Saturday, August 27, 2011

Travels South

The old city of Luang Prabang, a slender peninsula overlooking the Mekong and Nam Khan River, is an elegant, quiet and absolutely charming city. The streets along the river are lined with fancy restaurants, wide banyan trees and coconut palms. French-inspired architecture, jewel-encrusted temples, and monasteries (where orange robes worn by monks hang outside to dry in the sun) meet narrow side streets where locals sell Mekong fish, river crabs, moth larva (fresh from the cocoon!), eels in buckets, bamboo shoots, live chickens and overripe fruit. The city's hybrid culture is so interesting - a Lao envisioned by the French - that's tropical, sophisticated, hot and packed with personality. We spent four nights and five days in Luang Prabang, walking leisurely through the streets, sampling delicious market treats, listening to the monks chant at sunset, watching bright mid-day skies swell with rain. Each night, on Sisangvong Road, locals from surrounding villages set up shop in the street, selling amazing textiles, scarfs, blankets, handbags and much more, which are all handmade and exquisitely beautiful. Each vendor offers an unbelievable array of fabric, so bright and stunning, so intricate and delicate. We learned a little about the different silks available in the country, and about the art of weaving, perfected and passed down from one generation to the next. Ethan bought a truly breathtaking blanket, hand stitched with tan, gold and blue tread, made of silk. A white silkworm shell hangs from each tassel of the blanket (a feature that I especially adore). The pattern (as we learned about later from a trader in Vientiane) is that of two nagas, "protective snakes," looking into a lotus blossom. Ethan treasures this blanket, and will for a long, long time. While in Luang Prabang we also rented a motorbike and drove into the countryside seeking waterfalls... Kouang Si Waterfall was raging, with water tumbling to the ground with such amazing force that it created a cloud of mist. We splashed beside the surging whitewater and admired the power of water over stone. The next day we traveled to Tad Se Waterfall, which spills and stretches through the forest. Tad Se was, despite the physical beauty, a slightly sad scene: two elephants stood in a small shelter beside the falls, their legs chained to a wooden post. Tourists rode on their backs as they walked in and out of a pool at the last tier of the waterfall. All I could see was the repetitive motion of their job and the blood running down their foreheads - open wounds caused by "the hook," a tool used to ride and guide them. That night, in Luang Prabang, we met a local man named Mr. Pawn, who has just finished college. He studied in the city for five years and was about to return home, to a small isolated village in the north, to work as a math and English teacher. He told us that he hopes to share what he's learned. We sat together and talked, grateful to hear his story, congratulating him again and again on his accomplishment. It's no easy task for a local to get a collage education in this country. It's so expensive for a local, and it's hugely time consuming.

We pulled ourselves away from Laung Prabang, drawn to the unexplored south of Lao, and booked a "V.I.P. bus" (which was labeled "King of Bus") heading for Vientiane. After four hours on a bumpy road, our bus pulled over behind a long line of trucks, buses and vans. "What's going on?" "There's been a mud slide." "Mud slide?" "Everybody out!" We grabbed our bags, tightened them around our waists and began to walk. In the intense mid-day heat (and feeling weary and sluggish from the motion sickness tablet I took just an hour before) we walked over an amazingly intense mud slid. The road was simply gone - vanished beneath a thick layer of mountain mud. Along the road, Lao locals sold boiled eggs, green papaya salad and cold BeerLao to the hungry, dehydrated tourists. As soon as I opened my mouth to complain about the unexpected hike, I was silenced by the sight of a man carrying two crates of eggs (both suspended on the ends of a wooden stick and perched on his shoulder); by the sight of small children carrying filled boxes on their backs; and by women carrying wood in baskets that hang from their head. At the other side of the slide I sat, utterly exhausted, and waited for Ethan. I waited and waited and waited and then began to freak out. I worked myself up, and began to search for him in every single bus on our side of the slide. "Have you seen this man?" I asked, slightly crazed and holding out a picture of him on my camera. "Have you seen him? I've lost my boyfriend!" "No, no, so sorry." "Have you seen this man???" "Yes, we saw him on a motorbike." "A motorbike!" "Yes, umm, he was a traveling that way by motorbike." "Are you sure?" "Oui, I think this is him." I found him, eventually, three kilometers away (at the very end of the traffic jam, and yes, he was carried there by motorbike) drinking a BeerLao and not worrying at all. I was pissed and sweaty, but we were reunited. We got into another King of Bus, which was waiting on the other side of the slide, and continued traveling over breaking, winding, pothole-covered mountain roads. Six hours later, we decided, spur-of-the-moment, to get off in Vang Vieng (instead of traveling another four hours south to the capital, as we had intended). I couldn't stand the thought of spending another minute on the King.

Vang Vieng is a strikingly beautiful place filled with obnoxious tourists. It's known as "tubing capital of the world," and hoards of tourist descend on the small town to party, float lazily down the Nam Song River, get totally trashed and make an absolute scene. What's most strange about Vang Vieng is its downtown collection of eateries and bars playing "Family Guy" and "Friends" on large screen tvs all day long, on repeat - nothing but "Family Guy" and "Friends." Literally five bars in a row were showing different episodes of "Friends," it was surreal and disturbing and utterly bazaar. Tube-crazy tourists walk around half naked, donning bikini tops and bottoms at all times of day, despite the fact that Lao is a modest country where showing off skin is a sign of disrespect and considered rude. But, there is far more to Vang Vieng than the strange downtown party scene. The amazing mountains and limestone karsts surrounding the city are simply gorgeous. Ethan and I decided to boycott the tubes, found a quiet guesthouse with an picture-perfect view of the mountains and spent our time exploring. Central Laos is painted with beauty beyond words. It's like a fairy tale, a "Lord of the Rings" inspired landscape of towering blue-green mountains that stand tall, sharp and proud as far as the eye can see. We rented a motorbike (Ethan is the driver and I cling to him from behind) and we traveled north of Vang Vieng and into the most dramatic scenery I have ever seen. Arriving at a village on a mountaintop we wandered on a well-worn path along a ridge, looking out into a simply-constructed village overlooking jagged mountains. On our journey home, with the sun setting behind us and rain gathering in the distances ahead, we chased a rainbow for miles on end, completely enchanted and grateful for such luck.

After our three-day detour in Vang Vieng, we traveled to Vientiane, Laos' bustling capital city. We arrived in the capital in the early afternoon and we walked through the city, breathing in dust and exhaust, shocked to find ourselves in a true city setting. Nowhere else in Lao has felt so much like a city, nowhere else in Lao has been packed with tall hotels, book stores, Honda dealerships, traffic and eateries galore. Seven hours seemed to be enough, though, and we jumped on a sleeping bus bound for Pakse. The sleeping bus was an experience. Ethan and I were in the very back of the bus (a double decker lined with wooden booths and thin foam cushions). After eating an obscene number of steamed dumplings for dinner, we snuggled up and fell into a wrestles sleep. I was jolted awake many times and woke with an outrageous fear that the bus would flip over, and that we'd be crushed to death in the middle of nowhere, helpless and trapped in the very back of the double decker bus. It, thank God, did not flip over, and we slept as best we could, curled beneath mildew-scented blankets. So, once again, we are recovering from a long day of traveling, both blogging (like the massive geeks we are), both sleepy and road weary. Pakse is a newly constructed town, a small city along the Mekong River. I look forward to seeing the market (I love markets) and to admiring the textiles of the southern region. Today will be a day for writing, walking slowly and just being here...

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