A quick water taxi across the Mekong River brought us from Thailand into Laos. It’s a bit odd that they only accept US dollars for the visa-on-arrival, but luckily we had some with us and didn’t have to pay their ridiculously skewed exchange rate. It wasn’t long until we boarded the slow boat that would take us all the way to Luang Prabang. Passengers poured onboard with cases of BeerLao and bottles of Lao whiskey. Capacity was certainly met, if not exceeded, making it easy to start a conversation and meet someone new. There was a couple from Holland, a couple from Canada, a girl from France, and tour group of about 10 people with the Stray Bus that we became friendly with over the next few days. (side note: Stray is a hop-on/hop-off bus that circles through Thailand, Laos, and back to Bangkok. Tickets are good for one year and passengers can spend as much time as they want at each destination. A guide accompanies each bus and does the short/long route in 10/18 days.)
The first day on the boat offered spectacular views of untouched Laos. Rolling hills spattered with towering limestone and villagers fishing and bathing in the river. The party atmosphere on the boat wasn’t our cup of tea (we’d actually prefer a cup of tea!), but we had fun. The Stray guide (Scrub) was a sociable character that never allowed a dull moment. At one point, someone started a sing-a-long with an acoustic guitar so I busted out my harmonica and joined in! I faked it pretty well for a bit, until he asked me what songs I knew, to which I had to answer, “I don’t really know what I’m doing, I just thought it’d be fun.” 🙂 As the sun was setting, we stopped in the village of Pak Beng for the night. Everyone continued the binge drinking to the only bar in town, err…village, and made a fool on the dance floor. It’s kind of hard to say no when a 640ml (22oz) beer is only $1.25…
The next day on the boat was much quieter once everyone was hung over. The scenery was still stunning and the rock formations were more impressive. It was 8 hours until we arrived to Luang Prabang, but time passed with good conversations. The following day, we met up with the Stray group and visited Kuang Si waterfall. Even through the light rain, the waterfall was beautiful with its turquoise water and popular rope swing. It was nice to travel with a group and a guide instead of figuring things out on our own.
The quaint architecture of Luang Prabang along with baguettes and croissants on every avenue imposes a French atmosphere, and with good reason. (Excuse the historical tangent) The French established Laos as a territory in 1907 and only granted full independence in 1953, although still present. A struggle continued between various factions for control, and the Pathet Lao sought to overthrow the French-leaning monarchy with an alliance with Communist North-Vietnam. This led the US to drop nearly 2 million tons of bombs on Laos during the decade-long Vietnam War, which became known as “The Secret War”. It’s estimated that about 30% of these explosives are still buried in the ground waiting to detonate on the innocent farmer tending his land. In fact, Laos has the unfortunate distinction of being the most-bombed nation in the world, per capita. It was only in 1975, when Saigon fell, that the Pathet Lao took control of the capital Vientiane and ended a six-century-old monarchy, but French culture and language are still prominent in this quiet country known as “The Jewel of The Mekong”. But enough history for today, there will be more tomorrow…
Rain put a damper on the majority of our time in Luang Prabang. The one semi-clear day, we rented bicycles and rode all over town visiting markets, temples, and enjoying the scenery. Every night, the main street is blocked off for a huge night market. Vendors set up an endless s row of canopies to keep their customers and merchandise dry. There’s one area for food that is an all-you-can-eat (or fit-on-a-plate) extravaganza for $1.25! (it was my favorite) After 4 days of rain and 3 night markets, we headed south to Vang Vieng.
Despite the clouds, the drive south was an awesome display of jagged limestone formations and mountainous scenery. The town of Vang Vieng isn’t much to get excited about if you’ve already been through college. It’s a bit trashy and the main attraction is tubing down the Nam Song River, stopping at riverside bars and going deaf from blaring pop music along the way. The main stretch of road in town is littered with lazy lounges looping episodes of “Friends” or “Family Guy” all day and night. It’s tailor-made for nursing a hangover before breaking open another brew. Unfortunately, this wasn’t really our idea of fun. However, we went on a tour one day that took us tubing through a cave and kayaking down the river (much better than a tube!). The scenery was spectacular and easily made up for the less-than-stellar town.
As soon as we arrived in Vang Vieng, we ran into a friend from the slow boat journey and ended up staying at the same guesthouse. The next day, she told us she got an email from someone back in Luang Prabang that Joe, one of the guys on the Stray Bus tour group, was found dead in his guesthouse. We were in utter shock. We had just gotten to know him and were hanging out a few days before. Joe was in his early 30’s, lived in Canada, and had recently decided to take a year off of work to travel and enjoy life. We still don’t know the cause of death, but some think it was blood poisoning from a new tattoo he’d just gotten (a snake circling his arm from shoulder to wrist). No matter what the cause, his death came much too soon and stunned us all. Our thoughts go out to his family and friends.
Apparently, death is quite common in Laos. Upon hearing about Joe, the owner of our guesthouse mentioned an 18-year-old boy that died a few days ago tubing on the river. Our guide from the kayaking day-tour told us he knows of 36 people that have died in the last 3 years. Another gentleman told us that 27 people had died tubing in Vang Vieng last year alone. Bartenders aren’t prone to cutting people off because more drinking equals more money, which is hard to refuse in one of the poorest nations. Most of the time, people jump into the water with impaired judgment and impale themselves on rocks. Other times, it’s simply alcohol poisoning. Terrible things happen when drinkers become swimmers.
After shaking off the gloom of Vang Vieng, we traveled south to the capital, Vientiane. It’s a bigger city than the previous two, but much more relaxed than other SE Asian capitals. It’s still got an air of French culture, but not quite as pleasant as Luang Prabang. Our first day, we visited Buddha Park. It’s an area on the Mekong filled with hundreds of stone Buddhist and Hindu sculptures that include just about every deity imaginable. Yesterday, our last day in Laos, we toured the city on bicycle and saw some temples and monuments that are important to Lao history. And would you believe it…the sun was shining and there wasn’t a drop of rain! Then we left on a 24-hour bus to Hanoi to begin the Vietnam adventure.
All in all, I have mixed feelings about Laos. The natural beauty is unlike anything I’ve ever seen and the cost of living doesn’t get much cheaper. The people have been friendly and generally don’t try to rip us off. The streets are clean and the food is mediocre. However, the underlying theme of death that pervades my impression of this country, along with the macabre history of The Secret War, is a bit unsettling. It’s never pleasant to know someone that has passed, but it does put things in perspective. Part of me didn’t want to mention this aspect of our trip for fear of worrying friends and family, but it’s been an important part of our Laos experience, dovetailed by the fact that we’ve had gloomy skies and daily rain. We always travel safe and responsibly, but this was a simple reminder to be more careful and aware. We are so incredibly fortunate to be healthy and have the opportunity to see the world, living life to the fullest. It may worry some of you reading this right now, knowing that I’m bouncing around on the other side of the world, talking to strangers and visiting countries we used to bomb. I’ll be home soon, but right now I just have to get up there and pretend to play the harmonica.