Laos


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As the true jewel in Laos’s crown of tourist attractions, Luang Prabang–with a population of only 26,000–is not a big city.  Rather, it’s a small town with a lot to offer the ever-increasing number of tourists who come to wander its idyllic streets, dine in its French-influenced cafes and soak up its incredibly contagious relaxed attitude.  After five days of doing just that, I find that I can sum up our time in Luang Prabang by recalling three great experiences and one that I’m still worrying about.

First, the good stuff…
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As we meandered through Luang Prabang’s neighborhoods, we came across temple after temple that housed both ancient relics and young novice monks eager to practice their English with passers-by.  Like so many churches in small-town America, the temples felt very much like the center of the town’s community life.  Wat Xieng Thong, a temple just down the street from our guesthouse, was celebrating a once-a-year festival while we were there.  We were lucky to witness the temple’s vibrant religious community performing ceremonies on their own behalf, rather than–as we’ve seen elsewhere–because tourists expected them to do so.
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One day, Derek, Dana–my good friend who joined us on our travels for a couple of weeks–and I took at boat down the Mekong to the Pak Ou Caves.  Docking on the riverbank, we found two caves situated one on top of the other in a limestone cliff.  Both were crammed with Buddha images of all sizes and styles, and a few locals were on hand to pay their respects to these unique additions to the natural world.
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The next day, we all hopped aboard a tuk-tuk and rode an hour through the Laos countryside to the Tat Kuang Si waterfalls.  What an incredible surprise!  You know those glossy brochures that advertise tropical getaways?  They usually feature a happy couple laughing under a waterfall while standing in a turquoise pool of water, surrounded by tropical foliage and brightly colored flowers.  Well, I’d say that there is a fairly strong chance that those pictures were taken at these waterfalls.  They were stunning and, because we arrived just as the park that houses them was opening, we had them nearly all to ourselves.  A random but fantastic bonus were the caged bears and tiger that greeted us at the park’s entrance.  Rescued from poachers, they now live out their days in large habitats under the protective watch of the park staff.

And now, the worrisome part…
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On our last morning in Luang Prabang, we woke up early to witness a ritual that surely has been taking place for as long as the townspeople can remember.  Every morning, just after 6:00 a.m., hundreds of monks line up and walk down the main street, collecting offerings of food that will serve as their meals for the day.  In their saffron-colored robes under the early-morning sky, the monks are a sight that most everyone would want to see.  And that’s just the problem: everyone does.  Tourists piled off of buses and onto plastic stools placed along the road for them by enterprising tour operators.  With their flashing cameras and their frantic efforts to capture every move that the monks made, they would have put the American paparazzi to shame.  And I admit: we all did our part to add to the madness.  We guiltily snapped pictures and took videos alongside the rest of the onlookers, only adding to the sense that the monks had way too much in common with the caged animals we saw at the falls–lovely to look at and permanently on display.  And therein, I suppose, lies one of the biggest paradoxes of independent travel: we all want to witness (and photograph) unique, authentic occasions.  We just wish that everyone there to do the same would stop ruining the experience for us.

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We’ve covered a lot of ground the last few days, most of it via motorcycle.  From Don Khon, we drove (and, by “drove,” I mean Derek drove and I lazed on the back of the bike) north to the Kingfisher Eco Lodge in Kiet Ngong.  We haven’t been to Africa yet, but I’m pretty sure that the lodge gave us our first taste of what an African safari is going to be like.  From the balcony of our bamboo bungalow, we watched elephants1 munching on impossibly green grass in a field a few hundred feet away.  We climbed aboard one of their peers for a trek up a hill to the archaeological ruins of Phu Asa.  Sadly, we never made it to our destination: our ride took one look uphill, turned around and headed right back home.  I guess that explains why transport via elephant isn’t all that common these days…
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Although we never saw Phu Asa, we did make it to the nearby town of Champasak to see Wat Phu, an ancient Khmer temple complex that’s often compared to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.  Frangipani-lined walkways led us through the wat’s tumbledown structures, which–even under the glare of the harsh, midday sun–exuded an almost mystical air.

We turned in our motorcycle and boarded a bus bound for Attapeu, a town near the Laos-Vietnam border.  After a night there, we hopped on another bus, this one headed for the Laotian border town of Bo Y.   We had read that it was now possible to cross into Vietnam from Bo Y but, so far, few Westerners have tried it (they usually cross at a place farther to the north).  (I have to admit that I felt both cool and adventurous to be making this attempt, particularly because it’s not yet detailed in the Lonely Planet…)  The bus dropped us off on the Laos side of the sandy border town, which had a decidedly Wild West feel to it, and we walked into Vietnam, where it picked us back up.  Piece of cake.
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Next, it was on to Kon Tum, which boasts a well-deserved reputation as one of the friendliest cities in congenial Vietnam.  We procured both a motorcycle and a guide and set off to explore the area, which was the target of an American bombing raid in 1972.   Our first stop was the Vinh Son orphanage, where I once again fell in love with–and resisted the urge to kidnap–one of the little girls I met.  Although this orphanage was far cheerier and better equipped than the one we visited in China, it was somewhat more depressing, in that many of its wards are never adopted; they live out their entire childhoods in the orphanage.  Of course, this is a much better fate than the one that some of them would have faced had they not been put up for adoption: some of the children are part of an ethnic minority group called the Jarai that, until a recent government clampdown, was known to bury live babies along with their dead mothers.  This horrific practice apparently stems from a time when there were no alternatives to breast milk, and so the death of a mother necessarily meant the demise of her baby.
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Waving goodbye to the children, we rode to a Bahnar village, where we saw our first rong house.  Kind of like village community centers, rong houses have towering roofs, the height of which is said to indicate the wealth of their villages.  (I wonder if every village strives for a rong house roof higher than the one of its neighbor…)  We left our motorcycle in the village and set off on foot through jungle landscapes and fields where cows grazed under banana trees.   We floated back to the village in dugout boats, one of which was captained by a boy who could not have been more than six years old.  Although we had nearly as many flat tires as we did days on our motorcycle, two-wheeled travel took us to places–and led us to people–that we never would’ve encountered had we rented a car!

  1. Kiet Ngong is one of the few places where elephants are still used to help with farm work. []

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After flying out of India and enjoying a couple of rejuvenating days in the cosmopolitan city of Bangkok, Thailand, we boarded a plane to the largest city in Southern Laos – the bustling metropolis of Pakse (population 66,000).  Laos (pronounced like “cow”, but replacing the “c” with an “l”) is a country that has been off the tourist track for…well…ever.  It is quickly starting to attract tourists, but mainly to the Northern part of this small country.  We decided to start in the more remote South, with plans to visit the North a few weeks from now.

As a landlocked country (bordered by China, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia), it’s difficult to imagine that Laos’ island life is one of its main attractions.  However, the mighty Mekong River flows through the length of the country, widening at parts to allow islands to form and sustain life.
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After renting a motorbike for $7 a day, we started down a newly paved road to the island of Don Daeng.  As we were approaching the island, signs for a new lodge in the area began to appear.  Curious, we found a phone, rang the lodge and were on a small boat to the place just a few minutes later.  Riding down the dirt path to the lodge (no cars are allowed on the island, and there are only a smattering of motorbikes), we passed villages that surely haven’t changed much in a hundred years (the island just got connected to the electric grid 2 months ago, so it will be interesting to see how quickly it changes).  A few minutes later, we arrived at La Folie Lodge and discovered a piece of heaven.

The Lodge consisted of 12 bungalows decorated as well as any 5-star resort, a restaurant serving amazing Laotian and French food and a pool that will no doubt make the pages of Conde Nast Traveler magazine in an upcoming issue.  With initial plans to stay just one night, we quickly checked the availability at the lodge and decided to stay three.  Our days were spent lounging by the pool, watching the gorgeous sunset over the Mekong River and riding bikes around the island.  With tourists still a novelty, we were bombarded by village children running out of their huts yelling “Sabadee” (the Laotian word for “hello”) as we pedaled by, their faces lit up by welcoming smiles.
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In need of some lunch, we stopped at a hut filled with a group of screaming men huddled around a small ring.  Intrigued, we stood on chairs and looked down in the ring to witness a cockfight in progress.  I quickly scanned the crowd for to see if Michael Vick was there; unfortunately, he was absent.  After briefly watching the bloody battle between the angered, but perplexed, roosters and the even more spirited battle between the onlookers who had gambled on one of the two birds, we somehow still had an appetite.  We ordered a bowl of noodle soup and finished the bowl while conversing in broken English and Lao with a local who seemed more intent on finishing his bottle of rice whiskey than participating in the cockfight spectacle a few feet away.
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After leaving Don Daeng, we continued South via motorbike.  About an hour into our ride, we heard an explosion.  We slowly stopped the bike and realized that our back tire had split in two!  As we were starting to wonder how we were going to fix it, our angel appeared…in the form of…a Laotion man riding on a motorcycle…carrying an AK-47.  Angels take all forms, I guess.  As he pulled up next to us, he smiled, pointed down the road and signaled for us to follow him.  Sometimes you just have to follow your instincts, so we set off down the road towards a small hut just a few hundred yards away.  A local mechanic immediately appeared from within the hut, began removing the back wheel from the bike and instructed the militia man to head to town to buy us a new tire.  Twenty minutes and $9 later, the bike was fixed and were on our way.

A couple of hours later, we arrived in Si Phan Don, an area near the Cambodian border that translates as “Four Thousand Islands.”  The islands of Si Phan Don have become a haven for young backpackers attracted to the beauty and ridiculously cheap prices (bungalows right on the river can be found for $1 per night).  Only a few of the islands are inhabited and only one has electricity.  We loaded our motorbike on a ferry and were off to Don Khon, one of the smaller islands that is still off the electric grid.
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Similar to Don Daeng, Don Khon consists of a few small villages seemingly lost in time. Besides the laid-back attitude of the island and the picturesque views, the main draw is the local marine life – the endangered Irrawaddy Dolphins are native to this area.  With only approximately 100 remaining, a sighting of this rare breed can be difficult.

After exploring the island by bike the next day, we hired a boat in the late afternoon and set off in search of the dolphins.  We soon arrived at a large rock in the middle of the river.  Approximately 8 seconds after debarking the boat, we spotted our first of many dolphins.  On my visit to Sea World a few years ago, I witnessed some amazing dolphin tricks.  Unfortunately, these dolphins don’t exhibit the Flipper-like skilz of the Orlando-based dolphins.  Instead, they glided lazily through the water, in no hurry to be anywhere or disturb anyone – much like the Laotian people who inhabit this tranquil part of the world.