Friday, January 20, 2012

Laos, Part 2 (The Autumn Years...)

The Hammer & Sickle fly alongside the Laos flag everywhere here, but, though Communism is recent history and Socialism has been the norm since the 80’s, fully-fledged Capitalism in Laos seems scattered and unevenly rewarding. 

What a boring start to a blog post!

Ranger Kimee says:
"economics are fun, kids!"
We have to reflect...a month in a country on its way out of communism has been an interesting experience, and the second-half of Laos was not the dream tour we’d enjoyed till then.

Throughout Laos, small time businesses run operations catering mostly to the tourist sector. In our experience, this has resulted in a pretty uneven distribution of wealth – one guy with a boat will pocket 20 bucks for a five minute trip across a river (20 minutes work per day), whereas we hear construction workers draw a subsistence wage for long hours of manual labour. At any rate, it seems those serving tourists are better off, with both cash and opportunity.
All that said, the fundamentals of capitalism haven’t really taken root either. Tube rental in Vang Vieng, for instance, is a cartel’s monopoly. And with many of the service operators (and small businesses in general), you get the impression these people didn’t cut their teeth in a capitalist market. The customer isn’t always right, word-of-mouth doesn’t faze them, and, in situations where rip offs (albeit for paltry sums) are played out, we usually have no option but to pay twice. 

There was a bus/ferry connection, for example, when the bus driver told us to give our ticket to the boatmen, before speeding off. Down at the dock, the boatmen refused to leave until we’d paid him (the bus driver having pocketed his 3 bucks). Three bucks wasn't going to ruin our trip, but this was the one time too many – we stood our ground while a boat load of pissed off but supportive tourists waited, before nodding and clapping softly when our gentle protests forced the operators to make a quick call and sort it out. The tourists understood – while three bucks is nothing, it was an all-too-familiar story, and it does wear thin.  

The younger operators and proprietors are sometimes more savvy. But in many cases, you get the impression that communism’s legacy in Laos is a workforce who, though pleasant enough, are chalk and cheese with the capitalist-bred Thais, whose hospitality (and pay expectations) are entirely different. 

All that said, the Laotian people are non-confrontational. We’ve kept calm in all situations (joking light-heartedly has seemed to help), but we’ve watched plenty of people yell and scream and get nowhere – stonewalled, or worse.  Once things are sorted, they are always quick to laugh and shake my hand and save face. It’s tough to deal with when you’re hot and bothered, but upon reflection (after a cold beer), I kind of understand. They’re not rude, just the product of a different environment.

Hedgey having a nice cold one
while waiting for our bus's tire
to be changed. Just another bus
trip in Laos..
The Land of a Million Elephants may be better surmised as The Land of a Million Spellings. Most towns use a handful of different spelling variations and quite often a couple of different names altogether. Our map is terrific, but often uses German spellings. So all in, we’re in the habit of saying “does it kinda sound like ________?” If yes, that’s the place we’re looking for.

The Laos we have seen is very rural. The big cities are either run down Colonial remnants or ramshackle clusters of basic huts. In between, there’s a lot of nothing. I read nationalism was late to take hold and in many ways it still feels like that – disparate communities, including many native communities, separated by long stretches of often quite arid land.

The hedonistic town of Vang Vieng was our New Year’s party town and we weren’t alone. Tubing is the staple entertainment in town: rent a big inner-tube, grab a lift a few kms upriver, jump in and start floating!

Right at the drop off point we were met with a scene straight out of The Real Cancun: hundreds of kids spread over three or four massive riverside shacks, complete with floating docks, water hoses and plastic buckets full of cheap booze – LaoLao whiskey/cheap vodka/cheap rum + mixers. Throw in a bunch of straws and you’re set. 

What goes well with that kind of drink?

Wet, slippery wooden stairs, a rock-riddled river, diving platforms and flying foxes – of course!

Anything goes. The music pumped out of the cluster of places at the start, with everyone dancing and having a really, really good time. It was dirty, but awesome.

..And that is to say nothing of the huge limestone karst that juts up beside the river – an epic setting.
New year’s eve afternoon, we spent a couple of hours at the top – soaking it in, trying out the swings, enjoying a couple of ‘buckets’ and just watching the zoo. 

Stocking up with a bucket of a LaoLao Mojito, we set off for the float. There were other smaller, emptier places riverside further down, but the ‘party’ was now more of a free reefer/ happy-shake and Rage Against The Machine kind of crowd…we kept floating.

The float was gorgeous. We dodged most of the ‘lifelines’ thrown out to us by barmen fishing for patrons at every place we floated past and just sipped on our Mojito while ogling the riverside mountains. “Bum up!” was the regular call – the rapids were shallow and the rocks weren’t soft.

By the time we got out a couple of hours later, we were sober and freezing. After a hot shower we hit the main drag for the New Year’s party. Family Guy and Friends episodes ran on big TV’s in most places, while free shots (and the rest) were on offer everywhere – but we saw in the New Year in each other’s company and that was golden. 

We’d also hiked over the other side of the river to find a group of kids playing soccer in a cleared rice paddy. As we sat and watched they called me in, so I played with them for an hour or so as the sun set behind the huge Karst to the West.  I had to take a moment – a young kid shot a top-corner goal just as the sun dropped below the cliffs, a mental-photo of the trip that will stay with me a while.

Cities are kind of far apart here, so, arriving in Vientiane, Laos’ capital South of Vang Vieng, we were travel weary. From the start, the city just didn’t charm us. Relatively expensive and run down, Vientiane suffers for its natural post-Luang Prabang itineration. It has nowhere near the charm of the colonial capital and after three days we called a spade a spade and left.
Actually... Vientiane's highlight
was our key chain for the hotel
key that had an anime version
of my grandma. This is for you, G-ma!

What looks like a cheesy stock photo
of a sunset in the tropics.
Vientiane’s highlight (other than a brilliant Mekong sunset): a trip to the local herbal sauna.

Feeling very lethargic and run down, the steam room (though no Sunlighten Sauna – thanks v. much Rosie) was a find. Lemongrass and herbs infused in the steam really brought us back to life.

After chatting to a few locals in the men’s sauna, I hit the showers at the same time as them. Dropping my sarong wrap to towel off, I caught a few of my new mates sneaking a peak. No big deal – universal locker room stuff. 

Then subtlety and nonchalance went out the window and the real no-holds-barred Laotian spirit came out. Three locals sauntered over to my cubicle and leaned on the wall, peering over the low door to have a nice, long inspection. 

As I stood toweling off my hair, I couldn’t contain a grin of disbelief, but these blokes were solemn as judges. They looked at me, they looked down… they looked at me again. They chattered amongst themselves as if evaluating a Christmas ham before old mate pursed his lips and gave me a slow nod – “okay..goood”. Then they walked away - I was free to get dressed. 

I went back the next day for some more self affirmation, but I had to settle for a nice sauna. It was a tone-perfect Laotian moment though: most people we’ve met here are just like that – straight up.

Happy to leave Vientiane, a long bus ride delivered us to Tha Khek – another unremarkable town but the launching point for The Loop – a motorbike trip to the truly epic Kong Lor cave.

…and we’re back on a scooter. 

I feel this picture deserves
more than one post.
If the picture in your mind of me is Brad Pitt, in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – riding through the countryside, one hand on the throttle, nonchalantly absorbing the scenery in a studly leather jacket and aviators…awesome. I understand how you got there. But I have to admit – we are more Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels, doing the Dumb & Dumber thing – two people, one whimpy scooter, bugs all over our faces, squinting into the distance, ever vigilant in our lookout for the pothole that will crumple our front wheel. ------------------>

Christian album cover- for Jared

We rented our crappiest bike yet – a flimsy Honda rip off, and rattled and swerved along 120kms of boring highway. Halfway we had a puncture, luckily right opposite a mechanics shop in a small town.

Booo for crappy tires and long straight dusty roads.
Turning off the highway we toured another 40k’s of arid scenery – no comparison to Northern Thailand’s beauty, but a very striking landscape – gothic-black, jagged rocks poking out of dry grasslands and Grand Canyon-like vistas of red layered cliffs. 

Lettuce fields near the village of Kong Lor
Arriving in the village by Kong Lor, we found a lovely guesthouse amongst fields of vivid lettuce farms wedged in a valley bordered by rocky cliffs that looked like the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada range. We had a meal with a bunch of fellow riders from different countries, enjoying a few beers and some great chats before turning in.

The next morning we rode the short distance to Kong Lor. There was the usual confusion sorting out a boat – there is no rhyme or reason in the way tours and transport are organized here. 

Kong Lor is a 7.5 kilometre-long cave that runs through a mountain. Unlike our exploration of the high subsystems of Tham Lot in Thailand, Kong Lor was a pitch-black boat blast along a river running through a mountain, with only our headlamps to highlight the inky blackness all around us.

As quickly as claustrophobia came, it went again – you kind of surrender to the circumstances. Before long we landed on a white-sand beach, about 2kms into the cave. Our guide led us up some sandstone steps before flicking a switch!

 The cave lit up around us. Blue and white spotlights illuminated the intricacies of the cave surrounding, including the stalagmites and stalactites that grew everywhere – it was stunning.

Considering most of the natural attractions we’d come across had been afflicted with either really sketchy or really tacky tourist facilities, the lighting of this sandstone spectacle was really well done. 

The tour pushed on through the darkness as the cave widened to 100metres at points, before narrowing again; disappearing to heights beyond the range of our lights, then coming in so close above us we could almost touch it. We got out at points to help push our longboat over shallow rocks and tiny waterfalls, the wet-season high-waterline visible at least 5 metres above us at points. Finally, we exploded out into brilliant sunshine on the other side of the mountain.

It all came at a funny time.  Laos had been a little under stimulating after Luang Prabang, then - BANG! –a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was a weird sensation.

Returning to ThaKhek, we headed south, but not before enjoying three days of cosmic-karma-balancing sickness – we had to pay for our good run of luck in Northern Thailand!

Feeling travel weary and a long way from the ocean (we were both missing it badly), at this point we had considered boosting straight down to Cambodia, but decided to give Laos just a little more time.

We travelled to Pakse – another Mekong-side town, before leaving on another bike trip the next day to explore the coffee-growing region of the Bolaven Plateau. 

This time on a Honda 115cc, we enjoyed a smooth ride but the scenery was still a little plain, with occasional timber-shanty villages and banana plantations blotting colour on an arid landscape. 

We followed a dirt track through a village toward a waterfall we’d heard about called Tam Salong. The track vanished at the far side of the village, when a young kid appeared and, unsolicited, led us off through the village farm.

A steep dirt hike became a sketchy boulder-hop. We’re now that age where we make comments like ‘man..we’re not kids anymore’ and ‘jeez kids are fearless’, as we scrambled to keep up with our kid-guide, taking precarious jumps between the huge boulders that led to the base of the falls.

From a distance, the ‘falls’ had looked like a pathetic trickle that evaporated into mist. In fact, we arrived at the base of a 90-metre high sheer rock cliff. As I slipped and scrambled behind this kid to where the water fell to smash into the rocks, the wind and mist whipped around me like a violent rainstorm.

Our kid guide having a
Gingerly easing across the slippery surface (imagine climbing over rocks made from ice!), I looked up to watch the small stream high above pour over the edge, breaking into a million drops that fell in vast sheets for an 8-count to where we stood hunched over on the rocks. Then, it would abruptly cease as the wind blew it elsewhere. What had looked like a trickle from afar was deafening, extremely windy and exhilarating.

Coming back: “LOOK KIMEE – NO HANDS!” – as I started sliding on the slippery rock, I quickly built up speed and was instantly out of control – “WOOOOOAAAAAAAHHHHH” – over mercifully smooth, very slippery rocks, all the way – SPLASH!! – into the freezing cold pool at the base – much to the cackling amusement of our 10-year old guide. 

Two hours later we wound our way to the smaller falls of Tad Lo, at the heart of a sleepy village and handful of guesthouses. After a refreshing swim and a late lunch, we didn’t feel like rushing, so we finished the day there, checking in to a cozy little bungalow at a nearby guesthouse. 

We rode to the top of the falls just before sunset and sat at the top, drinking a Beer Lao Dark and watching the water eddy through a maze of pools and streams before spraying over the small waterfall beside us.

Families upriver bathed and kids played beside us, laughing as they jumped off into the pool below, clambering up, shivering in the cold and squealing in giddy delight as they looked at the mid-air pics we'd taken of them jumping off the falls.

As the sun sank, the Mahouts from a nearby Elephant resort brought their rides for a sunset bath in the deep pool beside us. We watched, metres away, as they perched atop like surfers dropping into a wave, as the elephants sprayed and sank into the pools – a real treat to watch.

We spent the night cooking a great communal meal (fried, fried and more fried) with the other travelers staying there. It was fantastic to spend a night in a kitchen again, before enjoying some beers with a few really interesting travelers, sharing a few stories. 

The next day we completed the Bolaven Loop. While the ‘Plateau’ still didn’t bring the scenery, the Tad Fane waterfall halfway back was the best of the lot. As a generous dry-season torrent poured over the huge falls we had the large pool at the base all to ourselves.  

After a long climb down, the freezing water was refreshing. However as I swam toward the face, the cold, combined with the thunderous impact of the falls and the beating wind spraying mist in my face had my hands shaking as I found a handhold to climb up into a little cave - a little oasis amid the noise of the twin falls crashing either side.

The ride back to Pakse was again, very vanilla – we left the following morning in a scrambled trip to Si Phan Don – the ‘Four Thousand Islands’ just north of the Cambodian border. We opted for the tranquility of the large island of Don Khong over the backpacker idylls of Don Dhet and Don Khon, with a view to stretching our remaining kip to Cambodia. We found a cheap room and spent a few days recharging – still fighting the lingering remnants of some sickness we would’ve ideally left in Tha Khek. 

Paying dearly for precious internet time on the island, I’d just received an email telling us the volunteer jobs we’d enquired about on a southern-Cambodian island had been filled. Our best plan for lasting the unknown months before Kimee’s visa was approved evaporated in one email. Thoroughly disappointed and pretty dejected, Kimee, half jokingly, says to me – “hey – let me check my email – I’m waiting for an important email too…” (ha-ha). 

She opened it – the second email down was from Drew Layton, subject line: Visa application approved.

Kimee laughed and cried, I stared and laughed and shouted a bit – the locals playing cards behind us looked at us with blank expressions. We couldn’t believe it. We sealed it with a bike ride during which we absorbed exactly 0% of our surroundings – our minds already in another place.
This picture kind of sums up how we felt getting that visa approval!
We’re back living in the moment, savoring and enjoying Cambodia before we fly back – reality is coming for us fast: we’re coming back, and we’re coming back FATTER!

Laos wasn’t what we had expected. It was a funny twist – throughout Thailand, for all it’s beauty and spectacle, we rarely felt far from the tourist trail, and at times, we wished we could escape a for a bit to a path less traveled. Then we arrived in Laos. 

Here we have found a whole new scene – if you want serenity, if you want raw, and if you want to be the only tourist on the bus – you can be. Wherever you put yourself on the tourist spectrum – from package tourist to a salt-of-the-earth-ride-a-bike-across-the-rural-plains (with not but a small swag), Laos has reminded us there are people on parallel but very different journeys here. 

Some aren’t on excursions from reality – this is their lives, for as far into the future as they can see it, like they decided their life in the ‘West’ just wasn’t for them, opting instead for some kind of primal existence somewhere in the middle of Laos. It makes me feel at peace with where we have chosen to be on that spectrum – we will return to our realities, soul-fed, having glimpsed other lives. 

And long after we return to work and the safe, comfortable, assured confines of domesticity, I’ll wonder where the guy was headed – the solitary white dude we passed, miles from anywhere, high on the Bolaven plateau. With a shaved head bar a single two foot dred, he had his head down, his back soaked in sweat as he pedaled maniacally along the flats on a three-speed pushy. Where the heck was this guy going? What was he coming from? It’s a barren but discovered country here and still a lonely planet.

Hopefully we’ll be able to post once more from Cambodia - it has already been an entirely blog-worthy experience.  

Stoked to be heading home, but for now, love again from Phnom Penh,

Kimee & Hedge

Look closely at our cards! This is for the crib nerds (my family)

Talking to my mummy on the phone :)

Happy on New Years with my Coconut shake + rum!

Here's to the road (or ladder) less traveled!

One more for good measure....


  1. This is. Freaking. AWESOME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


  2. HOW AWESOME!!!! :) LOOKS and SOUNDS like you two are having a great time!!!