A Travellerspoint blog

LaLaLaLaos

Motorbike crime scenes and the beginning of the end (of my sanity)

My last couple days in Laos started with me almost falling into the sewer.

No, but really. Let me explain.

In Laos, and in much of Asia, the sewer systems are covered by giant stone slabs [this picture is an example because I refuse to go back to the slab that tried to kill me].

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Now this doesn't appear to be some deep cavernous sewer situation, but neither is it particularly shallow or (obviously) particularly un-disgusting. On this hapless morning, I was walking in the direction of the coffee shop as I always do, and didn't even glance at the ground. I stepped on the corner of one slab, and it immediately crumbled, tipped on its side, and fell right into the sewer, ALMOST taking my left leg right along with it. I wouldn't have fallen far, but I could see down there and it would have been DISGUSTING. Fortunately all those years of dance, gymnastics, and generally hating involuntary dirtiness gave me the agility to use the physics remaining from my footstep to leap the rest of the way over the slab onto safe ground. I came away from the situation with a slightly bloody foot and a moderately bruised ego. The glamour of travel, ladies and gentlemen.

I didn't have much else on my to do list for Luang Prabang, but I did still want to climb Mount Phousi. I had to look for monkey-ear-shaped mushrooms, after all. On the way there, I stopped to look at Wat Pa Houak, or the "Monastery of the Thorn Less Bamboo Forest." Founded in 1861, it has some mural paintings that have been preserved. It was beautiful and free, two of my favorite things.

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At the base of the mountain, women sit waiting to sell you two things. One, little flower stupas that are used as offerings up at the temple. The other is tiny little song birds kept in itty bitty bamboo cages. Apparently you release them up at the top for good luck, though my personal understanding of karma is that if you just let the birds be free to begin with you might have even better luck... I politely declined both and huffed my way up the steps. The view from the top was great, and I wandered around taking some photos of interesting things I saw, including jewel beetles on the trees below. Someone had clearly purchased one of the little bird cages, and left a flower in its place. I suspect they shared my thoughts on the practice. I read my new book for awhile, and decided I wasn't going to be able to hang out until sunset because I might starve to death, so I headed back down the mountain, this time going down the other side, past the sleeping Buddha and several other sights.

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On my way back I stopped at the mini mart and purchased a tiny bottle of nail polish for the equivalent of 33 cents, because I wanted to do something fun but didn't want to pay someone else to paint my nails for me. You'll be shocked to know that the pretty pink polish chipped off like 23 hours later, but it was fun while it lasted. I went to the night market one last time, on the hunt for some seeds from the Job's tears plant (do you remember that story? I told you all about them...a hundred years ago). I walked up and down every booth of that market, and only found ONE that was selling some. The very nice lady who was running the booth didn't speak any English, so luckily I had come prepared with a picture of the plant on my phone, and showed it to her. She seemed delighted that I knew what I was looking for (rather than just looking for a random bracelet), and I walked away with two strings of beads (okay they were supposed to be bracelets but there's not much difference). I think we were both quite happy.

My last day in Laos was mostly just me running errands around town and discovering random things. I had to print my Vietnam evisa, and the woman where I was staying offered to do this for me, but only on a half sheet of paper. She claims this saves lots of money? I guess I don't know the cost of paper or ink in Laos, so OK. Unfortunately she made the mistake of saying "I think it's OK" that it's that size. Clearly this French woman would be a lot less concerned about this, but as an American entering Vietnam, I wasn't super excited about winging it through customs and passport control. I wandered back to the French cafe as well to purchase a surprise gift for someone, and perfectly spent the last of my money again (#win).

On the way back to my room, I saw the remains of the motorbike accident that had captured everyone's attention a few nights prior, despite the fact that it looked like they really just barely bonked into each other, and everyone was fine. I did think it was adorable, however, that they had traced the bikes as if they were dead bodies at a crime scene.

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I decided to leave the nail polish behind, and was happy to discover that the girls who clean the rooms and cook breakfast at the lodging place all had pretty pink nails a few hours later. Because they are awesome, the folks I stayed with the week prior had offered to give me a ride to the airport despite the fact that I no longer was staying with them. Seriously, nicest people ever, and they sent me off with some hugs. They said I didn't need to be there until like an hour before the flight, which I really didn't want to believe, that is until I was through check in, bag drop, customs, and security within 4.5 minutes. Not. Joking. (Keep in mind this was for an international flight...)

I did have a moment of weakness and decided to get some dinner at the airport, but luckily I could use my credit card for this. I got some yummy noodle soup and a milk tea. The woman said "we only have 3% milk, is that okay?" I giggled and said yes of course, thinking she must have meant 2% milk. Silly person. And then I realized OMG I'm an idiot, whole milk is 3% isn't it. And yes, it is.

Finally the time came to board my flight for Vietnam. I had plans to travel for 2 weeks with a girl I met in Thailand, and was both nervous and excited to travel with a partner, and to experience a whole new country. I heard Vietnam was crazy and hectic. If only I knew then what I know now.

Stay tuned: The Really Dramatic Saga Known As Vietnam is up next!

Posted by NinjaLlama 03:06 Archived in Laos Tagged adventure_time Comments (0)

Land of the free

All the parentheses

overcast 85 °F

Okay, I know it's been FOREVER. I've had several blogs written here and there, but there have always been gaps so I didn't want to post anything until everything is ready. So here's what's going to happen: I'm going to take about two blogs to finish up with my time in Laos, and then we're going to have a multi-part series all about Vietnam. Lots of things have happened, so get ready.

(I actually did write this one on July 5th, I swear)

Yesterday was my first 4th of July out of the country. For those of you who might not know, the 4th of July is my second favorite holiday, only falling behind New Years Eve. Both involve hopefulness and fireworks; New Year's Eve has sparkly dresses and christmas lights as well, so it wins out (despite a rather unpleasant history in my life, but f*ck that, it's my holiday now).

(PS I have to vent for a hot second just because I'm crabby right now. If you see awkward typos in my blogs, it's because my ipad autocorrects things in a completely haphazard and psychotic manner. Sometimes I don't catch them, sorry. I promise I do understand how to spell words correctly. It also likes to add and remove punctuation wherever it pleases. Ugh apple products...)

I wasn't quite sure what to do with myself, since no one in Luang Prabang cares about my holiday, so I started the day with a bagel and some cream cheese, because that felt American to me. (Where do bagels come from? I have no idea, but I know I eat them for breakfast most days back home so it feels American to me.) After this I wandered over to the tiny book exchange on the side of the local library that someone had told me about, and scoured the shelves for something new to read. And what did my eyes behold but one of the books that I've really been hoping to read (but was too cheap to dish out 15 dollars for) - A Man Called Ove. Thanks random other travelers! I exchanged the book I just finished, so I only had to spend $2 (which goes into supporting the library) for my new treasure. It's the little wins.

After this I headed off to the UXO visitor's center, a visit that I had planned for today many days ago, because I knew it would be an important part of my observance this year. UXO stands for unexploded ordinance, as well as the name of the organization working to remove it. Buckle up kids, I'm about to hit you with some truthing.

During the Vietnam war, the ongoing civil war in Lao got wrapped up in the larger conflict at hand. The country became a battlefield in the war between the US and Vietnam, and the US bombed the crap out of Laos for various reasons meant to impact Vietnam. From 1964 to 1973, the US dropped more than two million tons of ordinance on Laos. Basically a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. Up to a third of these bombs never exploded, and now litter the country. UXO the organization works to deactivate these, as well as train those living in the area how to be safe around them and who to contact if they find items, but as of today less than 1% of these bombs have been deactivated. They simply don't have enough money, and the process is labor, time, and cost intensive. In just 10 days of bombing Laos, the US spent more than it has spent in clean up over the past 24 years.

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Unfortunately, the adaptability of Laos citizens is dangerous to their health. The scrap metal from bombs has been used to make fences, barbecues, candle stick holders, lampshades, and a million other things. It can also be sold, which holds a lot of appeal to those most desperate for income. These unexploded bombs really hinder growth in Laos as well - when ground is cleared it is done so to a depth of 25 cm - the depth of tilling by tractor and buffalo-drawn ploughs. Imagine wanting to build a road through your country, but having the risk of UXO slow or halt the progress of this process.

One person is killed or injured almost every day by UXO in Laos, and 40% of those injured or killed are children. I was pondering this fact in the visitor center when an asian woman and her little girl came in. The little girl immediately left her mom to look at the informational signs, wandered over to where I was, and immediately picked up an old bomb that was marked as "inert" but also marked as "DO NOT TOUCH", demonstrating quite quickly the primary issue here. I didn't want to freak her out, so I put on my gentle warning adult voice and said "Don't touch! Don't touch!", despite having no idea if she speaks English or not. She threw the bomb back down, and ran over to her mom. The curiousity of children (and dogs, and small elephants) to touch everything that intrigues them is clearly the reason why so many kids are hurt by UXO in Laos.

I want to rant right here, about the responsibilities that a country should have after war has ended, but I don't have the energy. If you are similarly incensed, check out this article about Iraq: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/20/iraq-war-anniversary-birth-defects-cancer_n_2917701.html

After my visit here, I took a circuitous route back to the house where I am staying now. I passed a park with a statue of President Souphanouvong; it was a lovely little space with fountains and flowers and little boys playing as little boys tend to do. It's right next to the UXO visitor center, which is interesting juxtaposition. Life marches on. I also walked by the wooden bridge, which is for motorbikes, bicycles, and pedestrians only, and a lumber shop, which was interesting to see. When I made it back they offered to switch me to a new room because there was so much construction noise from next door, so I moved into the delightful little river view room with its own terrace area. Yay!

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I spent some time when I got back reading The Declaration of Independence. I swear I'm fun at parties. I've been meaning to be more educated on historical documents of importance, so I've been slowly making my way through the constitution, etc. It felt like a good day for the Declaration. Holy s*it you guys should read it now that we have a new leader. The context of the entire thing shifts and morphs into a whole new perspective.

"A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people."

Honestly, despite some of the ugly parts of the history of the US (and there are some pretty ugly parts), there is something inspiring about reading this document. At our core, the foundation of our nation is about equality and justice, with just a dash of obstinate rebellion. Mind you, equality and justice meant something very different in 1776 than they do in 2017 (namely that people of color, LGBTQ communities, and women were excluded), and I'd like to believe that the turmoil we're experiencing right now is because we all know deep down that equality and justice are meant to be our guiding principles. Forgive the slightly awkward metaphor, but our nation is one big lumbering giant with a good soul trying to shift it's enormous body in the direction of its internal compass.

"...when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security"

-------pause for a reflective moment because yet again I'm fighting the urge to rant----------

I met up with the folks I stayed with last week and their new guests for dinner at the best (well, also only) Korean restaurant in town. I've never had Korean food before, so we just picked a bunch of dishes and all shared them (the norm for Korean food) among the 8 of us. Holy cow, it was so much food! I tried almost everything, except anything that looked phallic or had eyeballs, and almost everything I ate was surprisingly delicious despite looking a tiny bit like cat vomit.

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(Unfortunately, I went for a very specific comparison there because, having lived with 5 cats over my lifetime, I'm way too familiar with cat vomit. This is quite distressing to realize.)

After dinner, we went and all watched Independence Day 2 together. We stopped at the store for snacks first, and the best I could find in a Laos mini market was ice cream, Oreos, and pocky sticks that reminded me of sparklers. So, here is my celebratory 'Merica snack.

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When we were at the store there were some monks there as well, and they said "Hiiiiiiii" to me. I didn't realize until they came over to talk to me again by the ice cream that...they were flirting? Are monks allowed to do that? I don't think so... Anyway, the movie was so terrible it was amazing, and we all cheered at the end when America saved the planet (of course).

All in all, a pretty good [very nontraditional] holiday.

Posted by NinjaLlama 06:05 Archived in Laos Tagged deep_thoughts adventure_time Comments (0)

Pink lung disease and monkey ear mushrooms

I spent my entire day today...eating, basically. And reading an entire book.

I started at Bouang, where I got a colorful Buddha bowl served to me in a tiny pot.

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Then I got a pot of chamomile tea down the road at a coffee shop. Then a Lao Latte at Saffron cafe.

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Then dinner at The Big Tree restaurant. See? I told you you would be bored if I gave you a detailed play by play of EVERYTHING I do in a day.

I rounded out the day by attending a traditional storytelling theater, where I learned several of the regional stories and tales. It was basically a tiny little theater room with kitchen chairs lined up on different level platforms, with an animated young man telling the stories in English while an adorable little old man played the khene. The khene is a local instrument that Wikipedia rudely calls a “bamboo mouth organ.” The lore is that a young woman heard the most beautiful bird in the forest, and spent days and days trying to recreate the sound, and that’s how the instrument was made.

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We also learned about the story of Mount Phousi, which I have chosen not to climb yet because I knew this storytelling night would give me this tale and I wanted to hear it first. The queen at the time was really craving some mushrooms, so she asked the monkey god to go to Sri Lanka to get them from the mountains for her. He flew all the way there and kept coming back with different kinds of mushrooms, but none were the ones she wanted, so she just kept sending him back again and again. He wanted to know the name of them, but they were called monkey ear mushrooms and she didn't want to tell him that and offend him. So eventually he brought the entire top of the mountain to her, certain that the mushrooms she wanted must be somewhere on it. Phou means mountain, and Si was the first part of her name. Of course now when I finally do climb the mountain you know I’ll be looking for mushrooms that look like monkey ears. First I should google what monkey ears look like.

I finished in one day my new book (compared with the agonizing two weeks for the last one). It was called The Ant Colony by Jenny Valentine, and it was intriguing and fun and simple and moving. Here are a few of my favorite lines:

“I thought about how weird it was, to be missing in one place while you’re right there in another.”

“She looked me up and down and laughed once. ‘Pink lung disease’.
‘What?’
‘Pink lung disease. Don’t you young people know anything?’
She told me about this policeman at the dawn of the motor age who got sent from his village to do traffic duty in Piccadilly. He wasn’t any good at directing traffic. Nobody was because it was a new thing. The policeman got hit by a car and died. The doctor who cut him up had never seen healthy, pink, country lungs before. He was used to city lungs, all black and gooey, so he said that was the cause of it. Pink lung disease. Not a car driving over him at all.”

“I looked at her, smiling at me, her legs sticking out of my sweatshirt like the sticks I’ve thrown down by the river all my life, big-kneed and bleached to bone by the sun. She seriously thought we were friends.”

“It’s quite stressful being on an adventure. You make it so far and then you realize you really can’t mess it up cos everything’s depending on it.”

Posted by NinjaLlama 22:47 Archived in Laos Tagged adventure_time Comments (0)

Blog postings with a chance of flurries

I’m catching up again! Yay! I’m still working out the best way to do all of this. Writing about my day isn’t so bad, it’s the part where I have to pull in photos that slows me down. I have photos on my phone, but those won’t upload to this website for some reason, so I have to send them to my ipad to be uploaded. And the photos on my camera have to be synced to my ipad as well before they can be uploaded. And then you have to pick the ones that go with your story, etc. etc. Have you ever tried to upload photos over a shitty wifi connection in the middle of Asia? It’s an exercise in the specific type of patience I don’t have. It’s all very time intensive. I know it’ll be worth it in the end, so I’ll just keep plugging along, but sometimes there will just be gaps.

Yesterday I went to another cafe in town for the morning, because I know it has air conditioning, which is pretty hard to come by in food places here. I learned very quickly, however, that their aircon is on steroids, and 20 minutes in I was shivering because I was so cold. I moved to a spot outside and worked on blogs until I was sweating, and then headed off to the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre. This is in an old French colonial house and consists of only three rooms, but you learn so much in that small space! There are basically four ethnolinguisitic groups in Laos, each with several subgroups. They all have different textiles, beliefs, and customs, and I learned a little about each, which was awesome. They had samples hanging up of all these different items, and they were stunningly gorgeous.

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I love a good Pom Pom also.
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Back Strap looms
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They have a class where you can learn to weave a basket, which I would love to do, but there’s absolutely no way that can make it home with me.
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One of the things that really impressed me is the creativity and adaptability in all of these textiles. Small change coins are used as decoration, vines are collected from the forest as strings, there was even a needle case made from pen caps!
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They also had a whole section on Job’s Tears, a plant that produces seeds that are used as beads (the rest of the plant is used in many other ways as well). There were tons of examples of this plant’s seeds being used all around the world, and for some reason this was a huge “Duh” moment for me. Of course seeds were used as beads! Seeds, carved pieces of wood, things like that. I don’t know why I’ve never stopped to think about this before, especially given the amount of beads I’ve worked with in crafts over the years.

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There was also a sign at the end of the exhibit that I really loved. Here’s what it said:

“These exhibits provide some insight into the cultural wealth of Laos’ many ethnic communities to promote an appreciation for their history, knowledge, traditions, and arts. However, this is only a brief introduction to cultures and peoples which are multidimensional and dynamic.

Ethnic communities in developing countries are not frozen in time as historical or ’traditional’ icons. In fact, they are developing and changing as much as cultures in Europe, the Americas, or even Vientiane, and have been transforming for hundreds of years. Ethnic people in Laos live in cities, own businesses, hold government positions, and travel overseas. In rural villages, they listen to the radio, trade with other ethnic groups, frequent town markets, adopt new crops, and build cement houses. People adapt their lifestyles and traditions to changing circumstances, globalization, and opportunities to improve their futures.

Economic development and modernization does not require abandoning one’s traditions or ethnic identity. However, with changing livelihoods and lifestyles, upholding elements of ethnic identity such as language, clothing, religion and rituals is a challenge. Through learning and exchange, we can foster appreciation and preservation of Laos’ multi-ethnic heritage while still looking towards the future.”

Love every word of that.

I went back to my room to nap away the hottest part of the day, and then emerged for dinner up the road at Utopia, a zen garden and river view restaurant. I got a delicious dinner, a cider, and sat and read my new book while the Mekong River flowed by and it was wonderful.

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I have basically 4 days left here in Luang Prabang, and an increasingly shorter list of things to do before I go. It has been a really nice chance to slow down and think and eat and not worry about anything and sleep a bunch before the chaos that is Vietnam. There’s going to be about 5 weeks of total madness soon, and who knows how I’ll ever be able to describe it all! Until then…

Posted by NinjaLlama 22:47 Archived in Laos Tagged adventure_time Comments (0)

Receptiveness is a choice

I’m tired. I’m fine, but I’m tired. Tired of the constant invasion of my comfort zone, and tired of being on the move. I’m tired of throwing my toilet paper in the trash instead of the toilet, and tired of brushing my teeth with drinking water. I’m tired of being coated in layers of bug spray, sunscreen, sweat, and dirt. I’m tired of wearing the same 10 items. I’m tired of not speaking the language or knowing where anything is. I’m tired of stupid techno music. I’m tired of obnoxious drunken travelers. I’m tired of sharing rooms with half a dozen strangers. I’m tired of having someone else transport me from point A to point B. I still love what I’m doing, but I’m definitely hitting my first wall.

I read a couple articles on travel the other day that contained some observations that I really appreciated.

“Pretentious people are inherently less curious.”

I think I noticed this long before I started traveling, actually. Some people walk from here to there and that’s that. They don’t see the plants growing through the fence and wonder what they are, or the people they pass and wonder where they are going, or the street signs and what they might be directing you to. Some of the most obnoxious people I’ve ever known never EVER ask anything about anyone else. They don’t care. They’re not curious who you are or why you’re here or what drives you. And really, the primary conclusion I can draw from this is that their life must be so BORING. To never explore with a curious mind, to never stumble upon random discoveries and adventures. What a dreadful existence.

The other thing I loved was this. It’s from a post titled “Don’t Ask Me How My Trip Was”:

“Travel is not many things people make it out to be. It is not an automatic cure for ignorance; receptiveness is a choice. It is not the quintessential element for a meaningful life; if that was the case much of the population would be condemned to a worthless life. Nevertheless, travel is unique in that one is forced to experience more, learn more, and make more connections in a short time than in any other facet of life. In effect, nine months feels like a lifetime and it is not easy coming home to a place where little more than the colour of the bathroom has changed.”

I think it speaks for itself, but it really echoes a lot of the things I’ve been thinking about lately. People talk about travel like it’s a magic pill, or like it’s some mandatory activity for wholeness, but realistically it’s completely unattainable for so many people the world over. It just feels so important to see it for what it is, to appreciate that you happened to be born into a circumstance that allowed you to pursue it. To accept that it absolutely can help you to grow and learn and improve as a human, but that the simple act of getting on a plane doesn’t guarantee this. And to be honest with yourself about what you can learn as an outsider and what you can’t.

Posted by NinjaLlama 22:46 Archived in Laos Tagged deep_thoughts Comments (0)

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