May 20, 2008

Laos

It’s quite humorous that I find Laos to be such an amazing country. After all life has not gone so smoothly for me since our small plane barely landed on the tarmac of the dark airport. The trouble began as I sat in the head customs agent’s office. After paying an extra dollar for my Visa because our plane landed after hours, it was pointed out to me that my passport has less than 6 months of validity left on it. Apparently I am the only world traveler that did not get this memo. I should never have a passport in this state of existence. It is nearly worthless in most countries. Lucky for us a little cash will do the trick - $120 and my meaningless identification had yet another entry stamp emblazoned in its tattered pages.

Luang Probang, in Northern Laos is referred to in our Lonely Planet guide book as the “prettiest city in Asia” This might be true. However, it has also fallen ill to the “Lonely Planet” curse. All of us loyal followers adhere to its words with the voracity to descend like the swarm of adventure-hungry independent traveling locusts that we are, destroying every town, hotel, and restaurant whose name is so fortunate to find it’s way onto the pages of the tattered Lonely Planet bible that rests clutched in the hand of every other tourist who passes. With one finger stuck in the page where a small map of the town resides, we hand over our hard earned cash in abundance, raising prices and crowding the streets with our own kind. Unfortunately, this is the exact thing we have traveled around the globe to avoid. Ahh but not all is lost. Luang Probang is simply too wonderful to be destroyed by the $800 scarves that sit on the shelves of boutique stores and the $40 French restaurants nestled between two $1 noodle soup shops. It is a town teeming with young monks who reside at its more than thirty temples. They march through the streets at 6 am collecting alms for the day from shop owners. Their mere existence is a constant reminder of the country we are visiting, - as if the beautifully colorful tuk-tuks weren’t evidence enough that this was indeed not Kansas.

It’s not so much that 23 people were crammed into the back of a truck on a journey north that bothered me. It was not the sweltering heat. The frequent and jolting stops and uncomfortable seat did not rattle me. It was not even the motorcycle that leaned on its kickstand mid-ship in the truck dripping gasoline on my foot that simply has no other spot the rest but beneath its engine. None of these things disturbed me. What nearly brought me to tears was having not a clue how long the journey would last, and that the guy next to me was smoking. Eventually we reached our destination. The beautiful city of Nong Khiaw’s small write- up in our “Lonely Planet” has spared it. A town must have a map in the guide book before the curse sets in. The swarm must know where to sleep. We lulled the day away reading from the hammocks in our private Sunrise Guesthouse bungalow ($5/night) perched high above the Nam Ou River. Massive Limestone cliffs dripping in lush jungle rose on all sides. Kids played soccer on a small island that surfaces only when the water is low. Ridiculously long river boats motored locals and tourists alike up and down stream.

So far it sounds pretty good doesn’t it? There’s just one hiccup in this story. That’s true. Then there was the fall. We had been hiking through the thick jungle, around freshly scorched rice fields, between thatch houses on stilts, and among the amiable water buffalo for three hours. We stopped every five minutes to pick leaches from our ankles. I had been telling the German in front of me about the amazing durability and usefulness of bamboo. “Did you know that pound for pound, bamboo has twice the tensile strength of steel? It is the fastest growing plant in the world – ten cm a month! It is used in Chinese scaffolding Michael! It is used in concrete as a cheap alternative to rebar! It is a truly renewable building material. You can eat it! It is godlike!” Most of these words fell from my mouth in the moments leading up to the bridge.

I never expected to fall off a bridge in the thick Jungle of Laos. Then again I never expected three sticks of such a wonderful material to give way beneath my weight, depositing me into the river below. I was not scared. Mid-air, as my arms both attempted to roll up imaginary car windows I did not think about the fact that we were thousands of miles from a Western hospital. I did not wonder if I would be hurt. I did not worry that we were three hours by foot from the nearest road. In this moment of clarity, all that passed through my head was the fact that the bamboo had failed me. I felt used.

Of course I was fine. I sat in the muck in shock for 5 seconds while my five trekking partners, Amanda included, ran to my aid. I escaped with a small scratch and nothing more.
Strike two for Laos. But I still love it. The people are amazing. The food is wonderful and the terrain absolutely surreal. I keep expecting a red Jeep to drive by with a T-Rex in close pursuit. Our hike finally brought us to the small village of Phayong. As you stroll down its dirt paths and watch the children throw chickens at each other, it is difficult to know what century it is. Under one of the 40 stilted houses a woman crushes corn with a foot powered mill. Next door, a topless woman holds her new-born slung across her back as she watches her chickens eat from an old basket of feed. Down the street, a man tends to the ten beautiful pineapples growing inside his bamboo fence. Laos is wonderful. This particular village sees about 10 tourists every month. We slept in the home of the Village Chief. For dinner and lunch we chewed on rice and green beans. Breakfast mixed it up a bit with rice and bamboo. Amanda couldn’t believe what she was seeing. She became a vestige of her lens as it pulled her toward every corner of the village. The shutter never rested more the a few seconds.
And this has been Laos. We are headed towards Vientiane, the capital, so I can replace my passport. I’m hoping I don’t receive a third strike in this country because it is really great. No one wants to see Sammy Sosa strike out. It’s just not right.

1 comment:

alphasquirrel said...

Nice. In my mind you were screaming as you fell. Amanda please send pics of the carnage, at least the hole in the bridge. TIA.