Laos: The Best of Countries and the Worst of Countries

Of all the countries we’ve visited prior to Laos on this trip (Thailand, Cambodia, & Vietnam), Laos was my favorite one, and it’s the only country that completely lived up to all my expectations. Conversely, it was Kiran’s least favorite country so far.

To me, aside from a few major cities, Laos (pronounced Lao) is one big remote jungle, dotted with the occasional town or village or hut here and there. To Kiran, while having so much potential, Laos represents to her a land of hazy skies (WAY worse than Hanoi) and respiratory issues caused by nearly every Lao citizen cooking over firewood and nearly every Lao farmer using slash and burn farming techniques that have been outdated for hundreds of years.

On a bus to the capital city of Vientiane toward the end of our stay in Laos, we drove through this apocalyptic scene. Roaring flames jumped to within feet of our bus windows at times.

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Backing up, we flew from Hanoi to the UNESCO World Heritage Site city of Luang Prabang on March 18th, sparing Kiran what may be the most notoriously God-awful border crossing on earth. Most 20-something year old backpackers spend about $18 dollars and 30 hours (of hell) on a bus getting from Hanoi to Luang Prabang (LP). Being flashpackers, I spent $322 dollars on two plane tickets back in November to ensure our trip, and possibly our marriage, wouldn’t end abruptly as a result of that bus ride. We first spent five nights there.

The demographic differences in those who fly around southeast Asia compared to those who bus it are striking. Kiran and I were perhaps two of 4-6 people under the age of 55 years on our flight (a prop!).

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Geri-packers have recently taken over Luang Prabang (LP), but LP has been known for years to backpackers and flashpackers alike as home to a slew of Buddhist temples and monasteries set in a French colonial town. Like I said, the entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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The best known temple complex is Wat Xieng Thong; construction started in the year 1559.
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Buddha is still under construction (restoration/renovation rather)
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Lots of Buddhas
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Even in a temple?!? C’mon, give me a break (sorry for the fuzzy picture, I had to get this one quickly)
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We climbed 200 steps or so to see
Wat Chom Si.

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Great views, but even in a major city, the smokey skies can really be a bummer (the countryside is even worse).
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Hands up,baby hands up (Club Med shout out)
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I’m not really sure what this was doing up here, but I assume it’s from the USSR, especially since it’s broken down.
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On our way back down I had to rest.
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They’ve got some pretty dope cars in LP.
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I stared and stared and stared at this one trying to figure out what it was. Finally some guy standing nearby came over and whispered to me ‘It’s Russian.’

In addition to the manmade wonders of Luang Prabang, the area is blessed with natural wonders as well.

The mighty Mekong rolls through Luang Prabang. This is dry season.

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We took a river cruise one night.

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And saw this dirtie hippy teaching kid monks how to juggle
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During wet season, the water comes within a few feet of these houses we were told.
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Aside from the Mekong River, the best known natural attractions in the area are the Pak Ou caves and the Kuang Si waterfalls. We elected to skip the Pak Ou caves since we’ve developed aversions to both bats and the pungent smell of bat urine, but we did motorbike to the Kuang Si falls one day, check ’em out.
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There’s a rope swing halfway up the falls.
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The best dismount I saw
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Another view. I love this guy’s Michael Jordan clockwise windmill scissor kick pose from the mid-80s slam dunk competition versus Dominique Wilkins. Obviously this guy would have to be left handed.
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Those luscious luscious falls
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Further up the falls
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Further still.

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Finally at the top
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Hey Lady, get out of my shot. I’m trying to photograph the monks.
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On our way back down
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We also saw the Tad Sae waterfalls by dirtbiking (dirt scootering) it out and then taking a boat up the river.
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While beautiful, Tad Sae is relatively unspectacular during the dry season compared to Kuang Si in our opinion. We hear quite spectacular during the monsoon season.

We did a little jungle trekking at Tad Sae and had to channel our inner Indiana Jones.
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There’s also some ziplining there but our $100/day budget did not quite allow for it, considering Kiran wanted to ride an elephant that day as well. Can you see the zipline? It’s hard to tell from these/this picture [s] but the forest floor is about 200 feet below. Those little ‘shrubs’ to the left in the sunshine are actually full size trees.
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Kiran saw a huge spider and said, “I’m getting the ‘F’ outta here!”
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You know Kiran loves elephants and you know I think riding elephants supports elephant imprisonment, but I’ll let you enjoy these photos first before I hopefully make you never want to ride an elephant again.
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Here’s why you should never ride elephants. Can you see how they control the elephant?
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Look closer.
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You see that dark spot on the elephant’s skull?
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That dark spot is a bleeding scab, exactly at the point where we saw the elephant driver (called a mahout) digging his hook into the elephant’s skull in order to control it. We were SO thankful when he got off to take pictures and walked the rest of the way.

I did some wound care and used our water to cleanse the wound.

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Please, don’t ever ride an elephant. If you want to help elephants, make a donation to the World Wildlife Fund. Kiran said she will only go to elephant sanctuaries from now on.

Kiran had a hair appointment one afternoon and paid $19 for color, cut, style AND gratuity. I took the opportunity to take a motorbike ride out to Pak Xeng by myself. Unfortunately, my scooter’s shocks were shot, and the dirt road was pretty bad, so I didn’t quite make it. But it was still an awesome five hour ride into the country.

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Sometimes I’d drive through a village. Generally it would look something like this.
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I pulled over to get some water.
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Soon I was surrounded by kids staring at me like I was an alien who had just landed my spaceship in their village.
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Speaking of out-of-this-world experiences, we learned Luang Prabang had a 16 or 18 lane bowling alley! LP literally has a town curfew, so all the bars and restaurants have to close before midnight. The bowling alley however stays open until 3am or so, and as you can imagine, it gets VERY rowdy late at night, we’re told. As 30-something flashpackers, we showed up after dinner and were the only tourists there. In fact, they even had to turn on the lights for us. We bowled by ourselves until some of the employees ultimately joined us while they waited for the drunken backpacker masses to show up hours later.
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Randomly, we came across a school talent show one day and of course had to stick around and watch.
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And we got up early to see the alms giving ceremony. But if you’re a woman, your not supposed to touch a monk or his belongings, and that’s just sexist. Plus, you shouldn’t give things to people on the street, it only encourages more begging.

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One response to “Laos: The Best of Countries and the Worst of Countries”

  1. Cmoore says :

    I can’t believe you don’t like bats now! I don’t know if we can be friends — like, seriously. And I’m glad Kiran is against elephant riding now.

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