Monks wear yellow underwear, and other lessons from Laos

While on a 2-day “slow boat” ride down the Mekong from Luang Prabang to the Thai border, we had some time to reflect on the past few weeks in Laos. We came into the country with vague expectations based on accounts from friends who’d been there before and almost unanimously loved it…. the people would be the “most laid-back we’d ever met,” we’d be hassled far less than other places we’ve been, the natural scenery would be unique and stunning, the culture would feel like one of its neighboring countries did 20 or 30 years ago.

In the end, we saw some amazing things in Laos, and it did have a different feel than Thailand, Cambodia, and not surprisingly, Bali. Overall, we really liked it, but we ended up liking it for some different reasons than we’d expected, and the things we’d expected to like the most ended up at times less enjoyable as well.

Vang Vieng, Laos

For one, the commonly described, “laid-back” nature of Lao people could be another way of interpreting what we found to be a general sense of indifference towards visitors. It’s not that people were unfriendly towards us – not at all – but we didn’t get the sense that they were nearly as curious about us as we were about them… in conversation, we were rarely met half-way, often pushing to get more of a response. Part of this was due to the stronger language barrier for us in Laos (which is nobody’s fault but ours, of course), as English was uncommon and our chance to connect really rested on our ability to pick up Lao (we did alright, but never learned enough to say anything interesting). Perhaps also, Laos may just not need visitors quite as much as its neighbors – you get the sense they were getting by alright before we were here, and they appreciate the tourism dollars, but would be fine without us just the same. Of course, generalizing a whole country based on its few citizens we met is unfair; mainly, we just found fewer chances to break through a service-oriented surface. Laid-back, or preoccupied, I’m unsure.

Another thing that surprised us about Laos was how trodden its routes have become. It seemed to be the most plotted and preplanned country we’d visited so far, which left fewer opportunities for spontaneity, or at least required a little more creativity than usual (not necessarily a bad thing). Several of the places where we’d hoped to get `off the path` ended up having more guest houses than homes! In other countries, we often found that when it takes a little effort to reach a certain place, or if you have to take somewhat uncomfortable transport to get there, there’s often a reward waiting at the end: a chance to observe something before it’s been converted into a commodity. Here, that was harder to find. Maybe the problem is most people come to Laos to find the same sorts of experiences, and merely find they weren’t nearly the first people to think of coming there to find them. Either way, it was certainly easier and more comfortable travel than we’d been expecting; change has its upsides!

Before I sound negative, I’ll add that we found LOTS more to love than dislike about Laos!

For one, the scenery was some of the most unique and beautiful we’d seen in our whole trip. We hiked, biked, and kayaked through some spectacular country.

Nong Kiaw, Laos

Luang Prabang, Laos

Trekking in Phonsavan, Laos

Vang Vieng, Laos

Vang Vieng, Laos

The unique Lanna style temples of Laos were a highlight for us as well, particularly in the northern parts of the country.

Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang, Laos

In Phonsavon, we were humbled by history both recent and distant, learning of the extent of our country’s military involvement in the region during the 1970s and the struggle and resolve of people still dealing with the aftermath of a conflict that the rest of the world has long since forgotten…

Craters from US Bombs, Phonsavan, Laos

Village built using casings from US Cluster Bombs, Phonsavan, Laos

…and then walking among the mysterious sprawls of jars that have stayed intact since prehistory.

Plain of Jars, Phonsavan, Laos

We were also fortunate to spend Christmas in Vang Vieng, Laos – our first Christmas outside of the U.S. – and it was certainly memorable. We tubed down a river, volunteered on an organic goat farm, and gave gifts we’d both been carrying in our backpacks for weeks.

Vang Vieng, Laos

Vang Vieng, Laos

Making goat cheese, Vang Vieng, Laos

Vang Vieng, Laos

Vang Vieng, Laos

And the cities! We could’ve easily lived in Vientiane or Luang Prabang for a long time. In particular, Luang Prabang had a very addictive mix of local culture, familiar comforts from home, fun excursions, and far too many delicious (though constantly pushing our comfort zone) foods to try.

Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang, Laos

Hmong New Year, Laos

A day with the elephants, Luang Prabang, Laos

Morning Alms, Luang Prabang, Laos

Natural Dyes Class, Luang Prabang, Laos

"Adventurous" Dinner at Tamarind, Luang Prabang, Laos

"Adventurous" Dinner at Tamarind, Luang Prabang, Laos

We also had great fun celebrating New Year’s Eve in Luang Prabang, starting the year off right by releasing a paper lantern into the sky – the romance!

Celebrating new year's eve in Laos

Celebrating new year's eve in Laos

Celebrating new year's eve in Laos

Celebrating new year's eve in Laos

In all, we loved our time in Laos, and I can think of no better place from which to reflect on that than the window seats of this slow boat, where many of the scenes we’ve seen throughout our trip are being replayed on the shores. If only I could only take a picture, I’d show the people in remote villages waiting anxiously for supplies to arrive by boat, logging elephants dragging trees across the field to a barge, and young monks bathing at the edge of the river, stripped to nothing but their bright yellow underpants.

But I can’t… Our camera was stolen days ago during a brief return from Nong Kiaw to Luang Prabang. Unfortunately, pictures will have to wait.

On that note… I’ll close this post out as the locals might, with a round of Lao Lao.

Dam Jook! (cheers)! Next up, back to Thailand…

"Adventurous" Dinner at Tamarind, Luang Prabang, Laos

Into the valley of Nong Kiaw

After leaving Luang Prabang, we took a 9-hour boat trip up the Nam Ou River to the tiny northern Lao town of Nong Kiaw. Up until this point in Laos, we had only spent time in towns that basically formed the backbone of the Laos tourist trail, and we were hoping see some real Lao village culture away from the tourist/guesthouse scene. In that sense, Nong Kiaw pulled through in some ways and was also not what we were hoping for in other ways. But first for that boat trip….

Getting tickets for the boat trip to Nong Kiaw was so representative of the way that we travel that I just have to share it. Usually, we decide what city we will travel to next while we are actively walking to the bus/boat/train station to buy tickets. It happened in Thailand getting tickets for Krabi, in Cambodia getting tickets to Battambang, in Laos getting tickets to Four Thousand Islands. Why should this be any different? Well, I was determined to do a little research before actually checking out of our room this time around and be a bit more prepared. The night before our boat trip to Nong Kiaw, I walked all the way down to the main boat pier to inquire about tickets. They were already closed (figures!), but the men lingering around the boat dock smoking their cigarettes assured me in broken English that I could return there the next morning, the day of the boat trip, to buy them.

Next morning, we loaded up our packs and sauntered down to the ferry port again to buy the tickets. The woman behind the counter, who spoke little English, said “Buy tickets over there!” and started pointing wildly somewhere behind me. I crouched down to her eye level, trying to look for something, anything, resembling a building or street that she was referring to. “There?” I said, pointing up a random perpendicular street. She nodded in a way that would have been more reassuring if she had just said “no.”

Thinking I had a semblance of an idea where to go to buy the tickets, I walked back up to the main street to wait for Scott, who had been out grabbing a to-go breakfast for us. While I waited, I chatted with the friendly tuk tuk drivers who told me that the ticket office was actually about 1/2 mile away up the same street that we were on (definitely not the perpendicular street that I had pointed out to the woman – as I had suspected). They offered to give me a ride for a hefty price, which I politely refused. With the minutes until the boat would be departing ticking by, I ran to tell Scott what was happening and that I would stay with the bags while he ran to buy tickets. Scott ran off in the direction that the tuk tuk drivers said to go and returned about 10 minutes later with the tickets in hand! So proud that we had found and bought the tickets ourselves, we smiled and waved off the same tuk tuk drivers at the main ferry landing who were now asking, “Did you get the tickets? Tickets to Nong Kiaw?” Assuring them I DID now have the tickets and giving them a “I know what I’m doing” smile, they replied, “Boat to Nong Kiaw doesn’t leave from HERE! Leaves from where your boyfriend bought the tickets!!”

Sweating, with not much time to spare, and shrouded in disbelief at our bad luck and/or planning, we turned around once again and set off at a trot, with bags this time, for the boat landing that Scott had just bought the tickets from. When we finally made it, we heard our ticket numbers already being called to board the boat; we rushed the line that had already formed and thrust our tickets into the ticket woman’s hand. With a fly swat to the hand, she batted us away and hissed “This is 8:30 boat. Not your boat.” Not only had we finally figured out where to board the boat, but we were even 30 minutes early!! We had made it after all. Our hare-brained method of traveling around the world had yet to fail us. But I’ll come back to that point again later…

We boarded the tiny wooden boat, prepared for the lengthy journey upriver to Nong Kiaw. Luckily, a 9-hour boat ride is a piece of cake when you’re sitting in a retired CAR seat, with internet access (via our USB modem):

Nong Kiaw

Scott at the office:

IMG_4533

A boat identical to ours:

IMG_4530

At one point we rode by a sacred cave that apparently holds hundreds of Buddha statues and can only be reached by boat:

Nong Kiaw

From there, it was nothing but wide open river, farmland (all just sustainable living in that part of Lao), and families bathing or doing laundry:

Nong Kiaw

Nong Kiaw

We finally reached Nong Kiaw around 6pm, and the setting certainly was beautiful. The town was split into two halves, divided by a river and connected by a large bridge. Cradling the whole town like an upside down bowl were beautiful soaring limestone mountains that made me feel tiny in their presence.

Morning Fog, Nong Kiaw, Laos

IMG_4578

But despite our best efforts to get away from the tourism scene, Nong Kiaw was full of guesthouses and other travelers – not so off the beaten path anymore, it seemed. Despite that, the town was extremely tiny with just once main road and had some charm. It was the kind of small town where everyone in the village gathered in the main square when someone in the village had passed away:

(Below, video of us attending yet another funeral….)

The next day, the rented some bikes and rode off in search of the nearby Pak Ou Cave, used by the Lao people during the VIetnam War to hide from the U.S. bombing campaign that was taking place across their land during the 1970’s. The cave was naturally very beautiful, and it went on for hundreds of feet, with various “rooms” throughout (some for holding meetings, cooking, for doing art, even!). There was even a large sand bank inside that was used by the villagers to hide from bullets directed straight into the caves by helicopters.

Pak Ou Cave, Laos

Pak Ou Cave, Laos

Pak Ou Cave, Laos

Pak Ou Cave, Laos

Kid tour guides working outside the cave:

IMG_4596

Forraging, Nong Kiaw, Laos

Kids waiting for more customers:

Nong Kiaw, Laos

After the cave, we took a leisurely ride farther out of town along some beautiful mountain roads.

Nong Kiaw, Laos

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 10.23.50 AMJust when we thought we had discovered the most quiet, peaceful place on earth, we heard loud music thumping up ahead and came upon maybe 50 people dancing under a staked tarp on the side of the road! Thinking it might be a wedding, we smiled and rolled on past, politely declining the waves of arms beckoning us onto the dance floor.

We rode by without stopping but soon decided to turn back, since the midday heat was easily approaching 90 degrees and we had no water. We reached the dancing people again, where they were dancing right next to the only store that sold water for miles around. As Scott walked up to the little storefront to buy a bottle of water for us, the dancing locals on the packed-dirt dance floor curiously peered over one another’s shoulders and stared at the strange foreigner, clearly lost in such wonderment that their bouncing became completely off-rythm. One girl beckoned Scott over, then the others joined in more forcefully. Eventually, their small group of 10 had the two of us roped into the middle of the dance floor, handing us shots of vile Lao Lao (whisky) and taking turns dancing next to the silly foreigners. As I tried to get into the swing of dancing on the side of a dirt road, sober, at 11:30 in the morning, I was growing ever more conscience of the crowd of spectators that had steadily been growing since we had arrived. What had once been a few spectators on the sidelines had now become a mass of older women in traditional sarongs watching, laughing, and clapping along as we kept them entertained.
Video:

Me dancing; notice evil girl to the left serving up large shots of homemade Lao Lao!

IMG_4607

Friendly DJ pumping out serious Lao dance tunes:

IMG_4608

Not wanting to overstay our welcome, we danced for a few more songs, then took off toward town on our bikes. We rounded a few curves, then both looked at each other, dying laughing, and said, “What the hell was that?” We still weren’t even sure what that was (a wedding? funeral? we certainly have a knack for crashing funerals….), when Scott remembered he had read about so-called “Lao discos” in some guidebook. I had always thought that these referred to discos inside clubs or bars, but apparently it consists of nothing more than a DJ with a sound system and handful of people on the side of a highway looking for some fun on a random Saturday afternoon. I like it!

On our way back to our guesthouse, we passed this couple, coming back from a hard day in the fields. Perhaps the husband could have offered to take half the load, at least??

IMG_4606The next morning we were feeling the urge to move on from Nong Kiaw, so we once again threw our bags on our back and began walking toward the bus station. We wanted to take a bus farther north to a town called Luang Namtha, known for being a jumping off point to some of the very remote hill tribe villages of Lao, but we didn’t know what time the bus would be leaving. When we arrived at the bus station, we found that the bus for Luang Namtha had already left 2 hours ago. So we scanned the bus schedule right then and there and saw that there was a different bus heading south (the opposite direction from Luang Namtha) in about an hour. Thus, the decision was made for us to go south instead! And that’s how we make most of our traveling decisions! At this point, I think I mumbled some corny quote about how travel is really just about moving forward on a straight line through time, and there is no such thing as backtracking according to any silly geographical map (it was much more elegant the first time).

While we waited for the bus, we had a lovely breakfast of noodle soup and cold red tea under the front awning of a woman’s home. As the whole family crowded around to watch the foreigners eat, the father took a break from his work of rebuilding a portion of the road in front of his house to teach us some words in Lao. We all stumbled to communicate as best as we could in a hodgepodge of both languages, and they were excited to figure out that we were married! As we got up to leave, the grandfather figure gave us some oranges as a gift, and we learned the word for those too – sii som. Just when we had been feeling a little irked by all the tourism and guesthouses present in the town, an interaction as simple as that was enough to to remind us that the real Lao was all around us and it made us wish for a second that maybe we were staying just a little bit longer.

As we trudged on to the bus station, we asked ourselves whether we were making the right decision in leaving Nong Kiaw after only two days. As we walked, we tried to figure out the source of our frustration and realized that the multitude of guesthouses weren’t really the problem; it was our own lack of knowledge of the local language that was the real hindrance to us learning more about Lao beyond the tourism scene or our having more meaningful interactions with the people that we encountered. In the end, we did end up boarding that bus – one that would take us one step closer to the border crossing out of Lao. But Nong Kiaw had done its best to show us the real Laos – a Lao disco on the side of the road for heaven’s sake!– maybe next time we’ll simply be better prepared to take it all in.

Cultural excursions in Luang Prabang

We’re a bit behind on the blog these days, trying to wrap up our time in Laos (we’ve been in Thailand for almost  2 weeks now!), so these next couple of posts are going to be short and to the point!

To round out our time in Luang Prabang, we did two really interesting, very different, touristy activities. First off, we spent a full day with some adorable elephants that had been rescued from the logging industry and were now living in a little haven just 10 miles from Luang Prabang. We had signed up for their “Mahout (elephant trainer) For a Day” class, so we spent the first part of the day riding on their necks, learning to steer them (you basically yell a command in Lao and kick them in the ear!). The cutest part was learning how to mount and dismount the elephant – we kicked her leg to let her know we wanted to come up, then she’d raise her little knee up to help us up, similar to an elevator. So cute!

IMG_4369 IMG_4384IMG_4392

Riding them around without any harness was much harder than you’d expect – we basically had to wedge our knees against their ears as best as we could and squeeze with our thighs around their necks to hold on. I was shifting around back and forth each time her shoulder blades moved behind me as she walked, and I felt like I was constantly about to fall.

Next, we were given a leisurely ride in a basket on her back through a river and some of the mountainside.

IMG_4411

A day with the elephants, Luang Prabang, Laos

Finally, we were allowed to bathe our elephants in the river. The description of the class we signed up for was a little misleading, as we were told we’d spend the entire day caring for “our” elephant for the day. In the end, we were assigned several elephants throughout the day and it was pretty harried and impersonal. I can’t complain though – we each got to ride one of the many elephants into the water and give them a scrub-down on their fuzzy little heads with a toilet cleaner brush. I was happy just cuddling my elephant on the ears and petting her rough back, but my Lao helper was pretty insistent that I should stand up on the elephant’s head for the majority of the time.

IMG_4418Video: me, standing in grey; Scott, sitting on the far left (apparently his elephant was a whole lot more rambunctious than mine, and standing on her was just not an option  – just trying to stay sitting on it was a workout enough, he said!).

It was hard not to stand next to these looming beasts and not be overwhelmed by what beautiful and interesting animals they were.  Just as we stood on the banks of the river getting a bit intimidated by the possibility that they could crush us to smithereens at will, one of the largest elephants spotted a tiny flame from someone’s cigarette lighter nearby and started blowing her trumpet out of pure fear!  🙂

A day with the elephants, Luang Prabang, Laos

A day with the elephants, Luang Prabang, Laos

A day with the elephants, Luang Prabang, Laos

After we said goodbye to our elephants (basically got caned off stage to make way for the next tour group who still needed to “wash” the same elephants), our guide took us on a boat ride down the river to Tad See waterfall., where we spent a good hour climbing over rocks and just goofing around. 🙂

Where’s Scott…?

IMG_4437

Luang Prabang, Laos

A couple of days later, we decide to take a half-day class with a local store, Ok Pop Tok, to learn more about the Lao silk and weaving industry. We were given an overview of the silk-making process (from moth to silk threads) by our guide. He then gave us a tour of their factory, where “master weavers” wove intricately-designed pieces of cloths on looms.
Video:

It’s hard to convey how complex the weaving process was – frankly, we didn’t entirely understand what was going on, as it was so fast! Basically, a pattern for the the final piece was somehow “laid out” in the vertical direction of the loom; the pattern would then get transferred onto the final product by the weaver as they worked the loom. Due to their intricacy, many designs can only be set up by the “master weavers”, who are visually and mathematically skilled (and apparently it can take up to 30 years to become a master weaver!!) Once the loom has been set up by the master weaver, the design can then be woven by any number of “lesser” weavers.

Given the complexity of the weaving process, we were sort of relieved that we had resorted to taking an easier class for the day—“Dyeing 101!” The class we signed up for was designed to teach us about natural dyes that have historically been used to color the silk threads prior to their being woven on the loom. This incredible rainbow of colors came from things as simple as lemongrass, indigo, bark, sappon root, to things like rusty nails and fermented indigo leaves:

Natural Dyes Class, Luang Prabang, Laos

Next we were each allowed to pick 3 different colors that we would try to replicate on some silk skeins and cotton scarves.

Below, preparing the dyes: mashing red berries and boiling lemongrass over a wood fire:

IMG_4502http://www.flickr.com/photos/12339764@N00/6688883479/in/set-72157628848792257

Dyeing the scarves:

IMG_4504 IMG_4505

The end result: two beautiful cotton scarves and 4 silk skeins to take home!

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 10.16.29 AMWhat a few more years of practice can accomplish:

Natural Dyes Class, Luang Prabang, Laos

Natural Dyes Class, Luang Prabang, Laos

After everything we had seen and done in Luang Prabang, we decided it was time to move on to the next town.  Next up: farther north and farther off the beaten path, Nong Kiaw, where elephant rides and natural dyes are simply a way of life!

A culinary tour of Laos

Like any good city, Luang Prabang was filled with new, weird, and potentially scary foods for us to try. The first thing we did when we arrived in the city was to head straight for the morning market, where we could see what the city was all about.

Because Luang Prabang is surrounded by water, much of the town’s food derives from the rivers, whether that is dried seaweed, catfish, or river eel:

IMG_4194IMG_4188IMG_4191

A mother and daughter duo at the market were making hand-made spring rolls, where they made the wrappers by pouring batter directly onto a flat griddle, gently rolling them onto a stick to remove them from the hot surface intact, and stuffing them with a delicious spicy pork filling:

Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang, Laos

The night market didn’t have as many different options of food to try, but those that were there were delicious, including Lao-style Khao Soi (different from the Thai dish of the same name),

Luang Prabang, Laos

Lao-style sandwich (baguette with an assortment of goodies and the ubiquitous sweet chili sauce),

Luang Prabang, Laos

and snake whiskey!

Snake Liquor, Luang Prabang, Laos

Also extremely popular in Laos are the water buffaloes – popular not for their incredibly cute faces or utility as house pets, but for their delicious chewy skin and moist meat! This packet of dried buffalo skin snack was poorly translated, at best:

IMG_4488

Although we had gotten to try many of these little food gems over the course of our time in Laos, we had yet to really try anything more than the dishes traditionally offered in restaurants. For example, on a typical day for breakfast we would generally have noodle soup made of a rich broth, chicken, noodles, bean sprouts, lime juice, chilies, fish sauce, and torn lettuce pieces. This single meal generally tied us over until dinner, when we would either have Lao “laap” (ground meat with green herbs such as scallions and mint), yellow curry, or some kind of fried noodles. While these were always more interesting than anything I could ever make at home, we still felt like we had only scratched the surface of all that was to offer in Lao. So we signed up for an “adventurous Lao” tasting menu at a local restaurant, Tamarind. Although it’s called the “adventurous menu”, the tasting menu is supposed to offer customers a taste of foods that are traditionally eaten in Lao people’s homes every day – but that usually don’t make it onto restaurants’ menus (at least not onto menus that are written in English).  We had to order a day in advance, so that the restaurant would have time to gather the ingredients for the meal at the local market. And the best part: we were completely kept in the dark about what would be served. 🙂

Tamarind Restaurant:

"Adventurous" Dinner at Tamarind, Luang Prabang, Laos

To start, Scott had lime lemongrass-flavored Lao Lao (local whiskey), and I had an amazing super sweet and spicy watermelon-chili granita:

"Adventurous" Dinner at Tamarind, Luang Prabang, Laos

Pre-meal snack – fried strips of local “cloud mushroom” from the morning market:

IMG_4516

The first course of the meal was a sampling platter of vegetable-heavy dishes:  (descriptions follow below…)

IMG_4517Clockwise, starting at the bright green egg-shaped ball right in front:

1-Bright green egg shaped ball was a manicot seed, just there for display. The flesh of the seed was pulled out and mashed with loads of red chilies (right behind the seed in the pic). One bite of the flesh, and Scott and I looked at each other in utter shock while our minds tried to process this new and strange food on our tastebuds. It was the sourest taste that I promise anyone reading this has ever tasted, ever – unless you have had this dish, that is. It was an extremely intense sour flavor (but not in a bad way) that completely overtook all of our senses, as if all of the sourness in the world had been boiled down and concentrated into this one bite. Not bad, not my favorite thing either, just plain bizarre. And did I mention sour?

2- Stir fried bamboo with onions and herbs. Light tangy flavor, pretty good.

3- Dried river weed (type of seaweed). This was my favorite dish on this plate. Subtle, nice seaweed flavor. Easy to like.

4- Stir-fried morning glories in oyster sauce. Like any stir-fried greens. Good rich salty flavor.

5- Mashed lotus flower paste. Again, really strong sour flavors. But not as intense as the manicot by a long shot.

6- Hiding under a big green leaf, that white dish is rattan!! Who knew you could do more with rattan than just build furniture out of it. Well, the Lao people did. This dish was strange (I guess this is a common theme by now). Like a subtle, woody vegetable flavor. (How would you describe broccoli, for example? It just had a unique flavor that is impossible to describe unless you’ve tasted it.)

7- Strips of soft, plump buffalo skin tossed in ground rice powder. Tasted like chewy gluttonous pork with a slight bacon flavor tossed in a nutty powder. One of my favorites of the night!

8- Stir fried greens, including pea shoots.

9- In the middle of the plate, more river weed. Instead of being dried, this had been prepared in such a way that it made a slimy paste that was difficult to pick up since we were eating everything only with our hands. It tasted great, if you could get past the sliminess…..:)  A video to demonstrate the texture:

Palate cleanser: free shots of honey-lime Lao Lao! Woohoo!

IMG_4518The second course was the meat-heavy part of the meal. This is where the real fun (or should I say sheer terror..same thing?) began….

First, we were served two soups. On the left, harmless chicken curry soup (full of all the “good” parts, of course…nubbins, organs, vertebrae….). On the right, python soup!

IMG_4522

Now, most of you may know that I am deathly afraid of snakes. In fact, at the night market, I almost dropped the bottle of snake whisky as I was looking at it, even though I knew darn good and well what was in it before I picked it up and that the offending specimen was in fact dead. To have pieces of python set down in front of me, and be told that I would now have to eat it, sent my heart racing and my palms sweating furiously. At first, I really couldn’t even touch the bowl that it was in. But eventually, foodie prowess overcame fear, and I found myself diving in head first. The snake tasted like dark chicken meat covered in tough scales, and the soup was delicious and salty. This was one of the overall favorite dishes of the night for both Scott and me.

IMG_4523The remainder of the meat course (descriptions below):

IMG_4521Starting with the white bowl, moving clockwise:

1- White bowl: bamboo soup. Pretty standard vegetable soup. This was the one “safe” dish that we could go back to in between the scary dishes.

2- Stir fried whole chopped frog (not just the legs, folks) with peppers, onions, and loads of garlic. If you look closely, you can see the slimy skin and some bones. One of Scott’s favorite dishes.

3- In the middle, sausage-stuffed banana flowers. Very good.

4- Spicy papaya salad. I love papaya salad, but after having this version I believe I’ve been getting the more Western-ized version. This was delicious, but it was loaded with fish paste unlike any other papaya salad I’ve ever tasted. Quite good, but I like the Thai version of this dish a lot better…

5- Gray mush at the back of the plate: mashed up tadpoles!!! Like you would expect, this was super fishy and a little “muddy” tasting. Hard to take more than one bite. Really fun to try once though.

6-  On top of the cucumbers: buffalo stomach, cut up into strips and tossed with chilies and green herbs. A little gamey, but good. Tasted like, well, buffalo.

By the time we rolled ourselves out of Tamarind, we were pleasantly surprised that the dishes that we had been given were not just presented to us for shock or “weird factor” but were traditional, everyday dishes. Some of the dishes (the buffalo stomach, for example) would be for special occasions; others (the manicot paste and lotus paste) were eaten every day in typical Lao households; some of them were delicious, others I would never want to see again – but really, that’s not what’s important. At some point, eating becomes not just about calories but about going beyond our comfort zone and about delving a little deeper into another culture. Delicious or detestable, unfamiliar or even downright scary, it will always be rewarding.

New Year’s in the most unlikely of places

After leaving Phonsavan, we endured a gut-wrenching, 8 hour minibus ride north through the mountains to the ancient city of Luang Prabang, Laos. The trip took us through the most awe-inspiring mountain scenery, where the perfectly clear, sunny day offered unending, seemingly more and more beautiful views of towering rocky karsts and rolling green hillsides covered in purple-white plumes of pompous grass.

IMG_4095

While the only 3 foreigners (including us) in our minibus happily enjoyed the scenery, each and every local spent the entire time vomiting into little plastic baggies they had brought along for the ride. At one point, a Lao woman asked the driver to pull over, after which 3 women in neat, beautiful traditional clothing piled out and proceeded to hack up their breakfasts right onto the highway!

As we wound our way farther from Phonsavan and deeper into the lesser-developed parts of Laos, we passed countless hill-tribe settlements perched on the edges of the narrow mountain roads. In the early hours of the day, women and girls in traditional black wrap skirts collected firewood from communal wood piles and cooked over wood fires. Later in the day, it seemed entire villages would gather with their wash buckets at the side of the road to bathe in their sarongs, when the afternoon sun was at its hottest. Although our earlier visit to the country’s capital, Vientiane, had made Laos seem a more wealthy country than its current infamous title of “the poorest country in Southeast Asia” might suggest, it was clear that whatever wealth the country had did not extend beyond the capital; all of the settlements that we passed appeared to be self-sustaining, with large gardens and nothing more than river water for bathing, cleaning, and drinking.  The juxtaposition between the shacks made of woven palm fronds in which they lived and the million-dollar views they enjoyed was striking – uplifting, even.

Driving in Laos

As the mountains began to fall away behind us and the sky began to open, we finally reached Luang Prabang, the former capital of Laos and the current UNESCO-protected pride of the country. Bordered on one side by the mighty Mekong River and by the Nam Khan River on the other, the historic district of Luang Prabang is situated on a peninsula, criss-crossed by a myriad of tiny one-lane cobblestone streets that only become more quaint by night when old gas lamps light the paths.

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 9.45.37 AM

Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang, Laos

Perhaps the only thing more abundant in Luang Prabang than adorable, picture-worthy side streets are the monks! Currently, there are 18 monasteries in central Luang Prabang, with no less than 1200 monks of all ages living in them.

IMG_4210

Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang, Laos

(Below, monks’ rice powder rolls drying on the side of the street):

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 7.35.37 AM

One of the most famous temples in Luang Prabang, Wat Xieng Thong temple, built in the 1500’s, depicting the Tree of Life on one side:

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 7.35.52 AM

Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang, Laos

Every morning at dawn, the monks living in Luang Prabang line up for the daily alms-giving ceremony, in which local Buddhist people make “merit” by giving sticky rice or other food to the monks in exchange for a happy and healthy life. The monks then bring the gathered food back to their respective temples to share with the other monks for their one meal of the day. Unfortunately, this once-serene ceremony has now become a crazy tourist attraction dominated by camera-toting day-trippers who seem to care little about the reverence of the ceremony itself and more about getting that perfect shot (although I’m not going to get into that here, there are plenty of articles online that elaborate on the issue). We did manage to witness some of the alms-giving on a small side street, where we accidentally got to see another side of the ceremony:  after the monks received food from the alms givers, the monks gave whatever they could afford to give to local beggars, who, in the eyes of the monks, have even less than they have. Here, we saw several children begging for food from the monks. They were rewarded with huge hunks of sticky rice and bananas:

IMG_4477IMG_4468

Monks returning to their temple:

IMG_4472IMG_4481

Children, happy with their fill:

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 7.37.30 AMScreen Shot 2014-12-16 at 7.37.30 AM

As you may have gathered, Luang Prabang is a very religious, quiet, relatively conservative city. Add to that the fact that the communist Lao government has issued a country-wide curfew of 11:30 pm for its residents, and you might reason that Luang Prabang is perhaps THE single worst place to spend New Year’s Eve in the world. But since it was just where we happened to find ourselves anyway, we gave it our best shot by starting out a local joint called Hive Bar…

IMG_4228 IMG_4239 IMG_4238 IMG_4234IMG_4292

…the bar happened to be holding an ethnic fashion show, which showcased a collection of traditional Lao clothing from around the country:

IMG_4242http://www.flickr.com/photos/12339764@N00/6688799841/in/set-72157628848792257

New Years Eve Fashion and Dance Party

New Years Eve Fashion and Dance Party

The fashion show was followed by a local break dance troupe:

Video:

They were incredible, but the real star of the show was the tiny tot breakdancer who always overstayed his welcome in the spotlight by just a few minutes every time…

After the fashion show, we poked around at the bar next door, where we found out they were launching Thai New Years lanterns, paper lanterns that can be lit at the bottom, causing them to fill with hot air. Scott and I lit one, made a wish, and sent it floating off into the sky!

IMG_4284

Eventually, we wound up at Hive Bar and, as usual, I really wanted to dance but the turnout on the dance floor was pretty bleak. To break the ice, Scott and I invented a game where the person wearing the silver party hat had to dance in the middle of the circle, at which point that person got to choose who would wear the hat next (I didn’t say it was clever).

By the time we had each had a few turns in the middle, I was best friends with one of the local girls.

IMG_4304

I wish we had thought to exchange contact info!

By the time 11:30 pm rolled around, we were all waiting to see if we would get kicked out by the police to return to our guesthouse. Luckily, they had extended the curfew to 1 am for New Year’s Eve! Funny thing is, though, the bar staff would have missed midnight completely if Scott hadn’t asked them how many minutes were left until 2012… when they saw that there were only about 45 seconds left, there was a huge scramble for champagne! For the record, a Lao countdown to midnight is pretty similar to an American one, with lots of cheering, hugging, and dancing (minus the kiss, of course).

Around 1:00 am when the bar closed, we found ourselves piling into a tuk-tuk with a local and another American couple to go bowling (the only spot in town that is allowed to stay open late)! Unfortunately, we had even managed to surpass the bowling alley’s late hours, as it was just shutting down by the time we arrived. Luckily, the food stall next door to the bowling alley was just picking up steam at 3 am, so we grabbed some much-needed fuel consisting of baguette stuffed with chicken, cilantro, and spicy mayo and finally called it a night.

The next day, we managed to rouse ourselves out of bed just in time to catch a gorgeous sunset (you read that right). For the best view, we hiked up over 300 steps to Phousi Temple, which sits on top off a hill that dominates the center of Luang Prabang:

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 9.52.18 AM

Luang Prabang, Laos

Offerings, tucked away on the side of the temple:

IMG_4320

As if just one night of celebrating the New Year wasn’t fun enough, we had heard rumors from other travelers that the people of the Lao Hmong tribe hold a week-long festival to celebrate New Years (..for a conservative people, they sure know how to party!). So throughout the week we kept asking local people in town about where to see the Hmong New Years festival, but no one seemed to know much about it. If anything, they all thought that the festival had ended a week earlier. So one day we decided to rent bikes and go hunting for the elusive festival ourselves. We had some semblance of a direction, so we shot off across town and started venturing down different side streets, until Voila!! Hidden down a totally unmarked dirt road across the bridge from the main town was an enormous carnival extravaganza full of rides, games, and hundreds of people in ornate, traditional Hmong clothing.

Hmong New Year, Laos

IMG_4341

IMG_4351

(Below: nice Hmong woman (with grandchild) who watched in amusement as her daughter’s spicy papaya salad drew fire from our mouths and snot from our noses!)

IMG_4352Scenes of ancient culture meeting modern times abound:

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 9.56.06 AM

Scott trying to win a stuffed animal for me at the dart-throwing game (we were both horrible at it, to the amusement of the giggling costumed girls behind us)!

Hmong New Year, Laos

In one of the most fascinating scenes we had witnessed in Lao, a young woman (pictured in costume below) threw a yellow tennis ball back and forth with a guy for over an hour, while dozens of people and family members watched intently.

We learned that this is the traditional dating ritual between Hmong people, where young people throw a ball back and forth to simply “hang out” and see if they like each other and want to get married (…invented by parents who want to keep their kids as physically far apart as possible while dating, perhaps?). We quickly spotted the little cluster of grandmas gossiping off to one side of this couple, surely contemplating the final “outcome” of the game. At one point during the ball throwing, the girl started singing a very complex traditional song, and all of the men started pulling out their tape recorders that they had apparently brought along and recording her singing! I asked a man next to me why the men were recording her (thinking that these were the dads who were judging the fitness of the girl as a wife by her singing), but he simply responded, “They’re recording the song so that they can listen to it later.” Hmmm… got it! 🙂

(notice the many recorders whipped out below)

IMG_4348

At the end of the day, as we were walking to retrieve our bikes for the ride back to Luang Prabang, we walked by the couple again, who were no longer throwing the ball but had moved on to the next stage – chatting. Another successful New Year’s celebration, it seemed!

We spent quite a while in Luang Prabang even after the New Year’s ball throwing had long ceased, so stay tuned for a future blog post on the rest of our time in this amazing city.

1 bomb every 8 minutes, for 10 years

Phonsavan, Laos, famed home of the mysterious UNESCO-protected site, the Plain of Jars, and [in]famed epicenter of one of the most focused, sustained bombing campaigns that has ever occurred on our dear Earth. It’s commonly known that in the late 1960s and 70s, the USA was heavily involved in combat in Vietnam, but a significant facet of our military efforts also took place in eastern Laos, largely due to its position along the “Ho Chi Minh” Trail, a major transport and supply route for communist North Vietnamese forces.

Craters from US Bombs, Phonsavan, Laos

During the years 1963 to 1973, over 2 million tons of bombs were dropped in the Phonsavan area, yielding the statistic common to most pamphlets you’ll find on the topic: 1 bomb was dropped on this province every 8 minutes for 10 years. This period is unofficially known to many as the “Secret War,” perhaps appropriately due to a general lack of awareness among Americans (including myself) for what took place here, but mostly due to claims that the US military conducted controversial missions behind the backs of congress and US citizens, and never officially owned up to the extent of their destruction in Laos until many years afterward (many say they’ve yet to do so). Researching the issues of this period myself yields piles of complicated, contradicting information: from CIA.gov essays that focus on our humanitarian efforts at the time, to news reports of our military carelessly and relentlessly “disposing their unused bombs” over Laos in order to land at the airforce bases safely. It’s hard to know what really happened; perhaps both sides of the story are framed by selective memory, and the obfuscated truth lies somewhere in the middle.

In the end, the extent of what was kept secret, or even who is to blame has become less important in Phonsavan. Wars are always messy, and seemingly more difficult to justify or even understand after the dust has settled. What’s more critical about this particular region is the message it sends about the long-lasting effects of war on civilian life: today, almost 40 years after the last war planes passed overhead, their bombs continue to shape – and destroy – the everyday family life of the Lao people.

A large percentage of the bombs dropped on this area were “Cluster” bombs, which resemble a 6 foot long missile and hold 300 or so handheld-size bombs, known to locals as “bombies,” or more formally as UXO (Unexploded Ordnance). Upon release, the cluster bomb’s shell separates and its bombies are released to spread across wide territory and explode on their own, firing miniature ball bearings up to 200 meters in all directions when they hit the ground. It’s estimated that more than 30% of these bombies never detonated during combat, and they continue to litter the Laos rice fields, jungles, and even people’s back yards. Rather than a mere deterrent, the bombies were designed to kill, which helps explain the disproportionate number of accidental deaths per year throughout Laos (30% of deaths are from UXO, 40% of those are children), an invisible contrast to the limbless-but-alive land mine victims we saw throughout Cambodia.

In essence, it’s both the historic and the present that attracts people to this region of Laos. As Americans, we felt particularly drawn – obligated even – to see first-hand the ongoing effects of our country’s past conflicts, even if it all occurred before we were born.

As our 8-hour winding bus ride from Vang Vieng approached Xieng Khouang province, we were immediately struck by the presence of war. Cluster bomb casings and full-sized missiles leaned against houses and sheds along the sides of the dusty plains highway, “Made in USA” striped down the sides. Our bus dropped us in front of the guesthouse at which we’d planned to stay, Kong Keo, which had its share of metal as well.

Kong Keo, Phonsavan, Laos

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 7.16.39 AM

Kong Keo, Phonsavan, Laos

For a place still dealing with the effects of our military today, we were a little uncomfortable at first answering the common guesthouse question, “So, where are you from?”  Our worries were unfounded. Generations have passed, and grudges have loosened.  “Oh, America! Barack Obama, yes?,” we’d hear with a big smile. Even for those who lived through those brutal times, the capacity to forgive and move on is touching.

We booked a tour of the area for the following day with our hosts at Kong Keo, and set off to see downtown Phonsavan. There, we found many of the staples we’ve enjoyed about Laos… the spicy noodle soup shops, the fried doughnut stands, the fresh markets… but more interestingly, a number of places dedicated to bomb cleanup, and educating locals of the dangers in their own back yards.

We stopped in the local office of MAG, an international organization we first encountered in Cambodia who leads the UXO cleanup efforts throughout the fields in Phonsavan. Their office had many exhibits providing sobering details of the problems the UXO have introduced, and we stayed to watch a documentary detailing the challenges that MAG faces. Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world, and much of its population continues to eek out a living through farming of rice and other natural products. Farmers have found that they can make nearly a week’s wage by selling the scrap metal from UXO that they find buried in their fields, or in nearby jungles, so they – and heartbreakingly, their children – bring cheap and unreliable metal detectors out on patrol to collect metal, and carefully bring it back home to disarm using household tools. Not surprisingly, many of these missions result in tragedy. MAG dedicates a great deal of effort in outreach and education, but it’s a hard sell against a well-known easy buck.

MAG headquarters

IMG_4116 IMG_4119

MAG headquarters

The next morning, we were up early to meet our guide, Sang, a Phonsavan local with great knowledge of the area. On the day’s agenda was a mixture of activities and sights that make Phonsavan what it is today.

We started our tour at the local fresh market, where we collected a picnic for ourselves for later. Alongside the usual fresh market goods, we found a smattering of fruits, snacks, and candy unique to that region of Laos, and even some very wild game.

IMG_4120

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 7.19.02 AMhttp://www.flickr.com/photos/12339764@N00/6613099407/in/set-72157628664791217

Our next stop was an area close to where Sang grew up, a field that MAG recently cleared of all UXO that was dotted with massive bomb craters from the war. Here, Sang told us that as a child, he and his friends would collect “bombies”, duck down into a crater, and toss them out the top like a grenade, trying to find the ones that make the loudest sound.

IMG_4135http://www.flickr.com/photos/12339764@N00/6613103091/in/set-72157628664791217

Craters from US Bombs, Phonsavan, Laos

Craters from US Bombs, Phonsavan, Laos

From there we drove to a nearby village, given the nickname “bomb village” for its reuse of artillery for building their homes, tools, and pretty much everything else.

IMG_4136  IMG_4159 IMG_4153 IMG_4151 IMG_4147 IMG_4146

It’s difficult to describe the feeling of seeing what people will do to get by in low-income settings – both inspiring in their resourcefulness, and depressing knowing how far they have to go. An example of the former: this planter, bearing resemblance to the carnation in the gun barrel images of the 1960’s.

IMG_4161

For a softer side of Phonsavan, Sang next led us on a long trek from “bomb village” through some hiking trails that he loves to show his patrons. Sang is quite proud of his hometown, and his favorite places to visit exhibit the beauty of the area (rather than the sad parts), which are reason enough to visit, yet left out of most every other tour agenda in the area.

A long winding jungle trek led us to our afternoon lunch spot, the tallest of a series of waterfall tiers, with nobody around except for us.

Trekking in Phonsavan, Laos

IMG_4166

After lunch, we headed straight for the falls, where Sang led us on a challenging climb through and over the riverbeds, and up the center of cascades. Every 5 minutes of work awarded us a with a new, entirely different waterfall, and this went on for over an hour.

IMG_4167

Trekking in Phonsavan, Laos

Midway up the final falls, our guide, Sang.

IMG_4171

The last stop on our Phonsavan agenda was again, uplifting: the Plain of Jars, a Stonehenge-esque prehistoric site, now preserved on the UNESCO World Heritage list alongside the likes of Machu Picchu. We visited Site 1 of several different jar sites, which contains a scatter of hundreds of jars across a hillside (there were over 360 jars at Site 1 alone).

Plain of Jars, Phonsavan, Laos

IMG_4172

Little is known about the jars. Each of them is carved from rock quarried 40 kilometers from the sites, and they are of varied size, some as tall as 6 or 7 feet! There are many theories on their purpose, from funerary casks, to musical drums (okay, that one was ours). According to Sang, most locals like to believe the jars would have been used for storing rice wine, but until UNESCO comes back with a definitive study, the jury is out.

Today, many of the jars are in a mixed state of ruin, as both time, and the bombs of war did them no favors. Sadly, these grounds were only cleared of UXO by MAG less than 10 years ago!

As the sunlight dimmed over Phonsavan, we finished our day wandering the Plain. It provided a concluding backdrop to ponder all we saw that day, the purpose of these curious sculptures, and the ever-present tolls of war, which even these wonders of the world could not escape. (Below: me beside a bomb crater in the middle of the Plain of Jars!! We bombed the Plain of Jars!?).

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 7.24.34 AM

Plain of Jars, Phonsavan, Laos

We only stayed a couple of days in Phonsavan, but we probably would have had plenty to do for a week. As we’ve found many times on this trip, it’s often the places where tragedy meets resolve that touch us the most, bring meaning to why we’re here, and remind us that it’s not only the happiest places that deserve a visit.

Christmas in Vang Vieng, Laos

Vang Vieng: impossibly lush, gorgeous stretches of crisp, winding river; towering jungle-clad mountains that make one contemplate the meaning of life; some a**hole in neon swim trunks, sipping Lao Lao from a plastic bucket, urinating off a nearby dock.

The problem with Vang Vieng (or the best part about it, depending on which side you’re on) is that this tiny, once-tranquil village has had the misfortune of being overrun by hoardes of drunk, half-naked college kids who descend on the banks of its river every day to party, go river tubing, and pass out in its gutters. In almost any other town in the world, this might be OK (well, everything except for the gutter part); in a conservative country like Laos, where women do not bare their shoulders or legs, and where married couples are not even supposed to touch in public, the mayhem that goes on in Vang Vieng is completely misplaced and utterly embarrassing for everyone observing (read: the locals), and everyone involved. This party scene doesn’t just happen quietly within the walls of bars and clubs – it now completely dominates Vang Vieng river life, where rickety bamboo bars line the river banks, offering “buckets” of Lao Lao (local whiskey) to river tubers and blast painfully loud music all day – all while Laos women bathe in full-length sarongs just on the other side. While some of the locals are becoming wealthy off of the tourism boom, the party scene that came with it has destroyed the once-quiet town and created an uncomfortable mix off hung-over tank-top-clad 20 year olds tramping over locals’ baskets of fish drying on the side of the road, with the village’s kids inquisitively watching the drunken craziness unfold.

Of course, Vang Vieng has much to appreciate outside the partying; despite the reputation it now has, we spent an incredible week there enjoying the natural beauty that made Vang Vieng so popular in the first place. Hearing about what Vang Vieng was like before arriving, we hoped to find a place that would be far-removed from the craziness. So after arriving via minibus from Vientiane, we threw our packs on our backs and strolled off down the lonely highway out of town…

IMG_3951

After a long, sweaty walk we made it to the place where we hoped we would be able to stay, the Vang Vieng Organic Farm. The farm is run by people of the Hmong tribe (one of the many traditional Lao ethnic groups) and is set on a rugged piece of land nestled in a lush valley beside the Nam Song river.

Our room:

Vang Vieng, Laos

Our view and surroundings:

IMG_3990http://www.flickr.com/photos/12339764@N00/6612805383/in/set-72157628664131031

Vang Vieng, Laos

Vang Vieng, Laos

Vang Vieng, Laos

Vang Vieng, Laos

What we didn’t know, is that despite our efforts to get away, the farm was set right at the starting line of where the drunk partiers launch their tubes into the river and where the first river bar is located. As a result, we have now memorized the words to every Katy Perry song ever written.  For a little while, it was admittedly entertaining to watch. (I had to delete most of our photos due to my keen ability at accidentally capturing many scenes of partial-nudity and/or scenes of public urination, but you get the idea from the following…)

IMG_3995http://www.flickr.com/photos/12339764@N00/6612809283/in/set-72157628664131031

Don’t think it looks that bad? It’s hard to convey how LOUD it really is as it is amplified by the surrounding mountains, but also consider that the Vang Vieng tubing scene only started in 2009. Just imagine what the river will be like in 10 years. Sadly, the kind owner of the organic farm, “Mr. T”, blames himself for starting the whole Vang Vieng tubing craze. What was originally an activity that he set up for the volunteers who work on his farm to relax after a hard day of work has blossomed into the tourist attraction that it is today.

On one occasion we were trying to enjoy a peaceful dinner at the farm, when a lost, drunk, and horribly smelly tuber in nothing but a neon bathing suit sat down at our table with us; having no inkling of where he was, we had to get up from our dinner and arrange a tuk tuk ride for him back into town (you see, many of the “tubers” never actually get into their tubes at all – they party at the first river bar all day and then have to get a taxi ride with their tube back into town). The next night, the same thing happened to us again! …except this time the kid was wearing a Santa hat and was a whole lot smellier. Embarrassingly, he tried to “fist bump” Mr. T on his way out the door. It didn’t go over well.

Luckily, the farm itself is still a relaxing place to spend a few days (mostly when the music is off). The highlight of staying at the farm for us was that it unexpectedly ended up being quite the culinary adventure! The farm produces nearly everything that is served in their restaurant, meaning everything is fresh-picked and delicious. The main product that they grow is the mulberry, a small berry similar to raspberries. But they don’t only eat the berries; like many things cultivated in developing countries, nothing from the mulberry bush went to waste. We were inundated with mulberry tea (made by steeping the mulberry leaves in hot water), mulberry shakes, mulberry pancakes, fresh mulberries, even mulberry tempura (deep-fried mulberries leaves)! The tempura was subtle, but very crispy and unique:

IMG_3975

IMG_3996Another great aspect of the farm is that they encourage anyone staying at the farm to volunteer for them, either through teaching English to local kids in a program that they have developed or by helping out on the farm itself, mostly to tend to their many goats. Although we were initially unsure we’d have time to volunteer during our stay, we were hopelessly sold once we checked out the goat facilities and saw this helpless little face staring back at us:

Vang Vieng, Laos

So we spent that very afternoon loading bale after bale of fresh-cut leaves into buckets to carry back to the goat house where their endless appetites made our hours of hard work non-existent:

IMG_3998http://www.flickr.com/photos/12339764@N00/6612889131/in/set-72157628664131031

Vang Vieng, Laos

The funniest part of the whole goat experience was that we were working alongside a local man named Pai, the head farmer, who did not speak any English (and we speak almost no Lao), meaning we never quite knew if we were doing anything correctly. One day without warning, Pai flung open the gates to the goat pen, causing about 20 goats to come stampeding toward us. Apparently we were supposed to try to herd them into their individual pens at that point, but our presence just ended up causing them to scatter into the surrounding bushes. After some confusion, we eventually figured out where Pai wanted us to herd them. Scott chasing goats into the barn:

IMG_4055

The next morning, we awoke at 6:30 am to venture out in the freezing cold to scoop their poops, change their waters, and milk them to make goat cheese!

IMG_4064  IMG_4069

Right as we were getting our groove on, a huge tour group came through and bombarded us with a million questions about how to milk a goat. Scott giving his first lecture on goat milking:

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 7.03.08 AM

Afterwards, Pai showed us how to make goat cheese out of the milk, which involved stirring the whey from the previous day’s cheese into the fresh milk and then setting the mixture at room temperature in the goat barn for 24 hours. Essentially, the cheese that you eat at the farm is unpasteurized, untreated, and completely dependent on how safe the volunteer or farm staff were on the day they made the cheese. (God help anyone who ate the cheese that we made, as Scott accidently dipped a goat teat directly into the milk while he was milking his goat! Eek!) Luckily, everyday that we ate the cheese (which was definitely every single day – it was delicious), the cheese was wonderful and we never felt sick.

IMG_4070

Making goat cheese, Vang Vieng, Laos

The farm also had a slew of adorable pigs. Luckily, there was no bacon on the restaurant’s menu while we were there. Maybe they milk them too? 🙂

Vang Vieng, Laos

One particularly frigid morning, we bailed out of our volunteer duties to spend a warm day inside reading books, watching Christmas Vacation (downloaded on iTunes), and opening presents — Christmas morning!!!

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 7.03.59 AM

The loot:

(Unfortunately, the stockings really were my stockings. Even worse, they had been worn that day and had not yet been washed….)IMG_4006

IMG_4008

From Scott, I got a book called Blood River about a guy who traverses the Congo (very interesting so far), some aluminum bracelets made of melted down U.S. bombs from the Vietnam War (the village that makes them collects the scrap metal and makes spoons and bracelets out of it for income – more on that later), some woven bamboo and paper bracelets, and a La Chouffe beer (it’s incredibly difficult to find really good beer here – we had carried these all the way from Vientiane)!  Scott got some T-shirts, a Cambodian krama (traditional scarf), some carved spoons for cooking back home, and a painting on mulch paper.

IMG_4011 IMG_4018  IMG_4014

This was our first Christmas away from both of our families, and we both separately commented on how sad we were about not being with our families for Christmas. I think we both thought that Christmas day would come and go like any other day, but there was a definite sadness to Skyping home, seeing everyone together, and not being there for it. In the end, we were glad we felt that way, as it was a nice reminder of how lucky we were to have amazing families back home to miss in the first place.

Once we had finished opening presents, we decided to do Christmas day right and go river tubing. We did not contribute to the above-mentioned drunken tubing mayhem (although we did sneak in a Beer Lao on the way down the river…). We could see why the tubing had become so popular in the first place – the scenery was stunning, and it was a great way to pass the day.

IMG_4020 IMG_4035 IMG_4034

On our last day in Vang Vieng, went on a kayaking and caving excursion. We were driven 20 miles north of town, where we were given a kayak and led down a beautiful river by our guide, Chon.

IMG_4082

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 7.07.50 AMIMG_4092

Along the way, we stopped at two caves. The first cave was called Water Cave (entrance to cave behind us on right):

IMG_4087

Seeing the water cave involved sitting on an inner tube in FREEZING water and pulling ourselves along a rope through an underground tunnel over ½ mile long. Of course, it was pitch black inside, and all we had were tiny headlamps to light the way (mostly to illuminate the creepy bats that flew around above us!). At one point when we were really deep inside the cave, we could see water rushing into the cave through a small side tunnel; although I’m sure this water rushes into the cave all day, I got overcome with some severe claustrophobia-induced anxiety and wondered why we had not asked about the possibility of flash flooding…. When we got near the innermost point of the cave, our group of five were all freezing and our hands were chewed up from pulling on the wet ropes for 30 minutes, when our young guide pointed to an opening that we would have to swim under to go all the way into the main cave “room”.  He said that we could either swim into the main cave (“although it might be completely flooded once we get there”) or we could turn around and go back. When I couldn’t hear everything that the guide was saying because I was last in line on the rope, I asked the nice Aussie guy a few people ahead of me to translate for me so that we could make a collective decision on what to do.  He smiled, and in a hilarious moment that no one in our cold, miserable group will ever forget, said, “Just go back”.

Luckily, the next cave, The Elephant Cave, was much warmer and easier to explore. It was a cave that doubles as a temple for the local Lao people in the area, who could not afford to build a temple. The cave got its name from a natural stone structure inside the cave that looks oddly like an elephant from one angle (oddly, today it looks very much like an elephant from every angle, and the rumor is that is has been doctored by not-so-natural means). (We did not capture a picture of the so-called “natural” elephant.)

IMG_4088

Despite being over-run by the very worst kind of tourism, Vang Vieng (or the outskirts, rather) was a beautiful and charming place that we would recommend to any other traveler. Maybe by promoting responsible tourism and requesting that the Laos government cracks down on the current Vang Vieng tourism-disaster-fiasco, this beautiful town will once again regain its natural shine – a shine preferably no longer due to the mid-afternoon sun hitting beer-laden urine arching its way off a rooftop bar and into the Nam Song River.

Scenes from Vientiane, Laos

We’ve been a bit behind on the blog these days (we’ve been in Laos for 2 weeks already with nary a post!), so I’m going to sum up our first stop in the capital of Laos, Vientiane, with a couple of pictures. Overall, it was an extremely clean, small, uber laid-back place. Hard to believe it was a capital city!

Approaching the city, the “Arch du Laos” (a small replica of that in Paris :)) looms in the distance:

Arch Du Laos

Typical night out in Laos: whole roasted fish, large Lao Beer, 5 year old kids playing on (and actually driving) motorcycles:
IMG_3938 IMG_3941 IMG_3940 IMG_3939

Old U.S. Air Force jackets leftover from the Vietnam War can be found all over the night markets. I wonder what Richie is up to these days:
IMG_3930

Even though the majority of the country is Buddhist, occasionally we would find a place decorated for Christmas:

Xmas Lights in Laos

Laos Christmas Tree

Monks out for a stroll along the Mekong River, the banks of Thailand in the distance:

IMG_3924

The DOs and DON’Ts of a Lao sleeper bus

We had already been traveling for 2 full days to get from Siem Reap, Cambodia to our eventual first stop in Laos. Along the way, we had taken a 10-hour bus ride and gotten stuck at the Cambodia-Laos border crossing when we arrived after it had closed for the day, we had bribed border guards with money to stamp our passports (the corruption!), we were exhausted and getting tired of moving around… So we were relieved when we learned that the bus that we would be taking on the final overnight push from Pakse, Laos to Vientiane, Laos was a sleeper bus – complete with horizontal beds, pillows, blankets, everything one might want for an uneventful nights sleep!

What we hoped would be an enjoyable 10 hour ride up to Vientiane turned out to be a hellish ordeal covering some of the worst highways in Asia: man-eating potholes, stretches of highway giving way to dirt roads, riddled with large rocks and deep ruts. (Amazingly, this was all on the main “highway” through Laos that connects the north and south of the country.) Needless to say, we didn’t sleep on the so-called “sleeper bus”, and we’ve gathered some DOs and DON’Ts for you, our reader, here in case you should ever attempt it:

*DO put your shoes into the plastic baggie provided before entering the bus to avoid scratching the glass-topped disco floor that makes up the aisle.

IMG_3921

(blurry pic of the aisle, below– yes, those are plastic yellow rubber duckies sitting               below the glass-topped surface)

IMG_3915

*DO greet your seatmate that you will be spooning for the next 10 hours. (There are 2 people to one twin-size bed, unless you buy out the entire bed with two tickets. The giant kilt-wearing Scandinavian man and the 5-foot Lao farmer seemed an odd couple.).

*DON’T get excited (like these idiots) when you see how cute, clean, and soft your bunk-bed and pillows are. (You won’t be sleeping.)

IMG_3918

*DO sleep in the most mobility-limited position you can find—preferably flat on your back with your hands interlocked over your stomach. But even then, DO bring loads of ibuprofen to soften the blows to your head that you will encounter for the next 10 straight hours.

*DON’T attempt to sit up if you’re on the top bunk, no matter how extruciating the bumpy road is to your head—there’s not any headspace. (But DO assume a 45-degree angle half-sit up position occasionally – you’ll  give your head a few seconds of relief and get an ab workout in the process.)

*DO dance on the glass-topped disco floor with the other bus patrons when you still haven’t fallen asleep by 4 o’clock in the morning. (Unfortunately I did not capture any pictures of this.)

*DON’T use the bathroom. (Remember, you’re already not wearing shoes..….)

*Even after 10 straight hours of throwing back Lao beer on the bus, please, just DON’T, DON’T use the bathroom.

*If you DO use the bathroom, DON’T wear pants that drag the ground, DO bring your own toilet paper (there is none), and DO bring your own trashcan to put it in (there’s not one..and can’t flush your TP here…). DON’T fall into the bathroom walls or accidentally step into the squat toilet when the bus hits the inevitable bump. Upon exiting, DO spray down your feet with the bum-hose next to the toilet. (Somehow, I managed to neglect all of these rules and was not allowed to climb back into bed afterwards.)  DO wipe hand sanitizer on your feet and hands afterwards (of course there is nowhere to wash your hands—that would just be silly at this point).

*This should be obvious by now, but DON’T get locked inside said-bathroom when the bus assistant comes back to secure things; if it is your sleeping companion that gets locked inside, DON’T just laugh until you cry (like Scott did)– DO help them out, instead.

*DO thank your driver for providing you with blaring Cambodian karaoke music and multi-colored disco lights as your wake-up call at 5:00 am when you’ve reached your destination.

*Upon exiting the bus, DO let the rooster that was apparently in the luggage compartment underneath the bus THE WHOLE TIME out of the bus.

IMG_3923

*DO laugh hysterically as your sleep-deprived brain thinks back fondly on all the fun you’ve just had, as you stumble into the nearest hotel and finally, finally fall fast asleep…..