3 Weeks in Laos

June 10, 2012

After a 15 hour bus journey that began at 05:30 in Siem Reap, Cambodia, I arrived in the town of Pakxe in southern Laos. As I had been told by a number of travelers I had met, the transport in Laos was a bit more primitive than in Cambodia. The buses were older and the motorbike taxies used crude sidecars that put you in pretty much direct contact with the oncoming traffic. More like a ride at Busch Gardens than a ride across town. I was told these rigs are illegal but nobody enforces such rules when they interfere with someone’s livelihood. It’s amazing how machines can hold together with a touch of welding, some wire and a few bolts.

Then there were the Tuk-tuks for slightly longer trips and when saving a bit of money was the goal, a bit smaller, more worn and dirty than those in Thailand for sure! But with petrol running over $5 a gallon, smaller is clearly better for these folks who get by on so little. I was now figuring my money at 8,000 kip to $1 (in Cambodia it was 4,000 Riel to a dollar but you get US dollars from the ATMs for some reason). In Laos, I had my first experience of withdrawing a millon from an ATM! While it’s only about $125, it was a nice feeling having a million in cash stashed in my backpack, a bit strange paying 4,000 for a big bottle of water, 10,000 for a meal and 50,000 for a room but in a few days it seemed almost normal.

And of course, the market. A sure bet for local color and interesting food.

One of the several forms of ‘pancake’ I had on this trip. They ran from what we know as pancakes here in the US and served with honey to thin crepes filled with fruit and served with sweetened milk to thick, french-toast-like cakes served with a bit of sugar on top. All good!

I stayed in this town for a few days before heading for the hills! I stayed in a national park area for a night and then traveled further inland to a small village. I actually was cold during a ride in one of the larger trucks that serve as buses in the more remote areas. A welcome relief from the intense heat of Cambodia! This was to be my one and only encounter with coolness but the weather was certainly more pleasant in the mountains. I enjoyed a couple of short hikes in the green forests and along the rivers. Took a refreshing dip in a pool at the base of a waterfall, some nice nature in this part of the world!

A roadside store.

Then I headed back to Pakxe and was caught up in the New Year’s celebration. Similar to some Latin American cultures, there is a tradition of throwing water on everyone as a blessing for good luck in the coming year. In Laos, this continues for over a week, you can never tell when you’ll be soaked by a bucket or a squirt. All in good fun but it’s a good idea to keep your camera in a dry bag!

Then after a little rest it was once again time for a marathon bus trip. This one began at 8pm with a ‘sleeper’ bus which sounds much nicer than it really is, especially if you are over 5′ 6″ and are traveling solo. In my case, I shared a padded bunk with a strange man and kept bumping my bunkmate or the wall every time I stretched out even a little bit. Lesson learned! Better to stick with the VIP buses for these long hauls. At 07:30 I landed a little worse for wear in the capital city of Viangchan where I promptly boarded another bus for a slow ride through the mountains to the town of Louangphrabang, a place popular with both the backpacker and well-healed crowds with river-front hotels, an interesting variety of resturants and interesting places to explore – a good mix of upscale and local color.

I took a ferry ride across the river to a small village and spent a morning exploring the local culture and experiencing the energy of the people as they moved through their day. At one point, I crossed a footbridge over a river to reach a smaller settlement of houses and small shops.

I enjoyed visiting the small market stalls and eating at a local cafe.

Then it was time to head further north and further away from the comforts of paved roads, hot showers and internet access. The buses became smaller and the amount of dust that can be absorbed into one shirt has to be experienced to appreciate. Seven hours on a dirt road carried me a relatively short distance to the village of Muang Ngoy. Along the way, sellers approached the buses with offers of food and local craft items. Lots of local color in these back country road trips.

There were also times when I really didn’t know what was going on around me. This very young man was in an informal ‘uniform’ of some kind and handled his rifle with no concern for where the barrel was pointing. Didn’t seem to possess a level of maturity that carrying a rifle on the job would normally require in more developed countries.

After a couple of nights here, I headed up river in a small boat. These men playing checkers reminded me of the Sunday afternoons I’d spent watching my father and his youngest brother laughing and joking with each other as they played what I now know is an international game.

I had met some fellow travelers and we had decided to stick together for awhile in order to get better deals on treks that we all were seeking out. We were an interesting group, one from France, one from Japan, one from Germany, one Hungry and me from America. Interesting conversations with these guys as we slowly made our way further off the tourist map into the rural and jungle areas of Laos.

I stayed in a couple of small villages along the way and had some interesting experiences.

I visited some caves where the locals had hid from the US bombing during the Vietnam war. And I saw a number of bomb casings displayed in these small villages, reminders of the unexploded bombs still waiting for those unfortunate enough to stumble across them.

I found this injured puppy (I thought he had recently been hit by a car) and after trying for several hours to get him help, realized that he wasn’t so much ‘injured’ and ‘handicapped’. His wounds had sort of healed over and he had adapted to the reality that his life going forward would include a mangled paw and would require him to drag himself along using only his hind legs. When I finally located his owner, she smiled broadly and took him from my arms into hers. He had a loving home, just not one with the resources to get him the professional attention he needed. My time with this little trooper taught me yet another lesson in where the ‘suffering’ often is centered when I confront such disfigurement. I had the thought that maybe I’m getting ready for India, a bit of practice in keeping my heart open in the face of suffering.

Monks on their alms rounds were a common sight throughout this leg of my journey. The temples were of course much smaller but it seemed every village of any size had at least one and in some cases two or more.

Then it was time to climb back into a small boat and head further upriver. This is where the traveling really got interesting for me. Lots of small villages, kids swimming, men fishing and few signs of the modern world to remind me that I was living in 2012.

Then it was back on the dirt roads where we had a flat tire both coming and going. The drivers in both cases wasted no time in getting them changed. I was very impressed by the level of professionalism, they had the right tools and even air in the spare. Of course, this was likely not the first time they had had a flat on this rough stretch of road.

I finally made it to Muang Khoua where I spent a night before heading up to Boun Neua where two of my fellow travelers had a lead on a neat trek into the jungle that included an overnight in a hilltribe village. It was a great experience! We visited a local hospital along the way. I was reminded that this is not a good place to have a serious injury or illness…better save such adventures for Thailand where the hospitals are up to western standards. Or so they say 🙂

And we stopped along the way for lunch under the shade of some great trees.

We slept in the chief’s home and visited with many of the other villagers during our stay. Here’s the village.

And some shots of the villagers going through their day. The women wear a rather formal looking headpiece and traditional dress. Girls are married at 15 so at times it was tough sorting out who the mothers were and there were barefooted little children, families of pigs, chickens and puppies everywhere.

The children were beautiful as always and playing when not engaged in the chores that fall to children in these ‘developing’ places.

And even though a German NGO had come and built 6 or 8 watertaps in this small village, only one seemed to be functional at this point and the sight of girls and women carrying water was a common one. Another lesson in sustainability, I guess. Gotta make sure the locals can maintain the stuff provided.

The local school.

And then there were the faces! What interesting and lovely faces awaiting anyone who ventures out into the world. (these are from several hilltribe villages I visited on 2 different treks in northern Laos).

Making my way down toward the Thai border, I stopped in Louang Namtha, a popular treking town for Thais and one where I naturally found more tourists. Along with a young woman from the Netherlands, I took an overnight trek into the jungles at the edge of a large national park. This young man was our guide.

We had a nice spot to swim and the second day was spent in kayaks paddling down this river to a small village where we were picked up and taken for an hour long rough ride up a dirt road. You wouldn’t believe how dirty I was when we finally got back to civilization and had to present myself to a couple of hostel owners to find a room. I guess they were used to seeing folks coming in from the jungle and gave it little notice.

All through my travels across Laos, I saw that TV had made it’s way into the culture. Even in places that only had solar power, the satelite dishes were almost always in front of at least one home. It will be interesting to see how this impacts the culture of these formerly ‘off the gird’ places.

A village store run by a man who had lost a leg but didn’t let this keep him from making a living by providing the most basic of goods to his neighbors.

Finally, it was time to make my way back into Thailand. At this small border crossing, that requires a short ferry ride.

Then I headed back to Chiang Mai for a few days before heading down to Bangkok and my last 10 day Vipassana course in Thailand. It was an amazing 5 months and has me primed for more sitting and traveling experiences down the road. I am feeling a pull to explore Myanmar and from there, Napal for a little treking and there’s an amazing looking Vipassana center that I gotta sit a retreat in…and of course from there, India is just a bus ride (or maybe a few bus rides) away… who knows where I’ll end up on the next trip?

Thanks for sharing this journey with me. Let me hear from you and send some pics! Take good care, John

2 Weeks in Cambodia

May 20, 2012

After a 23 hour night bus/small bus/shared taxi/tuk-tuk trip from southern Thailand, I arrived at the Vipassana center in Battambang, Cambodia. The entrance gate is pretty fancy for this tradition but in line with other Buddhist centers in this part of the world. Not what the Buddha had in mind I suspect when he instructed “build no statues or monuments to me…” More later on this topic…I feel a sermon working it’s way up from the depths of the mind 🙂

The setting was very nice, lots of trees and such but the center more closely resembled a county jail than the other Vipassana centers I have visited. A real working gate with razor wire on the top, heavy metal doors on the rooms and locks which is something I have never encountered at a meditation center before. I will learn from my brief stay in Cambodia that it’s not really a “high crime” country so far as 3rd world countries go so I figure it must be some residual from the horrors of 30 years ago and/or a reflection of the man who donated the property and covered most of the building costs. Who knows what he experienced in his youth when all the killing and other craziness was going on. I would have liked to have explored more of Cambodia, visited the killing fields and some of the museums and such but the intense heat sent me racing for the mountains of Laos before I could see very much of this country. Maybe another trip in cooler weather someday soon?

This is one of the ladies who live at the center, cooks some interesting and tasty food with her wood-fired pots. These folks eat a lot of veggies that we don’t recognize as food and have a wide range of fruits hanging from the trees around them. One can see how we in the west have lost touch with the process of connecting with the natural world around us and the ability to live off the land. No Publix in this neighborhood 🙂

Here’s the dining hall, pretty primitive as was much of the rest of the facility – squat toilets that flush with a bucket of water, cold showers rigged from plastic pipe wired to the roof of a tiny room. Quite a contrast to the “spit and polish” I found in the 4 centers I visited in Thailand. Interesting experience though, meditating here for 8 days and living with these folks, virtually no English and even my well-developed hand gestures and body language failed me much of the time.

This is one of the several other Buddhist centers that shared this little valley with the Vipassana center. In contrast to my expectations of deep silence, the 3 or 4 non-Vipassana centers seemed to compete with each other with their high-powered PA systems to see whose chanting and announcements were the loudest. I was amazed at how loud it would get at times. Haven’t these guys heard the Buddha’s teaching on not disturbing the peace of others 🙂

Then I spent a night in the town of Battambang before heading down river on a small, crowded boat to Siem Reap, the home of Angkor Wat, my second reason for making this swing through northwestern Cambodia. Here’s a shot of the main market.

Just one of many examples of how Cambodia is far behind Thailand, they haven’t figured out a good garbage-handling system yet. They also don’t have electricity much beyond the larger cities (at least in the areas that I traveled though). Did have a fiberoptic line though connecting the towns and cities, gotta keep that internet going 🙂 I had wi-fi in my hostels in both places I stayed and it seemed like the world was passing the rural folks by and the cable and wi-fi were obvious symbols of this process. The gap between the “haves” and the “havenots” showing itself once again.

Here’s what the tuk-tuks look like in Cambodia, a regular motorbike with a trailer hooked up behind the seat with seats for 2 to 4 people (or 6 or 8 if you’re a local or someone who likes to travel like one).

I’m heading down river now in this little boat that functions as a taxi and pick-up truck for the locals. Here a woman is getting off at her stop which as you can see is another boat. It’s amazing to see how creative these folks are with getting the stuff they need from the cities back to their remote villages. Who needs roads and cars anyway?

This young girl got on the boat with her mother and little brother midway along the 7 hour trip. What must her perspective of the world be? How will she live out her days? How many options can she realistically choose from? Maybe I just ask too many questions 🙂

Local fishermen in a type of small boat one sees a lot of along this river. Living much like folks have lived for so many years an yet the TV/internet world is creeping in. Anyone can access the internet via cellphone with coverage just about everywhere I traveled in both Cambodia and Laos. The world it be ‘a changing 🙂

A few examples of the housing options along this stretch of river. Looking for a weekend place or a cheap fixer-upper?

These shots are from Siem Reap, a very nice tourist-friendly city with lots of attention to keeping everything clean and appealing to the eye (so long as you don’t drift away from the ‘tourist areas’ too far). An easy place to visit for anyone who is interested in getting a taste of Cambodia with a minimum of suffering and inconvenience common to the backpacker/low-budget crowd.

Then I’m off to tour the vast Angkor Wat ruins. I especially enjoyed climbing around inside some of the buildings, getting an inside view of what it must have been like to live and work in such places. My favorite spots were the smaller, less visited ones and the ones where the carvings were more detailed, a lot of variety in type of construction and attention to detail. I wish I had more understanding of the Hindu gods depicted in the carvings and the history of this place, would have made for a more interesting trip. Guess I shouldn’t have slept through all those history classes 🙂 After a couple of very hot days, it all begins to look like piles of rocks 🙂

Here’s my tuk-tuk driver who picked me up at 5am both mornings and carried my around this vast compound. A good deal for $15 a day.

Shots from Angkor Wat, I suspect you who are more into these types of things will recognize some of the figures in the carvings.

These guys were a neat surprise, cooling off as they gather food for an afternoon snack.

I’ll be working on a blog on my experiences in Laos once I get back to SC and have my Mac, maybe do some slideshows with music if the techno gods allow it 🙂 Take good care! John