Saturday, August 23, 2008

Just Back From Laos

Had it not been for torrential downpours, exhaust-spewing buses, roads in disrepair, primitive lodging, cancelled flights, and suffocating humidity…well, had it not been for those things, this trip wouldn’t have qualified for the blog.

For the love of god, if you’re going to visit Laos don’t do it during rainy season.

To a southern Californian like me, being prepared for rain means tossing an umbrella in the car “just in case”. I had even gone the extra mile by purchasing a rain cover for my backpack at REI. But after 2 days of soaring temperatures (humidity: 110%) in the capital city of Vientiane, we boarded a bus to Vang Vieng and never saw blue sky again. Can I just tell you about the bus ride first? Brutal. Bru. Tal. We had booked the tickets the day before at a travel agent where the guy swore to me the bus would have A/C. Hah! I guess what he meant to say was, When this bus was manufactured in Japan in the 1980’s it had air conditioning, but when the A/C and the exhaust system both stopped working, we bought it for a song, sister.

Needless to say the ticket guy was nowhere around when we laid eyes on said bus. A mini-bus had picked us up from our hotel and then got other backpackers from nearby hotels, then dropped us where the big bus was waiting. We were the last group to arrive, so Tomoko and I handed our backpacks off to the driver and grabbed two empty seats at the very back. As the rest of our group piled in and every last seat was taken the bus became miserably hot. The driver was still up on the roof securing everyone’s packs, and with only 4-inch high windows that would open, hot air just rolled in on us. I began to feel claustrophobic and panicky, and realized too late that my Xanax was up on the roof in my pack. Drugs, I need drugs!

Luckily we got underway before I completely flipped out and while it never got cool, at least there was some circulation once the bus started moving. I needn’t have relaxed though, because as soon as the claustrophobia dissipated, the motion sickness set in. Or to be more specific, nausea induced by perching over a non-working exhaust system for 3-1/2 hours while weaving through mountain passes. If only I’d brought some Dramamine. Drugs, I need drugs!

Finally we rolled into the town of Vang Vieng and everyone stumbled off, scattering in all directions to various guesthouses. Laos seems to be as yet undiscovered by Americans, as all the other travelers tended to be European with a few Asians mixed in. We checked into a hotel at the river’s edge, and as soon as we unpacked it began raining cats and dogs. We donned rain ponchos and waded up the road to a pizza restaurant, then called it a night.

The next day it rained some more, and the next day, and the next. Finally we wised up and realized our vacation would be over well before the rains would be. We joined the crowd waiting in line for tubing down the Nam Song River, an experience not to be missed. The water was so high and running so fast that once you hopped on your tube there was no stopping under your own power. In order to drop in at one of the riverfront bars along the way, you had to somehow maneuver yourself close enough to shore to grab a tree branch held out by one of the bar staff. Once you’d caught the branch, the guys dug their feet into the mud and slowly pulled you ashore. If you missed the branch, there was sometimes a Stage 2 further down where another Lao fellow stood, holding a small inner tube attached to a rope which he flung at you cowboy-style. Either way your rotator cuff was shredded, but all was forgotten in the noisy drunken mass of Europeans partying in the rain and mud in their swimsuits. Lao locals added some entertainment doing fancy tricks off rope tree swings before dropping into the river below.

That night we got back to the hotel chilled to the bone and thankfully, we’d splurged on a place with hot water. Too bad there are no decent showerheads anywhere in the country, so water sprayed all over the floor and contributed to the mold infestation. I think it also encouraged the geckos to head for dry land on our ceiling.

Next morning I was laid up in bed with a raging cold. Grandma always said, Don’t go out in the rain or you’ll catch cold. But our days in Laos were ticking by fast, so rather than waste a day recuperating I decided to soldier on. Back out into the rain we went, kayaking down the river for an hour and then scrambling up the riverbank near a tribal village. Here we climbed up a treehouse and were assisted onto the back of an elephant, which took us around and through the village while Lao children smiled and waved at us. One boy spotted us while he was riding his bike down the dirt road, and decided to follow us for half a mile or so. None of the villagers spoke English and neither did our guide, so we really couldn’t tell what they thought of two foreigners sitting atop an elephant.

When it was time to leave Vang Vieng, we sprung for tickets on a mini-bus (an old van seating ten people) rather than repeat the big-bus nightmare. I sat in the front seat this time, which meant no claustrophobia or motion sickness. Instead I was treated to a fast-paced game of Dodge the Potholes, Dodge the Villagers and Dodge the Animals. At one point a team of eight goats had formed a blockade across the road. Some were standing, some sitting and some pacing but they were stretched from one side to the other leaving no way through for us. Our driver honked many times and eventually a few goats moved aside, but it was never clear what they’d been trying to shake us down for.

A few days later we caught our flight home—or tried to, that is. My flight back to LA was cancelled so I had, as the song goes, one night in Bangkok. The airline put me up in a hotel that was so old, dark and miserable that I nearly cried. Luckily I had spent very little money in Laos and was able to splurge on a Thai massage at the Mandarin Oriental Spa. Considerably more than the five-dollar massages I’d gotten in Laos, but then again, I finally got a working showerhead.

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