On the Road: Part II

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We arrived with empty stomachs in Thakhek and stopped for Laos BBQ, one of the best traditional dishes of Laos and a slight variation on the Vietnamese hot pots we had become accustomed to.

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In Laos – instead of a full pot of boiling water as in the Vietnamese hot pot above – a small, circular grill (resembling a bunt pan) is brought to the table and placed on top of an open coal clay pot. Boiling water is poured into the base of the grill, which is used to cook the wide variety of raw greens that come with the dish, including cabbage, lettuce, basil, Lao mints, and enochi mushrooms. Many restaurants also provide glass noodles and an egg for cooking. The menu had a variety of meats to choose from, including our beloved chicken hearts. Since we just had our fill, we chose beef instead, a safe choice when we were spending the next few days living out of our car. The meat is brought to the table raw, and the conical, “bunt” part of the grill is used for cooking it. After basting with the cubes of fat provided, you stick the thinly sliced meat on the grill. Both the greens and the meat cook quickly, and a good variety goes in your bowl. Each Lao BBQ restaurant makes their own special sauce to top the dish off, which can be doctored with extra chillies, lime, and garlic. Of course, a few Beer Laos were also necessary after a long day on the road.

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We slept in our car that night, as finding a decently clean place to stay came at too much of a price. The rising sun woke me from my surprisingly good sleep, and we continued our journey south in the early morning. I drove for many hours through mountainous terrain, open rice fields, and tiny, one road villages. Following our not so trusty map, we took a route of dirt, muddy roads that even Ginger had trouble getting down. It would have been hard to navigate regardless of the map, since there were no road signs or highway markers.

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Searching for the Tad Lor waterfalls (pronounced Tad Lo), we hit a road made exclusively of rocks and realized, an hour later, that it had not yet been completed. We stared at the broken bridge, while a group of locals stared after us, amused. Further down the river, there was a running ferry for motorbikes, supported merely by three canoes. Pointing to our car, we asked if there was any way to get it across. The ferry operators laughed, pointing across the river to a car dock that was still being built. Turning around became the only option, but it meant we would not get to Tad Lor before sundown. Instead, we drove straight on to Paksong, a town a bit south of the waterfalls and high in the mountains. With the altitude change, I had my first taste of cold weather in nearly five months, such a shock to my system that I wore a sweatshirt and pants at the open air restaurant of our guesthouse. We stayed at a haunted house on a hill with a steep winding driveway, which turned out to actually be a nice hotel called Phuthaveda. Though we did not plan any accommodation ahead of time, the entire south was so empty that this was never a problem. Paksong was a charming mountain town compared to the filth of Thakhek, and having a taste of fall was a pleasant surprise.

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Before bed, I went to ask the owner about the roads on our map to ensure we would not get stuck again the following day. He could not speak English, but called to a man staying there who, I found out, was to become a monk in the morning. He was born and raised in Laos, but had spent many years studying in Chicago. From him, I heard of the terrible Pakse plane crash that had flown right over our heads without us realizing – we had been out of wifi for many days and so were completely disconnected from the world outside of our car. The monk also helped me understand our map, pointing out which roads we could actually drive down, and I felt confident in reaching the waterfalls in the morning. We went to bed in sweatshirts and socks, ready for another early morning drive.

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On the Road: Part I

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On the outskirts of the Laos capital city of Vientiane, riding a bus to Xieng Khuan Buddha Park, I turned to Julia and said “I wish we could rent a car and drive down the south of Laos.” It was a thought I had many times on the endless and unpredictable bus rides of our journey. Though we had intended to head toward Cambodia in two days time, we had both fallen in love with Laos and were reluctant to leave before seeing the most uncharted and beautiful part of the country. Once my simple wishful thought was vocalized, there was no turning back. We hatched a plan that fell into place a little too easily, including the impossible feat of completely refunding our plane tickets to Cambodia and a rush decision for Thai visas. We returned to Vientiane, booked an SUV, packed some baguettes, fruit and pastries from our favorite shop, and headed on our way down south.

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We left early morning in our white Ford, a road map and ipod jack in tow. As we came to find, the only consistently reliable road in southern Laos is Route 13, which, though only paved in part, is at least always open to vehicles. Many of the roads detailed on our map were either not yet completed or impassible during the monsoon season. Of course, half of the adventure was veering off the path and seeing where these muddy, dirt roads would take us. A wrong turn is sometimes difficult to avoid, anyway, as there are few or no road signs in many parts.

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Southern Laos is filled with natural beauty and ever changing landscape, including uninhabited mountains and valleys, small muddy villages and an abundance of waterfalls. Our first day’s drive took us through winding mountain passes with breathtaking views of the vast valleys below. Throughout our journey, we were alone with nature or locals; many exclaimed, “ooo Falang!”, the Lao word for westerners, as we drove past.

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The road conditions landed us at our first destination, Kong Lor Cave, as it was closing. We drove through the small village and waived to the children on their mass exodus from school; the surprised and excited looks on their faces reminded me of how far from home we’d come and put a smile on my face. Kong Lor itself was completely deserted and we were at first turned away. Seeing our disappointment, the Phu Hin Bun National Park caretaker started yelling down the empty river. Our confusion abated when, a few minutes later, two men appeared in a small, motorized long boat.

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We approached the cave in their canoe at dusk, looking back as the last glimpses of daylight. It felt like we were entering the river Styx on our way to the underworld, and if I hadn’t come to know the unmatchable kindness of the Lao so well, the eeriness may have overcome me.

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The only light available in the 7km underground river came from our guides’ headlamps and my small flashlight. We blinked against the utter darkness, straining to make out the different masses beyond the artificial light. The shadows moved, a reminder that the cave was alive – inhabited by bats and great spiders. The water level was equal to the top of the canoe, the rapids spilling sizable amounts onto our feet and legs. After an hour and a half of exploring the cave, including leaving the boat to trek on foot, we arrived in the valley of the second entrance. The men cut the motor, and we sat among the silence in complete awe.

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When we returned to the park and to Ginger, we were speechless at the beauty of the day, and drove on to Thakhek in silence.

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Laos: Land of the Wholehearted People

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This slogan for the country’s beverage of choice, “Beer Laos: Beer of the wholehearted people”, says it all. Laos, a gem of a country, tucked away into the center of Southeast Asia, offers the best beer and most wonderful people in Asia. Before beginning my journey, the little I knew about Laos consisted of whispers of bowling parties and real pizza in the northern city of Luang Prabang. We expected to spend two weeks in the country, and ended up spending nearly that in Luang Prabang alone.

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The word “city” is used loosely in Laos. The country’s major city, Vientiane, is easily seeable in one day and is almost laughably small for a capital. It’s size is not to the city’s discredit though; Vientiane is a fun and welcoming place, though most tourists seem to overlook it in favor of the obviously charming Luang Prabang. Especially during non-tourist season and after a month of trekking through Vietnam, Luang Prabang’s laid back atmosphere did become very hard to leave. This isn’t to say the only thing to do there is to lay on lounge chairs overlooking the MeKong and drink Beer Laos (though I did spend many an afternoon doing just this). The wilderness surrounding Luang Prabang offers a wide variety of activities for nature enthusiasts; I climbed (and fell down) a waterfall, rode elephants and went on a two hour kayaking trip through rapids.

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Vientiane has its own sites to offer, most notably the Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park), a sculpture garden of ancient looking Buddhist Figures. Julia and I explored the grounds primarily alone, arriving with locals by tuk-tuk. The large mouth (pictured below) at the front of the park symbolizes the devil, and visitors are meant to ascend from the bottom of the sculpture, hell, to the top, heaven. Unaware, I quickly made my way to the top, and then descended the center spiral staircase to the dark caverns below. Even before knowing the symbolism, I understood the intended effect by the eeriness of my descent.

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Also worth a visit is the Ang Nam Reservoir, 1.5 hours north of Vientiane. The water was very clean and warm, and the entire reservoir is circled by large limestone masses similar to Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. In this case, we had an oasis to ourselves, and our weekend was spent swimming, hanging out with some French students, eating at floating restaurants and just relaxing. It was extremely beautiful and secluded, and we had a view of the sunrise from our room’s balcony.

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The Laos pizza rumor turned out to be true – not just in Luang Prabang but in Vientiane as well. The first real pizza we had in a month was from a French Canadian with a nameless restaurant, currently ranked #1 in the city. The backyard, wood oven spot is outdoor seating only and is not viewable from the street. To find it, follow the white “PIZZA” sign hanging in the driveway. Certainly not New York style pizza, but the speciality pies, especially the bacon and onion, finally quelled my craving. In Vientiane, Le Provencal, a quaint French restaurant on the far side of the fountain, gave us our second taste of home. Though I would normally attest to the fact that only Italians and New Yorkers know anything about pizza, I must say, in Laos at least, the French are doing something right.

The French influence from the colonial period lent to the delicious western food we were able to find in Laos, but luckily the French, in this case, let the Laos keep their own culture as well. Laos food is both unique in Asia and also incredible. Julia and I took a cooking class with Tamarind Restaurant, and had the privilege of learning to create this delicious food ourselves. My favorite, Koy/Laap, consists of medium rare or rare ground meat (pork, beef, fish, bison), and a wide variety of herbs and spices, including Lao garlic, spring onion (scallions), lemongrass, mint, and three kinds of basil, which you mash together with fish sauce and lime/lemon juice. The Lao typically make their Laap, like most of their food, extremely spicy with fresh chillies, the way I always prefer my food. Laap is to be eaten with sticky rice, Lao style, which is to ball the rice up into bite size pieces and dip it into the sauce. Sticky rice is a staple on all Laotian tables, and accompanies almost ever dish.

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The night markets in both Luang Prabang and Vientiane are the best I’ve seen, especially for food. The grilled whole fish stuffed with lemongrass and topped with fresh lime/lemon juice became our cheapest and favorite dinner. Of course, no meal is complete without a big Beer Laos for sharing. Our most adventurous eating experience at the markets was to eat chicken hearts; served at almost every stall in Vientiane and grilled to perfection, these little muscles just taste, as should be expected, like chicken. Julia and I both enjoyed our first heart, and went back for seconds.

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Being in Laos also rekindled, probably for the worse, my love of dessert. In Luang Prabang, the most incredible thing we ate at the night market are coconut custards- piping hot, with a crusted outside and gooey inside. In Vientiane, the pancake stands sent Julia and I on nightly hunts – they are similar to crepes but made from balls of dough and flattened out even thinner. The cart owner then slathers both sides with butter, fills the center with either banana or an egg, folds it up, adds more butter, then takes it off the grill and tops it with sweetened condensed milk and sugar. This is how I left Vientiane 5 lbs heavier than when I arrived from Vang Vieng, where all bad food goes to die.

My greatest advice on Laos, however, is not on the food or the sites, but simply this: get here before the magic of the country is gone! Unfortunately, Laos is being turned in to a Chinese tourist destination with a new railroad being built all the way through the country. In the next year, Laos will likely be overrun with foreigners. The Lao locals I spoke to were not thrilled, to say the least, and I cannot say I am either.

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Though our plan following a stint in Vientiane was to head to Cambodia, we decided, an hour before our flight, that the extreme flooding experienced there made a visit unwise at best. So, we got a refund on our ticket (thanks to a little help from a miracle worker) and spent the afternoon remapping our plan. We had flights booked all throughout November, and had to be to Langkawi by Nov 19th to meet my cousin Fiona. Myanmar, which only recently reopened to public tourism, was our first thought, but there are no ATMs throughout the country and getting a visa is more involved than we are capable of from Laos. The only bills you can even possibly trade for are crisp USD from 2006 or after, which we did not come prepared with. I’ve come to find in general that having US dollars in this part of the world is like carrying gold. You often cannot get through borders without it, but the banks here only buy, they do not sell. When we need bills for the border, we have to go to the black market – oddly a common practice here.

My number one choice was something I had mentioned as wishful thinking a few days before – to rent a car and take a road trip down the south of Laos. I had heard from many locals that it is the most fascinating and remote part of country. It holds one of Southeast Asia’s largest caves, some very small and authentic villages and Si Phan Don, the “four thousand islands” – a group of very beautiful islands that are closed off by mountainous surroundings. The water is meant to be very clear and we plan to go fishing and climbing with some locals. By now, my love of Laos has run so deep that I wanted any excuse to stay. So, let the road trip commence – it will be our greatest adventure yet!

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