backpacking… upgraded

Vang Vieng, Laos: When it rains, it bores…

My experience in Vang Vieng is only worth recounting for how singularly unsuccessful it was. Even before I left Luang Prabang, I should have sensed that my travel stars were misaligned or something.

Having arranged for the Vang Vieng-bound bus to pick me up at my guesthouse at 9 a.m., I was surprised to be summoned from the shower, dripping wet and partially covered, by the driver’s knocking on my door at 8:10 a.m. He hadn’t come to pick me up, only to tell me that he’d be back in 15 minutes to retrieve me. So I hopped back in the shower, performed my hygienic obligations, packed in a flash, and ignored my hunger pangs so I wouldn’t hold him up. I spent the next 90 minutes in the lobby of my guesthouse awaiting him, sipping Nescafé through gritted teeth and daydreaming about the delicious, steaming cup of coffee I could have bought to douse him with.

Fast forward six hours. With just twenty kilometers between us and Vang Vieng, and as the gorgeous karst mountains outside my window began to hint at the beauty to come, it started to rain. No big deal, but from the resigned looks on the faces of cows we passed, I figured that either this town was on a beef-only diet or that the storm front wasn’t going anywhere. The latter proved to be true; the rain wouldn’t cease, even momentarily, for the entirety of my (admittedly brief) two-day stay.

Dropped off in the center of town, I immediately encountered a strange Vang Vieng phenomenon I’d read about but didn’t want to believe: a succession of bars where backpackers lounged about glassy-eyed, drinking cheap Beerlao and laughlessly watching “Friends.” It was a bit creepy how docile they were, as if they were all plugged into the Matrix and unaware that life had more to offer than decade-old sitcoms. It’s quite possible that a few of them had swallowed blue pills, at any rate. But more on that later.

Determined not to be thwarted by the weather — or sucked into the vortex of must-see TV — the next morning I rode ten miles (and a couple extra, thanks to some illegible kilometer markers) out of town to see two guidebook-recommended caves. Due to the unrelenting rain, however, the river was too swollen and the current too powerful to safely cross. So back I rode, soaking and cold, to my guesthouse, where I retired with a book until dinner.

I’ll mention here that my room, one of Le Jardin Organique’s sparsely furnished riverfront bungalows, was the one high point (literally, fortunately) of my stay. The picture above shows the view from my porch of the Nam Song river after the first night’s rains. This being the low season (and I was beginning to understand why), the room only cost $9 per night.

When my grumbling stomach finally forced me back out into the rain that evening, I found my way to the Organic Mulberry Farm Café, a restaurant operated by the farm of the same name that lies just north of town. I sat down and asked for a mulberry shake, a specialty of theirs, hoping mulberry and ice were the only ingredients. Which brings me to another of Vang Vieng’s well known quirks (and backpacker attractors): the widespread availability of drugs to anyone with half a mind and a few thousand kip to try them. Blend ‘em up in a fruit shake, bake ‘em onto a pizza, whatever you want, just order it ‘happy’ and let it take you away. In case you’re wondering, I ordered all my food ‘cynical’.

Between courses and nursing a glass of the farm’s own mulberry wine, I contemplated this strange town. That’s when its brutal logic hit me. Only a brain massaged by the kneading fingers of psychotropic drugs could find watching a repetitive loop of “Friends” episodes to be a worthwhile diversion. And as “Friends”-with-no-end is one of the only viable activities here in a marathon rain, why not depolarize your brain with a substance some guy you don’t know can stir into your smoothie?

The saving stroke of the trip was to be a kayaking excursion, already booked and paid for, down the Nam Song to Vientiane, which I’d been looking forward to all week. I had a bad feeling when I opened my front door after the second rainy night to this:

After waging an escape from my bungalow through a thigh-deep soup of river water and rubbish, I went to meet the kayaking guide, who told me that, although the river had been perfectly navigable the day before, today the water level was too high and the trip had to be canceled. Naturally.

With the proceeds from my refund I paid for the last remaining seat on the next minibus to Vientiane. Even in such dreary weather, this place was undeniably beautiful, but I was definitely ready to move on. I climbed into my seat and watched the rivulets of rain glide across the window for a while after we pulled out of town. And then the sun came out.

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Luang Prabang, Laos — part two

(…continued from previous post)

Back at the guesthouse on Monday afternoon, I awoke just before 5 p.m. from a heat-induced nap, my battery recharged and my wallet $70 lighter (which seemed too hefty a price for the run-of-the-mill, single speed guesthouse bike I’d been relieved of at the wat, though I was in no position to haggle). Unfortunately, pretty much everything in Luang Prabang besides restaurants and bars closes by 5:30 p.m., so I had little to do but find some dinner and plot out the next day, my last in this history-rich town. I resolved to make the most of it, and this time I would do so on foot.

My first stop the next morning (after coffee at JoMa, of course, and a street-stall baguette for breakfast) was the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center, a newly opened museum aimed at giving tourists an appreciation for Laos’s vast cultural diversity. Featuring English- and Lao-language exhibits — like the one pictured above, on the Hmong people — depicting the traditional clothing, tools, and handicrafts of various ethnic groups, of which there are 49 in Laos, it’s a well-organized and informative little museum.

Looming over the Ethnology Center is Phu Si, a 100-meter tall hill topped with a stupa that offers the best views in town, so that’s where I headed next. On the back side of the hill, there is a series of Buddha statues, including the Reclining Buddha pictured above, and a ‘Buddha footprint,’ also pictured above. It’s hard to tell from the photo, but the ‘footprint’ measures more than a meter across: sasquatch enthusiasts, take heart.

The climbing left me hungry and in a lather, so I wandered over to Tamarind for a cool drink and a bite of lunch. One of the few restaurants in town that eschews the pervasive Thai influence, focusing instead on traditional Lao cuisine, Tamarind was a definite highlight of this trip. I opted for an iced drink made from jujube fruit and a splash of coconut milk, which was bittersweet and delicious. Since this would be my only meal here, I ordered a sampling platter consisting of a few different tastes: lettuce wraps filled with crab meat, rice noodles, and cardamom; sautéed bamboo shoots and pumpkin vines; homemade pork sausage; and strips of buffalo meat dried like jerky, then brushed with a slightly sweet marinade and smoked. The platter came with a generous portion of a Lao staple, sticky rice. To eat it, you’re supposed to roll a wad of sticky rice into a tight ball with your hands and pair it with a bite of something else. I savored every morsel; the buffalo meat and lettuce wraps were especially tasty. I had wats to see, though, so off I went.

Sixty percent of Lao people are Theravada Buddhists, and most Lao males will spend some time, usually a few months during their adolescence, away from their families, living in a wat and studying Buddhist texts (and nowadays, Marxist-Leninist thought as well) as novice monks. Ordination into monkhood requires a vow to adhere to some 227 precepts, which govern all facets of behavior. These include prohibitions on sexual relations, consumption of alcohol, and even “tickling with the fingers.”

One of the precepts holds that monks can only eat that which has been given to them. Therefore, each morning at sunrise the monks process through town performing an alms-round, where townspeople and tourists alike line up to press sticky rice into the monks’ alms bowls. Buddhist devotees believe that good deeds like this earn them merit, which accumulates over the course of a lifetime and can be carried over into the next, inching them closer and closer to liberation.

Luang Prabang is home to nearly three dozen wats, and though each of them is uniquely beautiful and ornate, it’s easy to get burned out on them. So I’ll only mention a few of the most notable here. The oldest extant structure in Luang Prabang, the Lotus Stupa at Wat Wisunarat (above at left), celebrated its 500th birthday in 2004. It’s showing signs of age, of course, but it’s a pretty awe-inspiring sight.

Perhaps the most famous of Lao wats, Xieng Thong (below, middle and right) is nearly as old as the Lotus Stupa and just as impressive. Built in 1560, Wat Xieng Thong sits a stone’s throw from the junction of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and is home to about 30 monks. Finally, in a program sponsored by UNESCO, monks studying at Wat Xieng Muan are trained in skills like woodcarving (above at right), gold stenciling, and bronze casting to ensure that the magnificence of Luang Prabang’s temples is preserved for future generations.

That night I took a stroll through the famous night market, whose stalls line up each evening to span several blocks of Luang Prabang’s main street. Tourists weave through the narrow lanes between them, browsing and bargaining for handmade jewelry, silk scarves and tapestries, wood carvings, handbags, and of course, the ubiquitous “Same Same But Different” T-shirts and hats peddled all over Laos and Thailand. After an excellent dinner at Tum Tum Bamboo Restaurant — a perfect tomato salad followed by catfish stewed in coconut milk, a dish formerly prepared for the Lao royal family — I headed back to my guesthouse for a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow I was bound for Vang Vieng.

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Luang Prabang, Laos — part one

Ten hours after my bus left Vientiane, and with Luang Prabang mercifully near, there was an explosion in the undercarriage directly beneath my seat. “Was that a sniper?” begged the girl in the row ahead of me. Unless we’re all unwitting extras in a forthcoming Tomb Raider movie, it was probably just a tire blowout, I thought.

Having braked the bus to a stop on the right-hand shoulder, the driver and his two attendants climbed down to inspect the damage, and were followed out by a stream of curious passengers. Sure enough, one of the rear, interior tires had blown. Long strips of tread lay like discarded fruit peels in the distance behind us. The attendants got to work loosening the outer wheel’s fist-sized lug nuts as we, the road-weary audience, looked on. Just fifteen minutes later we were back en route. We pulled into Luang Prabang’s bus station about an hour before dark.

On a map Laos resembles a palm tree leaning left, and Luang Prabang sits right in the middle of the crown, at the meeting of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. Home for centuries to Laos’s ruling monarchs, Luang Prabang fell under French protection in the late 19th century, though the royal family remained nominally in power. The French made Vientiane the new capital but maintained a presence in Luang Prabang until the 1950′s, leaving their footprint on the town in the form of countless colonial villas that intermingle with its grandest attractions — more than two dozen majestic Buddhist wats. Oh, and they still make a mean baguette here, too.

After a short tuk-tuk ride from the bus station, I set off on foot with my guidebook in hand to find a room for the night. The first three places I tried were full, and as the last traces of daylight disappeared, the rain started to fall. In another minute it was coming down with vigor. Getting doused and desperate, I ducked under the arch of the next guesthouse I found, sprinted up its open-air stairs, and put my name on its only available room, a triple that would cost me $30 for the night. More than I wanted to pay, yes, but worth it to escape the monsoon.

I fell onto the smaller of the room’s two beds, tuned the TV to the BBC, and let the cold a/c dry me off. After an hour’s vegetation I saw that the rain had moved on, so I shuffled over to Nisha Indian Restaurant, where only the atmosphere was flavorless. I polished off a delicious chicken tikka masala, garlic naan, a garden salad, and two Beerlao Darks for less than $8. Recommended.

The next morning I packed up and found a new place to stay, the Ammata Guesthouse, where I dropped off my stuff and rented a bike for the day. [I should mention that my room that night would cost $25, not the $15 quoted by my guidebook, which was printed less than a year ago. And in the low season to boot? Inflation seems to be the rule in Luang Prabang these days.] I’d have two full days to see the sights, and the bike would allow me to cover most of the town on the first day.

I found and crossed the gapped pedestrian bridge that straddles the mud-colored Nam Khan river, then pedaled out to a tiny village past the airport. The paved road gave way to a dirt path cratered with puddles and serrated with rocks. Fearing another tire puncture and a long walk back, I got down and pushed the bike on foot. A half dozen incredibly cute kids followed me down the road for a few meters, shouting “Sabaidee!” and giggling amongst themselves when I tried to reply in kind. I kept walking until the path narrowed and became thick with growth on both sides, when tomorrow’s newspaper headline flashed through my head: “Disoriented tourist, inexplicably pushing perfectly sound bike, gobbled up by jungle cat previously thought extinct. Town celebrates jungle cat.” So I turned back.

As I approached the Nam Khan again, I caught sight of a gleaming, golden-spired pagoda up in the hills and decided to pay it a visit. The sign spanning the entrance read ‘Wat Pa Phon Phao’. I rode up the driveway, parked and locked my bike, and removed my shoes before entering the wat’s Peace Pagoda. Inside I met a few Buddhist nuns who invited me to have a look around. The octagonal pagoda has four levels, each one smaller than the last as you climb, with walls covered 360° with vibrantly painted panels

that depict “Buddhist stories and moral admonitions,” according to Lonely Planet. Apparently none of the admonitions addresses bike theft, because when I walked outside again, mine had disappeared.
I combed the area around the pagoda, finding nothing but a groundskeeper at work and a few pumpkin-robed monks lazing in their bunks. Quite annoyed, but fearing the karmic implications of casting accusing eyes upon monks and nuns, I started the long walk back to my guest house under a baking sun, hoping it might turn my vexation into muffins. (to be continued….)

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Vinacarta: like a map but smarta

The night before I boarded a bus to Hanoi last week, I scoured the internet for a quality map of the city. None of the usual suspects (Google, Mapquest, et al) offered detailed enough information. That’s when I stumbled across Vinacarta.

Vinacarta offers a fantastic set of info-maps for major cities in SE Asia, and it’s extremely easy and intuitive to use. Whether you’re looking for shops, restaurants, parks, etc., or simply trying to get oriented, Vinacarta is the best site I’ve yet come across to help you. It’s basically a mashup of Google Maps and Citysearch.

Just zoom in on a part of a particular city, then select what interests you from the menu at left. Instantly every relevant business in the database is highlighted on the map, with the accompanying address, a description, pictures (if available), and links to reviews of the place. Instant gratification.

Of course Vinacarta has its limitations. Its information isn’t comprehensive; only fifteen of the largest cities in SE Asia are covered, and among those, it’s nearly impossible to account for every tiny side street and mom-and-pop shop. So Vinacarta doesn’t. Also, it’s missing the one function that makes Mapquest and Google Maps so handy: ‘Driving Directions’.

But these are minor quibbles, and ones that might be addressed in time. Given how useful (and unique at the moment) Vinacarta is, it’s a bit ridiculous to complain.

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Shopping for the greater good in Southeast Asia

The NY Times 53 Places to Go in 2008 says Cambodia is so 2007 and Laos is 2008 (Vietnam made the 2008 cut as well). Laos is great, but I’m not sure why they went out of their way to insult poor Cambodia. When there’s fantastic and unique shopping all over SE Asia, why discriminate?

There are three stores in particular at which I’ve shopped in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos that offer excellent stuff and have a sustainable tourism/social justice focus as well. They’re better in person but you can still shop online!

Ock Pop Tok isn’t just a store with drool-worthy tapestries… they can also teach you to weave! They’ll take you through the entire process, from boiling the silk worms (left), to spinning the silk (way harder than it looks), to making natural dyes and then weaving.

Ock Pop Tok, which means “East meets West,” was founded by a local weaver and an English photographer. Not only do they provide a fair living wage for the artisans, but they also started the Fibre2Fabric Gallery, which uses handicrafts to explain Lao culture.

Craftlink works with NGOs in Vietnam to document and revive traditional crafts, and in the process creates income-generating opportunities mainly for ethnic minorities.

Tabitha in Cambodia has a special significance for me. They made the silk table clothes and napkins for my wedding! (Photo from our fantastic photographers, Our Labor of Love). The staff were really worried about getting the color right since we were ordering over the internet, but it all turned out gorgeous and was a real bargain. Tabitha has volunteers that help with orders, so I was able to email back and forth with a volunteer from Canada who knew the operations well. In addition to silk-by-the-yard and table linens, they also make handbags, scarves, bedding, and a little jewelry.

Tabitha also sponsors a number of grassroots projects, working with families and communities to encourage saving and promote development.

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