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Tales from a Rolling Stone

The one where Sara joins a gang and gets accused of voodoo.

LAOS | Saturday, 7 March 2009 | Views [594]

So I arrived in Melbourne, Australia four days ago, where it came to my immediate attention that I had left somewhere where I was warm and rich to a country where I was cold and poor.  Not the best introduction to the land down under.  Luckily, after a few days of adjustment back to the western world, my sentiment for the city has warmed up a bit (as has the weather), although unfortunately prices have not dropped.  Bummer, but what did I expect?  But before I get ahead of myself, let me go back a month where the sun was shining and worthless Asian money was flowing.  My adventures were a lot more interesting then anyway.

Last I wrote I had just arrived in Chiang Mai, a lovely town in Northern Thailand known for cheap cooking classes and trekking.  That said, I spent my time taking cheap cooking classes and trekking. 

Skipping over the cooking to the trek, I had two options: I could go for one night or two, and having heard better things about the one-nighter, opted for the former.  Well did until I met the people I would be spending my time with.  How it worked was that the one-night and two-nighters started off together and split the second day.  Aside from myself, the one-nighters consisted of three French couples.  The two-nighters were made up of a lovely Swiss couple and a duo of British chicks.  Although I knew the language barrier may be a slight issue, I was still pretty excited about my group, until we stopped to pick up some more people and a member of the French contingent asked, "Are we picking up more French people or foreigners?"  Realizing I had apparently intruded on a purely French party, I promptly asked to extend a night and join the other group.  For $6 they let me stay the extra day.

Albeit a bit touristy, the trek was beautiful.  I got to ride a baby elephant and go bamboo rafting down the Mekong, and my English speaking group had loads of fun.  My only complaint was the "instrument" my guide made out of an empty beer box, smashed can and a stick.  Nothing like ruining a beautiful starry night with the noise he made out of the contraption.  My only refuge from that was when I had to walk down the path to the bathroom, which was essentially a wooden outhouse and fairly typical for that kind of village.  Anyhow, in one instance the faucet came off of the hose-type thing, and so holding my flashlight with my mouth, I had to search for the faucet in an overflowing bucket of water while my other hand was trying to plug the gushing water coming out of the tap.  That was interesting.

Moving on.. .

Anxious to get to Laos, I left Chiang Mai the day after returning from my trek and headed east.  Now, to get to Luang Prabang, my first stop, I had two options: I could either take the one day fast boat which was supposed to be wildly uncomfortable and fairly dangerous, or the two day slow boat which was also supposed to be uncomfortable, but known as a good way to meet people heading in the same direction.  Per usual, I opted for the cheaper and more social option and hopped on the slow boat.

Now, they were not kidding when they said the slow boat was uncomfortable.  It's not just that it's these terrible wooden benches that you're supposed to sit on for 10 hour stretches, but they filled the boat about 25% beyond capacity which meant you got to rotate between the uncomfortable bench and floor under the bench for the two days.  Luckily, the rumors were also true in that it was a great way to meet other travelers.  For me, that consisted of an Indian-American, Korean-Canadian, a Kashmirian, another Korean, a Bosnian-Swede, and a Dutch girl.  By the time I got off the slow boat my posse was more international than the United Nations.

Now before I continue, a few notes about Laos (pronounced Lao):

First.  The people are incredibly warm and friendly.  They're also very laid back, but lazy and really only interested in doing what they want to do and when.  The perks to this is that they cant be bothered to hassle you - if you don't want to buy from them, fine, they'll move onto the next.  But on the flipside, if you want to hire a boat from two men playing cards, you can come back in two hours when they're done.  Any Laotian will tell you that the people there don't like to work much, and that's why the status quo if it being in the top dozen poorest countries on Earth probably won't change much. 

Although that said, the people seemed very happy.

Second.  There is a country-wide 11:30-12ish curfew and somehow the only exception to that rule is bowling alleys.  Hence, if you're looking for a good time around 2am, the bowling alley's the place to be.

Third.  I don't know why Thailand has such a big reputation for drugs when they're so much more readily available in Laos.  Not only could you order a shroom pizza or milkshake, but I saw restaurant menus with opium joints, hangover breakfasts (Valium included), and more hashcake bakeries than I could count.  It's not that there aren't laws, I just don't think the police are interested in enforcing them.

But now onto my experience...

Luang Prabang was a mellow town in Northern Laos, popular with tourists as a place to hang out and recover from their sore slowboat bums.  As an entry point to Laos it was a great start, as I spent the next two days playing in waterfalls by day and working on my bowling game by night.  In addition, I got a little bit of culture by visiting some of LP's many temples and waking up at 6am to give alms to the monks, a daily ritual in which monks walk down the street every morning to collect food from the townspeople.  Whatever they get in their pot is their food for the day.  That was pretty cool.

After a few days in LP, I was getting a bit bored and our group had gotten so big it was difficult to do anything.  Itching to move south as it was, I snuck out one morning without telling anyone and boarded a bus to Vang Vieng.  Known for its bars only accessible by floating down a river in an intertube and Friends episodes playing in bars 24/7, I knew I wouldn't like it, but a stop in Vang Vieng was a good way to break up my trip south so figured I would see what all the fuss was about.

I could hear Chandler's voice before I could hear where it was coming from.  People weren't kidding when they said Friends was playing everywhere, although most neglected to mention that you often got your choice of Friends, Family Guy or the Simpsons.  I had clearly entered anti-reality, and although the town was just about as disgusting and full of drunk tourists as I had expected, the scenery was mindblowing.  Maybe it wouldn't be so bad after all.

I checked into my room where I immediately noticed the rules hanging on the door.  Among not being able to smoke, cook or have pets in my room, they made it clear that opium and sexual intercourse were strictly prohibited.  Some weapons were prohibited.  Only some, eh?  Hmm.

Well, as fate would have it, Vang Vieng did not turn out to be the terrible place full of idiots I imagined it to be.  I actually met a great group of people and managed to get stuck there for five days, spending a few on the river and the others on a rented motorbike just bombing through the hills to the sound of my iPod.  I hate to admit it, but it was a pretty fantastic few days, with the only hiccup being a little disagreement between me and the guest house staff about my bill.  I had paid for the first night online, but when I tried to checkout they wanted me to pay for it again.  They didn't understand that I'd paid online and kept asking me how they would get the money from the internet.  I promised them they would get it, signed my name on a piece of scrap paper, and left.

After a brief one day stop in the nation's capital, Vientiane, I boarded a night bus to head to the 4,000 Islands.  I was going to be taking a sleeper bus which I heard had beds on them so was pretty excited about my night's ride.  When I saw the bus I was pleasantly surprised as well - it looked to be two layers of beds on each side, like a top and bottom bunk, just about the size of a twin bed at home.  After spending five nights on what felt like a piece of wood covered by a sheet, this bed bus looked like a promising night's sleep.

Needless to say, I was quite surprised when the driver showed me to my bed and there was a person already in it.  This was not an error, and I think the Belgian grandmother who turned out to be my bedmate for the night was even more shocked than I was.  Let's just say I was thankful she was a) female, b) petite, and c) didn't kick in her sleep.  There was a monk sleeping next to a large man in the bed across the way.  I felt bad for him, but got the best sleep I'd gotten in well over a week spooning the Belgian granny.

My next stop was the 4,000 Islands in Southern Laos, although I only counted three islands so where that name came from is beyond me.  Anyhow, my island choice was Dondet, where I'd been warned was pretty basic with only three hours of electricity per day and not a whole lot else.  This I found was true, and on top of that, it was nearly 100 degrees which I found was quite warm when there aren't even fans to cool you down.  That's actually not entirely true - there were fans during the three hours of electricity, but they almost always happened to be situated by fluorescent lights that attracted these itty-bitty bugs.  Now these bugs did not bite which was fantastic news, unfortunately they were so small and light that if you weren't careful the fans would blow hundreds of them all over you.  So again, that was interesting.  Anywho, despite thinking I'd never last more than a day or two in this nothing-to-do bug-inhaling sweaty island, I found my refuge again in an intertube, which I rented for three days straight in order to sit in the river and read my book. 

With only a few days left, I decided my last stop in Laos would be Pakse, where I would set out either for a trek or some kind of tour through the Bolevan Plateau.  So I left Dondet on what I thought was a VIP bus - just a dollar more than the local transport and it would guarantee me a seat for the three hour ride back to Pakse.  Now, when something is "guaranteed" in SE Asia, one thing I learned is that you always have to take it with a grain of salt.  I say this because I arrived at my bus with five other tourists and was surprised to find that the bus I'd paid for was full.  We talked to the guy who sold us our ticket and were under the impression they would be chartering a minibus to take the rest of us.  After about five minutes it was clear this was not going to be the case, as we watched him board five plastic chairs onto the bus aisle and pointed us on.  Having sat on more uncomfortable seats I didn't have as big a problem with this as some of the other passengers did, however, found that the sleep I so desperately wanted was not going to be an option as the plastic chair legs danced like jelly on the bumpy Laotian roads.  A handful of times I nearly ended up in the passenger to my right's lap, but luckily gripping the seats for my dear life worked and it got me to Pakse in one piece.

Now Pakse.  There is absolutely nothing to do there aside from organize something to get yourself out, so that's precisely what I did.  I was actually hoping to meet up with a friend from Vang Vieng, but when he organized something else I was lucky to meet Ben, a guy who'd been on my bus from Dondet who'd spent the bus ride on a little wooden stool.  I had overheard that he planned to do a few nights on the back of a rented moto to explore the Bolevan Plateau, an area in Southern Laos known for its waterfalls, coffee and tea plantations, and little villages, and wanting to do that as well, told him my plan.  And with that, before I even knew his name (I think), we'd decided to set off the following morning.

Needing to get to Bangkok to meet up with Rachelle Vagy before my flight to Australia, I planned on only spending one night out on the bikes whereas Ben planned to stay away for three or four.  Plans of course changed once we made it to our overnight stop and Ben ran into a group of people he'd met in Cambodia.  We ate, Ben's plastic chair broke from beneath him (which subsequently resulted in him blaming me and my voodoo (what??) and the waiter throwing the chair into a plastic chair graveyard of sorts, (where other chairs were thrown after they'd broken, obviously) and then giving Ben two chairs to sit on - ha!  Laotians have a great sense of humor.)  I apologize for the longest sentence in history, and apologize again for one more tangent.  Laotian people - not only funny but incredibly friendly and hospitable.  The one time I actually met a local I thought was the first unfriendly Laotian I'd met, I found out he was Vietnamese.  But back to the story.  Having a great time with this new group consisting of two Canadians, two Americans and two Brits, I was just not ready to leave yet, so decided to test my luck and stay one extra night.  If I left by 8:30am a few days later, I could race the 250 kilometers back to Pakse in time to get a bus to Bangkok, assuming not more than one thing went wrong.

So the next day Ben and I set out with the other four on our motorbikes and the Falang Gang was established.  (Falang meaning white person in Laotian).  I cannot count how many naked children came running from their huts to yell "Sabadee!" (hello!), and there were a shocking number of old women walking around with skirts and bras.  We even came upon a vacant waterfall where we made like kids and played around in the water pool until the sun started to set.  The joining of the Falang Gang was one of the best decisions I had made in my trip - it was fantastic.

Unfortunately, once we left the said waterfall, Ben noticed that he'd been riding with his pack open and his glasses had fallen out.  We knew that the village we were planning on staying in was up a dirt path, and so one guy, the only other girl, and I set off to make it up the dirt path before dark while the guys were supposed to meet us there.

Well, as luck would have it, splitting up in the middle of Southern Laos without cell phones when you're supposed to meet up some nameless dirt road is not the best of ideas, because while one of the guys who'd stopped for gas found us, the other two did not.  It was getting dark and this was clearly going to be an interesting night.  Seeing no other option, we made it back to the main road to wait and hope they would come back in our direction.  Meanwhile, we were entertained by children playing what was soon dubbed panty-ball - throwing some seemingly dirty tighty-whities from stick to stick (think lacrosse), although one poor boy kept getting it in the face.  Not having anything better to do, I picked up a stick myself, but the undies got stuck in a tree before I could get my go.  Bummer.

Anyhow, about a half hour later the guys found us and we were off, but not before Ben accused me of voodoo for a second time, as in his haste, he had taken a spill and the bamboo flute he'd purchased in a village the day before (which he'd used to torture me) snapped in half.  Although I was not upset about the broken flute, I cannot say I was too excited about hitting the road again since it had turned dark before the group had reunited.  I'd never driven in the dark before and the fact that livestock had a habit of crossing the unlit roads was not very settling.  I really didn't want to hit a cow.  Now of course this didn't stop the guys from zooming down the road at top speeds, so when my backpack fell off the back of the bike I knew I had a bit of a problem.  I followed them honking in hopes that they would pull over, but when they couldn't hear me, I was forced to turn back on my own to gather my stuff.  It was less that I was even concerned about my stuff, but I knew my bag had fallen off in the middle of the road, and being black, I knew it was a bit of a hazard for other moto traffic coming down the road.  With that, I turned around to pick it back up, hoping I could find the rest of the group in the next town we had decided to stay in - I really had no other option.  Unfortunately, one of the shoulder straps had been ripping so the bag was secured to the bike with one of the support straps that goes across the chest.  Now naturally this broke too, which meant that I not only had to wear the bag, but ran a bigger risk of the one shoulder strap coming off altogether now that some of the weight wasn't relieved by the now-broken chest strap.

Anyhow, as you may have guessed, I did find the group about 10 kilometers up the road, and my pack didn't even break. 

Not having eaten in about 10 hours, all we wanted was a place to crash near a restaurant, and after being discriminated against at the first guest house we tried, had better luck at the second and were right next to the only restaurant to boot.  Perfect.  After watching piping hot food come out to other tables, we promptly helped ourselves to drinks from the cooler (did I mention that Laotians are lazy so you generally have to help yourself?), and checked out the menu.  Now I thought that I couldn't be surprised by anything at this point, so when we tried to order and were told they were only serving soup, I was pretty surprised to be, well, surprised.  I couldn't believe it though, we'd just seen meat, veggies, rice and fish come out, and they were just serving soup?!?  Six people walk into a restaurant at 7:30pm and they were only willing to make soup?!?  Oy.  Well, if their disinterest in cooking for us was one knock against them, the fact that they had their primary school aged child take us 20 minutes down the road to another restaurant certainly earned them hospitality points.  We ate, slept, and early the next morning I headed out, arriving to Pakse with about $.50 worth of money on me.

From there I got to Bangkok and had a great time spending the morning with Rachelle, who I hadn't seen for a good 6-7 years, and two days later I was in Melbourne.  Here I'm staying with a couple I met in Peru, had dinner with a guy I traveled through Hong Kong with, and went to a birthday party with a friend from Hanoi.  Later this week I'll be in Sydney, where I have a coffee date with somebody I trekked in Colombia with, will be seeing a girl I traveled Costa Rica with, and of course, will see Adam.  My last stop in Oz will be Perth, where I'll stay with Erica who I traveled Vietnam with and meet up with Jenna, an Aussie backpacker I met in NYC through Miguel nearly four years ago.  Then, by the last week in March I will finally be in Africa.  I booked my ticket and will be spending three days in Ethiopia before I move to Accra, Ghana for the year to work for a small grassroots non-profit there.

And that concludes the longest blog posting in history. 

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