Right side, left side, right side again. Side of the road one drives on, that is. Cruising over the Mekong River via the Thailand-Laos Friendship Bridge, you're on the left. But as soon as you touch Lao soil, it's over to the right. This should make driving a familiar breeze since that's the way we do it at home. But we've been driving on the left for so long now that it takes a minute to get used to switching back. We'll find out later that ours is one of the last motorcycles allowed across the bridge at this time due to some mysterious bureaucratic reaction to who-knows-what. This apparently happens from time to time.
Laos immediately feels more sparse and poor than Thailand. It's not far to the capital, Vientiane. We're barely sure we've entered it, as the broad streets are rather nondescript and virtually empty of cars. Near the riverbank is a smaller, pleasant neighborhood centered on one of many gracious temples (wats). Its guardian makes sure all are behaving properly within.
There is a small children's festival taking place, which we stroll through while snacking on pounded dried squid with spicy vinegar sauce. Rather, Erika snacks on pounded dried squid with spicy vinegar sauce while Dave looks for something else to eat. He'll be happy to learn that baguettes are common due to France's history in Laos and will enjoy their legacy with eggs daily for breakfast. Some of the older people here still speak French. Erika keeps forgetting to try to use hers.
Electronics and dried medicinal fungus sit side by side at the large covered Morning Market. Got all the medicinal fungus we need, but Dave finds a calculator.
The young monk is also more interested in modern amenities.
Way down the long boulevard is the Arc de Triomphe-like Patuxai, a monument referred to as the "vertical runway" because it was constructed from cement allocated for the new airport. The structure commemorates those who died in pre-revolutionary wars. From its top, a hazy view reveals a sprawling mostly one-story city with vacant lots, medium buildings, dusty trees, and little traffic.
Yet further on is Pha That Wang, the most famous symbol of Buddhism and Lao sovereignty in the land. Its golden spires are impressive against the cloud-dappled sky. Erika takes some photos of the painting exhibit within before the "no photography" signs catch up.
Around the shady inner courtyard, an array of buddhas present an example of serenity. Buddhas and temples are everywhere in Laos. They probably contribute to most peoples' calm and easy-going temperament.
Even Erika agrees it's a looooong walk back, but it's interesting and worthwhile to take in the quiet mix of low-key construction and delicately elaborate temples that co-exist on the hot wide streets.
Vientiane provides a few more fascinating tidbits, like the bottled snakewater that Dave would buy if he thought he could get it past future customs officials.
We enjoy the baguette sandwiches and Vietnamese noodle shops, along with grilled delicacies smoking away at the various street stands. Sticking, for the most part, to identifiable delicacies.
Tradition and religion are still more prevalent than tourism. Most boys spend at least some time getting their education in Buddhist monasteries, though there is little pressure to stay on unless the boy feels compelled to do so.
Erika wants to go to the museum but of course it's closed. When she returns she will be sure to obey the following listed Prohibitions: No Photograph, No Smoking, Don't Take Meals, Don't Make Noise, Don't Touch Object, and Don't Take Weapon. Instead of the museum, she browses the few boutique-y shops and cafes catering to the new tourist trade while hanging out with some more temple guardians.
The tourist trade seems surprisingly active compared to the dearth of foreign visitors to places we visited in recent months. One of the surprising things on this voyage has been how seldom we've run across other travellers. And how almost never we've run across other American travellers. In Laos a backpacker trail seems to have sprung up, which will be particularly noticeable in towns like Vang Vieng further north. The road to Vang Vieng starts to reveal secrets of the countryside, passing small lakeside villages where fish dries in the noonday sun and kids ride home from school at lunchtime.
Both dry and green hills start rising out of the flatness. Limestone rocks sprout tenacious trees and bubble up craggy horizons. Vang Vieng itself is a town undergoing transition: its small grid of red dirt roads are all being dug up to make way for concrete.
Half of the lodgings seem to be guesthouses. Tanned under-dressed tourists wander conspicuously past grandmas doing washing under their raised bamboo homes. A few more years and this will be Khao San road all over again. Maybe not quite. There's a reason tourists are wanting to come here, including us: the scenery's spectacular.
The Riverside Resort has great little bungalows with balconies overlooking a stretch of rice fields. Nearby, the river hosts a small island where "chill out bars" flash neon lights over empty open-air bungalows for later night partiers. You approach via rickety bridges and a sense that it's really pretty cool.
One day we rent bikes and head 7 bumpy kilometers through the countryside to Tham Phu Kam, the Buddha Cave. After parking the bikes at the entrance, we scramble up a steep hillside to the small opening and gingerly step inside. Nothing much to see. But over there, in the darkness, what's that big overlook? Stepping carefully down we are rewarded by a striking sight. Way down below in the vault-like cavern's shadowy phallic-y depths, a Buddha reclines beneath a small canopy, contemplating nothingness for all eternity. A hole in the mountainside lets in light to illuminate his pondering.
Less profound but equally pleasurable are the joys of inner tubing down the river. A minibus transports tourists and their tires to the launch spot. The current is almost nonexistent, so it takes about 3 1/2 hours to drift 3 kilometers downstream. Those who have decided to stop for beers and bungee-ing at one of the numerous makeshift stereo-blasting riverside cafes are surely taking a lot longer to get back. Not that they're in any hurry. Dave is content to paddle over to the locals hawking Beer Lao and resume drifting, beer perched on wet lap in tube.
Great scenery continue en route to Luang Prabang. Roads are good, people are weaving palm fronds into thatch for roofs, little kids are waving. Tidy wooden homes sit under jagged green mountains, fields and palms alternatively embellishing the landscape.
Luang Prabang has lots of tourists. It's kinda like the Carmel of Laos (if Carmel had more palm trees and French colonial style architecture.)
The night market has a large array of weavings and other offerings from local artisans along with some great looking food.
There's a good view from the city's highest temple, which is also home to an oblong indentation in rock known as "Buddha's Footprint". Luang Prabang is situated on a thumb-shaped promentory wrapped in river; we take a sluggish stroll beside it in the late-morning sun. The city boasts at least 32 wats and about 10% of the population are monks or students.
Erika strolls some more and has a chat with one of the young apprentices--he is studying here for just a few more months then will try to go and get a job in Vientiane. The next morning she gets up early to watch the monks' daily practice: they receive alms from townspeople as they walk in vivid orange lines along the road. Donors receive merit for their ancestors through their generosity to the monks.
We continue north along a winding road where living standards take a definite downturn. Tiny villages are situated along ridgetops; though they overlook vast dry rolling views, none of the huts has any windows.
Small groups of grown-ups and children sit quietly on hills of flat red earth, watching the world go by. We encounter a group of German tourists on rented motorcycles who have drawn a small crowd as they attempt to patch a tire.
Dave has the right tools for the job. Erika wanders across the road to say hi to the dusty family. One little boy is holding a bright green gun and a big plastic grasshopper. On closer observation, the gun has been shaved out of some kind of leaf, and the grasshopper is real.
Further along the road, it turns out that piles of bushes stacked in the middle of the road are warnings of an upcoming road block: the overturned truck lies defeated as its owners tinker patiently with a wheel. Even more head-turning is the glimpse of a stretcher-bearing procession, still body elevated high as it proceeds to burial or cremation. It feels pretty remote up here but people are still going about their mundane and remarkable business.
Suddenly the heat of Luang Prabang has dropped to a temperature that's more like the cloudy gray winter of Kyrgyzstan. Fog shrouds the hilltops. The chill continues as the road descends towards Phonsavan. We're headed this way to check out the Plain of Jars, archaeologically famous for the fact that archaeologists have just about no clue what the hundreds of jars actually were for. Were they water jars? Burial jars? Cooking jars for brewing soup? Backdrop jars for ancient fashion photoshoots? No one's really sure. We settle into the chilly dusty market town of Phonsavan for the night before heading off on the bike across dusty red roads through backcountry that's something like being in the wild wild west.
There are three jar sites. One of them is situated on rolling terrain which gives Erika a pang of nostalgia for those East Bay hills hikes. Another is more somberly pock-marked with huge craters, compliments of the good old USA which dropped over 2 million tons of bombs on Laos during the Viet Nam war even though Laos was not directly involved. The devastation was perpetrated to such an extent that Laos holds the undesirable distinction of most bombed country in the world. To this day local farmers and other citizens still are injured and killed from unexploded ordnance on their land.
We are backtracking now with stopovers in Vang Vieng and Vientiane before breaking new ground heading south towards Cambodia. A few days later we arrive in Savannakhet. It's hotter and humid-er than ever. Savannakhet is another pleasant, low-key dusty town along the Mekong river with wide quiet streets and a smattering of temples and molding French architecture.
A sign posted on the door of the hotel room mysteriously admonishes guests as follows:
"Visitors will not be laundered, cooked in the room, smoked cigarette on the bed and made a noise to other visitors, no sticking the nakate photos in the room"
"All forms of gambling are not (sic) prohibited in the hotel".
Go figure. Meanwhile, Dave is tempted to trade the bike for this other vehicle but decides the message might be inauspicious and it probably doesn't go as fast anyway.
Next stop Tadlo Falls, via the coffee plantations and stilt-raised houses of the Bolaven Plateau. A small resort has been built right next to the low but scenic falls, its grounds glowing with birds-of-paradise and other pink and purple hothouse-looking flowers. We stroll to the less impressive upper falls, where villagers are bathing and burning something unidentifiable in small gated enclosures. In the evening another lightning storm introduces the onset of buckets of water for mere minutes, letting up just as suddenly to once again allow the serenade of crickets and flowing water upstream.
The next morning dawns beautiful but starts off inauspiciously with a flat tire. Dave gets it patched nearby. Heading out of town a woman is flailing a screaming boy with a stick as neighbors go about their business. Some kind of slash-and-burn agriculture is evident in the plateau, trees hacked and blackened for acres along the way. We stop in another cold foggy plateau town to get the sidecases, cracked from a previous bike drop, welded. The guy does an okay but not fabulous job, which won't matter much anyway in the not too distant future...
Dave has skillfully manoeuvered through the landslides of the Karakoram Highway, the animal-bicycle-bus-car-and-human madness of Indian roadways, the orderly yet jampacked standstill traffic jams of Bangkok. Here we are in the placid empty pavement of Laos, 5 kilometers from our destination of Pakse, only to be FELLED BY A BOVINE. Driving slowly and carefully as usual our hero is unable to swerve widely enough to avoid the cow who dashes out of the blue from behind a parked van out into the road. There's a dull thud as bike hits haunch. Bike spins out and down. Cow looks up blandly and walks away. Erika is fine but Dave winces in pain as he gets himself over to a chair in the little shop next door. Something's wrong with his shoulder. One man speaks enough English to ask if we plan to sue the owner of the cow. No, of course not, it was just an accident. Someone has called a tuk tuk to take us to the hospital. The bike seems to be fine and can remain in the shop for the next few days until we can figure out what to do.
It's really lucky we're so close to a hospital in the largest town in the region. Dave is checked in by a male nurse or maybe doctor who speaks confusing French and seems to be asking primarily if we want to go back to the hotel or not. A young guy who looks like he's been knifed lies moaning in the next bed. X-rays are taken. We are ushered into the only air-conditioned room in the hospital which is also being enjoyed by a phalanx of mosquitos. The doctor comes in to announce that Dave's collarbone is fractured. Nothing that a little bandaging and a month off the bike won't fix. A MONTH off the BIKE??!@#$%*%!??
The next day Erika locates a hotel cheap enough to stay at for the next week along with a really nice hotel, the Pakse, whose French owner Jerome rides big bikes and will prove immensely helpful in getting the bike eventually back to its dislocated-shouldered owner. It's decided that we'll hang out in Pakse until Dave recuperates enough to manage the busride and plane trip back to Bangkok. There we can catch a few movies and chill out in Dave's favorite shopping malls til he's recuperated enough to head back to Pakse to retrieve the bike. Cambodia will have to wait for another trip; instead the route will go south from Bangkok to Malaysia. In the meantime, the next week passes by quickly enough, perfecting the art of wrapping bandages and catching up on blog-writing. All will be well, in due time...
Posted by Erika Tunick at March 17, 2006 09:56 AM GMT