What To Do When in Asia

Although we can divide our trip thus far into roughly four parts (Europe, South Asia, South East Asia, and East Asia), we’ve spent the vast majority of our time in Asia. We’ve had the time of our lives and I think everyone should visit Asia (if not travel it extensively). It truly has something to offer everyone, so I’ve made the following guide and tribute to the great continent.


India: just show up and something exciting WILL happen


Maldives: go sailing and snorkeling on remote atolls


Nepal: go trekking


Thailand: explore the entire country


Laos: travel and live on the Mekong


Cambodia: yes its cliche, but you HAVE to explore Angkor


Malaysia: take in the diverse cultures and food


Brunei: meet characters at the Pusat Belia (not pictured)


Singapore: visit the Botanical Gardens


Indonesia: DIVE!!!


Vietnam: eat!


China: meet the friendliest people on earth


Korea: go to a baseball game


Japan: once again, EAT! (especially the seafood :) )

Border Crossing



164_6445-4.JPGToday was a typical border crossing day. We were lied to by people touting transport on both sides of the border, had to pay off corrupt border officials, and, of course, it was slow. Not that we could’ve done anything about it, since it was a remote and infrequently used border. On the bright side, we met three Brit guys, an American couple, and an eccentric Belgian who were all heading to Ban Lung. So we actually arrived in Ban Lung tonight, rather than having to wait until tomorrow.

Factoid of the day: Corruption is so rampant in Cambodia that official positions are seen as an investment which is why police bid for their jobs. Despite already having out visas, we still had to pay the border guards to stamp us into Cambodia. No money, no entry. They said no to my request for a receipt too. Then in Stung Treng, where we switched to a van headed to Ban Lung, our driver had to pay three people to get out of the parking lot- a police officer, the guy who watched over the building complex (in a mafia protection sort of way), and some peon who was the lookout for the other two.

Goodbye Lao


164_6445-4.JPGI’d have to say that our nearly one-month in Lao has been good. Its been continually surprising, enlightening, and enjoyable. Although I had a general idea of how I thought Lao would be, I have been consistently surprised. Immediately, its smallness, ruralness, and overall lack of development surprised me. And I knew the north was mountainous, but not to the degree that it was. Steep cliffs and deep valleys created a beautiful vertical mountainscape. Sometimes it was nice as it was incredibly scenic, but sometimes it was awful as we rode on the curviest roads imaginable and plenty of our bus mates puked. Lao look different from north to south, not to mention the dozens of other ethnic groups present (notably the Hmong). Most of the people we encountered were friendly, always offering a hello or cigarette. And I was also pleasantly surprised by the diversity of things to see and do; from the scenic north, to the wats, to the war history, to outdoor activities, to the ruins, Lao has something for all. But the past month has also been personally enlightening. The more places we travel, the easier it is to isolate the variables we like/dislike about a place. Lao has confirmed some of my travel preferences. I’ve learned that I really enjoy being in undeveloped places because they’re so different and unfamiliar. I like doing things that you can’t do in the developed world, like explore ruins without guardrails and roped-off areas. I like riding on top of buses. And there’s no better way to learn about the third world than to experience it. I like destinations with adventurous outdoor activities for the obvious reasons that I like to have fun. I like adrenaline rushes and to go a bit beyond my comfort zone physically. I like jumping off things into water, I enjoyed going into the cave in Vang Vieng because it was scary, and I enjoy difficult hikes/treks. Being in a totally foreign culture is exciting for me too. I find something appealing about being way out of my comfort zone culturally, perhaps because that’s when I feel I learn the most. Lao has also confirmed in my mind that I don’t really like to rest and relax too much. The exception, of course, is at the beach, but even there, the ocean is a continuous invitation to activity. Unlike Joylani, I’ve learned I’m pretty indifferent to what I eat or where I sleep. I enjoy a good meal or a nice room, but its not that important to me. But if a place doesn’t have much to do or any interesting history, chances are I won’t like it. So like any place, Lao was a mixed bag. I enjoyed that it was really different, scenic and fun, but it was slow and mellow to the point of boring more than a few times. But overall it was good. Its been the first country in a while that, overall, Joylani and I both liked a lot, albeit for different reasons. I’ve learned a lot, about Lao, about Joylani, and about myself. While there’s probably not enough here to draw us back anytime soon, it was a good month in Lao.

Lao Development


164_6445-4.JPGThe title of this post is a bit of an oxymoron, as Lao is the poorest and least developed place that we’ve visited yet. Infrastructure is lacking, consumer services are noticeably absent, amenities are basic, and NGOs are omnipresent. I can’t say exactly why Lao is the way it is, but learning its history sheds some light on the subject. In the 19th century, Thailand (then known as Siam) pawned Lao off to the French in a successful effort to retain its independence and autonomy. Lao is like other French colonies I’ve visited, which is to say that the French did not do too much to develop the place. (Soapbox moment: The French were some of the worst imperialists, up there with the Belgians. Unlike the Brits and Americans, they did absolutely nothing for their territories, except exploit their resources solely for French benefit. And when the rest of the world gave up their colonies following WWII and France had just been liberated from foreign occupation, they hypocritically took back their colonies! Unfortunately, France still has colonies today that it neither develops nor grants provincial status.) The Japanese took control during WWII. Not surprisingly, after the US had finished off the Japanese in 1945, the newly-freed French enslaved Lao once again. The Lao nationalist movement finally did win independence for Lao is 1953. The next twenty years were mostly a violent civil war, as Lao was part of the proxy war that the Soviets/Chinese/Vietnamese and US fought for control of SEA. By 1975, the US had bombed Lao into oblivion and the communists (Pathet Lao) had taken control of the nation. Under Communist policies, Lao stagnated in its destruction and fell farther and farther behind the rest of the world. This went on for nearly 20 years until the early 1990s, which is when I think the Lao government saw the writing on the wall; the Soviet bloc had failed and crumbled, while Lao’s communist neighbors China and Vietnam were liberalizing. Lao first opened its borders fifteen years ago, which was the beginning of the tourism industry in Lao. Ten years ago, it first allowed travelers to visit anywhere in the country. This was a huge step, as tourism has become a relatively large industry in an agrarian and industryless land. And five years ago, the government began to allow foreign investment in Vientiane, which hopefully will allow the country to really industrialize and develop. Although still chronically underdeveloped, everyone we’ve spoken too about the matter has indicated that Lao is changing incredibly fast. But like I said, despite the rate of change, Lao is still pretty undeveloped. Aside from a handful of major cities, the only paved roads are two-lane highways. These highways are the single paved roads running through most towns and most roads throughout the country are rock/dirt/unpaved. Many of the highways have only been paved in the past several years. Not sure if the roadbuilding is a cause of this or an effect, but supposedly there were barely any motorcycles or scooters around two or three years ago; today, these are by far the most common vehicles. Oh, and by major cities, I mean Vientiane (pop 200,000) and several other cities with populations between 50,000 and 75,000. With a population of just under 6 million, these figures show just how rural Lao is. We’ve seen a lot of villages and most aren’t much more than a bunch of bamboo huts stilted on 4x4s on a couple acres of cleared land. Some are just huts strung alongside the road or a few huts clustered together. It seems like anywhere there’s 3 or more huts, it’s a village with a name. Most of the structures in Lao are wood and bamboo, although the larger cities (and more so in the south) have more concrete structures. One of the oddest things is seeing the prioritization of satellite dishes over other needs. Despite needing to be replaced about once per year, everyone at least has a basic bamboo shelter. The next expenditure it seems most people take is to get a satellite dish. People do this before they build a permanent home out of wood or concrete, as we’ve seen plenty of huts with sat dishes and a TV inside. It seems even more ludicrous to me that people would get sat dishes before running water or hot water. But we’ve also seen people bathing in somewhat dirty roadside water channels and under water pumped from wells, while their hut has a sat dish. And people worry about America’s youth being couch potatoes. In addition to the lack of infrastructure, Lao industry and commerce is extremely young and small. Of course, there’s all the nationalized industries run by the government, but actual commerce is barely existent. Ever seen a Visa commercial that closes with, “Visa. Its everywhere you want to be”? Well, apparently that does not include Lao. There was one ATM in Luang Prabang and one ATM in Vang Vieng and I saw about a dozen in Vientiane- three in Vientiane accepted international VISA cards. So barely anyone uses ATMs (except foreign tourists), credit cards, or debit cards (or even checks). It’s the first place we’ve been where its so hard to get cash- good thing we brought a few travelers checks and have some baht to exchange. Lao also has no coins and the USD equivalents of its bills are between five cents and five dollars, so everyone carries ridiculously massive wads of cash. Transportation in the country is slow and service is infrequent. Shopping for consumer goods like clothes is non-existent and most people wear worn, or old, or donated clothes like in much of the rest of Asia. Consumer goods are rather scarce, although the two growing industries seem to be telecom and scooters, as lots of people are getting cell phones, internet, and bikes/scooters. And besides Beer Lao, the only advertising I’ve seen for anything in the entire country is for autos or from one of the two telecom providers. Yet despite the growing number of people that own scooters or cell phones (and even the few that drive new Toyotas), most Lao are poor. Most live in villages, work the land, ride bicycles, and if the need ever arises take longer journeys in an overcrowded truck. And while the government museums made much of the ‘American imperialists,’ it’s the governments communist policies that have held the country back. How else can one explain why the nicest buildings in the country are Party ones, dedicated to military heroism, revolutionary struggle, or our dear leader, while the country starves? The government has isolated its population and economy from any development whatsoever. And now, it must turn to Thailand, Vietnam, and China to develop its infrastructure and who will make a lot of money doing it. Its whoring its natural resources, like the Mekong, in its aspiration to become the “battery” of SEA. I’ll get back to writing about the poverty of the people, but its sad and concerning as all the development projects I’ve read about don’t seem like very good ideas; most of them seem good for other countries but at Lao’s expense. But that’s the history of Lao right? Thai, French, Japanese, French again, and Communist rule has been good for anyone except the Lao people. Today NGO offices can be found all over the country and attest to the problems Lao faces. Lao doesn’t appear to be as poor as South Asia, but there’s a few key differences. One, South Asia has a lot more people, so its problems will be more visible. Two, the population and its poverty are overwhelmingly rural, so we don’t see it as much. And the rural places we have visited have benefited greatly from the influx of tourist money. Thirdly, as Joylani points out, urban homelessness is not the single indicator of poverty. It is clear that people in Lao do not have a lot, although almost everyone seems to have at least temporary shelter. This month is Lao has been really eye-opening. In my Nepali development post, I wrote that Nepal made India look like the US. Well, Lao makes Nepal look like a high-powered Western state. We’ve visited a lot of rural or remote places on this trip, but to see an entire country with so little is really amazing. I think I could live anywhere we’ve visited so far, but I’m not so sure about Laos. Limited access to internet/email, barely any ATMs to access my money from, and difficult transportation. These, of course, are trivialities compared to what most Lao live without.

Si Phan Don


164_6445-4.JPGOur last few days in Lao have been spent on a couple of islands in Si Phan Don, which translates to “4,000 Islands.” After the interesting ride from Champasak, which Joylani described, we took a ferry across the Mekong to the village of Muang Khong on the island of Don Khong. Don Khong is the largest island with the largest population of Si Phan Don, which is not saying much. There are two paved roads; one circumnavigates the island, while the other bisects it. A road map of the island is simple an oval with a line through it. Despite being the largest village, its still pretty small- a few guesthouses, a wat, a dock, a decrepit bank, and not much else. We did find a room which turned out to be one of the nicest we’ve stayed in on our entire trip. While I’d expect a clean room with hot-water and AC for 10 USD, we also got maid service and a room with great décor and a pillow-top mattress pad (Joylani’s observations, not mine :)


view of the Mekong


Don Det on the left, Don Khon on the right

We didn’t do a whole lot during our day and a half there. We attempted a midafternoon walk after we arrived and ate lunch on our first day there. But Don Khong doesn’t have many trees (and I think I’ve mentioned how its getting pretty hot), so that ended after a few minutes as it was just too hot to be out. So we spent the rest of the day reading and writing. Then yesterday we walked as far as we could across the island before we turned back, when it got too hot. There really is not much to do on Don Khong- the only things on the island are some huts with the usual satellite dishes, harvested fields, a few motorbikes, the occasional truck, and kids and animals roaming around. The middle of yesterday was also spent reading and writing, although we took a walk south along the riverbank in the evening. It was a really mellow day, but it really typifies Lao. This morning we caught a boat to Don Det, which is about an hour and a half south. It’s a small island that’s totally undeveloped and caters to backpackers; no roads or electricity at night, but it has internet cafes and expat bars. We ate an early lunch and then began walking south along one of the many dirt paths that criss-cross the island. Luckily, the island has plenty of trees and the riverbanks are shaded by coconut palms. So we walked for a while. After an hour of walking, we crossed an old French bridge from Don Det to Don Khon. The bridge is only noteworthy because it happens to be the only bridge the French ever built in Lao! They ruled Lao for a century and they only managed to build one insignificant little bridge between two insignificant islands. From the bridge we walked another two kilometers to Tat Somphamit, a large waterfall. It was not as great as our guidebook had made it out to be, perhaps because the only viewpoint was from above. Also, maybe we expected more after walking unshaded for the last kilometer or so in extreme heat and humidity. Anyways, from the waterfall, we backtracked to the main path where we continued south until we came to a beach, where some locals were playing volleyball and a food stand was setup. A bunch of longtail boats were lined up on the shore and we charted one to take us out on the river, in hopes that we’d spot some Irrawaddy river dolphins. We went downriver about 30 minutes and then we tied up alongside a big rock in the middle of the wide river. We hopped out and climbed to the top of the rock, where we stood and looked out for dolphins. We did see a few surfacing for air, but they were a few hundred feet away and difficult to see. It was a bit disappointing after our Maldivian experience of seeing dolphins spontaneously doing aerial flips and barrel rolls. We probably wouldn’t have even tried to see these dolphins, except that I recently read Amitav Ghosh’s The Angry Tide, which has a main character who studies the species and so the dolphins are, in a way, central to the plot.


on our way to see the dolphins


saw a few dolphins btw the rock this photo was taken from and that island….

It was a bit over an hour’s walk back, but it was much more pleasant in the evening. Back in town, we ate and tried to spend the rest of our kip- internet at expensive rates, some gifts for people at home, and Beer Lao. Tomorrow, Cambodia.

A Long Ride to Don Khong


joylani 130pxWe left our guesthouse a little after 8am in the back of a pick-up truck. A sawngthaew is what it’s called—three benches are fitted lengthwise in the bed of the truck and a metal frame supports a sturdy roof-top which provides both shade and a sturdy place for extra cargo. The metal frame extends past the bumper and is attached to a platform extending out a couple of feet. After two kilometers we arrived at the ferry dock. The ferry had just filled up and our sawngthaew would have to wait for the next one to cross the river. Ours was the first vehicle onto the new ferry, but that meant we had to wait until it was full. Champasak has very little traffic; we waited over an hour for the ferry to leave. In the meantime, Matt made nervous glances at the baby sitting next to him who had just finished his bottle. During our time in Laos we’d already seen a few babies spitting up, and Matt’s nervousness was understandable considering his proximity to the kid. Presently the baby in the seat next to Matt peed. This is of note because most babies in Laos do not wear diapers. If you drive through any village you are bound to see huts with a clothesline strung with 5-10 pairs of tiny pants. This is what the babies wear, if anything. So the kid peed, which meant the seat was wet. Matt moved to the middle row, and I made plans to do so as well if I was asked to move over. Grandma got out a towel and dried the little guy off before handing him out of the sawngthaew to grandpa, presumably so the kid could finish air drying. Eventually the baby was back in the truck, bouncing himself on the seat as he peered out over the side of the truck, as most kids do from their crib. We heard a sound. Matt and the grandma exchanged embarrassed smiles (Matt says hers was more of a guilty smile). I looked down at the kid’s leg, then down behind the bench I was seated on and saw a tiny tan turd in the middle of a goopy pile of poo. Yup, he’d done the dirty deed and had soiled not only his little baby bloomers, but also his grandma’s skirt, the seat, his leg, and the truck. Perhaps the explosion could have been more contained if only those leg holes had been a little tighter. After getting over the initial shock of what happened (I suppose it must not have too shocking for the grandma, I mean, if you’re taking around a baby with no diapers that is bound to happen more than once), the grandmother got out an even larger towel than the first time (yup, she must have been expecting this) to wipe the kid down. This time the bloomers came off and the kid was sent back out with his grandpa in case of aftershocks, if you know what I mean.

Eventually, we made it across the river and 10 minutes further to a junction where we got off to catch transportation in the opposite direction. Supposedly, buses came by every 40 minutes heading to our destination. And when I say buses, I mean really large sawngthaew; the truck cab the size of a delivery truck. After about half and hour, the first one came along. It was packed. All three rows of seats were filled, the cab was full, and several people where standing on the platform extending from the truck bed. But we could ride on top. So after handing our bags up, we both climbed up to the roof. A minute later I was tapped on the arm and motioned to come down. There was a seat for me on the tailgate, sandwiched between the full truck bed and a wall of people standing on the back.

As we pulled away from the junction and started to head south, I looked behind me and tried to count the number of people sitting inside the truck. I counted 42. The second time I got 43. Later I counted 45—I kept discovering a new person each time the passengers shifted around. With the additional people on top (6 or 7) and in the cab (3), I figured there were probably between about 55 people being transported by the sawngthaew. Perhaps 20 or 30 minutes into the ride, the vehicle stopped and four girls got out. It alleviated some of the crowding on the platform. I stood up to see how Matt was doing up top and mentioned that my butt was a little sore from sitting on the three-inch wide tailgate. He answered, “Try sitting on a bunch of coconuts.” I sat back down and the sawngthaew started moving again. It is worth noting that the roads in the south are much better than those in the north. They are equally well-paved and non-trafficy, however the road in the south is much more level and almost perfectly straight. So besides the uncomfortable seating arrangement, the drive was ok.

During other sawngthaew rides we have taken, it has been hard to get a good look at the scenery because the truck shell blocks the view. This time, with Matt on the top and me on the tailgate, both of us were facing backwards and so we could easily see our surroundings. It reminded me of riding in the back of my friend’s mom’s station wagon, only with a lot more people. We came to a small town and the sawngthaew began to slow to a stop, perhaps to drop off more passengers, I thought. Suddenly, from the dust in the empty road behind us, there materialized about 20 women waving sticks of barbequed meat in their hands and running towards the vehicle from all directions. A food stop. Chicken, pork, corn, even grilled bananas were available. Cigarettes, gum, sodas, and rice cakes. I bought some chicken skewers and a couple of bags of sticky rice, which I passed up to Matt who was still sitting on top of the shell. As I started munching on my own lump of sticky rice, one of men working for the sawngthaew kept pointing to the food Vanna White style each time someone came up to me to sell their snacks. The overall consensus seemed to be, how could she just eat plain rice? His daughter even offered me one of her chicken sticks, but I declined.

The ride continued. As we pulled away from the food stop, I saw sticks, corncobs, and plastic bags go flying out behind us as other passengers threw out their trash upon finishing their meal. It was still really crowded in the vehicle, and I was tiring of sitting on the tailgate. We passed through a happy looking village and I thought, “this is a nice village, doesn’t anyone want to get off here??” The sawngthaew slowed, “Oh good,” I thought, “Someone is getting off here.” On the contrary, a family of six got on, and we continued on our way. Another 20 minutes or so passed. We stopped again. Someone handed a kid out the window for a bathroom break, and a few ladies got out of the front. As the crew unloaded the debarking passengers’ belongings from the roof, I stood up to take a picture of Matt. Before I could take a shot, I felt a tug at my arm. The matriarch of the sawngthaew (mother of two kids, wife of one of the crew, and the woman who collected the fare from passengers) motioned for me to follow her. Not sure what was going on, I followed. Ahh. The seats in the front cab had opened up and I was being offered one. NICE. After paying the higher of a two-tiered pricing system for transportation the last month, I was reminded that sometimes being a foreigner does have its benefits in transportation. I enjoyed the rest of the ride from the comfort of the front seat, somewhere I hadn’t sat in months. Five hours after we started, we finally made it to our destination, less than 100km from where we started.

Wat Phu


164_6445-4.JPGIn typical Lao style, it took forever for us to get from Vientiane to Champasak. We ended up taking the public day bus rather than the private night bus. One thing Joylani and I have learned to appreciate is the change in landscapes as we travel. Its something you miss out on when flying or traveling by night. Anyways, it was something like 9 or 10 hours to Savanahket and then another 4 hours to Pakse, where we spent the night in a really nice hotel. The next morning, we took a sawngthaew to Champasak, which took two hours and included being transported on a makeshift car-ferry.

After finding a guesthouse and eating lunch in the village of Champasak, we hired a sawngthaew to take us out to the ruins. The ruins were the reason we came to Champasak, which is just a small village across the Mekong from the main highway. The temple, called Wat Phu is about 15 km from town. We passed through a couple villages and past bright green fields of rice. I haven’t yet brushed up on my Khmer history or learned what I need to know for Angkor next week, so I don’t know much about the ruins. At a small visitor’s center at the site, we did learn that it was a Hindu temple built by the Khmers and dates back to the 11th century. Exploring the ruins was incredibly hot. As a sidenote, we’ve definitely felt the gradual change in temperature as we’ve gone south and its only going to get hotter.



The ruins weren’t huge, but they were set at different elevations over a kilometer or two, so we climbed many stairs. Although the structures were mostly intact, the temples were lived up to the term ruins. Many stones and walls had fallen down and have not yet been restored, although an Italian team is working on certain sections. Seeing the ruins in a state of disrepair made them more attractive in my opinion. The huge black volcanic bricks spilling onto the red dirt and dry gold grass, with the jungle-clad hills and deep blue sky as a backdrop.


The ancient stone paths were uneven and the staircases were buckling under their own immense weight on the hillside. Gnarled leafless plumeria trees gave the place a desolate look, while littering the grounds with the fragrant white and yellow flowers. Locals sold goods and snacks, as well as took care of the Buddhas. Partway up the hill, where the highest temple is located, we were afforded an awesome view of the plains below, which stretched out to the horizon. Looking out there, I saw the temples, and then nothing but farmland and small villages under a clear blue sky- I can’t imagine the view being much different when the temples were built.


Champasak wasn’t mind-blowing like its cousins at Angkor, or even great. But it was the first ruins we’ve seen since Hampi, which was nice and reminded me that I really like ruins. And it was peaceful, because barely anyone comes to Champasak. It was a nice stop on our journey south and we both thought it was a pleasant surprise.



joylani 130pxA gentle breeze blew the fragrance of 26 blooming plumeria trees up the steps on the hillside to the temple area where I stood enjoying the view of the flat river valley below.



164_6445-4.JPGDespite hearing from multiple sources that Vientiane was “quiet,” I was still surprised by this small town. It shouldn’t have been that surprising though, as its population is a miniscule 200,000. I think the next biggest town is less than half of that. I say miniscule because with a population of over 5 million, one would expect Lao’s capitol to have more people. In India, 200,000 people is barely a town and I think even Male, in the Maldives, has 200,000 residents (from national population of only a half million). Anyways, Vientiane’s population quantifies how agrarian the country is, if nothing else. Combine the smallness of Vientiane with the mellow Lao culture and you have the most laid-back capitol I’ve ever visited. In my opinion, Vientiane was too quiet. I’ve learned that I like living in and around cities, but usually try to avoid them when traveling. I’ve found that the majority of large cities have little to offer travelers and tourists, although the famous ones often offer sightseeing. Vientiane had even less. We toured the national museum, which had recently been renamed from the “Lao Revolutionary Museum.” The first exhibit was about dinosaurs because several dinosaur skeletons were discovered in Lao a hundred years ago. Most of the museum was an interesting history of Lao since its European discovery and the end was chock-full of propaganda; busts of everyone from Lenin to Ho Chi Minh and plenty of references to “American imperialists.” Besides the museum, we saw the city’s most famous wat, Wat Si Saket, which was disappointingly unimpressive, although it had an interesting collection of Buddhas. Patuxai (pictured above) was an interesting monument to see for a brief few moments, kind of Vientiane’s answer to the Arc de Triumphe. We also walked to the Cambodian Embassy twice to drop off and pick up our passports to get visas. And the American Embassy to get extra passport pages for Joylani. You can see where I’m going with all this. We found the food in Vientiane pretty mediocre, which was tough for Joylani (she does want me to quote her saying, “The Vietnamese restaurant was my favorite though. Bo Bun- its where its at.”). We tried all sorts of restaurants, but the street stalls were the best we ate. There were and handful of ATMs in Vientiane, but I only found 3 of them that accept international cards. The city has no buses and very little traffic overall. With the exception of one tall hotel, most of the city doesn’t rise about three stories. And all the nicest buildings are government and or Party ones- sad when you think how poor the country is. There’s a sizable NGO population too, which can be seen by the numerous nice SUVs they drive. Overall, we both found Vientiane underwhelming and were plenty ready to leave once we had our visas and new passport pages in hand.

Travel in Lao…is still slow


164_6445-4.JPGTravel is really slow in Lao. I cannot write enough posts about the subject, because it is so slow. I’ll admit it could be faster is we took private tourist vans when they were available, but we prefer not to for several reasons. The main reason is because I feel that the local transport is one of the ways to really get to know a country. On a local bus, the windows are either broken or open, so we can smell and see the landscapes, we’re stuffed in dozens of other Lao, so we get to see how most people travel, and we eat real Lao food at all the local reststops. Contrast that with a private tourist van, where the windows are tinted and you drive so fast you can’t see anything, the windows don’t open and there’s A/C instead of the wind, so you’re in this little climate/smell controlled bubble racing down the road and only stopping at tourist/traveler oriented restaurant for any breaks. The tourist-vans have purpose though. We’ll take one if it’s a extraordinarily long journey or if we’re in a rush to get somewhere. For instance we’ll probably take one in a few days from Vientiane down to Pakse.’


makeshift ferries to transport cars and trucks across Mekong

I’ve written quite a bit already about how slow travel is in Laos and how we’ve spent a disproportionate amount of our time here so far in transit. Today we spent 4 hours going the 60-something miles from Vang Vieng to Vientiane. A placard at the front of the bus indicated it was gift from Japan in 1988, similar to many of the Korean-donated buses we’ve seen elsewhere in Lao. To ensure good seats (or any seat at all, for that matter) we got on about 45 minutes before it was scheduled to leave. Once we did get going, I realized that this was perhaps the slowest bus I ever took. On flat road, we went incredibly slow and I seriously think I could’ve walked faster when we hit inclines. We didn’t stop that often, but that’s just because Lao isn’t as populous as most places we’ve been. We stopped for everyone that waved us down, until many of the seats had 3 people and the middle aisle was crowded. But I learned a little bit on the ride too. Like other rides in Lao, many passengers were transporting big bags of grain. Most were put on the roof, but many were laid out or sat upright down the middle aisle for seats. And like our last bus ride, the driver, the bus boys, and the first couple rows in the front were all engaged in a laughter-filled conversation most of the ride. I also noticed that people in Lao have a kind of wide-eyed smile when they board a bus. The only paved roads we’ve seen so far in Lao are the main highways. All the sideroads and village roads are unpaved or dirt paths. Thus, we never left the highway, but just stopped as we passed through road-side villages. I say I learned a bit on this bus ride, because I was just making mental notes of how Lao local bus travel is unique. For instance, in India, the middle aisle always stands, the drivers never engage in conversation, most people look serious when they get on a bus, in addition to random pickups, most public buses stop at bus stations every few hours, and most travelers are men. That’s just a couple contrasts between Lao and India, but I think it’s the accumulation of seeing how people travel, eat, live, talk, party, etc, that helps one to get to know a country and/or culture. So like I’ve mentioned before, travel is slow in Laos. But its been really for seeing the country and observing its people. Flying around Lao wouldn’t give justice to its beautiful mountainous and rivers. And taking a tourist bus, I’d miss out on the good noodle stops and glimpse into a small aspect of Lao life. The travel has been slow, but its rewarding too.