my adventures in Laos

(june 2002)

Hi Everyone.

Greetings from a small village in the People's Democratic Republic of Laos, where the one full-time police officer here also runs a small pancake cart on wheels (with really delicious pancakes!) in the evenings. I've tasted all three pancake vendors on the street now and the policeman makes the best one. Ah, and they say it's communism. :)

It's been a few months since I've emailed y'all. I like getting email too you know!! Yeah this here is a group email to YOU but so what?? Happy Canada Day, by the way. It's July the 1st here now and freakin' hot.

In the past three months, I've been up in the great Himalayan mountains of northern India, partied with my new friends in New Delhi, took the most packed train of my life to Calcutta, strolled down the red light district in Bangkok with gf Nancy, went to a big Full Moon Party in southern Thailand, and finally entered the People's Democratic Republic of Laos from the northern end of Thailand, near the Golden Triangle of Burma, Laos and Thailand (with China not far away at all). Nancy and I have a 30-day visa here, the maximum you can get, yay!

There is lots to do here. Lately we've gone both kayaking & tubing down the fast Nam River, explored some deep caves (that you first have to swim into), and swam in some of the local watering holes, streams with strong currents and sharp rocks that make the swimming quite fun. I've rented a few motorbikes, almost all of which have broken down or had flat tires and we've had the fun of getting repairs done in the middle of nowhere, with people who don't speak any English at all. Always an adventure, this country. It reminds me of India that way (except in India they speak English almost everywhere).

The food in Laos is unique, a great mixture of Vietnamese, French and Thai food. They serve crispy French baguettes even in the smallest villages. We've eaten so many baguettes that our gums hurt (but this is a good problem). Everywhere they sell strong, sweet Vietnamese-style coffee, which seems to me to be the best coffee I've ever had. And all sorts of spicy food, including the strange spicy papaya salad which made Nancy almost throw up (but I liked it).

I greatly regret to inform you that I believe that I have eaten dog. Ack!! Being such a dog lover I was so freaked out, and having been a vegetarian for about seven months prior (up until I landed in the meat-head country of Thailand) that made it even harder. I had ordered chicken from the menu, CHICKEN!! I really did. I've lost some flab but gained some muscle so I need the protein. It doesn't say dog anywhere on the menu, in fact it *never* does (at least, not in English). We were in a small remote village in the northern corner of the country, near China, and we had only been in the country for a few days. I really didn't think. How stupid of me. We checked the name of the place we ate later. Dookehoond Restaurant. Or something like that. Say the name to yourself out loud! How sad. And they had one beautiful puppy too, sitting outside everyday and he'd always wag his tail and play with you. He's still not even a year old but as I understand it now, he wasn't going to be getting much bigger. Yeah, I know it's part of their culture to eat just about anything that moves (just like in China) but it's not my culture, and won't ever make that 'chicken' mistake again. Really chewy and fatty. Remember that, and don't eat dog.

I'm pretty good now at visually walking my fingers on a table to show the difference between two and four-legged animals. One of them you want, and the other you don't! Once in another village they laughed at me when I did this and then took me all the way back to their kitchen to show me their dead chicken. I nodded my head. Yup, that's a dead chicken alright. I held one finger into the air and nodded my head. Yes I'd like one, please. Or some part thereof. Real chicken, I can eat.

Speaking of which, here's what I've learned to say in the Lao language so far. It helps because not many people speak any English here at all. If you're not good at acting it out you're your hands and pointing, and jumping up and down, you're on your own. This is not much but it's a start:

- saa baa dee = hello
- krapt jai = thank-you
- baw nah = DOG, umm, NO.
- ka lu nah = please
- ngaaam = beautiful
- khawny kin tae phak = I eat only vegetables
- khawny bah ao sin sat = I do not want any meat
- khawn mah thaiw = I've come on pleasure.
- hehe

You can travel large parts of the country here by boat. It's slow going but scenic, so it's a nice way to travel. The first ride on a skinny boat took two days on the Mekong River, with a stop overnight. We stopped for two days along actually, to get to know life in the small village of Pakbeng...

Next stop was the town of Luang Prabang, a great place with a real European feel to it. Strange to find such a place here. There's an art gallery with some really cool abstract art, plus all sorts of places that make handmade paper books, lights, photo albums, you name it. The whole place is quite artistic. Plus lots handloom silk and textile shops.

Some of the restaurants are positively high-end, and yet you can still get a great meal for $3. The houses all over Laos are beautifully decorated and well-kept, and there's no garbage in the alleys or on the sides of the road. Everyone in town appears to be rather wealthy, yet of course nobody is rich (this is Communism, after all). Outside of town, they live in simple-but-large bamboo houses that are raised up on stilts. People really look after their places here. It's getting a bit touristy in some places but still very nice.

Nancy and I went to Phonsavan in north-central Laos after that. We had the coolest (and probably, most dangerous) ride of our lives getting here! Nobody told us that halfway through our journey the bus would stop and everyone would have to get off, in the middle of nowhere, and wait. Wait for what? The bus can't go on any further, there's no road. What?? You'll have to get into one of these Russian off-road trucks and then we go. So we got in, sat and waited for hours, packed in like human sardines. High up in the mountains we could see clouds far below us; ahead of us was only MUD, lots of deep, thick mud. These trucks hold anywhere from 25 to 45 people (as I learned later), depending on how packed they decide to make them. Our truck had 29 people and I felt it to be absolutely PACKED beyond all reason, seriously. We headed into the mud after sunset. In man yplaces the mud was 2-3 feet deep, and about 1-2 feet deep on the way back (during the day; picture attached).

I suspect there was once a road where we had traveled. The eight kilometers (8km) took over two hours!! I am amazed that we even made it through! On the way back the mud was a bit drier, and still we passed at line about a dozen heavy double-axle trucks there were completely stuck in the mud. I really doubt if a standard Jeep 4x4 back home would have even had a chance because of low clearance. These trucks only travel in a convoy of threes because they get stuck so often. It's the rainy season here, it rains every single day (but it's nice and warm). The crappy wooden plank seats on the trucks are quite painful, but you don't even notice until the excitement has finally fades, after the first hour or so of rocking like a boat in the mud. The trucks would get so bogged down in the mud at times that one would always have to lead and the two others would follow at close range. They all had well-used tow cables to pull each other out when they'd get stuck. High in the mountains on a narrow strip of mud that might someday be a road, there's always a long sheer drop to your death just a few meters beside you, we were fully awake for the entire ride. I'd heard that Lao roads were even worse than Indian roads in places (though generally they're better overall), but how do you expect this?

We've toured the countryside on motorbikes in a few places. There are bomb craters everywhere, big holes in the ground where bombs had been dropped some 30 years earlier. Much of the hillsides are farmed now, but some parts remain gravely untouched. There are still many American UXO mines in the ground here everywhere, and an average of one person a week is killed by them still to this day! This is not the part of the country where you can just go for a leisurely walk through the country. We shared a few beers with an English chap whose job is to lead a large team of people who sweep for mines. There are f'king mines everywhere and yet still the Lao people are so friendly to foreigners that you wonder why this happened at all. Amazing! Most people here are simple farmers, living on large communist farm lands. We'd drive through small villages and everyone would stop what they're doing, and look up to smile and wave vigorously. Really friendly people. Even the really old people are happy to see us. You feel like a real celebrity and at first it's really weird (though it reminds me of villages in India) but then you start to understand how different their lives really are. Wow. Sure you might not be a fan of Communism or Buddhism but here it really seems to work.

For a change I'm attaching some small pictures. Enjoy.

Send me a email some time if you want to keep hearing about my travels.

k



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