Monday, May 18, 2009

Laos 1

Laos is beautiful. The pace of Laos is just as beautiful. The endless gentle hills provide enough food to fill the skinny Loatian frames and enough bamboo and wood for shelter. Store owners commonly leave their stores unattended, and guest house workers would make an extra move on their board game before attending to your need. Nothing is urgent in Laos.

It was refreshing to not be viewed as a money $ign. Instead, I was constantly invited over for customary lao-lao (the more incredible horrible tasting rice whisky) shots, and approached out of curiosity, not as a ploy to extract money out of me (this never happens in Vietnam).

On top of this, the setting is surreal. Laos, with only 6 million people, is about the same size as its neighboring countries, but has signifigantly less people, 85 million in Vietnam and 60 million in Thailand. This leaves most of it natural beauty untouched.

After a quick jaunt in Vientiene, the most unassuming capital city I’ve seen, I settled into Vang Viene. My bungalow, on the other side of this bridge, was spaced out on a big grass field. Commonly, water buffalos, ducks and chicken would venture past me as I lounged on my hammock. In all directions limestone karst mountains jutted out of the ground, catching a layer of morning fog as it blew past. When the tropical rains came (it was monsoon season), the mountains acted as ping pong paddles, volleying the thunder sound waves back and forth, taking a full 30 seconds to slowly fade out. The week after I left, sudden heavy rains raised the water level, washing away a bridge, along with a few of the makeshift bars upstream.
The main draw of Vang Viene is not the scenery, (although it should be) it’s the tubing. At around noon each day, everyone takes tuk-tuks 2 miles up the river. Every hundred meters or so there are makeshift bars blaring music. As you float by they throw ropes out to latch onto so they can pull you in. Everyone has ambitions of floating all the way back to town, but no one ever stumbles past the 5th bar before dark. Also, every bar finds the closest highest tree and attaches a rope swing or a zipline. Most of them are 20-30 feet high. A shot of lao whisky and a shot of rope swing adrenaline will easily cure yesterdays hang over.

34 kilometers (21 miles) from Luang Prabang is a beautiful cascading waterfall. After a few days in Vang Viene, we decided to pass on the tuk-tuk ride and bike. In typical Jesse style, we got a late start, riding through the rolling hills in midday Laos sun. At the 12 km mark, a local slowed down his motorcycle to inquire about me. Him and his friend on the back were on their way to a lake, but decided to be my pace car for the last 22 kilometers. After I told him we were headed to the waterfall, he changed his whole plans and joined me. Between my raspy breaths and over the humming of his machine, he proudly told me all about his family and town, and wanted to learn more about the falang on the bike.

After our ride in the humid SE Asia air, I didn’t want anything more than this

The above pic is the bottom of the cascade. After a cold dip and 5 grilled plaintains, we hiked to the swimming hole above the main fall. The views were sweeping. Untouched and green. Really really green. … yes, I am the sunburnt one. The price we had to pay for this view: another 34 kilometers back.

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