Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Laos/Thailand trip - Chapter 2

As I sip on my pineapple shake and watch the sun set behind the mountains across the Mekong River, I reflect on the last 36 hours and the road that brought me to Luang Prabang. I arrived in Vientiane, Laos around 10 a.m., 2 hours behind schedule. I told the tuktuk driver to take me to Buddha Park but when we arrived the park was about a meter deep in water, an aftermath of the recent floods. Determined to not see any tourists turn away disappointed, two locals had their skiff boats sitting at the entrance ready to give a unique tour of the park. The park was amazing. A man trying to offer a different view on the history of Buddhism and Hinduism and their teachings constructed the sculptures in the 1950s.

After the park I checked into a guesthouse for 5 USD. A few hours in Vientiane left me feeling unimpressed with the capitol city. It was the typical big, dirty city with a few touristy temple, same as the hundreds of temples I have already seen with a slightly different design. As such, I decided to ditch the room I had already paid for and catch a bus heading 11 hours North to Luang Prabang. The cheap accommodation prices are a perfect fit for my spontaneous nature. Besides, Vientiane is not the Laos I had dreamed about; from what I’ve read, Luang Prabang is. After all, that is the place that molded my expectations of this country.
The bus ride was an interesting one with locals and Laotian music blaring on the radio for most of the night. Out the window I could see the simple villages of the local people. Each hut was raised on stilts to avoid flood damage and there was no electricity. The atmosphere was dark with one or two flickering candles every few hundred meters. With no lights the silhouette of mountains in the background began to paint the picture of the Laos I have read about – a lush landscape of villages hidden in the trees and surrounded by mountains.

Around 11 p.m. the bus suddenly stopped in the middle of the jungle, miles from any sign of civilization. My first thought was, “oh no, a landslide from all the rain must be blocking the road.” As people began to alight I realized it was just a bathroom break, and where better than in the middle of jungle brush?

The next eight hours were spent struggling to sleep, much worse sleeping conditions than the train. My soft laptop case rolled up was the only makeshift pillow I could concoct to cushion my head on the hard plastic armrests. After a rough two hours of continuously interrupted sleep I woke with the sun. The surrounding landscape was ripe with scenes meet for any National Geographic magazine cover. Majestic mountains covered with the greenest of green trees stood tall in the background. Thatch-roof huts constructed of bamboo sat meagerly in the foreground. The few people on the roadside smiled as I waved to them from my window. “What do people do here?” I thought to myself. In my travels I have found it intriguing that people with such simple, humble settings seem to be some of the happiest people I have ever met.

We pulled into the Luang Prabang bus station at 7 a.m. Seven of us crammed into a tuktuk for the 10K ride into town. The streets were lined with groups of monks in their bright orange robes walking to the nearby temple for a day of prayer and instruction. Other bystanders would stop and stare at the white guy hanging off the back of the tuktuk passing by. The same lush green mountains built a wall around the town. It seems as though that wall is impenetrable by Western influence. There are no billboards displaying products or models from America, no foreign cars, not even a McDonald’s or 7-11 on the street corner. Yes, this is the Laos I was looking for.

Sitting by the “Mighty Mekong” now, I am already beginning to reminisce about the things I have experienced. I can tell I will miss it when the time has passed. I’ll miss the elephant riding, swimming in waterfalls in the jungle, sharing life experiences with monks I meet at the temples, talking with locals excited to practice their English, and the laid back atmosphere where the locals seem to be void of a care to keep track of the time (nobody seems to wear watches). I still have a good week and a half of traveling left before heading to China. I hope I can make the most of my time.

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