Laos

Hanoi, Vietnam

Here I am in Hanoi, wrapping up my trip to Northern Vietnam, and I’m telling you about Laos. So it goes. 

Laos is the chillest country in Southeast Asia. It’s the only ASEAN member whose capital could be described as sleepy. A South African barkeep at a Mexican restaurant in Vang Vieng told me that the PDR in Lao PDR stands for “please don’t rush.” Traveling in Laos pretty much requires that you take it easy. Clear information is hard to come by, roads are twisty and bus rides slow, ATMs uncertain. But things have a way of working out in the end.

Luang Prabang (photos, yet more photos)

After the jittery chaos and dusty heat of Cambodia, Luang Prabang was a welcome relief. Cool, misty, lush, hemmed in by rivers and surrounded by green mountains, Luang Prabang is lovely, and the town itself — the touristed bit, anyway — is strung with temples full of chanting monks, as well as boutiques and upscale restaurants that made it feel more like Mill Valley or Sausalito than anywhere else in Southeast Asia. On a day trip to the nearby waterfall, I wandered into a butterfly breeding center where I mentioned to the European founder that this was the first place in Southeast Asia that I could seriously imagine retiring. “Well,” he said, “nothing much ever happens here. But then, nothing happens in heaven.”

If you happen to find yourself in Luang Prabang, take the time to indulge in some fine dining at one of the fancy restaurants in town. I recommend l’Elephant. But also head down to the night market and go to the far end for a giant baguette sandwich with the freshest, most delicious avocados you’ve ever had, all for something like $2.

On my second pass through town, after a loop through the north, I also took a weaving class with Ock Pop Tock, which seemed to surprise everyone there, since weaving is women’s work. If you’ve never sat at a loom and created a piece of cloth, I recommend it. I can’t claim that I fully understand how the machine works — there are a lot of knots involved in creating the actual pattern — but at least I have a sense of what the work is like.

Trekking in Luang Namtha (photos)

After lingering in Luang Prabang a little longer than I intended, I headed to Luang Namtha, in the northwest, for some trekking in the Nam Ha Protected Area. I was dreading the long minivan ride, but it turned out there were just four passengers, including a Lao physics teacher who gave us information along the way. With space to spread out and the leeway to ask for stops when we needed them, the trip was far more comfortable than similar journeys in Thailand or Myanmar.

In Luang Namtha, I booked a Green Discovery Laos jungle trek with one of my fellow bus passengers, and the next morning we walked off into the forest. The hike was more strenuous than the treks I’d done in Thailand and Myanmar, with long climbs and descents along slippery mud trails that clung to cliff edges. I was grateful for the bamboo walking pole the cook cut for me. When I was able to take my eyes off my feet, I savored the jungliest of jungles I’ve yet been to, a damp, ever-shifting world of micro-environments: now a grove of wild bananas with their giant leaves, then a cool, dark stand of bamboo hung with spiderwebs, then a passageway through towering old growth hardwoods wrapped in choking vines.

We spent the night at a jungle camp of bamboo shelters in a bamboo forest. Over a bamboo-wood fire, the cook boiled bamboo root soup inside a log of green bamboo, while our guide spent a couple of hours slicing bamboo into strips to use as twine on his rice farm, which he works in the off season. (He would carry the heavy bundle out of the forest the next day, saving himself the $3 or so that he would otherwise have spent on a year’s supply of manufactured twine.) It’s hard to imagine how Laotians would live without bamboo.

The night was very cold, and I spent much of it hoping it would be morning soon. We were grateful for the rekindled fire at dawn, and for the coffee — three-in-one packets in water boiled in bamboo.

In the night we had heard several gunshots far off, and as we hiked that day, we spotted a trail of blood heading off into the woods. Local people aren’t supposed to hunt in the protected area, but they do, and the government doesn’t have the money to pay for enough rangers to stop them.

Down the Nam Ou (photos)

Information in Laos can be hard to come by. I’d been told in Luang Prabang that there was no way to get directly from Luang Namtha to Muang Khiaw, on the Nam Ou River (redundant, since nam means river), but in Luang Namtha I discovered otherwise. On another half-empty bus, I headed east. I met an American on board who jumped off in the middle of nowhere to flag down a bus to Phonsali, near the Chinese border. A few days and towns later, I ran into him again, and I found out that he’d ridden most of the way up on a pile of rice sacks in the back of the bus, then come down the Nam Ou on a similarly crowded boat; in both directions, he was the only foreigner.

The route I took wasn’t quite so far off the beaten track, but tourism to the Nam Ou is still a trickle, especially compared to places like Vang Vieng. It’s impossible to book rooms ahead in these little towns, so you just have to show up and wing it. Muang Khua, the first town we came to, seemed not to know quite what to do with us foreigners. It’s a dumpy little down with dumpy little guesthouses where no one speaks English, and just a few restaurants that cater to foreigners. After dinner I wanted ice cream, and the only thing I could find was a Chinese shop selling Chinese popsicles for something like 20 cents a piece. I tried one and immediately spit it out: it tasted like chemicals.

The way you travel on from Muang Khua is you go down to the river at about 9 am, and you buy a ticket from the rickety shack where prices are written, in English, for the two main destinations: Nong Khiaw, where most travelers go, and the smaller village of Muang Ngoi, which comes about an hour before. I opted for Muang Ngoi, and I’m glad I did. Muang Ngoi is set at a beautiful bend in the river, with spectacular karsts towering above it. But what sets it apart is as much what it doesn’t have as what it does: no ATMs, no paved roads, no high-end hotels, just one main street. It does have twenty-four hour electricity, a recent development, and Wi-Fi here and there, and the street is now lined with cafes and craft shops and guesthouses whose bungalows look out over the river, but the wider world still feels a million miles away. And if Muang Ngoi is still too connected for your taste, you can hike out to Ban Na or one of the other nearby towns and stay there instead, where the price of your guesthouse will drop from Muang Ngoi’s steep $8 to something more like $1.25. (I made the hike but didn’t stay the night.)

After lingering in Muang Ngoi for a couple of days, I took the boat down to the larger town of Nong Khiaw, where I indulged myself with a stay at the lavish Nong Kiau Riverside Resort, which felt like a luxurious splurge after my days of jungle trekking and drifting down the river, even though it only cost around $30.

In Nong Khiaw, every trekking shop claims it can take you on the 100 Waterfalls trek, but only Tiger Trail has access to the real thing, a trail that they opened up in 2009, in partnership with the local villages. It’s billed as the greatest hike in the world, which is a bit of an oversell, but it is pretty amazing to spend part of the day walking in a small river, scrabbling up through the cascades.

Booking the hike, though, gave me a peek into the complexities of expat-run businesses in Laos. We happened to visit the shop when the New Zealander who runs it had just returned from a few days away, and we overheard him running a long, exasperated staff meeting, half in Lao, half in English, during which he pleaded with his employees to do things, not just stand around, and to give clear information and simple answers when asked. Later, he told us how hard it is to get his workers to explain things to Westerners in ways we can understand — they go off on tangents, emphasize irrelevant details, and generally make things more confusing than they need to be. The gap is probably one of education. We often forget how many years we spent learning to organize information in particular ways: writing an outline, writing a paragraph, identifying the topic sentence, etc. If you don’t have that training, that kind of thinking doesn’t just emerge naturally. As much as the New Zealander wants to train his employees so that they can start their own businesses, there’s a gulf that is not easily crossed.

After another couple of days in Luang Prabang, I said goodbye to Northern Laos. It was beautiful, though not as spectacular as Northern Vietnam. There were no great monuments to see, no festivals to experience, not a whole lot to do. I didn’t forge any particularly strong friendships, the way I did in Thailand and Myanmar, and have done lately in Vietnam. Still, during my time in Northern Laos, I felt more at ease, more relaxed, than pretty much anywhere else on my trip.

The Plain of Jars (photos)

Near the sprawling town of Phonsavan is a mysterious group of archaeological sites, the Plain of Jars, where a neolithic people some 1,500 to 2,500 years ago created massive stone jars and hauled them to various hilltops. Their purpose remains obscure. Some of them have round mouths, some are more rectangular. Some have lips for lids, some don’t. A Frenchwoman, Madeline Colani, did some research in the 1930s and found cremated remains in a jar, but she’s the only one to have done so. Research did not resume until 1994 — interrupted by, among other things, a very long US bombing campaign during the Vietnam War — but recent research is starting to emerge, and I was lucky enough to find a guide who had worked with the Australian team whose discoveries have recently made the news.

I’d come for the jars, but Phonsavan turned out to be about unexploded ordnance (UXO) more than anything else. On the main street in town are offices of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), which does bomb clearance and awareness trainings, as well as an organization that helps to rehabilitate bomb victims. The UXO are the aftermath of a decade of American bombing. The campaign, from 1964 to 1973, sprinkled Laos with cluster bombs, many of whose “bombies,” as the locals call them, didn’t blow up as planned. There are now some 80 million unexploded bombs throughout the country, particularly concentrated around the Plain of Jars and the Ho Chi Minh Trail further south.

None of this is academic. As you travel around, you see bomb casings used everywhere as a kind of decoration. As we hiked from one jar site to another, we looked out from a hilltop to an area of unfarmed land where MAG volunteers were at work clearing the bombs. There are bomb craters along the path, now covered in grass, and at one spot you can see the trench dug out by a crashing plane. We found bits of the plane — wires, metal fragments, live bullets — and then, a bit further down the trail, my guide suddenly jumped back: “That’s a cluster bomb detonator.” It was just a tiny circle of metal, green with age, that I might easily have missed. The guide marked it off with branches and notified the people at the entrance to Jar Site 2 when we got there. On the way down, he told me about how his brother had been killed some years earlier by a pineapple, a more dangerous variety of UXO. He’d been fishing, and he decided to make a fire and cook some food in a nearby rice field. The heat of the fire set off a buried explosive, and that was that.

This all felt rather unreal, and I think my guide was much more shaken than I was. He kept telling me that he had goosebumps. There shouldn’t be bombs on marked trails, but sometimes they come up to the surface during the rainy season. On our way back to town, we had to stop on the road while MAG blew up a couple of bombies they’d found. To me, it felt surreal. To my guide, it was a sound he’s been hearing his whole life.

Beyond the deaths and maimings, the UXO are also a drag on development, preventing local people from farming fertile land and from entering forests to gather resources. The ongoing damage caused by a war that ended decades ago is worth keeping in mind whenever we consider military responses to problems today. And the slow, labor-intensive clearance process seems like something that could be improved upon with technology, though I’m hardly an expert, and I assume there are people thinking about the issue. Still, if you’re an engineer and you want an interesting problem, here’s one.

Vang Vieng (photos) and Vientiane (photos)

After hearing so much about Vang Vieng for so long, I was disappointed to discover an overbuilt, under-regulated mess. If you haven’t seen limestone karsts anywhere else, Vang Vieng is probably pretty cool, but it’s not terribly impressive after Northern Laos, and the town itself is rather grim. In its favor, it has the best-stocked convenience stores in the country.

Vang Vieng was, a few years ago, a destination for crazy parties, but that ended when some drunk Australians died while tubing down the river. What is replacing the party people, apparently, is Koreans. There are Korean signs in all the tour shops, and lots of Korean restaurants, and busloads of old Koreans, along with happy gaggles of young Koreans who are on short adventure vacations somewhere not too expensive and not too far from home. I don’t begrudge them any of this, and obviously I like hanging out with Koreans, but I don’t have that much to say either to Korean grandmothers or to Korean college students.

Vang Vieng was also, when I was there, very hot. It was even hotter when I got to Vientiane, a likable little capital with not very much to it. The biggest monument is a triumphal arch built from cement the US gave Laos to build an airport with. The rest of the town is low-rise and slow-paced, and it closes up by 10 pm. I found Vientiane more pleasant than I was expecting, but by that time I was ready for something new. When I landed in Hanoi, it felt like a return to civilization.

Where I’ve Been Where I’m Headed

Sapa, Vietnam

I realize that it has been ages since I last gave an update, so here it is.

Laos and Vietnam

After Cambodia, I spent a few weeks traveling around the north of Laos: Luang Prabang, trekking in Luang Namtha, a trip down the Nam Ou River from Muang Khua to Muang Ngoi to Nong Khiaw, back to Luang Prabang, out to the Plain of Jars, down to Vang Vieng, and finally through the capital, Vientiane. I will (I hope) have more details to provide eventually.

From Vientiane, at the end of March, I came to Hanoi, where I gave a lecture on how Jewish people raise their children, in between visits to Halong Bay, Ninh Binh, and now Sapa. I head back to Hanoi this afternoon.

Thailand

Then it’s on to a weekend at the beach in Hua Hin, Thailand, a couple of days in Bangkok, and then up to Khon Kaen from April 13 to 16 to enjoy Songkran, the Thai new year festival. After that, I’ll have a couple more days in Bangkok, then head south to Phuket — I’m already booked for the Passover seder at the local Chabad on April 22 — and Krabi, and maybe some other beaches too.

Singapore and Indonesia

When I finish up with South Thailand, I’ll pop in to Singapore for a few days, probably around the end of April. From Singapore, I’ll fly to Bali and begin a month in Indonesia. You cannot possibly see all of Indonesia in a month (or ever, really), but I intend to spend a week or two in Bali and Lombok, beginning with the cultural heart of the island in Ubud. When I wrap that up, I want to visit Jogjakarta and some of the historical sites around it, and if there’s time, I’d like to visit Kalamantan (Borneo) as well. Jakarta I can skip, or so everyone tells me.

America

I’ll probably circle back to Bangkok to catch a flight to the US, probably Los Angeles. From there, it’s a quick hop to Phoenix on a local flight, but I might spend a couple days in LA and environs, if anyone wants to put me up and can accept my jet lag. I’m expecting that to happen around June 7, more or less.

I’ll be in Phoenix probably through June, and would like to visit NYC in July. Anyone have a place for me to stay?

Korea and (maybe) Japan

And then? Well, school starts on September 6, so I need to get to Korea before then and find a place to live (and furniture, and Internet, and cable, and, and, and … eep!). But I might spend August touring around Korea beyond Seoul, and possibly even Japan. Again, anyone who has a place for me to stay should let me know.

Fearless

Nong Khiaw, Laos

I was rolling across northern Laos on a bus, looking out the window at the jungle-covered mountains and the rice fields and the little villages, and Pink Floyd’s “Fearless” came on in my music mix. And it felt right somehow. True.

You say the hill’s too steep to climb
Chiding.
You say you’d like to see me try
Climbing.

You pick the place and I’ll choose the time
And I’ll climb
That hill in my own way.
Just wait a while for the right day.
And as I rise above the tree lines and the clouds
I look down, hearing the sound of the things you’ve said today.

Fearlessly the idiot faced the crowd
Smiling.
Merciless the magistrate turns ’round
Frowning.

And who’s the fool who wears the crown?
And go down,
in your own way
And every day is the right day
And as you rise above the fear-lines in his brow
You look down, hearing the sound of the faces in the crowd.

It’s an ambiguous song. Is it calling us to be fearless? Yes, but wait a while. Yes, but maybe fearlessness makes you an idiot.

Maybe what feels true is the call to fearlessness despite the cynicism, without any anthemic grandeur, and without any promise that rising above will free you from “the sound of the faces in the crowd” or “the sound of the things you’ve said today.” The neuroses come with you up the hill. Climb anyway.

But at the right time. And for me, now is the right time for some kinds of climbing and not for others. Laos is a lazy place (if you’re a tourist, not if you’re a Lao trying to scratch out a living), a good place to let go and drift and wander and wonder. To think, or not to. To notice. To rest. For me, that’s a special kind of adventure. I think it’s been a lot of years since I’ve let myself get this relaxed, this open. I feel very Californian. It’s nice.

And then there are hills to climb, but I’m waiting a while for the right day. Living in Korea is one. It’s coming — I can see it off in the distance — but it’s not here yet. I’ll climb that hill in my own way yet.

You Can Never Leave

Nong Khiaw, Laos

When Glenn Frey checked out, on January 18, my Facebook news feed was still full of tributes and encomiums to David Bowie, who had died eight days earlier. Frey got hardly a mention. Bowie’s career was long, varied, and complex in a way that Frey’s was not, and Frey was just one member of a group. Still, it was a notable silence, especially if you happen to be traveling anywhere in the world that isn’t England or America.

Wherever I go in the world, I hear Frey’s music. Specifically, I hear “Hotel California.” I’ve heard it sung with Afro-French accents on the banks of the Seine. The Filipino bar band in Yangon played it. Today a Lao trekking guide was noodling around on his guitar at a local restaurant in Nong Khiaw, and inevitably he wandered into “Hotel California.” You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave “Hotel California” for long.

I know we’re all supposed to hate the Eagles, for countercultural reasons long forgotten and because The Dude hates the Eagles, but admit it: you know the words to “Hotel California,” and chances are you’ve hollered along to it at a karaoke night or when it was played by some cover band somewhere in the world. For better or worse, it’s the song that everyone everywhere knows. You can stab it with your steely knives, but you just can’t kill that beast of a song.

Back to Backpacking

I’ve had a bit of an interlude away from backpacking: first a stay in Thailand, relaxing and seeing very little, and then a long visit with a friend in Vietnam over the Tet holiday. It’s not that I haven’t done any touring — I will have a blog post soon about Saigon on Tet, Phu Quoc Island, the Cu Chi tunnels, and the War Remnants Museum — but it’s different when you’re hanging out with a local who handles the logistics.

I’ll be back to solo travel tomorrow. I’m headed to Phnom Penh for a couple of days, and then Angkor Wat for pretty much as long as I feel like staying. Cambodia will get a short stay so I can have more time in Laos, which seems like a lovely place to chill, maybe trek again, enjoy nature. Then it will be time for Northern Vietnam, and I’ll finally be giving that lecture on how Jews raise their children on March 27 in Hanoi. Let me know if you want to come. And after that, I plan to visit Thailand again for Songkran in mid-April.

It has been nice relying on locals and taking a break from the backpacker trail. I’m a little apprehensive about getting back out there. But I know it will be great. I will meet new people, see new things, have new experiences. That’s what I’m here for.

Travel and Vacation

There’s travel, and then there’s vacation.

After a long stint of travel in Myanmar — buses, trucks, taxis, boats, trekking, and hotels with odd flaws like bathroom odors, water that pulses hot and cold, wheezing pumps near the room, etc. — I’ve been on a bit of a luxury vacation in Thailand, first at Cape Dara in Pattaya, and now for a few days in Bangkok at the trendy and spot-on Aloft Hotel. On Monday I didn’t even leave my hotel until evening. I had lunch in the hotel restaurant and sat in the rooftop pool for a while. These are not backpacker joints. They’re fancy hotels, pleasant and stylish, and a bargain for the price.

Heaven. For a while, anyway.

Tomorrow I’m back on the road, to Saigon for Tet. I don’t know what it will be, but I am hopeful it will be something. I needed some nothing for a few days — a chance to catch up on my writing and blogging and photo posting, to lie around, to feel zero pressure to go be a tourist and see the sights — and now I’ve had my fill.

The second half

I suppose this is a kind of halftime lull, even if it’s a few days before the midpoint. Plans for the second half are starting to come into focus:

  • Vietnam for Tet and then a little beach time until mid-February.
  • Cambodia, Laos, and Northern Vietnam from mid-February to mid-April.
  • Back to Thailand for Songkran in mid-April, with maybe some South Thailand beach time before or after.
  • May in Singapore and Indonesia.

Now’s the time to get in touch if you want to join me for any of those places.

Housekeeping

Myanmar and Vietnam galleries are up. There will also be a trickle of Myanmar blog posts over the next few days.

Myanmar (January 2016)

Vietnam (December 2015-January 2016)