Tag Archives: Laos

How to Ride a Motorcycle Across SE Asia

Originally Posted on OffTrackPlanet.com

When it comes to Southeast Asia, everyone has the same guidebook and the same itinerary. Chances are you’ve island hopped through Thailand, trekked through Laos, hit a tranny bar here and there and you still haven’t left the crowd behind.

You’re stuck on the Banana Pancake Trail. It’s time to get off…

You need to do something unique; something everyone else is too scared to do. How about buying a Soviet-made motorbike for $300 and riding it from Saigon to Hanoi? Sound crazy? It is – but you can do it and OTP is well-prepared to guide you through one of the wildest adventures to be had in Southeast Asia.

Step 1:

Learn How to Ride

Vietnam is NOT the place to learn how to ride a motorbike. It’s dangerous and you must know at least the basics of riding. If you are still stateside, go to the DMV and take a basic safety course for about $250. Warm up to riding in Asia by renting smaller motorbikes in Thailand.

Step 2:

Make Some Rough Plans (Pick Your Starting Point)

It makes more sense to start in Hanoi if you are coming from China or northern Laos; Ho Chi Minh City if you are coming from Cambodia. Although Hanoi is an easier place to find a bike, either city will work. Buy the bike in one city, ride it to the other and sell it. Simple.

The north-south journey takes a month. If you are short on time, stick to the north and make the beautiful Hanoi-Dien Bien Phu-Sapa loop. Alternatively, you can seek out the EasyRiders, a local Vietnamese crew, that offers short and long-term tours on the back of their choppers.

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Step 3:

Pick Your Highway

You don’t want to make too many plans in advance. Relax and give yourself the freedom to make up your exact route as you go along. You can choose to follow the coast for the beaches, swing into the misty mountains or carve along jungle valleys, beside waterfalls and through thatched hill-tribe villages. While most of the rides offer a great mix of scenery, there’s a fork in the road between Hoi An and Nha Trang.

Take the rural route through Dalat and up into the Central Highlands instead of coastal Highway 1. While Highway 1 connects all the coastal cities in one endless chain of life-threatening traffic, rural roads are usually secluded, peaceful, and incredibly scenic. The great north-south rural highway is called the Ho Chi Minh Highway – follow it across almost the entire country. Although there are far less services available along the rural route, the Vietnamese are incredibly warm people and will usually help you however they can. Besides, learning how to get out of such jams puts hair on your chest, don’t it?

tipsicon1 100x46 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East AsiaWhen planning your route, remember that rain in the mountains, means sun on the beach and vice versa. Also, even when you need to travel along the coast, you can easily hop off Highway 1 and putz along smaller side roads. A great way to learn about the sights along the way is by asking the Easy Rider crew for tips.

P5300024 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East AsiaStep 4:

Find a Bike…and Make it a Minsk

Once you arrive, the first step is to find a bike that won’t break the bank. This will require a few days, a bit of tenacity and some bargaining skills.

OTP likes the Soviet-made Minsk. It’s reliable, simple, durable, can handle all the dirt roads you will inevitably encounter and will carry all your crap through rain and shine. They’re also easy to find in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Since you’re too broke for a new Minsk (at $700), a used one can be nabbed for $200-$400, depending on how well you bargain.

Search for For Sale flyers in hostels, restaurants, internet cafes and on the street. If you are in Hanoi, swing past the Minsk Club to look for leads. Some people have been lucky and found bikes on the Internet before they even arrived.

Once you find a bike or two, its time to…

Step 5:

…Bargain Your Ass Off!

You’ll likely buy your Minsk from another backpacker – one who has a month’s less money and a month’s more experience bargaining like the Vietnamese. You’ll need to sit at the bargaining table with some tricks up your sleeve.

Find out the strengths and weaknesses of both you and the seller. His strength lies in the limited supply of bikes – so the more sellers you can play off each other, the better. His weakness is time and an immediate need for funds to continue traveling. To knock the price down you must find the weaknesses in the bike: point out what’s broken, how old it is – anything you can find.

Dance with a few sellers for a bit, then seal the deal over a few pitchers of bia hoi. Play your cards right and he’ll buy you all the spare parts you’ll need to sweeten the deal. Don’t fork over the cash until everything is to your satisfaction.

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You get what you pay for. You may not need a brand-new bike, but you don’t necessarily want the cheapest bike you can find. Bargain for a good deal, but make sure the bike you buy will actually make it all the way to Hanoi.

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Step 6:

Learn The Minsk

Now that you’ve got your Minsk, lift up her skirt up and see how she works. Tool around the Minsk Club Vietnam website then fine-tune your knowledge by reading our guide below.

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Each Minsk has her own personality, complete with unique quirks. Have the seller explain how to start her when she won’t, fix her when she’s broke, and maintain her along the way. As with everything in nature, the older the bike, the more quirks she’ll likely to have.

Step 7:

Get Some Supplies

You’ll need to prepare yourself for this journey. Every rider should carry the tools and supplies he needs to make roadside repairs. Your bike should come with tools. Some extras you will need: spark plugs, chains, spare lights and brake cables.

As for the belongings you already have in your backpack – shed the junk, keep the basics. You’ll have to carry everything on the back of the bike, so keep it lightweight. Check our Packing 101 Guide for assistance.

Step 8:

Tune Her Up

Wheel her to a mechanic for a full rub-down. Make sure the less obvious components are working as well: namely, the horn, brakes and lights. Spy on how the mechanic systematically checks each part of the Minsk and use what you learn as a guide to fixing her up on your own later.

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Once she is fully tuned, you will have to keep her in good condition. Learn about daily maintenance and you will save yourself a lot of breakdowns.

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Step 9:

Rules of the Road

You’re almost ready to take off. The streets of Hanoi might seem like a massive clusterfuck, but don’t stress – there’s a method to the madness. Here’ s the breakdown:

Might is right. Big-ass trucks and tourist buses dominate the center of the road, normal trucks and cars are in the middle and motorcyclists are on the shoulder. Passing is the norm in Vietnam and even the semi-trailers will swing into the opposite lane to pass someone. Stay alert. Typically you drive your bike until you approach another driver from the rear, then honk twice as a friendly signal and pass them on the left side. Repeat all day.

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Getting out of the cities can be the hardest bit. Warm up by hiring a motorcycle taxi and riding around the city to get a feel for the flow of traffic. Repeat until you feel comfortable enough to take off. There is no shame in paying a motorcycle taxi driver $5 to guide you to the outskirts of the city on your first day.

Step 10:

Take Off and Let Go

You now have freedom from itineraries, fixed bus schedules and group tours; you can go anywhere and stop as long as you like.. Just you, the Minsk and the road.

Step 11:

Harness your Chi and Focus Your Zen

There’s something spiritual about embarking on an adventure like this. Here’s a few tips on how to get your Zen on.

  • Slow down. As you plan out each leg of the journey, reign in your ambitions. Remember that you are no longer traveling by bus – driving a motorbike is physically exhausting. You feel every last mile and you are always at the mercy of the weather. The roads are windy, slow and not always paved.
  • Bring yourself into the moment. The constant fear that death lurks around each corner strips away all your distant concerns and brings you to the here and now. You may never do something like this again, so make sure your mind is fully appreciating it and not off in the clouds.
  • Accept setbacks and delays with a smile. When breakdowns happen on the road – and they will – learn to embrace them as a chance to slow down and pause in a part of Vietnam you normally would have sped past. Take five minutes to admire the view of the jungle before getting down to work. Remember, delays don’t exist. You have nowhere to be but here, in the moment. Smile.
  • Open yourself to the endless possibilities of the road. Take as many detours as you like. Check out the small villages, take the road that isn’t on your map and accept the offers to have tea with local families. Vietnamese visas typically last one month, but you are free to extend yours and stay another month or two. And, rumor has it, if you carry enough US dollars, you might be able to use some baksheesh to illegally sneak your bike into Cambodia or Laos.
  • Stick it to Mass Tourism. By taking this bike ride on your own, you have circumvented the middleman between you and your host country. As you journey farther into the misty mountains and away from the tourist trail, you will transcend mass tourism and encounter a more fundamental human relationship with your host country. Differences in nationality, beliefs, age, and income will disappear. While other backpackers are paying $20 a night for “authentic homestays,” your entire journey will transform into one enormous authentic experience.

As you pull away from Saigon, you’ll taste true freedom. As you chase the sunset along Vietnam’s golden coastline, you’ll arrive in the present moment. As you slip into top gear and rip alongside endless fields of rice paddies, you’ll discover what it feels like to be young and alive. That is, of course, how we should feel all the time. But sometimes it takes a bit of old-fashioned adventure to remind us.

Asia in Retrospect – Final Post (Beijing, China)

And now, it is my last day in Beijing; I am finally ready to leave China, finally ready to go to Mongolia, to Siberia to Moscow on Trans-Siberian Railroad.  I have my tickets in my hand, my visas in my passport, and my plane tickets back to the US are already booked.  My journey across Asia is finished.  I cannot believe the words that flow from my fingers – journey and finished in the same sentence.  How can this be?

I guess it’s been over a half year, hasn’t it?  I left the United States on the very day that Obama was inaugurated, two Americans on two different paths, with two different sets of obstacles but sharing the same Hope and Optimism, the belief that we can salvage something from this crazy world and build something good from the chaos.

I have discovered many things on my journey, too many to write at the moment.  I had many pleasant surprises, but more often I was shocked by reality and forced to re-evaluate the world as I thought I knew.  My worldview has been destroyed and reborn almost every week, and each time it has been recast with a different perspective, each time slightly closer to the wisdom I seek.

The world I lived in before in California was quite a comfortable one.  It was easy to remain ignorant of many of the world’s ills, simply because so much of our world appeared to revolve around the America – Hollywood made all the movies on my television, CNN always talked about the issues that effected me and my people, and my President’s decisions appeared to influence the way the world worked, the way it was.

But I have been in South, South East, and East Asia for the better part of the last 14 months, and I don’t think I can return to that same way of thinking.  I have spoken with people from dozens of countries on countless issues and I have seen how some of the world’s poorest people survive. As a good friend of mine told me, life just isn’t the same once you’ve seen the moon from the other side of the world.

As I look back at the first months of my adventure, I laugh at my vain attempt to label the dates of each post – I lost track of time in the time-warp that is Burma.  Now, as I look back on all the places I have visited I can see phases emerging from within my Odyssey.

I started in Singapore, clean-shaven, energetic and ready to go.  I skipped through Malaysia quickly because I had yet to learn the value of traveling slowly.  In Thailand, Jay and I let loose and lost ourselves on the beaches amongst the seemingly endless number of beautiful people.

In Burma, I needed something different – I needed the anti-Thailand.  I got it.  I also got my first taste of what it is like to live without freedom, and I witnessed political oppression for the first time.

After Burma, I headed to Laos and saw the scars from the Vietnam War for the first time.  But Laos is a beautiful country with wonderful people, and I enjoyed my time sipping coffee and lounging around lazily like the Laotians do.  And of course, I will never forget how the locals included me in their celebration of the Buddhist New Year…then forced me to eat a boiled duck embryo.

Cambodia was a humanitarian nightmare.  In Angkor Wat I saw the potential greatness of the human race, and in the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh, I saw mankind at its most cruel.  Cooperation erected the temples at Angkor, hatred dug the mass graves of the Khmer Rouge.  Cambodia tested my faith in humanity, but I emerged from the wreckage of genocide with a determination to do what I can to make the world a better place, a world free from Killing Fields and mass executions.

Vietnam was incredible, definitely my favorite overall country.  Stunning beaches, virgin jungles, excellent food, and hospitable people – but tough bargainers.  And of course, there was The Minsk.  Riding The Minsk across Vietnam has forever endeared me to travel by motorbike and inspired in my mind countless other motorbike journeys.

And then I came to China.  At first I didn’t know what to make of China at first because it was so large, so ancient, and changing so fast.  I initially disliked China simply because of how different it was from the South East Asian backpacking circuit.  And in Tibet I realized just how much you can disagree with someone’s government while still loving their people.  Many people I have met have expressed their contempt for George Bush while telling me that they love Americans.  It would be a pity if each country’s citizens were equated with their worst politicians.  China has grown on me, and as I leave I regret not having more time to explore this mighty civilization.

Have I shaken myself of all of my biases?  No, certainly not.  Many of them remain within this blog, but I am hesitant to correct them because I would rather preserve the way I thought at that moment, for ignorance is a step in the direction of knowledge.  A sanitized blog would be boring.

Instead, I have laid my naked thoughts before you and displayed my imperfect self for all to see.  Though my primary subject has been my host countries, I suppose you have learned more about me than you have about the places I have visited.  Maybe you feel you know me better, or maybe you think I have changed.  Though now I may seem to you a different person, if you trace my thoughts through my writings you shall discover the mind that rests within my current self.

At the onset of my journey I assumed I would cross into Russia as an enlightened traveler, as if my journey would inevitably elicit a series of spiritual revelations and magically endow me with wisdom of the world.  Seven months later, I summarize all I have learned with a quote from Socrates: “As for me, all I know is that I know nothing.”   With every revelation came more questions, with each taste of wisdom came greater appreciation for the complexity of our existence.  Traveling has humbled me and encouraged me to continue my exploration of the cultures, histories and languages of the world.

Now I conclude what has been, up to now, the best period of my young life.  It was a half year of experimental living during which I ignored the societal pressure to start a career, and instead followed my heart’s desires – to hitchhike, to wander, to ride motorbikes, to search for terra incognita and to test the words and theories of my favorite authors.  I had to know if it was possible to wander aimlessly like Dean Moriarty, if it was possible to chart one’s own path like Thoreau.  My journey was, in this sense, quite a quixotic quest, a product of reading too many beatnik books and listening to too much Bob Dylan.  But, like Don Quixote, I discovered that by imitating the stories I so admired in books, I soon became embroiled in the same dramas as my favorite works of fiction.  The lines between the fictional and the possible blurred and soon I had my own stories to tell.

As I read my first post, Castles in the Sky, I can’t help but smile at my words – the excitement, the energy, the wide-eyed wonder that first drove me to Singapore with nothing more than a few t-shirts and pen and paper.  I chased my dreams across all of Asia only to watch them materialize in new, unexpected forms.  I spent more time in Asia than I expected, and almost none in Europe; I intended to hitchhike across Europe this summer, but instead I am moving to Spain for an entire year.  The same dream, but in a different form.

Now my trans-Asian journey is finished.  I will be in California for two weeks before moving to a small village in rural Spain, where I spent one year studying Spanish and teaching English.  As one adventure ends, another begins.

So off I go, to Mongolia, to Siberia, to Moscow, riding on the train of my dreams, wandering in search of The Truth, stumbling blindly down the path of life, using ideas as my maps, and guided by the one thing that has remained constant as the world has shifted around me – the stars.  This is the beauty of Celestial Navigation.

I hope you have enjoyed my stories, and if you buy me a few beers when I get home I’ll tell you some more!  Now throw away your maps, look to the starts for guidance and start wandering!  I gotta go; I’ve got a train to catch!

– Marko

Beijing, China, 26 July 2009

The End!

MIA in the DMZ (Lost in Central Vietnam)

It was getting dark.  I stared at my map, trying to find out where the hell I was.  I had not passed a proper town for hours, the highway I was driving down was not even on the map and I was rapidly running out of energy.  I needed to find shelter fast, or else I would have to camp on the side of the highway.

How the hell did I get here?  I only had myself to blame and I knew it.  I had ignored the locals, followed my ‘instincts’ and subsequently lost myself in the jungle.

It all started when I left Hue.  I intended to fly up Highway 1, see a few former US military bases in the DMZ, then continue north to Phong Nha for the night.  I zipped up to Dong Ha, the seaside town smack in the middle of the DMZ.  The road forked and gave me two options: to continue north along Highway 1 to the Viet Cong’s tunnels, or to follow the Ho Chi Minh Trail west along Highway 9 to visit Khe Sanh, the sight of a former US military base and one of the bloodiest battles in all of the war.  My instincts told me to get off Highway 1 and to follow the Ho Chi Minh Trail west towards Laos, then north through the backroads to Phong Nha.

Everything went wrong from this point on.  As soon as I turned my west, the winds picked up and storm clouds flew across the border from Lao, adding to the innately eerie feeling of driving through the sickly lands of the DMZ – farmland lay fallow, the hills were brown, the villagers stared at me unsmilingly and I passed signs warning locals not to walk off the paths in the hills, lest they step on unexploded bombs and lose their legs or their life.

I passed strategic hills I had read about in history books – Hamburger Hill, The Rockpile, and Hill 881 before finally reaching Khe Sanh.  Instantly felt bad vibes as I approached the museum, as if the ghosts were watching me from behind the trees.  A lady came outside and told me to go away, the base was closed, she said.  It started raining.  A Vietnamese man appeared from nowhere and tried to sell me rusty medals from fallen US soldiers.  I told him to go away, and I turned back to the highway.

The highway was labled DHCM, which I assumed referred to Duong Ho Chi Minh, or Ho Chi Minh Highway, and I asked the locals if it lead to Phong Nha.  They shook their heads and repeatedly said, Laos!  Laos!  I ignored them, listened to my instincts and headed north on the highway.

It was beautiful.  I passed wooden villages nestled in small jungle clearings and centered around muddy water holes full of submerged water buffalo.  I didn’t pass a single person for hours.  Seriously.

Then I swung around a corner and almost fell into a huge open pit.  I realized why there was no traffic – the highway was still under construction. I stopped the bike, then shifted into first and tried to go over the steep muddy road, but the bike stalled and fell over and the scalding exhaust pipe burned my leg through my jeans.  I was frustrated, but I pushed on.

Four hours later it was getting dark and I was lost.  I was stuck in the Bermuda Triangle of Vietnam and after hours of driving I was totally lost and still hundreds of kilometers away from civilization.  It was still 120 km to Phong Nha, or four hours by bike.  I pulled out my Vietnamese phrasebook and asked a lady where I could find a guesthouse.  Dong Hoi, she said, 80 km east, 2.5 hrs by bike along an unfinished road.

I had no option.  As darkness consumed the land I pushed my bike into gear and headed up the nearly vertical dirt road, away from the paved highway and into the unknown. The road was so steep and slippery that I had to dismount and run alongside the bike as I revved the engine in first gear.

After about twenty minutes I realized I was low on petrol.  I thought I would be stuck in the worse of all situations.  Then I saw a team of road workers packing up their shovels and picks, and I asked them if they had any spare petrol.  I only needed a liter or two, just enough to be safe.  They smiled, and poured in liter after liter of petrol despite my protest, then charged me usurious rates.  It was quite literally highway robbery.

I pushed on.  It was frustrated, hungry and tired.  The highway was not completed, so there were no restaurants or petrol stations yet, just darkness.  I progressed at a snail’s pace, but finally I caught up with other traffic – massive lorries transporting rocks and tar for building the road.  They kicked up so much dust into the night sky that I could barely keep my eyes open.

The road alternated from smooth sand to dangerously loose rocks.  My eyes were full of dust and it was becoming increasingly difficult to see where I was going.  I came around a corner too fast, and when the road suddenly switched to loose rocks I lost control of my bike.

The Minsk skidded out, crashed into the ground and threw me face-first onto the rocky ground.  For a few moments I lied with my face on the ground.  My whole body hurt.  I just wanted to quit.  I sat up and looked around.  The only light was my headlight, buried beneath the rocks and pointing into the ground.  The only sound was my engine revving loudly in the dark.

I felt so alone, so unprepared, nervous, so tired, so hungry, so naïve.  I wanted to cry.  I jumped up, clenched my fists, closed my eyes, looked into the heavens and screamed a thousand frustrations into the night sky.

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I don’t want this bullshit!  I want to be in bed right now, not lost in the middle of the DMZ!!!!!!!

I opened my eyes, and stared at the bright stars above, at the North Star.  I might have been lost, but at least I had the stars to guide me.  Wasn’t this what I wanted?  Celestial navigation, pure adventure, terra incognita?  Well, I had found it, but it tasted bitterer than I had expected.

No, I could not give up now, I must push on.  I brushed the dirt off my clothes, picked up the bike, and continued on down the road, searching for a restaurant, a snack shop, anything. 

Finally I found a small store, but they didn’t have food to sell.  They offered me a cigarette.  I took two.  They offered me a cup of tea.  I drank two pots.  I smoked away my hunger and my fatigue, sipped away my frustration, thanked them and got back on my bike.  I pushed on.

Just when I felt like I could go no further, I saw a light far away in the distance – paved roads, civilization!  Eureka!  I dismounted and stumbled into the only restaurant in town and asked for rice.

I walked into the biggest piss-up I have ever encountered in of Asia.  Fifty Vietnamese truck drivers were swilling beer, eating food, smoking cigarettes, taking their shirts off and yelling at each other in Vietnamese.  My eyes stared at large pots of steaming rice, plates of chicken, pork, and vegetables.  It was a feast.  When they noticed me, all conversation stopped and it was silent.  Then they grabbed me by the shirt, sat me down, poured me a beer, and loaded me up plate after plate of rice and pork.

I was in heaven.  I gobbled down about 10 helpings, and instantly I could feel my energy returning.  It was difficult to convince them that I had to leave, but eventually they drew me a map to Dong Hoi and sent me on my way, refusing to let me pay for anything.  All 50 of them gathered around my Minsk and smiled at me as I started the bike and revved the engine.

They waved at me as I took off into the dark and I thought about the lesson of the night.  Though I wanted to quit, I sucked it up and pushed onwards and I was rewarded for my perseverance.  I thought of the character from Into The Wild, and how he died only a few kilometers from a road that would have lead him to civilization and safety.  I thought of one quote I had recently read by Rainer Maria Rilke,

“We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us.  Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them…How should we be able to forget those ancient myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.”

As lame as it sounds, my ‘dragons’ had turned into ‘princesses,’ and I made it back to civilization in one piece.  After a day of being MIA in the DMZ, I had made very little progress towards Hanoi.  I knew I would have to make double time in the next few days, but once I checked into my hotel all my cares floated away.  I plopped onto the bed and fell asleep in all of my clothes.

Over the Hills and Far Away (Nha Trang -> Dalat, Vietnam)

Day Three on the Road marked my departure from the tourist track. Most tourists travel through Vietnam on “Open Tour Bus Tickets”, allowing them to travel to the coastal cities on a pre-purchased ticket along a pre-determined route. But I had sampled the tourists track in Nha Trang, and I had no desire to drive along Highway 1 any longer. No, I wanted to leave that all behind, to fully exercise the freedom of my motorcycle and to journey high up to Dalat and into the Central Highlands along the border with Laos.
I loaded up the bike, waved goodbye to the South China Sea, and pointed my machine west, away from the waves and into the distant mountains. I was going to Dalat, the primary hill station of southern Vietnam.
The city fell behind me and I zipped through green rice paddies where women bent over the flooded fields, tending to their crops in the same way they have for thousands of years. The fields gave way to small villages where all the houses were painted the mustard yellow of French Vietnam. Grey Catholic Churches in the Gothic style contrasted beautifully with the green fields and the yellow villages. The French colonialists might not have known how to govern decently, but they sure how to color coordinate!
It was a brilliant scene. Then my chain snapped as I was going around a turn and I almost skidded off the road. Instantly a man appeared from nowhere and helped me untangle the chain from my spokes. Then he folded down my passenger footrests, started up his bike, put his food on my footrest and pushed my bike in this manner for three kilometers to the nearest mechanic.
Twenty minutes later I was back on the road again with a repaired chain. Twenty minutes after that, my chain broke again – this time it broke so violently that it almost took my leg off with it. It wound itself around the spokes and shredded the chain guard beyond repair.
Then a 16 year old boy popped out of the bushes and began assaulting my chain with a screwdriver and a wrench! He started tearing out bits of metal and jabbering away in Vietnamese while I jumped around screaming, What the hell are you doing?!?! You are destroying my bike! He ignored my protests, and within twenty minutes he had my bike back in perfect working order. I shut my mouth.
I felt like such a worthless city-slicker. I realized how far we have fallen from this boy’s level of technical knowledge, the essential knowledge of how things work. We spend our whole lives in cities, with our eyes on the television and our noses in books, assuming we know so much about the world. Truth be told, we don’t even understand the automobiles that transport us to our offices, how to grow the food we eat, or how to tie any knots besides our shoelaces.
And yet this boy knew more about The Minsk than I did, even though he had never owned a Minsk in his life. I desire this boy’s practical knowledge almost more than the knowledge of mathematical derivatives and abstract political theories. We have grown too ignorant of the foundations of our civilization’s knowledge.
I paid the boy his due and hopped back on my bike, humbled but ready to move on into the mountains ahead. The mountains appeared as suddenly as a monsoon rain, massive eruptions of granite protruding from the wide valley below. The road’s gradual incline and gentle curves were intensified into sharp switchbacks that cut up the face of the mountainside. Waterfalls poured pure water down the cliffs and motorists frequently pulled to the side to refresh themselves in the water, even to fill their water bottles. After two hours I crested the top of the mountain and entered a new world.
Where was I? The temperature dropped abruptly and a furious wind screamed over the ridge line from Laos. No more humid sweat – I was freezing cold. I had departed from the tropics and entered into a forested mountain area, similar in climate to Oregon or Washington State. It started raining cats and dogs, so I cranked up the accelerator and zipped past lumber fields, villages, and farms. There was no one on the road – the only traffic jams were caused by errant cows.
The last 50 km took forever in the rain, but finally I spied Christian crosses on the hill beyond – a French cemetery! I must be nearing the French hill station of Dalat. I arrived soon thereafter and found a hotel. I was too exhausted to do anything but eat and sleep.
Day Three on the Road had taken me from the sub-tropical heat of Nha Trang to the sub-zero temperatures of the Central Highlands. It did not stop raining all night, and I thought of how miserable it would be to drive in this weather. I lied in bed awake at night, listening to the rain and wondering if driving through the Central Highlands was a bad idea. I estimated that it would take at least four entire days of riding to cross the Central Highlands. It was too late to turn back now, so I determined to drive forward, rain or shine. Hanoi or bust!

The Luddite’s Last Stand (Don Det, Laos)

The Internet and Traveling – A Struggling Outpost – I am a Trojan Horse – The Development Debate – Zeus’s Fury – Escape to Cambodia! 

The internet is a mixed blessing for travelers.  The internet connects travelers like never before, allowing us to research travel information instantly, trade tips with others, find accommodation, book plane tickets, and stay in touch with our friends back home.  It makes traveling infinitely easier.

The internet also insulates us from our hosts.  Backpacker haunts are filled with internet cafes with travelers talking to family on Skype, surfing their friend’s Facebook pages, and checking the score from the previous Manchester United match.  In this sense, the internet chains our minds to home and prevents us from completely “letting go” and surrendering to our new environments.

By the time I reached Si Phan Don, or “Four Thousand Islands”, I needed to escape the internet for a while.  I had just spent three weeks applying for a job in Spain, countless days working on my blog, and mindless hours on the Facebook.  It was time to unplug and I was excited for a week on an electricity-free island.

I stayed on Don Det, a small farming and fishing island with no paved roads, no cars, and no permanent electricity.  Ducks, chickens and pigs freely roam the island’s farmland, children ride oversized bikes along the dirt paths and fishermen pilot dug-out canoes along the Mekong.

I rented a wooden bungalow on the banks of the Mekong for $2.  A large tree shaded my porch, a cozy hammock hung from the rafters and beautiful sunsets graced each evening.   At night I slept with the large windows open to the fresh breeze from Mekong…until one of my neighbors discovered a 4-meter long python beneath their bed.  The locals killed it, barbequed it, and ate its eggs.  Don’t worry, they assured us, It can’t kill you, it only eats children.  I slept with the windows shut after that night.

We ate dinner by candlelight and watched spiders and lizards battle each other on walls of restaurants.  There were no TVs, but having front-row seats to a spider-lizard battle was like watching Animal Planet live!
At night I watched animal battles by candlelight and during the day I wandered around the island and relaxed in my hammock.  I wandered through farms, past muddy ponds full of water buffalo, and onwards to mighty waterfalls in the Mekong.

On one of my daily walks around the island, I made an unpleasant discovery.  I passed a small boat landing where a wooden fishing boat was unloading massive concrete slabs onto the muddy beach.  The boat was almost sinking from the load and about fifteen villagers were struggling with the concrete, so I jumped in and gave them a hand.  After a few moments I realized what the cargo was for: concrete foundations for more guesthouses.  Don Det was beautifully unspoiled, yet I was using my own hands to help build the very guesthouses that would destroy this island’s peaceful atmosphere.

Don Det was a besieged outpost of traditional Lao lifestyle whose walls were being slowly eroded by the increasing stampede of tourists.  It was oasis a refugee camp for those of us trying to outrun the inescapable reach of the internet, for those who preferred the simplicity of candle-lit dinners to satellite TV and WiFi.  We had found what we were looking for, but it was a Pyrrhic victory.  I knew I was a Trojan Horse inadvertently destroying what I cherished the most.  Change would come soon enough.

It was not my hands, but my very presence that was building the guesthouses: it’s simply supply meeting demand.  The island may not have electricity at the moment, but for how long will this last?  How many iPods can remain uncharged?  How many Facebook profiles can remain un-updated before supply finally meets demand?

We backpackers are our own worst enemies.  We are all searching for the unspoiled purity of a simpler time, yet we foolishly bring our electronics along for the ride.

There is another, more fundamental question that remains unanswered: why should we backpackers have any say in this debate?  Who are we to tell these poor farmers that they cannot build a guesthouse, that they cannot start a family business that will feed their children?  Sure, it’s more exciting to ride down unpaved roads on the top of a 30-year old bus, but don’t the locals deserve better?  Certainly we cannot expect people to live in poverty so our vacations will be slightly more adventurous.

I always hear the same complaint from travelers, Man, I was here five years ago and it was so much better then…Now it’s just too “developed.”  Often I agree with them; it’s a shame to see the natural beauty of a place destroyed by crowds of people, restaurants playing Friends, loud bars, and aggressive touts.

In Don Det I saw the potential for this paradise to be lost to over-development.  Already much of the riverfront property was developed, roads were cut across the farmland, there was a Reggae bar in town, and the “tubing” phenomenon had reached the island.  At nighttime generators pumped electricity to the guesthouses and two small internet cafes had opened.

Simple bamboo shacks were being replaced by up-market bungalow and local entrepreneurs were building large houses and buying new motorcycles. The dirt paths on the island and will soon become major roads.  Next year, the island will have electricity full-time.  I cringed when I realized that one day all the farms will be gone and the entire island will be one big chain of guesthouses, massage parlors, and happy pizza bars.

But these farmers deserve a better life and if they wish to trade their farms for a guesthouse I cannot stand in their way.  The irreversible change has already begun.  The local children work in guesthouses and their parents stopped farming long ago.  The old men and the old women stay away from the guesthouses and the foreigners, watching their island change silently from the distance.

This anxiety about the future of Don Det troubled me at first, but I knew that I must cherish the island for what it is today.  So I cherished the pythons, my uncharged laptop, the candle-lit dinners, and the luke-warm Beer Lao.  I embraced the situation for what it was – Laos, South East Asia, and the developing world in flux, one of many battles between traditionalism and modernity, poverty and self-reliance, and development and preservation.

On my last night, the skies poured down rain and under explosions of lightening the Mekong flashed perfectly white against the black skies beyond.  Zeus had found me again was thundering from Mount Olympus.  I knew there was no escaping his fury now: it was early May and the monsoon was coming.  For the rest of my time in South East Asia it would rain incessantly, despite even the most generous offerings to the gods.

The tricks of the gods did not end there.  I had spent a week on this island before realizing I had been captured by Calypso again!  Others had been sucked into this paradise for longer – some for weeks, and some for months.  I selected the most able-bodied victims (those whose limbs had not atrophied from weeks of swinging in hammocks) and together we cursed Calypso, sacrificed two goats and a lamb to Zeus, Hera, and Athena, and escaped from the temptations of Caplypso’s island to the safety of the mainland beyond.

From there it was a short ride to the Cambodian border, where we had to bribe four different Cambodian officials to admit us into our next destination: Cambodia, the land of the great Khmer kings of Ankor Wat and victim to the savage genocide of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.  I had spent my time at Si Phan Don reading about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, and my stomach curled in anticipation of what I would witness in Cambodia.  I crossed the border and caught a bus to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia and the home to the Khmer Rouge’s infamous “Killing Fields.”

[Don’t know about the Khmer Rouge or the Killing Fields?  For a brief overview on the Khmer Rouge click here, read the book First They Killed my Father, or rent the movie The Killing Fields to get an idea of where I’m going next.  Now go do your homework on Cambodian history and then continue reading my posts!]

Would You Like to Eat Some Beetles? (Savannaket, Laos)

Punk Rock Kids in Laos – Buses and Beetles – Savannaket – Fury from Olympus

The gray buildings of Vientiane disappeared and the bus descended from the mountains of the north into the wide, green plains of southern Laos.  We followed the Mekong south past small villages and farms.  Water buffaloes bathed nearby in pools of mud, goats blocked our path, and the bus almost crashed trying to avoid a massive snake that was as thick as my arm and half the width of the road.  In the villages Lao children played volleyball with bamboo balls and waved to the passing bus from their homes.  The kids were dressed in oversized, donated clothes – old University of Michigan hats and the Green Day shirts tossed aside when suburban America grew out of its punk-rock phase.

I traveled south on a local bus loaded to the gills in the standard developing-country fashion:  after filling all the seats with passengers, the drivers then lined the aisle with boxes, stacked bags of rice atop the boxes, loaded the roof with baggage, motorcycles, and bamboo cages of chickens, and finally packed the back third of the bus with whatever else they could find.  More and more passengers jumped onboard as we traveled south to Savannaket and sat on plastic stools in the aisle.

Then we were attacked by an army of old ladies.  The bus pulled to a stop along the highway and suddenly three generations of Lao women appeared from the shadows and surrounded the bus.  They approached my open window, assaulted me with skewers of mystery meats, then boarded the bus and cornered me with bags of sticky rice, unroasted peanuts, hard-boiled eggs, water, juice, fried frogs, duck embryos, chicken drumsticks with the feet attached, and the ever-popular beetles-on-a-stick.  I bought nothing.

Meanwhile, the locals were having a grand ol’ time.  They nibbled away on mystery meats, they picked their teeth with chicken feet, and they gobbled down beetles like they were jelly beans.  They offered me some of these “Lao Jelly Beans”, but I refused, saying, Ahh, sorry I don’t eat the black ones… but my bad joke saved me from nothing.  Soon enough I was chewing on beetles and doing my best to force a smile.

By nightfall we arrived in Savannaket, a sleepy French town along the Mekong.  I spent a couple of days riding a bicycle down the wide boulevards past old French mansions.  Everything was overgrown and decayed.  Grass spilt over the sidewalk and ivy covered the old buildings like a green mask.  French homes crumbled with the years, exposing solid masonry beneath peeling mustard-colored paint.  Ramshackle noodles stalls stood on the once-ostentatious front yards of dilapidated mansions.  A grand Catholic church stood in the center of town, immaculately clean and proudly French like an undeterred guardian of a bygone era.

I stayed in Savannaket briefly.  I was traveling with a friendly Spaniard from Barcelona named Joan (excuse me, a friendly Catalan), and we decided to continue south towards the Cambodian border.  We were getting pummeled with rain in Savannaket, so I knew Zeus, driver of the storm-cloud, had found me.  Zeus had chased me south from Vientiane to Savannaket, throwing lightning bolts at my heels and blowing thick, black clouds over my head.

Zeus was angry, and I was tired from this frantic chase across Asia.   I had made plenty of ritualistic sacrifices to Zeus, Hera, and Athena, but my situation was unimproved.  How had I managed to create so much drama on Mount Olympus?  Would they ever let me be? 

Ah, it was pointless now.  I needed refuge, a nice relaxing place to rest my head and think up a plan to out-wit ol’ Zeus.  I headed straight Si Phan Don, or “Four Thousand Islands,” a scattering of tiny islands in the middle of the Mekong on the Laos-Cambodian border.  I left Savannaket and headed south to Si Phan Don, my final stop in Laos.

The Slow Boat to China (Vientiane, Laos)

Vientiane – Chinese Visa – Trouble on the Horizon – The Result

Vientiane was a dull city of a half million people; you would never guess Laos’s capital if it wasn’t for the embassies and inflated prices.  A strange breed walked Vientiane’s streets at night: crazy Lao ladies, beggars, 8-year-old punks smoking cigarettes, the usual middle-aged European sex-tourists, drug-dealing tuk-tuk drivers and the dark shapes of prostitutes whispering from the shadows.

I checked into a drab, $2-a-night crash pad and selected the least disgusting bunk in the 20-person dormitory.  None of the travelers I met was enjoying their time in Vientiane – all were waiting for visas and all were of the same opinion – this place is horrible, boring and expensive; get your visa and get the hell outta here as quickly as possible!

I followed their advice. I woke up early, put on my nicest clothes, and rehearsed my plea on the way to the Chinese embassy.  The Chinese are reluctant to issue tourist visas for more than 30 days, but I needed more time: maybe six weeks to see the sights and about one week to organize my tickets on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.  Getting a 60-day visa would be crucial to organizing the Trans-Siberian; with only a 30-day visa I would have to skip most of China and spent my time in the Central Ticket Office in Beijing.  I needed the Chinese to grant me an exception.  I turned in my application and spent the next four days researching the Trans-Siberian and planning my next moves.

I was shocked by what I discovered.   Not only was the Trans-Siberian going to be more expensive than I expected, it seemed nearly impossible to organize the necessary visas and tickets.  For a moment, I thought it would be impossible.  Too much money.  Too many hassles.  I looked at a map of the world: I had only traveled about an inch and a half in three months and Moscow was about a foot further!  The distance was intimidating.

But what were my other options?  Scrap my plans and fly to Europe?  For what?  The only reason I would go to Europe was because the Trans-Siberian terminated in Europe.  Hell, the main reason I was in Asia was because the train started in Beijing.  Beijing to Moscow. Asia to Europe.  The Trans-Siberian Railroad.  It was the heart of my journey, the ultimate goal.

No, I could not give up.  If I had to skip Angkor Wat, I would.  If I would arrive in Moscow starving and penniless, so be it.  I was determined to get on that train, and I knew I would make it no matter what.  Gumption, determination and a dash of naïve faith in my own abilities were all I had going for me, so I crossed my fingers, and cast my fortunes into the wind.

***

Four days later I showed up to the Chinese embassy to pick up my visa.  And the results?  Drum roll………….YES!  I got a 60-day double-entry visa, granting me to 120 days in China and allowing me plenty of time to organize the Trans-Siberian Railroad.  My dream of the Trans-Siberian Railroad was no longer in danger.

Everyone told me it was impossible to get a 120-day visa but I dismissed the naysayers, jumped through the hoops of Chinese bureaucracy, and got what I wanted. Maybe this crazy over-idealistic dream of mine would come together after all.  Only time will tell.

For now I follow the Mekong south to the colonial town of Savannaket, deeper into the tropic heat, towards the famed Temples of Ankor in neighboring Cambodia, and one step closer to my dream of the Trans-Siberian Railroad!

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Ain’t Gonna Work on the Organic Farm No More

What is “Tubing?” – The Town –The Farm – Decisions, decisions

The bus arrived in Vang Vieng at 3 PM.  The other foreigners took tuk-tuks south to the town of Vang Vieng, but I headed north to volunteer on a local organic farm.  For a city-slicker like me, a couple of days working the soil would be an interesting experiment with pastoral life.

I had heard many things about Vang Vieng, mostly about the notoriously popular “tubing” phenomenon.  From what I understood tubing entailed renting an inner-tube and floating down the river from bar to bar, drinking Beer Lao, shooting rice whiskey, smoking joints, sipping opium shakes and munching magic-mushroom pizzas.  For many travelers it was paradise on earth, but I was on a tight budget and it seemed like an expensive way to have fun.

Vang Vieng was a small riverside village until tubing came around.  Now it is overwhelmed by two distinct camps of falang: the tubers staying in the synthetic town and the naturalists staying on the organic farm.  I fell somewhere in the middle of these two groups, but I decided to stay on the farm and check out the tubing situation on my own.

The tubing route begins near the organic farm and flows past a number of bars until it eventually reaches the town of Vang Vieng.  The bars began pumping music 11 AM and they fuel an all-day booze fest until the sun goes down.  Many bars had water-related attractions such as waterslides, massive rope swings, wet-bars, and more, most of which were shoddy wooden contraptions that looked as if they would fall over with a strong wind.  It was like Swiss Family Robinson meets MTV Spring Break.

The debauchery and the techno music were countered by the beauty of the green river and the towering limestone cliffs above.  If you continued downriver past the last bars, fishermen cast nets from wooden boats and carried on much as they had done for centuries.  It was a strange combination of natural beauty, traditional life and the hedonism of tubing.

Now, I don’t have the art of traveling figured out and I don’t want to come across as self-righteous or patronizing, but I will tell you exactly how I viewed the scene at Vang Vieng:

I felt the natural beauty of the valley was lost amongst drunken shirtless falang, aggressive tuk-tuk drivers, “happy” pizza bars, Beer Lao posters, MP3 stores, internet cafes and restaurants full of people watching Friends and  Family Guy.  I am repulsed by these TV bars and all the travelers who patronize them.   I don’t understand the people who come all the way to South East Asia only to get stoned, eat pizza, and watch Family Guy.  Their bodies might be in Laos, but their minds are stuck at home.

It wasn’t just the TV bars that gave me bad vibes.  I met a bunch of burn-outs who had been tubing for six weeks.  Six weeks!  There was even a guy who bragged about being there for 130+ days!  A couple of burnt-out long-termers sat next to me in a restaurant discussing their plans for the night, which went something like this:  “What should we do tonight, maybe some opium?”  “Nah, I’m too tired from that joint we just smoked.  If I do opium I’m just gonna pass out.  Let’s do some mushy shakes.”  It was entertaining to watch these guys deliberate, but I could not imagine staying in this wild place for more than a couple of days.

Another of these “locals” generously posted flyers across Vang Vieng, recommending “How to do Vang Vieng Right”.  Written by “Long-Time Tourist, Martin, the Holistic Healer”, it listed a number of ridiculous suggestions on every subject from how to give money to beggars (“Don’t do it!”) to “how to party more ecological (sic.)” (“go to the Bamboo Bar, where they serve whiskey-cokes in bamboo buckets,” very eco-friendly indeed).  Martin the Holistic Healer ended his note by announcing he was offering meditation classes and writing the following message:

PS: More relaxation = more loving friendliness = more peace = more democracy = better understanding = more human rights = more mindfulness = better environment = better life = www.aktivdemokrati.se

Deep, man.

This wasn’t my scene and when I discovered that an inebriated girl died three days earlier while tubing I began to second-guess my coming here.  After my authentic experience in Luang Prabang, this madness was a bit of a shock.

If drugs and tubing were one extreme, the farm was another.  Most of the people there also stayed for long periods of time – but to volunteer, not to party.  The farm’s guests were teaching English at the local schools, helping to build community centers and fundraising for community development programs.  They were a great group of friendly, generous people who welcomed me to the farm and even took me out rock-climbing.

I spent my first day at the farm volunteering in the fields, picking mulberries, and feeding goats.  I worked with three local Lao guys, all of us laughing and picking mulberries against a backdrop of limestone cliffs and green hillsides.  Techno music echoed up the valley from the tubing bars, making it an interesting contrast between the two different sides of Vang Vieng.  Living on the farm was relaxing, and I intended to stay on the farm for a week to volunteer at the local school.

I did, however, have to get a visa into China and Cambodia while I was in Laos.  I had originally planned to get my ongoing visas as I went along (that is, to only apply for the next country’s visa), so I would have applied for a Chinese visa in Hanoi, Vietnam.  But the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi suddenly stopped issuing visas to foreigners and the embassy in Cambodia was inefficient, so I needed to get my Chinese visa in Laos.

I went into town to drop off my passport at a travel agent, who would then take it to Laos’s capital, Vientiane, to process my visa while I volunteered at the farm for a week.  But there was a hiccup – they could only get me a 30 day visa into China, and if I wanted to apply for a 60-day visa I needed to go to Vientiane and apply in person.

That changed everything.  I knew that if I needed a full month to visit a country as small as Laos, then I would need at least 60 days to visit a country as massive as China.  Traveling from Beijing to Moscow on the Trans-Siberian Railroad was the central element of my journey, so getting into China was crucial.  When I added up the pros and cons of staying in Vang Vieng, I decided to pack my bags and high-tail it south to Vientiane to get my visa into China.

I had to skip tubing and I only got to volunteer for a day, but they were sacrifices that had to be made.  I woke up the next morning, hitch-hiked to the bus station on the back of a Beer Lao truck and bought a ticket south to the capital of Laos, Vientiane.

 

The Local Experience (Luang Prabang, Laos)

The Local Experience – Luang Prabang – Happy Lao New Year! – Grounds for Celebration

 

My hosts stared at me impatiently.  I had attempted to hide the food in my hand beneath the table, praying they would assume I had eaten their offering and accomplished the impossible.  I had almost got away with it, but they had caught me and there was no avoiding it now: I had to eat it.

Well, fearless traveler, are you happy?  Wasn’t this your goal in Laos, to “get off the beaten track” and have a “local experience”? What did you expect when these locals invited you to dinner?  Did you think they would serve pizza and hamburgers? 

No, I never would have imagined it would entail eating a duck fetus.  I almost threw up just thinking about it.  And now, the whole family was staring at me in silence, waiting for me to answer their question.

“Umm…yeah, it’s really… [gulp]…. it’s really good.”

I looked down to my hand at the eggshell with the duck embryo staring lifelessly back at me.  I could see matted blue feathers, some kind of exposed organ, a partially formed wing, and a miniature head.  It was a mess of black, blue and yellow.  They had ironically given me a tiny plastic spoon to eat it with, something you would use to sample ice cream at Ben and Jerry’s.   But this was not New York Super Fudge Chunk, it was a partially formed fetus of a duck.

Suck it up, Mark, there is no option but to finish it.  100%.  Cover it with salt and pepper, wash it back with beer, and try not to think about what you are doing.  Think happy thoughts.

The locals were cracking them open, slurping the embryonic fluid and sucking them down like they were half-price oysters at happy hour.  It took me ten minutes and 200% of my willpower to eat 80% of the thing, but I did it.  I haven’t been the same since.  Nightmares of duck fetuses haunt my dreams.  I dream of pooping bird-turds that come to life and chase me around, quack-quack-quacking right behind me.  It’s horrible.  Horrible, but an essential part of the traveler’s experience nonetheless.

It was in search of these local experiences that I had come here to Luang Prabang.  It was the Lunar New Year in Laos, a three-day festival celebrated in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Burma by religious observances, family feasts, serious beer drinking and massive water-wars in the streets.  Luang Prabang was supposedly the best place to witness the festivities, so I headed for the city not knowing what to expect.

Luang Prabang greatly exceeded my expectations: it is the best place I have been so far.  I don’t know what it was – the immaculately restored French colonial buildings, the serene Buddhist temples, the quiet riverside streets – but I instantly fell in love and decided to stay for at least a week.

Luang Prabang showcases the cultural jewels of two mighty civilizations – the temples and palaces of Lao’s Lan Xang Kingdom are surrounded by charming French cottages, shops and mansions.  Luang Prabang is a UNESCO Heritage City so all the old buildings are restored and the streets are free from obnoxious Beer Lao advertisements or new concrete buildings.  The old homes have been converted into exceptional guesthouses, cafés and spas, attracting an affluent crowd of middle-aged “Bo-Bo’s” (Bohemian Bourgeoisie).   It’s chic, gentrified, and expensive, and because it was Lao New Year the prices skyrocketed and I was effectively priced out.  Luckily I was able to sleep in a tent in the back of a guesthouse for about $3 a night.

The Lao New Year didn’t start for a few days, so I spent a few days walking around the town and peddling through the streets on bicycle.  One day I woke up early and witnessed unique spectacle: at dawn the monasteries pour their monks into the streets to silently collect donations of rice, fruits, and sweets from local women who kneel respectfully along the sidewalks.  It was beautifully peaceful.

But this peace wouldn’t last long; Lao New Year was coming.  South East Asia had been rumbling in anticipation for weeks.  From the wide plains of Burma to the airy mountains of northern Laos, eager children stockpiled water guns, attacked passing buses and trains with guerilla tactics, and anxiously awaited the Lunar New Year.

I was not blind to this arms race.  As the plastic weapons vanished from the markets into secret backyard caches, I tucked my laptop deep in my backpack, sealed my passport in a plastic bag, and prepared for the approaching warfare.

The three-day battle began on April 14th at noon.  Lao children manned every intersection, lined every avenue, and stopped every passing motorist for a good soaking.  Entire families sat in front of their houses drinking beer, dancing to music, and pouring water on anything that moved.

Trucks prowled the Old Quarter loaded with militias of grinning children eager to turn every dry shirt wet and every wet shirt wetter still, pausing only to refill their 55-gallon drums in the Mekong River.  Even the monks and the military police were getting soaked.  Red, yellow, and green-dyed water sailed through the air, and locals smeared handfuls of engine grease on our faces and breaded passer-bys with cooking flower – pure madness.

The madness spread from the locals to the tourists and packs of falang joined into the battle, brandishing the latest in crappy Lao water guns.  Everyone was smiling, laughing and swilling Beer Lao in the hot tropic sun. I slipped through alleyways and crept along the sidewalks with my makeshift weapon in hand – a flimsy water bottle with a tiny hole in the top.  I was no match for the local kids, who would scream Falang! Falang! , encircle me, douse me with water and cover my grizzly beard in motor oil.  By the end of the day I was haggard beyond belief.

Midway through the first day’s battle, everyone laid down their arms, closed up their houses, and migrated to the banks of the Mekong.  We all loaded onto longboats and ferried to the a small, muddy island in the middle of the coffee-colored river.  I spent hours barefoot in the mud, dancing with the locals to a repeating soundtrack of about five songs: one Lao song, two Thai pop songs, and two songs by Akon.  Then more Akon.  And more. Then one more Thai song, followed by more Akon.

I danced away the afternoon on an island full of boisterously drunken Laos, surrendered to the moment, and allowed their infectious happiness spread all over me.  It was not long ago that Laos was embroiled in a nasty civil war that left no time for such childish celebrations, when the guns shot lethal bullets, not harmless water; when grenades, not water-balloons, exploded into crowds; when the French mansions were barricaded and dilapidated, not renovated and sophisticated; when the streets were stained crimson with blood, not food-coloring.  But in 2009 the streets were packed with smiling children who had never witnessed the horrors of warfare.  Laos’ turbulent past was fading into distant memory.

I’d expected Luang Prabang to be touristic, but instead I barely spent any time with other travelers.  I was force-fed duck embryos, I drank Beer Lao with locals in the streets, I danced on an island in the Mekong, I hung out with monks, I ate dinner with Lao families, and I was even invited to a Lao wedding ceremony.  At times it was awkward, but overall it was immensely rewarding to celebrate the New Year with the locals.

The eight days I spent in Luang Prabang were not enough.  Signs everywhere advertised apartments for rent: fully-furnished, two story houses for $150 a month.  I seriously considered stopping here and spending a month or two soaking up more of the local culture.  I loved the essence of the town, the absurdity of the attempt to swap the Seine for the Mekong and recreate France in the middle of the Asian jungle.  It was an enchanting place, but the holiday finished, the crowds dispersed, and I decided to continue my journey southwards.  I spent my last night dancing to Akon in the street with a local family, then waved goodbye to Luang Prabang and took a bus south to Vang Vieng to volunteer on an organic farm for a few days.

American Bombs (Luang Nam Tha, Laos)

At the crossroads – Trekking – Development Challenges – Luang Nam Tha – Laos’ Future, Past and Present – American Bombs

I crossed the Mekong at dawn.  Instantly I felt the subtle differences between Thailand and Laos.  The pace of life was slow in Laos: the border guards had not yet stumbled into work when our ferry arrived.  All the official signs and hotel advertisements were in French, linguistic holdovers from the colonial era when Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam formed the French colony of Indochina.

The challenge to get off the tourist trail continued.  We landed in Huang Xai and most of us were immediately herded from the border crossing to the docks and loaded onto the “slow boat” down the Mekong to Luang Prabang, a two-day journey on a 70-person barge crammed with 120 people.  No thanks.

Instead I opted to go north, from the border with Thailand to the northern border with China.  I spent  five days in the eastern corner of the Golden Triangle between Luang Nam Tha and Muang Sing, attempting in vain to organize a trek into the nearby national park.  I hesitated a moment too long and missed my opportunity to go trekking, but it’s worth mentioning unique nature of the treks in Luang Nam Tha.

Unlike the exploitative manner in which most guides bring tourists to small hill-tribe villages, the companies in Laos have developed profit-sharing partnerships with the hill-tribes.  Whereas a trek in Thailand visit a virtual human-zoo where the locals “dress-up” in their traditional attire and sell tourists souvenirs and opium, the hill-tribes in Laos are genuinely happy to welcome tourists into their homes.  Because the trekking companies share around 1/3 of their profits with the tribe, the villagers do not rely on selling souvenirs and drugs to make a living.  My friends that went on such a trek were ecstatic afterwards.  They ate a traditional meal with the villagers, drank laos laos (the local moonshine) with the village chief, and then handed a blunt knife and asked to decapitate a chicken.  So the treks might be eco-friendly, but they are not quite PETA-approved.  This innovate approach to tourism is representative of Laos’ choice to develop along a sustainable path.  Hordes of NGOs are helping the receptive government develop their economy while preserving the Laos’s natural beauty.

But there is still much work to be done.  Laos’s people are in desperate need of education, infrastructure, and business opportunities.  Thankfully, the one-party socialist government has opened itself up to the world after disastrously flirting with collective agriculture and nationalized industries.  Laos has buried the past and is looking keenly towards the future, so if you are a recent grad looking for opportunities in development work there are plenty of opportunities here.  Check out www.directoryofngos.org for a starting point.

Though I missed out on the trek I had an enjoyable time in the north of Laos nonetheless.  I wandered through the towns, sampled incredible Laos coffee and French baguettes in cafes, rode through farmland on a motorcycle, and watched barefooted opium addicts stumble through the streets.   There were few tourists, the weather was cool and comfortable, and the scenery was enough to keep me in Luang Nam Tha for a few days.

Luang Nam Tha lies in a low, wide valley surrounded on east and west by green mountains stretching for miles into the distance.  The mountain ridges were shrouded in dense gray clouds that transformed as the day progressed, darkening and thickening into ominous rainclouds that poured sheets of rain through the afternoon heat.  Come midnight, lightening pierced the sky and thunder fulminated through the valley with a fury that made me sit upright in bed.

The valley was beautifully serene during the day.  Rice paddies spanned the width of the valley, each small plot partitioned by thick grassy ridges of earth that formed irregular patterns of squares and rectangles in the soil.  I rode a motorcycle through the farms and villages surrounding Luang Nam Tha, marveling in the beauty of it all and admiring the reflection of the mountains in the yellow waters of the flooded green rice paddies.  Old women knelt beside the river; some fetched water in woven baskets, some washed clothes on its banks, and some bathed their wholly covered bodies in the muddy waters.  Hours passed as I watched this lazy rural life trickle by to a soundtrack of buzzing crickets and chirping birds.

A busy highway bisected the lazy river and the hum of a thousand Chinese lorries overpowered the gentle buzz of the crickets.  China built this highway to connect Chinese exporters with the growing economy of Thailand.  This highway is one of many springing up across Laos, criss-crossing the country and connecting her neighbors with each other.  Dirt roads are still the norm in the countryside, but China is paving a smooth highway from Beijing to Singapore.  Laos’s future lies in her connecting freeways.

Her past is not so cheerful.  Laos is famous for being the world’s most heavily bombed country, a title earned during the American Secret war of the 60s and 70s.  Never heard of it?  Neither had most Americans at the time.

In the 60s and 70s Laos was a mess.  Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam had formed the French colony of Indochina since the 1800s, but the hasty departure of the French in the 50s left chaos in its wake.  Internal power struggles eventually descended into guerilla warfare between a US-supported government of right-wing elitists and the popular communistic Pathet Lao party.  The Pathet Lao party allied themselves with Ho Chi Minh’s army in North Vietnam, the US supplied the government with money and arms, and the CIA began training the Hmong hill tribe villagers to fight guerilla warfare.

Eventually the war in Vietnam spilled over the borders into Laos when the North Vietnamese Army established the Ho Chi Minh Trail along Laos’s eastern border.  The Trail was a vital supply route allowed the communists to circumvent the US military in central Vietnam, one that the Pentagon was determined to eliminate.  In 1965 the US began secretly carpet bombing Laos without approval from Congress and continued until 1973.  The bombing campaign created 750,000 refugees in Laos, and to this day the presence of unexploded ordinances (UXOs)  has retarded economic growth – essentially, it is too dangerous to farm in much of the countryside because unexploded American bombs are still buried in the soil.  Tourists are strongly advised not to wander off the trails, lest they step on bombs.

Luang Nam Tha was not spared from the destruction.  The Chinese highway linked the Chinese-owned hotels in the new town with the American-bombed ghost of the old town.

I visited the local Buddhist temple in the hills above the valley.  Like the town itself, there was both a new and an old section of the temple.  The old temple was a crumpled ruin of brown bricks while the new temple shone proudly like a phoenix rising from the ashes of the past.  As I paid my $0.30 admission fee I asked the groundskeeper what happened to the old temple, but I already knew the answer.  “Bomb,” he said, “American Bomb.

I did not know what to say to him.  I wasn’t alive when this happened and I had no part in this war, yet I was panged with guilt.  This was the first time I had witnessed the aftermath of an American war firsthand.  I had written research papers on Vietnam in university, but in Laos my paper’s carefully crafted arguments and well-researched statistics crashed to the ground when the abstract met reality.  That was all irrelevant, years in the past high up in an ivory tower halfway around the globe.  Where was The Domino Effect now?  No, the truth was staring at me in the form of a crumbled temple, a crushed village, a cold reaction to my stated nationality.  I’m from America.  The brief pause, the forced smile, then Ohhh, America…yes, yes, yes.

Yes, indeed.  What dark memories hide within those three ‘yes’s?  What other truths lurk in these small villages, in the soil of fallow pastures and the memories of the old men who watch me from their porches?  How many more times will I have this experience?  How many more times will I learn the history of a place, only to say, “Yeah, well…shit.” No explanations, no arguments, just guilty speechlessness.

What am I supposed to do?  This question remains unanswered.  The temple’s groundskeeper told me the history of the temple, but what could I say?  Sorry for blowing up your innocent Buddhist temple? I dropped a few pathetic dollars in the donation box and walked away in silence.

After five days it was time to move on.  Luang Nam Tha had been a beautiful place to learn a horrible history, but the Lao Lunar New Year was approaching and I wanted to be in a good spot for the festivities.  I packed my bags and headed south to Luang Prabang, a UNESCO Hertitage Site and purportedly the best place to bring in the New Year.