Posts tagged ‘laos’

Laos to Vietnam

I arrived in Vietnam 3 days ago after a 6 hour bus journey from Savanahket (in Laos) to the border, plus 2 hours to the city of Dong Ha by taxi where i cought the 13 hour night train to Hanoi. Coming towards the border on the bus i was glad to leave Laos.

 

Here i am at the border…

 

Laos is a peculiar country. Guide books describe it as a very laid back and friendly place… and this is true… in a way. I never once witnessed an act of hostility or violence. I was never robbed (unless you count that one time on the slow boat with the kid who took too much) and i never felt unsafe. The Lao treat each other with respect (ex: men will help women with belongings on busses, busses will actually stop for passengers on the street) and openness (people who don’t know each other talk instead of sitting together in silence). All this was very nice.

However, the Lao people (as a group) can also be rude. Very often, when i’d pass a group of women or girls and they would start talking about me. (The word for foriegner is ‘falang‘ and it’s not always very nice. Kind of like the word nigger in the USA. Imagine being black and passing a group of people who break out into laughter and yelp ‘nigger nigger’ in every sentence amongs themselves as you pass? It’s not pleasant.) I just don’t understand how a whole group of people can do this without being mindful of the tactlessness of it. Sometimes i’d turn my head and stare at them, hoping to remind them that i understand that they’re talking about me. They would always pause when i did this, then laugh. As an anthropology student i feel strange to be so perturbed by this.

I also hated the indifference with which many Lao people handle practical matters. They don’t care if you buy from them or not if to make the sale they have to struggle to understand you. If there’s “work” involved, they’d rather make no sale. Another issue was the lack of rational thinking. (Lack of adequete schooling is a possible cause.) Being a vegetarian, i carried a paper with me that said “I’d like to eat. But i don’t eat meat. Can you make vegetables?” Most of the time i showed this paper i was met with very confused faces, followed by smiling and a head shaking no (even if the food in question was meatless). Isn’t it rational to assume that if you’re holding a bougette and i’m pointing at it and then to my paper back and forth that i’m asking if one agrees with the other? In many situations, the Lao failed to make this connection.

edit:  I hope i didn’t give a negative impression of the Lao people. Being in Vietnam, i’m really missing the warm Lao aura. Some examples i didn’t mention were how welcoming the young Lao people were (whether they spoke any English or not) when they saw westerners in bars and night clubs. They would actively encourage us to join them, pull us to their table, and dance with us. They always smiled and wanted to talk.

So i hoped to find something more familiar to me in Vietnam. I had decided not to stay in Dong Ha because i wanted to get to Hanoi as soon as possible. I felt tired of provincial places. I had hired a taxi who took me to the train station where i bought my ticket and then he suggested i come over his home since i had several hours before the train’s departure. I had many reservations at first, but when i learned that his wife and children were home i decided it would be nice to spend time with a Vietnamese family.

In essense, what happened was this: I ate with his family and played with his young children. When i used the toilet i didn’t take my bag with me and during this time he or someone in the family removed 500,000dong from my wallet. Before this he had helped me change one of my bills into a smaller ones and had given me a 200,000dong bill which later i learned was fake. So by the time i reached Hanoi, i felt betrayed and depressed.

Hanoi is full of taxis – motorcycle taxis, pedicabs, car taxis. They are most abundant in the old quarter (where i live), to the extent where i am propositioned at every other step. On other streets, i am propositioned every 5 meters instead. All these taxi drivers look the same (in my eyes) and they all use the same method to call attention to themselves. In a voice reminiscent of an old friend, they’ll yell out “hello.” Since my arrival in Hanoi i’ve been very hostile towards them, ignoring them and cursing them silently or shooing them away with my hand. I realize now that it’s this tone of friendship they assume that disturbs me so much. Unconsciously it reminds me of the driver from Dong Ha who acted as a friend and then robbed me. I wish they would make it illegal for the taxis to sollicit.

Nor are the people i’ve met on the streets in Hanoi very friendly. I sense a dislike for foreigners from the Vietnamese who have nothing to gain by talking to you. They only talk to you if there’s something you have that they want. It wasn’t like this in Lao. It’s like i was floating down a peaceful stream (Lao) when all of a sudden i came upon turbulent rapids and sharks (Vietnam). I’m adjusting…

ps. I’ve shared this with several friends and some have had (or know others who did) similar first experiences in Vietnam. So i suppose it’s like an initiation, a vaccination…

I should feel lucky that i was only robbed of 700,000 (16,500dong = 1$ so it’s not a lot of money) and not my whole wallet or passport.

 

Oh and here are some pictures of Hanoi traffic at night…

chaos: motorcycles ride on the side-walk when they feel like it, 
few traffic lights (for cars, not pedestrians)

 

And for those who like dogs or meat or both….

         

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October 22, 2008 at 4:43 pm 2 comments

Pakse

 

I’m in Pakse now, which is the main city in Champasak province in the south of Loas. Supposedly the coffee is very good here. It’s rural and small, but because of the (relatively) large number of travelers that pass through because of Pakse’s easy access to Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, there are many guesthouses and the internet is relatively good. I only have 7 more days left to my visa and i still want to visit Champasak and Si Phon Don, so i might leave Pakse for Champasak tomorrow afternoon.

There is a big boat festival that everyone, everywhere i’ve visited in Laos has been preparing for and it will start this Wednsday! Along the Mekong there are lots of games and food venders and music at night. Some say that they’re there only because of the festival but i doubt it. I think it’s just night markets spruced up by the upcoming festival.

Here are a few pictures i took today at the morning market….

 

 

 

…with a captive monkey. her parents were tied up behind the tree in the same manner as she. even though animal captivity resonates cruelty, i couldn’t help but spend a few minutes holding and letting her climb me. she was so gentle and cute!

 

 

…. I have a desire to visit Russia (and Ukraine) before i return to the states. My return fight is through Japan, and i have a stop-over there. I (think) there is a land route to Russia through Japan and it would be really cool to spend a few months in Russia. I want to take the trans-siberian railroad and head towards Ukraine, eventually taking a flight to NY from Moscow… maybe… 

And i want to apply for a Ukrainian passport because it is probably easier to travel with one (and no visa fees!)

October 13, 2008 at 4:16 pm 1 comment

The Loop in Laos

My last night in Vientiane i wanted to thank my couchsurfing host so i decided to cook dinner. On the way back, when we were trying to charter a tuk tuk, no one would agree to our price. One guy said, “i have no money” and showed us his empty wallet. Then he said “i need money for food.”

Awesome. And we invited him to join our dinner party in exchange for driving us for the price we wanted. He agreed.

The plan was to make a salad and noodles and i started with the salad. 15 min in he joined us in the kitchen and took up peeling of the cucumbers. After that… he pretty much cooked the whole meal. It tasted really good!

The next day i left Vientiane. The plan was to go to a village called Khun Kham and spend a day there, and go to the 7km long cave in Tham kong Lo the next day. After that, i wanted to go south to Savannakhet. But we missed the bus the first day and decided to go to Pak Kading instead. But then we missed our stop and showed up in a small highway village called Vieng Kham. The next day we tried to take a bus to Tham Kong Lo, but again a few mishaps and we missed the bus! So we went south instead to Tha Kaek…a town along the Mekong on the border with Thailand. Here we decided to do “the loop,” terminology travelers use to describe the trip from Tha Kaek throughout central Laos for 3-4 days.

The first night it got dark before we reached the village where we planned to stay, so we asked around if anyone could offer the 3 of us a place to sleep. No one spoke English so communication was based on hang signals. Hands together and to the side of the head for ‘sleep,’ hand to the belly or to mouth for ‘food.’ We found a family and spent the night with them. They were quite poor, as most of the villagers were, without tv or running water. They had electricity though. In the evening we ate a simple (and small) meal of sticky rice, papaya salad, and bamboo soup. Then we played with the children who were really excited by my lonely planet book. I regretted not buying Lao children’s book’s from Big Brother Mouse when i had a chance in Luang Prabang. We slept out on the balcony underneath a mosquito net.

The next day the kids were up at 5am. From inside the hut, their singing woke us up. It was still dark. An hour or two later, we ate breakfast with the family (same as dinner, but some fish plate instead of the bamboo) and the children set off for school. Lao school children wear special school uniforms so it’s easy to recognize them). They were still in front of the house when we left.

They canoo trip through the cave was interesting. It was very dark and it was leaky. Once we got to stop and explore inside. I didn’t see anything living. It took about half an hour to go through it.

From here we went to Lak Sao and from there back the 150+km to Tha Kaek. The road was bumpy and difficult and we spent the night in a guesthouse along the way. There is a lot of contruction going on (dams, roads).

 

Now we’re back safe and :)

 

October 10, 2008 at 6:13 pm 1 comment

Roaches

My last night in Vang Vieng was spent outside with a cat. Just kidding, it wasn’t as extreme as that.

I returned to my room in Nam Song Garden guest house (nice place if you guys are curious) and started doing my bed time routine. Popping pimple, washing, etc. It didn’t take long to notice the strange bugs on the wall. I couldn’t decide if they were spiders or mosquitoes stuck in a spider’s web. It had been raining all day and the netting on top of the wall that kept bugs out had broke, so i figured they must have come in through that. After imagining several dozen new mosquito bites in the morning and a case of malaria i convinced myself that it was okay and i should just go to sleep. Then i saw him!

He was sitting on my towel in the bathroom, his whiskers gently moving. I started to have anxiety… I couldn’t imagine a way to move this giant roach out of the bathroom successfully. I needed to find someone to do it because i couldn’t sleep with him so close to me! (I couldn’t shut the door to the bathroom because there is no door) I went outside. Then back in. Maybe he had dissapeared. But no he was still there, cleaning himself or eating or something. I thought of ways to catch him. I grabbed a plastic bag. I took a few more walks outside. I turned on the light outside. I hope that the Norwegien owner of the house would wake up or that i would see some one outside. The house cat was sleeping and i sat next to him, carressed him roughly a few times, and returned to my room. I realized i could go down the road to some guys i knew, but if they came they would definetely make a lot of noise and wake everyone up. I didn’t want that. I thought of what a baby i was being and decided to wrap myself in my sleeping bag and just sleep.

As soon as i got inside the bag and closed it i heard a noise on the bed. I imagined rats like the ones i had seen in the afternoon for sale at the market, before they were killed and skinned. I didn’t want to sleep with rats. I took my cell phone which was next to me (i use it as an alarm clock) and turned it on. Using the light from it i did a survey of the bed. And what i saw next to me, on the other pillow, gave way to my impusle to scream…. and i did. It seemed to take a long time to unwrap myself out of the sleeping bag and by the time i did the Norwegien and his Lao wife were at the door asking what i had seen. “A spider?” he asked with a sense of humour. “No!!!! A giant roach on the pillow looking at me!”

He killed the roach on the towel in the bathroom and flushed him down the toilet (it was unfortunate, because as ugly as he was i didn’t want him killed). But we couldn’t find the roach on the bed. Maybe i imagined him, i don’t know….

 

——

 

Now i’m in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. It’s very hot. I am staying with someone through couchsurfing. He lives 15 minutes (by bicycle) outside the city center, away from the tourists. He is nice and i’m glad i decided to couchsurf here, but i miss the noise and nightlife that comes with tourists. So tomorrow or the day after i will find a room here in the center. I need to stay in Vientiane until Monday at least because that’s when my visa for Vietnam will be ready. I went to the embassy today and guess how long the application process took? 5 minutes!

So now i have 17 days left in Laos. I think i will go by overnight bus to Pakse (south of Laos) on the 6th, and then make my way further south to the island known as “A thousand islands” and then head by busses to the north, making stops along the way. On the 19th i plan to be back in Vientiane and take a flight to Hanoi. The bus ride to Hanoi from Vientiane is about 24 hours, and i promised myself during my first trip abroad when i took Eurobus around Europe that i will never make long trips by bus if i can avoid it ever again.

 

——

 

My host has a television and last night he was watching a news program that had news from all over the world. They even had a segment on baseball and it was so similar to the kind of baseball news i would have seen had i been in New York, i missed home.

October 2, 2008 at 5:52 pm Leave a comment

Caves

Today we went to the caves by bike. We swam in a lagoon and then made our way through what seemed like a jungle (it wasn’t. It was a rice paddy amidst mountains) to the cave. Someone had to stay and watch the bags while the others swam through the cave. I volunteered. It started thundering and raining and the 15 year old guide ushered everyone out of the cave. We made our way back to the little hut grocery store run by the guide’s parents. They offered us bananas and sticky rice. I played with a small cat. The boy made a fire and we exchanged a few English words. When the rain was minimal, we got on our bikes and went back the 40 kilometers to town. It was a really nice day spent with good people.

 

ps. A lot of people come to this town to get f-d up. But there’s so much more to it. The mountains are beautiful. My favorite times have been driving down the dirt roads surrounded by trees, mountains, and sky. During these times i feel a sense of fulfillment i rarely ever feel. That, and i love the dance scene. I love dancing to electronic music in the open air with welcoming people! In New York, the club scene is mostly a downer. Here it’s <3

September 28, 2008 at 9:46 pm 2 comments

Vang Vieng

I left my guest house around 10 yesterday and had a long breakfast. After breakfast i planned to take a tuk-tuk to the bus station because i had read online that busses to Vang Vieng ran every hour. But i decided to stop in one of those tourist booking agent places just to confirm and they could not give me a staight answer. One of the things i find characteristic about the Lao who deal with tourists is that they are more indifferent than interested in selling us anything. Even with poor english, it is possible to explain something. They hardly try. The offices are empty. How do they make money?

They told me there is a bus at 4pm. It was too late i said, because i didn’t want to arrive in Vang Vieng at midnight. I went to another place and they tried to sell me a bus for 2pm. But i want a bus at 12pm…

I decided to just take a tuk-tuk to the station. There i learned that the next bus was really at 2pm. Fine, i’ll wait 2.5 hours. At 2, me and a handful of Lao people got on the bus. A minute later we got off. There were not enough people so they canceled the bus! I had to wait for the 4 o’clock…

By this time i had met another traveler. She was born in Malasia but lived in Australia, so while she looked local her habits were more Western than mine. We waited together. At 4:30 the bus finally left. We were promised 6 hours until Vang Vieng, but i knew it would take more. We arrived at 1am. Exhausted but not tired. Unlike Europe, where guest houses and hotels have 24 hour reception, here the guest houses are usually run by extended families (or so it seems to me). When you arrive late you have to wake up the person sleeping by the door (usually the father or uncle) to let you in. We took a tuk-tuk to a place i had heard off from a friend, but for some reason the driver stopped on the way and refused to go there. Passing us, a group of Australian/Canadian drunk girls urged us to follow them to their guesthouse. We okay’d and followed. The place they took us to was too expensive and so on we went. The girls disappeared and we came upon a group of Israeli guys. I asked one if he knew any guesthouses. (It was so dark i couldn’t see any of the small ones. The big ones that i could see were the more expensive ones). He said yes and told me to go straight and make a turn there and there. It was confusing and i asked him to show me.

him- No…. i want to go drinking…

me- But it will be a mitzva if you help us…

him- Ah! You’re Jewish? Mitzva… okay

And in a drunken manner, he starting rambling about Rosh Hashana and the way he plans to celebrate it in Luang Prabang and how he is doing a mitzva… He took us to his guest house but there were no rooms available. The boy had an idea – me and my friend can sleep on his (king size) bed, and he will share the other bed with his friend, and tomorrow morning we can go and find a place of our own. We accepted, put our bags down, and went back with him to the bar to meet his friend…

The friend was from Manhattan and was excited to know i lived on 106 street until he realized that i no longer had the place because i chose to give it up rather than sublet it while i traveled. Did it make me less interesting, or something? Then the boy told him about the arrangement and they started arguing in Hebrew. It took this friend about half an hour to decide that we couldn’t stay with them in the room and that it was easy for us to get a guest house for ourselves at 2 in the morning! After this decision, it took them another 20 minutes (of drunken embracing with their friends) to return to the room so we could gather our belongings.

We left and i felt a feeling of shame for this boy. He was so ugly and small, is this why he felt unable to be kind?

Down the road we passed some drunken English. I told them the story and they quickly asserted: “We are English, we are gentleman!” They offered to share their rooms with us if we couldn’t find a place. They even carried our bags. We did find a place, however. And this morning changed to another one closer to the water.

September 27, 2008 at 1:41 pm 1 comment

slow boat… Luang Prabang

I took a ferry from Chiang Khong, Thailand to Huay Xai, Laos. Did my visa and changed some baht into kip and took the slow boat down to Luang Prabang. It took 2 days. In Chiang Khong i met a pair i had originally met in Pai, and along with several Lao women we made the back of the boat our home. Aside from the loud engine, bad air, and cigeratte smoke, boating down the Mekong river was a really nice experience. The first day of the ride i slept a lot, mostly because i was afraid of becoming sea sick. But in between naps i tried to play “bullshit” with the Lao women… and if you know the rules of the game you’ll be able to imagine how difficult it is to teach it without a common languange. It was fun. There was also a lot of drinking. Laos produces a really tasty brew called Beerlao. Although i hardly drink, it made everyone else merry and that was good for me. Lao currency is 8,660 kip to 1 US dollar. Every now and then the boat would stop along a coast or a small boat would catch up and kids or women would climb in and sell snacks. On one such visit i decided to buy some bottled tea. I didn’t understand what the kid said so i just took out bills for him to choose from and waited for my change. There was none and so i turned back to my book. But one of the Lao woman became angry and started shouting at the boy. I had paid him 100,000 kip without realizing, the equavalent of $13, almost half my days budget. I didn’t care much though. I would have felt upset had it been an adult who had cheated me, but children are allowed some foolishness and greediness. Eventually the Lao woman chased down the boy and embarressed him infront of his friends, retrieved part of the money, and returned with more snacks under her arm. I thought of what would happen to this boy when he came home tonight. Surely one of the other children would tell on him. And probably he would be punished. The possibility of it being corporal punishment made me sad.

 

Now i’m in Luang Prabang and i’ve been here for almost 4 days. I’ve visited some caves with old buddha images, waterfalls with places to jump from and swim, rented a bicycle and rode through some villages, and took numerous walks through the night market without buying anything. Surprisingly, Lao (at least in the places that travelers frequent) is more expensive than Thailand. I’m not sure why this is although i’ve heard that Laos doesn’t really produce anything and so has to rely on imports. I mean, Luang Prabang was the first place i visited where you had to pay (over a dollar!) for a map even though the map was full of ads. Didn’t these ads pay for the map i asked the seller as he mumbled something about them being made in Bangkok.

 

Tomorrow i will go to Vang Vieng which is further south, about 8 hours by bus. It is considered to be one of the best places for travelers to meet and has a range of outdoor water activities. Then i might continue to Vientiane, the capital, or i might head north instead and do a trek.

 

There is an organization here called Big Brother Mouse that creates and destributes books among Lao children in an effort to promote literacy. Yesterday and today i played with some of the children, and this morning i partook in an informal English lesson with some teenagers. It was really enjoyable!

September 25, 2008 at 8:55 pm Leave a comment


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