Laos pronounced Lao is a quite new country still trying to find its footing since the fall of communism. Today, as always, most of the population is engaged in farming and there is very little manufacturing. Besides the hardworking Lao farmers the country is a haven for two disparate groups whom you do not normally see mentioned together. The first being orange robed Buddhist monks and the second being 22 year old backpackers spending the year between university graduation and gainful employment by drinking their way around the world. Laos does a masterful job of catering to both.
We only had time to visit a few places in Laos but each had its own special magic . First we flew into Luang Prabang a charming small French Colonial town which we explored on foot and by bicycle. Luang Prabang is now a UNESCO World heritage site and is the heart of Buddhist culture in Laos with its dozens of active monasteries. Since the monasteries are often the only way a boy can get an education beyond elementary school they are filled to capacity. It was great fun to ride bikes from monastery to monastery to see the magnificent structures and read about the history of each one. If we arrived in the afternoon we would see small groups of the young boys studying outside and they would immediately ask us to join them so they could practice their English and learn more about the world. The most common sight in town was seeing the saffron robed monks alone or in small groups hurrying along the street often carrying an umbrella as shade against the tropical sun.
Each morning at dawn the barefoot monks walk through town with their alms bowls and the locals give them prepared handouts of rice or grain cakes which will be the only food they get for the day. The locals are earning good karma by this act of charity and this ritual is a long standing tradition in which Dee was privileged to participate.
The small scale of the entire town just seemed to work as there were dozens of quaint guesthouses, wonderful restaurants and a great night market. To make it all even more scenic the town sits on a point of land at the junction of the Nam Khan river and the mighty Mekong River with the small mountain of Phu Si in the center of town topped by a famous monastery. Like most of the tourists we extended our stay here as the place was so charming.
Our next stop after an interminable bus ride down a loooong loooong windy road was Vang Vieng. If you were to take a group of college frat boys and give them unlimited quantities of beer and weed and ask them to design a Disneyland - Vang Vienne would be the result. Of course it has dozens of wonderful and inexpensive guest houses, restaurants, low key night spots and internet cafes- but the centerpiece of Vang Viene is the river experience on the beautiful Nam Song which runs through town.
The day starts about 10 am when everyone wearing just a swimsuit queues up at the inner tube rental spot to get a tube and dry bag for your wallet. The tube rental includes the tuk tuk ride 15 km upstream to where you put on the river. There you jump into the slightly chilly water and float down all of 100 meters to the first of dozens of bars that line the river bank. No not sand bars- drinking bars.
Each bar has a valet who tosses you a rope and pulls you in to the landing deck which is built out over the water. Once there he stows your tube for you and you then belly up to the bar for a Beer Lao or the incredibly powerful and cheap local whiskey called Lao Lao. Lao Lao is served in gallon buckets mixed with juice and is both potent and surprisingly good tasting with the added benefit that the juice makes it go down like water. Beer or whiskey bucket in hand you then sprawl out in the sun on the huge deck and groove to the Bob Marley music blaring away. When you get enough alcohol warming your insides and sun warming your outsides you then climb up to the zip line, giant bungee or human catapults all of which fling you 30 feet into the air before sending you splashing into the river.
Every hour or two you jump in your tube and float another 100 yards downstream to the next bar. The beer and Whiskey are the same but the entertainment here is a 100 foot long cement water slide with a dizzying drop to it and ending impossibly high out over the river. The drunks come hurtling out of the slide spinning sideways out of control and doing summersaults as if they had been shot from a cannon. The resulting belly flops into the water are spectacular.
The challenge of the day is to tread the fine line between drinking yourself into an excellent time yet still remaining sober enough to eventually get back inside your tube and float the rest of the way to town. Unfortunately many fail that challenge
Dee and I had about 30 years on most the crowd but we managed to do our generation proud. Many of the kids were on a 6-12 month travel sabbatical between college and work so we became minor celebrities when they found out we had been traveling the world for 14 years.
Our other adventure in Vang Vieng was a mountain bike trip through some fantastic scenery where we explored some huge caves.
The last stop was to be the capital Vientiane but rather than endure another endless bus ride we opted for a novel way to get to the capital. We kayaked down a gorgeous river. The kayaking was not challenging but was fun and scenic. Half way through the trip our guides pulled over and cooked skewers of meat, vegetables and a freshly caught fish grilled on a split stick. From there we caught another tuk tuk into the capital. Next day we crossed the Friendship bridge into Thailand and caught an overnight train to Bangkok.
To enlarge any photo click on it then click on the back button to return here.
Webmaster- Rob Dubin © copyright 2003-2009 Rob Dubin Page Last updated 02/27/2009