Savannakhet, Lao Peoples Dem Rep
Note: I’m not actually in Savannakhet, I’m in Tha Khaek, but I guess it’s too small a town to be listed in the travelpod menu of cities I have to choose from.
Is it seriously the end of 2008? A short 12 months ago, was I really still sitting at my desk at LC? It seems dreamlike now. As I write this I’m lazing at a sidewalk cafe in Luang Prabang, Laos, basking in the morning sun while I chew on a Lao coffee (you can stand a spoon in it – I’m not one for strong coffee, but it’s Just. So. Good.) and wait for my breakfast to arrive. A small gang of assorted characters (I can hear American, Italian and local Lao) on motorcycles has gathered on the street in front of me, where they are haggling over the price of a clutch repair to one of the bikes. I want to know their stories – where they have been, where they are going, where are they going to get a new clutch? I am envious of their battered leather jackets and muddy biker boots.
The world goes by at a sleepy pace here. You’d never know we are about to ring in a brand new year.
I last blogged about my location five cities and two countries ago. I’ve since been in Nong Khai, Thailand, and, in the country of Laos, Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. This is where some bloggers might say “Forget it, I’ll never catch up now, too much has happened.” But not me. Because next to nothing has happened. Or rather, I’ve done next to nothing. Days and weeks of late are a far cry from the frenzy of activity that defined the first couple of months of my travels. Maybe I’m tired, maybe I’m lazy, maybe this is just the ebb and flow of long-term travel. Whatever the reason / excuse, after blazing a spastic trail through 5 countries, a few dozen cities and about a billion guesthouses, I’m really slowing down. It’s about being rather than seeing, now. It doesn’t come without its pangs of guilt, mind you; “I really should hike up to that scenic lookout and take a few photos”; “I haven’t actually set foot in a wat in weeks…maybe I should…”; but as I’ve steadfastly maintained (or tried to) since the day I quit my job, there are no shoulds. You do what you do and you feel how you feel, with nobody to answer to but yourself, even if it’s disappointing to others.
So here’s a little summary of the very few things I’ve been up to of late:
Nong Khai, Thailand: Thank heaven for the Mut Mee Garden and Guesthouse. This gem of a spot rambles along the bank of the Mekong on the border between Thailand and Laos, with tables, chairs and hammocks peppered throughout the jungle-y garden setting. For atmosphere, I can say it’s the best guesthouse I’ve been to (and as mentioned, I’ve been to a lot). Something about it encourages its guests to just hang out all day, talking, eating, drinking and napping. It was the perfect place to be stricken down by the flu, which I was, starting from when I took the night train from Bangkok. I pretty much never left the guesthouse grounds for 4 days, but then again, neither did the healthy people. Aside from the great atmosphere at Mut Mee, there’s not much to see or do in Nong Khai aside from visiting the bizarre Salakaewkoo Sculpture Park (which I did). One morning I tossed on my wrinkly clothes from the previous day and popped downstairs to the restaurant for a “quick breakfast”, and somehow didn’t make it back to my room until 9:30 that night. Little did I know that all of this relaxed chatting was actually the building block of a series of encounters with some of the loveliest people I’ve met so far on my journey: Lisa, Marty and their 10-year-old twin girls Siena and Avocet (remember those two names – I guarantee you within a few years both of these girls are going to be something huge and important and visible), an Ohio family travelling around the world for a full year; Shirley and John, a delightful and well-travelled British couple who packed it in and moved to the tiny island of Lefkada, Greece a few years ago; and Charlotte and Erwan, a side-splittingly funny young couple from Paris who quit their jobs to head out on a one-year, around-the-world honeymoon. After a few days, I was sort-of on the mend. I swapped some Thai baht for Lao kip with a couple from Hawaii and hopped a tuk-tuk/bus/city bus across the border and into Laos (but not before paying the exorbitant Laos Visa fee of $42 USD – Canadians pay more than any other country in the world!)
Vientiane: The well-worn northward tourist trail along highway 13 from Nong Khai across the border into Vientiane, Laos and up to Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang more or less ensures that travellers who have met will cross paths at least once somewhere else along the line, like it or not. I re-connected with Shirley and John in Vientiane for a couple of evenings of fun before they headed south. They were about the only vibrant and entertaining thing in the painfully dull capital city. It’s westernized and organized and neat and clean and expensive; not exactly what one would hope one’s first Laos encounter to be. The gorgeous setting along the Mekong River is about its only saving grace. I hung out for a couple of days (this is where I took the Huey Hong weaving and dyeing course) and then hopped a local bus (shared with local people, dust, huge bags of fresh vegetables and even a scooter) up to Vang Vieng.
In Vang Vieng I stumbled across Charlotte and Erwan, much to my delight, and enjoyed a couple of dinners and cocktail hours with them before they headed off to the north. Vang Vieng is a dusty, unattractive one-horse town that just happens to be nestled way up in the mountains in stunningly gorgeous riverside surroundings, and happens to be in the midst of a major tourism boom. This is where hordes of youngsters (mostly Australian) come to experiment with a disturbingly vast assortment of hallucinogens (“happy” pizzas, mushroom shakes, opium whatever-you-want) and drink gallons of cheep Beer Lao while they float their way down the Nam Song River on tractor tire inner tubes. Along the route they are pulled into riverside bars (literally – the bar dudes toss you a life preserver and reel you in), where they refuel their highs and fling themselves off of scarily high trapezes, rope swings and slides into the river below. Not really my scene, but I did want to see the gorgeous mountain scenery along the route, so I opted for a sea kayak (and I admit I was too tempted by the giant water slide not to try it once). After a few days, which also included some mountain biking and cave exploration, I could no longer take the endless, 24/7 blaring of “Friends” re-runs that the restaurants and bars play on their televisions (I honestly have no idea why, but they all do it), and so hopped a VIP bus (no more chickens and scooters) with my new travel friend Bretchje (Dutch, tall, blonde, gorgeous) for the twisty, vomit-inducing (not us) 7-hour journey to Luang Prabang. Despite the difficulty of the journey, it was some of the most gorgeous scenery I’ve witnessed anywhere on my travels thus far. The “Lord of the Rings”- like green mountains and valleys were interspersed with tiny villages consisting of no more than a few bamboo huts and children playing in the dust while parents bathed themselves with buckets of cold water, or simply crouched by the roadside to watch us go by. Thus the best part of Vang Vieng was literally the road out of town.
The minute I stepped off the bus in Luang Prabang I knew I had found the bowl of porridge that was just right (you know the Godilocks story, right? Vientiane was the one that was too cold; Vang Vieng, the one that was too hot.) LP was vibrant and buzzing with holiday charm; touristy, yet at the same time magically managing to hold on to its identity and laid-back charm as an authentic Lao town. Plus it had an awesome night market, which I always love. Double-plus, I found Charlotte and Erwan again!
We also found Robert and Tracy, a Welsh/Chinese duo on the same path up from Vang Vieng whom Bretchje had met at her guesthouse. The six of us formed a motley crew that opted to share lots of time together in the days leading up to Christmas, including a rainy, muddy, cold day-trek to a stunning waterfall, where a few of us insisted on swimming, despite the weather.
Bonding with a group was a comforting, enriching and much-needed experience for me, especially at this time of year. To have a group of people who all knew my name, who I liked, and for a change who weren’t going anywhere for a few days, felt right and natural and light.
Canadian-owned JoMa bakery and cafe became the hub of our comings and goings. I’ve never seen an episode of Cheers, but I know it’s a place where everybody knows your name, and that’s just how this was. It’s cool to show up at a place and know that at least one person will be there with whom you can sit and chat over a cup of joe (and if your face happened to fall into a nanaimo bar or a slice of pumpkin pie with whipped cream while you were there, so be it). Sightseeing took a major backseat to relationship-building (and eating). Christmas is about family and friends, and this was the closest thing I had to that, on the other side of the world.
Christmas Eve was fun and festive, which is good, because Christmas Day felt a little wonky and sad to me (especially at dinner, with a plate of soggy vegetables and rice staring me in the face instead of turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes). In contrast, everyone else seemed to be more than fine with being away from home for the holidays.
The highlight of the day was rising before the sun to present alms to the monks. I waited patiently in the cold pre-dawn (cold being around 15 degrees Celcius) with my offering in hand. Just after 6 am, the daylight barely broken, the solemn procession of orange-robed monks materialized. They passed in silence as we knelt and sat (you must be lower than them), putting balls of sticky rice in their alms bowls while attempting to tactfully snap photos at the same time. It’s a bit like trick-or-treating, really, but without the doorbell. I even spotted some mini chocolate bars in one monk’s bowl (you can offer them literally anything, but it’s usually sticky rice). Robert treated us to several strong Lao coffees after, so my attempt to grab a catnap between alms and breakfast failed. Sweet Bretchje had decorated our room in red Christmas balls while I was out.
Breakfast consisted of more coffee and a yummy bagel and cream cheese (a true delicacy fit for Christmas morning, when you haven’t had one for months). Robert had chocolate cake. Tracey had pumpkin pie. Why not? It was Christmas.
Bretchje, Charlotte and I decided our Christmas gift to ourselves would be an afternoon massage and wet sauna at the Lao Red Cross, with the money going to support the Red Cross. Aside from some mild tension due to the ever-so-slightly roaming hands of my masseur, it was a relaxing afternoon. After dinner that night some of the group went “clubbing” – an hilarious term considering that every establishment in Luang Prabang must close at 11:30 pm by law – but I opted to go home with my thoughts instead. And so another Christmas came to an end, albeit a completely different Christmas from any I’d ever had before, or will again.
Inevitably over the next few days the new group of friends began to dissipate as everyone headed off to other parts of the world. Eventually there remained only Charlotte, Erwan and myself, which was fine, because I truly love them. We too eventually said our goodbyes, hoping to meet up again in New Zealand or at the very least in Montreal when they visit next August at the end of their world tour. I will miss them.
Like so many other times before, I found myself alone once again.
A quick flight later I am back in snoozeville Vientiane, where tomorrow I’ll hop a ridiculously early local bus south to Tha Khaek to do some trekking for a couple of days. Judging by the date on the calendar, it appears that this is how I will be ringing in the new year. Should be interesting.
*Travel Update* – Since the time of writing, I have arrived in Tha Khaek. If Vang Vieng was a one-horse town, then this is a flea on the wing of a fly on a strand of hair on the tail of the horse. There is NOTHING here (except, of course, an internet cafe). It is essentially just a base camp for the excellent area treks. All of the other tourists, perhaps wisely, did their trekking days ago and got out of here, heading for bigger cities in time to ring in the new year. I signed up for a two-day trek through the Phu Hin Bun NPA (National Protected Area), departing on the 31st… but if nobody else signs up then it’s cancelled, and then I don’t know what I’ll do for new years. Read by the campfire, I guess? Alone?
Perhaps this is what fate had in store for me all along: a reminder that things in life don’t always go as planned and that we have to be ready to improvise, hopefully with a smile…and that I am to spend the last night of the year in quiet reflection, looking back in peace upon the astonishing string of events that has occurred in a year of complete and total transformation for me.
The world is just awesome.
Happy New Year, everyone! (I can actually say that with meaning for once!) All the best to you and yours for 2009. Follow your dreams! DO IT NOW!!