Category Archives: Laos

Video: Zipline, Gibbon Experience, Laos

Not a photo today, but I would argue it’s way more awesome!  Last year while in Laos I went on The Gibbon Experience deep in the jungles of northern Laos, which basically involved hiking and ziplines and living in treehouses for a few days.  If you ever find yourself in that part of the world I highly recommend it!  You can read my full write-up of the Experience here, complete with the biggest accident I had on my rtw that somehow involved physics saving my life and my only experience with medical quackery.  Good times.

Welcome to Cambodia

I was running out of time, so last week when I sat down to count out the days I had left it soon became evident that I needed to catch a flight out of Vientiane if I was going to get to Cambodia for any length of time. As luck would have it there was one seat left the next week to Fly to Siem Reap, Cambodia, but the bad luck stated this flight would leave at 630am.  I almost audibly heard the guesthouse owner’s friend the taxi driver laugh with glee at the thought of what he was going to charge me for the 430am ride to the airport, as he really had a monopoly at that hour.

Anyway, here is the Lao Airlines plane, aka the first turbo prop plane I’ve taken in memory-

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Now I have to say, I am left without conclusive evidence as to the safety record of Lao Airlines from my experience.  They sort of mentioned at the beginning that there were exits somewhere and seatbelts were a good idea… I started idly wondering if the plane was as old as everything in Laos until I realized this was one of those “thinking too much” moments people keep warning me about, so I decided to nap.  My favorite napping position on a plane involves elegantly sleeping while leaning on the tray table until the stewardess tells me to put the tray table up as we’re landing, so I was busy napping happily until… my body received a jolt from landing wheels.  Which has never happened to me before on the five continents I’ve been to.  Who would have guessed international airline regulations are subject to cultural relativism?

But anyway, Cambodia.  As an introduction, I should tell you that I was a touch paranoid about visiting thanks to Mr. McGee, my favorite teacher in 8th grade science who joined the Peace Corps in Cambodia after teaching me.  His descriptions of Cambodia around the year 2000 were, I must say, pretty grim, and knowing the recent history of the country with the Khmer Rouge wasn’t helping my perceptions either.  I needn’t have worried though- due to the influx of tourism Siem Reap is the sort of place even my dad would call “nice.”  It’s more French than Laos was to the point where the riverside area could almost pass a town in that country, there is lots of development, and it’s the first place I’ve been where the average age of tourists was over 25.  Who would have guessed?

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The best night shot I have of “Pub Street,” which technically has a Khmer name  but no one knows it anymore.  Pub Street is actually filled with more restaurants than pubs.  It should also be noted that it is typically more expensive to eat here (ie Cambodia, not just Pub Street) than even Bangkok, which doesn’t make sense because Cambodia is overall cheaper.  The reason, it turns out, is twofold: first of all due to cheap prices it’s much too tempting to “upgrade” your lifestyle a bit, and second Cambodia de-facto uses the US dollar as its currency (its own, the riel, is used as change- 4,000 riel= $1USD).  Right now the USD is doing quite good against currencies like the Thai baht, so Cambodians are definitely benefiting.

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View from my guesthouse window which I took one afternoon when it suddenly got so dark and windy I excitedly began thinking it might rain.  I haven’t seen the stuff since an hour-long downpour on Ko Samui about six weeks ago and I’m starting to miss it- heck if it’s somewhat cloudy I feel it’s so dark I can hardly see- but it’s not scheduled to rain for another few months yet so sure enough it didn’t this time either.

It should be noted by the way that after two months of rain I’m beginning  to think the concept as far-fetched.  You mean water falls from the sky?  Shenanagins, next you’re going to tell me there are some places in the world where you can walk on water and drink it from the tap and not die!

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Speaking of water, I saw this little commotion at the market and fell in love with it- it’s the iceman!  Remember how a century ago in the USA you had a guy who’d come around with blocks of ice every day? (Ok, you don’t remember, but you’ve heard stories.) Apparently they still do that in Cambodia.  And he has got to be one of the most popular guys in town because it’s always a million degrees here.

So that is my introduction to Cambodia.  Now to get onto the main stuff and reason I came here, the magnificent Angkor Wat…

Summary of Laos

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When I first met Alex it was my first full day in Laos, and he kept telling me how he hat Lao (loves Laos) quite fervently.  I didn’t quite get what he meant at first but now I understand completely, as I fall into the same hat Lao category.  The combination of the people I met and a country unlike any I had been to before makes it an unforgettable place, to the point where I recommend it to people over Thailand!

In the coming years I’m sure Laos will become a much better known destination as it is now, to the point where I almost feel hesitant to mention it lest it become another Thailand.  I wish the Lao people well as the rest of the world begins to pour into their borders- I hope you see what you like and dislike about your neighbors, and adopt the good things without losing your kindness and hospitality.

Highlights:

- Laos is, as I mentioned, different.  While I was there I saw no Western chains, no four-wheeled vehicles carrying less than five people, no traffic lights outside the capital, and no airplanes save in the largest two cities.  It was utterly not the same as where I am from to nearly every imaginable degree, which was amazing!

- The people of Laos, who would do everything from invite me to a wedding to feed me for free to going out of their way to be kind in every single way possible, despite having so little.  Bless them all.

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- Alex, who I knew for about half my time in Laos and made that time incredibly special.  I spent a lot of the second half wishing he was around to have a grand adventure or never-ending conversation with.

- As close runners-up, the three older Brits I met traveling who were a hoot: Anne, Sue, and Frank (the latter two who were a couple, the first who was single).  Sue and Frank are pretty much what I hope to be when I reach my fifties- still traveling to exotic lands and thinking nothing of it!- whereas Anne’s perspective on life was truly memorable.  Who would have guessed that you could learn stuff from old(er) people?!

- Learning the language of Lao, both from Alex and from a few other sources later on.  It got to the point at the end where I could do basic transactions almost exclusively in Lao, and children trying to sell me stuff in the street would exclaim “you speak Lao?!” when I politely told them to buzz off in their language.  Which was a surefire way to make them not buzz off, but there we are.

-The scenery.  You will never tire of the beautiful mountains in Laos.

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- The cheapness factor, which made me feel like I was splurging when I spent $6 a night for a room.  This was in part due to the exchange rate- it was about 10,000 kip to the US dollar, meaning just $100 made you a millionaire.  And the biggest note they have is 50,000 kip, so you always looked like a high roller with the amount of currency one needed to walk around with!

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- The Gibbon Experience.  If you have any remote urge to fly through jungle canopies and live in treehouses all for the good cause of saving endangered animals, and find yourself in northern Laos, you should do it.

- Luang Nam Tha, for being off the tourist trail and for its Chinese influence.

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- The waterfall outside Luang Prabang!

- Tubing in Vang Vieng, zoning out to Friends, and the nightlife…

- The French food in Vientiane.  I am still not over that duck.

Lowlights:

- Hurting my foot on the Gibbon Experience in a zipline accident.  It still hurts and I begin limping after walking too much actually because I probably haven’t been resting as much as I should, but that is now top priority so hopefully it heals soon!

- The roads.  Things are improving but outside the main tourist strip the roads are terrible, so traveling even a hundred kilometers can take several hours.  Granted, I still think Romania has the worst roads I’ve ever encountered, but Laos is a close second!

- The “anti-materialist” crowd.  I don’t know where these people were in Thailand, but Laos has a disproportionately large backpacker crowd all too happy to tell you how anti-materialist they are and how the US is terrible and driving more people into poverty, or whatever.  These people inevitably have packs larger than mine and make me want to scream at them to observe the poverty on the sides of the roads and see how they like surviving on less than a dollar a day, but to no avail.

If that weren’t bad enough, this crowd did a huge number of cultural faux pas that pissed me off to no end.  For example, at the end of the Gibbon Experience while waiting for our ride in the middle of a village, a girl was happily snapping pictures of the villagers with her camera.  In villages in particular you never take pictures without asking permission first- beyond being rude some people don’t want you to for a myriad of reasons- but when we mentioned this to the girl she said “oh, I have a long zoom so they can’t tell I’m taking pictures of them.”

I was tempted to start taking pictures of her with my camera like she was in a zoo for my amusement, but my foot had been injured that morning and I couldn’t hobble to her.

- The midnight curfew.  Everything in Laos closes at 11:30 at the latest officially because there is a government curfew whereby everyone needs to be in their registered residence by midnight. (Communist countries tend to want to restrict their charges’ movements after all.) They usually don’t hassle tourists but will Lao people if they’re about, but the end result is it’s always a minor challenge to find a guesthouse that won’t have an 11:30 curfew and a bar that’s open past midnight if you want the party to keep going.  I confess I got locked out of my guesthouse once and needed to scale a fence, which wasn’t really much fun in a skirt.

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- Roosters.  Good God, they are my nemesis- no matter where you go in Laos, about an hour before sunrise the roosters start crowing loudly.  And there are a lot of them, as evidenced by all the baby chicks you see everywhere, and they never shut up.  So far as I can tell their morning conversation goes something on the lines of “Hey, I’m a rooster!” “Dude, you are?!  That is so awesome, I’m a rooster too!  Hey, did I tell you I banged that nice-looking chick last night?” “Man, that is sweet! HEY EVERYONE, GUESS WHAT ROY DID LAST NIGHT? IN CASE YOU MISSED IT, HE F-“

Clearly it was time for me to leave Laos if I was making up what the roosters were saying at 5am.  And exacting my revenge by eating copious amounts of delicious, delicious chicken.

Anyway, that was Laos.  You should go.  Cheers!

Kayaking to Vientiane

By bus it’s about four hours from Vang Vieng to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, but a more interesting option exists.  It turns out you can cut that driving time in half in exchange for about three hours of kayaking, so guess what I did my last day in Laos?

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The kayaks were two person ones meaning I was paired with Andrea, a Canadian law student studying in Singapore.  We were immediately dubbed the “girl boat” as the rest of the group were strapping young European lads eager to prove their prowess on the water, but despite this Andrea and I led the pack for most of the paddling.

And then, because we needed to have a little excitement, we came to the rapids-

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Here’s a view of the second half of the rapids, so you all can be appropriately impressed-

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Now I’ve done whitewater kayaking in New Zealand and had a dry bag for all the things I wasn’t willing to leave in my bag as it was transported (ie camera, money, passport), but perhaps because of the nature of those items I really wasn’t willing to test the durability of said dry bag.  So we crossed our fingers and set off, trying to follow the same path as the guide a few kayak lengths before us.

Then Andrea noticed something in the whitewater. “Oh my God, the guide flipped!”

It took me a second to realize he had in the whitewater, but there was no mistake. “Oh, shit!” [At this point the author would like to say that while she prefers to keep things family friendly, if you're not allowed to curse when approaching rapids on a jungle river in Laos and your guide didn't make it there's really no other time you're able to.]

So anyway, we paddled like mad, assuming we would inevitably befall the same fate and taking on buckets of water.  But then incredibly enough… we didn’t.  We made it to the calm part of the water hardly believing our fortune, still patting ourselves on the back to watch the subsequent entertainment of everyone else coming over the rapids.  Verdict: all the guy boats flipped.  Feelings of awesomeness from the girl boat ensued.

Anyway, the kayaking was fun but after that and a few hours in the back of a crowded pickup I was dying for a bit of rest by the time we got to Vientiane.  But luckily there was something I had been looking forward to for weeks there- as  the capital of a former French colony, it turns out Vientiane has lots of wonderful French restaurants!

Now let me tell you this about travel in Asia: while you can always find some sort of Western fare on the tourist trail, it is inevitably a burger or pizza or something equally uninspired.  Needless to say, after two months I was a bit starved for some more interesting bits of the cuisine I was used to, and spent about fifteen minutes surveying the menu with glee.  Here’s what I finally chose though, a duck l’orange that was absolutely magnificent!

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See that glass on the right, by the way?  My first glass of wine in two months, as wine is not exactly common in Asia (it’s usually only imported for tourists but is naturally expensive).   Not a big issue as the beer in this part of the world well makes up for it, but the second I had tasted this glass I had no idea how I had held on for so long!picture-0052The appetizers looked appealing but I knew I needed to save room for dessert instead, and I was right.  I swear I almost cried when I got this pastry, as firstly I haven’t done much desert lately and secondly chocolate isn’t common at all around here outside of bar form.

Total cost of the debauchery?  Just under US$15.  Man, am I in for sticker shock once I hit Europe.

In Which Yvette Finally Gets a Haircut

And to save you the suspense, here was the picture snapped just after I got it done-

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Even something like getting a haircut in Laos is an interesting affair- after taking the recommendation of a Lao woman on the street I headed to a tiny little salon.  I decided to splurge 40,000 kip ($1.50) for haircut and shampoo, which turned out to be the first cold water shampoo I’ve ever had in a hair salon (it was also after the haircutting part, which I found curious).  Combined with an intense massage that apparently shampooing includes in Laos- partway through the line “Smithers, massage my brain!” came into my head due to The Simpsons bar so I had to concentrate hard on not laughing, which only happened when the lady started chopping at my neck with her hands.  And then put a towel over my face and massaged my eyeballs and eyebrows.  What?

Anyway, then I sat down in the barber chair again as it turns out a haircut in Laos also involves a bit of styling.  Now as a disclaimer to those who don’t know me in the real world, I tend to not spend a lot of time obsessing over my appearence.  As such, I tend to allow hairstylists to do whatever they want on the grounds that they have more experience than me and it will always grow back, and have yet to be disappointed.  Particularly this time- four women ranging from a twelve year old to a grandmother decided to give their input on what to do and only the twelve year old knew any English, so they finally settled on something and gestured at a few pictures in the salon to make sure I approved.  More fussing and arguments and a neat trick with two pins later, the women finished with a few “ah, beautiful beautiful!” comments and smiles.

And I took one look in the mirror and knew my hair wouldn’t look this good for another few months, so tonight was definitely a night to go out.  I grabbed Anne and off we went-

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Here’s another travel tip by the way: you might only have one dress, but all that means is it should be a damn good dress.  Between hair and dress I suddenly remembered why I don’t always go through the effort for appearence- guys turned their heads to the point of comic hilarity, and after a point it’s nice to have a touch of anonymity!

I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the Audrey Hepburn comparisons though.  So I will save the hairpins for another night.

Gone Tubing

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Vang Vieng is a place that makes as much money as it does primarily, I think, due to its location.  By the time you get here from anywhere you are a bit travel weary, thinking how nice it would be to curl up with some pizza and beer while watching TV, so the town has accommodated.  So much, in fact, that you cannot walk down the main street without hearing a band singing “so no one told you it was gonna be this way…” from one of the bars-

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There are a few dozen bars in Vang Vien, and the number one activity in them is playing an endless stream of Friends episodes.  I’m not sure why this is as my international friends tell me Friends was never as popular abroad as it was in the US, but I haven’t really watched it since high school so I confess a few hours have gone into this endeavour.  “Hey, this is the one where Joey and Rachel finally kiss!” “No we should stay for this one, it’s the one where Monica and Chandler go on their honeymoon…”

It never fully dawned on me how soap opera-y Friends was until I got to Laos.  Welcome to the twenty-first century!

(Oh, and for those who don’t like Friends some of the bars show Family Guy as a distant second, and The Simpsons is the third runner up.  Except they only show the new ones, so I don’t watch.)

It should be noted that Vang Vien is also ubiquitous because of all the “happy” menus you can ask for in addition to the regular meals, for all the backpackers eager to get any type of drug in their shake or on their pizza.  I don’t though because a. it’s not my style, and b. the local police have realized lately how profitable this is so lots of undercover cops are around ready to catch tourists and charge a $500 “fine,” which beats the part where the law in Laos says they’re supposed to throw you in prison and/or excecute you.  Somehow I think such an incident would put a damper on my trip.

When the TV shows get boring the other popular thing to do around here is go tubing on the river in an old tractor tube.  You go past a bunch of bars which are all too eager to pull you in for a drink, and give you a chance to try their swing-

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There is a video of this too actually, but the video will need to wait until the faster Internet connection in Bangkok… Until then I must say, while I don’t have much of a future in being a trapeze artist you have to trust me when I say it’s really fun.  I liked it a lot more than the zipline or the water slide at the other places we stopped at actually.

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A picture snapped on the river while taking a tubing break.  I like this one because all I could think of was how moms in the US always wait at the school bus stops to ferry their kids home in cars, and this woman was ferrying her kids via boat (except there was no school bus stop in Laos, obviously).

There are more tubing pictures as well, but I wasn’t really using my camera as it was mainly stored snug in someone else’s dry bag.  But when I get them, I will post them.  Until then, I will mention a bit about my guest house, which has a great view-

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I must say, I really like this place because I scored my own little bungalow for $6.  And the company can’t be beat- the first morning I went to breakfast I saw Anne, the friend I’d made my first day in Laos but hadn’t seen since, as it turned out she had the bungalow next to me.  Squealing and hugging ensued with everyone looking on understandingly, as you can’t go more than a few hours without running into someone you’d met before in Laos.  There aren’t that many tourist destinations after all, so everyone tends to go on the same path.

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For fun, a giant moth a guy found at the guesthouse, with a girl’s hand for scale.  I should mention by the way, if you’re scared of giant bugs and spiders don’t come to Laos.  Skipping all of South East Asia would probably be a good idea actually.  Your life would be one constant stream of freaking out a few times a day.

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And as a final note of advice, if you come to Laos you should always carry an emergency reserve of another, better currency with you. (The highest preference is for US dollars but Thai baht are also gladly accepted, Euros not as much.) Why?  Because this country has only a few ATMs and you can only withdrawl a max of 700,000 Lao kip (~US$70) a day assuming the ATM is working.  As of yesterday, suprise!, the ATM in Vang Vieng has had its international line down.  First day was fairly ok until they ran out of money (no international line, no credit cards!), and today they have extra security at the bank to guard the new cash infusion sent from the capital.  But lots of tourists are nonetheless stranded until the ATM comes online again.

I am sure you are all happy to know that I am not an idiot and do not travel ill-equipped to nations which didn’t even have a single ATM ten years ago- my main worry right now actually is to not have too much cash when I leave, as you can’t convert kip to any other currency!  This more to remind others on the road that even if Vang Vieng has everything Western from milkshakes to sitcoms, you are still a long way from home.

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is one of those places I would send my parents to if they ever decided to go to South East Asia.  The town is unquestionably nice- an odd fusion of French colonialist and Lao architecture wedged between two rivers, filled with so many lovely temples you keep running into them.  The whole town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site actually…asia-004

A view not far from my guesthouse on the road going into town, about a ten minute walk.  My guesthouse is entertaining because the owner is in one of those people determined to fatten me up.  He keeps pointing at the bowl of free bananas saying “banana? you eat banana? you very small, eat banana!” and won’t let me out of sight until I start eating one.  Then he gave me free fried rice for dinner tonight.  I’m not going to guarantee that his grand scheme will work, but I’m not saying no to the free food either.

But what is the coolest thing about Luang Prabang?  Actually, it’s a series of waterfalls-

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About 32km outside town there is a series of cascading waterfalls called Kuang Si that are a prime tourist attraction- it is impossible to walk down the street without having a tuk-tuk driver saying “waterfall?” in a hopeful voice.  And for good reason- it gets decently hot in the middle of the day in Laos, and some of the waterfall pools are great for swimming!

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And jumping, and rope-swinging naturally.  Actually, this place is quite unique and I’ve never been anyplace quite like it.

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The tallest waterfall, under which you are not allowed to swim.  However, a Canadian scallywag climbed to the top of the waterfall to provide some scale to the picture.

(Alex left today actually, realizing he needed to hightail it to Bangkok if he is to make his flight by the end of the week.  He will be sorely missed!)

asia-009And because we are in the middle of the dry season, we ended up climbing up past the “danger, do not enter” signs to check out some of the further up waterfall pools, which involves climbing up part of the cascading waterfall itself.  Surprisingly not that difficult actually, as there is so much limestone deposited your feet get a great grip, plus we got some of the falls all to ourselves.

And it feels odd to write about a town where the pictures mainly focus on something next to the town, but the Internet cafe is closing so further pictures will have to wait.  Cheers!

Luang Nam Tha

At 720am three mornings ago Alex knocked on the door to inform me that he’d just learned the bus to Luang Nam Tha was leaving in ten minutes, and would I like to go? A few frantic moments later we were on the bus, ready to head to the north of Laos.   I finally leaned back in my seat to relax a little, hardly noticing a woman who  had  placed a sack in the aisle next to me after getting on, until I heard Alex say “hey, there’s a  chicken in that sack!”

I leaned over to check, and sure enough the old rice sack had several breathing holes ripped into it.  But there were definitely two chickens in there based on the squawking, which  occurred every few minutes whenever the grumpy chickens decided to fight each other.   The squawking and shaking from the rice sack would abate only when the lady who brought them on kicked the sack, after which she would send  a glance towards my giggling that  implied  that of course it was normal  to discipline your misbehaving chickens on a bus, as any idiot  would know.

By the way, did I mention this was the V.I.P. bus?

Anyway, when I wasn’t  laughing at the chickens I was busy napping or admiring the scenery, which really is quite nice-

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Northern Laos has mountains that feel just right to me, interestingly enough.  The reason for this is said mountains are just about the same height as those you find in Pennsylvania where I grew up, so while I obviously find myself in awe of steeper ranges these mountains are ones whose height I am quite comfortable with.  Somehow this matters more than you’d think! I spent the few hours of the journey admiring the scenery, wondering just what it would be like to be born into one of the little roadside villages, assuming most of the world is like your village and places with a few thousand people are cities.

And after a few hours of admiring mountains we pulled into Luang Nam Tha, a town in Laos so surrounded by hills that it is 15km as the crow flies to China but 60km by road.  Beyond the Chinese characters adorned to many signs, this mainly effects the town by having the market filled with exclusively Chinese crap.  Not to complain too loudly- I picked up a pocket shortwave radio for $3.50!- it’s just I didn’t know there were quite so many ripoff products made in the world.

We spent our two days in Luang Nam Tha exploring on rented bicycles- I have been cautious about my foot and biking seemed a good low-contact activity, and Alex is a bicycle nut.  As this coincided with the weekend it was great fun- plus the scenery was gorgeous!

asia-001 It was impossible to pedal a few minutes without running into an elementary school gang wandering around in an attempt to make the most of their free days.  You would return the greetings of “Sabaai-dii!” the kids all shout, distribute a few high fives, and press on amidst the rice fields.

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A Buddhist stupa on top of one of the hills around Luang Nam Tha, recommended to us by the locals.  There was absolutely no one around except for us.  In ten years I’m certain it will be crawling with tourists, but for now it was all ours which was really neat.

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Alex doing his best naga impersonation.  Naga is a Hindu god who rescued Buddha from a terrible storm (Hinduism is to Buddhism as Judaism is to Christianity, so far as continuity goes) and thus every set of stairs leading to a Buddhist temple is flanked with nagas.

The best thing about Luang Nam Tha, though, occurred on our first night, when we had wandered towards a commotion near the night market where we saw the biggest party I’d seen in a long time, complete with announcer on the stage.  We tried guessing with a pair of Israelis just what was going on until one of us figured out it was a wedding reception- and no sooner had we figured this out a kind Lao man came over and invited us to join their table!  Instantly a spoon and pair of chopsticks was cleaned for each of us to try the food, while another man set to making sure our glasses were always filled to the brim with BeerLao-

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If that weren’t enough, said guy also started pouring us shots of lao lao, which is the traditional rice whiskey around here.  It burns.  A lot.  The Lao gent laughed at my reaction.

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And because this was a wedding, sooner instead of later I was invited to dance!  Luckily it turns out that Lao dancing is so simple you can figure it out in two minutes without paying attention.  In short, you and your partner walk slowly around in a circle with everyone else, never touching but occasionally switching sides, walking rhythmically but primarily focusing on moving your hands in odd twisted positions.  This has the advantage that for all I know I could have been dancing with the local creep but there was never a chance for such a thing to be discovered, but disadvantageous in that it has to be the most innocuous form of dancing I have ever participated in.

But wow, that wedding was cool.  Between the food and the constant shouts of “nuk chuck!” (“bottoms up!”) and settling on an odd form of communication by a few phrases and hand signals, it was amazing.  I would not believe the reality of my life if I were not the one living it.

The Gibbon Experience

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Day 1

When I first heard about the Gibbon Experience through the traveler grapevine, deep in the Bokeo Nature Reserve of Laos, I knew I wanted to go.  Living in a treehouse for a few days going through the jungle on a zipline?  Doesn’t it sound like something any five year old dreamed of doing?  It was a bit pricey for Laos as a lot of the money goes toward conservation efforts in the nature reserve, but I went.  It was worth it.

One thing about the Gibbon Experience is getting there is in itself a self-selecting process- getting there consists of a three hour drive crammed in the back of a pickup truck with ten other people for three hours, half of it over dirt road.  Then you end up at a little village that looks like this-

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and then the real trek begins.  You need to hike an hour up into the Laotian jungle to reach the beginning of the zipline world, where you are given a harness that you subsequently wear nearly nonstop over the next few days as it is impossible to even get into your accommodation without a zipline.  If you want an idea of the scale we were living on, here is the view of the treehouse I lived in from below-

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I will admit that treehouse life in the middle of the jungle is not nessecarily the most idyllic thing you will ever do- at night there are giant spiders that show up on the roof that would freak the hell out of most girls I know, and some rats like to scurry about after everyone goes to sleep to see if anything was left out to chew on. (If you put your bags inside your mosquito netted area then it’s alright.  Shoes too, or they’ll be chewed on!) And as the food was just the traditional kind eaten by the Lao in this part of the world it really wasn’t something to write home about- we only got a little meat the first night, and by the second day when we had eaten our nth cabbage and rice dish the dinner conversation was dominated by what kind of Western food we would eat upon returning into town.

This didn’t go over so well with some people understandably, but most of us understood we were in the middle of the jungle and adjusted accordingly.  I never even seriously minded frankly- I mean, just look at this view!

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Plus I’ve got to say, ziplining is fun.  Really, really fun.  I wish I could post the video I took on a 300m long zipline flying over a valley, but the Internet in Laos is too slow so that video will have to wait.

Day 2

I suppose at some point I should mention that I never actually saw gibbons- this part of the reserve is the home to the black gibbon, of which there are only a few thousand left in the world, and the reserve is so huge you can’t guarantee seeing one.  But hearing them is another matter- in the mornings if they’re nearby you can hear the gibbons singing to each other in the trees, and we even heard them swinging in the trees near us during the night.  Very haunting and beautiful.

I mention this because after waking up at 630 for an unsuccessful short hike to see if we could find the gibbons, a few of us decided to penetrate deeper into the nature reserve to an area known for its waterfall, a two hour hike away.  The waterfall itself was really nothing unique to write home about but the ziplines around it were, as they were incredible!  The hike was quite nice too, though the uphills wore me out quite quickly.

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A Lao bridge to traverse a creek that I thought was particularly nifty with two girls who hiked with us, Amanda and Angela.  Most of the time of course there’s no bridge, you just walk across the rocks very carefully or even in the creek bed itself.  I don’t want to think of what this hike must be like in the rainy season!

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Most of the time, though, the jungle surrounded us looking impenetrable like it does here.  The guy on the right was our guide for the trek, who confounded us all by doing the whole thing in flip-flops and thinking nothing of it, and the guy on the left is Alex from Vancouver, Canada who was the best friend I made on the Experience.  We spent a lot of time arguing which one of us was the bigger geek and things like that (I won, of course) and Alex, who knows more of the Lao language than any Westerner I know, spent some time teaching me a few phrases.  It’s actually a lot easier to learn than Thai for some reason, albeit I never get over how words like “cop chai lai lai do” (the formal version of “thank you very much”) sound like some sort of odd musical scale to my ears.

The second day was also interesting because we indulged in a bit of night ziplining- something you’re officially not supposed to do due to potential dangers, but in practice everyone ends up doing anyway (someone with a headlamp leads the way to light the platform for the later person).  And let me tell you, night ziplining is one of the most magical things I have ever done.  You are flying through the air with the mountains surrounding you, awed by the stars above that shine brighter in the jungle than nearly anywhere else on Earth.  It’s an unforgettable experience.

Day 3

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The following is written in great detail more for my memory than anything else.  That and I figure its subject material makes for more interesting reading than the average occurrence…

Not to sound too dramatic, but this is the day physics saved my life.

There were a few hours left this morning before breakfast at Treehouse 1 and the subsequent hike down to the village where the truck would be waiting, and most people spent this time doing a final circuit of the zipline network.  About halfway through, however, on a 250m zipline whose end I couldn’t see, I spent a bit longer than usual adjusting my harness before pushing off.

Once I was out of the trees it was obvious that something was terribly wrong- an Australian girl had been chatting on the platform not paying attention to what she was doing, and had just taken off on the zipline marked with red tape instead of green.  My zipline.  There was no way about it, we were going to hit and I was going at 35mph (60 kph).

The few seconds that followed probably taught me more about my thought process than anything else I have done in my life- I knew the harness system was good enough that a hit wasn’t going to make us fall, but it was going to hurt and my job was to minimize that.  Breaking wasn’t an option as I was still going downwards at full speed and the breaks weren’t designed for that and I was going too fast to grip the cable, though I noticed the Australian girl succeeded in doing so (she wasn’t on the right line so the slope obviously didn’t make her go as fast) and she was bigger than me.  So then physics-mode took over in my mind- I spent the last semester teaching freshmen about elastic versus inelastic collisions, and my mind immediately focused on the problem of how to best smash into someone while transfering most of my energy to her and leaving me the most intact at the end. (Some people asked me later if the latter was also a physics thing but my answer was no, when it’s you or someone else on a zipline it’s a survival thing!) I’ve also fallen enough in skiing to know above all you protect your head, so I decided to hit feet first.  Holding them as strong as possible, lest my ankle twist and break.

Once that was settled I spent a moment vaguely wondering what it would feel like to break a bone (as this is something I have never done) and promising myself I would go home early if it came down to that, and in the first moment of consideration for the other girl aimed my feet for her thighs.  And I thought this all over in the course of about seven seconds.

We hit- my aim wasn’t perfect but the brunt of the force was taken by my right foot, a second by an area just below my left knee which was only a scrape.  It was soon obvious that the right foot really hurt but I was fairly certain it wasn’t broken or sprained as this wasn’t a new kind of pain, just an intense version of ones I’ve experienced before.  While this was registering Australia girl was apologizing profusely for her mistake and forcing me to grab her harness- she hadn’t really been hurt at all- but I wasn’t saying anything until she said “oh my God, are you in shock?!” which made me vaguely think oh yeah, maybe I should say something.  I muttered something about my foot that was borderline unintelligible as she pulled us both in to the platform, where a few others were waiting who had seen the whole thing and a few people debated if I had broken my ankle.  The consensus amongst the kids who had done first aid was no, just a bad hit, and I agreed.  Then it became obvious that we needed to get to Treehouse 1 as a platform fifty feet above the ground is not the best place for a bunch of people to be, so I hopped on my good foot to the correct zipline across and let a guide strap me in.  Let me tell you, even if you’ve just had a midair collision ziplining is still fun.

At the other side, Alex caught me.  He then proceeded to be my savior by putting me on his back and carrying me down the ten minute walk to Treehouse 1 while another Canadian carried my backpack, thus solving the age-old question of what sort of person you hope will be after you on a trail when you hurt your ankle and need help. (To be fair my first choice would be a doctor, but second off I want a Canadian!) Because without Alex I am not sure what would have happened.

By the time we got to Treehouse 1 word had spread, so I got a good spot to elevate my right foot and wait for breakfast and accept various offers from people’s first aid kits.  A crazy hippie girl offered to take the “bad energy” away from my foot and I agreed on the grounds that I had nothing better to do (ice would have been best but that’s a bit short in the Laotian jungle), and she proceeded to do some odd movements over my leg and was satisfied to later learn the pain had dissipated, though I suspect the aspirin offered to me some Flemish women was what really did the trick.

After a little bit I was feeling better, and it was time to head down the mountain to the village.  By this point I could hobble on my foot but needed assistance only on the steeper parts, so I started the hike with a stick in my left hand and Alex’s grip on my right as needed.  And I made it, in decent time too, which I am proud about.  Next time someone calls me a wimp, I plan to say “oh yeah? well I trekked an hour down a steep hill in a jungle in Laos with a gimp foot!

And that was the Gibbon Experience.  Believe it or not I recommend it- what happened to me pretty much qualified in the “freak accident” category of things as the guides said it didn’t really happen, and it is unlike something you will do anywhere else.  You know, next time you’re in the middle of the jungle in Laos.

Holy Laos!

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This is Laos. (Which is, by the way, pronounced as “Lao” by the local people and the “s” is just some transcription error during colonialism.) You can tell it is Laos, as opposed to Thailand, because it is on the western side of the Mekong River.  If it were on the eastern side, ie the side I took this sunrise picture on, it would be Thailand.  You still even get full Thai cell phone reception in Houang Xai, Laos, ie the town across the border. (Hear that, mom and dad?)

Getting to Laos consists of jumping into a little ferryboat (the closest permanent bridge across the Mekong is a few hundred miles down it, in the Laotian capital) and then going to one of the more crowded borderposts you’ve ever seen.  It shouldn’t be, but all the people who cross here are backpackers requiring visa-on-arrival, and the visas need six stamps, and one guy does them, and he takes… very… slowly.  Clearly, the end of the world would happen if the Laos border guard misplaced one stamp slightly, so we all wait in a huddled mass until you’re lucky enough to see your passport being held up by immigration!

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This is my room for the night here in Houang Xai, while I wait for my awesome treehouse zipline adventure to begin tomorrow morning.  I am sharing it with a schoolteacher from Brighton named Ann who I’ve been wandering around with, and it cost the equivalent of US$6.  You can use dollars here, by the way, along with Thai baht or even the Lao kip in a pinch, but it’s 10,000 kip to a dollar so it’s not the preferred currency. Laos has got to be the only place where the Thai baht is considered stable!

Town itself, by the way, is a one-street affair with guesthouses, cafes, and a school at the end of the road filled with red kercief-wearing children which confused me until I remembered Laos is still communist. (But in the way China is communist, I’m told.) Not like it shows in anything else though- this side of the river at least is pretty similar to the other side, albeit not as touristy and a little more like what you imagine South East Asia to feel like.

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This is the view from my room, towards the Thai border post.  That’s one of the little ferryboats in the middle of the river; the line of trucks are waiting for a barge to take them across the Mekong.

And this is where this post ends, as the Internet here is very slow so the pictures take an age to upload.  Cheers!