April 14th was Lao New Year. We are now in the year 2558. I had one of my best experiences of the last couple months on the road.
It started in Pakse. I arrived in a really bad mood. It started raining as I rode my motorbike into town. Google Maps led me to a bridge that didn’t exist. Actually it was a dirt road. Thanks to the rain it was an extremely muddy road. I lost control of the bike and we went down in the mud. A few scrapes on my side and $10 repairs on the bike. I showed up to my guesthouse all muddy, tired and a bit banged up.
That day, I was planning on going to Si Phan Don (4,000 Islands) in the south. Instead, I made a friend at the guesthouse and we decided to load our bags on the bike and go to a small town called Tad Lo.
The ride there was spectacular: There was lush green forest on either side of us. Dozens of little yellow butterflies danced across the road. Unfortunately a few committed suicide on my sunglasses. We stopped at Mr. Vieng’s Organic farm and had some tasty fresh coffee.
We made it into Tad Lo about mid-day. We found a guesthouse where we paid less than $2 a night. I found it to be a charming town. There were all kinds of farm animals roaming the streets at all hours of the day. During my stay in Tad Lo, my friend and I developed a sort of routine. We took rides to see other towns or villages. We were usually the only foreigners around. We got a lot of stares. We would meander around Tad Lo or hang out by the waterfall. We found a restaurant with good food and a sweet owner and ate almost every meal there.
Lao New Year came and the town got a lot busier. The people set up a sort of carnival down the main road. People from other villages came in by the truckloads. Lao New Year was all about getting wet. The locals were all armed with water guns or buckets of water. They even set up stations by the side of the road and would soak us as we rode by on the motorbike (a little dangerous but fun nonetheless). After soaking us with water, they would smear our faces with baby powder. The fun lasted 4 days. On actual New Year’s Day, we were driving south of town. There wasn’t much there, but I saw a sign about textiles made by the villagers. We decided to check it out since we were already in the area. We sputtered along a dirt road between the wooden houses of the village. We didn’t see anyone in sight, only a few pigs and chickens running around. Then, we found the villagers. We had stumbled upon their party. They were dancing and drinking Beer Lao and they motioned for us to join the fun. We tried our best to make conversation, but we didn’t make a lot of progress. I drank a few beers with them. The kids made us dance and of course…we got splashed and baby-powdered a few times.
I was sad to leave Tad Lo. I had a great time there. The next couple of days were marked by an uneventful night in Attapeu, a tiring 7-hr drive through the mountains crossing the border into Vietnam, and a hellish 7-hr ride on the pothole-filled roads to Quang Ngai.
I was having trouble deciding where I should enter Vietnam on the 18th. Finally, I decided to ride south. In central Laos I had a series of one-night stays in the towns Paksan, Thaekek, and Savannakhet.
Paksan is a small, quiet town by the Mekong. On the other side you can see Thailand. The first thing I noticed upon arriving is that I was the only foreigner in town. The bike has allowed me to stop at places not on the typical backpacker trail. Some people treated me like a movie star, or looked at me like I was an alien. I ended up that night at the 88 bar. When I first arrived. the only ones there were me and two local guitarists . They were practicing playing country songs (English and Lao). I had been riding alone on the road for a while. I happened to arrive at a place where they were playing the song Country Road, a song that hit home for me at that moment. I felt a tinge of nostalgia for my place of origin. For several weeks I was always surrounded by people I met (other backpackers mostly). Being alone, my mind got a chance to quiet down and to be more in tune with my emotions. The feeling vanished quickly, and I felt that it was a reminder that time alone is good, even if it’s unsettling at times. I went back to that bar later that evening and was treated like a star. I had drinks with some younger Lao and Thai guys, and later on they let me get up on stage and play a few songs on the guitar. I really enjoyed meeting them. Connections like that are what makes traveling so great.
The next day I headed to Thaekek. I found it to be another little sleepy town along the Mekong. The streets were lined with crumbling French buildings. I got a massage that evening and walked around the town a bit. There wasn’t much to see or do there but I enjoy places like that. It allows me to be my reflective, introverted self.
The following morning I got up bright and early and drove to Savannakhet. It was a larger version of Thaekek. It was filled with crumbling French colonial buildings. Not much to do there but shop at lots of local stores and eat at some good local restaurants. I ate at one place called Chai Dee located on the main drag. It was a Japanese fusion cafe and a pleasant break from Lao cuisine.
One of the highlights of my stay in Savannakhet was that I found a Catholic church. I love going to different places of worship such as temples and mosques. However, Catholic churches and cathedrals hit home for me. Finding this one in Savannakhet was great for me because I got to get in touch with my spiritual side a bit that day. I sat on one of the front row benches reflecting on the days to come. I said a prayer asking for a safe journey on the motorcycle to Pakse. And, the next morning, that’s exactly where I went.
Check out my timelapse of the city below (manually set at higher def):
I enjoy relaxed cities like Vientiane. The city has a nice mélange of French colonial and SE Asian architecture. I spent my time walking around the night-market and having drinks with friends at the rooftop bar. One afternoon we went to the public swimming pool to cool off. Another day a few others and I went to the three largest temples in town. As we entered the biggest of them, there was a woman striking a huge gong. We sat down and watched a young monk say prayers for two women. They all held a thin string in their hands connecting them while the monk was chanting in Khmer. We took turns approaching the monk and giving a small donation to the temple. In return, the monk tied a small bracelet around our wrists while saying a prayer in a hushed voice.
Another day, two friends and I were heading to the Laos version of the Arc de Triomphe (original in Paris). En route, we came upon a huge party at a local bank. As we got closer to get a better look, a couple people waved us over. They immediately gave us big Lao beers and started dumping ice-cold water on us (a Laos New Year tradition). We learned that Laos New Year wasn’t until the following week. Since the employees would go home that day, the bank threw a party for them one week early. They fed us and kept handing us beet after beer. Every time I had a drink in my hand, someone would cheers me and tell me to chug the rest of my beer. After several glasses, I felt a bit discombobulated. We eventually had to make our escape despite the bankers’ pleas not to leave. They were very nice people.
The most educational experience I had in Vientiane was going to the COPE center. I learned there that Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world. During the Vietnam War, the US dropped millions of cluster bombs all over the country. Many of them didn’t explode back then. To this day bombs are found by villagers looking for scrap metal. Oftentimes they are children and many get killed or seriously injured by these bombs. The COPE center custom makes prosthetic legs for people who lost a limb because of a cluster bomb. Many countries around the world donate to the COPE center every year. As an American I think that we should be the ones giving the most. After all, we dropped the bombs that are still affecting innocent lives 45 years later.
I stayed in Vientiane longer than I originally intended. My passport was out of blank pages and I had to go to the US embassy to add more before leaving Laos. Currently making my way south. TTFN…
Driving into Vang Vieng I found the landscape breathtaking. The countryside is dotted with luscious green hills. High cliffs tower like skyscrapers. The mountains get so high that at one point we stopped and found ourselves in a cloud. We got out for a bit and I breathed in the refreshing mist. It’s a bit surreal being in a cloud. The last time I felt like that was when skydiving.
Arriving in Vang Vieng I took up lodging at the Phoudingdaeng Organic Farm about 3km north of town. This has been one of my favorite guesthouses ever. There are goats, pigs, chickens and crops such as mulberries, pineapples, and eggplants. Because of this, the guesthouse’s restaurant has amazingly fresh food. The goat cheese they put on their omelets is to die for. The staff are delightful. Every morning I would order breakfast and the woman would give me a discounts on my order. The guesthouse is also by the river with an amazing view of the high karst cliffs on the other side. The only downside to this place is that it is a bit far from town. One night I hitchhiked back and the next I walked which took about 50 minutes.
Vang Vieng itself is like a spring break party. People come to tube the river and get plastered. I partook to an extent. Tubing is a must do, but I recommend starting by noon. My friends and I started at 3 and we were a bit rushed to get from bar to bar along the river. The next day we went to the Blue Lagoon. It was a bit crowded and the journey overpriced but it was still refreshing. The other days I just hung out with friends by the river or at a restaurant that played episodes of Friends.
The highlight of my stay was buying a Honda motorcycle off my American friend. He was looking to sell it before going back to the states and I really wanted to escape the confines of traveling by bus. This will definitely change my pace of travel. It seems I’ll only be able to go about 200 km per day. I’m not sure what my new mode of transportation will bring but I expect it will be fun. Yesterday I drove from Vang Vieng to Viantiene. I felt so free. Although, my ass hurt a lot and I had to make a few stops to remedy this. Viantiene is great so far! Until next time…