Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Laos, Land of Butterflies

Next up, Luang Prabang, Lao PDR. (Apparently, like so many societal ills, the ‘s’ was a Western addition.) I thought I’d booked on the Lao national carrier, but when I got tot the airport my flight was listed under Vietnam Airlines. Laos: Home of the secret codeshare. An hour or so later we landed in mountainous northern Laos. My taxi got thoroughly lost trying to find my guesthouse, which was not in town but rather about two blocks from the airport, on the banks of the Nam Khan River. If you go to Cambodia for the temples (and you really should go to Cambodia for the temples), you go to Laos for the nature. The scenery was just stupendous, with the little town of Luang Prabang set in a valley in the midst of a low but striking mountain range. A lot like the Dolomites, but tropical. The whole place was swarming with butterflies and geckos and also mosquitoes, which keep the geckos fed and give the malarial parasites a place to live.

My guesthouse, which goes by variations on the name Ecolodge Namsongsai, was a rustic sort of place. It consisted of a large covered area which served as reception desk, restaurant, and movie theater, and some wooden thatched-roof Lao-style cabins where people like me stayed. For $7/night, I got my own bungalow, complete with hot water, a fan, and a front porch/balcony looking out over the river. The plus side was that the setting was beautiful, with fruit trees and herbs growing all over the property, swooping butterflies, and a cool breeze at night. The downside of staying in a thatched roof hut is that you get up close and personal with the local wildlife, of the four-, six-, and eight-legged varieties. Even with the window screens closed, there were ants, mosquitos, large geckos in the roof, and one big brown spider that briefly tried to move in to my bathroom. Or maybe he just temporarily vacated when I proved a bad host. Either way, I was glad for the mosquito net and learned to ignore the scurryings in the night.

My first afternoon I stayed at the guesthouse. A late lunch in the restaurant proved to be the best cucumber salad of my life, dressed largely the same as the Thai papaya salad at Rice Pot but somehow infinitely better. It took about half an hour to come out, which I later realized was at least in part because the woman running the place had to walk down to the garden to pick the cherry tomatoes to put in it.

Day two in LP I decided to scope out the town. The walk in took about half an hour, but as always the scenery was gorgeous. Not for nothing is the town a UNESCO World Heritage site. I climbed Mt. Phousi to see the stupa on top, but admission was 2000 kip (roughly 25ȼ) and all I had was a $20 bill, and reasonably enough the guy selling tickets refused to make change. They do take dollars in Laos, but unlike Cambodia the local currency is preferred. Still, I got to see Buddha’s giant footprint in the stone, and the view, of course, was superlative, even if I didn’t quite make it all the way up. Several wats and quite a bit of walking later, I stopped for lunch at Tamarind. Their cooking classes were, disappointingly, cancelled for the month, but I ordered a tasting platter of Lao specialties and was once again blown away. Khmer food is good; Lao food is great. Luang Prabang sausage, water buffalo jerky, pickled Mekong river weed, spicy bamboo shoots, and some spring rolls rolled up in lettuce leaves made my lunch. It was so good I ordered a second course of noodle salad, which was overkill but still excellent. If you’re ever in LP, eat there.

Afternoon was the royal palace museum and more wats, and since my guesthouse didn’t have internets I found a little bakery with good fruit shakes and free wifi. My laptop was two miles away at the guesthouse, but at least I could check email on my iPod. Then back to the guesthouse for more of that salad for dinner, this time with green papaya instead of cucumber.

When I went to brush that evening I saw something brown scurry out of sight, which I assumed was a gecko. A minute later it came out again and turned out to be a rather large, furry brown spider. Not the giant yellow ones I’d seen in the gardens, but still big enough that I wasn’t going to reach under it to get the soap, or even really stand in the same room as it if I had any say. Probably it had heard I’d eaten its cousins for lunch down in Phnom Penh and wanted to see what’s what. When I asked the lady in charge if there’s anything they could do, she assured me that it wasn’t poisonous (‘just bites like an ant!’) and sent one of her employees to go help. He put a dish towel over his hand and tried to grab it, but the spider was faster and hid behind the bathroom mirror. So while he reached his bare fingers under the mirror to try to flush it out (!!), I hit the mirror with my sneaker a few times, to encourage it to leave. No trace of the spider, but instead a large gecko, maybe six inches long and fat, dashed out and exited through the wall fan. I didn’t get a photo, but he looked a lot like this guy: He continued living in my ceiling and leaving behind turds the size of half-eaten Tootsie Rolls, but as long as those turds were made up of mosquitoes and spiders that was frankly fine with me.

The next morning a tuk-tuk picked me out a drove me, along with a few other tourists, 45 minutes into the countryside to Kuangsi waterfall. The guidebook says it’s ‘champagne-glass limestone’, whatever that means. It was, predictably, gorgeous. When you first walk into the park there’s a bear sanctuary, where they keep sun bears rescued from bile farms. A little farther up are some low falls and an area to swim, which given the climate was worth the price of admission by itself. The water was cold and so blue it was almost green. And farther still were the main falls. I started to hike up the side, but the path was more steep mud than anything else and I hadn’t had lunch. It was pretty enough from the bottom. We left just as a busload of Chinese tourists was arriving, which is to say, just in time.

I hung around at the wifi bakery again that evening until the night market opened. Mostly the market is kind of depressing – long rows of tents, all selling one of the same five things. The scarves were gorgeous so I bought a few anyway, but even the bags you could see the people embroidering were the same pattern as the bags two stalls down. Near the end was an alley lined with tables of noodles and grilling meat, so I walked down and, against my better judgment (there were tourists there! They still looked alive!), decided to stop for dinner. I chose one of the better-looking buffet tables (1 plate for 10,000 kip!), and heaped my plate high with various noodles, vegetables, and more of that amazing Luang Prabang sausage. I’ve heard it compared to Chiang Mai sausage, which I’ve never had, so all I can say is that it’s slightly grey in color and has an herbal, almost woody flavor. I have no idea what they put in it and frankly I don’t want to know, but damn it’s good. I sat down at a picnic table with two other backpackers and an old Australian expat, on a visa run from Phnom Penh, who told us stories about living in SE Asia and traveling the US in the ’70s and disagreed with me heartily on the allures of the call to prayer at 5am in Indonesia. He’d spent some time working for the Australian military in East Timor and disliked the Indonesians in general. Post dinner was a preventative Coke and a chocolate croissant at a café down the street, then tuk-tuk home for the night. When I got in, the spider was looking down at me from up near the bathroom roof. When I came back later to get ready for bed, he was gone for good.

My final LP adventure was elephant riding. It wasn’t the best tour ever – just half a mile or so down a path, then back again – but the elephants were darling and I had fun anyway. From there we drove to a whiskey village, which was even more depressing than the night market. The whole village seems to consist of stalls selling scarves and trinkets, until at the end you get to see a still, sample the whiskey, and hopefully buy a bottle. Most bottles included a snake, scorpion, or giant millipede for added medicinal power. We also passed a fire where they were smoking elephant skin to eat, and a stall selling bear and tiger teeth and various animal bits in liquid as medicine. As the bear sanctuary posters had implored, we did not buy.

And last on the morning's list was the Pak Ou caves, limestone caves on the Mekong filled with Buddha statues. The caves are more notable for the number of figurines in them than anything else, really, though the Mekong along that stretch is, again, stunning. Then back to town for a ginger shake at the wifi café and, since the restaurant I was looking for seemed no longer to exist, a dinner of papaya salad (excellent) and a Lao-style baguette (good but too much ketchup) from the night market. For the record, my stomach’s fine.

When I got back to the guest house I asked about having a Lao breakfast instead of bread and jam, so the next morning I met the proprietress and her assistant at 8am to go pick bamboo shoots. “Pick” really meant “hack with a knife”; those things are tough and woody before you boil them. Along the way we picked various leaves and mushrooms and chili peppers, and an hour later when I came to the restaurant it had all boiled into a delicious soup. Shortly thereafter the tuk-tuk picked me up for the airport, and the proprietress handed me a bag of tiny fresh-picked bananas for the road.

My guidebook tells me that the drive from Luang Prabang to Vientiane is one of the most beautiful in Asia, eight to twelve hours on winding roads through limestone karsts with stunning vistas of the river below. Stunning though it may be, eight to twelve hours in a minibus through winding mountain road was not something I was prepared to stomach, so I coughed up the ninety bucks for a plane ticket instead, and we passed over said scenery in 35 minutes. Still pretty from above, though the clouds do get in the way.

At the airport I met a Dutch backpacker who offered to split the cab into town, and we ended up at the same guesthouse. We walked around the city together for what was left of the afternoon. A quick bite at the Scandinavian bakery – excellent croissant, wifi – and then another procession of wats and French colonial architecture. Vientiane as a city doesn’t have a lot going for it. It’s small, without the charm of Phnom Penh or the scenery of Luang Prabang or the sights of Siem Reap. Most tourists in town seem to be just passing through, which is what I recommend you do if you end up here – don’t linger, just pass through. You can see everything in half a day at most. The food’s pretty good – we had some reasonably good if overpriced French for dinner, and I got a solid bowl of Lao noodle soup at a stand for lunch today – but I haven’t been blown away yet like I was in LP. In general, you can do better elsewhere.

So this morning I took my time getting out of bed, captioned some pictures, read my email, and had my Namsongsai bananas and some market mangosteens for breakfast before heading out. I spent nine dollars in postage to send six postcards home (is that what communism means out here? expensive postage?), and then hiked up the main drag to the morning market, where I ogled some more gorgeous Lao textiles, then farther up to Vientiane’s version of the Arc de Triumph, the Patuxai Monument. Rather than take the same road back again to the restaurant I’d picked out for lunch I decided to go a few blocks over to a smaller street, and in true Emily fashion promptly got thoroughly lost. How I ended up where I ended up, walking the wrong way in an entirely tourist-free part of town, is entirely beyond me. The proprietor of an internet café which clearly hadn’t seen a Westerner set foot inside it for years was kind enough to point me in the right direction. I gave up on my resto of choice for lunch and had the abovementioned noodles instead. Once I get this post finished I’ll head there for dinner, hopefully to have a delicious last Lao dinner. Tomorrow evening, hopefully after a productive day of grantwriting, I fly to Kuala Lumpur for a day, then on to Jogyakarta and Indonesia at last. That’s the plus of a boring town with good internet – you get things done. ’Til then…

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