Decisions in Luang Prabang, Laos

It was in Luang Prabang that I had to decide how I would spend the following year of my life. Colorado State University was pressuring me with a looming deadline to choose a two-year commitment to graduate school, but as I sat on the banks of the Mekong sipping my morning coffee, pen in hand, hovering over the paper that would cement my decision, I watched orange-robed monks glide by, children play in the muddy water and several local men share a BeerLao for breakfast, and I couldn’t imagine my travels ever ending. The idea that life should be lived in the slow lane is something nearly every country besides the U.S. has figured out, and sitting among people enjoying the simplicities in life made me realize college could wait.

I signed the deferral letter and that afternoon I managed to convey to a local internet cafe owner that I needed to “send paper through air” to a place in the U.S.A. It essentially gave me another year to drag my feet on going back to school, but also a mandatory 12 months to magically become a Colorado resident while secretly living in China (okay, it’s not so secret, but shhh!).

I have no regrets, but I do often wonder if I would have made the same choice had I not been sitting in one of the most blissful cities I have visited. Luang Prabang literally means “Royal Buddha Image,” which explains the more than 30-plus local temples, and the reason I saw more monks than regular residents wandering the sidewalks.

Unfortunately, I had hit a point in my travels, nearly seven months in, where I didn’t care to ever step foot in another Buddhist temple. So I didn’t. But I did climb the 328 steps to the top of Mount Phousi where Wat Chomsi sits for the dusk-to-sunset viewing.

Luang Prabang is a mountainous city surround by two rivers – the Mekong and the Nam Khan. One thing I found particularly interesting was the outer roads that wrap around the water, where most of the fancy, French-inspired hotels can be found (Laos used to be occupied by the French), the roads are spotless and well kept.

But when I ventured into the middle of town, where shanty huts line the trash-covered streets, I saw where the locals live – literally in the midst of the tourist action, hidden by those fancy dwellings. It’s possible the excess of trash was due to a recent festival, but the contrast from one block to the next was astonishing.

That night, after I faxed my “one time only” deferral request, I ended my day the way those local men started – with a large BeerLao, the only local beer available, but one of my favorites in all of Southeast Asia – and smiled as I watched the river flow slowly by, fully aware I had made the right decision.

What decision would you have made?

A Tour of Savannakhet, Laos

I almost made a mistake in Savannakhet, Laos. It was one of those “I know better but my just-say-yes policy always wins in the name of cultural experience” situations.

I spent the first day recuperating from a rather miserable series of bus rides from Khong Lor Cave in the central part of the country while I caught up on laundry and sleep. I spent the second walking through the city, photographing the crumbling buildings that line the sidewalks of this seemingly ancient town.

I enjoyed a delicious som tam (spicy papaya salad) lunch on the banks of the Mekong while looking across at Thailand. Even the Northeast looked highly developed in comparison to Savannakhet, or anywhere else in Laos, really.

That’s Mukdahan, Thailand across the river.

The next day, another rather long, sticky walk in 104 degree temps (plus humidity), led me to a stadium where a city league soccer game was in full swing. I sat down to catch a break from the sweltering sun and take in a game of Laos football.

A nice man approached me, in awe that a foreigner was staying in Savannakhet and even more so that I was interested in watching the game (I was more into the shade from the stadium, but I went with it). He was a teacher and he wanted to practice his English, which was rather good in comparison to the rest of the town and it’s always nice to have a conversation after two weeks of traveling solo.

Later, he offered to show me the market I hadn’t yet found and give me a motorbike tour of the city. Of course I obliged. He made a point of driving down all seven major roads, so I could see each one. “This road is how you go to the airport,” he said, and “This one has all the restaurants, let’s count!”

After a full tour, which didn’t take long (Savannakhet is not much bigger than Suwannaphum, where I taught English), we stopped at a very nice, outdoor karaoke restaurant for dinner. He ordered several dishes and more beer than I could think about drinking. When he started asking if I was drunk yet, I began to see where the night was headed. My best approach was to tell him I didn’t feel well and needed to go home. Now.

“But I order another beer. Can we stay little longer?”

“No, I really feel sick. Mai sabai,” I said in Thai because I knew he would understand (the languages are very similar).

When he dropped me at my hostel, he kindly asked if he could accompany me to my room “just for a bit.”

“No. I need to go to bed. Alone.”

I gave him a random email address and from a dark corner in the opposite direction of my rented room, I watched him sit in the driveway for several minutes, hopeful I might return, before he finally rode away. Poor guy.

Though he was a great tour guide, he should probably stick to teaching. I, on the other hand, should probably stop accepting motorcycle rides from strangers in foreign countries, but I probably won’t. It was still a great experience – a fun story to tell – and I was able to see Savannakhet through a local’s eyes.

I think I played with her for an hour before I admitted it was impossible to bring her home with me.
The only Catholic church in town, and one of very few in the entire country.
Sundried sausage, anyone?
A floating restaurant on the Mekong with a view of Thailand.

A River Between: Chiang Khan

I spent the weekend in Chiang Khan, a lovely little town on the northern border of Isan, where the Mekong River drifts idly by. It’s a traditional Thai village, where the outside of every building is beautifully maintained to protect the old standards, and the insides are thoughtfully decorated with items from the past: old motorbikes, antique bicycles, ancient mailboxes, etc.

One of my coworkers invited me on this trip. Why not go see a traditional Thai village with a personal Thai tour guide? It will be the real deal, I thought. Of course I said yes, despite my initial impression of Teacher Ning – she’s bossy, pushy, obnoxious and always in my bubble. I brushed it off as a cultural difference, until I heard the other teachers wish me good luck.

I needed it. Turns out, Ning is a full-blown diva: overdramatic, prissy and constantly changing her mind. She insisted on having her picture taken in front of every wooden door, lone bicycle, flowerpot and sign. Imagine how long it takes to walk down a picturesque street with such a prima donna, ogling over each shot and not hesitating to ask a stranger to continue shooting until he gets it just right.

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But on the bright side, I did get a good glimpse into a Thai vacation. We went to Wat Mahathat, Chiang Khan’s oldest temple, and Ning taught me the proper way to bow to Buddha – sit on the floor in front of the statue with your knees bent to the side and wai three times. Each one should start with your hands palms together, near your chest, before raising your thumbs to your eyebrows and then bowing to the ground, placing your hands flat in front of you.

Next, we bought flowers for good luck. We held the flowers with one hand, lit three incense sticks with the other and made a wish to Buddha. After placing the incense in the designated area and donating our flowers to the pile on the statue’s lap, we bowed again.

Once our evil spirits were warded away, we caught a boat ride on the river, floating slowly between Thailand and Laos, making clear the vast difference between the two. Laos is what Thailand was forty years ago. Thailand’s modern style houses and small hotels along the bank contrasted the natural flora and fauna covering the Laos side. Much of the Thai beach areas were flanked with Thai tourists and the shanty fruit shacks that follow, yet Laos was still quiet and untouched less a local fisherman and his children.

Ning boasted about her country and how much more developed it is than Laos. I looked longingly at its untouched beauty. I can’t deny that tourism is good for the growth and betterment of a country, but it also aids in reducing cultural values.

For Ning, I noticed this in her nighttime prayer. We shared a room, and I watched in awe as she faced her pillow before bed and repeated the act I had learned at the temple.

“You’re a very good Buddhist,” I said.

“Only because I’m not at home,” she said with a laugh. “I usually just hurry through it.” Then she showed me how fast she performs the actions, raising her hands and throwing them down as if playing patty cake with the pillow.

“Do you say thanks or pray for anything when you do that?” I asked.

“No,” she said to my surprise. She simply moves through the motions because it’s expected, as if bowing alone can cement ones devotion.

We woke up early enough to catch a shuttle to the top of a mountain where we stood above the clouds and watched the sun slowly peak it’s way through them. I laughed at the irony that I paid to see fog, having grown up in Condon, Oregon where foggy weather is a staple of winter, but it was lovely from above, looking out over the Laos mountaintops, knowing the vast river weaved its way between us down below.

Ning, who woke an hour before I to compete with the beauty we were about to see, was like Thailand in this scenario, overdressed, clean (in comparison) and bustling with excitement. I felt more like Laos, undeveloped, dirty and sleepy. The vast river  between the two countries has divided their differences, just as the wide ocean separating Ning and I has cultured two very different people.

The 4,000 Islands

There isn’t much to do in Si Phan Don, so to speak, but there’s plenty to keep oneself entertained. A hammock hangs from the porch of every bungalow, making it a perfect place to relax with a book, take a nap, or watch the children swimming and bathing in the water below.

Si Phan Don is a sleepy cluster of islands in the Mekong delta, just above the Cambodian border. There are no roads, only dirt paths. Most people get around on bicycle or foot, and very few own motorbikes.

I rode a bike around Don Det (my choice of the only three islands offering accommodation, and I highly doubt there are actually 4,000), stopping to take pictures of the baby water buffalo, the calves, the chicks and the pigs. As a farm girl, I shouldn’t be awed by the sight of farm animals on an island, but I’m a sucker for their cuteness. They walked right up to me, not even disturbed by my presence.

The dirt path encircling the island was about four kilometers around, making Don Det the second largest of the pack. The waterfront is lined with bungalows for rent and homes for locals, while the inner island is covered with rice farms, intersected by more dirt paths. Pedaling around, taking in the beauty of such simplistic, local life was exactly what I had pictured myself doing in Southeast Asia.

On my second day, I joined a kayaking tour that was nothing short of fantastic. Another solo traveler and I shard a two-person kayak, laughing at our inexperience as we paddled out of sync, trying to catch up to the pack.

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Our first stop was one of the biggest waterfalls in the region. The water forcefully splashes over rocks and plummets through the crevaces, leaving nothing in its wake. It is beautiful, but my pictures don’t do it justice.

We paddled again to a rock island where we would watch the local Irrawaddy dolphins – an extremely rare breed resembling a whale more than a dolphin. There are said to be only ten left, and we were lucky to see about five of them. From our perch, we could also see Cambodia. The Mekong separates the two countries at this point, and we were sitting in the middle of both, enjoying chicken fried rice.

After lunch and more swimming, we were back in the kayak, headed for another waterfall that was just as impressive as the first. We were now on the mainland, so while we stared in awe at the natural wonder before us, the guides loaded our kayaks onto a large bus and prepared to drive us back to our starting point.

I was exhausted after such a full day of paddling and so I walked back to my hammock where I fell asleep early enough to catch the next mornings sunrise before going out for a run.

The day was another relaxing one, spent reading and chatting with new friends. I was going to need it before the long, chaotic adventure of traveling back to Suwannaphum, but it seems I enjoy the journey just as much as the destination.