Soaked on the road in Laos

The final leg of this year’s epic journey is destined to be Northern Thailand and Laos. We haven’t been to Laos in 2 years and we decide to go in easy stages to our ultimate destination, the 700 year old town of 20,000 people, Luang Prabang. We have an easy, comfortable train ride from Bangkok to Udon Thani in 9 hours. Unfortunately the double-pane windows are smudged and covered with decades of dirt, and even though the line passes through some dramatic scenery, we couldn’t see very much. In Udon Thani we got a fantastic cheap room with all the mod-cons. There seemed to be a fair sized ex-pat community living in this nondescript by likable northern city. From there the next day we took a short one hour bus to Nong Khai, the border town, with Laos just across with the Mekhong River. It’sLuang Pu star attraction is a very unusual park created by a spiritual leader named Luang Pu. He was a Lao who fled to Thailand when the communists took over in 1975, and he sculpted in concrete and supervised the making of colossal, bizarre images of Buddhist and Hindu deities, fashioning them in totally unconventional and often disturbing ways. The park is called Wat Kaek, and though he has since died the work is still ongoing. The faces, which are often 10′ high, characteristically have a blank, plastic quality that reminds me of Odo from Star Trek. One impressive statue is a 90′ high Buddha sitting under a very evil-looking 5-headed naga whose protruding fangs and tongues create an image a little removed from the benign teachings of the middle path. Still, it’s enjoyable in a very “Burning Man” kind of way.

We pass through Nong Khai almost every time we go to or from Laos, but this was the first time we stopped to look around. All in all it was nothing special, and we shortened the two planned days there to one. In the morning we did the visa business at the border, (Canadian visa went from $30 to $43) and made our way piecemeal to the capital, Vientiane. Two of the great pleasures of Laos are the baguette sandwiches and the fresh fruit juice. Sounds simple I know, but, apart from the recipe for coffee, the only thing the French gave the Lao was the recipe for baking proper baguettes. And are they ever good. The juice is a no-brainer: get fresh tropical fruit (pineapple, mango, banana, dragon fruit, lemon, watermelon, papaya etc etc) blend the fruit with ice, put into a glass. And when an icy hit of tropical goodness costs 50 cents, you have a lot of them.

The route straight through to L.P. from Vientiane is 11 hard hours of travel, so we decide to make a stop four hours away in Vang Vieng. It was once a sleepy town along a pretty river (named the River of Song) complete with a dramatic Karst mountain backdrop. More recently it’s become a back-packer’s hangout with cafes showing endless videos of “Friends” (of all things) and offering mediocre food on menus written in Hebrew and Korean. We did, however, discover unbelievable nectar here, a lemon-mint shake to die for, containing at least 500 grams of mint, picked straight from the garden. We enjoyed these while watching the local kids leap into the river from a rickety bridge.

From Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang we opt for the more pricy minibus to get through the mountains. These smaller vehicles have an easier time with the hills. No problem with leg room along the way, and it really is one of the most scenic drives in all of Asia. Just to keep things interesting, our bus has a transmission problem, and keeps dropping out of gear on inclines. We are very pleased that it doesn’t die half way, with the passengers forced to hitchhike from the middle of nowhere.

On my first trip I took here I noticed no brick houses, only teak or split bamboo. On the last trip many families had filled in the first story of their stilted wooden house with a brick floor. This trip I saw many new big brick houses. The road is in good shape too. There are still tiny hamlets of shacks clinging to the mountainside, with their front door on the highway’s shoulder, the back door twenty feet over a precipitous drop, propped up on stilts. But Laos’ economy is improving. Lao tourism in Thailand rose 160% this year, mostly first time visitors.

Once we arrive at the Luang Prabang bus station I sense some changes here too. Prices have risen and there is new constructionOur guest house, Luang Prabang everywhere. We take a very pretty room at the Cold River Guest house, with a view from our balcony of the garden, forest, a massive bamboo, and the Nam Khan, a tributary that feeds the mighty Mekhong. It feels good to have a place to stay put for a while; we have had been in 5 hotels in 5 days, a first this trip, but quite normal other years. Our hotel ,though lovely, should have been called “No water.” Due to its own pipes and town problems we often have no water, which is excruciating in the 35 plus weather with heavy sticky humidity. The hotel is favoured by Japanese travellers, who are very friendly. One evening they are sitting around and invite us to taste some local alcohol they have bought. Inside the bottle there is a dramatic cobra with it’s hood extended, biting into a large scorpion. No really, pickled inside the bottle! David, the fool, immediately said yes! He said it tasted like brandy.

PhonsavanShopping is our main reason to come here. We have a delightful source of hand loomed scarves and shawls, Phonsavan, and go to see her in the morning. We make our choices in a few hours and set about photographing it all on locations that say “Laos”. Though it was stinking hot, and we were soaked with sweat, we got terrific shots of the shawls, in temples and on old colonial buildings.

After our work was finished we consider seeing the Pak O caves, where old Buddha statues go when they are removed from temples. It is in a dramatic setting part way up a cliff face on the Mekhong river about 25 km north. We did go last time, and were lucky to hit it when there wasn’t a horde of tourists. This time the tuk tuk drivers are asking for a fare higher then our cost to get here from Vientiane! Same, same, when we try to make it to the water fall south of town. Seemed to me the tuk tuk drivers had a mafia style control on the tourist’s transport and are possibly the ones who got the business of renting motorbikes to farangs made illegal. We bail on both plans and enjoy the town and the area across the Nam Khan which has a more authentic feels to it.

One aspect of Laos culture that hasn’t changed is the farmers use of slash and burn methods. The sky is hazy and our eyes burn from the smoke, and the sun always disappears well before it reached the horizon.

Though we do enjoy the town, there is an unfortunate side effect to all this tourism. Two years ago all the children were excited to say hi. Now people won’t smile or greet you unless you initiate it. In a recent article in the Bangkok Post, writer Seth Mydans wrote, “Luang Prabang displays preservation’s paradox. It has saved itself from modern development by packaging itself for tourists, but in the process has lost much of it’s character, authenticity and cultural significance…being transformed into a replica of itself; dwellings into guest houses, restaurants, souvenir shops and massage parlors; it’s rituals into shows for tourists.”

The Buddhist new year festival of Songkran takes place as the sun moves from Pisces into Aries. Formally, scented water would be poured over Buddha statues and poured gently over the palm of an elder. Nowadays huge coolers full of water are dragged to the curbside and hoses are brought out to soak the motorists and everybody who passes by. People sport pump action super-soaker water guns, and make a water war of all the streets. The enthusiasts in Luang Prabang start celebrating it 5 days before it is scheduled. When we had the stock with us and the camera it was a pain. But after that we are more likely looking for the soaking to cool off. It is actually quite a hilarious festival.

Our departure 4 days later down the same route, through Vang Vieng to Vientiane, becomes much more expensive due to Songkran. The mafia makes it so you have to book a tuk tuk to the bus station, which for a front seat reservation, we thought was worth it. It was not reserved, of course, so we let the first minibus go without us and took the seats we wanted for the next bus. Unfortunately, the bus filled will a group traveling together who would yell, sing and laugh uproariously at their own loud burping. In Vang Vieng we felt shocked when hotels went up 3 to 5 times in price for the festival from justVang Vieng Airstrip 4 days ago. We did find a decent room at a fair price, facing the now-unused airstrip the Americans built to conduct their illegal carpet bombing of the country during the Vietnam War. It seemed great until we saw the stage and tables and speakers being set up for the town’s celebration, almost in front of our hotel! The prospects for a good night’s sleep were looking grim. At least we had air-conditioning and it was stupid hot. But the party down the street used so much power it blew a fuse and blacked out our part of town. No more air-con. We opted for a mint-lemon juice and went to dinner, but following the theme of the day, they forgot one of our dishes. Things were just not going our way. But miraculously, probably because of the town-wide blackouts caused from the giant P.A. systems, the party didn’t go all night and we got a decent night’s sleep after all. We took a 7 am public bus to Vientiane, learned the long distance bus to Udon Thani was full, and decided to go south piece-meal. At every turn, with the festival in full swing, we were faced with inflated prices and constant bombardment with water. In Udon Thani the hotel situation was dire as well, but David, the world champion hotel finder came through, thoroughly soaked, but still grinning.

We spent two nights in Udon Thani before returning to Bangkok, avoiding the madness that takes place in our neighborhood near Khao San Rd. and getting our teeth cleaned for half the price we’d pay in the big city. On the last day of Songkran we took a 7 hour bus ride back to Bangkok, arriving within the still-churning chaos with our full packs. Thankfully our regular place had one room left, which we took, dropped our packs and went out to enjoy the celebrations.set:72157604568583243

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