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Sunday, March 6, 2011

Laos: by Brett

Yet another overnight bus ride with 14 passengers begging the driver to slow down while various other passengers retched their guts out in plastic bags, everyone squeezing their eyes shut in sheer terror as we careened around corners and passed three-abreast at high speed through blind curves and small villages. But daybreak brought peace and our first view of the mighty Mekong river. This winding, misty waterway mirrors the swirling confusion in my own brain surrounding the history of this beautiful land. Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam. All related in my mind to the “Vietnam War”, but how do the pieces fit together? Did you know that in the 60's and 70's America dropped more bombs on Laos than all the Allied forces combined dropped during all of World War II? On Laos? Was there a war in Laos? Did you know that on your last birthday, on this past Christmas day, last week, yesterday, today, tomorrow, and every day for the next hundred years, one person in Laos was or will be killed or maimed by unexploded ordnance - bombs that we (America) dropped over 40 years ago but never exploded. Thirty-seven years after our last official combat troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, the legacy of war still haunts the farmers and children of Laos. And the same story is true in Cambodia. For two countries that were never acknowledged to the American public as being part of “the Vietnam war”, the remnants of American involvement here are everywhere. We crossed the river from Thailand into Laos and boarded one more bus to Luang Nam Tha in the very northwestern corner of the country near the border with Burma. Our goal was to trek in the Nam Ha National Protected Area and meet some of the local tribes in this unspoiled part of the country. The Karens, the Hmong, the Khmu, and the Akha would be our hosts and our guides through this remote region. But before we could leave on our three-day trek we discovered something. The Lao people smile even more than the Thai people do – if that's possible. Over the next two weeks we would find that the 20th poorest country in the world has the happiest, nicest people we have ever met. Please remind me of the definition of poverty, again? Rumor has it that Laos is a dream for motorcycles with twisty mountain roads, good pavement, and no traffic. And so it is. After meeting the amazing Martina and Sahi (our travel soul-mate couple), we set out from the capital (Vientiane) for five days of exploring, living off the bikes, and staying wherever we ended up come sunset. And it was sublime. Jenny rode like a pro on her Honda Tracker and Brett kicked the street bike habit for the workhorse Honda Baja enduro. Maybe it was just being surrounded by such nice people, but you would be hard pressed to have found two more happy souls in all of Laos. There's nothing like being on a motorcycle to make a land come alive. The countryside unrolls beneath you in sights and sounds and smells and sensations that you never get from a bus or a plane. Side roads beckon and you engage with the locals on a truly personal level. Using hand signals to borrow a tool from the town mechanic. Taking a picture by a river surrounded by a group of shy, laughing, smiling children. Having lunch with members of a hill tribe that you've only read about in books. Happening upon a local funeral procession and watching as they burn the body by the side of the road. On busses we tend to bury ourselves in books or pass away the hours of boredom with sleep. Our companions are other (usually western) travelers and our meals are pre-planned stops at uninteresting restaurants whose sole purpose is to get a busload of passengers in and out in 20 minutes. On the road, with the wind in our hair, we are wide-awake with all senses on high alert. The greens are greener, the smells sharper, and the mist penetrating our jackets makes us feel like a part of the land. The sun soaking into our necks and even the dust that cakes our faces become a part of us. We didn't want it to end. But the seed has been planted and ideas for South America have begun to churn. Could we ride motos from Patagonia to Colombia? The lure of the wide open road beckons and part of our heart will always remain in the rolling, misty hills of Laos. But all good things must come to an end (do we really believe that?) and eventually we arrive once again at the banks of the Mekong River and the cute French colonial town of Luang Prabang. After reading about the “secret war” in Laos (a book called the Ravens) we sought out the UXO (Unexploded Ordinance) museum, a very well done documentary on the continuing cost of the American war over 35 years later, and the men and women who still work on a daily basis to remove, defuse, or explode the millions of bombs still littering the Lao countryside. Sobering to say the least. But it wasn't all serious as we sought out waterfalls and swimming holes, explored the winding roads outside of town (one last day on the bikes), visited the Asian sun bear sanctuary, and took an amazing cooking class (where we learned to cook with, among other things, whole dried squirrel – teeth, fingernails and all). But the highlight of Luang Prabang had to be the “Adventure Meal” at a local restaurant called Tamarind run by a British expat and her Lao husband Joy. We were able to choose our “level of adventure” and we decided to go all the way. The first course was a fairly tame tour of local forest products and basic fishy things (cooked and raw). But the second platter was quite the challenge. A three month old egg (salty), pig brains (uhh, yeah...), buffalo lung (spongy), fried crickets (crunchy, and the bits get stuck in your teeth), pickled whole fish (salty), fried cicaidas (crunchy on the outside, absolutely revolting on the inside), fermented fish broth (six months – what a stench!), and whole frogs (again). We were both not feeling so hot by the end, but we managed to eat at least a few bites of everything. The film of Jenny and the frog is priceless. :) But our time in Laos was drawing to a close and soon it was time to pack up and move on. We have a very fond place in our heart for this beautiful country and the warm, friendly Lao people who made us feel so welcome.


  1. I wouldn't touch that food for the cost of your trip. Being over here, it would have been a part of the show Fear Factor.

  2. Yummy, I may find a ginko on the porch for a midnight snack. Brett, you are so inspiring.