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Published: July 25th 2008
Tad Lo Waterfall
A quick trip from Salavan.
While I typically set high goals for myself, I didn't think I would achieve this specific milestone while being an unemployed traveler in Laos. Who am I? Midas? Morgan? Maecenas? Well, actually none of them. The only reason it happened is because I was in Laos AND I was only a millionaire in their currency, the kip. Not so impressive as the exchange rate is about $1 for 8,700 kip so for $115 you get over 1,000,000 kip. So maybe I am not really a millionaire, but it is pretty funny to go into the bank or to the ATM and withdraw over 1,000,000 of some currency like it is no big deal...even if it is only worth $115.
Anyways, entering Laos was unlike any way I have entered any other country. About five minutes after getting my passport stamped, I found myself floating down the Mekong River in a long slow-boat with nothing in sight except for my fellow passengers, the long meandrous river, and the seemingly endless rolling jungle hills. It was definitely an enjoyable method of travel. On a rather sad and unfortunate note, a reason why there is so much untouched land and jungle is because
Chillin' on Vat Phou
Ruins that date back to the 9th and 12th centuries. Supposedly constitutes the origins of the Khmer civilization before the appearance of Angkor Wat.
per capital Laos is the most heavily bombed nation in the world. The countrysides are littered with unexploded ordnance.
Two days after boarding the slow-boat, I arrived at my first destination, Luang Prabang. The former capital of the kingdom. A nice town on the river (everything in this country seems to be on the Mekong) with good food, many temples (a staple of countries in Asia), and a waterfall definitely worth seeing. The milky aqua colored water tumbling several hundred feet down Kuang Si Falls was very picturesque, but I believe the prize of this visit was swimming in the many lower pools. It was only a short hike down and there I found trees and small waterfalls to use as a diving board to refresh myself in water unlike any I have seen before.
A couple of days later, I was drifting down the chocolate colored Nam Song River lined with dramatic karst limestone mountains and clouds floating just below the peaks in an inner tube, beer in hand, down in the Backpacker's Capital of Laos, Vang Vieng. In my eyes, the tubing here can be described best by one word...RIDICULOUS. Ridiculously fun. Ridiculously crazy. Ridiculously unsafe.
Ridiculously worth visiting. Ridiculously ridiculous. From the bars that have settled at each bend along the river, to the free shot whenever you ordered a beer (a 22-ounce Beerlao cost a whole $0.90 to $1.20), to the 8-12 meter high rope swings that drop you into the fast moving current (you should land in the middle, but many people because of a lack of strength, too much alcohol, or some combination fall pretty quickly on their faces), it was some kind of spectacle. On top of all that, it was very entertaining to watch the locals running these bars go "tourist fishing" with their bamboo spears to prevent the tubers from drifting quickly down to the next bar and losing out on some easy money. About six to eight hours later, with sundown quickly approaching or already in the past, you find yourself at the end. Relieved, wet, and maybe a little tipsy.
Along with the tubing, there are the infamous restaurants in the city that are why you don't go to Vang Vieng for a "true taste" of the Laos culture. Every restaurant is playing re-runs of Friends from sun-up to closing time, except for about three or
Sunset in Don Det
This is from my guesthouse. I broke the bank here and dropped less than $2/night.
four, which are playing re-runs of The Family Guy. I am not joking at all. I don't know how the people that work at these restaurants don't go insane from hearing the opening music and fake background laughter a majority of their waking life (and probably while they sleep as well).
The next stop was Vientiane. The real capital. Like most capitals, it was a concrete jungle. Overpopulated. Over-priced. Rather dirty. Not a whole lot to do. My stay here was short and primarily used to get my visa prepared for the next country. My favorite thing here was eating at the outdoor restaurants along the Mekong, but it is a stop that can be passed.
Heading away from the Mekong, Loic (my French travelmate) and I boarded the public bus where we were the only foreigners and were off to Salavan. During our stay in Salavan, we were still the only foreigners. Both of us being over 6-feet tall and white, we stood out a bit. This proved to be a good thing as some of the locals that spoke English spotted us quickly decided to befriend us and show us their version of the town and
the Tad Lo waterfall. Back at the guesthouse, in which we surprisingly had a TV, I decided to flip through the channels. My excitement for the fact that they had ESPN was quickly crushed by the sight of a WNBA game being shown. I have not seen any ESPN or basketball since I left and this is what I get? Wow. Really? Expletive. I digress.
Sandwiching the trip to Salavan, were short stops in Savannakhet and Pakse. In Savannakhet (we were two of three foreigners we noticed there), you can get a great dinner (cooked in fondue fashion) on the Mekong with the lights of Thailand on the other bank. For me, Loic, and the other foreigner (a Finnish girl traveling solo), our dinner and three Beerlao cost a total of $8. Pakse was rather uneventful except for the storm that came out of nowhere (it was about 90 degrees and sunny outside about five minutes earlier) and the lightning that struck the middle of the street from where I was eating lunch (no more than 50-feet away from me).
After a two hour tuk-tuk ride with fifteen Laotians, a Thai biker, and enough lettuce, sprouts, tomatoes, and
Boat Down the Mekong
Some people went to the back for the "First Class" seats. I thought moving my bench pad to the floor and taking a nap sounded better. It was over six hours the first day and eight the second.
liver to feed us for a week, we arrived to the ferry crossing to Champasak. This town was well worth the stop. While it was surprisingly quiet, it had much to offer. The first night provided the most unbelievable thunder and lightning show of my life. Probably my favorite hour to date. Non-stop ruckus for an hour. Lightning. Thunder. The roof shaking. The candles jumping. Me smiling. Everybody glued to the free nature show at hand. The next day did not disappoint either as we took our bikes down the lone road in town to check out Vat Phou. A little preparation for the temples in Cambodia. According to the locals, Vat Phou constitutes the origins of the Khmer civilization well before the appearance of Angkor Wat.
Last stop, Don Det. One of the 4,000 Islands in the south. Full of peace and relaxation. Riding bikes to the other islands. Checking out the waterfalls. Defeating the Rubicube. Jumping on water buffalo. Reading. Eating. Drinking. Sleeping. A great way to end my time in a country where you have to try hard if you don't want to relax.
So quickly back to Beerlao. This product was marketed heavier than
Luckily, Augustus Gloop wasn't on board as he might have fallen into this fast moving "chocolate" river to a rather similar demise.
Coke, Apple, and McDonald's are back at home. Combined. I don't know who runs Laos, but I am pretty sure it is the President of Beerlao Products. I thought I was in the middle of nowhere and I would see signs for Beerlao. Every bar, restaurant, guesthouse, liquor store, whatever had posters, signs, and banners hanging. It was crazy. Equally as crazy as the price mentioned above. In addition, you could get their local rice whiskey, Lao-Lao, for 10,000 kip (in case you forgot, 8,700 kip = $1). Also, a great thing I learned from the locals was The Cycle. I have no clue what it is really called (if anything), but since I don't speak Laos, I called it The Cycle. All the locals drink like this and when you drink with them, naturally, you do as well. They fill up an empty glass, whether it is with Beerlao, Lao-Lao, or something else and drink it. Then, they fill the glass back up, pass it to the person on their right or left (depending on what hand they drank with) for them to drink, and continue until everybody gets a turn. After that, it is the next person's turn.
Kind of sad (but interesting) that they used this as a support beam at a restaurant in Pak Beng.
An effective way to get intoxicated. Fun, too.
A great thing about heading through Laos is you run into many of the same people heading the direction you are (whether it be primarily north or south) over and over. It really makes the trip through more enjoyable and you really get to know a lot of people pretty well. As I reluctantly (again) wave goodbye to another extremely friendly and peaceful country, I jump on the back of a motorbike and continue south to Cambodia...
[Sidenote #8: Geckos can often be a great roommate. Especially in places along some body of water where bugs are more prevalent. At first, it might seem weird to have random reptiles wandering around your ceiling and walls, making weird noises that sound like foreign bugs, and leaving their droppings on the top of your mosquito net, but they soon prove
their worth. While they do not split the costs of the room, they do eat the mosquitoes and flies. Shine a light on them at dark to attract the flying pests and they do their job even better. Win-win situation. No more bugs and the geckos get to eat.]
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