In Lao, “khop chai lai lai” translates to “thank you very much.” This was the first phrase I learned upon entering the country, probably the most important term to know, and the last thing I wanted to say as I moved on from Laos.
A BLESSING to Witness Great BEAUTY
Just when I thought that I had already experienced the best of Laos, having been seduced into pure relaxation in Luang Prabang, and then pulled out of it in Vientiane, thinking the days of visiting unspoiled land had passed, I arrived with Allan to one of the loveliest villages I have ever been to. It was a little out of the way, kind of out in the middle of nowhere, but Kong Lo Village was definitely worth the visit! The reason we were out there was because we wanted to explore the reputable Konglor Caves in the region.
The bus ride wasn’t too bad and we arrived sometime between 4 and 5 in the afternoon, checking into a family-run guesthouse and still having time to stroll along the single dirt road that ran through the village before the sun went down. Not only was the place beautiful with its neon green rice paddies spanning the countryside against a backdrop of emerald greenery-covered karst cliffs, but also its people were extra special–I think just about every single person we passed greeted us with a warm smile and an enthusiastic hello. The villagers were in their homes, in their shops, and in the rice fields and they seemed so open to share with us. We even got a semi-tour of the rice machine at work, sifting and separating rice kernel from rice bran from plant scraps! In case you ever wondered, here is a video of the rice-separator machine at work: http://youtu.be/5ncK0SieQEw
Even though there wasn’t much to do out there and we were only staying one night, I had the sense that I could stay there for two or three days because it was so peaceful, slow, and friendly. Even the family at the guesthouse where we were staying was open to interacting with us. They ran a restaurant connected to the guesthouse and while only one lady spoke decent English, the entire family helped out and did their best to serve their guests. In turn, a couple of us tried to interact and visit with them or help teach them some new English words while they taught us some Laotian words. One of their cats had recently had a litter of kittens so we had some entertaining “conversations” about that as well!
Speaking of cats, a strange characteristic of many cats in Southeast Asia is that they have short tails–about half the length of regular cat tails with a little nub on the end. The first time I saw this was in Thailand, then I continued to see it in Laos (and further in Cambodia). I asked around to other travelers and they figured that people just cut off the cat tails when they were young, similar to how certain breeds of dogs get their tails cut off. Being that this region is so peaceful, I didn’t buy it. Why would people bother to make the effort to cut off cats’ tails? Surely they have more important things to do. Plus, because it was a prevalent sighting in over three countries that each have their own culture, I suspected it had to be related to genetics, a mutation that had worked its way to survival through decades of evolutionary history. This suspicion was confirmed–sort of–when I enquired to the lady who ran the guesthouse why the cats had short tails. She wasn’t sure, but her guess was that the male cats came around after the females gave birth and bit off the kittens’ tails! I think I’ll stick to my genetics theory…
Some other animals that are common to see in Laos and many parts of Southeast Asia include chickens, fish, and water buffalo. There are cows, too, but water buffalo seems to be all over the place. They are related to cows and have giant, thick horns that wrap in a semi-circle formation behind their heads, and they are used mostly for practical purposes, both to help plow the fields and pull carts as well as to be eaten. Buffalo is known for being a leaner type of meat in comparison to cow/beef. These water buffalo are neat in that you can often see them submerged in small bodies of water; they do this to cool down. I saw many water bathing buffalo along the way, but always while I was in transit so I never got a good photo; instead you get this guy:
Our adventure to the Konglor Caves was the next day so after breakfast, Allan and I, along with four other travelers who were staying at the same guesthouse, walked a good half an hour down the road to the national park entrance and the beginning of the cave. The draw to this natural wonder is that this set of limestone caves was formed inside a mountain with a river that flows underground from one side 7.5 kilometers (~5 miles) through to the other side with no natural light except for the mouths of the cave on either end. The only way to get from one side to the other is to take a makeshift-motorized canoe that fits three people plus the driver…and then enter the dark, spooky caves with only a flashlight or a headlamp to look around.
It is a pretty interesting experience that tends to freak people out due to the sheer darkness and the unknown of what lingers in that pitch black–bats, cave spiders, creatures of the depths?? You never know what you are going to get! We got some bats, but not much more than that. At one point, our non-English speaking canoe guide banked the canoe on a patch of sand and motioned for us to get out. So we did and pointed for us to go a certain way, and once we started walking, he went back to the canoe and puttered away–that was the most unsettling part of the trip! Being ditched on a sandy island in an underground cave!! As it turned out, there was a guided path to follow that let us examine the limestone stalagmites and stalactites up close; there were also electrical wires and strobe lights lining the path, however, we deduced that since the village was experiencing a power outage due to a huge storm the night before, the lights in the cave were also non-functioning, providing an even spookier experience to its visitors that day than normal.
All in all, I’d say my favorite part of the experience was “seeing” (as best as I could with a high-powered flashlight) all the underground waterfalls that dropped fresh water from the cave ceiling right down to the flowing river. I’d never seen anything like it–completely natural underground showers pouring out from underneath the earth floor, in some areas dropping a whole 100 meters from above. It was enchanting and gave a sort of “Pirates of the Caribbean” feel. Lastly, I am glad I got to share the experience with my friend, Allan, and not just some strangers; it’s always fun to exchange perspectives with someone you know who got to enjoy the same thing with you.
Most of Laos is what I would consider to be “off grid,” meaning that there is little access to the outside/global world. Because it is such a poor country, life is still very simple and people make do with what they have. I am always amazed at the resourcefulness and creativity of people in developing countries. If something falls apart, they’ll find a way to repair it (without buying a new one); if water and electricity are too expensive, they’ll make their own lights and save rainwater in bins or get water from the a river; and if they want to decorate their homes and spaces, they’ll create things often using recyclable items. It is a reality check to see how little people can live on and what they can do without access to the millions of goods, services, and merchandise at the fingertips of people who live in consumer societies. Sometimes I think we have it too easy in the United States. Granted, we all have our struggles and every environment brings its own set of issues–sometimes we refer to these as “first-world problems” in comparison to “third-world problems.” It’s important to keep things in perspective, though, and a great lesson learned from developing nations is that whatever struggle presents itself in life, we shouldn’t fret too much–it’s not the end of the world. Really.
My cell phone service, T-Mobile, has a nice automatic international plan that partners with cell phone companies in about 140 nations; many of the countries I am traveling to during these months are included in that partnership, however, Laos was not. It was actually really nice to be disconnected for a while, and even when there was supposedly wifi at the guesthouse, people had to crowd around the router to get a rather dysfunctional signal so a few of us didn’t even bother trying. Then the electricity went out which meant no running water, no flushing toilet, no light, no fan, and no wifi. What can you do about that? Absolutely nothing–just roll with it and enjoy the break from technology. It was fabulous (minus the toilet not flushing).
Speaking of toilets, they come in all shapes and styles all around the world. We westerners are fortunate enough to have a comfortable, clean toilet seat to sit down down on that is filled with clear water and flushes nicely–in some cases automatically now. Many places in Asia use what is known as the “squat toilet,” which in most cases is still made from porcelain but it is set low to the ground with a shallow bowl and “foot markers” on either side where you are supposed to position your feet, pull down your pants, and squat to do your business. To flush, you have to use a small bucket or bowl to retrieve water from a holding bin, then pour it quickly (and from at least 12 inches above the toilet) into the hole–the force/water pressure should flush your business down the hole, but in same cases, you have to do the bucket thing a couple times for total clearance. Luckily, I mostly had access to regular toilets, but in the “off grid” places in Laos and Cambodia–and usually during transit–only squat toilets were available (or bushes). One funny thing that comes along with the introduction to “sitting toilets” to this area is the need for instructions on how to use a sitting toilet, for those accustomed to squatting.
After the caving adventure, we returned to the village, grabbed lunch, and awaited the 2 o’clock tuk tuk pickup–the only ride out of the village that day–that would take us to Thakhek, where we would catch our next bus. The tuk tuk actually arrived nearly half an hour early, requiring that we scarf down the rest of lunch and load into the back of his [covered] pickup truck with our backpacks, ready to hit the road. There were five of us and none of us realized that it would be a four-hour trip along a mostly dirt road filled with potholes. That was only the beginning of the adventure…
By the time we pulled into Thaket, it was 5:40 PM, 10 minutes after the last bus was supposed to leave. But the bus was still there when we arrived, perhaps waiting for the drop-off. A Laotian guy ran up to us and started herding us toward the bus. I asked him, “Overnight bus to Si Phan Don?” And he responded, “Yes!” I said ok, but Allan and one of the other guys with us, Giuseppe, the Itlaian, had more sense to check with the ticketing office, where we had to buy our tickets anyway. Quick bathroom stop and on we went, still covered with a layer of dirt on our skin from the tuk tuk pickup ride.
This “overnight bus” was supposed to drop us off in Si Phan Don, also known as “4000 Islands,” which were situated at the most southern part of Laos along the long Mekong River just before the Cambodian border, at 7 in the morning. These buses have a habit of making random pit stops all along the way no matter where they are going. The first stop appeared to be for gas and [free] restrooms. After that, we all started settling in but not less than 10 minutes later, we stopped again. This time for food, although it took us awhile to figure that out–the bus just stopped and people started getting off, no one said why.
The food options ended up being the furthest thing from actually having an option. At 7:30 PM, the street market was lined with with vendor stalls. The first stall was selling chicken on a stick. And when I say that, I don’t mean prepared, cubed, seasoned, and sautéed chunks of boneless, skinless meat–I mean literally a chicken on (or in between) a stick. The bird was stretched out so every part of it would cook over the fire so in addition to thigh and breast meat, the skin, the tiny head (these seemed like relatively young chickens), the beak, and even the eyes were all intact and roasted up nicely. Hmm. No thanks. Next! But the next stall was also offering chicken-on-a-stick. And so was the one after that. All the way down the block. No rice, no vegetables, no fruit shakes. Just chicken-on-a-stick. Finally, at the last stall, there was another option: frogs-on-a-stick. I finally gave in and having eaten only an ice cream bar since lunch over 6 hours prior, I knew I needed some protein and opted for the half size chicken-on-a-stick. I did my best with eat, ripping off whatever meat I could find with my teeth until I was tired of dealing with the mess, but satisfied with my effort. While we were still stopped, I had time to floss and brush my teeth and pay to use the squat toilet there so I get wind down as soon as we got back on the bus.
Between 8 PM and midnight, we stopped a couple more times, mostly to let people off. Lucky for me, the seat next to me was empty so around 10:30, I curled up and tried to sleep. Another big stop at midnight, though!! And all the bright lights inside the bus lit up the place. When we finally hit the road again, I figured I could get a solid 6 hours of dream-filled sleep before we arrived at our destination. But that was a silly idea being that the lights came back on at 3:30 in the morning, the driver letting us know that we had arrived and basically kicking us off the bus to the side of the road in the pitch darkness. Public transportation is notorious for arriving late to destinations, so of all times to arrive 3 1/2 hours early, of course it happened to be in the middle of the night.
Apparently this wasn’t the first time this had happened so as seven of us (the five of us from the Kong Lo Village guest house, plus 2 Israeli girls) stumbled off the bus on a dirt road thinking we might have to just sit on the ground until the sun came up, we were actually greeted and, in my opinion, rescued, by a guy who ran a restaurant out of his house just down the road. While he and his family were still sleeping, he was kind enough to allow us to hang out on the deck in the restaurant area outside and showed us where the drinks were, saying we could help ourselves and pay in the morning–well, when the sun came up. Being that the plastic chairs, dewy tables, and wooden decks didn’t exactly make for the ideal sleeping conditions, there wasn’t much else we could do except share a couple beers and play cards until the crack of dawn, at which point we peeled away from the card games and watched the sunrise over the river.
After eating breakfast and settling the bills, we were on our way again on the 8:30 AM boat that would transfer us from Don Khong (the island where we were dropped off) to Don Det, where we were staying for 2 nights. While Si Phan Don, the “4000 Islands,” may bring to mind a tropical island chain floating in turquoise water, these islands were far from that. First of all, it was rainy season so the already brown Mekong River was even muddier than usual, and secondly, these “islands” were more like small landmasses covered in sometimes marsh-like greenery. In the entire island regions, there are really only 3 main islands where people live and visit. In addition to the 14 hours straight of transportation time on tuk tuk and bus, if I add the 5-hour “layover” and the boat ride to Don Det, by the time we settled into a place on the island, we had been traveling a total of 21 1/2 hours. It was nice to have finally arrived. And later that afternoon, we were rewarded with a spectacular sunset from the western side of the island.
The feel of Don Det was lazy and slow. There wasn’t too much going on and it seemed the whole places was in a lull. The people were nice, although seemingly very shy and serious. (If you caught them with no tourists/visitors around, you could see them letting loose and goofing off!) As tourism is relatively new in Laos, the people are still getting used to strangers in their land. The economic opportunity from tourism is a benefit, but their way of life certainly will change as more foreigners stop over for visits to the area. We did have the opportunity to check out some of the local markets–always an interesting activity that gives insight to the local culture and dietary customs of a region; some new market finds there included lots of [live] frogs in buckets as well as giant green “toy” beetles.
As far as island activities go, the available options pretty much could be one of three things: rent a bike, go kayaking, or swing in a hammock. A couple of us from our travel group stuck together for the most part for daytime activities and dinner. It was Allan and I, of course, plus Giuseppe and the two Israeli girls. On our full day on the island, we all embarked on a kayaking adventure all the way down the river to just across the Cambodian border, where we stopped for lunch and Irrawaddy Dolphin spotting (a rare breed of freshwater dolphin that lives in the southern part of the Mekong River), before kayaking another 40 minutes to the bus that would take us back. At the beginning of the trip, we made several touristic jungle hike stopovers for waterfall viewing; each time we stopped was a welcome break to the intense kayaking we were doing! Most of us thought it was just going to be a relaxing day on the water so we were definitely taken by surprise at how difficult it was to maneuver the kayaks through the strong river currents. A day well spent, for sure, and in great company!
We all enjoyed one last dinner together that evening and lots of camaraderie and more laughter. Another huge storm rolled in that night, making it so that we had to stay together even longer (or else get drenched trying to run back to the guest houses!). The next morning, we traveled together to cross the border into Cambodia, where Shani and Michal left for Phnom Penh while Allan, Giuseppe, and I headed to Siem Reap (both places I’ll write about in the next chapter). All in all, Laos was good to us and provided the setting for many shared adventures and funny stories, and for that I am grateful. Khop chai lai lai.
TRAVEL TIP: Always travel with toilet paper or tissue tucked in your bag. You never know when you will need it! Hand sanitizer is a good item to tote along as well. In many developing countries, you will be lucky to get a toilet, and even if you have access to a toilet, you might just prefer a bush or a tree instead. Sometimes nature and its open air create a much more welcoming spot to relieve yourself than a tiny cramped smelly space with a dirty toilet seat (or no seat at all), no light, spiders and their webs, or even maggots and other creepy crawlers–“toilets” that you are expected to pay to use. And don’t count on there being soap to wash your hands, that is, if there is even access to water. People in some cultures/places don’t even use toilet paper; traditionally in India, water and a person’s left hand are used to clean themselves (that is why people don’t eat to greet with their left hands!) and in other places, a hose is placed near the toilet so people can wash themselves off (but interestingly, no method of drying). In any case, keep that TP close at hand! Some of these case scenarios are the worst you can get, but it’s better to be prepared than to get caught with your pants down, bum hanging out, and nothing to wipe yourself with…