November 17, 2012

Loving Laos

From Northern Thailand we headed east and entered into the stuck-in-time country of Laos. We endured a 3-hour bus ride, tuk tuk, fall down a muddy boat ramp with a potential broken toe, small boat, most unorganized immigration line of all time, tuk tuk, and FINALLY boarded our big boat…all by 10:00am. It was the ultimate test of going-with-the-flow…something I'm proud to say I've gotten much better at this year.

Going with the flow is actually a perfect description for our first two days in Laos, as we spent 8 hours each day cruising down the Mekong River. The river drifts by at the pace of life...slow.

Laos is communist, landlocked, and heavily dependent on the Mekong. Their wide milk chocolate-colored river is dotted with boulders and so calm that it’s glassy. 

It was a peaceful and idealic two days, ranking right up there with the other unique transportation experiences we've had this year. We passed golden temples, mothers washing clothes in the river, husbands and wives fishing on small boats, naked kids playing in the water, bamboo fishing poles permanently perched in-between rocks, and a group of monks having a water fight. Remote villages dotted the banks the entire way.  

We were on the boat when the US presidential winner was announced. The leader of the free world had just been selected, and I promise you it wasn't even remotely on these people's radars.

These lazy days gave us time to read, relax, and roughly plan out the rest of our trip. There was also a Texas Hold 'Em match-up against a Belgian, German and South African (they were impressed with our shuffling skills). We used match sticks instead of poker chips, and new terminology…the Flop, the Turn, and the Mekong. 

A 2-day ticket on a slow boat down the Mekong costs a staggering 220,000 kip. That sounds astronomical until you do the conversion and its really only $28. We had never been to a country that doesn't have coins. At the ATM machine, we get out 3 million kip all at once.

Pulling up to our first Lao town of Luang Prabang was not at all what we expected. We thought we'd see a city set on the water, but in reality we could have cruised right by it and never noticed. It's a good illustration for this quiet's unassuming. It also turned out to be our favorite city in Laos. 

As a result of French occupation for half a century, Luang Prabang boasts pretty European architecture, a cafĂ© culture, and roadside women selling crepes and baguettes. This is juxtaposed with a high concentration of Buddhist wats where clumps of sticky rice are randomly placed as offerings all over the temples. 

There is also a proportionately large number of monks roaming the streets and collecting food offerings from local people in the early morning hours.     

Luang Prabang is a town where you feel fleeting moments of sophistication and yet can still spot villagers who are freshly down from the hills.

The Lao royal family was exiled in 1975, and their former palace is now the national museum. It was surprising simple with very small touches of royal grandeur. It was fabulously ghetto in a very charming way.

We spent two days volunteering at a center where local Lao people come when they want to practice their English. Many of them know that tourism is Laos' future, and so in order to get a job, they want to perfect their vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. We came away with a deep respect for their work ethic.  

One day Steve worked with a 17-year old novice monk who eventually wants to become a tour guide. He had heard of America but didn't know that it's the same thing as the United States. They are now friends on Facebook.

I helped a small mob of students who kept calling me “teacher” and left me feeling inadequately prepared for not having a full-on lesson plan. It was fun for us to see what these young adults wanted to learn about…the smallest country in the world, the difference between upside-down and right-side-up, and how you pronounce measurements like 2x2. I learned that in the Lao language they only have one word that encompasses both doctor and surgeon…an indication of the quality of their health care system. In fact we've been told that if we do have a healthcare problem, we should leave Laos immediately and head for Thailand.

We also spent a day on a farm learning about the many different stages of rice production. It was a hands-on experience as we trudged through mud plowing the patty behind our water buffalo. 

We learned how to use a sickle to harvest the rice and how to manually separate the grain from its shell. 

Like all Lao people, the manager of the farm eats rice every single meal…every single day…forever. He very matter-of-factly told us, “Rice is my life,” and we believe him. When we were trekking in Thailand our guide told us that we would never see someone here drop a kernel of rice from their bowl. They know how much work goes into making it, and now so do we. So please do us a favor and the next time you go to PF Changs or something, see if you can go the entire meal without wasting a single grain of the precious white stuff.

In Laos you can easily lose an entire day just traveling from city to city. Transportation options are not great, so from Luang Prabang we opted for the “VIP bus”. A 6-hour mountainous bus ride turned into 8 hours. It was hot, bumpy, and we stopped on the side of the road twice to fix the engine. VIP, baby!

On the plus side we saw some breathtaking scenery. We passed mountains that honestly rivaled Milford Sound and Machu Picchu's landscape.

It's also rice harvesting season, so the workers were out in full force with their cone-shaped hats and sickles. 

Vang Vieng is dumpy little town set amid beautiful limestone formations. We've learned with practice that limestone means there are caves nearby, so one day we rented bicycles to go explore them. Big mistake. We never counted on the road being unpaved. Just call Steve King of the Cobblestones.

We finally made it to Tham Phou Kham cave where there's a Buddha statue and rocks so slippery that I nearly broke my tailbone. Outside there's a blue lagoon with the most slow motion rope swing of all time.  

Initially we weren't even sure we wanted to come to Vang Vieng. It had become famous for heavy partying while floating down the Nam Xong River on inner tubes. There were also zip lines and water slides into very shallow water which killed 27+ tourists in 2011 alone. This is not our kind of scene whatsoever, but just within the last couple of months they completely shut down the partying. Now the river is back to its lazy old self, and we spent a relaxing afternoon floating down it with our Dutch pastry chef friend, Gerard.

From Vang Vieng we ditched the VIP bus and opted for Laos' alternate form of transportation: the minivan. With 12 people crammed inside it was still hot and crowded, but at least we arrived 30 minutes ahead of schedule.

Our next stop was Phonsavan, the gateway to the Plain of Jars

These unique rock formations were carved somewhere around 1,500-3,000 years ago. Not much is known about them, but archeologists do believe they were used for burials in some capacity. The more entertaining legend is that giants created them to brew rice wine.

Seeing these mysterious formations would have been worth the drive alone, but there was a second side to the Plain of Jars that was equally as compelling. From 1960-1975 America was engaged in a secret war in Laos. The US had an airbase just 100 kilometers from Phonsavan, which at the time was the busiest airport in the world…but yet it didn't exist on a map.

Because of Laos' strategic position next to Northern Vietnam, we used them as a pawn. We befriended the village people to gain position, and then when we eventually started to lose control around the air base, we turned around and carpet bombed them. Per capita, Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world, and the area around the Plain of Jars was one of the hardest hit. We saw these amazing historical jars just teetering on the edges of bomb craters. 

More than 2 million tons of ordnance were dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973. It's estimated that 30% of this ordnance did not detonate on impact, leaving behind 80 million unexploded ordnance (UXO) scattered around the country. It continues to kill and injure Lao people every day.  

Many of the accidents happen when farmers hit ordnance beneath the soil while digging, villagers burn trash, and locals try to collect the scrap metal for money. More than 40% of casualties have been children who are tempted to play with “bombies” because they are the same shape as a tennis ball. 

Of the 60 jars sites, only 7 of them have been cleared of ordnance. And by “cleared” I mean that merely a 4 foot wide path is guaranteed safe. We made sure to say within the markers!

The local villagers have turned into entrepreneurs by taking the scrap metal they find in their fields, melting it down in their backyards, and molding it into something more useful. 

We found ourselves in the middle-of-nowhere Laos, sitting around in a circle on the wooden floor of a villager's home, taking turns shooting rice whiskey, and passing around defused bombs. I swear it felt more innocent than it sounds. Unlike in Thailand, Lao rice whiskey is strong. After four shots around the circle, we were happy shoppers. I am the proud new owner of cocktail swords made from bombs! On that high note, it was time to move on.

I'm always nervous about taking night buses in third world countries, but this time our fear was pushed a little bit to the side. We were standing anxiously around the bus at the station when they flipped the power switch and on came the Las Vegas lights show. We thought that South American long distance buses were great, but this was awesome. Instead of the boring old double-decker bus with stairs, we got an open-air bus that was two stories high with three seats and two aisles wide. These were not like airline seats that recline; they were more like beds that just so happened to sit up. We loved our digs for the night. Go Laos!

Our final stop was the capital city of Vientiane

You could easily see all this town has to offer in under 5 hours, but we're glad we came. For starters, these were the first Lao people we'd seen exercising. We felt lucky to spot dueling Thursday night jazzercise classes along the Mekong.

We had such a lovely time in Laos that we ended up staying three days longer than originally planned. There are fog-shrouded mountains in the morning turning to sunny skies with puffy white clouds in the afternoon.

This is the first time in 3 months we've been in a country where people drive on the right-hand side of the road. We never thought this would be possible, but it actually feels backwards. We're also officially thinking in terms of kilometers and Celsius these days.  

The museums have been surprisingly good with concise and excellently translated descriptions. The streets are pretty quiet by Asian standards, although the traffic is less forgiving than Thailand for pedestrians.

Laos is similar to Thailand in some ways…most notably the language and the food. But it's also more antiquated in many ways. There is a midnight curfew, no train system, and it's the only country we've been to where we haven't seen a single chain restaurant. When's the last time you were in a public restroom and used a bar of soap to wash your hands? 

44% of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day, and yet in some ways they are more educated than us. We met a tiny old man in Luang Prabang who was selling ice cream from the back of his bicycle. He knew three times as many languages as we do. He would market his goods in Lao, English, and French by shouting from a plastic megaphone.

Laos people are attractive. The girls have big brown eyes and flowing dark hair. They wear long patterned silk skirts which accentuate their slender figures. The children are giggly and a bit shy. (Almost) everybody is very friendly and always greeted us with a huge smiling “Sabaidee!” This is a country where everyone is a cousin...not really, but that's what they always say.

Whenever we passed by a school, the kids seemed to always be at recess. We saw a couple of kids whacking at sticks with machetes and several doing manual labor like picking up trash and collecting leaves.

Aside from badminton, we've also seen lots of people playing sepak takraw. It’s like volleyball but players can only use their feet, knee, chest and head. It's played with a rattan ball, which really hurts by the way.

We added some new wildlife to our list…Water Buffalo and Asian Black Bears (also known as a Moon Bears), which look like Chows.

Unlike their neighboring countries, Lao people exclusively eat sticky rice. They like to dip it in a spicy condiment called Jaew Bong which is made from chilies and dried buffalo skin. 

Another national dish is Larp, a salad of minced meat, garlic, shallots, galangal, and fish sauce. 

We had a fun night with friends eating Sin Dad, which is Lao barbeque. We cooked chicken, pork and beef on a circular grille while the noodles and cabbage steamed around the outside. 

All over town, it looks like people are carrying around bouquets of flowers. In reality they're a food called Job's Tears. If you break off the pod on the end and eat the seed, it tastes like corn. A nice (and pretty) little snack.

Angry Birds chicken on a stick, anyone?

It's been less than 20 years since Laos opened up its doors to tourism. It's probably what Thailand and Vietnam were like many years ago. It still feels innocent here, and with the exception of Vang Vieng, this country hasn't completely sold out to tourism yet. We hope it can stay that way as long as possible…although it's not likely. We will be watching what happens intently.


  1. Hey guys, I just came across your blog through Nomadic Matt's site and love reading about your adventures. Can you remember what the tour agency was called you booked your farming trip with or do most agencies offer that? I am based in Cambodia, so Laos isn't too far away from me.

    1. Yes! The company is called Living Land. They are the only rice farm experience we've seen after 2 months through Southeast Asia. They are just outside of Luang Prabang. Here is their website:

      It is a little expensive ($30), but we thought it was worth it for a full day activity. We learned a lot and the people were incredibly professional and nice. If you search them on Trip Adviser, a lot of other people agree.

      Have fun!

  2. Thanks Katie for a great blog entry. We are currently in Luang Prabang and yes people everywhere are still eating Jobs Tears.

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