we were boarded into our own private mini-bus that was run-down and clunky. We were confused why we were put in this van, as many other tourists were being put into nice new vans with a/c. We took off, and started picking up locals along the way. Grrreeeeaaat…..we were in the special bus. After five minutes of this, we made another stop – but instead of picking up human cargo, we were apparently picking up three large sewage pipes. This created a large scene between our driver and the people wanting these pipes transported – our driver clearly didn’t want the pipes IN his vehicle, and didn’t feel they would be stable on top of the roof. Thirty minutes of haggling later, we were told to get into ANOTHER van, and were taken back to the bus stop. Here, we were the last to enter a very packed minibus complete with mountain bikes strapped to the roof – awesome. It was not a pleasant ride – the minibus was crammed with too many people, the roads had hairpin curves for a full 8 hours, and almost everyone felt carsick, it wasn’t fun.
Upon arriving in Luang Prabang, we let one of the touts that met us at the bus station guide us to his guest house. It wasn’t the greatest, but we thought it was fairly cheap at $15. It turns out it was more expensive and in a bad part of town, but we stayed there for 3 days anyway - ignorant. We immediately noticed an advertisement of a drop-in English-language school that ran every day from 9-11 a.m., and foreigners were welcome any time. We’ve always wanted to do some volunteering, so this was perfect!
The next morning we got up early and prepared to head out to teach, when our guest house asked us what we were up to – did we want to go the waterfall (every tuk tuk in the city asks you this)? No, we’re going to go teach English. Oh, it’s closed. What? The sign says Monday-Saturday, and it’s Saturday. We decided that we’d go check it out anyway, just in case he was lying. As it turns out, he was lying.
Teaching English was a frustrating but rewarding experience. It was fairly unorganized and chaotic – we showed up at the centre and there was no direction on how to proceed, so we just kind of picked a kid and went with it. We felt kind of bad, as there were more kids than teachers, and we didn’t really know how to proceed besides doing one-on-one teaching. Apparently, the kids are there to hear foreigners speak, as they really have no idea how to pronounce the words (their reading skills are actually pretty good). I spent all morning going through a book of words with my student. Kenna started off with a fairly lazy student who didn’t seem too interested in doing much, so they ended up playing hangman (which I guess sort of teaches words), and then she moved onto another student. They were very grateful for us to come out, and we gave them our emails in case they had any questions, but so far haven’t heard from them.
Next on the list was hiking up to Luang Prabang’s hilltop temple. Not much to say about this – it was yet another Buddhist temple. The best part about this temple was the panoramic views of the city from the hilltop– it was gorgeous.
In the evening, I took a Lao cooking class. This one was fairly disappointing compared to the other cooking classes we’ve taken – it was really expensive at $25 a person (compared to $12 in Cambodia and Vietnam), so only I did it. The teacher basically gave a demonstration of about seven dishes, and then we chose three to make. Off we went to make our separate dishes, but what was disappointing was the teacher didn’t help us at all – I ended up screwing up my Laap really badly, but I have no idea why I screwed up. He tried to tell me I added too much lime, but the problem was much more than too much lime. No, I really screwed it up and now I have no idea why. So hopefully all of you at home are willing guinea pigs!
The next day, we finally relented to the tuk tuks (these were the only exception to the laid-back rule of Laos), and headed to their beloved waterfall. This waterfall really was fantastic, one of the better ones I’ve ever seen. It was multi-tiered and really long, and really beautiful. Unfortunately, the moment we arrived, the skies opened up and wet season began. We spent a full 90 minutes hunkered under a shelter playing cards. A couple of really nice locals handed us a couple of free beers saying “Welcome to Laos,” which was awesome. But by the time the rain let up, we only had half an hour to explore the falls. We didn’t get to swim in them, and I really wanted to hike to the top, as this was supposedly the big attraction, but it was much too muddy and we didn’t have the time. Unfortunate, to say the least.
The next day, after a delicious Lao BBQ feast, we headed off trekking into the jungle to visit some local indigenous hill tribes. Stay tuned for the next post!