she said (Laos): "SO YOU HAVE TO TURN OFF YOUR AC BECAUSE A MANGO TREE FELL DOWN"
May 21, 2015
We left on a bus to our next stop Luang Prabang and nobody could have prepared us (though some blogger somewhere should have tried!) for this trip. In keeping with our "avoid minibus" philosophy, we took a big bus. Turns out this was the wrong choice (though right in the end once survival was guaranteed) as minibuses for tourists apparently go the new, straight, direct, paved road between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang but the big bus, i.e. local bus, goes the old windy road through mountaintops as this is the local means of transport. This road was treacherous and this was actually probably the only time we have been truly sacred on the trip to date!!! At first it was fine until the bus started climbing mountains/meandering through the tops of mountains on these hairpin turns for hours and hours going higher and higher and higher until we literally didn't think we could get higher. The little girl behind us was barfing up her guts into a bag. I didn't even notice any of this (ok well I noticed the barf bag kid) until Bridger, on the inside, tapped me and pointed it out that there were no guard rails and for a vast majority of the road there was no even shoulder to the road. The edge of the road, feet from the side of the giant bus, was also the edge of the cliff. And as much as our bus was taking these tight turns in one direction, there were an abundance of vehicles doing the exact same thing the other way sometimes passing us with inches, anxiety made worse by our knowledge of general passing conventions in Laos. The terror level was magnified exponentially when the luggage compartment door popped open on one of the particularly tight, narrow sections and several chairs just fell out, though I was not totally convinced that it wasn't luggage as well. We got up and told the bus driver who stopped, closed the door and when asked, claimed "no bags" and that was that. This was a game changer in the cope-ability factor of this 185 km yet 7 hour bus ride and neither of us could relax at all after that. Minutes ticked by like hours and we wondered how we would EVER make it the next 3-4 hours on this bus. Though we had different strategies (Bridger had to keep on hyper vigilance, his eyes glued to the road knowing where we were at every second and I had to bury my face in a book and just try to block it out completely), we both just kept telling ourselves that the drivers do this route multiple times per day and know what they're doing and we thanked the heavens that it was not rainy season.
Now Laos, more than anywhere I've ever been just has a bit of a "remote" feel everywhere you go. Even if the towns themselves feel busy and well trafficked, even the most touristy of them like Luang Prabang seem to exist nestled somewhere in the middle of nowhere and nowhere. Normally this adds to the charm of Laos, however, when faced with the seemingly inevitable outcome that your bus is going to fall off the road and roll down a cliff, good access to good medical facilities all of a sudden becomes at the forefront of your higher level thinking! Outside of Vientiane which really doesn't offer that much sophistication in medical care anyways, it seems that most places are connected, yet not that quickly (remember Vang Vieng stories, ugh).
Eventually we made it to Luang Prabang and we were SO relieved. The ridiculous part is that only after you're safe can you truly marvel at how out of this world stunning the scenery of that trip was! The views of nature looking out over those mountain tops were stunning as were the endless villages that were literally perched on the side of a cliff, somehow making their living through learning to farm also on the side of a cliff. Truly it was probably one of the most if not the most exceptionally scenic drives we've been on. But nontheless, so glad it was over!
Luang Prabang town centre is a UNESCO world heritage city and as such, is beautifully restored to it's lovely French colonial roots. It also had the most beautiful tree I ever saw (oops, finger...). We grabbed a lovely, lovely little hotel room that had wood paneling all around with wooden shutters on both sides that open outwardly (I have no concrete memories for why, but it reminded me of Beauty and the Beast) with a beautiful little terrace balcony outside the door. We LOVED this room!
As usual on our first day we just wandered and explored the area. We found this amazing place called Big Brother Mouse, an agency aimed at promoting literacy among poor rural people and children of Laos. Their primary goal is to get kids reading for fun by distributing books to the villages through "book parties" where they show up, read some books, play some games and let each kid pick a book of their own to keep. Obviously as an SLP I'm in love with this concept so when I found out that if you raise a certain number of dollars you can actually create a book party and go with Big Brother Mouse and participate in it in a local village with them, I was in! I was almost gonna start a hardcore fundraising effort (watch out!) but we unfortunately ended up having to leave before the next book party was scheduled :( I plan to make a big old donation to this awesome agency when I get home and you should too!
In the evening we climbed Mount Phou Si, a lump in the centre of Luang Prabang, to watch the sunset. As it turns out, 5000 other tourists had the exact same idea haha. So mostly we couldn't see the sunset or get pics without half of those people in our picture but through our peeks through the crowd, as always in Laos, it was stunning!
Even though sunset was a bit of a bust, the mountain also provided an awesome birds-eye view of the town and the river which was equally as beautiful.
When we got back to our room we freaked out a bit because somebody had obviously been in it because the AC was off and also broken. When Bridger asked the hotel man about it, he smiled, threw us a bone and said "You forgot to turn it off when you went out". Haha no we didn't. Bridger intentionally leaves it on so it's cool when you come home from a hot sweaty day...doesn't everyone?! Isn't this the assumption of AC?! Anyways, that night we hung out on our patio while playing crib and talking about/researching where we were gonna go next until we heard a loud BANG and then the power went out. We just waited because usually in power outages it comes back on pretty fast. We put on our headlamps and continue playing crib while getting pegged in the face by bugs drawn to the light. This time the power never came back on all night. Nor was it on when we woke up the next day. No power=no internet so we were kind of hooped to plan the next uncertain leg of our trip.
One morning in Luang Prabang we woke up at 5 am to watch the giving of the alms where all the monks from all the temples in the town, all dressed in their orange robes, walk in lines through the streets accepting food from local women who line the streets kneeling on mats.
This is still a very local and authentic tradition for the locals, yet tourism ruins it a bit when non-Buddhist tourists try to participate. Somehow, with the influx of tourists, tours of this have sprung up where tour guides bring brightly colored stools for tourists to sit on as they also give food to the monks (though I'm not sure why they cant just kneel on the street as well!). Apparently this has also got to be a bit of a problem because vendors, trying to make money off tourists desire to participate, start to sell low quality food to tourists which they then pass on to the monks. Also some tourists are actually the worst! There were several who got right up in the monks faces snapping pictures instead of keeping a respectful distance as the numerous signs posted around about alms giving etiquette clearly indicate.
After the alms giving we returned to our room with fingers crossed that the power was back on. It wasn't. In further wandering of the town, we ran into the source of the power outage--an enormous, enormous, enormous tree like 3 feet across came down tearing the entire streets worth of power lines with it not to mention a roof. Totally crazy!
Seeing this, we recognized how unbelievably unlikely it would be that the power (and wifi) would be on anytime in the near future, especially with it being a Sunday. We were really sad that we had to move out of our beautiful little room but with Luang Prabang being at the end of our plan thus far, we desperately needed internet to research options for our onward travel, having infinite direction possibilities and needing to make a single choice. We checked into our new hotel room which looked good on the surface but when we actually lived there we realized it was disgusting. There were dust balls everywhere, dried blood stains on the sheets and they didn't even bother emptying the garbages between guests as ours was actually full of a few pairs of someone else's underwear, for real. Given those gifts, we figured the chances that someone had ever cleaned the floor or bed properly were pretty well slim to none...ah another SE Asian gem. And as luck would have it, we had about 30 minutes in our new gross hotel room before the power (internet!!!) also went out there too. Just shit. So now we needed internet so bad to be able to get out of Laos and not only didn't we have that, we also couldn't charge our phones to take to a wifi cafe. Which turns out that that's also a futile effort because wifi so infrequently works anywhere in Laos anyways. At the rate we were going we thought maybe we'd need to stay in Luang Prabang forever bc we didn't know how/where to get out...
One of our days in Luang Prabang we rented a motorbike for 24 hours. They still terrify me but ultimately, in Asia, they're the best way to get around as they let you go at your own pace. As always people smile and wave cheerfuly as we drive by. Bridger was excited because he found a golfcourse and thought maybe he could do a few holes so we drove up the side road. The fact that we saw no people should have been our first clue that it was closed. So instead of golf, we took the abandoned road as an opportunity to try to teach me how to drive a motorbike myself. I realized even more so during our lesson that a) Bridger is really just so incredibly natural and intuitive driving the bike b) it's much harder than it looks and c) the way I learn stuff is qualitatively different than the way he learns stuff...not sure if this is just a "me and Bridger thing" or a "man woman thing". Bridger can just get on and immediately integrate steering, braking, gas, feet up etc. all at the same time in one package. Me, not so much (in my defense I've really never drive anything besides a car). I need to learn everything in very sequential, hierarchical and systematic detailed steps. I need to practice one thing at a time, master it and then add one more thing...much slower and bless him, Bridger is the most amazing and patient teacher. I just kept driving away from him and he just kept on trudging on down the hill after me (for gods sake he cant be on the back yet)! Me learning to ride the bike looked like this: practicing only braking on a downhill so gravity had me moving without needing the gas, feeling pretty good about this so then added giving it some gas myself and then braking, then practiced bringing my feet up with gravity and no gassing and then after, while gassing it myself. Then I tried adding some steering. And then tried putting all the pieces together: hold brake, release and give gas, put feet up, steer, brake...simple right? No it's very much not... I forgot to release the brake before giving it gas or give it gas without putting my feet up or steering and gassing but forgetting to put my feet up. Ugh. These things just don't flow for me like they do for him! The fact that I even see "driving a motorbike" not as a single unified activity but as a series of discrete and specific steps (haha maybe I've just been a therapist for too long) is telling of my potential for this activity. I was slowly starting to feel a bit more comfortable until one time the gas and steering and feet and brakes were not in sync and somehow my feet got behind me a bit and I was going a bit too fast (but not fast at all) and the bike started leaning to the side and almost came down on me because my feet weren't in the right places and it was SO unexpectedly heavy (my little stump legs don't help the situation when they barely reach the ground as is). And this whole time I was probably going like 4 km/hr and realized that I definitely couldn't hold the bike up myself if I had any more speed/momentum so I got scared and quit. The end.
After this we drove out to the nearby Kuang Si waterfalls. We really weren't expecting much because we've both seen amazing waterfalls but it was cheap so figured we'd go. The main part of the falls were pretty small but amazingly beautiful because the water was like a muddy turquoise color and there were, hard to describe but like limestone terraces that the water just flowed over steadily and gently. Most of the falls we'd seen so far were more of the crashing water spilling everywhere variety so we'd never seen falls like this and my sensory system went into overload because it looked just so neat...I could have watched them forever actually.
Only downside here at the lower falls was the sheer abundance of people who were there. And lots and lots of Chinese tourists. The Chinese LOVE to travel and get so excited about all of the stuff they see...kind of an inspiring way to look at the world! The thing is that they usually travel is such massive groups that sometimes you feel like you might get swallowed up into their group because you actually cant find your way out! This particular group, however, was all wearing matching orange bucket hats so definitely didn't fit in :) We walked our way up to the biggest fall which was more like the splashy type.
We were pretty excited when we found a non-paved dirt path up the mountain to the side of the waterfall so took it not having any idea what we'd get to. Turns out it was what made the day so amazing. We hiked basically to the top of the waterfall where there was a beautiful clear little pool with a fence blocking where the water spilled over the top. We spent a bunch of time up there admiring the view looking out and looking down over the edge and saw maybe 4 other people the whole time we were up.
Then on our hike down I found the biggest leaf I've ever seen which I was amazed by but, naturally, I don't think Bridger gave a shit about. And we explored another path which had a clear sign that said "danger, do not cross" with sticks blocking the way.
Of course, we blew right by it and luckily so because we got to this pool at the base of one fall/top of another with a barrier to stop you from just falling over the edge so you could basically just hang out in the pool at the edge looking down without falling. Great views, amazing colored water, so chill and only a handful of equally rule breaking young travelers for the few hours we were there swimming and hanging out.
The whole thing felt a bit surreal and definitely some of our favorite hours on the trip so far. On the way back we stopped at an elephant sanctuary. Unfortunately it was closed but we saw an elephant just hanging out in the field of tall grass with a sunset backdrop-equally as surreal.
We spent a few nights in Luang Prabang browsing the amazing night market they had there. So many beautiful things made by the local tribes around Luang Prabang and once tourism took off, I guess the night market was actually created to continue to promote and preserve traditional culture and artwork, cool. Another night we went for a drink at a little hippie pub type thing which turned into so many more drinks. In true we're old fashion, I spent the night here writing in my journal all night and Bridger, listening to Jigs and Reels on his iPhone while ignoring the loud music and ever growing number of travelers flooding in. During a ton of these nights out I realized that Bridger really must look like a guy who loves drugs or something because the offers are incessant as soon as the sun goes down. I honestly probably wouldn't even know half the offers he gets if he didn't tell me because as far as I'm concerned in Laos it just looks like a quick lean in and hiss and in Cambodia they stare at you from the back of a tuk tuk until you look at them (well sometimes its much more blatantly obvious than that). To my knowledge, I've never been asked once, though maybe I just did not get what was happening!
So I'm starting to turn on Lonely Planet. When I first started traveling it was like my bible and we followed that thing to a T. This time I'm just finding it to be terribly cursory with barely any site info (though this may be because we have the SE Asia book rather than individual countries), terribly outdated and completely unreliable recommendations. And overall, not that useful compared to some of the other blogs or resources online. I think once we leave SE Asia we will just freestyle it and not buy any more guidebooks...how times have changed.
Up until about 24 hours before Laos leave day, the plan was that we would head back into Northern Thailand (never made it there on my first trip to Thailand) and then into Myanmar (Burma) as we already had our visas lined up and because the country is only recently open and welcoming to tourists, so definitely a great time to go. Given our time frame with Bridger going back to work July 1 and where we had made it to so far, we'd had to pretty well give up the possibly of going to lots of countries on our list (Turkey, Jordan, Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka...) because time was ticking down before we needed to get to Africa in order to give it enough time to even begin to skim the surface. Ultimately when it came down to it, Bridger and I, in talking, realized that as much as we've loved our time in SE Asia, that we were feeling a bit "Asia'd out". After awhile in mainland SE Asia, things kind of started to look the same and we just kind of realized that even though we really wanted to go to Myanmar, at the 3 month point, we just weren't as excited about our Northern Thailand/Myanmar route as we should be and it was starting to feel a bit obligatory (needed to go to Thailand to get to an apple store to fix the iPad, we had our Myanmar visas that we paid for already). So our plans took a sharp 180 and we decided that we would scrap this plan and fly to Philippines instead. Philippines had been really high on our list of "to go" but came to terms with the fact that we wouldn't make it this trip and had been really sad about it. Until we really started thinking about it and realized that actually this plan was perfect- Philippines didn't need a visa so we could fly there with 24 hour notice which was our time frame at this point, it would have beaches that we were so desperately craving in landlocked Laos and Manila had an apple service centre so we could get the iPad fixed there...win! Boom, flight booked! Even though we got totally screwed on our last minute flight there (we paid almost as much from Luang Prabang to Philippines as we did from Canada to Asia), it felt totally right and all of a sudden we were so excited about traveling again.
...Until we realized that there was a typhoon heading towards Philippines even though it is not even typhoon season yeeeeeet! And it was supposed to hit the Philippines coastal area of responsibility on Wednesday. And we were getting there on Tuesday (smart people would have checked this prior to booking the flight). Awesome! Ultimately we decided to just go anyways and hope for the best.
I'm experiencing something new and I suppose more "adult like" on this trip...a concern for modesty in dress haha. All of a sudden I feel really inappropriate wearing spaghetti straps, shorts and low cut shirts. Even when many of the tourists around me continue to do such things, the locals don't and I've become uncomfortably aware of it now that I'm not 20. Unfortunately, these types of clothes are all I own and I actually can't even find a t-shirt that I like (I truly, truly hate tshirts-they are armpit hugging, neck and love handle strangling sweat factories) even though I'm trying because I know this will get substantially more pronounced once/if we hit the middle east.
Eventually it was our last day in Laos even though we were sad and could have easily spent more time there. Laos was such a welcome surprise for us. Even though we had low expectations for this land locked country (no beaches anywhere?!?) and really had a bit of a foul taste in our mouths when we first landed in Don Det, we ended up absolutely LOVING it, I dare say, a close runner up if not surpassing Cambodia. So many of the highlights of our trip so far were in Laos. Now is definitely the time to visit Laos before it gets too busy and "managed" as development is going to come fast. One of the great things about Laos is that there is lots of cool things to do and see that are still relatively natural and unmodified and "unpackagetouristy" so you can have some really authentic experiences. And these things are all still independently accessible so you don't need a middle man tour company setting anything up. You just go yourself, pay your entrance fee and do it yourself which, as a backpacker, this sort of access is so, so the best. We hope one day to come back and explore all corners of this amazing country!
We woke up on flight-leave day and still had the bike for a few more hours so we went for a quick ride around the outskirts of Luang Prabang. To our horror we happened to drive by the airport which looked like actually a desolate, dilapidated bomb shelter!
When we went closer we've never been so relieved to see a sign. It said something like "new airport 1 km down the road"...phewf, the new airport was beautiful!
We went back to our place feeling like our plane might actually get off the ground and we packed up our mess of a room which actually takes way longer than expected because it's shocking how we can absolutely decimate a room with our stuff in a 24 hour time period. There is stuff all over the floor and just no more separation between Bridger's and mine...just one big messy pile. Anyways we barely squeaked out before the 11 am checkout and had a few hours to kill so we went to the Culture and Ethnology museum which gave a great overview about several cultural groups around Luang Prabang and had a few exhibits on health and childbearing/rearing in these villages. It was actually so interesting to me to learn that there is still a widespread belief in Shamanism and natural medicine/healing in many of these communities. I was initially kind of shocked in this day and age that this seemingly primitive medicine persists but though when you think about it, Laos is still quite a poor country and access to medical care so limited not to mention many families can't afford it. So made me wonder if maybe this practice continues to thrive because when faced with limited access or limited affordability of modern medicine, Shamanism must give people hope and empowerment that at least they are treating the injury/illness in the face of otherwise, no such hope? So maybe it still has its place in the world. Another really interesting thing is that in at least one of the Laos village tribes, after a woman gives birth, she has to stay inside by the fire for 30 days and bathe herself and the baby three times per day. Woah.
We took a tuk tuk to the airport and had the easiest most straight forward check-in in the world. Because of the power outage we both had very poorly charged phones and the iPad internet still wasn't working. Though we tried to snag wall outlets at the airport, we could do so for very limited amounts of time which, as turns out, really made our lives more stressful moving into the Philippines. Duh duh duh...foreshadowing.