Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Lovely Laos - Kup Jai Lai Lai

People have often said that Laos is what Thailand was 20 years ago. A warm and genuinely friendly country, it is yet to be completely marred by western globalization or rampant capitalism. But you can tell it's on the cusp...there will be a struggle of retaining culture and mixing it with the profits and pitfalls of tourism. But for now, Laos is still a magical land of relatively untouched natural beauty with tall mountains, awe inspiring landscapes of lush greens with meandering rivers perfect for fishing and idyllic quiet villages.

It's the kind of Third world charm where old ladies still carry kilos of firewood on their back, the village women do laundry and shower in the river using a sarong for modesty. It's a place where mass poverty is prevalent, where houses are still made on uneven stilts and walls of interlaced bamboo.The struggles for modernity show with guest houses with river bungalows offering free wifi but they still use charcoal or firewood to cook their food with.The locals are chilled out and unbelievably nice and full of smilles. It's the kind of place where they apologize to you because you've slipped in the caves and hurt yourself. It has the kind of innocence and happiness where children still play on the streets with makeshift toys and everyone in a village/town still know each other. It's an interesting country where touristy places still only have 3 hrs of electricity at night. In short, get here soon!

I had no idea what to expect when I booked my monstrous 2N/3D journey from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, Laos. I just couldn't believe that it was going to take so long to get there! Thankfully,I ended up having the best group ever! We became the "Same Same But Different" (SSBD) crew...

Day 1 - We had a quick pit stop to see the White temple in Chiang Rai. Ornately decorated with little bits of mirror, the pristinely white temple shimmers with dancing light bouncing off everywhere highlighting its grandiose beauty. It's surrounded by skeleton fences and to signify crossing from hell to heaven, you must walk over a white bridge with sculptures of hands pulling you towards darkness. The interior of the temple is beautifully painted with the Buddhist images mixed with pop culture references like Batman, Neo from the Matrix, Avatar, the Twin Towers with evil serpents coiled around it and Star Wars characters. A sort of time capsule of current events, apparently it's for future generations to know what kind of things we fantasized and imagined during our time. Now that's different.

The White Temple

Day 2 & 3 - We crossed over to Laos and took a slow long-boat down the beautiful Mekong River. The "slow" boat is not so bad nor is it too slow. Thankfully we had the whole back area. We sat on mats with our 35B pillows (best $1 my ass has ever thanked), and played shithead and hung out like we've been friends for ages.

This boat is ours!

Some notable SSBD bonding awards:
  • Best Solidarity Award - Staying strong against the woman in our hostel trying to rip us off at the border town.
  • Most Interesting Introduction - Circumcising a boy with braces at 14! Winner by far!
  • Best Fake Birthday Celebration - Finding the cheapest guest house with the nicest woman, getting free beer and Lao Lao shots and partying in Pakbeng. Kate's picture taking and having the time of her life at the Hive bar (the town's one and only best bar).
  • Best Quote - Again, this one goes to Kate when she drunkenly dragged me off a bar stool saying "I'm sorry. I'm sorry but you're ours. We're family! You're our mother!!" Um, slightly disturbing for me but definitely hysterical! I just wish that it didn't stick.
  • Greatest story made up - "Have you met my brother Nick?" Yup, we told people we were half brother/sister. He is 6'1, white and has blue eyes. I told people we had the same ears. Hahaha.
Happy Birthday Kate!! ;)

Luang Prabang

It's suppose to be one of the most romantic cities in SE Asia with it's mystical temples. To be honest, I liked it but I didn't fall in love with this UNESCO heritage city. Don't get me wrong there is certainly a charm about it and I would recommend renting an bicycle and exploring the interesting mixture of temples and indochinese architecture.

Ok, it was a romantic sunset over the Mekong River.

Luang Prabang from Phu Si Hill.

  • Lao Lao - at anywhere between 50-60% alcohol - this local drink packs a punch. It's basically sticky rice moonshine but man, I don't get gut rut nor the wicked hangovers that usually come with this type of poison! Tastes like suped up sake! Charina's liver stamp of approval.
  • The weird curfew where everything shuts down at around 11:30pm at the latest. On one hand it's frustrating but it's probably the reason that LP is so well maintained and preserved. There are a total of 3 bars you can go to 1. The Hive - that has some fun 2 for 1 Lao Lao cocktails. 2. Lao Lao garden where I had the most amazing Lao BBQ - I still dream about that soup. 3. Utopia - a cool wonderful bar by the river with low tables, shisha pipes, crazy giant Jenga and a beach volleyball court.
  • The caves - meh. Seeing 4000 discarded Buddha relics in a cave sounds cooler than it actually is. But the waterfall is brilliant! It's a cool clear blue that was perfectly chilly. Just the right temp to cool you down.
  • The After Party = the Bowling Alley. They sell a bottle of whiskey, coke and ice for $4. Surprisingly enough, in between dancing and drinking, people actually bowled ;)
  • Phu Si Hill Sunset - At 400+ steps, the way up was as beautiful as the view, with statues of reclining Buddhas along the way. The top had a 360 magnificent view of the city and the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers. It's beautiful to see the sun change the colours of the sky and with beams bouncing off the waters. We took 'couple' pictures that were sweet and funny.
  • Night Market - I must say Asia really has great street markets and nothing can beat yummy cheap 'all you can eat' street food. Plus they have these yummy chicken sandwiches on fresh baguettes and amazing coffee, fruit and oreo shakes everywhere!
  • Offering to the monks - Nick and I woke up ridiculously early to watch the city give offerings to the local monks. The best part was at the beginning when it was still dark when we saw a group of 5 locals on the side of the street with their casings of sticky rice. There was an older, presumably head monk with 5 younger novice disciples that walked past them in a row. 10 meters down they started a quiet chant of thanks. The locals put 3 little piles on the road and poured water over it as a final ritual. On the main street it felt like a zoo of Asian tourists coming out of their vans to sit in pre-set up mats. There were tons of tourists taking pictures of the monks like it was a paparazzi field day. I took a couple of pics and that was about as culturally insensitive as I could get.
Monks. Offerings.

Love the Lao Lao. Seriously. Love it!

Ok, I didn't drink it. I'm brave but not that brave!

Freaky snakes, scorpions, reptiles in Whiskey.

I do love the rivers in Laos!

Another zen moment.


Bathing with Elephants

I'm in love with elephants! For a sec there, I was debating on whether its actually an option to cross Laos by elephant! It crazy how they just let you ride on its neck without any training and you have nothing to hold on to. Basically you are clinging with your inner thighs for dear life. It's specially freaky when your elephant starts going sideways and doesnt really feel to stable when you're going downhill. I thought the girls and I weren't to quite make it unscathed! It's a bit unnerving and odd to feel the muscles of its neck as you plod along a jungle trail and at over 8 ft off the ground that was not going to be a fun landing. The best part was bathing the elephants! We had a fun youngen, who at 29, was playful and would buck us off his head into the dung filled river. He would twist his head from one side to another until we were tossed overboard. It's like bull riding but on an elephant.

Travel advice: Don't wear short shorts cause you kinda get Elephant rash from the prickly hairs they have! And don't swallow the river water it'll make you sick!

Wahoo!!! I'm surfing on an elephant!
We're still holding on before the bucking!

Muang Ngoi & Nong Kiaow

Thanks to Heidi's recommendation - I headed north towards Nong Kiaow. In order to get to Muang Ngoi, you take an additional hour boat ride to get to this idyllic quiet village on the river that has no roads and no motorized vehicles. Its been ages since I've gone to sleep at 10 pm but there isn't much to do after they turn off the electricity. The generators kick in at around 6/7 pm for 3 hours and after that the whole village goes to bed. There is something wonderful about naturally waking up to the sound of roosters crowing at sunrise. I stayed at a ridiculously cheap riverside bungalow for $3. Everyday I would wake up to the most beautiful view of the river and found zen in my hammock. I would listen to river men busily hammering away at their boats presumably trying to fix whatever abuse they've been put through. They say if you can't fix it with a few bangs from a hammer then it's broken.

The sun was hidden by low slung clouds partially covering the mountains in front of me. It rained intermittently which wonderfully forces you to slow down and not do a heck of a whole lot. There are beautiful treks that you can go on. Many that lead past caves, perfect for walking or swimming in. You walk through fields with black and what look like albino buffalos everywhere in the between mountains, crossing over make shift brigdes of rocks on a stream. The little village I saw reminds me of poor rural areas in the Philippines with children playing on the roads, chickens running around and piggies roaming free.

Best part was hanging with the locals at Sy's place (he is adorable and everyone's "Lao boyfriend") The Resting Lady bar. I watched amateur boxing with the boys, got invited for fish Laap, took shots of Lao Lao with Tom yam soup as chasers (it's amazing how well it goes together), crashed a baby naming party and had more Lao Lao and watched the locals have a gooood time.

Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to discover other treks and villages or kayak because Colleen and I went to the viewpoint and the caves that will now be known as "injury" cave. It was a far more arduous trek than expected. Because of the rain the trail was far muddier and very slippery. It was like a tropical grouse grind. They had strategically placed bamboos everywhere so you can grab onto it. We were rewarded at the top with 2 viewpoints, the north where you can see the whole river and layers of mountains. On the south side, you can see the entirety of the little village of Muang Ngoi. On our way down, we took a short cut to the caves with a little entrance that was spewing out cool air that felt like a refreshing AC. The cave was long and dark and we explored with our torches for a good 15 minutes- certainly the longest time and the biggest cave I've ever been in without a guide! Then this dragon - long thought to be extinct flew above our head. Not huge at around a meter long, its glowing red eyes and fierce flapping of its wings took me by surprise and I ended up taking a nasty slip, going through a crack and crevice. I got all gashed and cut up by the jagged rocks. Honestly as far as falls go I was pretty lucky and it could have been far worse but man it hurt. I keep telling myself that scars are sexy cause its going to leave some nasty ones. That's the official story and I'm sticking to it - Ok, fine it wasn't a dragon but there were big bats there. Thankfully Colleen and Aly were there to help bandage me up. I was more worried about possible infections since I pretty much slid through bat shit. See pictures of their great patch up!

The locals bathing and doing laundry in the river.

The best view in the world!

Muang Ngoi from a mountain.

On the way to the view point.

Week from Hell

Unfortunately, it was cut short when I found out that my grandmother is sick. So I decided to make my way south back to Bangkok to fly back to Manila. They say things come in 3s...why is that anyway? As terrible luck would have it - yes, it's been a rough week of random mishaps. Made it back alright to LP, bumping into Helena (which made me happy) and had a great last day biking around. Bus journey to Vientiane on the other hand is another story. The first bus broke down 25 min outside of town - which you would think is not bad, but we still had to wait a terrible 5 hrs for the next one. I got hurt myself when I went into the pitch black bus to grab my bag and went flying down the stairs. Thank goodness Ian, my new best bus friend is a med student and helped me out. However, this started a new era of more limping! Can't freaking believe it - Nothing for 15 months and then every 2 days for the last week.

Official boo boo tally: Dragon scars on left hamstring, small scrapes right foot, extremely bruised left knee, banged up right shin, bump/small scrapes on forehead, sore left thumb. (Mom, it's seriously sounds worse than it is...I'm ok! Seriously, these things happen)

Aly and Colleen's patch work. Thanks ladies!

Scars are sexy right?!?!

So, off to the Philippines for round 2 to be with my grandma! But this is what I will always remember of Lao...

Zen in a Hammock!!!