Archive for March, 2008

Mar 27 2008

The High Road

Published by under Vietnam

Just a quick update to let you know that we may be incommunicado for the next few days. We’ve managed to hire a couple of motorcycle drivers here in the small town of Hoi An (yes, different than Ha Noi) to drive us through Vietnam’s Central Highlands. There is nary an ATM where we’re going, so we’re not optimistic about finding the “internets.” We really don’t know what to expect on this escape from the beaten path, but we’re looking forward to seeing it all from a white-knuckled, clinging position.

See you in Dalat!

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Mar 25 2008

Good Morning, Hanoi!

Published by under Hanoi,Vietnam

Lao Airlines = sketchyWe’d heard about the most prevalent scam in Hanoi before ever boarding the plane from Laos. But before I describe it in all its fleecing glory, let me say a little word about the flight. We flew Lao Air, against the advice of everyone who bothers reading the same travel forums we do. This was, of course, because Lao Air’s fare was five dollars cheaper than the competitor. Lao Air has a terrible reputation for some reason or another that we didn’t bother probing, but after taking the flight, I can’t understand why. I mean, our plane didn’t crash once! I will give you that it was nothing more than a puddle-jumper, which means we had to board the plane via ladder, and that the flight was particularly sensitive to turbulence. But what do you expect for $120? Certainly not individual pudding cups of spring water, complete with jagged straw to pierce the plastic lid. And guess what? You GET that. Lao Air is fine by us.

But back to the famous Hanoi scam, which goes like this: you arrive in the Hanoi airport, and you need a taxi into the city. Because you think ahead, you already have a guesthouse booked, so you hire a driver and tell him to take you there. But he doesn’t take you there. Instead, he takes you to a different guesthouse – one that he is in cahoots with – knowing that you couldn’t possibly recognize the correct route to the one you actually booked. Of course, it will be perfectly obvious to you when you arrive that you aren’t at the right guesthouse. Right? Well, that WOULD be the case, except for the fact that the guesthouse he brings you to doesn’t seem to have a name posted over the door, or on any visible signs. And when you pull up, a greeter comes walking out of the guesthouse, all smiles, saying “Welcome to [insert name of the guesthouse you booked]. Because while you were riding in the taxi, did you notice the driver talking on his cell phone? Yeah, he was calling his buddies here to tip them off to the name of the guesthouse you are expecting to find. We’ve seen a lot of scams, but this ranks among the sneakiest and most clever. And from what he hear, it’s ubiquitous.

To get around this trap, we booked airport pickup service through our Hanoi guesthouse ahead of time. It’s a luxury we would normally never pay for, but it became well worth the price the moment we touched down in Hanoi, walked straight through all the over-eager taxi hawkers, and right up to the man holding the sign with my name on it. Even if he did spell it “Pen.”

It becomes clear very quickly that Hanoi isn’t like other cities. It’s only been fully open to foreign tourists for ten years or so, and it shows. Simply put, the tourism infrastructure is still experiencing growing pains. Despite succesfully scheduling our airport pickup, our guesthouse managed to lose our room reservation. How is it even possible to know we are arriving at the airport, but not have a room reserved for us? So, after only one night, we had to pack it up and move to a different guesthouse. The manager on duty didn’t see any problem with this, and was legitimately surprised that we were unhappy with the situation. Looking back, this was our first lesson in the culture clash that exists between Hanoi and Western visitors when it comes to the concept of customer service. But that story will require a separate entry to follow. For now, let me simply ask for someone out there to do Hanoi a favor, and translate “the customer is always right” into Vietnamese. Their English just isn’t up to par with their Latin: they seem fluent in “caveat emptor.”

With no room at the inn, we ventured out to find a new guesthouse, rolling suitcases in tow. Now, any expedition into the streets of Hanoi is something you have to brace yourself for. Even if you’ve been traveling for seven months around the world, nothing can prepare you for the Hanoi pedestrian experience. There are several reasons for this…

The one I can’t possibly exaggerate. There are seemingly no traffic lights, stop signs, or painted lines on the streets of Hanoi. What there are, though, are motorcycles. Endless swarms of them. You’ll never forget the first time you try to cross the street in Hanoi. Your instinct is to look both ways, and wait for a break in traffic before stepping into the road. But after ten minutes of standing on the sidewalk waiting, you begin to think that there may never BE a break in traffic. And you’d be right. The motorcycles fly five-wide on both sides of the road, and three-wide over the imaginary center line. With no traffic lights or signs to impede their progress, they weave in and out among each other, always an inch away from horrific mutilating crashes, and often closer.

This much is for certain: sometime during your ten-minute wait on the sidewalk, you’ll be shown how to cross the road. While you continue to wait patiently, a little Vietnamese girl will do something that looks, to you, like certain suicide. As you watch with slackened jaw, she will step unflinchingly into the stream of motorcycles. But instead of instant death, she finds safe passage. A tiny Moses, she walks straight into the river, and despite the fact that the motorcycles never slow down, they miraculously part smoothly around her as she proceeds to the other side.

But whatever fear you felt on her behalf is nothing compared to the horror that awaits you. Because this is the way that you, too, must cross the road. It will take you another ten minutes to accept it, but trust me: there IS no other way. I can only give you two pieces of advice here: maintain a steady pace so the motorcycles can predict your movements, and whatever you do, DON’T look into oncoming traffic. The sheer terror may turn you into a pillar of salt. In fact, maybe you should do the whole thing with your eyes closed. The motorcycles will still never hit you, and there’s less risk of a paralyzing panic attack when you hit the center of the street, and realize that you are blocked from sidewalk safety on both sides by five rows of speeding motorcycles.

2. Moto and Cyclo Drivers

Riding a cyclo in Hanoi, Vietnam
Brittany rides a cyclo!

The two most prevalent forms of hired transport in Hanoi are the moto and the cyclo. “Moto” means a guy with a motorcycle who wants to sell you the sitting space right behind him on his bike. “Cyclo” is a contraption involving a two-passenger seat mounted to the front of a bicycle. The tireless driver shuttles you around on pedal power. Motos and cyclos do their part in filling up the teeming streets, right alongside the normal racing motorcycles. But more importantly, they fill up the sidewalks. Supply apparently far exceeds demand in this industry, which means it’s impossible to walk down a sidewalk in the Old Town without being accosted by the always persistent, sometimes aggressive, drivers. As we walked with our suitcases, one feisty moto driver spotted us, and didn’t want to take “no” for an answer. Our conversation went something like this…


By the seventh or eighth “no,” he had managed to walk up and try to block our path on the sidewalk. What he said next may shock you…


For reasons that remain lost in translation, he finally accepted this as an invitation to pat my cheek, grab my arm, and squeeze my nipple. In that order. Laughing all the while as if he was telling a joke that we were both in on. I made a note on our map to avoid that street in the future.

3. Nonsensical Street Names
Not nonsensical in that they’re in Vietnamese, because that is perfectly sensical, just not to me. No, the street names are nonsensical in that they CHANGE every couple of blocks. I understand that the street names are a reflection of historical Hanoi, when each street was named after its prevalent form of trade. That is, you knew exactly what you’d find on cloth street, toy street, and MSG street. But it’s time to make way for progress when I become officially lost again every two blocks, and even my ultra zoomed-in city map can’t keep up with half of the street names. Add to this the fact that staring bewilderedly at a map makes you a prime target for the moto and cyclo drivers, and that your only escape from their nipple squeezes is to blindly cross over a dozen “lanes” of weaving, speeding motorcycles, and I think you can agree that having constant street names is NOT TOO MUCH TO ASK FOR.

In spite of all challenges, we finally did find a guesthouse with room for us, and with time to spare for a tiny dinner at a tiny table on a tiny stool. Welcome to Hanoi!

Tiny dining in Hanoi, Vietnam

P.S. The glasses on our dinner table are filled with bia hoi, which literally means “draft beer” in Vietnamese. The difference between draft beer at home and draft beer in Vietnam is that at home it doesn’t cost 30-50 cents. We’re going to have to host a showdown between Laos’ Beerlao and Vietnam’s concept of bia hoi to officially determine where I’m going to retire.

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Mar 24 2008

Laos: Last days

Published by under Laos

I never knew how a simple bus ride could be an illuminating cultural experience until we boarded the bus from Vang Vieng to Vientiane, Laos. We’d avoided the tourist offices touting “cheap” minibus rides to Vientiane and headed straight for the local bus station, where the six-hour bus ride cost us about $2.

We’d arrived at the station about 15 minutes before take off, which was really good for Ben and me. Typically we’re careening through the parking lot five minutes after the bus/train/boat/plane is schedule to depart. So once we’d purchased our tickets we found a wooden bench under the shady thatched-roof shed that was the bus station and sat down, thinking that surely no one, not even the bus driver, would arrive this early. So we were surprised when the man behind the counter grunted at us and pointed towards a bus.

“Bus,” he said.

“Oh, to Vientiane?” we asked.

His reply was to simply pick up our bags, walk over to the bus, throw them into the storage compartment, and motion for us to board.

We climbed the stairs to find a bus jam-packed with locals. I know, a bus in Laos full of Lao people?? How weird! But it is weird, really. Because in S.E. Asia, there are two economies: one for the “real” people and one for tourists. Most restaurants have two menus, one with wildly inflated prices. All street vendors and store owners quote prices at least three times that which they’d quote a local. AT LEAST. And when it comes to transportation, very few tourists trek out to the local bus or train station, instead opting for more comfortable rides offered by tourist agencies. If you do happen to make it out to the local station, they offer “VIP” or “Deluxe” tickets, meaning your ride will have air-con and make fewer stops, but really meaning it’s the bus for tourists. But Ben and I didn’t pay that extra VIP dollar. And we were genuinely surprised to be confronted with a busload of Lao people, instead of a busload of tourists, like usual.

The bus folks stared at us momentarily before resuming their previous activity, namely, grabbing fistfuls of sticky rice out of a plastic bag being passed around and shoving it into their mouths.

A family towards the front of the bus was molding the communal sticky rice into little bowls with their fingers, digging their hands into another plastic bag full of some sort of meat bits and green leaves, and placing a dollop of the mixture into their makeshift bowls before downing the whole thing in one bite. The undesirable bits of meat they’d flick into the aisle. Ben and I gave each other this-is-going-to-be-interesting glances before squeezing down the middle.

Did I mention the bus was packed? There were exactly two seats left. I smiled at a young woman as I sat down in the vacant seat beside her; she warily smiled back and hugged her parcels a bit tighter. I tried to figure out a way to fit my lanky legs into the small space between our seat and the one in front of us. It didn’t take me long to realize that it was simply not physically possible. The woman watched bemusedly, laughing when I gave up and just stuck one leg out into the aisle. I looked back to see that Ben, a few rows behind me, was experiencing similar difficulties.

Just because there were technically no seats left doesn’t mean that we would be the last people to get to Vientiane that afternoon. No! That is not the Lao way! Before we even left the station, a dozen more people had crammed onto the bus, sitting on boxes in the aisles and squeezing three to a seat. Apparently buses in Laos do not get “full” nor do they stop selling tickets when they run out of seats.

Our journey got off to a rough start as apparently no one had thought to fill up the gas tank before loading the bus with people. We rolled into a nearby station, but the power wasn’t working in the city that day (this happened in every city we visited in Laos), so the gas pumps wouldn’t pump. Eventually some guy burst out of the woods carrying a plastic container full of what I assumed was petrol. Whatever it was, it enabled us to officially get on the road.

The four rotating fans attached to the bus’ ceiling, manufactured circa 1975, did little to help the sticky heat. My legs stuck uncomfortably to the light-green leather of the seats. What I really don’t understand is how all S.E. Asians wear long pants and coats all the time – they see this as their “cold” season! At one point I looked back at Ben to find him drenched – his hair wet, his shirt sweat-stained – and cursing under his breath, before I noticed that the Lao man beside him was wearing a wool hat and seemed perfectly comfortable.

As we ventured out into the beautiful Lao countryside, we kept stopping at small, dusty villages along the road and picking up MORE people. At first I thought that they were just hopping a ride to the next village, but it didn’t take me long to realize that, nope, they were in for the long haul. People hung out of the bus doors (flapping open the entire trip as no one bothered to close them), sat on top of one another, squeezed onto the aisle and the stairs of the bus, sitting on bags or the floor. We were so packed in, I couldn’t have moved if I wanted to: my legs were straddling my backpack, wedged in on one side by a woman, on the other by a giant plastic bag of who-knows-what on which two men sat.

At one point in our journey we stopped on the side of a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. A man at the front of the bus made an announcement and people started to unload. We were completely confused: what was going on? We can’t be there yet. We’re in the middle of the jungle! Then I saw a woman hike up her skirt, squat on the ground and PEE IN FRONT OF EVERYONE. I looked around to see that everyone else was peeing too! Just on the side of the road like that, all around the bus, no qualms about it. While I was initially appalled, and can’t say that I joined in the fun – really, what’s the harm? Everyone has to admit they’ve pulled over and peed during horrible family road trips. Might as well pee in front of a busload of strangers! Am I right?

We arrived at the crowded Vientiane bus station and piled off the bus. It was like watching a clown car unload. We were stiff, sore and sweaty, but after avoiding the typical tuk-tuk and hotel hawkers, our first order of business was hunting for an acceptable guesthouse. Our first stop was the cheapest option in the city at about $5/night. In most places in Laos, $5 will buy you a decent room, but in Vientiane, it was a total stinking hole. We suffered through one night there, but became convinced that the swarms of mosquitoes hovering above the beds were infested with malaria. We decided to switch guesthouses the next day. We’ve never before switched rooms while in a city, and based on the hovels we’ve previously subjected ourselves to, you can imagine how bad this one must’ve been. We found another one just down the street for about $9/night. It was only after we’d moved in that we discovered the human turd floating on the floor of the shared bathroom. We ended up staying anyway – a testament to the conditions we’ve learned to tolerate on this trip, and how cheap and lazy we really are.

If you’re ever traveling through Laos, you’ll sooner or later find yourself in Vientiane. This isn’t because it’s a particularly attractive destination in itself, but, as the national capital, it serves as the necessary stopover en route to most locations.

Vientiane is the quietest capital city I’ve ever encountered. The traffic is slow and sparse; the atmosphere is relaxed. We didn’t do too much during our two days in Vientiane. There isn’t really much TO do. Sure, there are a few wats and museums, but none really piqued our interest enough to visit. We did have several errands to run to prep for our trip into Vietnam.

We cheated a little bit. One of our first errands was to the Lao Airlines office, where we booked a flight to Hanoi, Vietnam, instead of taking the budget-conscious bus ride, even though the flight was six times the price. But listen! We had reasons. First of all, it would have been a 24-hour ride through topsy-turvy Lao mountains instead of a mere one-hour puddle jump. Even still, that wouldn’t have been enough to convince us to shell out.

Our first day in the city, I’d asked the guesthouse receptionist about tickets for the bus ride to Hanoi, despite reading bad things about the ride during my research. A guest who was checking out overheard me.

“Man, are you talking about the bus ride to Hanoi?” he asked.

“Yeah, have you done it?”

“Yes. Don’t do it! Trust me. I’ve been traveling for five years. It was the worst bus ride of my life. Fly if you can. FLY!”

At first I was skeptical. I mean, he was one of those weird travelers with the dreadlocks and the fisherman pants and the musty smell. Then I realized that if even THAT guy is telling me I should fly, I should probably fly. Based on our own experience with Lao buses, we allowed ourselves a little splurge to avoid what would’ve been the second, and far more uncomfortable, 24-hour bus ride of our trip.

Even the nights in Vientiane are quiet. Laos has a curfew of 11:30, so most of the bars shut down around then. Happy hours around here often start before 4:00. There’s always talk amongst those in the know of slightly out-of-the-way discos that stay open late, but we had neither the energy nor desire to seek them out.

turns out coconut milk isn't that goodWe wandered the riverside restaurants and market, picking up Beerlaos on the way. At one stop, I saw a guy selling young green coconuts for people to buy and drink the milk. I walked up to the stand and motioned that I’d like one. He picked it up, tossed it to his friend who proceeded to violently whack at the top with a machete. Once the guy had punctured a hole in the coconut, he stuck a pink bendy straw in it and handed the whole thing to me. I was quite pleased.

Turns out that actual coconut milk is pretty gross and tastes like sour water. Neither Ben nor I enjoyed it much.

“Great, so now what are we going to do with this giant coconut?” I said, holding it away from me distastefully.

“Uh, we’re gonna smash it,” Ben replied, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

“There’s no way you’re going to be able to crack that thing open.”

“What do you mean?? I could crack it open if I want to, I’ll tell you that much,” Ben said, now viewing it as a challenge.

“Ben, that other guy had to take a machete to it to make one tiny hole!”

smashing coconutsMy protestations didn’t stop him from hoisting the coconut above his head and throwing it against the cement with a manly roar. After two attempts, he realized that he’d only succeeded in spraying himself with coconut milk. Also, people were staring.

Upon our return to the guesthouse, we realized we were out of water. An unfortunate reality of traveling in S.E. Asia is that you can’t drink the tap water. Honestly, it’s a gigantic pain in the ass because you can’t even brush your teeth with it. So that night, Ben had to run out to find a mini-market that happened to stay open past curfew to buy a bottle.

Wandering around at night as a single guy, Ben learned that those same drivers that harass us with calls of “tuk-tuk? tuk-tuk?” during the daytime moonlight as dealers and pimps. When Ben declined their offers of “hashish? opium?” they quickly changed gears and whispered, “lady?”

He refused the creepy tuk-tuk drivers/dealers/pimps only to be approached by actual women (or nearly-women) on the backs of motorbikes. “You want friend?” they’d say. Ben was solicited no less than four times in the span of two blocks. He didn’t come home empty handed, though, as he was successful in his quest for bottled water.

The next day we flew to Hanoi, Vietnam, in the smallest plane I’ve ever been in. After our relaxing time in Laos, Vietnam was a huge shock…

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Mar 22 2008

And now for something completely different…

Published by under Laos

It’s difficult to steer myself away from the usual nonsensical ramblings I fill this blog with, but while traveling in Laos, something important came to our attention that we’d like to share.

File this under things we never learned in American History class: Between 1964 and 1973, the United States sustained one of the largest aerial bombing campaigns in history, to the tune of two million tons of ordnance, and a cost of US$2 million PER DAY… against Laos?

Despite the declaration of Laos’ neutrality under the 1962 Geneva Accords, the North Vietnamese slyly routed their infamous supply road, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, directly through Lao territory. In an effort to cut off Viet Cong provisions, the U.S. responded by blanketing eastern Laos with more bombs than it used WORLDWIDE during WWII.

At that time, the U.S. government denied responsibility for any such involvement in Laos, and largely succeeded in preventing the American population (and the world) from learning about the nine-year bombing campaign until years later. Today, historians appropriately refer to the Lao theatre as “The Secret War.” And the campaign has earned Laos the distinction of being, per capita, the most heavily bombed country in the world.

But the true war against Laos didn’t end with the close of the Vietnam War. 15 of Laos’ 18 provinces were heavily bombed during this nine year period, and somewhere between 10 and 30% of these bombs landed, but never exploded. Bombs or mines that don’t explode properly are called unexploded ordnance (UXO) and Laos knows all about them. Between 1973 and 2004, 5,700 Laotians were killed by UXO. Another 5,600 were injured. A big part of the problem is that the most common type of UXO in Laos is a cluster bomb that, when broken into pieces, resembles colorful balls or toys. Inquisitive children make up a tragic percentage of Laos’ continued annual UXO-related death toll.

Enter MAG. The Mines Advisory Group is a UK-based humanitarian organiziation dedicated to clearing UXO from the world. In their own words…

“MAG moves into current and former conflict zones to clear the remnants of those conflicts, enabling recovery and assisting the development of affected populations. MAG consults with local communities and works to lessen the threat of death and injury, while releasing reclaimed and safe land and other vital resources back to the local population, helping countries to rebuild and develop their social and economic potential.”

MAG (co-laureate of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize) began work in Laos in 1994. Since that time, MAG has worked both privately, and in accordance with the government of LAO P.D.R., to clear Laos of the UXO dropped by the United States. Their efforts are easily visible to travelers today, in the form of a growing number of red posts that mark fields and forests officially “cleared” of UXO. Even better, MAG trains and employs member of the local community in each of its UXO-cleaning efforts.

I think we’ve managed to use this blog for just about everything except proselytizing so far, so let’s change that trend. We really believe in what MAG is doing in Laos, and around the world. If you’re interested in learning more about MAG’s efforts, including how you can help from your desk chair, we encourage you to check out the following links. And we promise, a return to the inane and irreverent is nigh.

About MAG

MAG in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic

Donate to MAG (information on corporate involvement available as well)

Support MAG by buying cool t-shirts!

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Mar 21 2008

So no one told you life was gonna be this way…

Published by under Laos

Rental river tubes in Vang Vieng, LaosA “rite of passage” on the IndoChinese backpacker circuit. That’s how our latest Lonely Planet guide (we’d have quite a collection if we didn’t always trade them in at used bookstores) describes tubing down the Nam Song river in Vang Vieng, Laos. Since “rite of passage” is a sufficiently epic description for my taste (somewhere between “trial by fire” and anything involving “ancient runes”), we caught a mountain-scaling, nausea-inducing bus from Luang Prabang. Several hours later, we found ourselves at an abandoned WWII airplane landing strip that the Lao have dubbed the Vang Vieng bus station.

Because Vang Vieng’s founding fathers were savvy enough to set up shop right on the bus line that would one day connect Luang Prabang and Vientiane, there’s a good chance you will find yourself passing through Vang Vieng if you ever visit Laos. With only your personal happiness in mind, we have compiled the following Do’s and Dont’s for your future visit…

  • DO eat at the Organic Mulberry Farm restaurant for creative meals with fresh vegetables. Try a mulberry shake or mulberry pancake! The rooms upstairs are a good place to sleep as well. Meaning they’re far enough away from the riverside hovels full of seedy backpackers that you probably won’t get robbed. We didn’t!

  • DON’T patronize Babylon Restaurant and Guesthouse (it’s two doors down from Mulberry on the main road). When we visited, the owner had posted a sign reading: “Due to unfortunate circumstances, ISRAELIS are not welcome at Babylon.”

    I had to read this twice to convince myself I wasn’t seeing things. By the time you arrive, the sign will probably have evolved into “WHITES ONLY.” Don’t join the crowds in the cafe who apparently have no problem with this sort of bigotry.

  • Nam Song river in Vang Vieng, LaosDO get to the river with a rental tube early in the day. The trip down the river is several hours long, even if you don’t stop at any of the makeshift Beer Lao bars lining the river shore. And surprisingly, it can actually get chilly on the river by mid-afternoon.

  • DO stop at the makeshift Beerlao bars lining the river shore!

  • But DON’T patronize the first bar on the river circuit. You’ll know which one I mean, because all the enthusiastic Lao children who swarm onto your tube at the river launch point will be sure to guide you right into this bar. As a result, it’s the most crowded on the river. But leading tourists into bars is not an appropriate way for children to be spending their afternoons. Discourage this bar owner’s evil, child-exploiting tactics by taking your business to any one of the MANY, MANY competing bars.

  • DO take a flight on some of the zip-line or swing systems that some bars have set up over the water. Marvel at the fact that you’d have your doubts about climbing a twenty-foot STEEL tower built into the riverbank at home, but here, it’s somehow not disconcerting that the tower is built of BAMBOO. And if you take in a mouthful of Nam Song river during splashdown (like I did), make sure to quickly chase it with some Beerlao to kill all the bacteria with alcohol. Hey, it SOUNDS medically legit, doesn’t it?

And most importantly…

  • DON’T lose track of days while lounging on a couch in one of the many identical bars that, for some reason, air episodes of “Friends’ ALL DAY LONG. What inspired this strange phenomenon, and who are all these glassy-eyed people staring unblinkingly at the TV screens day and night? I’m sure it all has something to do with the guy who stands out front, displaying the fashion sense of Captain Jack Sparrow, and whispering “hashish!” to passers-by. But instead of investigating further, I’ll just take a picture to celebrate the idea of spending thousands or dollars to travel half-way around the world… to watch re-runs of Friends.
"Friends" hypnotizes the masses in Vang Vieng, Laos
Cuz you’re there for me too!

P.S. Happy Birthday, Dad!

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Mar 19 2008

Luang Prabang: Him want to marry you!

Published by under Laos

It strikes without warning and without mercy. Even the most experienced travelers succumb to its monstrosity. We did not heed their warnings: convinced of our invincibility, we threw caution to the wind. But the dreaded Bangkok belly will not be evaded.

I’d go into more detail, but I REALLY don’t think you want to know.

Well, I say “we” but I mean Ben. I was actually able to avoid the Bangkok belly. There are two possible reasons for this:

1. I am invincible/I have the stomach of steel/I am secretly Wolverine
2. I don’t run up to street vendors screaming, “what is that?? I’ve never had that before! I’ll take three!”

And so it was that after a three-day voyage into Luang Prabang, Laos, Ben found himself curled up in bed, sticking close to the toilet, unable to leave our guesthouse to explore the place we’d journeyed so long to see.

While he napped, I decided to venture out into the city, occasionally returning to bring provisions and make sure he was still alive. And what happens when a single girl hits the town in Laos? She gets a date and a marriage proposal! But first, a little about my surroundings.

Luang PrabangLuang Prabang is a sleepy city nestled on a peninsula at the confluence of two mighty rivers – the Mekong and the Nam Khan. The misty rivers carving a path through dramatic, blue mountains form a picturesque backdrop for the town’s wide, shady streets. Thanks to years of French colonization, the city hosts a strange dichotomy: ornate wats neighbor austere French mansions; greasy food vendors set up street carts in front of upscale European brasseries. Our guidebook calls the city “tonic for the soul” and I cannot think of a more apt description. Despite being one of – if not THE – biggest tourist draw in Laos, the small city moves at an extremely relaxed pace. Mostly, the place is just so gosh darn quiet. As I sat in a busy café enjoying pasta and chocolate croissants (yes, really, in Laos!), I could hear only the twitter of birds, the clink of ice against glass and the soft rustle of monks shuffling down the street.

Well, there is one more noise. In any city outside of America there are hordes of dogs that wander the streets. People seem to take care of them, feeding them scraps and letting them sleep on their stoops. So you will see crazy stray dogs yelping at geckos on the sidewalk. But even the dogs in Luang Prabang seem petite! I didn’t see a single dog that was taller than a foot off the ground. It’s as if some feral dachshund showed up in town, seduced all the women with his big-city bad-dog charm, and left lots of pregnant dogs of all breeds in his wake.

In my wanderings of the city that afternoon, I stopped to watch an old man building a bamboo ladder in his workshop when a young Lao guy speeding by on a motorbike slammed on his brakes beside me.

“Hello, hello! Where you from?” he said.

“Hey, um… America.” I replied, trying to figure out what he could possibly be selling.

“You want to have beer tonight?” he asked.

I was bewildered. “Er… no, that’s okay.”

“Okay!” he said, smiling as he sped off again. I was left confused: did that just happen? WHAT just happened? And perhaps I should not have been so hasty in my rejection. I did appreciate his direct, no-games-playing approach, after all.

view from Phu Si, Luang PrabangI decided to end my afternoon with a walk to a wat on a steep hill in the middle of town called Phu Si. The wat itself is unspectacular – basically just a small, whitewashed room with a gold Buddha statue. But the views are spectacular enough to justify the entrance fee. At the top of the hill, I ran into some fellow travelers from the slow boat ride, and sat chatting with them as the sun drifted behind the mountains across the Mekong.

On my way back down the hill, I ran into, and attempted to pass, a large, laughing family of Thai tourists. Upon seeing me try to slide past her, the woman I assumed to be the matriarch squealed with delight, put her arm through mine and began to march down the stairs with me on one side, a young man on the other, her head held high and giggling like a school girl. She demanded that lots of pictures be taken. It’s strange, but certainly not uncommon, for people to grab my arm (or Ben’s) and want to take a picture with us. This is clearly because people mistake us for beautiful celebrities, so I was not put off by her behavior.

The woman paused on the stairs and started chatting away with me in rapid-fire Thai as I stared back blankly. It soon became clear, as she pointed back and forth between us, that she was trying to set me up with the young man at her side, who I took to be her son.

“Law, yes? Law?” she said to me, gesturing towards her son. Thanks to Ben, I knew that “law” is Thai for handsome.*

“Yes, law!” I emphatically agreed, producing raucous laughter from the group. She asked me several more questions, none of which I understood. Who knows what I agreed to.

I eventually tried to take their leave, but ran into them again at the bottom of the stairs, where I found them buying trinkets from children on the street selling souvenirs to tourists. The mother ran over to me giddily and began putting a bracelet on my wrist. I tried to refuse, but she simply motioned for her son to come finish clasping the bracelet, which, much to my surprise, he eagerly did.

The souvenir-selling children began to flock, saying “you so lovely! You so beautiful!” as the man fumbled with the bracelet on my arm, and his family watched and took photos. One small girl, who obviously spoke Lao, English and Thai, acted as our translator.

“Her love you,” she said to me. “Him love you, too. Him want to marry you.”

“Marry, ok? Marry, ok?” his mother said excitedly, upon hearing this word.

I laughed, but reluctantly shook my head. “No, I don’t think so. I’m sorry,” I said.

This, of course, like everything I said, produced hysterical laughter from the entire Thai family. Another woman in the group motioned that I should at least give my phone number to him. I disappointedly gestured that I had no phone number to give, said a reluctant goodbye, and went home to tend to my sick boyfriend.

But once again I questioned my decision. I mean the man DID buy me jewelry within minutes of making my acquaintance. And I wouldn’t mind living in beautiful, golden Thailand for the rest of my life. What’s a girl to do? So, dear readers, I put the question to you:

POLL: Should Brittany have accepted the marriage proposal?

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On our second (and final) day in Luang Prabang, Ben was feeling better, so we decided to visit a waterfall about an hour outside of the city. We hired a song tao driver, packed some snacks, and set off. Driving through Laos is an experience in itself. The natural scenery is stunningly wild and beautiful. The tiny villages sprinkled along the roads provide a glimpse of rural Lao life. Children come out to chase your truck and wave as you pass. I say “roads” but it would be more accurate to say “giant potholes.” That’s if the road is paved at all. Oh, and what’s that in front of the truck causing the driver to honk wildly? Just a few gigantic water buffalo.

The Tat Kuang Si waterfall is in a public park that has a relatively high entrance fee. But for those of you traveling to Laos: SO WORTH IT. A high, multi-tiered waterfall spills into bright, turquoise pools, surrounded by dramatic caves and exotic foliage. It was so beautiful I wanted to build a tiny bamboo hut on the water’s edge in which I could sit and stare at the waterfall for the rest of my days. I almost had Ben talked into the idea when he reminded me that the new season of Lost just started, and don’t I want to get home to find out what happens? And it’s true, I do.

IMG_5470So he did eventually lug me out of the park, but not before we took a swim in one of the designated swimming areas. At the most popular swimming hole, someone had attached a rope swing to an overhanging tree. While Ben managed to swing from the rope and into the pool like a normal person, I have lost all upper body strength (did I ever have any?) and was unable to hoist myself up on the rope properly. The result was me being dragged into the pool and face-planting, belly-flop-style, into the frigid water.

You can see Ben’s splash here and my not-so-graceful attempt here.

That evening was spent chasing down a traditional Luang Prabang dish that Ben had his heart set on sampling. Something involving river weed and dried buffalo skin. I have no idea how our guidebook made that sound appetizing to him. We ran up and down the main street looking at menus and asking waiters in very rough Lao if they carried the meal, but every restaurant either had no tables available or was out of stock.

Eventually I was able to talk some sense into Ben: perhaps our failure was fate’s way of saying he was not meant to consume this dish. And isn’t this the kind of thing that gave him Bangkok belly in the first place? I mean, dried buffalo skin? Seriously??

We decided that downing several bottles of Beerlao, which may as well be the national drink of Laos, was an authentic enough experience for the evening.

*You’ll have to ask Ben how we know what “law” means. It involves a ten-year-old Thai girl with a crush.

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