Posts Tagged ‘Laos’

The Cure

pink ladyIMG_1260

Thanks to everyone who left kind words to help lift us out of our funk.  We’re back in Thailand, have been fully reenergized by a couple of days in Bangkok and some quality beach time, complete with foufy drinks garnished with tropical flowers.  We’re officially back on our game.

I realize that the idea of getting burnt out on something as amazing as this adventure probably sounds preposterous–I was pretty baffled by it myself.  In the days after we left Laos, I did a lot of pondering (possibly to an obsessive level) about what went wrong.  In the time leading up to our visit, we met traveler after traveler gushing about their time in Laos.  Everyone we met who had actually been there (we met plenty of people who had done Southeast Asia and skipped Laos) was nothing but enthusiastic.  We had high hopes, as the two countries we’ve loved most so far on the trip, Columbia and Bolivia, had been described by other travelers with the same level of zeal.

We started out in a small town called Luang Nam Tha, in the north of the country.  We went there with the intention of doing some trekking, as the area is reputed to be home to some of the most socially and ecologically responsible hill-tribe trekking options.  (Hiking to remote villages inhabited by the native hill tribes is a popular pastime in the northern part of Southeast Asia.  There is a bit of a debate over the ethical concerns of such treks.)  We visited with several tour operators, but just did not get a good vibe about the programs–in theory, it sounded interesting, but I couldn’t help but think that it would either be (1) nothing more than a show put on for tourists, with no actual cultural authenticity, or (2) culturally authentic, but with our presence changing and hence damaging that culture.  We ultimately decided to scrap the trekking plan, meaning that our first stop in Laos was a bit of a bust.  The trip down to Luang Prabang was definitely an adventure though.

The entire old town of Luang Prabang is a World Heritage Site, preserved for its mixture of French Colonial architecture and beautiful Buddhist temples.  We enjoyed our time in Luang Prabang as it was the home of the Big Brother Mouse program that we loved so much.  The town was beautifully situated on the Mekong river and had some gorgeous waterfalls nearby.  It was definitely the highlight of our time in Laos.

Roadside Buddhas

Roadside Buddhas

School aged monks studying outside on the front steps of a Wat

School aged monks studying outside on the front steps of a Wat

Misty morning over the Mekong

Misty morning over the Mekong

Monks strolling the streets of Luang Prabang

Monks strolling the streets of Luang Prabang

The primary form of public transport in Laos--a lot of times there was a hammock tied up in the back with the driver sound asleep.

The primary form of public transport in Laos--a lot of times there was a hammock tied up in the back with the driver sound asleep.

The morning market filled a maze of alleyways in Luang Prabang with what seemed like every type of food available in Laos.

The morning market filled a maze of alleyways in Luang Prabang with what seemed like every type of food available in Laos.

That lizard at the bottom was alive and angry.  On the white cloth?  Dried whole fish.

That lizard at the bottom was alive and angry. On the white cloth? Dried whole fish.

Those buckets were filled with thrashing fish and the chickens--well, the chickens were still bleeding.

Those buckets were filled with thrashing fish and the chickens--well, the chickens were still bleeding.

Rice for sale

Rice for sale

Ladies selling produce.  The smoke in the background is from the many barbecues set up to cook up breakfast for hungry shoppers.

Ladies selling produce. The smoke in the background is from the many barbecues set up to cook up breakfast for hungry shoppers.

Kuang Si waterfall

Kuang Si waterfall

Swimming hole at Kuang Si

Swimming hole at Kuang Si


The monks in the background were taking turns wading out onto the falls and having their pictures taken.  The little girl on the rope swing was not impressed.  :-)

The monks in the background were taking turns wading out onto the falls and having their pictures taken. The little girl on the rope swing was not impressed. 🙂

waterfall small

After our time in Luang Prabang, we made a pit stop at Vang Vieng, one of the most peculiar places I have ever visited.  It is a small town situated amongst some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen–limestone cliffs flanking a beautiful river.  Yet the main thing that Vang Vieng is known for is tubing, happy shakes and space pizzas.  Backpackers flock to this small town to veg out in cafes while watching Friends reruns that play on endless repeat all over town, suck down mushroom-laced shakes and drunkenly float down the river in giant inner tubes.  I love a good float trip as much as the next person–I am from Missouri, after all–but this place was just odd.  I may have proclaimed it to be wretched while we were there, but I’ll just leave it at odd.

By the time we made our way to Vientiane, the capital, the blahs had really taken hold.  The town was sleepy and pleasant, but I just couldn’t get past what seemed to me as a lack of passion.  I just didn’t feel the energy that makes me grow to love a place.  For some reason, the slow pace and reserved people that are so charming to some others felt so flat to me, so lacking passion and cultural zest.  We finally decided that we had tried to like it long enough–we didn’t want to waste any more time exploring a place that we didn’t love.

We’re now back in a place that we love–Thailand.  We  were going to try to work in a trip to Cambodia while our visas for Vietnam and India processed, but the visa process left us passport-less.  Domestic travel was our only option, so we bit the bullet and headed to the Thai island of Koh Samui.  We’re having a great time here and could not be more excited about our upcoming trip to Vietnam.



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A little over 8 months.  251 days.  Sleeping in different beds and rooms every few nights.  Traveling on public transportation or walking everywhere we go.  Dealing with language and cultural barriers at each turn.  Eating strange food.  Not being able to drink water out  of a tap.  No family.  No friends.  No Imo’s.  No Cardinal baseball.  No Phish tour.

All of this, along with missing our family get-togethers on Father’s Day, missing our niece Julia’s 1st birthday (and most of the first year of her life), remembering my grandpa one year after he passed, and dealing with the first sickness of the trip (which is pretty lucky for both of us), has added up to create a weird few days for us.  We heard about travel burnout before we left, but I honestly dismissed it as ridiculous.  How can one possibly get burned out by not working for a whole year, seeing one awe-inspiring site and landscape after another, and experiencing new and exciting cultures on a regular basis?  It’s difficult to explain, but believe me, it does happen.

Now I’m certainly not looking for any sympathy here.  Quite the contrary.  I really just want to share that it’s not all rosy and wonderful all the time.  Yes, this is the trip of a lifetime, and I do realize how lucky we are to experience all this, but it’s not just a year long vacation of sitting on beaches and relaxing.  This long term travel  business can be hard work sometimes.   It hasn’t happened often, but sometimes we just hit a wall.  The last few days we seemed to have slammed head first into that wall.  Maybe it was talking to our families while they were celebrating Father’s Day, maybe it was not really digging Laos like we thought we would, maybe it was just the fact that we crave some familiarity in a place where there is nothing familiar.  I can’t quite put my finger on it, but we are missing home more than any other time on the trip.

So what to do?  How does a long term traveler get out of this funk?  I can see my father-in-law reading this right now and screaming “Just come home!!!!” at his computer screen.  And while that does sound really appealing right about now, I‘ve always been taught not to be a quitter.  So we’ve decided to change plans a bit.

One thing we were really looking forward to on this portion of the trip was the freedom to do what we want when we wanted.  Unlike any other time in the trip, we have nothing at all booked.  No flights, no apartments, no treks, nothing.  Sure, we had a rough plan of what we wanted to do, but we didn’t HAVE to be anywhere.  And while we were both really excited about this, I think we got a little lazy and complacent.  After my mom and sister left us in  Chiang Mai, we’ve spent the better part of the last month not really doing much.  And while we both enjoy not doing much and being lazy, I think the lack of activity had a really  negative effect  on us.  It’s another thing that contributed to our feeling of burnout.

So we’re changing the plans starting tomorrow.  We were originally planning on spending the next couple weeks in southern Laos.  For one reason or another (and I’m not blaming Laos), we are just not feeling it here.  We heard so many great things about this country, and while it hasn’t been bad, there’s just something missing.  We really can’t put our fingers on it, but after much discussion and changing of plans on a minute by minute basis, we have decided to scrap the rest of our time in Laos and head back to Bangkok.  We leave tomorrow afternoon and take a bus/overnight train combo back to Bangkok from Vientiane.

We also booked a flight from Bangkok to Hanoi, Vietnam on July 7.  So we have a little less than two weeks to play with.  First things first, we have to arrange our Vietnamese and Indian visas while in Bangkok (if you’re reading this  because you’re planning a similar trip that includes India, look into visa requirements; they’re a pain, and it will be helpful to know this beforehand instead of scrambling).  We had originally planned on going to Cambodia after Vietnam, but it’s looking  like we might head into Cambodia and see Angkor Wat, one of the few “must-see’s” we had when planning the trip, before we go to Vietnam.  We may still go into Cambodia and see more after Vietnam, but that remains to be seen.  Also, Indonesia, which was never even talked about when planning, is looking more and more likely before we head to India.

While it was difficult to scrap the rest of Laos, I think we both feel good about our plans over the next few weeks and are starting to get excited again.  While the freedom to decide on the fly is good, there’s something to be said about having a bit of a plan sometimes.  That freedom gave way to indecision and became the topic of one frustrating conversation after another.

So tomorrow we head back to Thailand.  Within a week it looks like we are going to see one of the world’s most amazing sights in Angkor Wat.  After that, it’s off to Vietnam.  Before we know it, the plans for the end of the trip are going to have to be solidified, which is both frightening and exciting.  The end of the trip has been looked at in a negative manner (especially by me) for most of the trip.  Talk of extending it has been a topic of discussion all along.  Now it’s different.  Even before this “travel burnout” set in, I’ve turned the corner in a way.  While I know when this is all over I will go through periods of longing to be in exotic places doing exciting things, I’ve also realized how much I truly love home.  I have always known this, obviously, but I think I have really come to appreciate our home, family, and friends instead of taking it all for granted.  While four months seems like a long time, we’ll be home before you know it, and for the first time since we left, I am really excited at that prospect.

Until next time…

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A Humbling Experience

As Americans, we take many things for granted.  Despite always having our basic needs met, we sometimes complain about not having enough of this or that, and the this or that is usually a luxury that certainly isn’t necessary just to live.  These luxuries just make our lives easier, better, and more enjoyable.  Everyone likes nice things, and that’s all right.  I don’t think we need to feel guilty about it.  We’ve worked hard to be able to spend our money how we choose.

We also sometimes forget just how lucky we are.  There are many people around the world who work just as hard (and sometimes harder) than we do, yet still barely have enough to put roofs over their heads and food in their mouths.  Sure, we may read about poverty both at home and around the world; we may see pictures in magazines and newspapers and stories on the  news, and it‘s certainly something that can have an impact on us.  It’s quite another thing to not only see it in person, but to speak to people who struggle on a daily basis.

The last few days while Megan and I were in Luang Prabang, Laos, we volunteered at an organization called Big Brother Mouse.  This Lao organization has been around for a few years, and its main goal is to provide books in Lao for children in rural villages.  Because of the vast poverty in Laos, the illiteracy rate is quite high.  Education is hard to come by, and tools to educate even harder.  Many children in rural Lao villages have never even seen a book.  Can you even imagine?

Big Brother Mouse has been working, albeit slowly, to change this unfortunate fact of life for small children.  But they need help.  There just aren’t many books published in Lao, and simply translating and republishing  already existing books isn’t as simple as it sounds.  To try to put it into some perspective, the middle class in Laos earns about 100 US dollars a month, and over 75% of the people live on LESS than 2 US dollars a day.  That’s right, TWO.

In order to better their lives and make any headway in getting out of this poverty-stricken cycle, it’s imperative to learn English.  Children who are fortunate enough to even go to school then try to find a way to come up with the money to take English classes on the side.  Big Brother Mouse tries to help these eager to learn students.  From nine until eleven every morning, they invite any Lao student and any English  speaking tourist to their office in Luang Prabang  to practice English.

Megan and I showed up to this “lesson” for the first time last Saturday not quite sure what to expect.  We walked into the office and were met with emphatic “Sabaidee’s” (Hello) from about ten different students sitting around a table talking to a British tourist.  We were the second and third tourists to show up to help that day, and several of the Lao students quickly jumped up, snatched chairs and glasses of water, and invited us to sit down with them.

They sat around and started asking questions, thinking hard about what they were saying and how they were saying it.  Many of these students were in college, most studying to teach English.  Most had only started learning English themselves within the last two or three years.  We were both thoroughly impressed at their depth of knowledge of the language despite  the short time studying it.  Unfortunately they know the importance of learning English, and despite being able to carry a conversation and being nearly fluent, if not perfect, many of the students didn’t think they were good enough.  Their teachers in college push hard for them to be perfect, even though that’s not realistic given the time they’ve had to learn a language completely different from their own.  If they couldn’t think of a word or didn’t quite understand what we were staying, they would get frustrated and apologize for their “terrible English”.  We did everything we could to encourage them and tell them how good it really was.

Seeing kids beat themselves up over not getting something is never an easy thing to see, but it was even tougher when we really saw a glimpse into some of their lives.  Megan talked to a young man who was from a little village in the northern part of Laos.  His family was very poor, but they wanted him to move to Luang Prabang to go to school to better his life.  This meant rarely seeing his parents and younger siblings since it was very expensive to travel back to see them.  It also meant that he had to work to be able to even pay for school and his very meager living expenses.  So he went to school five days a week, worked six days a week, and voluntarily came to Big Brother Mouse six days a week to improve his English.  And he did all this  with a huge smile on his face and was very thankful for our participation and help.

I met a young man that same day who also came from a small village and a very poor family.  He was in his first year of school and was studying to become an architect.  Then he told me something that really just broke my heart and put things into perspective.  He said that he wasn’t sure that he’d be able to continue studying architecture because he needed pencils to draw, pencils in Laos were very expensive, and he wasn’t sure that he’d be able to afford to keep buying them.  PENCILS!!!  Can you even imagine not being able to continue your education because you can’t afford to buy pencils?  It is almost impossible for me to even wrap my head around that.

At the end of the first lesson, the young men thanked us emphatically and told us that they hoped we would come back again if we could.  They were so sweet and very appreciative of our help (not quite the same reaction I get from my students at the end of a class at home).  We walked outside, and I went up to the boy I spent the most time talking to (the architecture student).  I reached into my bag and pulled out a pencil and gave it to him.  He had a look of shock on his face and said that it wasn’t his.  I told him that it was mine but that I wanted him to have it.  The smile and excitement on his face was worth more than I can ever portray in words.  He thanked me over and over again.  It made  my heart melt, and the fact that a nineteen-year-old man can be so excited about receiving a pencil really made me appreciate everything that I am so lucky to have.

We went back to Big Brother Mouse a few more times during our stay in Luang Prabang, and it was honestly one of the best experiences of the trip so far.  We have linked their website to the right on this main page.  Feel free to check it out; it‘s a fantastic organization that is doing wonderful things to help children of poor villages and these very eager Lao students better their lives.

Until next time…

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A Glimpse of Laos

We’re not in the west anymore.  In fact, even though they share a border, Laos is completely different from the very westernized Thailand.  We have truly arrived in Southeast Asia.  After traveling in some interesting and different  places throughout this trip, we have now arrived in a country that is vastly unique to anywhere we’ve been.

Laos is one of the poorest and most developing countries in the world.  It has been repeatedly bombed, invaded, taken over, and gone through hell in its history.  Although Laos gained its independence in 1949, the following years were devastating to the country, particularly during the 60’s and 70’s when it became a battleground during the Vietnam War.

Many don’t know that Laos is the most bombed country on Earth, and unfortunately most of those bombs were dropped by the United States.  According to official figures (which could be low because it’s really  difficult to know for sure), the US dropped a little over two MILLION TONS of bombs on Laos, trying to drive Communist forces out in the 60’s.  The total cost was over $7 billion, or about $2 million per day for nine years.

Many of  these bombs are still causing havoc today in Laos.  Large areas of the eastern part of the country (near Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh Trail) are contaminated by UXO (unexploded ordnance) by nearly 100 years of war.  The majority of UXO was left behind by not only the United States, but by the French, Vietnamese, Russians, and Chinese.  Many of these bombs lie in the countryside unexploded and cause many injuries and casualties every year, with the majority being children from nearby small villages.

If you were unaware of its grim history, you would never know it by traveling here.  One would think this kind of historical treatment would make the people surly, jaded, and suspicious, but quite the contrary.  Though more reserved than their Thai neighbors, the Lao people are very friendly.  Just strolling down any street, travelers are constantly greeted with a huge smile and an emphatic “Sabaai-dii!” (Hello!).

But this is a very developing country, evidenced by the painfully slow methods of travel, the uncomfortableness of that travel, the lack of modern amenities, and the insanely cheap prices.  There will be some hilarious examples of this in a few, but to give you an idea of the prices here, we have been here for two full days, and we spent a grand total of $69.  Our room the first two nights was about $7, for a private room with a bathroom (no air conditioning though).  A meal in an Indian restaurant cost us about  $6 total, complete with two large Beer Lao’s.

We crossed over into Laos on Tuesday afternoon from Thailand.  We then proceeded to take a bus to a small village in the north that took about four hours.  We chilled in this little town for two nights, renting bikes and checking out the town and its surroundings.  We then took off for Luang Prabang (a city that is declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site), which is where we are now.

The minivan trip down here was one of the most “interesting” ones of the trip thus far, and I believe a short list will portray why and will also give you a good glimpse of what this country is all about.

Total kilometers (miles) between Luang Nam Tha and Luang Prabang: 300 kilometers (~180 miles)

Total time it took by minivan:  8.5 hours

Number of different types of animals we had to avoid ON the road throughout our journey:  9

Types of those animals: chickens, ducks, pigs, dogs, cats, goats, cows, buffalo, and turkeys

Number of naked children we saw on the side of the road:  countless

Times we stopped for a bathroom break only to find no bathroom:  once

Number of animals we could have bought at the roadside to eat on that “bathroom” stop: 3

Types of animals: live frogs, live eel in plastic hanging bags, and one full deer

Number of people we had in our 11 seated, un-airconditioned minivan in 95 degree heat:  14

Number of hours one of the passengers was throwing up out the window:  ~2

Number of foul, hot garbage-like smelling, sharp, spiky durian fruits under the seat in front of us that kept rolling over onto Megan’s sandal covered feet:  1

Number of times our driver slammed on the breaks in the middle of the “road” to summon a young 10 year old boy over to the car:  1

Number of dead squirrels the driver bought from said boy: 2

So there you go, hopefully you can understand a little more about this funny, quirky, beautiful little landlocked country in SE Asia.  It’s been interesting so far, and we can’t wait to spend an entire month exploring Laos and getting to know it better.

We don’t have a clear cut plan as of yet, but we do plan on being in Luang Prabang for a little while.  There is an awesome program here in Laos called Big Brother Mouse (http://www.bigbrothermouse.com/) that we are going to volunteer at tomorrow and possibly more next week.  It looks like a really cool opportunity to help out the local community, and it’s a fantastic program.

After that, we’re heading south to Vang Vieng and then the capital of Vientiene.  We have two more posts about our time in Pai, Thailand written and ready, but the slow internet connections make it impossible to post the pictures, so they’ll have to wait.  Hopefully it will be a bit better in the capital.

We’ve been reading the requests from Megan’s post from last week, and we plan on honoring some and not others.  Sorry Laura and Biggs, but Christin wins out here, and there will definitely be more pictures of me in that sweet tank top.  In fact, I plan on buying another one while here in Laos.  Since it’s so hot and the a/c is so scarce, they are quite popular here.  Also, I plan on bringing the tank top fad back to St. Louis (and not only on the southside) when we return.

Until next time…

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