A Tad High in Tadlo

Despite what some may infer from this blog title, we have not yet partaken in the special pizzas offered on many a menu in Laos. Usually dubbed “happy pizzas” or “space pizzas”, they are cooked special to order with your herb of choice. Not something that would fly in the states, but apparently legal here. Maybe we’ll give it a shot in Cambodia, another place well known for its pizzas, and chalk it up to another “when in Rome…” moment. But, I digress.

Tadlo is a teeny town in Southern Laos, known by tourists for its waterfalls and as a place where one can trek through the forests atop an elephant. To get to Tadlo, we took an overnight bus from the capital, Vientiane, to the town of Pakse. Having now been on our fair share of overnight buses, our expectations were pretty much set. At best, we figured we were in for individual clean-enough reclining beds and maybe even a stinky but working on-bus toilet. At worst, we geared ourselves up for not-so-clean, semi-reclining chair-beds, middle of the night pit stops, and loud Lao music blaring out of the speakers all night long. Maybe the stars aligned, because the bus gods were kind to us, and our 11-hour trip turned out to be the best overnight bus journey to date. As we entered the upper deck, semi-private double beds awaited us. If you happen to be a solo traveler, this is a potential hazard, but for us, it was perfect. The sleepers were clean, the toilet was only slightly disgusting, but best and most surprising of all (in addition to a peaceful music-less night), we were given dinner, bottled water, then dessert, and packaged towelettes (for freshy!). We were reluctant to get off the bus in the morning.

From Pakse, we ventured out to Tadlo. After hearing animal abuse horror stories, particularly from Thailand, I was wary of hopping on any old elephant. We had heard of elephants at the very least being bribed with food, and at the worst, having hooks through their ears, or being kicked and beaten. My hope for Tadlo was that the elephants were treated respectfully and humanely. We asked a few questions before signing up for the morning walk and it turned out to be a good experience. Jeff and I both rode in a hand-made basket, stuffed with a couple of rice sacks and cushions, atop the elephant. Our non-talkative guide sat on a blanket straddling the elephant’s neck. No sticks, poles, hooks, or even treats. Aside from the occasional verbal command, we only witnessed him using his feet to push on the elephant’s ears in order to guide her. Moon (our elephant) seemed happy enough and got to eat lots and lots of vegetation all along the way as we loped through the jungle, through a village, and even forded a couple of rather strong streams. I got a chance to see our surroundings from a different point of view and it was just pretty darn cool. Blue sky above. Water, ground, people and animals below. And canopy all around. It was nothing like our camel ride in Africa where I was teetering back and forth with each step and holding on for dear life. This was leisurely and peaceful and I enjoyed my high ride. I’m hoping Moon did too. Several times, she raised her trunk very slowly back over her head, as if to say hello or make sure we were still there. I’m no expert in elephant behavior, so I hope that’s what she was communicating, as opposed to “get the heck off my back” or some similar sentiment. After we climbed down, I wanted to give her a pat and hoped to share a moment or something, but she had already started in on a huge bunch of bananas.

Hanging out with Moon

Hanging out with Moon

Posted: December 8th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Laos | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

The Secret’s Out

To my right, about 30 prosthetic legs hang from fishing line to create a thought provoking piece. The ones hung closer to the floor are rudimentary, made primarily from a wood log or pipe. The materials have been salvaged and painstakingly carved by hands desperate for the body to work again, for the ability to make a living, for a sense of normalcy As the limbs ascend they become more technologically advanced—stronger, lighter, capable of bending at the knee. In contrast, another installation sits in front of me. This one though dominates the room, with hundreds of tennis ball-size pieces looking as if they are falling from ceiling to floor. Each piece however, is a plaster of Paris model of a bombie and these, unlike real ones dropped on Laos, don’t drop, but instead hang inertly suspended, mercifully granting this country reprieve.
I am at COPE National Rehabilitation Center here in Laos. It’s a devastatingly sobering center as one of its aims is to educate others on the enduring consequences of the US’s Secret War on it. For 9 years (1965-1973), the US feared the spread of Communism throughout South East Asia and so in the way that America does, it intervened. And in this case at this time, intervening meant flying hundreds of missions from Thailand and Southern Vietnam, dropping 260 million explosives on a country with a population of fewer than 7 million, equating to 37 explosives per person. It meant flouting the international community by violating the Geneva Convention, it meant lying to Congress and the US public, and it meant utterly destroying a country and people who were not our enemies.
And it meant for me, feeling again what has been becoming a familiar salad of emotions. Anger and sadness, embarrassment and disgust. In Nicaragua I felt this way as I learned the US had ousted the Sandinistas. For what? Ideology? And the feelings have been there in Vietnam learning about Agent Orange and the generational effects of chemical warfare. But if there was any sense of justification, it is to be found in the ugliness that is war. But this? There is no sense of justice in something that has been done in secret. There is only anger. And for a people that have seen 11,000 die from UXOs (Unexploded Ordnances) since the “war” ended, that farming of land comes hand in hand with the fear of digging up bombies, for a country that can’t progress with roads and infrastructure without first flashing back to the US’s past role in hindering the present. Or to learn that the country won’t be cleared of UXOs for many decades…there is only sadness. Embarrassment comes from my growing up in the US and not knowing of our responsibility here…or for John McCain’s singing joke “bomb-bomb-bomb-bomb-bomb” playing in my head. Learning that when air missions couldn’t be carried out in Vietnam, they were diverted to secondary targets in Laos mostly to just get rid of bombs rather than take the added risk of landing with them on Navy ships; that disgusted me.
COPE though tries to move the country past these feelings. I learn that the center provides prosthetic legs to victims of bombie explosions as part of a holistic approach to healing in the country. As people with new legs and arms return to their villages one can often see shells of bombs turned into boats or house supports, scrap metal from bombs are recycled into knives, pots, bowls and shelves.
We exit the Center at dusk, quiet settling on both Mari and me. And there, lining the side paths we see more shells of big bombs. Only they’ve been placed on their side, propped up. Inside each of the shells hints of pink push past the tender green leaves as young flowers are for the first time, coming into bloom.

Posted: November 26th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Laos | Tags: , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Vang Vieng

In the middle of Lao rattan woven bungalows pepper both sides of the Mekong river as teetering bridges seemingly made of driftwood crisscross the water. Here, hammocks are a way of life, as sunsets unfold between limestone karsts that nestle the small town in peaceful isolation. This is the Vang Vieng we hoped to experience.
We arrived into town just after sunset and our first sight was a tuk-tuk full of blonde hair, board shorts and bikinis. Mud was smeared across sun-burnt skin as college-age foreigners struck superstar poses as flashes from their digital cameras popped off all around. The scene was repeated as we passed more and more tuk-tuks bringing back drunk hordes from the town activity of tubing. They, barefoot and loaded, then flooded the town restaurants and bars to keep the good times rolling. And rolling…and rolling. After we found a guesthouse we continued to hear those good times throughout the course of the night as the riverside bars lived up to their location and kept the liquids flowing. The morning came with the sounds of a rooster and of a partier that had partied too hard and needed to chuck his/her cookies. Repeatedly.
Ok, Vang Vieng was not what we had thought. We realigned our compass of expectations by moving to a rattan bungalow overlooking the water. Another guest came up to us and told us about the tubing. “It’s too expensive if you rent a tube. Just grab a tuk-tuk to the first bar with us, and when the crowd moves on, float to the second and you can swim to the third and fourth.” And though tubing without a tube was a novel idea, we decided to pass on the invitation. Instead we sought out the other side of Vang Vieng. We hiked a nearby mountain, along the way passing scattered villages and farms. A boy ran up to us, carrying with him two puppies he wanted us to see. We went to a bright blue lagoon and cave. And, we tackled a limestone karst. Mari and I tried rock climbing, going up 24 meters on one of our climbs. It was fun and exhilarating, minus the spider I almost grabbed who was hiding in one of the holds I reached for. Ugh. We stayed in Vang Vieng four nights in all as it proved to us day after day that expectations aren’t always a bad thing or even misplaced. Sometimes you just have to look a little harder (like past the nearest bar).

Posted: November 23rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Laos | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

Laos Impressions

Thus far Lao has been an unexpected surprise for us, and we are enjoying discovering its treasures day by day. I will admit (begrudgingly) that prior to last month, if I was asked to name one city in Laos, I don’t know that I could have. Embarrassing, yes. But room to grow. And now the names of towns and cities are rolling off my tongue as we pretend to know exactly where we’re headed next. Udomxai, Luang Namtha, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane. So far each stop has proved more than worthwhile and had something new to offer.

Everywhere we go, we are greeted with a smile and a warm, “Sabaai-dee!” which we return in kind. The most refreshing part about this ritual is that it is rarely followed by any solicitation, with which we have become so accustomed to almost everywhere else. Those who do ask us to look or buy usually do so quietly and politely and often react with humor when we decline their offers, which makes for a pleasant experience all around.

Monks and bikes in Luang Prabang

Monks and bikes in Luang Prabang

Food has been outstanding, and of course, this is huge for me. With the exception of one dish made with an overpowering, nose tingling, gag reflex inducing local herb, everything has been delicious. In fact, we want to stay in each town a bit longer just for the food (among other things), just in case the next town doesn’t have the same dish, prepared the same way. Most dishes are spicy, but in a mouth-watering tasty way, as opposed to the it’s-so-spicy-i-can’t-feel-or-taste-anything way. And we choose to accompany most of our meals with awesome Lao fruit shakes which sometimes are a meal in themselves at a mere 60 cents. Still trying to figure out the secret that makes them so darn good. See ya, Jamba Juice.

When it comes to nature and the environment, Laos is the least altered environment in Southeast Asia. This is in large part due to the danger that exists as much of the land is dotted with unexploded ordnance (UXOs), which are a danger for all. As an unintended consequence, this means Lao has a greater concentration of wildlife than Thailand and surrounding countries that have been ravaged by mass tourism. Even in the cities, it’s hard to get over the number, size, and colors of the butterflies that dart about. While poaching, deforestation, and other hazards occur, conservation efforts are in effect and in force to protect the country’s natural resources, which makes eco-tourism even more important here.

At the Kuang Si waterfalls near Luang Prabang

At the Kuang Si waterfalls near Luang Prabang

I’ve also gotten favorable impressions of the larger towns, which so far really is just Luang Prabang, but wow…what a place. It is described by one writer as the most photogenic city in all of South East Asia. Sure, it’s geared toward tourists-the main areas are packed with tour operators, guesthouses, souvenir shops, bars and restaurants. But it’s also lovely and lively, with several markets and wats cared for by the many monks.  French colonial architecture, local vendors, and the Royal Palace turned museum, all sandwiched between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. A turn down a side alley takes you through peaceful, dusty pathways, where local people dry rice cakes, do daily chores, and school kids walk home in small noisy packs with dusty uniforms. We get a good feeling being here.

Getting through Laos in less than a month requires some long bus rides, but the scenery makes it worth it. We’ve been taking the local buses that drive through the mountains and villages, and I find myself gazing out the window more often than dozing off in my seat. I can’t help smiling every time someone gets off the bus at one of the interim village stops and is greeted by a welcoming committee of friends and family (and sometimes dogs and pigs), eagerly awaiting their bumpy arrival. The houses, many made of tightly woven rattan and some on stilts are simple but beautiful. We pass by women and girls in sarongs, showering and washing their hair outside their houses. Children (some clothed, others not) running around rolling bike tires with sticks–the first time I witnessed this, I thought to myself, “Wow. Kids actually do that.” In a country where the average annual income is $400, there is beauty everywhere. I don’t mean to glorify poverty in any way, as there is no question that theirs is a hard life and a hand-to-mouth existence for many (not to mention the very real risk of encountering unexploded landmines, which kill approximately 200 children every year as a result of the US-led “Secret War”). But what I also see are incredibly strong families who are very close and the value in that. Watching them gather at all times of day for a game of badminton, volleyball, or soccer never fails to warm my heart. It reminds me of a simpler time, even if I have never lived it, and that in my own life maybe, sometimes, less is more.

Posted: November 19th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Laos | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

November 7th-16th

• We left Vietnam from Hanoi on November 7th. After waiting 5 hours at the bus station (because of the incorrect advice from our guesthouse) we started our 13 hour ride to the border town Dien Bien Phu. This was to be followed by getting immediately onto a 5:30am bus for 7 hours to the Laos border and then to a transfer town called Muang Khua. At Muang Khua we would walk the 3 kilometers with backpacks to the bus station which, after a 3 hour journey through winding dirt roads, would lead us to our destination of Udomxai. The highlight of the journey was that apparently our dinner was included in the price of our first ticket. So when we stopped at a rest stop we were told to sit with four others, a Vietnamese family. The daughter smiled and scooped rice for me. She then followed that with pantomiming for me to try the dish in front of her by rubbing her stomach. I tried the intestines, she laughed in return. Meanwhile her father and uncle, both in full military uniform, had offered me a shot of rice wine…and then six more. The rest of the ride, well, I don’t remember so well.

• Udomxai was a jumping point to Luang Nam Tha, an NPA (National Protected Area) with supposedly great hiking. We thought we would have the chance to see Black Asiatic Bears, elephants, or ligers. We were disappointed to find out that it was unlikely to see any animals without doing expensive 4+ day hiking trips. We opted instead for our own free 14 kilometer walk through stilted thatched villages to a waterfall. We bolted down to Luang Prabang the next day.

• Luang Prabang is an UNESCO World Heritage City. With its old French architecture, flourishing temples and location between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers it’s easy to lose yourself in its beauty. Unfortunately, as it seems with UNESCO protected cities and the catering towards package tourism it spawns dilutes the city’s charm. In spite of that though, the city still speaks to us and we’ve been finding our way through it to the things we think of as its gems. The nearby Kuangxi waterfalls are beautiful, producing turquoise blue pools that seem almost unnatural. The Hmong night market houses a food alley where a vegetarian buffet goes for about sixty cents. And today, Mari and I volunteered at a local English teaching program called Big Brother Mouse. Mari worked with a 21 year old man who was trying to learn English so that he wouldn’t have to be part of the family business as a farmer. He reminded us how much Luang Prabang, and it’s bubble directed towards wealthy foreigners, is not reflective of the average living conditions in Laos by mentioning in conversation practice that he didn’t know if he liked eating at restaurants, since he had never been to one before. For my couple of hours of volunteering, I was matched up with a young man who took me to an internet café because he wanted me to help him communicate with a doctor he had met here before…through Facebook of all things. We spent the whole time setting up his account, posting a picture to his profile, and sending out his 1 friend request. In the end, he thanked me and asked if I would be his second friend. Something tells me he’s getting the hang of it.

Posted: November 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Laos | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »