Elephants, Smiles and the Northern Smokeout!

Thursday, March 18, 2004
Laos is known as the Land of a Million Elephants and Thailand is known as the Land of Smiles. Although we have seen many, many smiles here in Thailand... there was not an elephant to be seen in Laos. Rumor has it that there is still a village somewhere who uses elephants to do work, but that is only a rumor!
About the smokeout - our last destination in Laos was called Luang Prabang. The United Nations declared the entire city a World Heritage Site and we had heard nothing but fantastic things about the place. BUT, apparently everyone we spoke to must have visited the city during the wet season because in the dry season, which we are now in the peak of, they practice slash and burn. That is a practice that is just as it sounds - you set fire to all that is around you and then you might grow something on it. In Northern Laos we turned into chain smokers - without the cigarettes! It was a fantastic city, but the smoke covering the city really put a damper on the place (no pun there!). As we were taking the bus from Ponsavan to the city we literally drove
through some fires. Embers and a few small flames were still burning on both sides of the road we were on. And, while in the city, we awoke every morning to the smell of smoke. They pretty much burn everything in sight (it seems) from dawn til dusk and then they take a rest and start all over again. Apparently, you have a beautiful view of the mountains from every vantage point in the city... but not in dry season!!!

Anyway, we had a great time there visiting the holyland of Laos. It's a small, enchanting city filled with temples, waterfalls, caves and occasionally a little smoke. We even got to see 2 little black bears and a tiger they rescued from poachers. They named the Indonesian Tiger, "Phet". Pronounced "pet". Probably not a coincidence!

We opted for a flight to Thailand's Chiang Mai due to the low levels of the river and lack of roads. We could have taken a slow boat which lasted 2 full days, or a fast boat which arrived after only one... but sped down the river at 60 miles an hour. It might have felt like Frogger the video game! But, as it turns out, the Luang Prabang airport does not have radar, so it was a bit hard to land and take off in a big cloud of smoke. We flew Thai Air thinking they would be more reliable than Laos Air... but our flight was canceled and we were bumped to Laos Air anyway. Apparently (as we found out in the airport) Laos Air will fly no matter what! The best part of being bumped was there is only one flight per day... so, we spent the night and 3 meals in a four star hotel, courtesy of the airline.

Since "The Bump" we have been in Chaing Mai, Thailand. We have been quite busy! We took a cooking class (just like last time), a massage class, and visited the temples and the panda bears! The zoo here has one panda and one baby panda. Tomorrow we take off (not with Laos Air!) to Burma. We have about 3 weeks there. I hear that it MIGHT be possible to use email, but maybe not. The government there is not too friendly and not too open so, I'll let you know how it goes!

Hope everyone in Boston is all shoveled out!!

Love, Alison

Sabaidee from Laos! Part 2

Saturday, March 13, 2004
We may not have even stopped in Pakse, except that there were some ancient ruins on the Pakse’s outskirts and Rob’s aunt was in town! It was a coincidence that she was going to be in Laos at the same time as us, but not a coincidence that we would find her in Pakse, we planned to meet her and her friend there. We organized to meet at a restaurant for dinner, but given that there were only a handful of foreigners in town anyway, it really shouldn’t have been a surprise that we bumped into them at the afternoon market. We went out for a few drinks and she took us out for a great dinner. Thanks, Pam! The Angkor era temple was interesting as well, but even more memorable was the rice paddy irrigation ditch we stopped at on the way back. It was so hot on that day that when we saw the water pouring out of the large pipe and lots of kids splashing around in the “pool”, we couldn’t resist. They couldn’t believe it when Rob hopped off the motorbike and jumped straight into the water. They were even more surprised when I jumped in! Bathing suits are considered really improper (especially on women), so we went in fully clothed like everyone else. It was great to ride the 30 kilometers back on the bike soaking wet!

In Vientiane, the capital of Laos, we went to a Buddha Park. Sounds boring enough, but it was great! Usually Buddha statues are really old and venerated, but these ones were concrete and built in the 1950’s… so no one cared if you climbed on the sturdy ones and posed like them all. So we did! And it was fun! I think we were allowed to do it at our own expense though, people generally stare a lot, but we became the afternoon’s entertainment for everyone else in the park! And, if you are ever in Laos, make sure you go to a BBQ restaurant. It’s like fondue, but it’s your whole meal!

Another place we stopped in at was called Veng Vieng. Since Laos is a landlocked country, we were eager to go somewhere that had water you could go in (other the the irrigation ditch). Veng Vieng is known for river tubing! You rent a tire and then they drop you four kilometers away from town along the river’s edge. You hop in on your tube and float along the river… all the while gazing at the large karst formations (which are kind of like big rocky hills) until you get thirsty. When you get thirsty, you just let someone from one of the many riverside “bars” pull you in with their long bamboo stick and you can get a beer! Only beer, that’s all they have. By the time you about ready to finish, you have arrived into town! It’s a fantastically lazy, non-culture activity that I highly recommend.

We went to Phonsavanh to check out the Plain of Jars and to see what the local people have done with all the stuff leftover from the war. Laos has the distinction of being the most bombed country on earth. This province is known for being extremely resourceful in using all the leftover parts from the war. Even 30 years later they are gathering up metal for scrap. One night we were sitting having dinner on the main road when a rice paddy tractor full of cluster bomb shells came down the road! Soon after we saw a water buffalo whisked by going god knows where. We have seen war paraphernalia used as benches, fences, lights, barbeques, and general building material. Plus, someone decided to make spoons out of old aircraft aluminium; everyone uses them. Some of the bombs have not yet detonated and we actually saw the Lao UXO (UnExploded Ordinance) team in action. A group of people were fanning out over a field using metal detectors. And, in the short while we were visiting the Jars, they detonated two bombs… just off the side of the road from where we were. Needless to say, we heeded the warnings to stay on clearly marked paths.

Anyway, about these Jars. No one knows exactly what they are or where they came from but there are these gigantic stone jars strewn about the province. Some of them weigh six tons! Some have lids, some are broken, and some are fully intact. Most of the little ones have “disappeared”. One is even placed on a giant pedestal in front of a construction company on the main road. All they really seemed to have figured out about these jars is that they are probably 2000 years old and probably had something to do with death. Maybe they buried people or their ashes inside these sarcophagus sized jars. Maybe we will never know! All I know is that we spent 7 hours on the mountain’s edge getting there, and seven hours getting to our next destination. It might be the most random trip I’ve ever taken… except spending 50 hours on a bus getting to a swamp.

You'll hear from me again soon!

Love, Alison

Sabaidee from Laos! Part 1

Sabaidee from Laos!

After a long trip through Vietnam we took an overnight bus from Hanoi to Tha Khek in Laos. We were mules! We took this bus that not only did they fill to the brim with people, but was also chock full with chicken feed and cigarettes. At about three in the morning they asked us all to get off the bus so we could eat and use the bathroom – but as we had JUST done this a half an hour before, none of us foreigners were too inclined. Then they claimed that there were problems with the tire, so please get off anyway. So we did… all except Rob. So, the bus (that didn’t actually have any tire problems) went careening off into the night with Rob and all our stuff in tow. The rest of us were left on the curb. According to Rob, the bus drove faster than it had all night and then suddenly it stopped. They opened the door to a little hut and started stacking in the chicken feed and cigarettes. After about an hour, the bus finally returned to pick up all the passengers and we were off again, headed toward Laos. The next morning it took us about an hour to go through Laos customs and get back on the bus. We then proceeded to sit on the bus without moving for the next 2 hours while the Laos border patrol examined the cargo of the bus. The longer they stayed, the more cartons of cigarettes they received. Last but not least was the fact that everyone on the bus was headed to the capital… except us. We were headed south (in the opposite direction). At the last minute (after I called the drivers all liars, that is). They flagged down a local bus and we made it to Tha Khek within two hours. We were so happy to be done with the Vietnamese buses! We got on the local Laos bus and people were so friendly! One guy on the bus spoke English and he wanted to know everything about us – who we were, where we had just been etc. Then he told everyone else on the bus what we had told him. I think it was some kind of initiation.

We spent the next few days going south to Savanakhet and down to the Mekong Delta and along the way I feel like we met half of Laos! It was unbelievable how many people got on and off the buses we took. We even saw the same lady twice! The best part of all this was the food we saw every time we pulled into a town station. Most everything that takes a solid shape gets speared like a kabob. This includes flattened chicken (all parts included), giant bugs (just make sure you pull off the wings first) and eggs (fermented). If you buy the sticky rice, that comes in a little plastic bag and you eat it with your hand. There was also lots of stuff wrapped in banana leaves whose identity has yet to reveal itself!

Also, at our hotel there was a wedding going on outside our room. There were at least 500 guests in attendance! I should mention there was a giant field outside our room. We thought it might be fun if we hung around to see a Laos wedding, so after dinner we came back to check it out. There were a few people dancing – but nothing different than a normal wedding, so we didn’t get to see any Laos wedding traditions. Although, we did discover that it is possible to sleep right through a wedding with loud DJ and all. After so many hours on buses, we just proved we can sleep through anything!

Don Det, an island on the Mekong Delta, became home of my first experience taking a shower using a bucket instead of running water, the dollar a night bungalow, and where we found the elusive freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin. Elusive because it seems to only live in the Mekong River, and the Cambodians seem to blow them up. Apparently there are only about 50 of these little guys left… and most people who try to go see them might catch a glimpse of a fin or see a splash but we turned up in time for the equivalent of a Primetime Seaworld Show. That’s what it seemed like anyway. We saw constant dolphin action for the entire hour that we spent paddling around the Cambodian border. A total of probably ten dolphins – a pretty high turnout!

Part II from Laos coming soon..... love alison