24 Hours: Border Crossing – Laos to Vietnam

4:00am:  I wake up in a sketchy guesthouse that, with crooked floors and hexagonal dimensions, better resembles a funhouse.

4:30am:  A gang of saber-toothed street dogs chase me through the dark alleyways of charmless Muang Khua all the way to the river.

5:00am:  Standing with two backpacks (big and small, front and back) I balance on a rocking canoe as I cross the Nam Ou in the pitch black of night.

5:05am:  The boat captain’s friend pushes me as I’m balancing, demanding money.  Am I buying into some illegal crossing?  Are we about to storm the Alamo?  I give him what he wants.

8:00am:  It’s light out and we stop, waiting for the dirt road to open in our direction.

8:10am:  I squat over a hole for my usual, early-morning bout of diarrhea while cursing myself for the mystery meat I ate the previous week.  Knees trembling, I vow a strict vegetarian diet.

8:17am:  I am invited to join four Vietnamese men for breakfast (Beer Lao and some rice whiskey).  We drink and smile while watching psychedelic music videos on the television.

8:30am:  I feel dizzy.

9:00am:  I get back on the bus and squeeze into a seat where I (small and thin) can barely fit.  To my right, men laze atop piles of rice as if on bean bags while, up front, women plopped on a mat primp each other’s hair.  The bus cum party chugs along.

11:00am:  On a dusty road that looks destined for the moon, the bus loses its traction, sliding backwards.  I scream, everyone laughs, and we continue forward inching closer to China than Vietnam.

12:30pm:  We reemerge above the clouds at the alpine border with Vietnam.  The guards are on a lunch break.  We will have to wait.

12:31pm:  But while we wait, a prim comrade leads us to a statue of the great leader Ho Chi Minh.  Do we know about him?  Do we know about the American War?  Are there any Americans here?  Would I like to know more about Ho Chi Minh or some destinations in Vietnam where I can learn about the atrocities of the war?

1:00pm: Everyone’s visas have been processed… except mine.

1:15pm:  I am free to enter Nam.

3:00pm:  I arrive in Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam after ten hours of travel.  We have gone approximately one-hundred kilometers, averaging an astonishing ten kilometers an hour.

6:00pm:  I catch an overnight bus to Hanoi sharing a pink bed with a mentally retarded man.  He smiles a lot.

4:00am (the next day):  I arrive in Hanoi, Vietnam with zero stampable pages left in my passport.  (I will be stuck here for a while!)

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Big Brother Mouse

I asked if I could take her picture.  It was the polite thing to do in an area that rarely sees cameras.  Many villagers believe cameras steal their soul so to shoot without warning could be potentially devastating.  But, she agreed.  Her large baby was wrapped in cloth across her chest and she smiled, not quite focusing on the lens.   I passed her the camera and she took it, staring for a while before laughing modestly.  “Would you like to take a photo of me,” I asked, gesturing to the camera and my smiling face.  It took a couple of tries but we finally got one out.  Yet, the idea was obviously foreign.  I was barely in the frame.

A group of boys gathered nearby carving wooden tops on an upturned stump.  They were competing for the longest spin, tossing the top from a rolled-up rope onto a flat, dirt patch.  The ones who wore clothes had worn-out, holey shorts and t-shirts of 90’s Thai pop bands – obvious hand-me-downs.  Others wore no clothes at all and held chickens like pet cats, watching the spinning tops as I’d watch TV.

There was a school in the distant field but none of the boys were there.  School only happened when a teacher came to town and this only happened twice a week.  It was, after all, a remote village in a section of Laos where no roads go.

The closest dirt road crossed the Nam Ou about one hour down river and the Nam Ou was a winding ten kilometers back through the valley of dusty, dry-season rice paddies.  To get to that road – the one ten kilometers back and one hour down river – a small sawngthaew (literally “two rows” of wooden benches in a converted pickup truck) hauled me amid mud-cracked streets and paved bridges with a collection of villagers, their kids, and their chickens.  The boat ride from the bridge at Nong Khiaw to the dock one hour up-river at Muang Ngoi Neua brought more inquisitors who, unaccustomed to Western ideas of spatial awareness, draped over my legs fascinated by every move.  As I docked at Muang Ngoi Neua and trekked into the river-carved valley, I could see the tourist trail evaporating behind me.  This was Asia of my wildest dreams; the so called “original Asia,” and I came here on a mission.

The village men had gathered with a long bamboo pole to pry coconuts from the towering palms.  Every few minutes, two or three fell like boulders onto the mud-packed ground, barely missing the thatched, stilt houses.  The morning valley fog morphed into beaming rays of sunshine which, bisected by the spiny palms, left zebra-print shadows – bull’s-eyes for the coconuts.   As the ground shook under the aerial assault of furry, brown fruit, the kids raced to retrieve.

A small bamboo dam collected enough energy for two or three hours of light each night.  That, and an ancient satellite dish, were the only signs of modernity.

Sharp karst mountains, cloaked in a bushy coat, towered above this small village and the winding river, a tributary of the Nam Ou, provided its lifeline.  Where the forested hills met the valley floor, terraced rice paddies blanketed the land.  Water buffalos, like gargoyles on a cathedral, guarded this flat expanse of pictorial, rural Asia.  As I glanced at the children’s book in my hand and the fields in the distance, I saw sixteen-year-old Xengxong’s patchy drawing come to life.

I wandered to this isolated village with three friends and a handful of books from Big Brother Mouse.  Our goal was simple: to hand out Lao-language books and read with the kids.  The majority of children in Laos do not own a single book.  Because education is a ticket out of poverty, these books are an important step towards a brighter future.

There was only a sprinkling of Lao-language books for adolescents before Big Brother Mouse arrived on the scene in 2006.  Organized by a retired American publisher and a team of Laotian college students, BBM is not an NGO – it’s a not-for-profit, Lao-owned project with Lao staff. In addition to producing books, they host rural “book parties” and publish books by the country’s up-and-coming writers. I purchased Lao Proverbs: The Wisdom of our Ancestors directly from one of the proud authors at BBM’s Luang Prabong office.  In Lao and English, the book was written and illustrated by young people at the Children’s Cultural Center and the Orphanage School of Luang Prabong.

It was so obvious that he wanted my book, but he didn’t beg.  Standing in his red, Chinese t-shirt, biting his thumb, he ogled my modest offering.

I remember as a kid when my mom gave me a book instead of a toy I would sort of sigh, mildly uninterested.  But, for him, this gift was better than any toy he’d fashioned out of wood.  It was better than the game of tops.  All of the kids stopped and gathered around to view the new book.  Naively, I wasn’t sure if they could even read in Lao (they spoke an ethnic dialect), but slowly they pieced together the words.  We distributed the stories to several other children who huddled with their parents and grandparents reading the short parables.  Initially worried how we would be received, our visit and our small gifts consumed the entire village.  Elders smiled, thanking us, and we were invited to sit and eat with the village’s only English speaker, Mr Bo.

Our perpetually laughing host recently opened a homestay in hopes of attracting more visitors to his village.  As it turns out, it was his sign that led us through the labyrinth of rice fields in this direction.  Mr. Bo’s wife was out fishing so he lamented that he would have to cook the meal and it wouldn’t be as good.  He was right, but we didn’t mind.  His one joke repeated throughout the meal but we laughed every time.  Wide-eyed kids gathered to watch us eat, say, “hello,” count, “one, two, sreee, four, five,” and repeatedly wave and giggle.  In remote areas like this, you grew accustomed to a celebrity status.

Our visit was short (just a few hours), but the impact was felt.  It was days before Christmas and with no family or co-workers to appease, no dirty Santa parties or stockings to stuff, I chose to visit a couple of strangers instead.  I only spent a few dollars but sometimes that’s all it takes.  Volunteering is not as daunting as it sounds.

As we returned to the sun-drenched valley, we passed Mrs. Bo marching home with a gaggle of wrinkly, hunchbacked ladies.  “Where are you going?  Did you eat yet?” she asked, holding a bucket of flopping fish.  About an hour too soon it seemed.

She bid us farewell and went off to cook her fish.  The kids had returned to their game of tops and the adults ambled around chasing chickens, feeding babies, and preparing the evening’s meal.

One of the proverbs in the book I’d left read, “You know, you teach.  You don’t know, you learn.”  I read it aloud thinking to myself, “I am the teacher.”  Yet, when I left, I wasn’t so sure.  To quote another Lao proverb, “Though he who walks behind an elephant may feel very confident, he is likely to get splattered with dung.”

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Want to sponsor a book? Visit BBM’s website HERE

Laos: Stay Another Day

There is something terribly right going on in Laos.  Engulfed in a Green revolution, sustainable tourism is racing through the recently paved roads from the provincial cities to the remote edges of this pristine country.  From organic farm cooperatives to ethnic fashion shows, the idea is pulsing and putting money back where it belongs – with the people.

At the heart of the revolution is Stay Another Day, a Luang Prabang based initiative that produces a veritable Lonely Planet of the country’s sustainable organizations.  They ask travelers to buy local/fairtrade products, get off the beaten-path, volunteer or make a donation (however small), learn a few basic words in Lao, respect the local culture, keep smiling, and stay another day.  Not too much to ask.

Laos is a poor country, but don’t mistake poor for unsafe.  The two words are not so easily intertwined.  Cloaked in a Buddhist ideology, this predominantly rural republic could hardly exude more chill.  The typical streets are awash with smiling faces and welcoming “Sabaidee.”  Long hours of back-breaking work and the scars of colonialism are lost on the friendliest faces of Southeast Asia.

Sustainable tourism is an incredible boon for Laos as it has little in the way of industry.  Yet, how this took root is a miracle.  The idea remains foreign in tourist-heavy Thailand whose music, entertainment and culture float over the Mekong, much to the Laos government’s dismay.

In Laos, sustainable tourism takes on many faces.  Green Discovery lays its claim as Laos’ pioneer in adventure travel and ecotourism.  Opening their doors in 2000, they were indeed one of the first in this recent movement and are committed to ensuring that local people, “not only benefit financially from tourism but also are true business partners by helping to develop programs and activities.”  Each trip includes a graph explaining where the money goes, making the entire process refreshingly transparent.

Vang Vieng is Laos’  backpacker-heavy town and arguably the world capital of river tubing.  On the outskirts of this party-crazy town, Vang Vieng Organic Farm offers travelers a chance to participate in the operation of the farm.  They provide accommodation not only for helpers in the field but volunteer English teachers for the local schools.  Profits from The Farm are used to “provide training and employment, support and education to the local villagers through various projects with the mission to preserve ecological diversity and provide people with accessible and sustainable technologies to earn a living.”

Yet, it is back in Luang Prabang where the sustainable initiatives truly come to life to coalesce the countrywide effort.  With the improved roads and transportation services, Luang Prabang is no longer an isolated oasis in northwestern Laos.  That’s not to say that the roads are peaceful (cavernous potholes, wild turns, open cliffsides), but they’re there – mostly.  The historic center of majestic Luang Prabang sits at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers.  The great city, growing with sophistication, stretches from river to river across the Royal Palace (abandoned with the revolution) and a sprinkling of 16th century temples.  Dignified monks, cloaked in tangerine, far outnumber tourists fighting for space under shared yellow umbrellas, while the bald-topped next generation, training at the city’s dazzling temples, spill out onto the streets at daybreak to gather their alms from the kneeling public.

Luang Prabang is a nerdy tourist’s intellectual paradise.  Oozing old-world charm, the dreamy backstreets and riverfront pathways overflow with art, architecture, religion, and history.  Across the dirt-green river and beyond the latticed riverside gardens, Luang Prabang is surrounded by a handful of craftsmen’s villages.  Woodworkers, potters, papermakers, knitters, and dyers prepare their works for the evening market, making Luang Prabang the premier place in Southeast Asia for authentic, genuinely handmade textiles and goods.

This is the auspicious outcome of a rigorous UNESCO campaign to promote the production of traditional arts and crafts as a means of creating incomes and fostering citywide tourism.  This year marks the 15th anniversary of Luang Prabong’s status as a World Heritage City, a joyous title that is not lost on the people.

Uber-trendy Hive Bar, hipster-happy L’etranger Books and Tea, and fair-trade haven Kopnoi form a fortress of ideas at the triangular intersection of Phousi and Phommathay roads.  Founded by Québecois Isabel Dréan and her partner Simon Côté, the pair arrived in Laos in 2001 and opened L’Etranger, Books and Tea, the town’s first licensed bookshop.   They aimed to promote Lao goods on the world market and over time opened up Kopnoi as well as the popular Hive Bar (home of the Ethnik Fashion Show).  Kopnoi Export Promotion Center’s second floor gallery houses the Stay Another Day Multimedia Exhibition, full of history, ethnography and ideas on responsible travel.  The fairtrade showroom below offers free daily tea tastings with organic brews from the Vang Vieng farm that can be purchased across the street at L’etranger.  It’s one big hippy, happy circle of do-goodery.

If not checking out the free 7:00 o’clock flick at L’etranger, next door at Hive, Luang Prabang (and presumably all of Laos’) only fashion show is the perfect combination of education and entertainment.  With twenty ethnicities represented by twenty models in almost one-hundred costumes, this is no small-scale production.

Laos is a thinly stitched quilt of ethnic minorities.  In fact, thirty-percent of the country’s population is non-Lao-speaking, non-Buddhist “hill tribes” with little or no connection to traditional Lao culture.  Government education ensured a limited knowledge of foreign lands, so much of the culture, including elaborate ethnic attire, remains visible in the twenty-first century.

The fashion show takes place on Hive’s moody, red-lit backyard stage.  As the smiley, giggling girls parade around to trance music in their patterned ethnic garb, a projector details information about the tribes and their traditional clothes.  When you start to wish your high-school teacher taught history lessons like this, the aftershow of local breakdancing boys brings a jolting change from the historic to the global.

Yet, even with its increasingly global allure, Luang Prabang remains blanketed in ancient rituals.  Each dusk’s almsgiving brings the methodically devout out to the street and onto their knees.  Tourists are given pamphlets to encourage respectful viewing, but a few paparazzi continue stalking the sleepy monks.

After decades of isolation, Laos has opened up its arms, however slightly, to the international arena.  It is a crossroads state between Thailand and Vietnam and a close partner with neighboring China (although this is a double-edged sword).  There are green initiatives all across the nation from the northern mountains of Luang Namtha to 4,000 islands in the south.  Many organizations have offices in Vientiane and Paske, though Luang Prabang remains the heart and soul.

Much of the money generated by these organizations is funneled out of the cities and onto the dirt roads and buffalo paths that crisscross this developing land.  Beyond the city limits, Laos poverty is truly face-smacking.  Yet, the country is moving in the right direction, improving the quality of life with education and building schools to teach the next generation.

Luang Prabang based Big Brother Mouse is racing to build a library of Lao language books so that every kid can have a chance to read in those schools, while international aid organizations like UNESCO have found profitable ways to preserve traditional crafts.  Non-governmental organizations such as Stay Another day (and its affiliates) promote responsible tourism so that visitors find an authentic experience and ensure their money goes where it belongs.  Green Discovery monitors that the lands they trek remain unlogged by the Chinese, while environmentalists teach locals alternatives to slash-and-burn farming.  With so much positive energy circulating around this small, land-locked country, it’s hard not to fall in love with Lao.

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If you would like to get involved or find out how you can give back, here are some helpful websites of organizations mentioned in this article.  Alternatively, you can send an email to markonthemapadvice@gmail.com.

Vang Vieng Organic Farm

Big Brother Mouse

Stay Another Day

Green Discovery

Kopnoi

Ten Reasons to Visit Vientiane

A Sparkling Clean Oasis

Chances are your journey to Vientiane will not be direct and arriving from Hanoi, Phnom Penh, or Bangkok, you will be struck by the immaculate streets of Laos’ capital city.  Vientiane may just be the cleanest city in all of Southeast Asia.  With meticulously angled shrubbery and manicured roadside gardens, you’d hardly believe you were in one of the poorest countries in the world.  Hosting the Southeast Asian Games in 2009 (for the first time in the games 50 year history) Vientiane is opening its doors to the world – a small city with big dreams.  Imbuing a pride often found in capitals, the residents of Vientiane work hard at the upkeep to make their city the shining example of a prosperous future.

Upmarket Accommodation

Aided by a change in migration in post-tsunami Thailand, the past few years saw an unprecedented boom in tourism for Laos.  In search of the laidback, “authentic Asia” that many feel is lost elsewhere, tourism numbers rose from 14,000 in 1990 to over 1 million in 2005.  As a result, Vientiane’s old flophouses received an overdue make-over and accommodation took a notable swing for the up-market – although prices remain fair.  Expect to pay between $8.00 and $30.00 USD for a room with a balcony in the old quarter.

Dirt Cheap French Food

Waking up to the wafting scent of freshly baked baguettes and crispy croissants, you might just forget where you are.  In fact, to find bread in such quantities is a rarity in Asia.  Yet, in Vientiane, the lingering refinements of French Indochina rule the city’s culinary scene.  Vientiane is, perhaps, the cheapest place in the world to indulge in wood-fire steaks, soufflés, pates, and a cold glass of Sancerre.  Most restaurants line the crisscrossing rues of Vientiane Central or you can combine dinner and a movie at Centre Culturel et de Cooperation Linguistique.

Beer Lao

Founded in 1973, Lao Brewery Co Ltd was a joint venture between foreign investors and Lao businessmen.  After National Liberation in 1975, the communist government took over.  But, in 2005, the government went in a joint partnership with Carlsberg Brewers bringing the beer’s production levels to an all-time high.  From the government to the hands of the people, Beer Lao is the national beer.  Its lager, light, and dark varieties blow Thailand’s Chang Beer back across the Mekong.  Produced in Vientiane, Beer Lao is one of the nation’s largest companies, sponsoring sport events and beauty pageants as well as splashing its marketing across the country.  A cold Beer Lao at sunset on the Mekong is a Vientiane must.

The Riverside Night Market

The mighty Mekong River stretches from Nepal to southern Vietnam and as it meanders through Laos, it acts as the border with Thailand.  Along its banks, Vientiane’s night market comes to life.  On a long stretch of the recently revitalized riverfront, plastic chairs are artfully arranged as hawkers present the day’s catch for your approval.  The fresh and unbelievably cheap fish is then cooked to your liking and served (face and all) on a bed of rice and greens.  After dinner stroll down the river to check out local craftsmen or head back to town for some Tiramisu.

A Funny Sort of Nightlife

When the sun sets over the Mekong and the merchants pack up and away, Laos’ night workers take to the streets.  Revving engines, hiked up skirts, and splashes of red are instant indicators that these are not the conservative, demure girls of the daylight.  With the dramatic game of cat and mouse below, you may just kick back on the balcony with a Beer Lao and watch the show.  But, if you’re prepared for a night out, this small capital city has a surprising number of bars and clubs.

Temples, Temples, Temples

While not as omnipresent as temple-heavy Luang Prabong, Vientiane boasts some bold national treasures.  The blaring, golden Pha That Luang (Laos’ most important national monument) is cornered by four temples – two of which remain erect.  Wat Si Salet is the oldest temple in Vientiane with an audacious 2,000 silver Buddha images and 300 seated and standing Buddhas in wood, stone, and bronze.  Craving more statues?  Head to Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park), one yogi-priest-shaman’s bizarre testament to a merged Hindu/Buddhist mythology.

Friendly Locals

Learn this word: “Sabaidii,” (sa bye dee – hello, welcome) and you’ve unlocked the door to the land of 1,000 smiles.  The warm, welcoming faces of the Lao people are so infectious, you will find yourself singing “Khawp jai lai lai,” (kop chai lye lye – thank you very much) not only because you like the sound, but because of their bewildering radiance.  The Lao citizens don’t have much to be happy about.  The French, Brittish, Chinese, Japanese, and Siamese have all drawn lines around this land and after years of strict socialism, the country remains in the World’s Least Developed category.  Yet, the Lao people refuse to let hard times get them down.

Crumbling French-Colonial Architecture

While the French-Colonial government did not have the budget for the grand constructions in Hanoi or Saigon, these nevertheless impressive villas are perhaps more visible in tiny Vientiane.  Now home to museums and embassies, these crumbling, porch-encased mansions tower above the city’s modest dwellings.  Previously reluctant to promote colonial architecture as an asset for tourism, new generations of local authorities have come to embrace it as an intrinsic link to their recent history.

Laidback Laos

Nothing moves very fast in Laos.  For some, this can be a test in patience, but the reward is an oasis from the bustle of modern, motorbike-crazy Southeast Asia.  Because any journey onto the patchy roads outside of Vientiane will inevitably take four times as long as the kilometers may have you estimating, an open, flexible attitude will bring nothing but smiles and good times with the carefree locals.  The lesson in this?  Stay put in Vientiane for a while.  It is not a doing city – it’s a do nothing city.  After a few days, the city oozes into your head, grabs you by the heart, and sets you free with a Zen-like zeal.


Big Shots: Luang Prabang Celebrates

Luang Prabang, Laos celebrates 15 years as a UNESCO World Heritage City

Later on this week:

MarkontheMap explains why you need to buy a plane ticket to Laos and start in Vientaine