Hey, you know that message about how we can't post from China? Just kidding! Through the dual miracles of getting a hotel room with its own computer (a first, and probably last, for this trip) and Andy rooting out a free VPN service, we are slowly, temporarily back on Blogger. Hooray!
So, straight from my shower, here I am to tell you about our recent travels through Laos.
OK, maybe that isn't me. Maybe it's a lady we met in a southbound truck on our first day in Laos. But she and I are both clearly fans of the bath-towel headdress.
Right, so, Laos. If you had asked me to find it on a map a couple of years ago, I probably would have started looking for an island somewhere in the South Pacific (you know, right between those other tropical-sounding countries, Mali and Malawi). As it turns out, Laos is a landlocked nation (just like, um, Mali and Malawi!) in Southeast Asia, sandwiched between Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, and Myanmar. Economically, it is rather poor, and physically it is very beautiful...kind of like your two favorite travel bloggers.
After many days of gray skies and cold weather in Vietnam, Andy and I were eager to find some sun, so, after crossing the border, we headed straight for Si Phan Don in southern Laos. This area of the Mekong River delta, also known as the "4,000 Islands," does a pretty good impression of tropical paradadise for a non-beach.
We stayed on Don Khong, one of the bigger, but less touristed islands, and commenced relaxing. No TV, no Internet, lots of fruit shakes. This frog tried to share Andy's shake one night, but skedaddled when Andy threatened to turn him into jugo de rana.
On day 2, I actually suggested we rent bicycles (!) and then rode minewithout mishap (!!) around the island's one paved road to see the lovely green rice-paddies and their resident muddy cows. On day 3, we signed up for a kayaking trip that brought us first to a set of waterfalls that are supposed to "catch" the spirits of dead people and animals as they float downstream on the Mekong. Hardy little kayakers are we! While eating lunch on a rock in the middle of the river, we were lucky enough to spot some rare Irrawaddy river dolphins breaching a little way off. Knowing from experience how hard it is to get a picture of dolphins, we didn't even bother trying, so you'll have to take our word for it.
We visited another impressive set of spirit-catching waterfalls on the way back to town. Waterfalls are easier to photograph than dolphins, so, here you are.
At the falls, Andy snapped a photo of Asian tourists snapping a photo with me. So far, people in Southeast Asia seem to want pictures with us far less than people in India did, but it still happens occasionally.
Any more relaxing would have put Andy out of his mind, so we packed ourselves off to the capital of Laos, Vientiane. Our mode of travel was overnight bus--the kind with horizontal quasi-beds just about long enough to fit a midget that is popular in SE Asia--but in Laos, these sleeper buses are configured with "double" beds rather than singles. This was OK for me and Andy, since we are a couple, but the solo Kiwi traveler behind us was not so lucky and ended up spending most of his night trying not to tangle limbs with the random Laotian man he was assigned to share with! So, if you ever find yourself travel on your own through Laos, you may want to pay double for your own bed on a sleeper bus...or, better yet, stick to traveling during the day.
Vientiane ain't bad. It's got some sights, like the Patuxai monument that was built out of American concrete that was supposed to be used to construct a new runway at the airport. (C'mon, who needs to fly when you can take a snuggly double-bedded sleeper bus?)
Who wouldn't like to have a national monument that is "like a monster of concrete"?
There is also the COPE Visitor Center, where you can learn all about the horrors of unexploded ordinance (another American "gift" that keeps on giving in the form of deaths and lost limbs as bombs are stumbled upon in Laotian fields decades after the Vietnam war). The center provides free prosthetics, medical treatments, and occupational therapy for victims of UXOs and traffic accidents, people born with deformities, and basically anyone who needs their help. The museum is actually quite interesting to visit, and the organization is totally worth supporting if you'd like to send a donation their way.
The golden Pha That Luang is Laos's most famous monument. It's not quite as big or grand as Burma's Shwedagon Pagoda, but still manages to give off pretty good glare in the sun.
This older stupa, That Dam, apparently used to be covered in gold, too, until marauding Thais stole its outer layer in the 1800s.
This stone Buddha lives on a pillow at the Wat Si Muang temple. Apparently, if you lift him off his pillow three times, your wish will come true. Andy wished that he would be allowed to stop lifting the Buddha because it was so heavy, and what do you know, his prayer was answered!
That temple also had a copy of the Emerald Buddha, which lived in Laos for a while between stints in Thailand. They let you get a lot closer to this one than they do to the real one in Bangkok, so here's a nice close-up for you. He appears to be wearing his summer outfit.
Buddhist shrines can get a little busy. We especially like the zebras.
What temple visit would be complete without a few whacks on the gong?
A remote part of Laos is famous for having fields full of giant stone jars of unknown origin. One has been moved to Vientiane, so we visited it instead of spending several days getting out to see the others. (Google "Plain of Jars" if you'd like to see more.)
Sometimes, when you feel like you just can't possibly get excited about yet another Buddha statue, you notice that this one has giant nipples.
Our next destination was Vang Vieng, equally known for its beautiful limestone karst scenery and its drinking/drugs scene. I'll let you guess which aspect Andy and I came for...
Here's the sign marking the trail we ascend'ed to get that last shot. It was a steep climb, and only the promise of relaxing in a "gungle shadow kept me going.
We did some more kayaking in Vang Vieng, and stopped off at a cave temple to pay our respects to yet more Buddhas. The bell at this temple was made of an old war rocket. Scrap metal from old bombs is actually quite valuable to Laos's poor, and hunting for it is a big reason why so many people continue to get hurt by UXOs.
While we kayaked down the river, most people choose to float in inner tubes, stopping off at riverside bars along the way. Many of these bars, to lure in tubers, have attractions like huge water slides, Tarzan rope swings, and mini-zip lines. Yup--drunk (and often high) people + dangerous stunts + deep water = ...a great time? A liability nightmare? I don't know, but I'm frankly shocked that more people don't die there each year.
Anyway, Andy thanked all the drunk people for subisidizing this free activity for him and went off a giant water slide. Whee!
Obviously, there was no way in hell I was going off it. That must just be a girl who has the same bathing suit as me or something.
(Though if I WERE to have gone off that water slide, I might advise future patrons not to hit the water ass-first. That seems like it would hurt. For, like, several days after.)
From Vang Vieng, we headed back to Vientiane to pick up our passports, newly visa'd up by the People's Republic of China. A momentous occasion, as this was the last visa we'd need for this trip, since all of the countries we plan to hit after China are visa-free for Americans. No more embassy visits, halleluyah! I think we've visited 20 in the past two years, and bought visas at just as many borders and airports... Our final destintation in Laos was the northern town of Luang Prabang, which is sort of Laos's version of Chiang Mai, Thailand. Both towns have lots of monastaries. Both have day trips available to waterfalls and elephant camps. Both have big, tourist-oriented night markets. Both even have their own eponymous styles of sausage! So, maybe we would have found LP more exciting if we hadn't already been to CM, but still, it was a pleasant place to spend a couple of days before heading into China.
Luang Prabang has a former royal enclosure that you can visit. No photos are allowed inside, but the grounds are nice.
This amazing azalea bush had climbed a huge tree at LP's most famous monastery, Wat Xieng Thong.
The monastery's main building dates from the 1500s and is famous for its low-sweeping roofs...
...andmosaics of local life on the sides of the buildings.
This dragon-headed chariot, for carrying urns filled with the ashes of the royal family, is not too shabby, either.
What kind of flower is this? I like.
What kind of caterpillar is this? I like, too!
Amazingly, we did not kayak in Luang Prabang, though the Mekong constantly beckoned us for a third paddling adventure...
As you may have gathered by now, I enjoy purple flowers.
Not far from Luang Prabang is a park filled with waterfalls and natural pools. A pretty (though popular with tourists) excursion.
One of the bigger drops.
Laos may be short on "big" sights, but if you're looking for somewhere to take it slow, get out into some beautiful nature, and drink a lot of tasty fruit shakes, I can hardly think of a better place. The people are lovely, the costs are low, and it's hard to find anything to get too stressed about. As a break between frenetic Vietnam and the coming challenges of China, it was definitely the right country at the right time for me. It might even be my favorite country in Southeast Asia. In any case, our first visit definitely put Laos on my mental map.