The musical selection for this post is “Islands in the Stream,” a duet by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. You know you love it. Link at the bottom.
After taking an overnight barracks-style sleeper bus from Vientiane to Pakse, we immediately booked a van/boat transfer another few hours to an area in southern Laos called Si Phan Don, which means Four Thousand Islands.
Grilled bananas for breakfast. I remember they weren’t as good as I expected them to be!
We went to the main island, Don Det, rented a bungalow and holed up there for a week. It was late September and nearing the end of the monsoon season; the Mekong was really swollen with water, which had many of the locals concerned about whether their homes or businesses would be washed out by the flooding. Due to the time of year, there were very few tourists. It was really mellow, just what we were looking for.
On the boat to Don Det:
The rice paddies were so brilliantly green. The other photos don’t do it justice because it was so overcast all of the time. It was beautiful.
We stayed at a guesthouse situated on the very tip of the island. It had some nice gardens and a cafe overlooking the water.
Some of the locals make their living by fishing.
We paddled over the Cambodian border to see some Irrawaddy dolphins, a critically endangered species that inhabits small pockets of the Mekong in Cambodia and Laos. These buildings on the Cambodian side were a testament to how swollen the river was.
(L-R): Sarah, David, Rachel, Lily, Laina, Freakshow with Awful Facial Hair
Back on Don Det:
At this pace, Laina and I will still be writing about this trip by the time we take our next trip! The music for this post is Tropical Hot Dog Night by Captain Beefheart, link at the bottom.
We arrived in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, on Sunday September 15th with a mission to accomplish: we had to get three different visas before the next weekend. It wasn’t very often on our trip that we had to be somewhere (or anywhere) at a specific day and time, but with the narrow window of the 5-day work week we had to make each day count. First thing Monday morning we were up getting our Laos visas extended, which required us to find this obscure little government office, fill out some paperwork, and pay a few small fees. We managed to knock that off our list without too much difficulty, but we didn’t get our passports back until the afternoon, and the Thai embassy only accepts visa applications in the morning. So, we took advantage of our first air conditioned room in nearly a month and then walked down to the river in the evening.
Like so many places in Asia, the waterfront in Vientiane is a nice spot for evening markets and, of course, public exercise.
Across the river is Thailand. Many tourists come to Vientiane just for the day to get their Thai visas renewed.
Our guest house was notable for another reason: it was one of the rare times we had a tv in our room. Tuesday morning something totally incredible happened: I clicked on the TV and the Bengals-Steelers Monday Night Football game was on! Who Dey! I got to watch the 2nd and 3rd quarters before we had to leave for the day. The only other time I got to see a Bengals game on our travels was another Bengals win over the Steelers at the end of the 2012 season, when we were in Buenos Aires.
We biked to the Thai embassy and dropped off our applications for 30-day visas. When you enter Thailand over land, you are issued only a 15-day visa, and soon we were going to be back in Thailand for 17 days. The Thai visa application process in Vientiane requires that they keep your passport for one full night, so we had the rest of the day to do nothing.
We rode out to check out this big arch.
I thought it looked pretty cool, but whoever wrote the official sign was not impressed by this “monster of concrete“. For some reason I find it funny that they built it with money and cement that was given by the United States to build a new airport.
Wait, what about fire?
The next day we had the whole morning with nothing to do, so we rented bikes again and cruised around the city. Unlike Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, Vientiane is not a popular tourist destination, but we liked it nonetheless. It’s by far the most mellow of the 7 Asian capitals that we visited. Because of the French colonial influence we were able to find food that wasn’t easily accessible elsewhere in Asia, including decent wine, cheese, and sausage. We had a couple meals that week that were just crackers, cheese, and sausage.
Typical Asian misspelling or sly put-down?
That afternoon we had to pick up the Thai visas and immediately high-tail it on our bikes to the Myanmar consulate. Given our tight schedule that week, we had done our homework and made sure we had all of the paperwork filled out and the appropriate cash and passport photos for the Myanmar visa. But when we got there they told us that we wouldn’t be able to pick up our visas until the following week. That would have totally screwed up our plans, so we pleaded with the lady. She spoke with her boss, who said that if we just paid an extra $10US, we could pick up our completed visas on Friday, as Thursday was some random Burmese holiday. Perfect. This was one small bribe we were happy to pay.
That night we had one of the best meals that we had in all of Laos, at the appropriately-named Lao Kitchen. Like Cambodian food, Lao food is similar to Thai but the flavors are generally not as well balanced. This restaurant was superior though, and offered some truly unique dishes. The duck larb was amazing, as were the sour sausages. And the prices were really budget-friendly. This place was so good that we went back the next night.
Thursday was more bike riding around town and staying cool in the AC at our hotel.
Friday morning we had breakfast at a place that had a caged squirrel as a pet. Or maybe it was destined for the menu…
We had until the afternoon to pick up our Myanmar visas, so we rode 15 miles outside of town, over dusty dirt roads plagued by potholes, to a place called Buddha Park. This place has hundreds of crazy religious statues and structures, all done in reinforced concrete. Some of them are a little worse for the wear, but it’s still a fascinating place to see, with some really bizarre statuary. Sorry for the lousy photo quality, our camera was limping along at this point, and the bright but overcast conditions made it difficult to get crisp shots.
After picking up our Myanmar visas, we rode out to Pha That Luang, but we arrived too late to go inside. Pha That Luang is the most important Lao national monument and is featured on their money, but from outside the wall it didn’t look very impressive. Give us the Monster of Concrete!
Our week of “hard work” was successfully completed, so we got out of Vientiane. The nice folks at “King of Bus” were kind enough to sell us tickets to Si Phan Don (4,000 Islands) on an overnight sleeper bus.
I hope you brought your Valium if you want to actually sleep. This thing was like a barracks on wheels bouncing over vast potholes and rutted roads.
The music for this post is “Carry the Zero” by Built to Spill. Link at the bottom.
On September 6th the four of us left Luang Prabang, too early and a little hungover. The bowling alley gets you every time. I forgot my tablet computer at the hotel and had to cab back there, pick it up, and then cab back to the bus station, which made our whole minibus have to wait before leaving for Vang Vieng. Oops.
The drive between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang is stunning, a seemingly solitary road winding through gorgeous jungle mountains. Unfortunately we were all crammed in the back of a minibus with a bunch of strangers, feeling carsick, so we didn’t really get to appreciate it or take any good photos. When we go back to Laos, I want to do this drive on a motorbike.
Adding to our general queasiness was the sight of some bear’s feet (and other body parts) in plastic jugs at the little shop and restaurant where the minibus stopped for lunch. I guess it’s like the bird juice we saw in Vietnam, people drink it for stronger boners or something. We had learned about the awful sun bear trade when we visited the bear sanctuary near Luang Prabang, but it was still a hard thing to see.
Our fortunes turned around when we got to Vang Vieng: DOUBLE RAINBOW! We saw this beauty right after getting out of the minibus. Oh my god, oh my god, WOOOOOOO! What does this mean?
Vang Vieng has a well-deserved bad reputation for being the most debaucherous and dangerous party town on the Banana Pancake Trail – at the peak in 2011 about two dozen tourists died in this small town – but that wasn’t our experience at all. In 2012 the Laos government cracked down on the out-of-control party scene, destroying all but 3 of the bars along the tubing route and closing dozens of other bars and clubs. The party moved elsewhere (Sihanoukville picked up some of the slack), and Vang Vieng chilled out, for a little while at least. We were there in the off-season, so that contributed to the mellow vibe as well.
The first 3 days were super fun – it was really awesome to be able to spend time with Stef and Meredith. We stayed at a quiet guesthouse just a little south of the town center. We would get up whenever we woke up and walk to one of the restaurants with a big deck overlooking the Nam Song River. After breakfast the first day we rented motorbikes and rode north of town.
We hired this boatman to take us across the river so we could go check out one of the most famous caves in the area.
We hired a local guy to be our guide through the cave, which was a good idea even though the cave is pretty easy to navigate. I’m just happy that my motorbike keys didn’t end up in his underpants.
There is a big seated Buddha at the entrance to the cave.
Inside the cave we walked through shallow pools of water and saw some cool rock formations. The muddy-looking wall you see in this photo was formed naturally by water and creates a pool behind it; we walked through a series of these shallow pools.
Check out the banana leaf umbrella.
After passing on toast milk, “King of Bus” came to take Stef and Meredith away from us. It was hard to say goodbye.
Laina and I had a few more days in Vang Vieng after our friends left us. We had no agenda and just sort of went with the flow. I recommend getting the Hobo Maps map of Vang Vieng and the outlying areas. It’s a great guide for exploring the natural wonders outside of town.
On September 11th we decided to take the plunge and go “In The Tubing”. It was raining and there were only 3 bars still standing along the river, but we made the most of it. Here is Laina climbing out of a tube at one the river’s edge.
Some people playing soccer in the mud:
The float is pretty enjoyable after a couple beers. And maybe a little lao-lao…
The next day the woman who ran our hotel offered us some tasty small snails. They were really good. Snails are definitely under-appreciated in the U.S. – they’re kind of like land-oysters – but I can’t honestly say that I’m going to try to eat them more often.
This photo – which I should not have taken – shows a local woman showering in a typical small-community water facility. Everybody gets their water and showers and washes clothes from the same spout. As far as I can tell, the spout runs all day and there is not a valve to turn the water off.
The end of another awesome day…
I woke up the next morning with the feeling that it was time for a haircut. I drew up this little sketch to try to convey the idea that I wanted my mohawk to be made skinnier and my goatee as well.
I’m not sure what Prickly Heat is, but now I know not to accept any brand other than Snake Brand.
Split open and get out of this maze. Thanks for the sunglasses Stef!
Like I said, things have changed a little in Vang Vieng.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t spend a lovely afternoon watching the river float by from a hammock.
“Serpico Mudflap” sounds like a good butt-rock song title.
We ended that epic day by finally finding a place near town that my friend Yu had recommended but whose location he could not fully describe. It was a fantastic overlook that gave unparalleled views of Vang Vieng and the valley to the west that we had spent the day pedaling. It’s kind of hard to find, but if you get the Hobo Maps map, just look for Pha Ngeun (Pillar), right there in the center of the map. The guy who introduced this place to Yu called it “The Apotheosis of Zen”, which is a pretty satisfactory description. The views from this place are incredible. I wish we had more time here.
Laina tried to steal my thunder with this pose, but points were deducted for her wonky double-jointed elbow.
That’s more like it!
We visited another cave (Chang Cave) which was just okay, but nearby there was a powerful stream flowing right out of the mountain. The water was sort of milky and flowed very swiftly. We swam for a bit but felt a little self-conscious in our bathing suits – most of the other adults there were swimming in clothes.
Leaving that place we bought some delicious green sweet rice snacks.
We’re back – again! In real time: Tim and I are back home in Oakland. As our lives get back to “normal,” we are finding it difficult to carve out time to finish the blog, but we will keep trying. Here is the next chapter.
The song for this post is a ridiculous ditty called “Party Barge” by the Silver Jews. Link at the bottom.
After a couple of days in Nong Khiaw, Laos, it was time to move on to one of the country’s main cities: Luang Prabang. To get there, we had to take one of the sketchier bus rides of our trip. The “bus” was really just a pick up with an open cover on the back. We squeezed in with a bunch of locals; at one point there were 20 adults and 3 kids in the vehicle.
Rambo says it’s time to crush this bus ride.
Our driver was very professional. He only had one beer, at least while he was driving.
Our fellow passengers. We got a lesson in how Laotians perceive personal boundaries. The woman in the foreground casually leaned on me (Laina) for a good part of the 4-hour trip. At least she offered me peanuts for my trouble!
We stopped on the side of the road so some of the other passengers could buy some melons. This little guy was so excited to see me and Tim. He kept yelling at us and waving.
Finally we reached our destination, Luang Prabang. LP is a charming little city which is clearly gets a lot of the tourism dollars in Laos. It seemed very modern to us after having spent a couple of weeks in remote villages.
The other most striking impression of Luang Prabang is the incredible number of Buddhist monasteries. Everywhere you turn, you see ornate, gilded temples and monks roaming the streets with their shaved heads and saffron-colored robes.
The most exciting part of Luang Prabang for us: we met up with friends from San Francisco! Welcome Stefanie and Meredith! Nothing quite like seeing some familiar faces after months and months away from home.
Welcoming the ladies in traditional Laotian style, with beer and balloons. Meredith is on the left, Stefanie on the right with Psy.
Hitting the town with Stef and Mere.
Our first bucket of the local hooch. Pro tip: One bucket of Lao-Lao is plenty.
We have seen a lot of bar/cafe cats in Asia. These were by far the creepiest.
The next morning, we managed to drag ourselves out of bed for the daily alms-giving. There are numerous monasteries in LP, and every morning hundreds of monks walk the streets to collect donations of rice and other types of food from the devout locals who support them. It’s impressive that people rise at dawn to do this every single day.
A line of monks collecting food from the locals on the curb. In turn, the monks would give some of the food to a few children walking along on the other side. We assumed that these children were collecting surplus food for their own families. The oldest monks were at the front of the line, while the young boy monks were in the back.
Catching a cat nap between the morning alms-giving and…
The boat races! We were lucky enough to be in Luang Prabang during the annual dragon boat racing festival. Village teams from the surrounding area compete against one another in these races on the Nam Ou river, one of the two rivers that intersect Luang Prabang (the other is the Mekong). Below you can see a couple of teams warming up before the competition. They paraded up and down the river with one or two fabulously decorated maidens in tow.
We got a better view of two traditionally-dressed women a little bit later.
The starting line.
Spectators and booths lined the race route along the shore.
And they’re off!
One of the party barges blasting tunes on the water.
Me with the t-shirt that I should have bought, but didn’t. One of the worst decisions ever. What if the next fringe-lined t-shirt with shoulder cut-outs that I find only has four cats on it instead of five? Totally a missed opportunity.
The view from Mount Phousi, a nice little hike up a hill in the center of town.
Tim’s a lucky guy.
The victorious dragon boat team celebrating in the streets.
Olive Oyl crossing.
Our last day in Luang Prabang was one of my favorites of the whole trip. We rose early to do a zip-lining tour over the Tad Sae waterfalls with the awkwardly-named Flight of the Nature. It was another wet day, but we didn’t mind.
The falls were really swollen with rainy-season runoff. This short retaining wall was just a few inches from being overtopped.
At this point in the trip, we had seen elephants up close once (at Angkor Wat). They are simply incredible. We did NOT ride the elephants at the Tad Sae waterfalls. We learned that you shouldn’t ride elephants outfitted with these kinds of saddle chairs; bare back is better for the animals.
Ready to zip line!
Our highlight reel. We started in the canopy and came down right over the falls. It was incredible. So fun!
Tuk tuk ride through the countryside.
In the afternoon, we visited the Kuang Si Falls. The entrance to the park hosts a wonderful bear rescue sanctuary established by the non-profit charity Free the Bears. Body parts of Asiatic bears have been used in traditional medicine for centuries, and consequently the animals have been horribly exploited. These animals get a second chance thanks to this awesome organization.
Everything was flooded. It was the beginning of September and the height of the rainy season.
Kuang Si Falls. One of the prettiest sights in Southeast Asia, even on a rainy day. I’ll just let the photos do the talking!
It was so awesome to have Stefanie & Meredith with us. Such a fun experience to travel with friends!
Another ridiculously named liquor…
Then bowling! And maybe a few push-ups. Thanks for the memories Luang Prabang!
The music for this post is Cherub Rock by The Smashing Pumpkins. I love this guitar tone. Link at the bottom.
We left Muang Ngoi on August 30th and floated downstream for about an hour to the town of Nong Khiaw. We went there mainly as a stopover on the way to Luang Prabang but were rewarded with more spectacular scenery. We stayed two nights at a little guesthouse on the main road that our friend Jessy recommended, not far from the bridge over the Nam Ou. In Nong Khiaw we were able to withdraw money at an ATM and use the internet for the first time in 9 days, and from there we were able to catch a minibus (okay, really just a pickup truck with bench seats) to Luang Prabang.
Laina on our porch at the guesthouse. The two metal objects in front of her are cluster bomb shells.
A few doors down from our guesthouse was a restaurant overlooking the Nam Ou. They had good food and WiFi, so we had a couple meals there. They also had a hawk of some sort that was fascinating. We felt bad about it being tied down, but it had the aloofness of a cat, so maybe it was content. Who knows?
Sticking with Paul Simon, the music for this post is “Slip Sliding Away”. We had this tune stuck in our heads during the trek because the ground was so muddy and slippery. Link at the bottom.
On August 27th we left Muang Ngoi on a trek to the hilltop village of Khiew Kan. That night we stayed in the village of Huay Xen, which is about 2 hours inland from Muang Ngoi, at Kamphan Guesthouse and Restaurant. Our room that night cost us $1.25, which was the least we paid for a night’s accommodation the entire trip. I had met the owner Kamphan when I came out to Huay Xen a few days before. His rooms are very basic, just a mattress on the floor and a mosquito net, but that’s about as nice as you can expect out there. The guesthouse also has a squat toilet, which is practically a luxury in this part of Laos. Here are some shots from around Huay Xen.
The ducks, chickens, and pigs all run free in these villages, but Kamphan told me that everyone knows which animals are theirs.
When I met Kamphan the first time, he had indicated that he could arrange guides to Khiew Kan for a reasonable rate. The guides in Muang Ngoi were charging more than we were willing to pay, and it would be foolish to try to find the village without a guide, so we were happy to find a more affordable option. He arranged for his grandsons (or maybe they were his nephews? I couldn’t figure it out) to take us up to Khiew Kan the next morning and to return the following day. We had an agreement with Kamphan that the money we paid him included food and lodging in Khiew Kan.
Our dinner that night was sauteed ferns and sticky rice. It tastes better than it sounds. Kamphan also kept pouring us little shots of lao-lao, which made for a foggy start to the hike the next morning. It rained quite a bit that night, and the sounds of thunder and rain on the corrugated metal roof were enough to keep us both awake for a while in the wee hours.
The kid on the right here is Nguyen; he’s 15 years old and was our primary guide through the jungle. On the left is his older brother Xai, 17, who seemed to come along with us just so that he could hunt. Neither of them spoke much English, but Nguyen spoke enough for us all to get by. We don’t think either of them had guided much before, if at all.
The trek took exactly 4 hours to Khiew Kan. The first hour-and-a-half were across relatively flat but muddy terrain, with many creek crossings. We both got leeches several times, including a couple that bled. The littlest leeches would burrow through our socks and into our shoes. Our guides had bottles of a solution that they would put on the leeches and our shoes and ankles after crossing a stream to kill them. The rest of the trip was all uphill, pretty steep at times, and really muddy. Fun!
It was sweltering that day, just absolutely brutal heat, but worse than the heat were the mosquitos. We had to keep moving to avoid getting swarmed. The mud made for a slippery, filthy ascent through the thick bamboo forest.
Finally we emerged on top of the mountain to find the rustic village of Khiew Kan. The views from the village are mind-blowing, and no other settlements can be seen or heard. The first thing that struck me was how denuded the hilltop is; there are almost no trees within the village and no grass or other ground cover. The only shade from the sun is inside the bamboo huts. We think the reason they have so few trees is because they used them all for cooking; open flames are the only available heating technology.
This turned out to be one of the poorest communities we visited on the entire trip. The residents of Khiew Kan belong to both the Kamu and Hmong ethnic groups, and they all seem to get by on rice, what little vegetables they can grow in small gardens, pigs and chickens, and whatever they can forage from the jungle. Most of the bamboo huts are on stilts, with the lower area being used for storage and to provide shade for the livestock. A couple of them had motorbikes stored underneath, but we didn’t see anyone riding a motorbike.
There are no toilets in Khiew Kan – everyone does their business in the jungle. The same is true for all of the remote villages in the region. Public health in the area would improve if they had access to better sanitation, but there are logistical as well as cultural impediments to improving sanitation. It’s a tough situation without any easy solutions.
The one piece of technology that we did see is the one piece of technology that you will find in every corner of the globe: cell phones. We didn’t see very many, but we saw some little kids watching a cartoon on a smartphone and a teenager using one. The world is shrinking faster than most of us realize, for better or worse.
The first order of business was to get washed, as we were covered in sweat and mud. We hiked down a ravine to a pipe constantly flowing with clear water; this is the one water source in the village. Time to take our first public baths! Tim just stripped down to his shorts, but it is a little more complicated for a woman. I had borrowed a “shower sarong” from our friend Jessy, the volunteer nurse. I’m not sure if I have ever had a more awkward experience than trying to maneuver this garment in a way to maintain my modesty and bathe, all while having Nguyen and some village children as an audience. We were definitely out of our element, but I suppose that was part of the point.
For lunch we were invited into the home of one of Nguyen and Xai’s relatives, where we had another meal of sauteed ferns and sticky rice. At this point we began to understand the extreme level of food insecurity these families face. There are no stores or markets in Khiew Kan, no food to buy or sell. Our guides brought the cooked sticky rice with them, and they had picked the ferns along the trail. Khiew Kan doesn’t have food to spare for travelers.
After eating we walked around the village. There isn’t much to do there, and because of the unexploded bombs all over the countryside, venturing off on our own was out of the question. I don’t know if we felt more out of place on the whole trip than we did in Khiew Kan. The poverty is so obvious, and we were so obviously not poor. We were gawked at, and we looked back. Laotians in general are very kind and friendly, but we didn’t experience much of that in this village. The people were more standoffish. However, we did interact with some kids, and one adult who spoke decent English came over and spoke with us for a bit in an attempt at being friendly. For a while we sat on a tree stump as that was the only place for us to sit. Mostly we just watched their day go by and gazed out at the incredible landscape.
The villagers were busy at work erecting a couple of new structures in the town: a home for a young couple and a school. We were blown away by the myriad ways they use bamboo for every part of the structure, as well as how the whole village participated in the process.
And some little pigs found their mama too.
Dinner that night was ramen that our guides had brought along. Our accommodations for the night were a dirt-floor hut with an elevated bamboo platform for a bed. Since there isn’t any electricity, everyone moves indoors and goes to bed soon after the sun goes down. There wasn’t a single exterior light in the entire village, though we could tell that flashlights were being used inside a few of them. We could hear the sounds of dinner being eaten, laughing children, and loud conversations emanating from the huts. I realized that this was probably as close as I will ever get to experiencing what life must have been like before the invention of artificial light.
After dinner we walked around the village for about 20 minutes. There were several storms far off in the distance in all directions, huge lightning bolts firing over distant mountains every few seconds, but the sky over us was so clear that we could see the Milky Way shining as brightly as I have ever seen it. I think we were asleep by 8pm.
The villagers and their animals are awake and bustling as soon as the sun comes up. Through the thin bamboo walls we were awakened by the noisy din and decided that it must be time to get up. I assumed the time was 7am or so, but when I looked at my watch it was 5:50 in the morning! Oh well, rise and shine. We had been told that we wouldn’t be fed breakfast in the morning unless it was raining (we assume the villagers really just didn’t have food to spare for us). We decided it was best to get moving so we could eat within a couple of hours in the lower village of Huay Xen.
We got back to Huay Xen and eventually convinced Kamphan to feed us breakfast. We ran into Laura from Germany, who walked with us most of the way back to Muang Ngoi.
The music for this post is “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel. This song was stuck in our heads for most of our time in Laos because the Laotian phrase for “thank you very much” – “khop chai le lai” – sounds a lot like the refrain “lie-la-lie”. We would say thank you to a shopkeeper and then walk out singing “khop chai le lai!” to the tune of The Boxer. It started to drive us a little crazy. Link at the bottom.
On August 22nd we floated down the Nam Ou River from Muang Khua to the riverside village of Muang Ngoi Neua (usually just called Muang Ngoi). The 3-hour ride was a series of stunning views. Jungle-cloaked karst mountains end at sheer cliffs draped in fog above the river. This ride was one of many highlights of our time in Laos.
We had heard about Muang Ngoi from several friends who were there in 2009. Things have changed a little since then, including the creation of a road to Nong Khiaw (closed when we were there due to rainy season) and permanent electricity being brought to the town. Even though there is a road, we didn’t see any cars and only one or two motorbikes. There is cell service, though we didn’t have a phone. There is still no internet (but that will probably change in the next year or two), so the 9 days we spent in Muang Khua and Muang Ngoi was the longest that either of us had been without internet in close to 20 years. Being completely unplugged – no phone, internet, TV, or news – was a wonderful and (sadly) rare experience. I felt more engaged in my surroundings, I read books more and had more time to think and talk. Give it a try sometime.
We stayed in basic bungalows overlooking the Nam Ou. Each one had a flush toilet, a double bed with mosquito net, and a porch with a hammock. You don’t need much more than that in Muang Ngoi.
You’re gonna get scorped!
Click on the photo to see this guy’s awesome makeshift boat:
The steel shells leaning against the hotel fence in the photo below are cluster bomb casings. During the Vietnam War, the United States bombed Laos relentlessly in an attempt to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In fact, Laos has the distinction of being of the most bombed country on a per capita basis. The US dropped more bombs on Laos during the Vietnam War than were dropped on all of Europe during World War II. According to legaciesofwar.org, “From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions – equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years…” Not only that, but of the 270 million bombs that we dropped, about 80 million didn’t detonate and are still regularly killing and maiming Laotians. Unexploded ordinance (UXO) litters the countryside. I kept thinking about these numbers as we walked around Muang Ngoi and neighboring villages, and I couldn’t make any sense of it. I kept thinking “These are the people we were bombing?” I’ve read that the US spent about $2M per day bombing Laos and now spends about $3-5M per year funding UXO clearance. To quote my friend Yu, “I’d be much more impressed if they’d spent that much cleaning it up…”
I’m not totally clear on the significance of 1967 – 1972 on this cluster bomb, but my guess is that those were the years that Muang Ngoi was subject to bombing. Locals were forced to live in nearby caves to escape the bombs; I heard of one woman in town who had lived in a cave for 7 years. And yet somehow they don’t hate Americans.
Muang Ngoi is on the banana pancake trail but there were not many travelers in town when we were there; it’s probably busier during high season. True to the season, it did rain quite a bit while we were in town, but those days were some of the best – we would just lay in the hammock overlooking the river and read. Everything slows way down when you get to Muang Ngoi, it’s a fantastic place to relax. We really hope to go back someday.
We spent a lot of time playing card and dice games. Here Laina shows off her ridiculous score of 508, which was the highest Yahtzee score by either of us for the entire trip.
Drinking some Beerlao in honor of our friends Jill and BJ who were getting married that day. Beerlao is one of the best beers in SE Asia, and a cold one was perfect while laying in a hammock on a sweltering afternoon.
Muang Ngoi is small enough that you can meet other travelers easily.
Somehow we managed to take a selfie while sleeping:
We were pretty upset to discover this caged cat (I think it’s a leopard cat) behind one of the hotels in town. The animal was obviously very distressed, and it was unclear why they had it, other than to just have it. People have a much different relationship to animals in Asia.
The area outside of Muang Ngoi is beautiful, rice paddies cradled by limestone hills and several friendly, authentic little villages. Many travelers to Laos only see Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng and miss out on the delightful villages that feel a lot more authentic. We took a walk one day with some other travelers to the nearby village of Ban Na.
On the right is another one of those cluster bomb casings:
This is a concrete water station where locals can get water, wash laundry and cookware, and shower. In the lower villages you see a little concrete construction, mostly toilets and water supply stations. We visited a more remote village a few days later (subject of an upcoming post) and didn’t see any concrete.
This little kid was having a good time playing with his big sharp knife:
Poverty is a very big problem in Laos, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from our pictures. Most Laotians are very friendly and seem quite content. But seeing these skinned rats drying in the sun was a reminder that many people in these villages are living on the margins. Also noteworthy is the fact that they are resting on a disused satellite dish. There were several dishes in town – I guess at one point someone thought that what the people of Ban Na needed was more TV channels.
Another common sight on the roads and trails of rural Laos is a person carrying a heavy load by means of a strap around their forehead. It seems like a great way to give yourself some serious neck pain, but they must know what they’re doing.
These plants fold up their leaves when you touch them. Somewhere along the way we heard them referred to as “shy ladies”.
One day I went with a volunteer nurse that we had befriended, Jessy, to the village of Huay Xen, where she took blood pressure measurements.
One of the best things about Muang Ngoi is this incredible cave along the road to Ban Na and Huay Xen. A constant stream of perfectly clear fresh water flows from the mountain and out through the cave, joining a larger river that flows into the Nam Ou. Here’s the cave and the stream:
Looking back out:
We swam back into the cave, through pitch black and icy cold rushing water, to where the stream just disappears into the mountain. It was a fun and bewildering experience, being robbed of sight and swimming against a frigid current.
We saw this little beast way back in there.
On one of our last days in Muang Ngoi, Laina and I decided to try to go tubing on the little river that flows past the cave and into the Nam Ou. A lot of people tube on the Nam Ou, but we wanted to try our own little excursion. We rented tubes in town and walked out to where the road crosses the river. What seemed like a good idea at the time was quickly revealed to be folly, as this little waterway was too shallow and fast for enjoyable tubing. We ended up getting stuck in pricker bushes and walking long stretches of it. Eventually enough little tributaries increased the flow to where we could float enjoyably, and then 20 minutes later we were at our take-out point. I don’t recommend anyone repeat this adventure…