Laos to Nepal 2002

When last we wrote, it was Christmas in Vietnam and we were feeling very homesick for family and friends. Since then, we have managed to recover our enthusiasm for our travels, despite missing everyone. After spending time in Dalat and Nha Trang Vietnam, we returned to Hanoi for our flight to Vientiane, Laos. We spent New Years Eve in Hanoi, but were too tired to stay up until midnight, so before going to bed we vowed to celebrate the next day at noon -- the same as U.S. New Year’s on the east coast. We stopped around lunchtime, made a small fuss and thought of everyone back home. We hope everyone had a great New Year holiday and that 2002 is treating you right so far.

Laos proved to be very enjoyable, boasting beautiful countryside, gorgeous mountains, clear rivers and lovely, friendly people. Arriving in Vientiane, the general lack of “urban-ness” struck us. It is the capital of Laos, and yet, in size, it resembles a small city/town in Alabama or upstate New York. On our first night in town we were a bit puzzled about where to eat. The Lonely Planet guide we had was a 1999 version so our information was fairly dated. We followed our usual instincts and looked for a restaurant filled with locals. When we came to a crowded restaurant we went in and, since no one spoke English, we had to simply trust that they would bring us something good to eat. First they brought us an electric soup pot filled with water, sliced onions and spices (sort of a broth) and plugged it in at our table. Next they brought us a huge plate of lettuce and herbs, followed by a plate filled with sliced up star fruit, banana, chili, and sprouts. Next came a plate of rice paper and noodles. Finally, a platter filled with raw strips of meat topped with a raw egg. Unfortunately, they didn’t bring an instruction manual. What to do?? After much looking around and trying to discern what other patrons were doing, we were forced to call over the restaurant’s matron. She demonstrated. Boil the meat in the soup broth and then create a kind of hand roll of sorts. You wrap the meat and other ingredients inside a lettuce leaf and / or rice paper and then you dip the roll in sauce and eat it. It was quite good. We never figured out what to do with the raw egg, but later were told that you throw it into the soup broth and eat the soup at the end of the meal.

While in Vientiane we visited That Luang, a giant golden Buddhist Stupa (spire) that is featured in most tourist brochures about Laos. The more interesting thing we did was ride out to a forest wat (temple) where we heard that you could have a steam bath and massage (special thanks to our advance team, Sean & Allison, the American couple we met in Vietnam that were in Laos ahead of us.) We had rented bikes, so we thought we’d just pedal out to the wat. We proceeded to get very lost, but after about an hour and a half ride on the outskirts of town we found the it. On the grounds there was a traditional style teak house on stilts where you could have a steam bath / sauna for about 50 cents. After changing into a sarong (J) and shorts (K) we entered the sauna. It was so filled with herb soaked steam that you couldn’t see anything, not even your hand, in front of you. It was also filled with locals and tourists so that your first foray into the room was a stumble across many sweaty bodies. Unfortunately, the steam came from a pan of water on the floor that both of us stepped on or into. That hurt! However, after scalding one foot each, we settled into the misty heat. Inside the sauna locals rubbed their skin with coarse salt crystals and said "hawn lai lai" (very, very hot) to each other. We stayed in until we thought we might turn to vapor and then went out to the porch where you could cool off, drink tea and look out onto the surrounding gardens. After a couple of trips in and out of the sauna we decided to go for the $1.50 forty minute massage. Thai and Laos massage is much different from the style we’re used to at home. It can be very rough. At one point J was thinking in disbelief, "I’m paying cash money to be punched in the head." Still, it was interesting to have strong Laotian men climb all over you, twist your body into funny shapes and crack all your joints. J spent most of her massage laughing.

After a few days in Vientiane, we took the local bus to a town called Vang Vieng. When we arrived at the bus station in Vientiane, the bus was more than full. People filled all the seats and crowded the aisles. People stood on the lower steps, half out the door. Of course our first assumption was that we would have to wait for the next bus, but OH NO! They loaded our backpacks through a window and shoved us into the teeming masses. The trip to Vang Vieng is 3.5 hours and we stood most of the way swaying in the aisles. We only got to sit when two old ladies squished together so that J could sort of balance on the end of a seat. K got a seat after a child threw up all over his mother and they got off at the next stop. Even though the seat was sufficiently wiped off, no one was keen on sitting there, so K had a proper seat for the last leg of the journey. (Note to selves: Arrive earlier for all bus travel in Laos!!) We learned that there is simply no such thing as “full” when it comes to public transportation in Laos or most of the other places we have traveled. The people running the bus will always stop for new people and fit them somewhere, even when you cannot imagine any more people fitting.
Vang Vieng turned out to be a lovely small town situated along one side of the beautifully clear Song River. Across the river, amazing limestone mountains rose out of flat, agricultural land. Throughout the day boys plied wooden canoes up and down the river using long, bamboo poles and men in their underwear and face masks fished using small, hand made spear guns. In the early evening, all of the town’s men bathed in one part of the river in nothing but their underwear. Further downstream, the women bathed wearing their sarongs. We went on a kayak trip down the river and got out periodically to hike through caves. We often had to walk through cold, black water that was up to our necks to fully explore them! It was another point at which we wondered why we were paying for such an experience.

Our next stop was Luang Prabang, which, based on our limited experience, we would count as one of the nicest cities in SE Asia. Most of the old city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This quarter is filled with French colonial shop houses and there are many art galleries, craft shops, and quaint cafes. Lodging is a bit competitive there, so we stayed in a residential neighborhood a bit of a walk from the Old Quarter. It was a nice place to stay except that while we were there, the local police force was having a celebration that included karaoke over a HUGE sound system until all hours of the morning. Who can you complain to in such a situation? To whom would we have complained? When J told the hotel proprietor that she couldn’t sleep with all the noise, he said, “neither can I.” We realize the danger is generalizing, but I think it is safe to say that Southeast (and we’re finding out) South Asians have an incredibly high tolerance for noise.
Luang Prabang contains dozens of gorgeous wats. One had a golden bias relief mural covering the entire front of the building; another was completely decorated in raspberry and gold. We rented bicycles and rode all around the town. At dusk one evening, J stopped outside one of the wats, drawn by the sound of chanting. She peered inside. Sitting monks, in saffron robes, covered the floor. They were doing their evening chanting. It was lovely to stand there in the setting sun, amongst the beautiful, historic buildings and listen to this mesmerizing sound.
Throughout our trip, we have read or been told about interesting early morning sights that we shouldn't miss such as people doing Tai Chi at six a.m. in the stadium in Chang Mai, Thailand or people exercising and playing badminton bright and early around the Lake of the Restored Sword in Hanoi. Somehow we never manage to actually get out of bed for these experiences. In Laos, as in Thailand, monks rise early each day and walk through the streets of their town collecting their meal, which comes in the form of alms from townspeople. A fellow traveler from Australia, whom we befriended on our kayaking trip, heard that the monks made their rounds sometime between 5:00 and 5:30 a.m. He was staying in our guesthouse and, after we discussed it the night before, he agreed to wake us up and break us of our slothful ways. We made it out of bed around 5:00 and crept out of the quiet guesthouse. We were clueless then, but later we joked that this must be an example of the "telephone game" at work; a piece of information that had gotten twisted as it passed through the travelers network. Suffice to say, we jumped the gun a bit. We spent a couple of dark and cold hours sitting in the quiet streets of Luang Prabang that morning waiting for the monks. We did enjoy getting to see the town wake up and come to life (though I’m not sure someone could’ve convinced us to get out of bed at 5:00 for that). We wandered along the Mekong River, where we could see the outlines of the several cargo ships, tethered at the bank, in the thick morning mist.

The monks finally came for alms at around 7:15. By then, we were busy drinking coffee and feeling like a nap might be in order. It was an interesting sight though, a long procession of monks come single file down the sidewalk along which townspeople have set out mats to kneel upon. As the monks pass, townspeople put their offerings into the monk’s bowls. At the same time, westerners jostled for position to snap photos, some getting within a few feet of the monks themselves. We wondered if it annoyed the monks or made them feel like zoo animals. We imagined coming out for our morning cereal in America and having fleets of monks hovering over us and snapping photos. It was one of those cultural mix moments in which you didn’t know what to think.

After reluctantly leaving Luang Prabang, we made our way to the far South of Laos. This involved three daylong bus journeys. After standing all the way to Vang Vieng, we knew that we had to arrive at the bus stop at least an hour early for everything. The problem with that was that Laotians get up and go EARLY. Most of the buses we wanted to take left town at 6:30 a.m., which meant that we had to arrive at the cold and dark stations at 5:30 a.m. Now we got to see several different towns “wake up,” but not by choice. While the route from Vientiane to Luang Prabang in the North of Laos travels along a good, paved road, the roads south are often still made of dirt. We got jostled for many hours in crowded, dilapidated buses, traveling over bumpy dirt roads, swallowing lungful upon lungful of dust.

While the Northern part of the country is mountainous, the Southern part gives way to rice fields. Throughout the country, with the exception of the few larger cities like Vientiane and Luang Prabang, the houses are almost all built on stilts. Most of them are covered with thatch although some of them feature rough, wide, wooden clapboard. Often the houses only have three walls with a big overhang forming a porch. Laotian houses blend indoor and outdoor space.

As our bus bumped steadily south, it stopped every 10 kilometers or so at each little village to pick up or drop off passengers. Every time it stopped, women would surround the bus, selling food and drinks. At nearly every stop, women hawked “ping kai” or chicken barbequed on a bamboo skewer and bags of sticky rice. Because Laotian women are not very tall and the bus windows are high off the ground, you mainly saw these sticks of food waving in your window: a strange BBQ chicken puppet theatre show at every stop.

In Southern Laos, we went to an area called 4,000 Islands (Si Phan Don), which is an area of the Mekong River scattered with many, many little islands. We settled on an island called Don Det, where the only electricity comes from generators and is usually off altogether by 9:30 at night. We spent five days in a little grass hut with a hammock watching the sunrise and set (well, o.k., mostly set) on the Mekong River. J made it out one day to see the fresh water dolphins that populate the Mekong on the Cambodian border with Laos, but otherwise, it was a lazy spot (due in part to the fact that the aforementioned bus rides threw out K’s back, leaving him relatively immobilized for a few days). After leaving Don Det, we visited ancient Khmer ruins at Champasek. The ruins here are much smaller than those we wrote to you about in Angkor Wat, but the setting itself was lovely. At Don Det, we had the pleasure of befriending two Dutch travelers, Nienke and Dennis. We traveled with them to Champasak and enjoyed their company very much.

Laos is such a small country with such a small population. More than anything, it seems like a collection of villages with the few cities proving exception to the rule. Strangely, it holds the dubious distinction of being the most bombed country, per capita in the history of warfare. During the period of the Vietnam War, the United States dropped an entire planeload of bombs on this country every 8 minutes for nine straight years. The numbers stagger the brain. While we vaguely understand the history of the United States’ “secret war” in Laos (fighting the North Vietnamese and bombing the North to South Vietnam supply line, it is really hard to imagine what, exactly, we bombed. While Laotians use empty bomb casings as garden fences and planters, they also face a significant threat to themselves and their children because of unexploded ordinance scattering the landscape. Every year people are maimed or killed. While riding a local bus one day we sat behind a young boy wearing a turquoise colored t-shirt with cartoons all over the back. Upon closer inspection, we realized that the cartoons illustrated all the things NOT to do with military ordinance. Basically, it was a t-shirt that a non-profit had created to teach children what NOT to play with in the fields. We found this history, and its contemporary ramifications sobering and shameful.

After three weeks in Laos, we returned to Thailand to make our way back to Bangkok as the date of our flight to Kathmandu, Nepal was fast approaching and our Lao visa was fast running out. Despite our original intent to explore Eastern Thailand, our itinerary took a lazy turn and we went to an island in the Gulf of Thailand called Ko Chang (Elephant Island.) As in Don Det, we rented a little hut on the beach, bought two hammocks and proceeded to laze about for a few days. We did manage to go on a snorkeling trip on which we both got ridiculously sunburned. We also rented our first motorbike of the trip and explored the fishing village on the far end of the island.

Like many places we’ve stayed over the past few months, the hut on Ko Chang demanded accommodation. Specifically, we have found that often it is necessary to share your lodgings with various critters. One night, J was in the restroom brushing her teeth and she heard K repeating, “Oh my God!” She didn’t know what it was, but his tone of voice implied that whatever it was, it was large. “Maybe you’d better not come out here,” he called to her. She came out anyway and was surprised to see a giant lizard scampering along the front wall. Nose to tip of tail, it probably measured two feet. While it looked like one of the common geckos, it had the bulk of a grown Iguana. We are the first to welcome the little gecko lizards to sleep in our room. They eat the mosquitoes, generally don’t move a lot and are pretty afraid of humans. But the idea of sharing the room with this crocodile sized Komodo dragon, or whatever was, did not thrill us. There wouldn’t be any sleeping with this critter in the room. After much arm waving and verbal encouragement, we managed to chase him out the door. To add to the menagerie, the next morning, something that can only really be described as “newly born” was resting on our bathroom floor. It was so very newborn that it’s eyes weren’t open and we couldn’t even tell what kind of animal it would someday grow up to be. J thought it was maybe a mouse or a rat. K thought it looked like a dog, and it did, but it was so small... Brave K had to take this baby mouse/rat/dog by the tail and take him outside. In the end, the local red ants made a very interesting Discovery Channel episode out of poor baby mouse/rat/dog. Ah, critters!

After sharing our room on Ko Chang with such a bizarre cast of critter characters, we were delighted that our last two nights in Thailand were to be spent in complete luxury. A group of friends in Atlanta pulled together a two-night stay at the Regent Bangkok as a wedding present for us and we had been looking forward to it since the first few weeks of our trip. It was funny to show up at this lovely Four Seasons hotel, the perfect image of two dust-encrusted backpackers. The staff at reception asked about our travels and we told them of the places we had been. One of the staff members raised an eyebrow at us and said, “and now the Regent Bangkok?” Our stay was delightful. Not only was the hotel incredibly elegant, we didn’t have to share our luxurious room with a single critter. We spent the whole two days wearing our terry cloth robes and slippers, watching bad movies on tv and making guesses about the cotton thread count in the sheets.

On February 1st we flew to Kathmandu, Nepal and from the first moments until now we have not ceased to be amazed and awed. Before we even landed in the country, our plane, cruising just above the cloud line, passed the great Himalayas. We caught our first glimpse from the plane window. What we saw was a majestic mountain range rising up from the clouds. It took a few minutes before we realized that these sheer peaks poking through the clouds extended thousands of feet below the cloud line as well. The sheer size of them is breath taking. It’s fun to know that you are looking at the top of the world.

We have the great, good fortune to be staying with a man named Peter Moran who is one of K’s brother’s best friends. Peter is an Anthropologist, a religious scholar and someone who has spent a great deal of time studying Tibet and learning Tibetan. He runs a program for Trinity College in CT where students spend the semester in Nepal and Tibet. On our first morning in Nepal, Peter said that he was going to a Buddhist lecture and invited us to come. He took us to an area of town called Boudhanath named for the temple located there. The area is home to many Tibetan refugees living in Nepal and features an impressive Buddhist Stupa surrounded by a number of gompas (monasteries) mostly of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. First, we went into an elaborately decorated monastery building where a Rimpoche lectured to a mixed group of ex-pats, travelers and locals about buddhism. Afterwards, Peter left us to explore the temple and the area. He let us know that in the afternoons, the whole community comes out to circumambulate the Stupa and that we might enjoy hanging around for that. There was an internet cafe nearby, so we settled down to write for a few hours.
The Stupa (think spire, but bigger) itself is a huge white dome with prayer wheels set into the sides. On top of the dome is a square section with the Buddha eyes in the shape of lotus flower petals painted in each of the four directions. What looks like it could be the Buddha’s nose is actually the symbol for the number one and represents the idea that all is one. Above the Buddha eyes, 13 levels of the spire rise representing 13 Buddhist virtues. The whole structure is topped with an elaborate golden canopy and Tibetan prayer flags flutter from the top to all points on the ground. Surrounding the Stupa are loads of shops selling Buddhist art, prayer wheels, Tibetan clothes and beads and other wares. When we emerged from the internet cafe, hundreds of Tibetans were walking around the Stupa, spinning the prayer wheels in the temple walls or spinning their own hand-held silver and ivory prayer wheels. Many of them carried varied and colorful prayer beads. Tibetan Nuns and Monks with shaved heads were draped in maroon robes. People wore traditional Tibetan boots, long and short silk, brocade coats lined with long, curly lamb hair. Some of the men had red thread woven into their long, black hair braided herringbone style. Women wore beautiful wrap-around dresses, woven aprons along with a unique kind of cummerbund. Many people were draped in shawls. Many wore elaborate silver jewelry with turquoise and other stone insets. Some people were chanting, some were meditating; some were simply enjoying the time out with the community. With the prayer flags waving, hundreds of people moving and chanting, the traditional dress unfamiliar to us, the sellers of wares, and everything else, we felt really far out of our element and completely mesmerized.

Over the next few days we explored Katmandu and the nearby historic towns of Patan and Bhaktapur. All three cities have numerous temples and structures built as early as the 11th century. The Katmandu Valley boasts a tradition of fine woodcarving, as well as bronze and brass work. Consequently, their temples and palaces are built from a warm, red brick that is then ornately decorated with carvings and statuary. The carved wood windows, doorways, pillars and structural beams are each wondrous works of art. Neither of us had ever seen so much as a picture of Nepali architecture and we were both fascinated by its beauty. The streets are generally winding, narrow lanes paved with bricks. Low ceiling shops sell woolen shawls, hammered copper pots, brightly colored strands of glass seed beads, fruits and vegetables. In other shops, men work handlooms or do fine filigree-style metal work. Women are busy bent over sewing machines or wash tubs. Men wear Newari hats and women wear saris and shawls in all shades and patterns of red. Women and men have the red tikka mark on their foreheads and women have a red sandalwood paste at the part in their hair to indicate that they are married. Cows, chickens, goats, ducks, and dogs roam the streets along with you. Children race through the lanes rolling old bicycle tires -- a very popular game! Vendors push wooden snack carts around town selling popcorn and other savory snacks. The streets of these towns are beautiful, chaotic and mysterious. It has been hard to do anything but stare wide-eyed all day long.

We did manage to make it out for a short trek within the Katmandu Valley. We took a bus to a town called Nagarakot, on the northeastern edge of Kathmandu valley. It is a resort town known for its Himalayan views and also made a good starting point for a walk in the country. When we arrived there the view of the mountains was mostly obstructed by clouds, but we were able to watch some of their snowy peaks turn pink in the sunset. There is a big army base in Nagarakot that has a tower at 2800m. It’s popular to hike up to the tower before sunrise in order to watch the sun come up over the Himalayan range. We got up at 5:45 (another break in our slothful morning tradition!) and started the 1:15 minute hike uphill to the tower. We were wearing our packs because we planned to continue walking to the next town about 4 hours walk from the tower. When we set off, it was still dark. Soon there was enough light to see the path easily without a flashlight. As it got lighter and lighter, the outline of the Himalayas materialized on the horizon. We stared in wonder and awe as ridge after ridge of enormous mountains surged up in front of us. A crescent moon hung stubbornly to the last moments of night and a layer of thick mist coated the rolling foothills that led up the Himalayas themselves. Soon, the sun was making that crazy, celestial looking light above one of the mountains sending rays of pink light across the peaks. We stood holding our breath thinking, “we are watching the sun come up on the top of the world.”

Once the sun was fully up, we started our walk through the Nepali countryside towards the town of Dhulikhel. As we rounded the first bend in the path we came upon seven Nepali women in beautiful red saris. They were each carrying giant baskets of fuel wood on their backs that were attached by a strap across their foreheads. “Namaste,” they called out to us and pointed the way to the next town. The path took us through small villages and terraced, hillside farms. All along the way, Nepali people stopped to offer directions, ask where we were from or how we liked Nepal. The sun was shining and making the fields of yellow mustard flowers and the green shoots of winter wheat sparkle in their steeply terraced beds. Every time we would turn a corner we beheld something new -- a whole hillside carved into curvy, terraced farm plots, baby goats chasing each other or suckling their mother, houses made from timber and earth or more elaborate homes built of stone and earth with ornately carved roof struts. Children shouted “Hello” and “Namaste.” We fell in with many groups of children walking to school in uniforms they were quickly outgrowing. They showed us all the shortcuts and whispered with each other about what questions to ask us next. When their paths diverged from ours, a new group of children would always adopt us soon after. Men and women carrying large, metal milk containers on their backs passed us going up the hill. Women were busy all along the way collecting fuel wood and fodder for the animals or tilling fields. Though she didn’t speak any English, we are positive that one woman offered us an opportunity to try out the work she was doing. She had a big smile on her face as she tried to convince us to give the tilling a try. Eleven kilometers of walking and one short bus ride later, we arrived in Dhulikhel. Dhulikhel is a small village in the eastern part of the Katmandu Valley. Like most of the towns in the area, it has some great old buildings and it was nice to wander around the town and soak up the late afternoon sun.

The next day, demonstrating extreme hubris, we set off on another 11km walk, first to a Buddhist temple called Namobuddha where it is said that the Buddha, feeling compassion for a starving tigress and her cubs, allowed himself to be consumed by them. We continued from Namobuddha to the historic town of Panouti. While the path from Nagarakot to Dhulikhel was mainly downhill, this trek was not. It took us three hours of huffing and puffing to reach Namobuddha and then another three hours of staggering to reach the town of Panouti. We were so tired and sore by the time we got there that we gave the temples and old buildings a cursory glance, headed for the bus and found our next guesthouse and hot shower as quickly as we could.

As you probably remember from the news, Nepal suffered a blow last June 1st when eleven members of the royal family were murdered. On top of that, the country has quite a bit of internal unrest and violence due to frustration with corruption in government. Nepal currently exists under a national “State of Emergency” because a Maoist insurgency threatens the government. Many police have been killed recently. Just the other night, 16 police officers where killed on the Eastern edge of the Kathmandu Valley, about 22km further east from the town of Dhulikhel. Perhaps because tourism is such a large part of Nepal’s GNP, the tourists are thought to be safe from harm with respect to the current emergency. Collectively, June 1st, the state of emergency and September 11th have staggered Nepal’s tourist industry. The tourist area in Kathmandu called Thamel, whose streets are usually packed with tourists, are filled with mostly Nepalis. We are among a small group of westerners in Nepal at the moment. It seems like a sorrowful burden for a country that is already so poor.

We have just returned from a three day visit to Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal. The park provides habitat to Tigers, Rhinos and an abundance of other wildlife. We rode elephants through the jungle and stopped to watch a Rhino mother, father and baby have a family feud at our feet. It was completely surreal to be that close to Rhinos in the wild. Our next stop will be Lake Pokhara at the foot of the Annapurna range of the Himalayas and do a little trekking there.
Before we sign off, we want to share with you a funny story from this morning, which we just described in an email to our friend Brian. We hope it gives you a little more of the flavor of this place. A few days back, we decided to ship a box home. We had to get rid of some stuff we bought and some stuff we brought with us that has proven extraneous. We went to the foreign post office here in Kathmandu. It consisted of a counter, a large table and a wooden bench in a small store-front style office. A dozen or more men squatted in small groups in the dirt courtyard in front, chatting and sipping tea. We couldn't figure out what, exactly they were doing there.

When we approached the counter, they sent us first to the customs man at the long table. After filling out a customs form and getting our bag of stuff put into a decrepit, old cardboard Pepsi-Cola box, we then sealed the box with tape. We wrapped it well, thinking this had to suffice to protect it during its long journey by sea. We remained a bit confused because the customs man had not addressed the box or prompted us to do so. He then sent us to the men over by the bench. Here, the shipping process took a turn for the bizarre.

Using muslin cloth and a needle and thread, these two men made custom tight-fitting bags for each box. They then put the box into the bag, pulled everything tight and sewed it all up. Suffice to say, this process both fascinated and impressed us. In this style, they sewed up our box. Having finished the stitching, one of the men prompted us to address the box with a magic marker. We imagined we were ready to take the box to the counter and pay, but one of the bag makers retrieved the box from us. Now the process took a turn toward the medieval. He then sat down on the floor and proceeded to apply a dozen or more wax seals along the sewn seams of the muslin cover. He melted a stick of red wax over a small oil lamp, dabbed spots of the wax along the seams and pressed them with a small tarnished brass stamp. Our friend, Peter, with whom we are staying, had joked with us once about shipping here and said people in America would receive boxes from him and think that they had arrived from another century. Now we understood what he meant.

Much love,
J and K

1 comment:

Lotta said...

I randomly found this and I'm so impressed you did this! My husband and I backpacked through Europe for a summer and felt like troupers. I can't imagine how you did it for so long!