The Angkor Archeological Park is Southeast Asia’s most important archeological site and is the world’s largest religious complex. Originally founded in 839 AD by King Jayavarman II, who had established the Khmer Empire in 802 when he gained the region independence from Java (Indonesia today). Each successive Khmer king added temples in honor of themselves, their mother/father, their children, or the Hindu gods, Shiva and Vishnu. Most temples were in honor of Shiva because he is the god of destruction. The Khmer kings felt this was a more admirable quality than the protective powers of Vishnu. All the Khmer kings were Hindu (greatly because in Hinduism the king can be a god on earth), except Jayavarman VII (1181-1220) who was a Buddhist. During his reign he built many Buddhist temples and he himself practiced a mix of both Hinduism (come on he still wanted to be a god king!) and Buddhism. When you explore the site, you will see his temples no longer bare statues or reliefs of Buddha. His son, Jayavarman the VIII, had them all removed. He wanted to make sure the king didn’t lose his godly role. The Mahayana Buddhism of that time is no longer practiced in Cambodia. Now the majority of Cambodians practice Theravada Buddhism, which arrived in the 1400’s after the decline of the Khmer Empire.
Wat means temple and Angkor means City. What we think of just as an area of a lot of temples was once a massive city. Experts believe that in the 1200’s the population of the city was 100,000 people. To give you some perspective on that, at that time 80,000 people lived in London. Other than the temples everything was built in wood, thus nothing else stands from that period. Even the royal palace was built of wood because they held the belief that only structures built for the gods could be constructed out of sandstone. A few of the temples were even covered in gold and silver in honor of the Hindu gods. My Fodor’s guidebook states that the city was the largest pre-industrial settlement in the world (1,150 square miles!). The empire itself covered 400,000 square miles. Ergo, the Khmer empire was wealthy and strong.
They gained much of their wealth from trade. In the Bayon Temple’s reliefs, the Khmer people are depicted trading with China and India. The region first had contact with India in the 1st century and China in the 3rd century and over time they built strong trade relationships. Through their trade interactions much of India’s religious and cultural heritage was transmitted to the Khmers, while they gained wealth via China. While they shared a harmonious relationship with India and China, things were a bit different with the Cham Civilization. The Cham territory now makes up central Vietnam. Cham took over the Khmer Empire for four years. This began under Jayavarman VII’s predecessor’s reign. Jayavarman VII, defeated Cham and reclaimed the Khmer land. In honor of his victory he built the Bayon Temple. The history of the region is fascinating because several civilizations were vying for the same territory for hundreds of years. After deforestation and the kingdom’s coffers had been emptied building temples, the area fell into conflict with Siam (modern day Thailand). Siam finally brought the Khmer Empire to its knees when they sacked Angkor in 1431. Angkor would remain under Siam for hundreds of years. Since it belonged to Siam for that long, today Cambodia and Thailand still dispute over who possesses rightful ownership. In reality Thailand just wants to cash in on the 7,000 tourists Angkor Wat pulls in each day.
As time wore on parts of Cambodia’s territory were taken by the Thai and some by the Vietnamese and then reclaimed and then taken again. This yoyo effect went on until 1863, when the French forced King Norodom I (1860-1863) to sign a treaty of protectorate. In all reality the French really did preserve the existence of Cambodia. Without France’s interference Cambodia would have been split between Siam and the Cham and most likely would be part of Thailand and Vietnam today. Even though at first France’s main interest was Vietnam, in 1884 Norodom was forced into signing a treaty which made Cambodia a colony of France. In addition to protecting Cambodian territory, in 1907 the French even pressured Thailand into giving back the region of Angkor to Cambodia. Now all that being said, I am not insinuating that the Cambodians were all that thrilled with their treatment by the French.
This is where I am going to fast forward and summarize historical events in a very watered down manner. Things got messy with the Japanese occupation during WWII, who made sure their sort of ally, Thailand, got back the Angkor region (not to be given back to Cambodia until 1947). Skip forward… After King Sihanouk declared independence from French Indochina in 1953 (recognized by the Geneva Conference in 1954), Cambodia had a short period of prosperity. Unfortunately, the Vietnam War changed everything. Sihanouk had fear that the Americans were plotting against him. Overtime he began to decrease diplomatic ties with Thailand, South Vietnam, and the US itself. He drastically swerved the country towards supporting North Vietnam and China. He even allowed them to wage war against the South Vietnamese on Cambodian soil. His support of the communists upset those on the left end of the spectrum in Cambodia and led to civil strife. Sihanouk was forced to live in exile in Beijing where he set up a government supported by a group of Cambodian revolutionaries he called the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge later abused this connection to the king, whom many farmers loved, to entice recruits who really didn’t understand what they were joining. They definitely hadn’t heard of Marx before.
In April of 1970, the American and South Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia with hopes of kicking out the Viet Cong. Many Viet Cong took refuge deeper in Cambodian territory and even set up their headquarters as far west as the Angkor temples! In many of the temples today you can see graffiti from the Viet Cong soldiers and bullet holes from American M16s. The North Vietnamese and their Khmer Rouge allies easily took control of the weak Cambodian government. The American operation in Cambodia ran from 1969-1973, during which B-52s dropped bombs on areas the US believed to be communist strongholds. As the death toll rose, many farmers eagerly signed up to join the Khmer Rouge. After the US left, the civil fighting continued until 1975.
To properly explain what happened in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 would take a chapter worth of writing to give a proper summary and an entire book to explain all the details that I myself don’t know. So here is just the crust. Before the Khmer Rouge took over several key players including the famous Pol Pot studied overseas. Some studied, like Pol Pot, in France. Some studied in Vietnam. Some studied in China. They all came back with communist interests and wanted to create an equal state. The way they went about it was drastic and extreme to say the least. Anyone who had worked for the previous government was killed within days of the takeover. Anyone considered an elite or educated was killed. This included teachers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, professors, etc. The Khmer Rouge killed hundreds of thousands of people to cleanse the society and to create an atmosphere where dissidence was unacceptable. The cities were emptied and all people including the elderly and sick were forced to perform manual labor in the fields for more than 12 hours a day. They were only given rice porridge twice a day. In addition to those brutally killed by the regime, hundreds of thousands died of disease and starvation. Experts believe around 2 million Cambodians died during that time. One third of the population was left dead.
All was not copasetic for the leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Some leaders were keener on building a society structured around the Soviet Union’s form of industrialized communism, while others wanted to follow in Mao’s footsteps. This difference in ideology led to great strife and Pol Pot wanted to cleanse the Khmer Rouge itself of those who had been educated and “tainted” by Vietnam and its Soviet Union way of thinking. These Khmer Rouge comrades fled to Vietnam and sought support against Pol Pot. Another factor at play is that before the partition of Indochina Vietnam and Cambodia already had a dispute over the Mekong delta region. So now you have the Khmer Rouge showing signs that they want to take back that region, you have Khmer Rouge members requesting Vietnam step in, and in general Vietnam was feeling imperialistic in its own right. Thus, Vietnam invaded. On December 25 1978 Vietnam invaded Cambodia and pushed Pol Pot from power within two weeks.
The Khmer Rouge fled to the hills. The Vietnamese set up a government including their allies amongst the Khmer Rouge leaders who were sympathetic to the Vietnamese agenda. Throughout the 80’s Cambodia was closed to the west and was essentially part of the Eastern-bloc. The economy was left in shambles and the country was broken in many ways. Finally, in 1989 after the fall of the Soviet Union Vietnam withdrew and Cambodia experienced a few years of democratic freedom. It was to be short lived unfortunately, for in 1997 a military coup took over. Since then Cambodia has a one party system that is controlled by the military. David W. Roberts explained the current Cambodian government nicely when he said, “Cambodia is a vaguely communist free-market state with a relatively authoritarian coalition ruling over a superficial democracy.”
In summary, the Cambodian people have lived through hell and are still healing from the past 100 years of abuse from other countries and from their own people. Thus far, I have found it extremely impressive the resilience of the people and the fact that they have pulled together and progressed in the healing process with one another’s support. Both the tour guides we met had lost a majority of their families. They told us stories of their youth and the horrors they witnessed. They also gave us the impression that they are just trying to make the best possible situation that they can for their children and for their families now. All they can do is look forward and not back.
I would like to just take some time to touch on the few things we did outside of Luang Prabang and to share my final thoughts and feelings of Laos.
We did the day trip like all other tourists to the Pak Ou Caves. They are famous for their thousands of small Buddha statues. Many of the statues are said to have been carved in the 16th century (I think it is more likely 19th, but who knows). The round trip boat ride which includes an unexciting stop at the Whiskey Village costs 65,000 Kip and entrance to the caves costs 20,000. The ride to the caves takes 2 hours and the ride back takes 1 hour. I share this information for those who are going to go. My recommendation is to skip them. I really can’t highlight how unimpressive these caves are. It takes 10 minutes to walk through the lower cave and 5 to walk through the upper cave. You would be better off doing an extra day trekking. I don’t understand why these caves are considered to be in the top ten things to see in Laos.
The other place we visited outside the city was Khuang Si Waterfall. The falls were beautiful and for those willing to make the steep climb up the side, there are calm pools right at the edge of the waterfall that make for a nice spot to swim. The 20,000 Kip you pay to get into the waterfall also covers the Bear Sanctuary. The sanctuary is a safe haven for Asian Black Bears. A stop here will give you more views of bear activity than any zoo.
On the way we had a few depressing and insightful experiences. That day Simon, Myles, Tim, and I joined Jagan and Aruna’s tour guide. The guide stopped at several small villages for us to see examples of the Hmong people’s homes. What was really upsetting was that each village was set up just to get tourists’ money. The little children were forced to dress up and ask people to buy their goods. We even saw one mother kick her little girl when she didn’t want to stand up and wear her headdress. We all walked away feeling uncomfortable. These villages are a great example of the ugly side of tourism- child extortion.
Our last day in Laos we stopped at the Ethnicity Museum. It gave a lot of information about the diverse groups of Laos. Some of the people migrated from Cambodia and many from China. An oversimplified way of classifying the people is by the elevation at which they live. The ancestors of those living at higher altitudes most likely migrated to the region later than others and thus had less accessibility to farmable land. Many of the tribes are famous for their handicrafts whether that be weaving, basket making, etc. The museum was small, but had a nice exhibit on the lives of Lao women. This room really made me stop and think about what daily life would be like for a woman in a rural village. There was a TV that was running interviews with different generations of Lao women. They spoke about child labor in the old days and their beliefs in the need for the woman to remain in doors for 1 month after the birth to avoid bad spirits. They talked about how childcare is nonexistent, so mothers have to carry their babies on their backs everywhere they go. I really respect the strength of these women and their ability to carry such a heavy load literally and metaphorically.
Laos has taken a spot in my heart next to Taiwan. It is a calm and laid back country with a strong and kind people. I never felt like someone was going to steal my purse or that someone was being aggressive towards me. The land is lush with rich foliage, rolling hills, and large rivers. There is so much space to explore and so much of it is untouched. So I must say goodbye to Laos with a heavy heart and prepare for the throngs of Cambodia. I suggest you come to Laos and absorb the way life use to be all over the world- man living with the land.
For the past 8 days I have been in the French colonial town of Luang Prabang . After being under the French for 70 years, noticeable marks remain in both food and architecture. The town has a certain charm to it and in the evening on the main street all the old French style buildings light up and host dozens of guests for dinner. In front of the hotel, 3 Nagas, two 1950 era cars sit as a throwback to that time period. The people are laid back and you will most definitely see monks in their saffron robes walking about the city. It isn’t big and can be traversed by foot. The top sites in my opinion are the Royal Palace, Phu Si Hill, Wat Xieng Thong, and the Tribal Market. My guide book recommends other temples, but they weren’t that impressive to me. If you are a weary traveler, take a day at the bar Utopia to relax. They have a free sand volleyball court and yoga classes twice a day. Oh and their Buddha Bowl Salad rocks. If you are not making the trip farther north, I recommend doing at least a two day trek from Luang Prabang. The natural beauty of the region is phenomenal.
Due to Luang Prabang’s prominence as the cultural and religious headquarters for Laos, in 1995 it was declared a World Heritage Site. Several of the sites missed the mark in my opinion, but the overall feel of the city made up for lackluster attractions. The Royal Palace was one of those places that was extremely unimpressive, but that fact in itself was interesting. I learned a lot about the Royal Family and the takeover of the Communist Party. In 1975 the Pathet Lao (Communist Party) took over and Crown Prince Savang Vatthana and his family were sent to an isolated part of the country never to be heard from again. What happened to them has never been confirmed, but I would assume the worst. The people seem to still hold the royals in high regard because many people bowed to their statues in the palace. The entire complex feels like it is just a summer home of a wealthier family in the early 1900’s. I will just touch on the four things I found most interesting. The décor of the throne room was odd. At one point the Japanese donated glass for the decoration of the throne room’s walls. So the king had the entire throne room decorated with a mosaic of small glass figures fighting one another. The murals in the king’s reception room were painted in 1930 by French artist, Alex du Fautereau, and depict every day scenes of life in Laos. Each scene represents a different time of day. In the queen’s reception room gifts that were presented to the royal family are on display. The most amusing being a boomerang from Australia, a plate from Canada, and a model of the Apollo 11 moon lander and a moon rock from the US. Nice gift Nixon! Lastly, the royal garage was nice to see. Their cars were almost all gifts from the US, but they did have a wooden motor boat from Canada.
At the gate of the palace stands the Ho Pha Bang Temple. It is significant because it houses the Pha Bang, a gold Buddha statue that weighs 100 pounds and is less than 3 feet tall. I have heard two accounts of its creation. One being that it dates back to the 1st century and it was cast in Sri Lanka. It then made its way to Luang Prabang from Cambodia in 1353 as a gift for the king. This event is seen as the arrival of Buddhism to Laos. Other sources claim it was cast in Cambodia in the 1300’s. Who knows! Either way it is worth a visit. When you are done visiting the palace head across the street to climb Phu Si Hill for sunset.
Also worth noting is Wat Xieng Thong. The temple was built in 1559-60 and has stood the test of many invasions from the Vietnamese, Chinese, and Siamese (current day Thai). It is considered one of the area's best preserved Buddhist structures.
One of the main pulls for tourists is the early morning alms giving tradition. People will sit on their knees starting around 5:30 am. At around 6:00am the city’s monks will walk the streets with alms bowls and receive kernels of rice from the people. In the past this must have been an absolutely beautiful procession of peace and generosity. Yet, now it is an ugly tourist mob. The monks have been getting sick from unclean food donations, but the government forces them to keep receiving the alms for the tourists’ sakes. Not only are tourists unknowingly buying the poor quality rice that makes the monks sick, but they are invasive and rude. They stand on the sidewalk in front of the monks flashing pictures. It is very disrespectful to stand higher than a monk that is why the locals will kneel on the ground. In addition does any human want cameras flashing in their face? No! See the procession, but please don’t be part of the problem.
Other than sightseeing we relaxed and met some really amazing people. On the first night we dined at an Indian restaurant and there was a very nice looking couple at the table next to us. I leaned over and asked if they recommended anything. The man laughed and said it was his first time there, but not to order anything with potatoes. He was tempted to go in the kitchen himself to show them how to properly cook potatoes. Their names are Aruna and Jagan. They were born and raised in India, but have lived in the US for the past 50 years. We ended up walking them back to their hotel, joining them for dinner the next night, and joining their tour the following day. Aruna is a very nurturing kind soul and speaking with her was really inspiring. Jagan is an oddball who speaks a mile a minute and has an impeccable ability to make strangers laugh. I absolutely adore them both. I hope to meet you again and take you both up on the offer to teach me Indian cooking!
You will get sweaty, you will get bitten, you probably won’t sleep, and you will have to poop outside. It is worth it though. Trekking in Laos is a unique experience that gives a clear picture of what life is like for the many hill tribes of this country. For two days we trekked with the company Tiger Trail. One really nice thing is that the Laotians are backing ecotourism and realize that by protecting the environment and local cultural heritage they can prosper financially from tourism. Every village we visited got a small percentage of what we paid. Whatever company you go with, please do not do the elephant tours. If you want to see elephants, go to one of the reserves in Thailand. That said we had a wonderful time. We hiked for 6 hours and passed three villages. The hike took us up between two mountains and down into a valley. We passed teak trees, rubber trees, water buffalo, cows, more cows, lush rolling hills, and stunning vistas. Along the way we saw a family heading home with their dinner….. fresh cobra. A boy of about eight dragged the snake behind him with the head cut off. Apparently, snakes are a favorite of the locals and can be sold for a lot in the cities (still not much on our standards- 10,000 in the village and 40,000 in the city). What a different childhood! At the second village we stopped for a lunch of fried rice with egg. The entire village is made up of six families and each have around 6 to 10 children. Every Monday morning the children get up extremely early to hike the hour and a half down the mountain, to the first village we passed, for school. They remain there during the week and return home on Friday night. It is hard to imagine small children doing that hike twice a week. I guess they are lucky that they have access to a school. The farther you go into the hills you will find that most villages do not have schools. If you have a child who hates school and has behavioral problems, bring them Laos for their next summer winter vacation. They will go home with a new appreciation for their education and life style.
Our guide explained that the families grow hops, rice, and corn. They keep the rice to eat themselves and sell the hops and corn to people from the city. Two statistics the Dutchman read (I don’t know the source) were that Laos is the 25th hungriest nation in the world and that 30% of its people live under the poverty line. The villages we visited would fit these statistics. Even though they were dirty, most of the young children seemed content playing with one another. I saw many little girls sitting in mud with only shirts on and smiles on their faces. The adults seemed tired from hard work in the fields. It was the teenagers that touched me the most. They seemed so bored and just sat around. It really felt like having that lifestyle day in and day out would cause you to turn off your brain. Regardless, if I smiled at someone, they always smiled back. While eating lunch, a dirty dog came up to my backpack. I started making weird sounds to let him know that my backpack was off limits. To my surprise I got a big reaction out of all the kids sitting nearby. They giggled and pointed. Since a form of communication had been created, I asked if they would do a jump shot with me. The parents seemed pleased when I offered to send pictures of the children to the tour company so that they could get them printed. Hopefully, Tiger Trail follows through with getting them the photos. I wish I had a Polaroid camera so that I could give villagers a family photo then and there.
When we arrived in the third village there was a party going on. They village had rented a sound system from the city and powered it with their one generator. The young and old alike danced and ate together. Our tour guide disappeared, so we decided to explore on our own. A few school children were playing soccer. I intercepted one ball and that was it. Tim, Simon, Myles, and I all joined in. Playing soccer with those kids was the number one highlight for me. The girls weren’t timid at all and went in for body checks which made me proud. The best girl was named Mix and every time I did something good for her team she would run up and give me a high five. It felt good to be interacting with the locals opposed to just observing them as if they were in a zoo. It would be interesting to have an honest conversation about tourism with the villagers. On one hand it is a form of income for them and their children are exposed to English. Yet, it also sends the message that they are interesting to us foreigners because they are poor. I have mixed feelings about this and will do my best to be a respectful and responsible tourist. For me personally the key is making it an interaction based on mutual interest.
That evening we showered using water from a bucket, watched the village’s teenagers gyrate in pairs collectively moving in a circle (strange), and ate vegetables and spinach soup by candle light. At one point our guide appeared a bit glossy eyed with a bottle of locally distilled whiskey in hand. He offered us some and answered some of our questions. I made the mistake of asking about what we needed to watch out for at night. His response was cobras and scorpions. UGH. I was very thorough when I tucked in my mosquito net. On top of that the area does have Malaria and Dengue Fever. At around 9:00 pm we headed to bed. We slept in thatched bungalows which had so many holes the full moon’s light illuminated the thin mats we all slept on. Saying that we slept may not be accurate. Since it was the last full moon before the New Year, the villagers continued to blast music until 4:30 am. It was sooooooooo strange. When I got up at 3:30am to go expel my food, I was shocked to see how many people were still up dancing.
The next day we hiked for an hour to the Tad Sae Waterfall. It was amazing. It is made up steps of limestone with relatively deep pools between each step. We spent an hour swimming in the clear water and jumping from the lowest step into the pool below. If you are interested in swimming, this is the best of Luang Prabang’s waterfalls for it. We then got into kayaks and paddled the 3.5 hours back to Luang Prabang. Along the river we passed monks bathing in their bright orange robes, children washing their hair, fishermen, elephants, people cullying gravel from the bottom of the river to make cement, and many locals picnicking. The entire trip was excellent and I highly recommend you do something similar. Just remember that you make the experience what you want it to be, not your guide. If you want to interact with the locals, that is on you to take the initiative.
Once back in Luang Prabang we went to the Film Festival and watched a Thai movie, Pee Mak. More on Luang Prabang soon.
My first meal at AMD was very eventful. There was an Australian miner meeting with a table full of Laotians. As soon as we sat down the Australian sent over a bottle of wine to our table and said, “On the house!” We were appreciative. Throughout the meal two of the Laotians he was meeting with came over to cheers our table. After they finished their meal, the Australian stayed behind to pay the bill. He gave us two more bottles of wine and explained that every quarter he meets with the heads of the military. We spent some time chatting about his 8 years living in Laos. He told us that when he first arrived there were very few cars in the country due to extremely high taxation. The year the government lowered the tax rate, 1.6 million cars were sold and only 200,000 licenses were issued. That statistic alone convinces you to not even consider renting a car in Laos.
This leg of the trip has been filled with new and quirky people. On a bus I met an older American named Henry. He was extremely outgoing to an obnoxious extent. On the tuk tuk ride to the bus there was a South Korean girl. Once on the bus he felt the need to make sure all Koreans on the bus were aware of one another’s presence. It was really strange. We kind of adopted him. He had nowhere to stay and seemed a bit senile. So we found him a guesthouse and booked it for him. Meeting him definitely opened my mind to alternative retirement plans. Instead of paying the high cost of living in the US, he places his social security checks towards an apartment in Bangkok (only 100 USD a month) and travels around teaching the importance of peace. I just pray that at his age I have kids to keep me in line because I already know I will be a hand full and will constantly be planning some big trip. We also met two really enjoyable Germans, Miriam and Simon. Miriam and I have already made plans to meet up in Cambodia and as I write this Simon is traveling with us for a week in Luang Prabang. Both are very down to earth and my type of people. I also met a French woman named Lauren in a swimming hole. It is so nice to meet people my age with similar interests.
One day we rented scooters. I was warned the road to the Blue Lagoon was bad. Well I had been warned for a reason. The road is HORRENDOUS. Over the years the massive quarry trucks have left behind huge craters and rocks along the road. Frankie was bounced all over the place. Once at the Blue Lagoon, I was extremely unimpressed. The water was a brilliant color, but the area was very small and there were huge groups of tourists. The area is so overrun that I don’t really advise spending time there. The cave above the lagoon is awesome to explore. We spent about 35 minutes walking about 400 meters into its depths. The trip inside wasn’t easy and you must have a flashlight. If you have a headlamp, bring it! If you don’t have a light, you can pay 10,000 Kip down the hill to rent one. Inside there are huge craters that made the exploration a bit more hazardous. At one point we entered a cavern and in the far distance I spotted a light. When we reached it, we found Paychung, a South Korean walking about with nothing except a cell phone light. He just naturally joined our group, since we came equipped with high powered flashlights. He didn’t speak very much English, but it was nice to have our numbers swell. We continued to run into him over the next two days at random spots usually far outside of town. He would wave and say, “I bike here!”
The last day in Vang Vieng was a perfect close to the city. We joined Wonderful Tours for a kayak and inner tube tour. The tour took us into the Water Cave on inner tubes. There were ropes inside that we could pull ourselves along. I was really amazed how deep the cave is and recommend a visit. Beware of the massive groups of Korean tourists. It is really odd how many older Koreans were in Van Vieng. The guide advised us to avoid any establishments that have signs in Korean. They normally have higher prices, since the Koreans are willing to pay more just to have a menu in their language. Inside the cave all the Koreans, at the encouragement of the guides, would take much joy in violently kicking their legs to splash us. After the Water Cave, we visited the Elephant Cave. The guide explained a bit of history of the region. He said that the area was originally a thick teak forest with lots of elephants. After conflict broke out in Vietnam many farmers were displaced. So they moved west away from the Vietnam border and massive areas of land mines. They cleared large parts of the forest to create farmland. He pointed out that the massive bell in the cave, which monks use to tell the village the time, was made out of a massive bombshell. The people of this region had to suffer so much. It is really amazing to see how strong they are and the fact that they show such kindness to foreigners. I think a lot of people in SE Asia are a bit jilted against the foreign tourists, but Laos is so inviting. Several restaurants we went to were decorated with bombshells collected from the Field of Jars. One even had a bomb barbeque!
After the caves we kayaked down the river for 2 hours. What a beautiful place! If you come to Laos, do a kayak trip! My boat partner was Miriam and we did stupendously if I do say so myself. She and Simon joined for dinner at AMD. I wish they were going to be my travel partners for the whole trip!
The last thing I have of value to share is the 8 hour bus ride to Luang Prabang. As soon as I stepped on the bus I shucked in a mouth full of dust. Since we weren’t heading out right away, I went in search of a mop. The bathroom attendant looked apprehensive when I commandeered her mop. I went up and down the aisles of bus to the other passengers’ amusement. Several people called out, “Are they paying you? Do you get a free ride?” The scenery the whole way was really beautiful. Green mountains were lined up one after another. The problem with the mountains were that we had to go up and over them. Many people got motion sickness. To prevent my own bowels from evacuating themselves too freely I had to take some of Tim’s mysterious Dutch pills. They worked. My bowels wouldn’t let me relieve myself for two days. At every rest break the group of Australians sitting behind me bought beer. About half way through the trip I heard a loud gargle and inhaled a strong sniff of vomit. One of the guys had thrown up on an elderly woman sitting next time him. The smell bothered her so much that she then began throwing up. It was Puke Fest 2014. Stay tuned soon for an update on the French colonial town of Luang Prabang.
There is a place along the Nam Song River in central Laos where the sun drops behind ragged mountains and the days lazily pass in relaxing bliss. Vang Vieng is part of the foreigner consciousness due to its popularity as a party town and its absurd tradition of tubing down the river while intoxicated. It was originally just a stopping point between Vientaine and Luang Prabang. In the 90’s a guesthouse owner loaned a few inner tubes to his guests and inadvertently began what would become a craze. People in their early twenties began coming to Vang Vieng in hordes. The ritual was to float for a bit, get out of the water to spend some time at one of the many bars along the river, and to re-enter the water via rope swing. Unfortunately and obviously, this led to many deaths. A 60 Minutes episode highlighted the danger of this activity and placed a spotlight on the area’s rampant drug use. The government had no choice but to step in. Almost all the bars were closed (except 4) and all the rope swings were taken down. There are still large groups of absurd twenty-somethings floating down the river, but things are much tamer now. The tourism boom is a double edged sword for the locals. On one hand this small fishing village now has a lot of tourism dollars coming in each year. On the other the sacredness of the river has greatly been tarnished. Laotians have a strong belief in the fact that everything in nature has a spirit. The deaths in the river have brought bad spirits and many locals no longer feel comfortable bathing in the river’s water. The river’s importance in the locals’ daily lives was very evident. I saw scores of young boys in their briefs with goggles, baskets, and spears fishing. I also saw several families washing their clothes and bodies along the river bank.
Regardless of why others go to Vang Vieng, my experience was peaceful and involved zero drunken river time. The first aspect of my time in Vang Vieng that I loved was my guesthouse. Jammee Guesthouse is on the outskirts of town and is far from the inebriated cohorts of foreigners. Every morning we sat out on a veranda watching the neighboring farmer work hard to keep the birds away from her crops. Breakfast was included and consisted of a fresh baguette, scrambled eggs, tomatoes, and cucumber. I had several moments looking out at the mountains, my local cow, and the old woman’s makeshift scarecrows made from mannequin torsos where I just felt a wave of gratefulness. I am grateful my life path has led me to this place where I get to explore the world. Especially before globalization makes even further drastic changes. For example, China is supposedly planning to finish in 2019 a railroad that goes from China all the way to Singapore right through the center of Laos. If this is completed, Laos will be completely changed. If you want to experience this beautiful rural country, do it NOW!
The guesthouse was enhanced by its friendly Australian manager, Lyle. He is spending his retirement in Vang Vieng and I understand why! From the first moment we arrived he was very helpful and shared his wealth of knowledge of Southeast Asia. He even wrote out an itinerary for Malaysia for me. He is definitely the hidden gem of the place!
My first day was spent floating down the river. Tim and I were dropped off at the beginning of the tubing route which coincides with the first bar. A curly haired bro approached and gave us each free bracelets and free shots of whiskey. When we turned down the alcohol he was very confused. I told him all we wanted was to float down the river. His response was, “If you float now, there will be no one! Everyone hangs here and parties and then floats in a couple hours. Only lazy people float this early.” I guess I am lazy then. The only people we saw in tubes were two men from Vancouver, Canada. We floated along and chatted with them about the one’s business and the other’s retirement. Clean water, beautiful views, and peacefulness made up our day. We finished it off with a delicious cheap meal at “our” restaurant, AMD. We had dinner there all four nights.
To Be Continued…
As soon as I landed in Laos, I knew it was going to have a drastically different feel than Thailand. For starters the airport in the capital is about the same size as the Spokane airport. For those of you who have never been to the Spokane airport, it is small. The population of Vientiane is around 210,000. That is 210,000 people in the capital! According to my Fodor’s guide, which was published in 2009, Laos is larger than Great Britain and has a population of 6 million. That means there is a lot of undeveloped space! The best part and worst part about Laos is that it is undeveloped and unspoiled. Great for hiking and not so great for transit. There isn’t even a railway system. Most of their taxis and buses are the leftovers from either Japan or Thailand. To give you an idea of the quality of their roads, it takes 8 hours to drive the 193 miles between Vientiane and Luang Prabang. That being said, my first impressions of the country are that it is a must visit. The pace here is so much slower than Thailand and it doesn’t feel as touristic. I haven’t felt like the locals are trying to rip me off. Everyone I have interacted with has been very friendly and helpful. One tuk tuk driver even refused to drive us because he was waiting for some tourists inside an attraction and he didn’t want them to come out and find that he had gone. I have a good feeling about Laos!
My day and a half in Vientiane have been jammed packed and wonderful. If you decide to make a trip to Laos, only spend 1.5 to 2 days in Vientiane. It isn’t that enthralling of a tourist destination, but still has its own merit. My suggestion is check out Ho Phra Keo, Talat Sao (Morning Market- which is actually open all day), That Luang, and the Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park). Keep in mind it takes about an hour by bus to get to the Buddha Park, so you will need to budget your time wisely.
Ho Phra Keo is famous because it was at one time the official home of the Emerald Buddha (I visited this Buddha in Bangkok). The original temple was built in 1565. King Setthathirat took the Emerald Buddha from the Siamese in Chang Mai only for them to steal it back in 1778. Even though the Emerald Buddha wasn’t there, the temple was definitely worth a visit. There were several couples there doing their engagement photos in traditional Laos clothing, three large tour groups of French, Italian, and Spanish tourists, and some wood carvings recently carved by the temple’s students. The structure itself is interesting. All its staircases are supported by dragon handrails and the original 16th century lacquered door is still there with its Hindu carvings on display. Inside are many Buddhist relics. I spoke Italian with a couple of the Italian tourists and it ignited a spark inside me to return to the country that I love so much!
Just down the street is the Morning Market. The market is geared towards serving the local population, but is still worth a stop. I mainly bought tee shirts and postcards. Right behind the market is the bus terminal. From there you can take bus 14 to the Buddha Park. The park was built in 1958 by a monk, who in my opinion had too much time on his hands and access to some drugs. Supposedly he had a dream of a world religion in which all faiths could peacefully coexist. The park is a random conglomeration of Hindu and Buddhist statues. For the average person an hour would be enough time. We took two just because we were taking photos of everything. I won’t even bother describing this place. Check out the photos above.
That Luang is considered to be the city’s only must-see attraction. It was also built by King Setthathirat in the 1500’s. It has become the most important cultural symbol for the country and represents the unity of the people. It is a beautiful sight on a sunny day with the sun reflecting off its 30 pinnacles and main golden stupa. A trip here only needs 30 minutes or so not including a visit to the two temples that flank it. After an afternoon visit (it closes at 4), take a tuk tuk to the riverfront and watch the sunset over the Mekong. It is a great way to close your day. Hordes of locals ascend on the riverfront every evening to either exercise or to stroll through the night market.
A couple interesting facts that I cannot verify, but heard while in Vientiane… Supposedly Laos has the cheapest and most unreliable condoms in the world. It is illegal to have intercourse with a Laotian as a foreigner. The US gave the country a huge amount of cement to build an airport runway. Instead, Laos used the cement to build an archway that is taller than the one in Paris as a middle finger to France. Just in case you aren’t familiar with the history of the region Laos was part of France’s Indochina for about 100 years. France’s influence is evident in the city’s architecture and huge amount of bakeries selling baguettes.
Hi, I'm Kristin!
I am an avid traveler who also loves photography, history, and food. Life is short and I am trying to gather as many special memories as I can.
Thailand to Laos
Japan to Thailand
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Czech Republic (2007)
The Netherlands (2007)
Hong Kong (2013 & 2014)
South Korea (2015)
New Zealand (2015)
French Polynesia (2015)
Costa Rica (2016)
United Arab Emirates (2016)