Over Korean Lunar New Year, I travelled to Laos with Joe, a friend from lab, to meet a gathering of fellow Lucers. Fresh off the plane, and after surviving the grueling Lao visa-on-entry procedure, we met the gang for the first of many delicious meals. I'm in love with Lao food.
Lao temples are at once ornate and sedate, without the crowds of Bangkok. As Eryn explained, boys often take up the monkhood as a source of quality, free education. Much later in life, widowers often reenter and pass their remaining time in contemplation and service. As a result, Lao temples seem active in and integral to the community.
Our next stop was the "Vertical Runway," an illustration of creative uses of development money, in this case originally intended for a new airstrip at Vientianne Airport. Instead, the Lao government built a monument ironically similar to the Arc du Triomphe (the occasion was victory over the French).
The monument does offer excellent views of Vientianne, which has a shortage of tall buildings. The only rivaling edifice is a Chinese-backed hotel/department store/restaurant complex whose construction feebly straggled on when we walked by later in the trip. We wondered what sort of customers would choose Starbucks over the plentiful and excellent French-Lao cafés, holdovers from the colonial era.
That night, we piled into a rented minibus and wound and bumped our way the three hours to Vang Vieng, a backpacker hotspot that Eryn once again provided the humorous backstory to. Until a few years ago, the area was apparently a drug-seeker's paradise. In order to house, feed, and entertain these brave experimentalists, hostels, restaurants, and adventure guide agencies all sprang up. Eventually, the government tired of mentally-altered foreigners jumping off the plentiful cliffs in the area and dying or seriously injuring themselves. Just like that, the party was over. Well, not over, but someone called the cops.
Now, many of these small businesses face continued ownership of unprofitable property, and are looking for resourceful ways to attract customers.
We rented motorbikes, hiked into caves deep in the limestone cliffs, visited a "Jungle Party" jam-packed with backpackers, and had a great two days.
Then, back to Vientianne for more temple times.
That night, from a bar next to the languid river, we watched the sun set and the night market emerge.
Note to potential travelers: don't violate the 11:30 pm curfew in Laos by hanging out at the river too late. This is one of the places where it is enforced.
Joe and I rose early the next morning to travel to Luang Prabang, about a 45 minute flight but nearly a 12 hour drive over rough roads. We opted for the flight, and soon we had arrived in this lovely town, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Anyone who goes to Laos should absolutely visit Luang Prabang. In addition to the famous temples, nearby mountains, and active monastic community, three visits stuck out:
- Tamarind Restaurant - delicious Lao food at a reasonable price, reserve ahead!
- Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center - illustrates the wide racial/ethnic diversity of Laos
- UXO Laos Visitor Center - highlights one of the central problems plaguing the country. Bombs of all sizes, but especially cluster bombs, render vast areas of Laos out of bounds. Clearing is laborious, hazardous, and hard on equipment. Most of the bombs were dropped by US forces returning to air bases in Thailand after bombing runs during the Vietnam War, as landing a plane with ordinance onboard risks detonation.
These bears have been rescued from the illegal wildlife trade, and now spend their time playfully biting each other. Markets for traditional medicine in neighboring countries feed much of this industry.