Saturday, November 28, 2009

Laos III: Sparklettes

Sa-bai-dee, for the final time. I could write 12 postcards from Laos but will limit it to three. And this final one will have just some random snippets.

Lifted from my journal:

Kev gets his traditional on-the-road haircut...and his ears cleaned as an extra service!

Loved the fruit shakes available for 5,000 kip (60 cents)!!!

Why would anyone eat on the main drag when the Mekong cafes were nicer & cheaper?!

Adventurous Kev orders Water Buffalo Hide Crackling and cracks a tooth eating it! Walks into pole and gets a scar on forehead (more hammer & sickle shaped than lightning bolt.)

Hot water from a rainforest showerhead. Worth the extra money. Who needs a TV anyway? (although Miss Marple dubbed in Chinese was marginally entertaining.)

Power and Phone lines are above ground--about 12-15 feet above ground on poles. Looks like 1907 anywhere else.

Recurring theme of trip: Forget or drop Hilary's food orders in restaurants.

Laotians were always clean & presentable. Expected the same from visitors.

No matter how decrepit the home or deep set into the rice paddy the hut, they all had a satellite dish.

National pedestrian curfew of 10 p.m. Also, no ironing or making porno movies in your hotel room. Duly noted.

"Friends" episodes run endlessly in TV bars in backpacker haven, Vang Vieng. Ugh.

Spent a morning watching the clouds dance with the mountains.

Geckos are our friends. They eat mosquitoes.

I really dislike pay toilets. A red letter day was when I pee'd for free...usually on my shoes in some bush.

Transvestites well tolerated and not few in number.

French, English and Manglish spoken/written here. Lao works, also.

Canadians pay the highest visa fee ($41) What did Canada ever do to Laos? All visas are paid in US currency only. Won't take their own money for them.

Morning and evening markets are definitely worthwhile. Bargaining is expected but without aggression.

The southern part of Laos is uber-laidback. The dogs don't bark and even the motor scooters can't be bothered to make much noise or go very fast.

Easy to see why expats stay and visitors return. If you're in the area, put Laos on your list -even if just passing through.

Laos II: Highlights

Sa-bai-dee, again! A few highlights from our Laos trip:

On the Road again: Yes, road. The infrastructure doesn't give you many choices on which path to take to get anywhere. But there are choices of what to travel in on that one road. Our first bus trip, from the capital Vientiane to Pakse in the south was on the overnight Sleeper Bus. Think: Harry Potter's Knight Bus without the squawking shrivelled head. Each bed fits two (small Asians) comfortably and there is a squat toilet on board for passenger convenience. The VIP is modern, air-conditioned transportation. Pinching pennies? Take the Local or 'chicken' bus. You can bring your small livestock, market goods and timber for building on this bus. And it stops everywhere and anywhere you'd like, it seems. It makes a long trip ( the Road is neither straight nor well-paved) even longer--10.5 hours for a 320 mile trip. Every trip a test of endurance.

Wheeee, on/in the water: Just like on the bus, one can see life unfold while travelling by boat. The Mekong River is not particularly wide so you can watch people going about daily living on both shores: people farming, young monks teaching younger monklets how to bathe, delivery of supplies, moving of tourists and young kids cooling down by jumping off of felled trees. It is also cooler and less bumpy a ride than on a bus. I loved it. And sunset on the Mekong is worth experiencing every chance you get.

Loved the many waterfalls also. This is the Huang Si Falls, a series of falls actually, with a magical pool at the bottom of each one. Locals and travellers alike enjoy this place. I'm the one waving in the back, not in the bikini up front. Tiny swimsuits prove problematic for conservative Lao and cartooned cultural posters try to educate visitors on this and other issues. But here a measure of tolerance is shown by local picnickers to scantily clad young backpackers.

Seeing the sights: Having lived in Asia, I suffer from Buddhist temple fatigue although they give joy to Kev. He also took in a few more of the ubiquitous caves than I did (oh,my feet!) including being guided through one by a local dog and "tubing" for free on a stream through another [personal highlights for him.] The cave I managed to get to was entirely more ...modest... than those. More of a hole in the wall with thousands of little Buddha statues in it. The place has high New Year significance for locals, every day interest for steep hill climbing tourists.

Climb a few more steep hills (and neither of us lost any weight?!) to see the Plain of Jars. Thought to be burial vessels, these stone jars are none too small. Most of the lids are missing. The views from their plateau beautiful. The nearby cave (a refuge during the Vietnam War bombing), cool.

The capital, Vientiane, is much like any other city although now getting a spruce-up. The 29th SEA Games (South East Asia games. A regional, multi-sport competition much like the Pan Am or Commonwealth Games) starts on December 9. Laos is getting its first real chance to show off (hey, the border didn't re-open until 1989) and is busy preparing. We watched the opening ceremony flag-and-drum corp practice at a local university. Locals tell us the government has been shutting down the city (e.g., schools) since October. Yoikes, that's early! This should be a huge economic boost to a country that needs it.

Commerce: Running out of space on this postcard... Pleased to report that Laos is not overrun with large corporate chain stores & restaurants. Rather surprised to find that a sophisticated till in shops was a desk drawer. Many small shops and restaurants just used a plastic pail-with or without a lid! And some shops are very small indeed as people convert small parts of their home or bits of furniture into sales areas. The United Nations and Laotian government encourage private industry with any number of business development schemes. I like the silk production from mulberry plant to worm to loom weaving to dyeing to finished product farms. Laotians are encouraged to improve their craft skills and tourists are encouraged to buy handicrafts (as opposed to national antiquities) as souvenirs. I can support this and don't mind when local village stops sometimes look like a maze of retail alleys. I draw the line at one tiny village of "Community-based, Development Initiative" had a specially laid walk path that wended its way past everyone's stand. The villagers themselves were very low key with a soft approach to getting attention and sales but we still felt like a Parade of Walking Wallets. Who does this benefit? The most interesting part of the walk was watching people bathe at the public water pump.

Also noted that villages tend to have specialized production. Thirty road stands in one village all selling watermelon, followed by 30 stands all selling woven baskets, followed by another village selling only papaya and another selling roast chicken-on-a-stick (a regional specialty). Fear not, your chicken bus will stop at all for your shopping convenience.

Laos I : the country


O.K. - it's not from OZ, but I like sending postcards from wherever I go. And we just went to Laos for a three week vacation.

Laos? Laos. This South East Asian country is way off the radar of most people I know (including myself) who had nothing directly to do with the Vietnam War. Resting on the Mekong River and bordered by Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma) and China, it's a rather 'poor cousin' in the region. A Communist country which keeps that fact fairly well hidden [ save for the occasional red flag with a hammer & sickle on it ] as Buddhism is a stronger life guide for its people. Away from the Mekong rise mountains housing many waterfalls , caves , Buddhist temples and Buddhist temples in caves near waterfalls. Above the equator, its winter days can still be a bit warm. And the presence of avian and swine flu, malaria and dengue fever are real enough for authorities , residents and visitors.

Who travels to Laos? Cheapskates. Which explains the huge swarms of backpackers stretching their budgets by living frugally on $10-12 a day. What brings travellers back? Laos lacks the crowded conditions, frenetic pace, expense and sleaze factor prevalent elsewhere in SE Asia. And the laidback Laotians seem to take it all in stride as it brings money into their pockets with minimal energy expenditure on their part. Everybody wins.

I found many similarities between northern Asia and SE Asia but I focused on the differences. Two more postcards from Laos are in the mail. The next one will have some of the highlights of the trip, the third is filled with sparklettes of the experience.