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Laos – a nostalgic collection

So it’s been a year since I properly travelled Laos. Of course, it’s only appropriate that I now make a video compilation of a bunch of the footage from those two separate trips.

While in Laos with Melissa in January 2012, we visited Vang Vieng and I fell in love with the views, but not the cheesy tourists making a mess of the town. We trekked through the mountains and countryside, kayaked down rivers, and stayed overnight in a Khmu village in Luang Prabang.

I also returned later, in April 2012, on a more interesting method of transport, to float down the river on an inner tube, contributing to the whole mess that the town is currently in. I’m happy that I was able to tube the river while everything was still open, so that I could see just how dangerous it was and so that I could actively contribute to the conversation about what Vang Vieng did wrong in terms of tourism and how they can turn it around in the future. For more information into the drunken beating this town took, the government crackdown, and how they’re currently doing, check out this article from the Sydney Morning Herald. (Appropriate source, since most of the deaths / drunken idiots where more often than not 18 year old Aussie’s.)

Unfortunately my old camera didn’t take the best video quality. Which I’m really sad about. I also wasn’t really thinking about taking the best video footage at the time, but nonetheless I spent some time yesterday working with a crappy downloaded free program (that is so different from Final Cut that it actually made me cry inside a little bit) to make this for you, friends.


Vang Vieng… Again

I knew I’d be back. There is just something about Vang Vieng that makes me simultaneously love it and hate it. I hate the cult-like way that all the kids (and I mean anywhere from 18 to 25 here) sit and watch friends during the days. Zoned out to oblivion from whatever “happy” thing they ate or drank. I both love and hate the multitude of free buckets. I hate the way the shirtless, paint covered; shoeless, drunken kids coming back from tubing behave.

I love the chilled out vibe, and I love the view.

The last one always seems to win out. It seriously is the most gorgeous view, and the riverside restaurants are working hard to capitalize on that fact. Low tables made for lounging for hours overlooking the river and with a wide open view that never ceases to take my breath away.

The first time that I was in Vang Vieng, all I wanted to do was sit and stare, breath the air, drink fruit shakes and eat giant chicken baguette sandwiches. This time, however, I decided to take in what the town is known for: tubing down the river.

The tubing itself isn’t the focus, however, drinking while you’re doing it is. Where the tuk-tuk dropped us and our tubes off, there was a bar with quite an enticing offer to get us started. Once we got to the river, we were greeted by a free shot and someone to wrap a bracelet around our wrist.

Even trying to ignore the bars and tube down the river is next to impossible; there are people whose main job is to throw a rope with a weighted water bottle out to you to pull you in. It’s way too easy to get roped in (see what I did there?) to visiting the many bars along the river. Once you abandon your tube and climb the ladder, each bar has a dance floor, a restaurant for food and a little something extra. Whether it’s a rope swing, a high platform, a trapeze, giant slide or inflatable launching pad there is enough to distract you from the goal of getting your tube (and refund) back before six.

Unfortunately we spent too much time at the beginning relaxing by the water and drinking beers to actually visit all of the bars and attractions. Simply floating down the river became impossible and we had to peddle ourselves toward the end, trying not to get raped by rocks as the water became gradually shallower.

Luckily we made it back just in time to get our deposit back, went out for dinner and then made our way down to the bars by the river for our free buckets. It ended up being a dangerous day / night.

The next day, despite hangovers from hell, we went exploring the caves in the area surrounding the town. While we were disappointed with the first, and closer one, the second one we went to had a lagoon in it ready for swimming. However, by the time we got there it was so dark there was no light coming in through the roof of the cave and we were scared of snakes and other critters in the water, so opted out of swimming.

I don’t know if I’ll make that crazy trek into Vang Vieng again, so I’m glad that I was able to experience it twice, in two very different ways and with two very different people.

Thai Spirit Houses

Since one night on the beach at the Sanctuary on Koh Phangan where I saw a random light hidden in some bushes, I’ve been drawn to Spirit Houses and their ornate decorations and offerings that can be seen throughout Thailand.

A spirit house overlooking the beach at Haad Tien

Statues inside a spirit house

Spirit Houses are a Buddhist tradition that essentially welcomes and distracts spirits with an appealing place to rest as opposed to inhabiting places like trees, lakes, waterfalls or the heavens. These houses are meant to appease the spirits to bring good luck on the house, business or farm and they are everywhere. Considering that Thai’s believe that if a spirit is unhappy, they can cause the business or venture to fail, the importance of pleasing these guardian spirits of the land is very important.

A set of Spirit Houses outside MBK

The houses themselves look like little temples, complete with little statue families inside of them, sometimes there are also animals and furniture to make the home more comfortable. But they can also be huge to represent the building that they are meant to be residing over, for instance the larger than life one at the MBK centre in Bangkok, or the ones built to reside over an entire city block.

Offerings are commonly placed around the alter on the outside of the spirit house, of food, flower garlands, drinks and incense that is lit everyday. The importance of keeping up with the spirit house is seen by the fact that you’ll rarely see a spirit house with rotting fruit or incense that hasn’t been recently lit because that is seen as disrespectful to the spirit.

In Vietnam, because we were there for Tet, the offerings were exorbitant. They had everything from money, to food; to beer and alcohol to make sure that the spirits were happy with them and to bring good luck to their home or business for the New Year.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of these, but they were seriously overflowing!

In Laos, during our trek and talk with the tour guide over Lao Lao we talked about Buddhist culture and he explained that they create the spirit houses to make spirits of their loved ones more comfortable in the after life. That is why, Micke explained, some of the houses have furniture or cars and the family offers money, food and drink to make their afterlife as comfortable as their earthly life.

I was saddened when I saw a stack of discarded alters and spirit houses in Bangkok, but after a little research I’ve learned that this is because the family or business has decided to upgrade the spirit house. They perform a ceremony to transfer the spirit to the new house. Still, seeing where spirit houses go to die outside of a Wat (temple) may have been a tad depressing.

Small, discarded spirit houses

The “I’ll be back” feeling

Something weird happened to me while I was traveling around Laos and Vietnam with Melisa, and even when I was in Chiang Mai with everyone else. I wasn’t concerned about buying a bunch of mementos, of taking a million pictures or fitting in as much as humanly possible. I had this crazy feeling that I would be back and that I would be able to do my shopping at another time that it made more sense to keep my load light for the time being. The only thing I bought from each place, was a postcard or two to send home to loved ones.

I fell in love with Laos. Looking at photos of Melisa’s return to build a school outside of Luang Prabang made me realize just how much we both fell in love with it. There are so many parts of it that are seriously untouched, hill tribes living with the bare minimum to survive, electricity being a relatively new concept, and the pace of life being so quiet that the entire country shuts down almost as soon as the sun sets. I love the pace of life here in Thailand, but the pace in Laos is turned down about 5 notches. But I don’t know if I could live there for that very reason. I’m a city girl, through and through, and I need streetlights and late nights. But I will be back. Maybe even for the chance to ride down the river on an inner tube and the view of the mountains in Vang Vieng.

I hated Vietnam at the time, but know that if I go back when everything is actually open and the country is its vibrant self I might feel differently. I hated Bangkok, but what I’ve realized is that I really hated the drunken, partying foreigners on Khao San. I might also feel differently seeing other parts of the city, although I think that once I’ve experienced the small town life here, it’s doubtful that I would fall in love with it.

The other thing I realized while at the Luang Prabang night market was that the trinkets sold at the markets are the same all over the place, and finding something specific to that culture takes a little more searching and knowing about the culture instead of just searching for something that “looks cool;” those can be found anywhere.

Setting up for the daily Luang Prabang night market

That reason alone made me not want to buy anything until I was sure that it accurately reflected the culture and wasn’t some cheap little trinket that was mass produced in China or some sweat shop. If I wanted stuff like that, I could head down to Chinatown and buy them by the armload.

It was another reason that I loved the Chiang Mai Sunday market, those were all local artisans selling their own handmade goods. It was like the Thai version of a one-of-a-kind show, but on the street, and with lots of amazing food. If I end up working anywhere near Chiang Mai, I can guarantee that I will be there every Sunday evening doing a weekly splurge.

While here in Ban Phe, on Monday and Thursday they have night markets and on those nights it’s routine to go and wander and buy market dinner. The first real local market that I’ve come across, it’s aimed not at tourists, but for the locals in Ban Phe to stock up on vegetables, snacks and used (or sometimes new) clothes.

From Chiang Mai to Vang Vieng

Leaving Pai resulted in three nervous breakdowns and an almost fist fight between a Thai woman and a Turkish woman. We watched a bus come and people start getting on it, and thought that our tickets reserved our spot. Rookie mistake. We didn’t realize that we were supposed to check-in and double check in to reserve our spot on the bus. So, while the bus was full and sitting there we were pleading our case about all the connections we had to make and then one woman said the next bus was coming at 4:00. Since it was currently 2:00 and the three of us had connections with the hour upon arriving in Chiang Mai we were all slightly stressed out. After the time miscommunication and some frantic screaming, we were assured that there was a bus coming within 20 minutes.

After finally getting on the bus and getting to Chiang Mai, I narrowly avoided a possibly very public and very emotional goodbye and we plopped down our bags, checked our watch and headed off for dinner.

Notice a step missing?

We didn’t check in at the desk. So for the second time that day, we didn’t check in. Not until we noticed another large group of people with their passports at the desk did we realize that we were going to miss another bus, so we went up and handed our passports over and got our names on the list for the next bus.

Eventually the bus left, what was supposed to be 7:00 turned into 8:30, but we were on the road.

Driving down a Thai highway is a lot like driving down any highway unless you see the road signs. We could have been anywhere in the world. So we just cuddled up and tried to sleep through countless 7-11 bathroom stops and 4 loud girls from New Zealand in the back.

The border was uneventful; we filled out our departure cards, got our passports stamped and Visa’s issued and we were on our way. We were surprised at how pricey the Visa was since we had read on the internet that it was $35US, but we had to pay 1,800 Baht. We took a Songthaew into Vientienne where we waited for a big bus to take us on to Vang Vieng. This time we were prepared to jump on that bus as soon as it arrived to ensure our spot.

The ride into Vang Vieng was beautiful, through villages and up and down mountain sides. Many times the driver had to stop and honk at cows and goats to move out of the road. In many places the paved road gave out to gravel and I learned later that it’s because the roads are new, but they’re not paved properly, so every time there is a big rainfall, it washes out the road.

Arriving was such a relief, we had picked a place to stay out of Melisa’s book and grabbed our bags and headed out in search of it. However, since Vang Vieng is known as a party town because of the tubing down the river and bucket drinks, everything that was remotely cheap and clean seemed booked so we just grabbed a room at an upper class place with the most wonderful view in the world.

After hitting the bank machine to get some KIP ($1 = 7,800 KIP! I’m a millionaire!!) and dropping off some laundry, we proceeded to grab something to eat and drink. And so the night begins. Almost immediately, we met one of the adopted locals, an American who has been coming back here for 9 years to teach English, give Chiropractic care to the people here and run a restaurant in town. They actually completed an adoption ceremony to accept him into the family that consisted of the sacrifice of a couple chickens, a lot of candles and a shaman, and n ow most of the town calls him “poppa.” Him and his partner fed us Lao Lao, essentially Laotian moonshine, and we were able to ask him all our questions and they took us on a tour of the towns best bars. We were thoroughly upset by the 19-year old crowd (or younger?!?!) and called it an early night. Also, exhaustion and drinking hard liquor don’t mix very well. The crowd here seem to be as rowdy and reckless as the Haad Rin crowd that we constantly made fun of at Haad Tien, except that here there is a constant stream of people coming and going and the party continues every day of the week.

The weirdest thing about this town is that every other restaurant plays Friends on the big screens. So they have the low tables and mattresses on the ground with pillows for relaxing, as one would expect at a truly Lao restaurant, but restaurants side by side play continuous episodes day in and day out. On a day like today, with the rain coming down so hard that you don’t really want to be anywhere else, it was a simple comfort to sit on the internet, beer by my side and an episode of Friends for background noise.

Popa told us that the reason for this is that one bar started playing it one year, and everyone flocked to it because it was so random. Other business owners saw their success and followed suit and started doing it to the point that if you’re sitting on the patio, you can hear three different episodes playing simultaneously. Some have swayed a little and started playing Family Guy or South Park, but for the most part Friends is the staple.

One of the things I love about Melisa is that she absolutely loves animals. Of all kinds. But today we saw a poor dog that had a limp and her heart just broke. Heading over to cuddle it and give it some love the poor thing whimpered while it was trying to sit down. The owner kind of shrugs and says that it got hit by a mini-bus. So for the next half hour, she’s asking everyone around if there’s a vet or animal clinic around somewhere that she can take the dog to so that his leg could get fixed. Alas, there is nothing close at all, and most people tried to send us to the hospital, so I had to take her mind off of it before she broke down into tears. Sometimes animal culture shock can be the hardest reality there is to face. (Popa also told us that if the people here have a particularly bad year as far as tourism goes, the dogs are the first thing that they turn to for food… And I thought they didn’t do that here!!)

Since the rain started today instead of a trek that we had planned to do in the mountains, we’re going to head into Luang Prabang tomorrow, where we’re hoping to trek and spend a night in a Northern village. I’ve come to learn that planning and expecting things while traveling can really only be done from each location you’re at. So I’ll have to book my ticket back to Bangkok, but until then we’re going to take every day as it comes and play by ear.