Saturday, April 16, 2011

4,000 Islands, Happy New Year

Yesterday I left Laos, and was sad to see it go. I really enjoyed that country, the landscape was beautiful from Northern Laos' limestone mountains and rivers all around, to Southern Laos' coffee plateau and the width of the Mekong River. The Laos people I thought to be very different than the Thai people. The Laos people were very reserved and shy, and quite conservative, but I was invited into many people's homes for drinks and dinner in Laos and they were all very sweet and giving. The food was also different yet delicioso!! Not so much spicy as Thailand, but flavorful all the same. Also, Laos is just much less crowded, there is room to breath, most people live outside the cities, but the landscape still seems uninhabited. All is all, Laos just fit, and I really enjoyed it.

I spent my days heading south after Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi. I first went south to Vang Vieng. This place is a party, and lets just say it fits a certain niche for travelers. Without going into too much, the main attraction there is tubing. You rent a tube for a couple of dollars and float down the nearby river. There are plenty of places to stop along the way. I met 4 girls from Norway and 2 guys from England and we hung out for the day. We stopped along the river to do have a drink or do the adrenaline spots they set up. Among those that did included HUGE swings into the river, ziplines into the river, and enormous slides into the river. I definitely got my adrenaline fix, and had a great day!!

From Vang Vieng, I headed south via Sleeper Bus. Now this 14 hour bus ride was pretty fun itself. This was a double decker bus that had full length beds on both sides of the aisles. The beds were made for Asians though, because they barely fit a 5'10" guy, and also weren't very wide at all. Come to find out my seat/bed was in the very back of the bus on the second level, and my seat was 1 of 5 in the back cabin. So me and four other travelers crammed into this little room lined with red leather over the engine, and made the best of the situation. It was pretty humorous.

I arrived to Pakse, Laos in the south. Over a couple of days me and Korina, a girl from Norway, explored the area. We took the local bus up to Tad Lo one of the days. A beatiful multilevel waterfall up in the Bolaven plateau. The Bolaven plateau is were Laos grows all of its coffee, and their coffee is good and has a unique taste. This waterfall made for a good day trip, going for a dip in the nice emerald pools and relaxing in the sun. Plus we got to see Elephants again, which I always enjoy. They are so COOL!!! Another one of the days we went and ate dinner on the Mekong at one of the floating restaurants. Yes, it is just what it sounds like... you go and eat dinner on a boat on the Mekong. It was really nice and romantic, and I tried Laos laap for the first time which came with fish from the Mekong. Laap is minced meat and vegetable dish which I can compare to Ceviche.

After Pakse, I headed even further south towards Cambodia, to a place called 4,000 islands (Si Phan Don). I had heard good things about this place and decided it was where I wanted to spend my last days in Laos before heading back to Thailand to meet Brad. 4,000 Islands is the name, I'm not sure if there actually are 4,000 of them, but I bet it is pretty close. It gets the name because here the Mekong is at it's widest and it spreads out over the flat land and creates many many islands. Of course only accessible by boat, but that made it all the better for a relaxing peaceful time. Amenities are slim on the island, no ATM's, very slow expensive internet, and patchy electricity. But the small island of Don Det that I stayed on was really really nice. I got myself a bungalow overlooking the river with a hammock and fan for 30,000 Kip (just over $3 USD) and spent my days lounging around, reading, swimming with the kids, going to the 'beach', and eating noodle soup (yummy! best culinary part of Laos, they love their soups!) It was a very relaxing setting, and beautiful to look out of the blue river and bike around the island and see the water buffalo and all the local houses and family. Don Det, and all of Laos and Thailand, was in a festive mood because this time of year is when they celebrate their New Year (aka Water Festival). So during the day and night there is usually someone blasting Laos music, beer and Lao Lao whiskey going down by the liter, kids armed with squirt guns, water balloons, and buckets ready to splash you. You just had to stay in your bathing suit and light clothes all  the time, because any time you walked down the path of the village you were bound to get soaked!! It was a blast, and especially nice because April is HOT! What a fun time.

Thanks LAOS, you were great!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Staying near the river

Laos has a lot of water.
There are rivers everywhere here, including the mighty Mekong river that flows through all of Southeast Asia.

After heading from Luang NamTha in the north, I traveled all day to try and reach Nong Khiaw (pronunciation probably seems absurd, but it's not too bad). Traveling all day can be quite tiring, but when you backpack you get accustomed to doing bus rides for 7 or 8 hours and accept it as normal. Whereas at home, in 7 or 8 hours I could get to Arizona or to Morro Bay,CA and I only do that a couple times a year. But on these buses you fill your time with reading, listening to music, chatting with the person next to you, people watching, landscape watching, worrying about if the bus goes off a cliff, and lots of  'looking inward'-- and that makes the hours fly by. Lots of interesting things tend to happen in transit.

Nong Khiaw is a very small village on the river Om and is surrounded by jungle covered limestone karsts. A absolutely gorgeous scenery. A small village with no more than 2,000 people, it was easy to explore the village and feel oriented in the first day. Oh the worst thing happened though... I had to get a cabana with a hammock on the porch looking out at the limestone karsts, hot showers, mosquito netting, and a quite garden setting around. It was absolutely horrendous, mostly because it cost me 50,000 kip ($5.50 USD)- I know, I was REALLY suffering!!
One of the days when I finally felt like getting out of my hammock, I walked about 2 km outside of town to some caves. These caves were where the people of the area hid out during the Second Indochina war which ended in 1975 (called the Vietnam War in the West and the American War in Vietnam) when the US and other forces were carpet bombing the area daily. Sidenote: Laos and Cambodia are two of the most heavily bombed countries in the world. You will commonly see signs in the area, and it goes without saying, that you need to stay on or near the path! Because of those millions of bombs dropped about 30% did not explode, refered to as UXO's (unexploded ordinances) Also, common decoration are old war relics, rusted bomb covers etc... well they at least make for good potting dishes! But, back to the caves. After a 2 km walk that I didn't mind so much because the scenery was beautiful, I reached the mouth of the cave. There was a sign at the bottom of a staircase leading up the said "Becare  full, stairs are slipperly"...ohhh I will watch my step! These caves had section all throughout that indicated "Nurse section" "Telecom section" "Provincial governor" "School" and so on because in these caves the people made a community in which they lived for long periods of time during the war. There was also Buddhist graffiti on the wall. A young Laos boy met up with me at the mouth of the cave to take me to the 'Bank Cave.' I thought it was humorous following this 24 year old Laos boy named Paul, with his one working shoe along the cave wall for one reason in particular, he was about 4 feet 10 inches... 5 feet at the most, I was taller than him!! Hey I fit in in Asia, everybody here is short, I sometimes even worry of bumping my head. Anyways, this bank cave he took me to was were the entire province of Luang Prabang kept their money and bank people from 1968-1974. Can you imagine going to the bank to hold your probably useless money in a maze of caves? It was pretty surreal. America has taken part in a lot of wars, but we have never been on that short end of the stick. I think we Americans don't realize how lucky we are, but also we don't realize the bad things we've taken part in all over the world.

The rest of my days were spent lounging around Nong Khiaw and reading until I headed up the river to Muang Ngoi ( I know the pronunciation!). On the way up the river by boat, there were herds of water buffalo everywhere and villages scattered along the banks. I thought Nong Khiaw was small, Muang Ngoi is even smaller. This village is not accessible by road, only boat, has a population of about 500, and the electricity is only turned on for certain (limited) hours of the day. I headed this way due to a recommendation from Beth, and she was right, what a great little village! Very relaxing spending your time on the river beach, reading, hanging with other interesting travelers, exploring the caves in these limestone mountains, swimming in the river, eating at the Laos buffet for 15,000 kip (2.00 USD) and whatever else came about. You might be wondering about all these caves, and it is safe to say that I'm kinda tired of going in them all by myself in the dark cool caves after I went in the cave at Muang Ngoi and saw a big black spider just larger than my fist headed my way- I high-tailed it out of there faster than you can say 'Muang Ngoi.' Creepppppyyy!!! But this is cave country in Laos and there are plenty to see, so I'll keep my eyes open for good caves as well as other people to accompany me!

Until next time ladies and gents. Hope all is well!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Same Same but Different

The ever popular phrase in Southeast Asia of 'Same Same, but Different' is all to right. Laos is the same as other southeast Asian countries, but definitely different.

I decided I want to experience some more jungle by heading to northern Laos to the city of Luang Nam Tha, a hot spot for trekking. Although the weather had been cold and rainy north of Luang Prabang, I was looking forward to the change of climate to cool the blood. It is a small town tucked away in the jungle mountains. I decided I would like to really get to know the scenery, so I booked a 3 day 2 night trek through the Laos jungle. I know, totally normal right.
Well I knew it would be a good trek when I met my guide, a nice Laos guy, named Porn. Umm....yea. Atleast this will be a humorous trek! So we headed off on the first day outside of town into the National Protected Area (NPA) - these NPA's only started coming to fruition in the 1990's. It is more evidence that Laos has had a tumultuous history. We headed out from a small rural village within the NPA with a smile after we saw a little boy running around with no pants with a blown up condom on a string as a balloon. Told you it would be a humorous trek!
Our group, Ria (Canada), Porn, another local guide from the village, and myself, crossed the river and trekked the first day for 5 hours. The jungle has all elements of a jungle in your imagination, rivers, big trees, big leaves, birds with ever sound, hills, valleys, slippery mud etc...but the difference between this jungle and any other i've trekked is that there is Bamboo everywhere. Most of the houses and such in the Laos area are made out of bamboo, and this is really durable useful stuff. As seen when we arrived at our 'camp'- an open air bamboo platform near the river with mosquito netting. Perfect. We set up our sleeping bags and then started a fire and dinner. All dinner, lunch, and breakfast  was eaten on banana leaves and with your hands, but DELICIOUS!!! Sticky rice is the staple food in Laos. It is rice in the sense of it, but glutonous so that it sticks together in a big clump, and you pick off a decent portion, clump it into a ball, and then grab food of another dish (i.e tomato and potatoes) with the sticky rice in you hands and indulge- YUMMY! (i'm really loving the cuisine aspect of SE Asia). So we finished off dinner and sat around the fire and chatted, and presumed customary Lao tradition by drinking Lao Lao. This fire whiskey is made from rice and all Laos drink it, so we proceeded to be Lao and drank an entire bottle (Our guide Porn said that is tradition to drink the whole bottle- you can't very well cap it and drink it tomorrow! of course haha)  It was all good fun though (and humorous!).
After a rainy and cold night, we started the next day trek, up and down, up and down, exhausting. We made our stop for lunch after a couple hours trekking in this very small rural village on the river where their primary language is their own dialect, and secondary language being Lao. They were friendly people and the kids loved the little toys Ria and I brought. Not to mention all the pigs, chickens, and naked babies running around your feet. Priceless.
I looked around and couldn't help but notice how little these people in this village seemed to have. Bamboo huts, bottles of Lao Lao, and a couple of farm animals. But these people seemed genuinely happy, and I couldn't help but wonder, is less more?
These people have so much less material wealth, but seem to be content with their lives, would you be happier with more, or less?

We thanked them for the stop and continued along the river for awhile to the next village where we stayed the night. Ria and I bathed in the river, which is done in a sarong like the locals, as to not offend anybody by showing too much skin. Laos people are quite conservative. Afterwards we played with all the children, teaching them Tic Tac Toe in the dirt, Rock Paper Scissors, and showed them the simply flying toys we had brought. They were elated. Later, we headed up to their school, which was a building with one room the size of my garage. They had one teacher and three classes in this one room. It being Sunday, there was nobody there for school, so we proceeded to draw on the chalkboard and practice Laos words and English words...and again play that highly entertaining game of Tic TacToe (oolala). The afternoon spent with the kids was the best part of the trek, well not to mention the happiness of endorphins!
That night after eating the chicken we had just watched them kill, pluck, and boil, we enjoyed more sticky rice, another Lao Lao whiskey bottle and company of a bunch of Lao guys asking us to sing American songs in exchange for their reciting Laos tradition music. Fair trade- although our singing was poor, they couldn't tell the difference! 

The next morning, we set out parallel to the river and continued through the jungle, but eventually came to some really lovely views of the rolling green jungle mountains. We trekked for 4 or 5 hours that day until we arrived to town, sore, hungry, happy, and in the mood for a burger and a beer!!

It was a fantastic trek, and I'm very happy I did it. It was a great way to spend three days and really get a feel for Laos culture.