In our travels so far, we've been taking the easy routes. Instead of a 9 to 12-hour bus ride, we took the overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Instead of an 11-hour minivan ride, we flew Nok Air from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son. And instead of the 6-hour “butt-pounding” fast boat, or the 2-day slow boat, we took a rather luxurious flight from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang. We even had cake!
But when it comes time to leave Luang Prabang, then there are no more easy routes to take. If you want to explore the interior of Laos, there are no overnight trains and there are no airplanes and a very low probability of cake. There are tuk tuks, there are busses, there are minivans, there are jumbos and there are boats. And in our travels to and from Meung Noi, a tiny town whose name translates as “little city,” we rode them all.
These are Lao tuk tuk. The travel agent that we dealt with, one Mr. Dickey, arranged to have one come to our guesthouse between 8:30 and 9:00 a.m. Now why, you may be asking, are our intrepid travelers going to travel agents? Why aren't they working it out all on their own? Why aren't they going to the bus station by themselves, checking the schedules with their own two eyes, thus bypassing the tourist track that they've been complaining about.
Well, to be honest, when you find yourself in places like Laos — where the spoken language is ineffable and the written language even more so — you have to ask for help. Whether you like it or not. Because it's not just the language that's unknowable, it is the whole underlying system. What is the bus schedule? Which of the many bus terminals do you go to? How much will you be expected to pay? Can tickets be reserved ahead of time or simply bought on the day of travel. Do you have to switch busses or, in our case, modes of transportation? Where? How? And if you ask three different people — say, the person working the desk at your guest house, a random tuk-tuk driver, and the gentleman at the tourist information center — you're likely to get three different answers. It can be overwhelming.
So here is another (rather obvious) life lesson that reveals itself when you are traveling: if you are feeling overwhelmed and at a loss, it is okay to ask for help. I know this is hard to believe, especially for those of you who fancy yourselves rugged individualists, but you do not — in fact you cannot — know all of the answers. To expect yourself to be able to do everything without help or assistance from anyone at all is a recipe for disaster.
This is how we ended up talking to Mr. Dickey. We needed some help figuring out travel logistics and seeing how he was a travel agent, it seemed likely he would be able to provide some definitive answers. Mr. Dickey was an energetic young man with a big smile and a rapid-fire conversational style. We told him we were interested in going to Meung Noi and within minutes, he was proposing an entire itinerary — minivan to Nang Kiaow, boat to Meung Noi, and then a short hike to Ban Na, where he knew someone that could set us up with a home stay with the village chief. Afterwards, a boat trip back to Nang Kiaow for a couple of nights, and then a 5-hour boat ride to Luang Prabang.
Tim and I looked at each other. Here's another life lesson that comes with traveling: asking for help doesn't mean that you will get the help you desire or expect. You might still end up getting cheated, or misled, or simply overcharged. In the end, you must go with your instincts and throw yourself into the unknown. Because no matter how many travel agents you visit, no matter how many people you ask, the unknown will remain unknown…until you get close enough to see it for yourself.
We decided to go with Mr. Dickey. He showed us pictures of the rice paddies spread out before Ban Na like a great jigsaw puzzle. He described his last visit there. He talked about the stars in the night sky and the quiet bungalows waiting for us. He said that we would be hiking along a river on our way to Ban Na, and that we could stop whenever we wanted and swim in its crystalline waters. It sounded absolutely magical. And so this is how we ended up in a tuk-tuk at 9:00am, crammed in with 7 other tourists, all headed towards Nang Kiaow.
When we got to the southern bus terminal, where we would catch our minivan to Nang Kiaow, all thoughts of crystalline waters and quiet bungalows were dispelled. Here, we were alternately directed and then ignored, and generally treated like cattle. A half-full minivan leaving for NK was waiting in one of the bays, and several people from our tuk-tuk ran for it, wanting to make sure they weren't left behind. The rest of us stood about confusedly, looking around for some sort of authority to tell us what would happen next. Eventually, it became clear that another minivan would be leaving soon, and so we waited and made small talk with one Kenny Dobbs, from Scotland, who had just arrived in Laos from Myanmar.
This is the minivan that took us from LP to NK. See that sticker that says “12P” on the back end? That indicates the maximum number of passengers that it can carry. It also indicates the minimum number of passengers required before it will leave the terminal. For a hot second, I fooled myself into thinking that my front row seat would give me more space and leg-room than anyone else on the minivan, but then Sob, a backpacking Cambodian-American arrived and it became clear that we were to be seatmates. We crammed ourselves into the front row, trying our best to leave room for the driver to shift gears, and then off we went. Four passengers in the back row, three passengers in each of the two middle rows, and me and Sob seated next to the driver; making 12 unhappy, overheated tourists.
As we were leaving LP, a tuk tuk pulled in front of us. Two tourists with their compulsory backpacks were seated in the back. Given the way of Lao drivers, Sob and I were close enough to read their lips. The first, a white woman, sat on one of the bench seats facing forward, her back turned on her male companion. He sat on the opposite bench with his head in his hands. As we drove on, it became apparent that the two of them were having a terrible time of it. The man, in fact, was sobbing and pleading, descending into hot mess territory. At one point the woman turned abruptly and let loose a torrent of anger and vitriol, full of finger pointing and everything. The man, visibly desperate, lifted his head and wailed “Oh God!” He reached out to the woman with open hands, seeming to beg for forgiveness or at least understanding, but the woman spat a reply and again turned her back to him. The man deflated and continued sobbing into his palms.
“Whoa,” I said to Sob. “Looks like someone's having a hard time in Laos.”
We watched, occasionally commenting on the action, until the tuk-tuk turned right, leaving us with nothing to watch but a thin sliver of road and an unfolding landscape. “I hope they're okay,” I mumbled.
Sob and I chatted for a while. He had been away from American soil for almost two years now, working in Australia and New Zealand for half that time, traveling around SE Asia for the other half. “I used to be all about my career,” he said, “but now that I've started traveling, I don't think I'll ever be able to go back to that life.”
“I worked in insurance for years,” he explained, “and at one point I realized that I had been talking about going to Australia for forever but I wasn't getting any closer to actually doing it.” He worked and saved money for two more years, quit his job and then headed to Australia. “I love this lifestyle,” he continued. “I have to go back to the states to earn more money, but I don't care what I do for work; I just want to keep traveling.” He has plans to visit Europe in 2014 and then South America after that.
As we chatted, Laos opened before us; rice paddies and burnt mountainsides, blue-green rivers and limestone ridges, structures of cinderblock and woven bamboo. We passed children on bicycles, trucks stopped by the side of the road, minivans full of tourists, and countless motorcycles and scooters. My window was rolled all the way down and a hot breeze blew through the van, slowly forcing my fellow passengers into lethargy and then sleep.
As if pulled from their dreams, a creature loomed large in the windshield and then disappeared in our wake; an elephant, my mind informed me. But it still made no sense in this place, this land of a thousand elephants, wrapped in chains and driven to work in the suffocating glare and heat. When I sent this picture to my sisters and my niece, my niece replied, “they make them work!?” My sister wrote back, “I hate this picture…I loathe it.”
Sob and I lapsed into silence. He, reading a worn paperback; me, listening to an audiobook about science fiction vampires. We passed through a thickening snarl of buildings and traffic, turned right at a restaurant boasting a sign with chinese calligraphy, and then left into a dirt parking lot. We had arrived at the bus terminal in Nang Kiaow. We emerged from the minivan, stretching and blinking our way into this new reality. We looked around for some sort of signage, some indication of what to do next. Nothing. A foursome of men played a variant of bocce ball in the shade of a sparse stand of trees. A group of locals sat under the overhang of a nearby building eating noodle soup. Some members of our transient pack, including Sob, hefted their packs onto their backs and started walking. Kenny Dobbs approached us and asked if we knew what we were going from here. All I knew is that we were trying to reach the boat landing, where we would hopefully catch a boat heading for Meung Noi. Everything else was a mystery.
Once again, time to ask for help. I approached the men playing bocce ball and in broken Lao, tried to ascertain in which direction and how far the river lay. The men exchanged some words, laughing and smiling, and then one of them said, in English, “5 kilos to river…I drive you for 50,000K.” “Per person?” I asked. He nodded. I returned to Tim and Kenny and shared my newfound knowledge. After some quick math, we realized that the damage to our wallets would be minimal. I nodded to the man, now our driver, and loaded our things into another minivan. We drove down a dirt road lined with biodegradable structures and then emerged into a cluster of stores, street side food carts, and restaurants catering to tourists. Nang Kiaow, aka Transit-Town, Anywhere. The van turned down a curving drive that descended into a dead end of shops selling water, motorcycle tires, plastic rope, mechanical parts, and other daily necessities of life in the interior of Laos. “Buy tickets,” our driver said, pointing to a tiny booth. We got out, paid the man, and, following his succinct advice, went to buy our tickets.
With repeated success, one's confidence builds rapidly. We had survived the tuk tuk and the minivan and we had managed to make it to Nang Kiaow. Now, all that stood between us and our final destination was a single boat trip! I approached the booth boldly and with assurance, confident that my limited Lao vocabulary would be sufficient to the task: “phuk koi bpai Meung Noi…song.” We go to Meung Noi…two. Sadly, the ticket booth was closed, but the carefully handwritten schedule confirmed the legitimacy of our plans. A boat would be leaving from Nang Kiaow to Meung Noi at 1:30pm. The ticket booth would reopen at 1:00.
Which left us just enough time to grab some lunch.
When you order food in Laos, especially away from the big cities of Ventiane and Luang Prabang, it is an entirely homespun affair. The person who wiped the ants off of your table as you sat down is the same person who will take your order and will probably be the same person who will make both your food and, if requested, your fruit shakes too. In all likelihood, they will probably bus your table and then wash your dishes.
What this means is that you should not expect your food to arrive in a timely manner. Laos PDR, according to the merry Mr. Dickey, also stands for “Laos. Please Don't Rush!” Also, don't expect much in the way of explanation when it comes to menu options. The noodle section may contain a dish called fried noodles with egg and vegetables, followed by a dish called fried noodles with vegetables and egg and if you attempt to question your waitress about what makes these dishes distinct and separate, it is likely that you will end up ordering both of them. In my experience, it is best to simply point at something and hope for the best. Which is what I did.
If you are at a roadside restaurant in the interior of Laos and you order, say, fried noodles with vegetables and egg and and a watermelon shake — and your companion orders stir fried vegetables with chicken and a pineapple shake — this is probably what will happen. The person (generally a woman) who took your order will disappear into the back of the restaurant for what seems like an inordinately long time. It is possible that she has gone to a nearby store to purchase the watermelon and pineapple that will become your shakes. At some point, you will hear their single blender whirring to life, once for each fruit shake. She will reappear momentarily, in order to deliver your shakes and then she will disappear again, this time to cook your food. After she finishes one dish, she will bring it to your table and then return to the kitchen. When the next dish is completed, she will deliver that one. No sous chef, no waitstaff, no busboy, no hostess. Just the one person doing everything for everyone in the restaurant.
Another life lesson, then. What you understand as “normal” is forever changed by travel. You realize that the life you had back home, with its endless selection of cheeses, its cheap gasoline, and its thoughtless acceptance of gays and lesbians (practical, if not yet legal), is absolutely NOT the norm. It is an aberration, a bubble of freedom and excess. Even the notion of this kind of travel — to put your life on hold for two weeks, or three months, or five years, and simply go out into the world to see it — has been unheard of for most of human history. In Luang Prabang, I told our friend Syfohn that if he ever came to the US, he would have a place to stay with Tim and Me. He laughed uproariously at the thought. “It would be very very difficult for me to arrive in the US,” he said. A boundary that separated us and that we had been ignoring suddenly reasserted itself. Even in the simple and familiar act of ordering food at a restaurant reveals a world larger than you had previously imagined.
By the time we completed our meal, the ticket booth had reopened. I appeared at the window, eager to apply the sentence I had been rehearsing while waiting for my fried noodles and watermelon shake. Imagine my disappointment when I was met by a young man wearing stylish glasses and a pink polo shirt who, in perfect English, greeted me with a “yes, sir, how may I help you?”
“Two tickets for Meung Noi, please,” I mumbled.
“300,000K please,” he said, and then handed me a form to fill out.
This is the kind of boat that took us up the Nam Ou to Meung Noi. Our boat carried:
- An assortment of locals carrying food, equipment, and other necessities to their far-flung villages.
- A beautiful, brassy young Lao woman who was returning from Udomxai to visit her family in Meung Noi.
- A 50-something Australian couple who were regular visitors to Meung Noi and who were clearly involved in some sort of commercial enterprise there.
- A handful of foreign tourists, including an overly affectionate Spanish couple, a pair of very pale Germans, and this episode's special guest star, Mr. Kenny Dobbs!
- Me and Tim.
The trip upriver was spectacular. The Nam Ou had been exhausted by the dry season, and our captain was navigated this reduced, but still powerful river without any charts or aids whatsoever. He threaded the thin wooden boat between limestone islands, younger siblings of the giant karst formations that loomed above us on either side of the river. The locals chattered with each other and with the Australian couple. The tourists stared in wonder as the world we recognized — as foreign it might have been — slowly disappeared downriver. From time to time something that existed at human scale would pass before us. A boat carrying two fisherman. Smiling Europeans perched on innertubes. Water buffalo. But mostly, we were irrelevant. Ahead, an endless forest, an infinite river, grandfather mountains, and a towering sky.
As Americans, we have this thing about privacy and personal space. We have yards to keep our neighbors visible and at bay. Our cars are as hermetic and protective as turtle shells. In theaters and on busses and at restaurants, we sit as far away from each other as possible. Unless absolutely required to — or unless someone is being paid — we would rather not touch or be touched by strangers for any length of time. Most of the time we do not question or even recognize this tremendous luxury of space and preference.
In SE Asia, generally — and in the minivan to Nang Kiaow and the boat to Meung Noi, specifically — such a thing as a desire for personal space seemed hopelessly irrelevant and fanciful, like wishing you were born with a mermaid's tail or enormous butterfly's wings. Sob and I sat as close together as newlyweds as we discussed his transition from insurance salesman to itinerant traveler. On the boat, nothing so chaste marked the intersections of our bodies. It was a veritable orgy; arm crossing leg, foot caressing hip, knee pressing inner thigh. Tim, who has had surgery on both of his knees, found temporarily relief by extending his leg across tha aisle and wedging his foot between me and my neighbor. I shook my head crossly, afraid that he had violated some Lao taboo about where you point your feet.
We continued on in the thickening light of afternoon. The haze from a dozen slash and burn sites diluted the sky into a pale, porcelain blue. We shifted our positions, as fickle as swingers, as we bowed a single perfect note upon the Nam Ou's shimmering cord. We stopped once to release a handful of passengers. They retrieved their cargo from the rear of the boat and we moved on. The next stop, at the base of a long staircase built a high bluff, was Meung Noi. We unfolded ourselves from our cramped positions and disembarked on a long plank jutting pragmatically from the river's edge. We climbed, joints happy to be moving, even in the labor of hefting our backpacks up a hundred uneven stairs.
At the top, we were greeted by a tree thick with magenta flowers and a scattering of souls attempting to draw tourists to their various guesthouses. Incongruously, a handsome twenty-something year old white boy with a tank top and a French accent stood with them. “Bungalow,” he called out, “would you like to rent a beautiful bungalow.”
Tim and I passed him and moved through the rest of the welcoming committee. I found myself being paced by a slight woman with downcast eyes. “Do you have a reservation for your stay?” She asked. And rather than the practiced brush-off that I had been applying to tuk tuk drivers, restaurant hostesses, food cart hawkers, and night market crafts-folk, I found myself responding honestly. “No, we don't,” I said.
“We have bungalows overlooking the river,” she said, flashing her eyes upward momentarily and catching mine. “Would you like to see?” I looked at Tim and shrugged. “If you don't like them, you don't have to stay. No problem.”
“Sure, okay” I said and she smiled. We followed her up Meung Noi's narrow main street, past locals who regarded us simply as the next batch of foreigners, past the Australian couple being welcomed at a ramshackle store/restaurant, past scratching chickens and clumsy puppies. “Where are you from?” She asked. “New Mexico,” we replied. “Oh, Mexico,” she said, “it's very beautiful there?” Not wanting to get into it, we simply nodded.
Near the far end of the street, she gestured towards an alley. She led us through a small bamboo gate and onto the grounds of beautifully situated guesthouse. Four small buildings made of burnished wood and set on stilts to compensate for the sloping ground sat along three sides of a wide central platform. Below, the now pale green waters of the Nam Ou continued flowing, visible between stands of bamboo. She called out to a man who had been curled in a hammock, smoking a cigarette in the shade. He roused himself and unlocked two vacant rooms, one of which had a padlock instead of the usual doorknob. “For this room, you have to use this lock,” he said in a gruff, monotone voice. “Tourist forget to return key.”
“Tourists,” I replied sympathetically.
One last life lesson from traveling and then I'll shut up about it and let you get back to learning your own life lessons from whatever it is you're doing. Sometimes, its okay to stop worrying about whether you're getting swindled, cheated, or misled and to simply accept what is being offered to you. This is how we found our way to Dr. Joy's lovely, Suan Phao (Coconut Garden) Guesthouse and how I began to fall in love with Laos in earnest.