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Saturday, November 25, 2017

Slow boat to Laos

Before researching these travels, I knew only one thing about Laos: a kid from Laos and his sister started coming to my school. I didn’t know anything about him or his family, but most Laotians who settled in the U.S.A. were Hmong refugees. That is because the Hmong were on the losing side when Laos finally became communist in 1975. Insurgent against the Lao ethnic majority, Hmong were recruited by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency for a “secret war” against North Vietnam. It was so secret that I never knew Laos, like Vietnam and Cambodia, was part of the war known to Americans as “Vietnam.”

In Vietnam it’s called the American war. It is more accurate, from historians’ point of view, to refer to the Second Indochina War, in which Laos was officially neutral. Its neutrality was recognized as far back as the Kennedy administration, but Laos also has a geography that made interference by the warring parties inevitable. When the Viet Cong started running troops and supplies through neighbouring countries via the “Ho Chi Minh Trail,” the trail became a target. Just wrap your head around this official statistic: the U.S. spent $2 billion per day, for 9 consecutive years, dropping more than two million tons of bombs just on Laos. One third of the population was internally displaced, and no one knows how many people died.

Careful where you step--hiking trail in Ban Sop Houn
Unexploded ordnance is still an everyday danger in parts of Laos today. People who weren’t born during the war are regularly killed and maimed. And after all that, Laos is communist, in fact the first communist country I have visited. Well, in the sense that China is communist. For cultural reasons I can’t begin to know, Laos has a history of dependence on the latest foreign power: first France, then the U.S., now China. China seems to be communist in the sense of an authoritarian, one-party state, but capitalist in the form of rampant development paying no heed to human or environmental concerns. Seems like the worst aspects of both, to me. But if you travel in Africa or Asia you quickly realize that China is building the roads, railroads, and dams. It isn’t constrained by the concerns of the West, and the U.S. isn’t investing like it used to, when development was a proxy Cold War. 

So as far as developing nations are concerned, China is the world’s superpower. Anyway, we’re not going to mainland China. We're in Hong Kong, and I’m only typing my Laos post up now that we’ve left. It's still the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, and I am still The Discreet Traveler.

I loved Laos. It was the biggest unknown of our travels, and I’d recommend it to anybody. That doesn’t mean I’d like to be an ordinary citizen there, never mind a journalist or an opposition figure. But it’s stunningly beautiful, and the people we met made us feel at ease and very welcome. I didn’t have a bad meal. Unlike in Thailand, where there was an A&P supermarket on the border with Myanmar, I didn’t see any chains (shops, restaurants) anywhere in Laos. Is this good? Well, it’s different!

We took the slow boat from Huay Xai, just across the border from Thailand, to Luang Prabang which is in the center of northern Laos. It’s a two-day journey with an overnight stop—that’s what makes it “slow.” It’s motorized, as are the speedboats that make the journey in half the time, but you wouldn’t catch me on one of them. 

The boat is supposed to leave Huay Xai at 10:30 but we were told it might not leave till 11 or 12. We also heard, from various sources, that there would only be wooden benches on the deck, and we’d have to pay if we wanted a cushion; that the toilet would only be a hole in the deck; that there might not be a toilet at all; and that there would be no opportunity to buy drinks or food all day, so we needed to buy them beforehand (preferably at the stall of the person telling us). All of this turned out to be grimly true of riverboats on the eastern side of the country, up the Nam Ou. But on the Mekong, we were seated at a table (opposite the two U.S. couples we’d shared a tuk-tuk with), under cover, with cushioned benches. There was not one but two toilets—“Western” toilets, by no means to be taken for granted in Laos. And there was a bar.

From this, and the fact that a full slow boat runs daily, it’s evident that this is a major attraction. Yet one of the measures of how big the world is, is that something dozens of people do every day is still an experience most people will never have. 

The scenery was gorgeous, from beginning to end. The people all seemed to be hippies, whether aging originals or twentysomethings who just wore their hair long. Apostle-looking Guy sat on the window ledge and smoked various things. There were books and card games, but few phones. It really did feel like a trip back in time, an effect that was only enhanced when we got to Luang Prabang and constantly heard ’60s and ’70s music (in the Aussie bar where we spent most of our time).

I understand that Luang Prabang also has the country’s first openly gay bar. We couldn’t find it, but then nor could we find the bar it was supposedly across the street from, the most happening place in town. Guess we weren’t destined for nightlife. I hope the bar is there for Laotians who need it, though, because homosexuality was illegal until very recently in Laos. In general, southeast Asia is probably the best part of the world to be queer in outside the West, and Laos is as laid-back as a communist country gets.

We kept seeing people we recognized from the boat, and this continued all through Laos. Whereas Bangkok and Chiang Mai are big cities, we very much felt like we were on the same country trail in Laos. Apostle-looking Guy turned up at our guesthouse, then on a moped (wearing a helmet at least), then on the day we went trekking, and then further along when we stayed in Nong Khiaw. We last saw him there (boarding our hideously loud and crammed riverboat) where he was wearing a Hebrew T-shirt. There were lots of Hebrew signs in Nong Khiaw, almost as many as Krakow. I haven't been able to discover the Israeli connection. 

But back to Luang Prabang. We shared a tuk-tuk with a Dutch couple, two Americans who were afraid we were going to ask them about elections, and a Chinese woman who assured us “this looks like China.” After disembarking and finding the Dutch couple’s guesthouse for them, it transpired that we were nowhere near our own…We traipsed through the night market with our full backpacks, getting madder and madder, then finally had to get another tuk-tuk “to the other side of the mountain.” This sounds dramatic—it’s just that Phu Si hill is in the middle of Luang Prabang, and you either have to walk (or ride) around it, or walk up it to the temple. We did that on another day.
Sunset over the Mekong, from Phu Si
The First Indochina War was fought to liberate what are now Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam from France. No doubt there were many terrible things about being a French colony, but there is one good legacy: having been French. What this means is that fresh bread and other wonderful foods are available everywhere. Bread is not something you see much of in Thailand, other than the odd guesthouse that offers white bread for toast in the mornings. 

Our first errand in Luang Prabang was to get our visas for Vietnam, which has a consulate in the town. Many countries, such as Thailand and Laos, issue visas on arrival for our nationalities (Laos for a fee), but Vietnam requires a visa in advance. People kept telling us that we could apply online, but this depends on one’s passport, length of planned visit, and most importantly, point of entry. As far as I was able to determine, the online application is only useful for airports. We planned to enter by land.

The consular staff were friendly and efficient, at least by the standards of immigration officers. Unlike the loud gentleman who wanted the officer to “look it up on the computer,” etc., we were prepared with passport-sized photos and the correct fee (in U.S. dollars). I guess, if China really were the world’s superpower, we would have needed yuan. 

From there we hit the bamboo bridge, built anew every dry season by a family that charges a few kip for the privilege of crossing it. By “a few kip” I mean a few thousand. The Laotian currency is worth very little per unit; one can easily get a million or two out of the cash machine. The river is the Nam Khan. Luang Prabang is on the peninsula where the Mekong and the Nam Khan meet.
Bamboo bridge over the Nam Khan

The most beautiful temple, or at least the one we visited, is Wat Xiang Thong. It has a striking “tree of life” mosaic and some quite unusual details on the exterior of the wat.

The night market was very laid-back, once we weren’t carrying our backpacks through it anymore. It had buffets where we could fill a bowl with whatever we wanted, and little coconut “pancakes” which were a dessert we’d discovered in Thailand. Best of all, Laotians are partial to sticky rice, which comes in little baskets. They scoop up all kinds of food with it, not just mango for dessert. 

Overall, Laos was kind of like I’d imagined Thailand would be. I was eating better than ever, plus, there was the French thing. At least, until a stomach bug laid me low. I don’t know if it was unwashed lettuce from the night market, or my failure to eat local yogurt on a particular day. Did I mention our neighbor’s excellent advice to eat the yogurt everywhere we go? That way, we’re supposed to pick up the “good” cultures that keep our guts healthy. Anyway, it took six months for either of us to get sick.

There was something else we picked up in the night market: souvenirs made by the villagers of Ban Na Phia. Theirs is one of the most heavily bombed areas of Laos, and they’ve taken the aluminum of the ordnance and made it into bracelets, earrings, etc. It’s a way to make some positive thing out of a terrible legacy, and adds a small amount of income to what are otherwise subsistence agricultural lives.

I was surprised, and impressed, by how many of what North Americans call “senior citizens” were roaming around Laos. No sooner had I recovered from my down time than I saw the Dutch couple from the slow boat (and our tuk-tuk)—biking around Luang Prabang, of course. T. was less impressed by our Hmong guide, Sa, who took us trekking from a Hmong village down to the Kuang Si waterfall. Not that he wasn’t a good guide, but he clearly hadn’t been versed in “senior citizen” terminology. When T. was huffing and puffing in the jungle heat, and complained of being “very old,” Sa just nodded and said “Yes, I know”! (To be fair, his age guess was still ten years too young.)

Kuang Si waterfall
Down at the waterfall, we had a chance to swim, which felt absolutely glorious after our hike in the jungle.

In the tuk-tuk back to Luang Prabang (our minivan having not materialized), Sa saw my wedding ring and asked if I was married. I was saved from this rather indiscreet conversation by T., who asked Sa if he was married. Thereafter it was nothing but pictures of his wife, son, and everyone on his phone. Which goes to show that the best way not to answer a question about yourself is to ask the other person to talk about himself; he’ll never stop.

In the Hmong village, Lao Lao, they were just getting ready to skin a pig. I could see this wasn’t just for show, as we were the only visitors. At least this pig was marginally better off than those we’d seen on the way to market, “hog-tied” but not yet butchered. Maybe I should try vegetarianism again.
Jungle hike from Lao Lao village

There are phenomena in Laos I wish I had pictures of, like the guy in the post office, slumped over the D.H.L. desk asleep. When told I needed to buy an envelope he roared to life and very carefully taped my parcel shut, whacking off pieces of packing tape with a huge knife. 
Or the showers in guesthouses. Maybe now’s a good time to mention that, in Thailand as well as Laos, a shower is usually a showerhead hanging off the wall in the same space as the rest of the bathroom. It may or may not splash the toilet—everything just drains away in the floor. So put the toilet paper away safely somewhere.

Don’t flush the paper, though. We learned that, wherever you go in the world, if there’s a wastebasket next to the toilet it means the plumbing can’t cope with toilet paper, so throw it in there. And always, always, carry a supply of your own.

Really? Nothing?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ah, "feeling old" after a tough hike through the hot jungle to a magnificent waterfall. But then, the splendor of the water, both to sight and via the plunge, must have been wonderful!