A Chronicle of Amy and Sean's World Travels

Hog Tales – Motorbiking the Bolaven Plateau, Day Two: Welcome to the Jungle.

You know where you are
You’re in the jungle, baby
You’re going to die

- Welcome to the Jungle, Guns’n'Roses

Day two of motorbiking the Bolaven Plateau started off innocently enough.  For breakfast, we did as the Laotians do and had a bowl of steaming Lao noodle soup. After stopping by for a quick cup of coffee at Koffie’s place, we set off under blue skies and white fluffy clouds.  We intended to head to Sekong, a town on the outer edge of the plateau, and had to head down a dirt road to get there.  Koffie and an American expat living in Lao cautioned us before we left that the dirt road to Sekong and Attapeu, another town, wasn’t great.  We figured we would be okay if we took it slow; we had heard of troubles during the rainy season, but there were no rain clouds in sight this time of year.

Shortly after we left Paksong proper, we spotted a dirt road to the right, where our map indicated the road to Sekong and Attapeu should be.  There were no signs that we could see.  We paused briefly, but ultimately shrugged and forged ahead.  The dirt road seemed to be in good condition, and we sailed along past coffee plantations on either side.  If it wasn’t for the large trucks flying by, spraying clouds of dirt, life would have been good, right up until we hit the road work.  Who knew dirt roads have road work?  The first segment of the dirt road was wide but completely torn apart.  I felt like we were back home in Pennsylvania, where the road work never ends.   Because the Laotians didn’t actually feel the need to close the road while they were working on it, everyone drove their scooters and trucks where ever the large steamrollers working on the road weren’t, which might be the flat, dusty parts on the sides, or might be the rubble in the middle.  Hmmmm…maybe this isn’t such a good idea.

To top it off, we still weren’t really sure we were on the right road.  No one mentioned road work.  Efforts to ascertain that we were indeed headed in the right direction produced less than certainty.  Anytime we saw a person, we pulled over to ask if this was the road to Attapeu.  Many times, the person smiled and looked confused, giving us our first indication that no one around spoke English, and we were probably once again butchering the only word they might have otherwise recognized in our complete inability to pronounce names of towns.  A few seemed to nod yes and point where we were pointing, but you never can really be sure.  Hmmmm…hope we are on the right road.

One thing was for sure, however.  The tourists we kept seeing the day before on the way to Paksong were nowhere to be found today.  Kids playing alongside piles of coffee beans drying in the sun stopped in their tracks to give us big, huge smiles and loud, happy sabaidees.  Their mothers, donned in traditional Laotian skirts, looked up to see what all of the fuss was about.  Even though we were covered almost from head to toe to ward off the chill in the air and the dirt sprays, everyone knew we were foreigners from a mile away.

The roadwork finally ended, but then the potholes began.  After dodging the craters, we thought we were home free when we came upon the village that was supposed to be the halfway point between Paksong and the end of the dirt road.  We stopped at a roadside stall and had – you guessed it – Lao noodle soup for lunch.  If you’re counting, that makes our third soup meal in a row.  Delicious.  Before we ate, I wiped my face and hands with a wet wipe.  The wipe came away an opaque orangish-brown.  I mentioned something about being dirty to our host, while Sean kicked me and whispered, they’re covered in this dust all of the time! It was true.  With their houses, restaurants and workplaces mere feet away, getting dirty was unavoidable.  Our meal was accompanied by the lovely screech of Lao music.  Sharing with us the pineapple being passed around the family, the one guy in town who spoke some English explained everyone else in town was at the wedding ceremony.  I wish we could have solved the eternal mystery of why Asians only enjoy music blaring out of loudspeakers at top volume, but I couldn’t figure out a polite way to inquire about this.  Alas, another time.

Unfortunately, the semi-English speaker disappeared after lunch, making it quite difficult to inquire whether there was a toilet we might use before setting off.  After exhausting every possible word I could think of to convey bathroom and only getting blank stares, I cursed myself for not learning more Lao.  Who ever thinks they’ll actually need the suggested phrases in guidebooks and translators like where is the bathroom or those drugs are not mine, officer? I was racking my brain trying to figure out how one would convey going to the bathroom in Charades without being culturally offensive, when someone finally figured out what we needed and showed us to the shed out back where the hole in the ground was located.

Waving good-bye, we set off again.  A ways from town, the road turned soft, made of fine, rusty terra cotta dirt.  We passed a local couple on a motorbike, and I noticed Sean noticing them right before we toppled over.  We hit a divot in the road and landed with a big thud.  Even though I landed intertwined with Sean and the bike, I only had a small scrape on my knee.  Sean, on the other hand, was a bit more scraped up, but nothing a few band-aids couldn’t fix.  I gave thanks to our foresight in wearing long pants and sleeves.  Even though the soft dirt was our nemesis, it also broke our fall.  As we wiped everything down in vain, two women came around the bend and toppled in the spot where we just fell.  Great; now we’re going to cause a scooter pile-up.  Luckily, they drove away unharmed.

We took off again, rather shakily.  I had to turn away from the road; I was certain we were going to fall again at every hole and every rut, Sean was certain I was going to make us fall again at every hole and every rut with my squirmings.  I tried to concentrate on anything else but the road: the fluffy clouds, the dense greenery, the occasional house.  But then we both saw the worst thing we could have seen in the entire world at that moment: a fork in the road.  Hmmm…that’s funny.  There are no turns on this map.  I thought it was supposed to be a straight shot?

We crossed our fingers and picked left, since the dirt on the road to the right seemed different than the road we were on.  I’ll spare you the suspense; we picked wrong.  Or maybe it didn’t even matter at that point, because it was quite possible that any number of slight diversions from the dirt road we ignored in blissful ignorance (lalalalala, I don’t see you!) could have a road we were supposed to take.  As we figured out much, much later when we ran into a group of travelers at dinner who traversed the dirt road in the opposite direction, it DID appear to be a straight shot coming from Attapeu.  From Paksong, not so much.  Going in the opposite direction, everything appeared to be in a straight line for hours, with an occasional road joining the way, whereas in our direction, there were ever-so-slight options.

At the time, we decided we were too far from town to turn around.  We kept driving onward, deeper into the what was increasingly looking like a jungle.  There were no kids calling sabaidee now, just an occasional scooter whipping by and thick tropical greenery on all sides.  I entertained the possibility this was where we’d meet our demise when we came to the end of the road.  We’d probably been driving for two hours since we left the village where we ate lunch.  At the end of the road, we were greeted by two Lao men in military uniforms.  Their knowledge of English was only good enough to point over the hills and far away towards Attapeu.  Turning away, we came to the realization that we had no idea where we where, and we had no other choice other than to turn around and retrace our steps back to Paksong if we didn’t want to be enveloped by nightfall in the jungle.  So for two very long hours, we headed back, dejected, to the village at the half-way point, itself over two hours from Paksong.

Naturally, as a fait accompli, we wiped out again, this time trying to avoid a ridge in the soft dirt.  We had spectators this time around; a family of 12 or so came out to the road to see what was going on.  What was going on wasn’t pretty.  Sean’s arm and the bike’s kickstand got the brunt of the fall.  The arm was bleeding; the kickstand was wedged in such a way that the gears could not be shifted.  I was resigning myself to having to walk miles and miles or moving in with this Laotian family when the husband and father came over to help us.  He didn’t speak a word of English, but he knew exactly what the problem was and how to fix it.  He laid down in the dirt and tried kicking at the kickstand, but couldn’t get enough force with his short legs and bare feet.  Sean gave it a whack and we all smiled when the bike actually started.  Considering there hardly was anyone around in these parts, we are eternally thankful that this kind man happened to live near by.

The four or five hours back were some of the longest of my life.  We both were frustrated, fearful and occasionally blinded for minutes at a time thanks to the dust kicked up by the larger vehicles on the road.  Pulling into Paksong, caked in the rusty dirt, we both breathed sighs of relief when we saw the paved road.

And just think: we had at least two more days of driving ahead of us.  Whose idea was this, anyway?

Lao noodle soup: the breakfast of champions. And lunch. And dinner.

Roadwork, even in Laos.

Faced with two by fours and views of the creek below, Sean goes it alone. We've never met a Lao bridge we've trusted with the weight of two, even though the Laotians have no qualms about driving huge construction vehicles and zipping scooters over them.

On the way to the bathroom at lunch, I had to step over these little guys.

Laotian nuptials.

When you arrive at a fork in the road, take it.

Shortly after crash two.

Next on Hog Tales: I’ve got the fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell!


Forty Before Forty (with a Wanderlist too)

I never been on a railroad, as many times as they pass me by
I never crashed in the desert or seen a rodeo
I don’t know much about the world wars or Vietnam
I’ve yet to read about Uncle Tom
Never climbed a real rock or seen Colorado
Am I the son I think I am
Am I the friend I think I am
Am I the man I think I wanna be – hey
I never had a day where money didn’t get in my way
I never listened to much Elvis
I can’t remember a warm December
Am I the son I think I am
Am I the friend I think I am
Am I the man I think I wanna be – hey
Cause I’m here for my sanity sanity
I am here for you
I’m here for your fantasy sanity, I am here
I am
Am I the son I think I am
Am I the friend I think I am
Am I the man I think I wanna be
Cause I’m here for my sanity sanity I am here for you
Whether or not I’m walkin in
Whether or not I’m walkin out
I’m always here for you

- I Am, Train

The other day, I was sitting on a train making its way north in Vietnam, and this song came on my Ipod.  Something about this song always gets me.  I think all of us want to be a certain type of person, and at some point in your life, you have to either be that person or realize that person just isn’t you.

The irony was not lost on me that now, I do know something about Vietnam.  And the only thing passing me by was the scenery, not railroads.  Not to mention that I can remember a warm December.

I turn 32 today.  And I’m not getting any younger.  If it is one thing taking this trip made me realize, it’s that if there’s something I want in life, it’s up to me to do something about it.

So, I’ve created a list.  A list of dreams, you could say.  I’ve been thinking about creating a list of dreams for a long time.  I think I first read about the concept from Chris, over at Notes from the Trenches (one of the first blogs I ever read and one of my favorites to this day).  Karen at Chookooloonks calls hers a Mighty Life List.  I’m a visual person; I like seeing things spelled out in front of me.  Having it all there in black and white appeals to me.  I don’t view this as a to-do list; I’m sure I will look at some of these things at 40 and laugh.  Many won’t get crossed off.  Maybe some will take me more than eight years.  Half the things on this list are contradictory or just a small seed of thought in the back of my mind.  I’ll probably change my mind a million times, anyway.  But I think it will be interesting, at 40, to see who the 32-year-old me thought she wanted to be.  And writing down your dreams is the first little step to taking that giant one.

Without further adieu, here’s my Forty Before Forty:

1. Figure out what I want to be when I grow up. (Might as well just start with the big one).
2. Find a job that doesn’t make me miserable.
3. Take the plunge and stop being DINKS (or more accurately as of late, NINKS) and have some rugrats.
4. Learn how to drive a stick shift.
5. Live in a house, with original character, that is finished. (Might as well dream big!)
6. Eat smaller portions and less meat.
7. Compost.
8. Grow a flower and vegetable garden.
9. Write a novel.
10. Live in a foreign country for a year.
11. Become fluent in Spanish, preferably by spending some time in a Spanish-speaking country.
12. Make yogurt, mozzarella cheese, and bread from scratch.
13. Make pierogies from scratch with my cousin Karen.
14. Take a photography class.
15. Become scuba certified.
16. Start shooting my camera in manual mode.
17. Can fresh local vegetables for use in winter.
18. Decorate with fresh flowers for Chinese/Vietnamese New Year.
19. Live by the ocean.
20. Own a shop/cafe with fair trade products and tasty treats.
21. Open a bed & breakfast.
22. Celebrate New Year’s Eve with Sean, Danielle, Matt and Tony in a different locale each year.
23. Bake apple pie just like my mom’s.
24. Ride a bike to work.
25. Be a tourist in my own city.
26. Become friends with someone who owns a boat.
27. Bind together a book of my blog posts.
28. Create a photo album of our trip.
29. Get caught up and resume making photo albums of everyday life. (I think I’m somewhere in 2008? Who knows).
30. Finish the photo album of our house renovations. (Probably should have done this before we sold the house last year!)
31. Keep blogging after we return home.
32. Join the library again.
33. Stop talking about volunteering and do it.
34. Learn from the Europeans and spend more time appreciating beauty, lingering at cafes, and taking more vacation time.
35. Go on a girls’ trip, finally.
36. See Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band play in Idaho.
37. Live in a walkable community and walk whenever I can.
38. Perfect a chocolate chip cookie recipe.
39. Keep on experiencing my Wanderlist!
40. Be a person who creates happiness instead of a person who complains about not being happy.

And, because all of my travel related dreams often take on a life of their own, I created a sure to be never ending Wanderlist:

1. Stop neglecting Canada. (Because it is true that all I know about Canada I know from HIMYM. And the South Park movie).
2. Take a road trip from Vancouver to LA.
3. Visit “our” bakery in France again.
4. Try all different types of Belgian waffles in Belgium (and eat Pierre Marcolini chocolate again. And since I’m over there, drink lots of beer).
5. Eat my way through Italy.
6. Eat real Mexican in Mexico.
7. Go to Madagascar and see cool animals.
8. See the Great Migration before it disappears.
9. Visit an island in the South Pacific.
10. Go to the Caribbean without being on an all-inclusive trip.
11. Enjoy life in small villages in Spain.
12. Go to Cork, Ireland. (We missed it this time around).
13. Go to Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic. (Ditto).
14. Drink beers at breweries throughout the Czech Republic.
15. Return to the Andaman Islands in 10 years.
16. Get the courage and strength to visit India again.
17. Go on a microbrewery tour in the United States.
18. Take a cooking class in Italy, Germany, China, and Mexico.
19. Board the next plane or train going anywhere.
20. Drink malbec in Argentina or Peru; sauvigon blanc in New Zealand; and shiraz in Australia.
21. Drive a VW Beetle throughout Southeast Asia. Or South America. Or Central America. Where ever. I’m not picky.
22. Take a cross-country road trip.
23. Take a trip entirely based on food.
24. Visit all 50 states.
25. Travel in South America, especially Argentina.
26. Learn how to make pastries in France.
27. Explore the Deep South.
28. See koalas and kangaroos in Australia.
29. Go to Thailand during mango season.
30. Explore other boroughs in NYC besides Manhatten.
31. Trace our roots in Germany.
32. Go where the live music is.
33. Go white water rafting at Ohiopyle.

To be continued…


Hog Tales – Motorbiking the Bolaven Plateau, Day One: Born to be Wild.

Get your motor running
Head out on the highway
Looking for adventure
In whatever comes our way

- Born to Be Wild, Steppenwolf

After moving along with the masses between Laos’ popular cities, we were itching to set off on our own to explore parts of Laos with more Laotians than foreigners. A motorbike road trip around Southern Laos seemed to be just the ticket. Similar, but each unique, trips had been taken by Shanna and Derek at One Year on Earth, Theresa and Jeff at Lives of Wander, and Wes at Johnny Vagabond, inspiring us to get out on the open road. One small problem. Our entire repertoire of motorbike riding consisted of a brief scoot around Lastovo Island on a severely underpowered scooter and a couple of rides around Havelock Island on an automatic scooter. Given our motorbike experience, it makes perfect sense for us to set off on a Honda Wave 100 cc manual motorbike on a four day, three night motorbiking trip on a loop in the Bolaven Plateau, a remote rural area of southern Laos, right? Right. Glad you agree.

The motorbike trip, which, spoiler alert, was one of our best experiences of our whole trip so far, almost didn’t get off the ground. We had reserved a motorbike at our hotel the night before we planned to set off from Pakse. Or, at least, so we thought. When we went to pick up the bikes, they were mysteriously all in need of repair, even though they were sitting out the night before for rent. Well, not sure what that was all about, but whatever, we didn’t want some defective bike anyway. We then tried to find another bike to rent. Contrary to what Lonely Planet/Travelfish/Wikitravel told us, Sabaidy 2 Guesthouse does not rent out bikes (or have maps, for that matter). Okay, we’ll try again. We found a shop that had bikes for rent sitting out front, but when we inquired about, you know, actually renting them, the girl in the shop just shook her head no. Hmmm…is someone trying to tell us something? We then checked in with the shop by the Langham Hotel noodle shop, which seemed to be the most popular place for bikes. The guy working there tried to tell us the bikes he had were too small for two people. Now, I know we’re bigger than the Laotians by a long shot, but I know what these motorbikes can handle: families of six (spotted by Sean, true story); televisions, enough cases of Beer Lao for a small village, bags of rice, you name it. There was talk of giving up and just heading straight to the 4,000 Islands. But then we saw two full-sized Western adults drive by on the same motorbike the guy told us was too small for us. Screw it, we said. Everyone else is doing it!

Soon thereafter we were zooming down the highway, making our way towards Paksong, a small village high up on the Bolaven Plateau. It turns out that Laos is a good place for a beginner to ride. The further we got away from Pakse, the less traffic there was. Other than the occasional truck or bus barreling past with its horn blaring, or some piece of primitive farm equipment loaded to the gills with hay with Laotians perched precariously on top, there aren’t that many vehicles on the road that are bigger than you. It’s a good feeling to be cruising down the road, wind whipping past, and sunshine on your face. After months of noisy, overcrowded buses, the feeling felt the closest to freedom we’d encountered in a long time.

The drive on the first day was short; only 50 kilometers. (That’s 31 miles to you Americans. Avery: Well how far is the border? Maybe we could run! Jack: I don’t know. When I asked the lady at the desk she told me in kilometers!) Paksong is coffee country in Laos, and the further we got away from Pakse and the closer we got to Paksong, it seemed that out front of every wooden house was a pile of coffee beans drying in the sun on a tarp.

Even after a late start, we were in Paksong by lunch time and made our way over to Koffie’s coffee shop. Koffie is a rather quirky Dutchman who married a local Lao woman and now lives with her family in the village surrounded by coffee plantations. Apparently Koffie loved coffee long before he ended up in the coffee heartland of Laos, so it was a perfect match. At Koffie’s coffee shop, you’ll find the only wi-fi in Paksong and coffee that was grown practically in the back yard. Koffee roasts the coffee in small batches in a wok, giving each batch a different flavor. I’m not really a coffee fan, unless it’s spiked with sugar, milk and chocolate and blended into a million calorie Frappachino, but Koffie’s coffee? It could make me reconsider. The flavor was so nuanced and the different notes lingered on your tongue. It reminded me of single-origin cocoa beans I tasted in the bars of Pierre Marcolini I sampled in Brussels.

Sean always regretted missing out on a tour of a Kona coffee plantation on our honeymoon, so we decided to go on Koffie’s coffee tour, which appeared to be offered once or twice a day whenever people wander by. Traipsing past coffee trees, Koffie explained to us the growing, picking, drying, and roasting process. Even better than learning about coffee, for me, was getting a little peek into rural Lao life that we weren’t able to see from the roadside. Up close, we could see laundry strung on lines underneath the simple wooden houses we saw from the road earlier. In the late day sun, women climbed into trees to retrieve low-hanging fruits. We watched kids playing volleyball in a field while their younger brothers and sisters yelled Sabaidee! and giggled every time we walked by. The giggle of the Lao children is infectious – although the adults do not smile much until you draw them out, the children don’t yet have reservations. While Koffie was explaining the benefits of shade-grown coffee to us, we kept hearing giggles from behind the trees where two little girls were playing a paddy-cake game.

For dinner, we headed to the Borlaven Restaurant on the outskirts of town, per Koffie’s recommendation. Shivering from the chilly temperatures in Paksong’s higher elevation, we ordered steamy bowls of Lao noodle soup and through in some laap for good measure. Laap is a Laotian dish made from minced meat, herbs and lime juice. We watched through the screen as the family prepared our order, each member having a role. The youngest daughter was in charge of peeling garlic; guess your family rank determines your job. Upon receiving our order, I recalled what I had previously read about laap: that traditionally it is served raw, but in most tourist restaurants, the chicken will be cooked. Well, this was no tourist restaurant. Despite its aromatic smells, there was no way I was eating raw chicken coming off of two weeks of a stomach bug up north. Good thing the noodle soup was extra tasty.

There wasn’t much of anything going on in Paksong (must not have noticed the brothel down the road) so we headed back to our hotel, Phuthevada Hotel. Sitting high on the hill overlooking the town, and easily the most expensive option in town even though it was only $13 for a double for the rooms in the building in the back, we felt a little pretentious. But the room was nice and clean, and most importantly, there was a television. We specifically got a room with a television in the hope that in some crazy random off chance that we would pick up the Steelers’ first playoff game on our favorite channel, the Asian Sports Network, but as we suspected as we set off into a very rural part of one of the most rural countries in the world, no such luck. Unfortunately, what the hotel also did not have was heat, so we hunkered down to watch the one English speaking channel, a movie channel devoted to showing the random collection of movies ever assembled. First, there’d be an obscure movie, such as the Bill Murray film Broken Flowers that we actually had seen before, or Falling Angels, a rather intriguing movie about three sisters coming of age in the sixties in a dysfunctional family in Canada (the Canadian location never occurring to us until we looked up the movie when we got back to the interwebs). Immediately after the obscure movie, the channel would show a second-rate, made-for-tv movies that probably never saw the light of day elsewhere. Highlights included a horror movie with a severed head that gave me nightmares and a super cheesy Western/Vietnam War movie. Who knew watching movies from bed could be important cultural lessons in of themselves. Apparently the communists believe that the actual placing of a smoking device to one’s lips that corrupts the public, but dangling cigarettes from the character’s hands and rampant swearing are no problem. What really cracked me up was a scene in Falling Angels. The actual smoking of the bowl? Not okay to show. But the lighting of the bowl, the exhaling of the smoke, and the passing of the bowl, all okay. I’m so glad I wasn’t corrupted by the placing of lips to bowl. I could rest easy now, save for severed head nightmares.

This is coffee country.

A typical Lao house around Paksong.

Everyone's favorite lawn ornament: coffee beans drying in the sun.

Exploring the coffee plantations.

Not quite ready to drink.

Koffie, wok-roasting the beans.

Just about grinding time.

A little Lao boy, mugging it up for the camera after his big catch.

One of the girls on the coffee tour handed out pens to the children in the village. As you can see, this girl was quite excited to receive hers. (If you are thinking about heading into the Lao countryside, consider buying some books from the NGO Big Brother Mouse in Luang Prabang to distribute to kids in the villages. I am kicking myself for not doing this).

Next time on Hog Tales: Karma gets its revenge for our nicknaming a couple who took a spill on the scooter in the Andamans “Roadkill.” Stay tuned.


The Frenchies were here.

Vientiane, population 726,000, was, as promised, the sleepiest capital city we’ve ever seen (well, except maybe Ljubjlana). Sure, it’s the biggest metropolis in Laos, but that’s not saying much in a country with six million people. Vientiane has scatterings of influences leftover from French Indochina, including a supposed replica of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, although the sign on the monument describes it as “a monster of concrete” that gets “less impressive” the closer you get. I’m not sure who wrote the sign at the monument, but I’m guessing it was the French.

Say what you will about the French, though, but one does have to pay homage to the baguettes and pastries they’ve left in their wake. A lingering stomach bug meant I didn’t eat any proper French meals at any of Vientiane’s French restaurants, but Vientiane turned out to be a good place to take it easy and nurse myself back to health. There’s just not a lot to actually do there, for starters, and my daily diet included lots of tummy-friendly Laotian noodle soups, the first real baguettes we’ve had since Paris, and homemade yogurt and bananas drizzled with the sweetest honey from Champasak, Laos, that I had eaten in my life to date. (I say that because the wild honey at Epic Arts Cafe in Kampot, Cambodia, gave the Champasak honey a run for its money several weeks later – and I’m not even a honey fan).

And, okay, maybe a non-tummy friendly pastry or two consumed. Try to contain your shock.

Vientiane teens roaming around town. It wasn't hard to take a picture without cars in it, even on Vientiane's main drag along the river.

Is this Asia or Paris in the 50s?

The pastry counter at Le Cafe Banneton. Go for the baguettes, pastries, and honey, but when the service sucks, don't say I didn't warn you. After bringing an overcharge to their attention, they actually ended up charging me MORE. When you're in Asia for months and you find pastries this good, though, you let it slide.

Another tasty place in town that benefits former street kids to boot - Romdeng.

Never did figure out who this is but he looked important so I took a picture.

Everything's public in Asia - even going to the gym.

The most important thing we did in Vientiane - learn about the effects of unexploded ordnances in Laos. We visited MAG, a non-profit group dedicated to clearing the ordnances in Laos. 30% of the 2 million tons of bombs the United States dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War failed to detonate. To this day, the unexploded ordnances pose safety risks - people die every year - and keep Laotians poor because they are too scared to farm their land. While the United States has sent some money to Laos for clearing efforts (and doesn't donate more in part because of concerns of efficiency of the government), the amount is way short and unexploded ordnances are still a big problem.


If it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month or even your year…

To say I was not a fan of Vang Vieng is only putting it mildly.  Vang Vieng is a small town between Luang Prabang and Laos’ capital city, Vientiane, located among limestone mountain karsts and the Nam Song River.  Its claim to fame is being a party mecca for young backpackers who come there to go tubing down the beautiful river and allow themselves to be reeled in to shore to drink Beer Lao and Lao-Lao whiskey by the bucketful. Sean had no interest in tubing, so we only stopped overnight to check out the scenery and break up the trip between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. By all accounts, Vang Vieng is touristy, Westernized, and rowdy, and most travelers whose blogs I read seemed to view Vang Vieng as a guilty pleasure after their visits. So I was prepared to see some good-natured debauchery and even the strange phenomenon of cafe after cafe running endless loops of Friends, the Simpsons, and Family Guy.

But I underestimated the scene in Vang Vieng. I know lots of people love it, and I’m sure I sound like the old, thirty-something fuddy-duddy that I am, but to me, Vang Vieng is a giant frat party gone out of control. From dusk onward, the streets are filled with stumbling, obnoxious kids clad only in skimpy bathing suits (in a very conservative country) and with lewd sayings written in marker up and down their bodies. As one group stumbled by, cackling and shouting, a bikini-clad girl filled her companion’s cup to the brim with whiskey. He chugged it down and threw his cup on the street while yelling “F*ck yeah!” like he was in the basement of a college house and not a guest in someone else’s country.

Despite listening to pounding bass late into the night (thank you Travelfish reviewers who called our hotel “quiet;” you apparently are deaf or didn’t come back to the room until 4 a.m.), we decided to take the afternoon bus to Vientiane and first check out an organic farm up the river. If we thought this would get us away from the rowdiness in town we’d be sadly mistaken; the farm has the unfortunate location of being right near the start of the tubing. This means instead of peaceful sounds of birds chirping, the farm gets to hear the sounds of competing music screeching out over the river.

Other than the noise pollution, the farm was lovely. We took a tour led by “Mr. T”, a little Laotian man who is passionate about organic farming and leading by example. He hopes to show other local farmers that organic farming can be profitable and healthy. The farm centers around its mulberry trees, used for mulberry tea, mulberry wine, mulberry tempura and most deliciously, mulberry shakes. The farm also grows organic vegetables and fruits (we saw starfruit and jackfruit trees, for example) and has chickens, pigs, and goats. In addition to sustainable farming, the farm also runs various projects for the community, such as building inexpensive housing out of local materials, paying fair wages to local people, running schools for local kids, and a goat lending program where locals receive goats and repay their debt with baby goats.

Hearing about one man’s efforts to better the local community made me less cranky about our stopover in Vang Vieng (or at least until the tuk-tuk driver insisted on charging us $5 to return to town even though they were already going that way any way to pick up more tubers). Besides eating delicious fresh organic meals by the river, and learning more about organic farming in a third-world Communist country, it gave me a different perspective on the party scene in Vang Vieng that I wish more travelers would consider. There’s nothing wrong with having a good time, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of a community. I’m not even talking about people’s claim that Vang Vieng is a former shell of its former, sleepy self and that its Lao culture had disappeared; that happens to a lot of places where tourism takes over. I’m talking more specifically about the locals who lived by the river long before tubing came to town, who have to listen to the partying day in and day out, who can’t afford or who don’t want to move. I’m talking about the little Lao kids who see the drunk, raunchy foreigners and think all foreigners are that way or that it is an appropriate way to behave. Both the travelers who participate in behavior they wouldn’t necessarily engage in at home and locals who profit from the travelers are all complicit. There’s nothing wrong with letting loose and having a few beers and some fun, but I wish more travelers would think more about the consequences of their actions.

Now that I’m done ranting, if you could please get off my lawn.

Mr. T explains organic crunchy things to Sean in the midst of the mulberry trees.

Mr. T greeted the goats with "Bonjour" instead of "Sabaidee." Most of the goats, used for the farm's community lending program and to make goat's cheese, were donated by a Frenchman.

If you don't think about how they are destined to become your bacon, these baby pigs are adorable. We watched this pink guy doggedly worm his way in between his polka-dotted buddies.

Mulberry fields on the farm.


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