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Category Archives: Laos

Starting and ending my Asian adventure in Bangkok was ideal in that it showed me how the last couple months changed my outlook. When I arrived, I thought the city was big, loud, dirty, and full of aggressive locals trying to squeeze every penny they can from foreigners. Twelve weeks later, I still think all of the above to be true, but I’m cool with it.
Whenever I thought of what it means to be a developing nation, I thought in terms of making gains in infrastructure, sanitation, education, etc. Of course these things are present, but there is also the human factor. A developing nation, at least in southeast Asia, is a nation, a people, and a culture experiencing a radical transition. The implementation, or imposition, of foreign technologies, innovations, practices, and values creates an impact zone. The current working age generation has lived through war, genocide, corruption, and about everything else you can imagine. They weren’t fortunate enough to have the education (that only some) of the children and young people now have. This is truly a lost generation in a time of drastic cultural transformation. Their options are to do manual labor, work in a factory for slave wages, or try to capitalize on the influx of foreigners and their cash. Working professionals in Cambodia make less than $1,000 a year. In Vietnam, if you have a 4 year degree and a few years of experience you are lucky to make $10,000 a year. Granted, the cost of living is proportionate to their income, but when you have tourist coming from places like the US where the median annual income is over $50,000, something has to give.
My advice to keep your cool (and your sanity) when visiting these places is the following. Know that you’re getting ripped off. There is no way around it, most of the time you will be paying much more than locals. It is still good to comparison shop, do research online, talk with other travelers, to make sure you aren’t getting it too bad, but you will pay more. Also, know that the difference between what you and locals pay isn’t very much in western terms. If it is something like a bus/train ticket or food, you will be paying an extra couple dollars. This is cheaper than a coffee at starbucks and means a whole lot more to someone living on a few dollars a day than it does to you or I. My last little pearl of wisdom is that it’s not their fault. For the most part, even in the touristy areas, these are not bad people; they are victims of circumstance. They did not ask to be born into a war zone and abject poverty. They did not have the things that we take for granted, most importantly an education. I don’t think their childhood ambition was to wait around all day in hopes of giving tourists a tuk tuk ride or forcing their daughters into prostitution.
Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos are all amazing places. The farther you get from the impact zone, the more authentic that place becomes. The tide of development/westernization/corporate colonialism/whatever you want to call it is spreading and will eventually cover the entire region. Between the 4 countries, and within each, you can see the effects of outside influence. Whether you are in a major city like Saigon, Phnom Penh, or Bangkok, or a sleepy little place like Kong Lo, Mae Sarang, or Don Khon, people are still people and have a lot to offer. For me, the best way to observe foreign influence and the cultural/societal impact has been in the villages. Electricity, satellite dishes, cell phones, motorbikes, and tourists change places fast and the differences are astounding. Relatively untouched villagers, like the ones I came across in some treks, look confused as to why you would want to be there and are curious/shy/friendly. People in villagers with heavy tourist traffic, like in Sapa, will sprint to you, attach themselves to you, and try to sell you handicrafts the entire time you’re there.
As inevitable as the change is, it is also irreversible. The shift from subsistence agriculture to a commercial economy, especially when that economy is tourist-centric, is drastic. As visitors, the most we can do is help preserve the culture as best we can. You can vote with your wallet while traveling. I choose treks that are owned and operated by locals whenever possible. If that is not an option, I go through agencies that compensate guides and the villages they visit fairly. If animals are involved, usually elephants, I make sure they are treated humanely and not being abused. I wouldn’t be caught dead in a McDonald’s in the states and wouldn’t dream of patronizing a foreign chain while abroad either. You get better food at a better price and the money goes to a much better cause when you eat local.
There are many things I could have done differently, added, or done without over the course of the trip, but I am very happy with my time spent in southeast Asia. I had some amazing experiences and met some truly wonderful people, both locals and fellow travelers. The highlights are too many to mention and the regrets to few. The monetary cost was not that much (unless you’re Cambodian), and the experience I gained is priceless. If you can do a similar trip, I can’t recommend going for it enough. If you think you can’t to a similar trip, think again because anything is possible!

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There is a company in northwestern Laos that has a mission of preserving and expanding the habitat of gibbons as well as creating jobs and positive development in the community. Rather than just ask for donations, The Gibbon Experience provides an amazing opportunity to have some serious fun for a great cause.
I don’t mind paying extra money when it’s going to the right place, but at $90 per day the Experience is pricy for this part of the world. The 3 day was a little bit out of my budget for this trip, but, fortunately, they offer a 2 day/1 night trip that was less unaffordable. My previous “splurge” excursions were half the price of the gibbons, but I had to do it. I’m glad I did!
I arrived in Hoay Xai the evening before the trip began and went to the GE office to confirm my reservation. As I was checking in a group arrived back from the 3 day/2 night trip talking, looking, and acting as if they had been through a war. They told horror stories of giant leaches and 8 hour days of hiking through mud with only 2 of the 8 people seeing gibbons. The trip I was going on would be at a different location with a shorter hiking portion, fewer leaches, but less gibbon activity.
The first day of the Experience began with an 8am meeting at the office to watch safety and informative videos for 30 minutes. The only gibbons I would actually see on the trip were in the videos. After the films, the 7 of us participating in the adventure took a 1 hour truck ride to the start of the trail. The hike to the treehouse was not very muddy and took about 4 hours. The trail included 4 zip lines and it was my first experience zipping. I had my reservations considering my fear of heights, but it was not an issue. Zip lining was AMAZING! The lines were 300-700 meters long and most were over 100 meters high. The views and the feeling while zipping were indescribable.

The treehouse, which would be our home for the trip, was really, really high up and only accessible by zip line. The bathroom had a porcelain squat toilet and shower with no outside walls, totally exposing you to the jungle. The floor had cracks that, when looking down, showed you just how high up you were. It was the coolest bathroom I have ever been in. The treehouse looked very new and the sleeping accommodations were adequate.
The first afternoon we had a few hours to go zipping on our own and it was like having an amusement park to ourselves. From the treehouse, there was a loop of about 5 cables that we went around several times. It was incredible. We returned to the treehouse for dinner at 6pm. None of the food on the trip was bad, but it was far from great. For dinner we had a nice fried beef dish, pretty good sauteed mushrooms, very oily veggie stir fry, and a boiled cucumber dish that I didn’t care for. The 7 of us spent the evening drinking lao lao and playing cards. Uncharacteristically, I dominated the card playing.
It was like a dream sleeping in a treehouse and hearing the jungle noises in the background. Sometime in the middle of the night that dream briefly turned into a nightmare when a very loud noise from some sort of animal woke everyone up. The official wakeup came at 6 am with our guides zipping back to the treehouse. It had rained all night and was not showing any signs of letting up. This put a damper on the plans for an hour of zipping before breakfast, but this is what happens during the rainy season. Breakfast was similar to dinner and we left the treehouse at 9.
Miraculously, the rain let up just as we left the treehouse. Due to the rain, the hiking on the second day was a lot more interesting. We went up and down some very steep slopes that were rather moist and a lot of slipping and sliding was going on. There were 4 more very long and very fun cables to zip across. We had lunch at a small hut by a river that in two weeks will become a starting point for tubing. There was only another 30 minutes or so of hiking before we reached the truck to take us back. The road was not paved and extremely rugged. We had to dismount several times for stream crossings as well as going up steep slopes. There were a couple points where we had to help push the truck up hills. The ride was nearly as fun as the zipping.
We returned to the office at 2pm a little muddy, a little tired, and very happy. The Gibbon Experience was incredible and I highly recommend it.

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There are 3 main options for getting from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai, where the Gibbon Experience is located. You can taken a bus, the fast boat, or the slow boat. I had been traveling almost exclusively by bus for the better part of two months, including all of my transport in Laos. Fast boats take just 6 hours and are known to have accidents, while slow boats take 2 days and cost half of the price of the fast boats. I had given myself a enough of a buffer where I could take the slow boat and make it to Huay Xai in time for my date with the gibbons, so I went for it.
The slow boat leaves Luang Prabang at 8:30 am daily and tickets can be purchased at the dock for $7.50. I checked several travel forums online and read horror stories of overpacked boats and very uncomfortable wooden seats. It is generally less busy going north as I did rather than south as the vast majority of travelers do and July is not high season. My boat had comfortable seats taken from either busses or minivans and there was plenty of room to lay down and nap. The ride itself was scenic and relaxing.
We reached the halfway point, Pakbeng a little after 6 pm. The boat docked and we spent the night there. Pakbeng is a small town consisting of one main street lined with restaurants and guesthouses. Most people stay for just one night like I did. The electricity is spotty and there were a few hours of blackout in the short time I was there. I had some cheap, decent Indian food and stayed at an inexpensive guesthouse that was fine for my needs. People in town try to sell you drugs constantly, especially if you have long hair and a beard. The town shuts down entirely by 10pm, which is unfortunate as I was having a wonderful time with a group of Germans that were headed south and alternated calling me Jesus or Leonidas. There is a big sandwich industry in Pakbeng because of the boats. Travelers need to take food with them for the 9 hour plus boat ride and baguette sandwiches are the most popular item.
The boat from Pakbeng to Huay Xai was also $7.50, left at 8:30 am, and arrived a little after 5 pm. I really enjoyed my time on the boats. It gave me time to relax and reflect on what an incredible trip this has been. I’m very happy I chose to take the slow boat and think it’s the best option for traveling between Luang Prabang and Huay Xai.

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I’d heard that Vang Vieng was like Sihanoukville, only with tubing instead of a beach and I planned to avoid it. An Aussie in Luang Prabang told me how amazingly beautiful Vang Vieng was with great outdoor adventure opportunities and to just avoid the tourist area. I’m not sure why I listened to him, but I shouldn’t have. I left my favorite place on the trip thus far, Don Khon to go to the only place in Laos I didn’t care for.
Vang Vieng is a case study on the wrong way to develop a community. The town has decided to target a very specific type of tourist. The restaurants, which all have identical menus, play either Family Guy or Friends DVDs all day and all night. Most have “happy menus” that offer everything from tea to pizza with weed, opium, or mushrooms. The price for anything happy is very high at 100 kip ($12.50), which is enough to buy 3 meals, 3 nights at a guesthouse or 10 Beer Laos. The drinks section of menus have headers like “it’s time to get fucked up!” and buckets (a mix of whiskey, soda, juice, and sugar) are very popular.
The big draw is tubing, where you rent a tube and float down the river for 1-3 hours, depending on how many bars you stop at along the way. People come back from tubing very drunk, covered in paint (no idea what the deal with the paint is), and party until late at night. I planned on going tubing on my last day in Vang Vieng, but I woke up to an e-mail from the Gibbon Experience saying they had an opening for me in a few days. The Experience is in Houay Xai, northwest Laos near the Thai border, a few days travel from VV. I decided to leave immediately to give myself time to make it there and had to pass on tubing.
Everyone I’ve talked to that went tubing said it was really cool and I’m sure it is. The town focusing its development solely on getting college aged people drunk and stoned is not cool. I’m all about having a good time, but don’t think it’s good for a community to turn itself into a partying mecca. I checked online and with travel agencies in town and found nothing close to what I was looking for in terms of activities in VV. All they offered was day trips to visit caves and kayak. I avoid organized day tours because you get rushed and end up spending a lot of the time on transport.
The strange thing is that the tourist area is not very large at all. It took just 10 minutes walking from my centrally located guesthouse to reach the Vang Vieng where actual people lived. It resembled any other town in Laos with rice paddies, cows in the streets, children everywhere, and very modest homes. I watched some locals playing volleyball with their feet instead of hands and they were really good. I think the people of Vang Vieng deserve a better future than the one they are shaping and it’s sad to see them heading in this direction.
You can get “happy” and drunk allover se Asia. I prefer to spend time in places that have more to offer. I make an effort to spend money in places and at establishments that build and better communities rather than tear them apart.

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The Mekong river is at its widest in southern Laos in an area known as 4,000 Islands. The three major islands are Don Kong, Don Det, and Don Khon. In recent years Don Det has become a backpacker mecca, so I opted for the more laid back Don Khon. I got to spend my first couple days on island with the wonderful Colombian couple I had been traveling through Laos with. It was really sad parting ways with Carlos and Carolina and I hope to see them again at some point. We stayed at Souksan Guesthouse, which is just under 1 km from the bridge. A private riverfront bungalow with a hammock and bathroom was $5/night. The owner is a real character. He has two wives and countless children that run the guesthouse. He drinks Lao whiskey all day, has permanent hammock lines imprinted on his back, and laughs at everything you or he says. He takes guests on a 3 hour waterfall tour by boat for $8.50. The tour and the waterfalls were cool, but he stole the show. He brought a bottle of lao lao and we all took shots throughout the tour. When we were swimming in the river he slipped from a rope bridge and fell, but didn’t stop laughing. He used branches from a bush as q-tips and cleaned out his ears and used his finger as a toothbrush. The man is incredible and is officially my idol.
Like Kong Lo, all of the restaurants have identical menus. Mains range from $2-4 and big Beer Laos are $1.25. We randomly went to Done Khong restaurant the first night we were there and I ended up going back for at least one meal a day. It is a small place on the river and they are in the process of building a guesthouse. The chef/owner/hostess/etc was a really nice lady who can really cook. She makes the best spring rolls I’ve ever had. The food at my guesthouse was good too. There seemed to be a pork shortage on island. At least one restaurant I went to a day had run out of pork. On my first day alone, I rented a bicycle and drove to Don Det. It takes about 30 minutes and is a scenic ride on a wet and bumpy road. Lonely Planet said to go to Mr. P’s Guesthouse and have the pumpkin burger. Thin slices of pumpkin and onions are covered in batter and deep fried, then served on a bed of french fries; it was a monstrosity. Don Det wasn’t as crazy as I thought it would be, but it was definitely more backpackerish and touristy than Don Khon.
I went to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphins ($6.50 for boat and permission from Cambodian government) and it was so awesome that I went back again. They are supposed to be hard to see and July is not considered the season, but I saw lots of dolphins on both trips and it was amazing. I’m a huge hammock enthusiast and spent several hours each day relaxing on a hammock that faced the river, sipping ice cold Beer Lao and was very content. So far, I only have two regrets on this trip: not getting the 8 Hands Massage in Siem Reap and not staying longer in Don Khon.

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Kong Lo is located in central Laos and is known for its 7km long cave. Carlos, Carolina, Graeme and I took the overnight VIP Bus from Luang Prabang to Kong Lo. It turns out that VIP stands for Very Inaccurately Portrayed; it was a nightmare, but got us where we needed to go. We stayed at the Chantha guesthouse, which was the biggest and cleanest looking guesthouse in town. Double rooms were $7.50, which seemed to be the standard rate in Kong Lo. All of the guesthouses had identical menus and we tried Chantha and 2 others. The food was good, but not life altering. Chantha had the best pork laap I’ve had so far. The cave is a 1km walk from the guesthouse. Boats cost $15 roundtrip and can fit up to three people. The cave itself was huge and very impressive. There was an area inside, where you get off of the boat and walk around a lit area. After passing through the cave, we docked at an abandoned village. There is an un-abandoned village that has homestays and restaurants within walking distance, but the boat drivers were not willing to wait for us. It took a little over an hour to do the cave cruise, which was a lot quicker than I thought it would be. The entire operation seems to be run as more of a ferry service rather than an ecotourism attraction, but it was still very nice and I’m glad I did it. Kong Lo town was very small and full of charm. The street that leads to the cave has a handful of guesthouses/restaurants on it and everything else is rice paddies. There is no internet and everything is done at a very leisurely pace. Simply being in Kong Lo was as nice as passing through the cave that drew me there. It’s worth a visit if you have time, but nothing to build an itinerary around.

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The roads between Laos and Northern Vietnam are not the best and there had been heavy rains recently, so I decided to fly from Hanoi to Luang Prabang. This trip began with the overnight train from Sapa that arrived in Hanoi at 4:45 am, then a flight that left the airport at 6:30 in the evening. I met a really cool Colombian couple on the airport shuttle in Hanoi and would spend the next week or so traveling in Laos with them. The flight was about an hour and customs was a breeze at the airport. The guesthouse I stayed at was a 15 minute tuk tuk ride from the airport and a great home base for my time in LP. There was in-room wifi, a hot shower, and a big bed for $8/night. I absolutely loved Luang Prabang. It was beautiful, charming and full of wonderful people. The Lao food I had there was very good and there was a French bakery/cafe that made Parisian quality pastries as well as great breakfast and coffee. I did the standard touristy things for LP and they were enjoyable. I watched the feeding of the monks at 5:30 am, visited a few of the many temples in the city, watched the sunset from a hilltop temple, and went to the night market. I finally got to taste the much heralded Beer Lao and must say it’s the best beer I have had this trip. LP is the starting point for trekking and I did a 2 day/1 night trek/homestay. It was awesome; absolutely perfect. Luang Prabang was my first taste of Laos, and if it was any indicator, Laos could very well be my favorite country in SE Asia.

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