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8.10.13

Lets Get Laos-d!

Hello Fellow Fish!!

Continuing our adventure from Thailand:

We left Koh Phi Phi and embarked on the 16 hour boat/bus/van ride back to Bangkok for our "layover" connection to Vientiane, Laos. While we waited we indulged in some western comforts by going to a big mall with all sorts of outlets and even saw Skyfall in IMAX. 


Our bus was supposed to leave at 5pm, but true to form, was not on time. Our bus didn't even show up until 6:30pm. Finally, everyone is aboard, comfortable, and excited to be on our way. We were all tired and try to get some sleep, but realize about 45 minutes outside of Bangkok, we start to slow down and pull over. The driver said, just a 30 minute break. Which was puzzling being that we had JUST left. What's more is there were small Thai men looking at the engine, which lead us to believe this was more than just a smoke break for the driver. We had broken down. Definite foreshadowing for the rest of our Laos/Cambodia trip. Four hours later, the bus starts running again, and we continue on our journey. 
The "mechanics" hard at work on the broken down bus

#sledgeasleep
After a brief border stop at sunrise, we arrive in the Laotian capital, Vientiane. Since we were so delayed, we had missed our connecting bus (van?) and had to wait half the day for the next one to our final destination of Vang Vieng. We pass the time with some more western comforts in this American bar and grill and poach their wifi (which has quickly become a hot commodity) while we wait and Jeff catches up on some sleep.

 Our van was full of foreigners and of course had a kid...a young kid...a toddler. Being that I hadn't slept very much over the last few days, this was the LAST thing I wanted sitting across from me. Between the winding dirt roads and the screaming kid next to me, it was difficult to appreciate some of the things we were driving past. Entire villages, flanking either side of the road with straw huts and kids playing naked in the mud. There was about 20-30 minutes between each village, but each one had a very similar set up with house (huts) no more than 5-10ft from the edge of the road and directly behind these huts, were sometimes cliff faces that definitely would pose as huge legal liabilities to the safety of any child especially in America. But not for the Laotians! Five hours later, we arrive in Vang Vieng, too tired to walk around to different guesthouses and negotiate a price. So we settle on the one the bus dropped us off at.

Finally, after 56 hours of being in transit, from the time we left Koh Phi Phi, we are at our destination!

Vang Vieng 
Just a few cute things from around town:


Notice this kids has urine running down his leg
Vang Vieng is located deep in central Laos along the Nom Song river. All throughout South East Asia everyone who passed through would not stop raving about what a good time they had in Vang Vieng. And they certainly couldn't say the town name without also mentioning "tubing" in the same breath. That's because, about 10 years ago, the pastime of riding tractor-tire inner tubes down the meandering Nam Song river started to gain word-of-mouth popularity. In recent years, the scene has exploded. Bamboo shack bars opened along the river banks, enticing passing tubing customers with throbbing party music and free shots of the local Lao-Lao whisky. Rope swings, giant water slides and zip lines sprang up beside the bars, inviting sozzled gap-year kids to take their chances with the rocky riverbed in unsupervised acts of derring-do. (for more information do a google search for "Vang Vieng, Laos and read about some of the debauchery that took place) 

Some local kids playing in the mud...yes a few of them are naked. 


Ariel making new friends


However, as anyone with a semblance of foresight might be able to predict, things did not end well for many backpackers. In 2011-2012, twenty seven (27) travelers DIED due to injuries sustained whilst severely intoxicated on the river. It got to the point where enough backpackers had been hurt or killed that a movement of concerned citizens of OTHER countries petitioned the Laotian government to shut the entire operation down.  So by the time we arrived, Vang Vieng was nothing but a hollow shell of its former self. Bars and pubs not on the river marketing to a very specific "backpacker-type" audience were often times sparsely populated during the night. Instead of drunk hooligans getting rowdy, most people just ended up relaxing on the cushioned chairs after dinner and watched the endless reruns of Family Guy and Friends. 


Some friends just MONKeying around


Blue Lagoon #nofilter





We were still able to tube down the river which actually ended up being incredibly serene and worthwhile. We rented tubes in town, then got a tuk-tuk to a point up river, and proceeded to drift carelessly down the river, flanked by these incredible limestone cliff faces that looked like something out of a painting. The most rowdy we got, was at the mildly rapid portions of the river, where if you didn't elevate you butt, it was going to slam into a rock fairly hard and cause some discomfort to say the least. All along the banks were remnants of the old party bars. We could still see some rope swings and determined, a person would have to be REALLY dumb or REALLY drunk to rope swing in to the water at some points because it was so incredibly shallow. All in all, it was probably for the better that these places were shut down, because I imagine that all the ruckus would have taken away from the scenic surroundings and might not have been so enjoyable. 
Thanksgiving dinner
We were fortunate enough to be able to spend Thanksgiving together. We indulged in a big meal (with no turkey) consisting of fish, chicken, mac and cheese, fish, pork and all the good times. We even went around the table saying things we were thankful for. It was a moment where we could take a step back and appreciate our American roots despite being the only Americans, as far as we knew, in the town. 
Justin, literally taking candy (ice cream) from a baby.

Phonsavan

Our time in Vang Vieng came to a close and it was time to move on. So we set our sights on Phonsavan. We booked a van to take us on the 6 hour ride north. I had a PRIME seat. In the first row of the passenger section, with only one other person next to me. All other rows had 3 people to a row. So I was feeling good. That is until about an hour into the ride, our driver decides to pick up a local hitch hiker in exchange for what I could only conclude was a basket of new born chicks. As in baby chickens. Recently hatched. Chirping away as they are strapped down to the roof on top of everyone else's bags. Needless to say I join in the misery of everyone else and am wedged between a local guy covered in mud and a self righteous German who, for some reason, thought that us being seated SO close together was my fault and would keep nudging my arm if it got too close to his. Aside from that, the drive through the countryside was actually striking. Again, driving past and through these little villages on the side of the road with people showering in the open, kids (and adults) playing/working in the mud not even looking twice at the van full of foreigners. Its incredible to think that these places still exist in the world in 2013. 
Had to stick to the trail...or get blown up
Jars in a Plain

Phonsavan was a pretty low key town. The only reason most people stop there is for the "Plain of Jars." If you book with a group, it takes one day to see the Plain and the surrounding attractions. The Plain of Jars are quite the mystery, as it is a huge field with enormous cement (?) jars scattered throughout. The mystery is that no one is quite sure how the jars got there or why there were put there at all. We spent the day looking at all the different sites, which got admittedly boring after a while. The fact that it was just big jars in the ground notwithstanding, we were implored not to leave the trails or risk being literally blown up by an unexploded mine or "Bombie"  but more on that in a bit. After the jars site, our guide took us to a small village that specialized in textiles and metal works. We were walked through the main area of the garment building which housed about 10-15 looms, each one occupied by a local village woman making either scarves, tapestries, etc. We were also shown the metal-works area, which amounted to a few guys in their backyard, sitting around a furnace, melting down scrap metal that they would find in the woods/jungle. This might not sound so bizarre, except for the fact that the scrap metal they were finding were often times leftover bombshells, bullet casings, and exploded mine fragments. They would melt these things down, and pour it into a molding and make anything from spoons to toys. This day was a spoon day. And I even got to sit and make one. 

Back yard spoon making. A family activity.
Some local guy mastering his craft
Spoon molds
Final product










Once back in town, we went to a place that was showing a special feature presentation called "America's Secret War in Laos." This was the OTHER thing Phonsavan was known for; getting blown back to to stone age by American "carpet bombing" from 1964-1975. This English documentary brought to light all the horrible things that went on in the region around the time of the Vietnam War. It highlighted the fact that there are still unexploded cluster bombs all over the country that kill people all the time. It also talked about the Civil War the CIA started in order to establish a puppet government in Laos. This was all news to us. I personally felt like I was just finding out that a dear old friend (USA) is actually a huge jerk. After this very sobering video, we had to blow off some steam and stumbled upon a small carnival/market. We find our way to the gambling section and try to make sense of everything that is going on. It was a dart-roulette type of game, where everyone places bets on the table (so the number they think the dart will hit, 1-9), then the facilitator spins the wheel, then an individual from the audience throws the dart at the spinning wheel. Whichever number the dart hit was the winner. For some reason that night, I was RED HOT. Literally, dictating what number was going to hit. Eventually, we had a crowd around us all marveling at the fact we were out at night being the only white people there. But the people in the crowd loved us and some even spoke english. By the end of it I was placing bets and people from the audience were placing bets on the numbers I was because I was rolling. "Matt, what was your secret for doing so well at that game?" many of you might be asking. It's simple and I'm finally ready to share: 1. 369 was old faithful and always a 'safe' bet. 2. 0 ALWAYS hit twice. 3. Always. No matter WHAT. Always. Bet opposite of Ariel. Does that make me a bad friend? Maybe. But I walked away 50,000 kip richer!! Or about $6.36 richer!!
Pouring molten metal in to the molds


Luang Prabang

After only a day and a half, it was time to move on from Phonsavan, so we piled in yet another van, except this time we were the only white people, and made our way 7 hours even further north to Luang Prabang. 

Luang Prabang is an old city that has developed into a tourist hub, but that did not take away from the local culture (yet) one bit. Our first night, after finding a guesthouse to stay in, we ventured out into the town where we quickly ran into the local food alley/night market. It was a robust combination of locals and tourists all sitting down to eat in this narrow alley in between two buildings. Each side, was occupied by different food vendors with small breaks for seating. The "roof" over the alley is a term I use lightly because it was comprised of tarps and sheet metal thrown together and barely kept the rain at bay. The whole environment was quite a scene. Smokey, crowded, and lit by uncovered 60 watt light bulbs. Despite all these issues, the food was nothing less than superb, and very diverse. There was grilled chicken on skewers, grilled fish, caught THAT morning, noodle dishes, vegetables, spicy, cold, fresh, cooked, steamed, rice and list goes on. Some booths had entire buffet-style eating that might remind one of Golden Corral, just a bit less expensive...and more Asian. About 7,000 kip (roughly a dollar). I realize I'm idealizing this food as the freshest, best food ever, and it really was good. But obviously one still needs to use good judgment when partaking in activities such as eating otherwise risk getting some kind of food bug (yes, that is foreshadowing).


Buffet!

Grilled chicken and fish

Night Market
Our stay in Luang Prabang was highlighted by our biking excursion to the Kuang Si waterfall. We spent an entire day prior looking for a good deal on proper mountain bikes that wouldn't fall apart on departure, and by the time we decided on which shop to go with, the day was over. So we waited for the next day to embark. The Kuang Si waterfall is about 30km (a little more than 18 miles) outside the town. The average backpacker would usually just hire a tuk-tuk and and pay an exorbitant amount to get there and back. Being the thrifty and savvy backpackers we were, we knew biking would be the most rewarding way to go. Ariel, Jeff, and Justin are avid bikers having all lived in Brooklyn at some point in their lives and sped ahead when we first set out. I, on the other hand, being the casual bike rider that I am, played the role of the tortoise in the old tale, "The Tortoise and the Hare." I set out at a slow and very steady pace that at times seemed like a pointless endeavor, riding up big winding mountain roads in first gear. But every now and then I would pass the others as they stopped for a break. Not me. No way. Don't need no break. Not now. Not never. I cherished the straight aways that lead me past fields and farms. Passing through small villages full of people who are just going about their daily lives. The entire two hours I did not stop. And yes, I am proud of that fact. Despite bringing up the rear of the group, we all arrived within 5 minutes of each other to the falls. 

View from the top. This peaceful looking pond actually turns into:


This
This
This
This

This
This. And eventually:
This.

Finally, this.

 After a small lunch, and a quick look through the Black Bear Preservation area leading up to the falls we finally feasted our eyes on the incredibly awe inspiring sight of the Kuang Si falls. There were small blue pools at the bottom leading up to the enormous falls themselves, which were layered/tiered in levels about 60 meters (roughly 200 feet) high.We hiked up to the top of the falls to look out over everything. From the top, there is just a quiet little pond that feeds this raging waterfall. Being there you would have NO idea that a still, somewhat cloudy pond would turn into a furious fall and come out the other end being turquoise blue. While we waded through the murky pond at the top, Jeff wound up getting a leech on his leg, and the thing just would not die even though it was squished. Once the thing was off and dead (?) the bite area kept bleeding for sometime. We found out later from some locals that you're supposed to put salt on a leech wound. Back at the bottom, we relaxed in one of the pools and hurled ourselves into it with a rope swing attached to a nearby tree. When we were done, we had plans to go see another water fall but realized, on bikes we wouldn't get back until after dark, which probably wasn't great. So we just decided to head back. The ride back to town was equally serene as the ride to the falls. The surroundings were SO incredibly peaceful and there were times I just stopped and listened to pure silence. It was a transitional period in the day, so no bugs were making noises, no birds were chirping yet, I was on a farm road with no one else even in sight, and I had to actively make a memory to ensure that I don't soon forget what it was like to just stand, and listen to complete silence. This of course didn't last forever and I had to continue on my way. At one point I saw a real life scorpion in the road. And at another point, I passed a group of school kids walking back to their homes and they saw me coming and got really excited. I figured, "who wouldn't be pumped to see me?" As I rode out they were sticking their hands out for high 5's. When I returned the gesture, as soon as our hands made contact, they would grab on and try and pull me off my bike (not in an aggressive way) and get me to stop. I was able to ride off with the worst of it just being a few kids chasing me for a bit, all of them yelling the few words they knew in English, and a few more asking me for money. Back in town, 60km round trip later, legs like jello, and butt numb, we resign to a meal in the food alley and treat ourselves to a celebratory Beer Lao served luke warm and with ice cubes. Laos style.
Jeff's leech wound
One of the nights, Jeff, Justin, and I walk around the town. We get the usual meal, and walk through the night market just like any other night. But this night we happen upon a tuk-tuk driver that convinces us to go to the discotheque. The offer intrigued us in the first place, because Laos has a curfew for establishments and there aren't many places that are open passed 9pm. So we go to this club and find out that we are 3 of maybe 10 total white people in this entire place. The remaining 7 of which are older white men, looking to pick up Laos women on the cheap. This disgusting practice was brought to full light when we mosied our way in to the VIP section without question just because we were white. The security didn't look twice at us. While we were hanging out, we see this overweight white guy with his hands all over a small pretty Laos girl. This man would fit NO definition of the word attractive in any language, but the fact that he was probably paying this girl, he was able to do as he pleased and no one asked any questions. Was she a hooker? Maybe. Does that make it any less terrible that these women in developing countries are being exploited by lonely white men on business trips? Nerp. 

On our last day in Luang Prabang I feel terribly sick. What's worse is that we had already checked out of our hostel so I had no where to just sit and lie down. I eventually decide on the nice hotel on the main street's lobby while the others went out for some last minute sightseeing around the town. I tried to eat a PBJ sandwich but felt even worse. I laid on the bench in the lobby for about 6 hours until it was time for us to catch our bus out of town. The tuk-tuk ride to the station felt like hell on earth, plus the fact on the way there, we ran over a cat and the driver didn't even care! As many of you might have already guessed, being sick and away from home is a terrible thing. Being sick and away from home AND having to be in transit might be as bad if not worse than Congress's approval rating at the time of this writing (10/2013). On the bus there was a small revolution, because no one knew if there were assigned seats or not, so people were disgruntled. Once that issue was resolved and we were finally on the road our bus broke down...again. I had two options: 1. sit on a bus with my fever and sweat. 2. go outside with everyone else and freeze. There was no right answer and from 10pm to about 1:30am we sat on the side of the road and waited for another bus to pass to pick us up. 

Luckily, we arrived to the capital city, Vientiane the next morning and I was feeling way better. 

Vientiane

Vientiane was basically just a layover stop for us. Being that it was the capital it was very western and had much more modern accommodations and food choices which was a welcomed sight, but unfortunately also meant (marginally) more expensive. We didn't do much sightseeing or walking tours. We were there to get visas for Myanmar and wait for our bus to Cambodia. Little did we know the hardships we would encounter getting these visas sorted out.

Justin's Blue Steel
Our first day, we go straight to the US Embassy and find out its closed. The security guard said the Burmese Embassy would definitely be open, so we go straight there and find out that too is closed for some holiday. So we have to wait one day. When the Myanmar Embassy finally opens we go in and start filling out forms. Having filled out so many forms for visas and other things we didn't take this too seriously because these were just xeroxed papers asking for general information. So we make up things like our occupations (ie: travel blogger, photographer, food connoisseur), place of residence etc. We paid for our lack of seriousness when the worker told us certain jobs weren't allowed in Myanmar, namely journalists and photographers. So Jeff and I had to get new forms and start again. When we were all done, they tell us we need to get new passport pictures and direct us to this photo place down the road where we again do not take it one bit seriously. We did our best to make the most ridiculous faces for the pictures. Justin did his best "Blue Steel" look and the rest of us did a combination of blank stare and pedophile mug shot look. We get these pictures to turn in with the forms, and when I turn mine in, I'm told I need to get more pages for my passport because I didn't have enough space. (I had successfully achieved every backpackers #1 goal. FILLING OUT AN ENTIRE PASSPORT!!). But unfortunately at this particular point it was quite an inconvenience. 

I go on my own across town to the US Embassy and am halted at the door until someone on the phone talks to me. The girl at the other end informs me that passport additions are $82 dollars cash only. I only had kip. At this point it is about 11:30 am. The embassy closes from 12-3:30pm. So I hustle across the street to an ATM area with 4 ATMs. However, 3 of the 4 were out of order. So I get in line for the one working one. It is almost my turn, when the lady in front of me, her "transaction is processing" for about 5 minutes. When it finally starts blinking and says, "Out of Service." Just my luck. I frantically run around a nearby mall and find an ATM, then run down the road to the Western Union to exchange the money, then literally SPRINT back to the embassy. I make it back at 11:56am. I'm buzzed inside and notice a big waiting area full of locals. It was partially outdoors so the whole area was hot and crowded. I get concerned until I see the sign at the back of the room that says, "US Citizens." I breathe a sigh of relief and am once again so proud to be an American.

I get buzzed through another door that leads me into a small, doctor's office reception-sized room, with the AC blasting. I go to the window and I am given forms to fill out and instructed to bring the completed forms to window 9. Literally 5ft behind me. Incredulously, I look behind me at the window, then back at the lady, then walk to window #9. At which point, I drop off my forms, and am then told to go to window #7 to drop off my passport. Window #7 was immediately to my left. I felt like Ben Stiller in "Meet the Parents" when he is trying to get on the plane, and there is no one else in the waiting area but he is still being asked to wait for other passengers to board. I felt absolutely ridiculous. Mainly, because I was the ONLY person in the room. They first tell me it will take 10 minutes, but then change their minds to two and a half hours. Instead of going back into the heat, I wait in the room and read a year old copy of the Economist. When the passport was done, instead of politely asking me, in an inside voice (they could have whispered), to come to the window and pick up my passport, they feel the need to get on the room-wide PA system and announce my name and tell me that my passport was ready. At a loss, I get my passport and go back to the hostel. 

My mug shot
We forged fake plane tickets to Burma, in order to get our visas expedited and were able to pick up our visas next day. Our silliness came back to bite us again, because the ridiculous pictures we took the day before, were actually put on the visas for all to see. Our last night was spent near the river drinking one last Beer Lao and watching two Israeli guys fight at the restaurant we were at all while looking into a fading sunset. That night, we packed into another van, we were taken to yet another bus station, loaded on to another bus going on to another city. We had the routine down pat. And we were on our way to Cambodia. 
Sunset over Vientiane on our last night



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By: Matt Wetherington
Until Next Time,

The Tunas

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