Flying high from the cultural emersion of Vietnam, we raced to the Hanoi Airport narrowly escaping our first missed flight of our journey. Caught at customs, Dan stood stoic as the agent in front of him glanced repeatedly as his passport photo and back at Dan trying helplessly to match the bearded, long-haired hippie standing in front of him with the clean cut, baby-faced photo on the passport. When we finally cleared customs, we raced through the airport and down the jet bridge to claim the final seats on the flight.
We didn’t know what to expect of Laos. To be honest, we hadn’t heard much about the small country tucked into the core of Southeast Asia. It seems many travelers, even a good portion of the self-indulgent, holier-than-thou backpackers, seem to skip over the country in their adventures. When we arrived in the capital city of Vientiane, we were underwhelmed yet fully intrigued. Our tiny, clean cab rolled through the manicured, mostly deserted city streets past dozens of ornate temples and pulled past several western restaurants, even a modern wine shop, and into our tiny hotel. It was immediately apparent standards in Laos aren’t on scale with those in surrounding countries. No one was outwardly friendly, and the spacious, modern lobby gave way to a dirty, dingy, bug-laden room.
It wasn’t until we ventured out that we found the true heart of Vientiane. As the sun cast a deep-orange glow over the small city, hundreds of people flooded the path along the riverfront. Here, children dodge in and out of the passing bikes, young couples walk hand in hand, and salesmen pull entangled masses of colorful Angry Birds and Dora the Explorer balloons or push small carts filled with ice cream. This is life. It’s the same scene painted in countless cities across the world, only here one third of the people live below the international poverty line. Still, the smiles stemming from the simple pleasures in life are plentiful and the enjoyment of what’s free to all is unstoppable. As we found a seat in the heart of the activity, I was strangely comforted watching the normalcy of life unfold before my very eyes.
Eventually, the sun sank and we wandered through a nearby night market on way back to the hotel. Amid the colorful tents full of clothing, souvenirs and out-of-date electronics, sat a man, his arms and legs crippled. In front of him sat a small pile of bags stitched from nothing more than thin newspaper. Only steps away sat yet another disabled mother and her son both clutching a bouquet of tied balloon animals. There were no beggars here, only those dealt an unbelievable unfortunate hand. But it didn’t stop them from working in absolutely any way they could. It’s something so many travelers may notice, but refuse to allow the truth behind it to sink in. There are few handouts here, few expectations of taking advantage of tourists and even less of a desire to appear as downtrodden and destitute despite the possibility of that exact scenario being true.
The next morning Dan and I set out to once again tackle the bus system – this time taking public transport nearly two hours into the Laos countryside to Buddha Park. As we dodged in and out of people at Vientiane’s crowded bus station, a short, thin, nervous looking fellow eyed us. He obviously wasn’t from Laos and his disheveled manner, small satchel and his small round spectacles screamed intellectual explorer. I was right. It didn’t take long before he tapped me on the shoulder to ask where we were headed. “The bus for Buddha Park.. number 16, I think,” I said. “Well let’s see,” he said leading us through the maze of people carrying overstuffed bags and boxes. We quickly learned he was in Laos to teach English and spend time with his daughter who lived there, and it wasn’t long before I found out why I was strangely drawn to this absurd little stranger – he was from Boulder, Colorado (my hippie-loving, free-sprited hometown).
We bid him farewell, climbed aboard our rusted old bus and set out. For more than an hour we glided as gracefully as the decades-old bus would allow along Laos country roads. Suddenly, the bus slowed and turned following the signs to the nearby Thailand border crossing. “We can’t be going there,” I said nervously. As the worlds poured from my mouth, we turned the corner to reveal the chaos of customs. “&#*%,” I remarked, unable to hold it back. “We don’t have our passports,” I said in a panic. As the bus came to a halt, dumping it’s passengers into the street, Dan turned to the driver for help. “Buddha park,” he said, reiterating our destination. “Yes. Other bus..15 Kip each,” he said pointing to a small minivan waiting on Laos side of the border. My heart slowed and I was able to breath as the thought of spending time in a Thai border holding cell diminished. “We dodged a bullet on that one,” I said as we walked through the dusty parking to the small, blue van. As we approached, our new driver tried to force us to pay double and only laughed when even our original, and honest, driver shouted something at him in Laotian before turning to us and reconfirming the 15 kip price. Angry we were being taken advantage of, we chose instead to pay a little extra for private transport – an old, colorfully painted pickup truck with seats affixed in the back. As we set out to Buddha Park, the pavement seemingly disappeared leaving us to follow a rutted, pot-holed, dusty dirt road. We were tossed and bounced around the back of the truck, flung from the seats as the truck dropped into holes in the roadway or swerved to miss them. Battered and bruised we arrived at Buddha park nearly too exhausted to explore the massive statues.
The park, also known as Xieng Khuan or Spirit City, is home to more than 200 Hindu and Buddhist concrete statues, and reflects the designer’s effort to integrate the two religions and bring peace between the two by highlighting their commonalities. To be honest, the statues themselves are extremely unimpressive when compared directly to other similar works in nearby Thailand; however, given Vientiane’s limited tourist attractions it was worth the adventure-filled bus ride there.
The remainder of our time was spent wandering the beautiful and peaceful temples in Vientiane and posing for photos outside Laos’ national symbol, Pha That Luang.
But we didn’t originally add Laos to our itinerary to explore the small capital city, instead we were determined to explore the beautiful, mountainous villages of central and northern Laos. Our first stop, Vang Vieng, is a small village turned backpacker party central. The once quiet, remote town known for its beautiful river that flows gently alongside towering limestone cliffs was, unfortunately, discovered by the almighty backpacker years ago. Since, thousands of young, free-spirted twenty somethings have flooded the town bringing booze, drugs and money. The once peaceful waters quickly turned into a ravenous river, its shores lined with bars offering beer and body paint to drunk tourists who rent tubes to float through the shallow waters. Unfortunately, each year dozens of drunk kids died after diving into the shallow waters and being pulled away by swift currents or striking a fatal blow on the rocks lurking just beneath the surface. At the urging of foreign embassies that were tired of bearing the responsibility of notifying parents of their child’s death in Laos, the Laos government shut down the bars along the river and banned tubing altogether. Luckily, sanctions have since been eased and tubing has resumed, although many of the young backpacker contingency hellbent on partying continue to skip Vang Vieng as they find many new regulations, put in place to ensure their safety, too restrictive.
While it may be unfortunate for those wild backpackers who travel the world simply looking for their next bar, it proved to be perfect for these two old, wet-blanket backpackers looking to do a little responsible traveling. We secured two seats in a surprisingly new, comfortable van bound for Vang Vieng and set out. As the van crossed the flat plains and started its decent up the winding mountain roads, it didn’t slow for the young children playing along the road or the cattle standing their ground, hooves firmly planted on the roadway. Instead, it swerved and veered, honked and revved its engine as we made our way through the untouched Laos wilderness.
As we pulled into town and drove onto the loose gravel of an old airport tarmac, we found the streets of Vang Vieng nearly deserted. We schlepped our bags to a small, dirty hotel nearby and set out to see what the town had to offer – nothing. Open-air restaurant after restaurant lined the streets, each one boasting giant pillows perched alongside small, floor-level tables all facing massive, flat-screen TVs showing constant reruns of friends and family guy. Tucked between these strange lounges were junky shops filled with cheap waterproof bags, knock-off Ray Ban sunglasses, string bikinis and shorts, t-shirts and tank tops that read “Tubing In The Vang Vieng”.
We had arrived, and it was just what we had read it was – the remnants of a deserted party town designed around wild backpackers. Still, we knew it held something special, and while the government shutdown and resulting drop in tourism severely hurt businesses, it left a small slice of quiet paradise for us to explore.
We quickly rented two single-speed bikes and set out across an old bridge adorned with the hallowed shells of old bombs – a remnant from United State’s secret war in Laos. Still, the country is laden with UXOs, unexploded objects, and the locals still take care when walking through fields or in the mountains. In fact, as of 2008 Lao is the most bombed country per capita and the US continues to feed government money into Laos to aid in efforts to remove UXOs. Some sources cite a B-52 bomb load as having been dropped on Laos every eight minutes, but to find an exact number of bombs dropped is difficult as estimates range from 75 million bombs to 2 tons of bombs. But, riding through the beautiful countryside, it’s hard to imagine the cruelty of the war waged on Laos.
In the fields nearby, dozens of Laotians gathered, their faces shaded by the same large bamboo hats associated mostly with Vietnam, to pick rice from the paddies rolling from the road to the base of the towering limestone karsts. Alongside the road children gather to play, herd cattle or buffalo and help their mothers hang freshly washed laundry on a line outside their rundown shacks to dry.
As we made our way down the rutted, riveted roadway the dark clouds in the distance warned of rain. We peddled on and into the onslaught of drenching rain before we turned back in a lame attempt to outrun the storm. The remainder of the day rain fell, forcing us inside.
The next morning, slightly intimidated by the drunken party we may find, we set out for the river. As we dipped our old tire tubes into the swift moving, cold waters, I was suddenly nervous. The waters moved by more quickly than I imagined, and the recent rain coupled with an active rainy season made the river deeper than expected.
As the rapid, rough waters caught our tubes and carried us quickly downstream. I tightly clutched the strap of a life vest Dan used to string our two inter tubes together. Only moments after our launch we floated past our first river-side backpacker bar. The buildings stood all but abandoned. Windows were boarded shut and tattered beer advertisements remained tacked to the wall. We continued downstream, my anxiety easing, only to find more shuttered bars and the remnants of a once lively party scene.
“Beer, beer?” A small older lady shouted from the balcony of a nearby home. “Beer?” Dan and I chuckled. “No, thanks!” we shouted across the river. Knowing there would likely be more business as the day wore on, we continued down the river sans beer in hand. Lying back in the tubes, we reveled in the unreal beauty of Laos. The tall karsts flanked the river creating a scene like none other as we gracefully floated by. The river was quiet. It didn’t take us long to realize we were way ahead of the boozing backpackers. Not another soul was on the river aside from the children and their fathers tossing their nets into the murky waters hoping to catch their dinner. Some, seemingly worried we were the first wave of drunken tourists, focused on nothing but the fish, while others openly waved and yelled hello as we passed , most likely realizing we weren’t there for the party but instead to revel in the beautiful countryside and marvel at their simplistic way of life.
All in all, we floated downstream for only 45 minutes before reaching Vang Vieng. We desperately tried to paddle and kick our way to the river banks, but the current was too strong. We missed the main exit from the river but were lucky to catch a log shooting from shore just past. By the time we returned our tubes, rented a motorbike, showered and headed for lunch, we witnessed the first large groups of kids piling into beat up, spray painted pickup trucks bound for the river.
We pulled up a seat close enough to see the entry point into the river’s fast-moving water at the small organic cafe credited with starting it all. The small joint, serving delicious homemade goat cheese and mulberry dishes, provided its young, traveling volunteers with tubes to use in the river after working in the fields before Vang Vieng became a major tourist destination. Soon, it became THE thing to do, and a simple gesture turned into nightmare for the once-quiet village.
We spent the remainder of the day exploring the bumpy dirt roads via motorbike and climbing to caves carved deep into the limestone mountains. Two days in the small tourist trap was all we needed, but we reveled in the true cultural and natural experiences we were able to have, and our ability to avoid the backpacker bars where young kids away from home spend their days zoned out in front of American sitcom reruns – something I would venture to say leaves them no better off and closer to understanding other cultures than if they had simply stayed home.