This morning we left the smoggy streets of Vientiane after a restless night’s sleep in a raggy hotel full of black mold and stained sheets. Jeff’s comment after the morning shower was, “We’ve stayed in worse.” This is true, but years of being away from the grit and grime, and spoiling ourselves with modern luxury, made staying in this kind of hotel harder now than in our more youthful past. Our room was as big as a king-size bed, windowless and with a cold shower that sprayed over the entire bathroom – no separate wall for shower space. Our last night in Thailand was quite the opposite experience staying in a uber contemporary new hotel for about $17, half the price of the mess in Vientiane, Laos. Getting out of the city is good, and now we travel along switchbacks through the mountains to the north watching farmers plow the rice fields and kids carry bundles of firewood.
Cows here are the size of deer, children ride three or four deep on motor scooters and lots of people gather at the markets along the roadsides. Passing through the area that hosts one of the Lao hydroelectric dams and reservoir, we see vast fish markets alongside the road. Rumor has it Laos has the goal to be “the battery” for all of Southeast Asia with big plans to continue development of hydroelectric. Of course, that has environmentalists up in arms over degradation and problems related to such massive damming of the Mekong River system. Just a few weeks ago one of the dams that supplies energy to Vietnam broke indefinitely. Their desire to be the battery for this area is on track, but needs fine-tuning.
I can’t help but think of all my Hmong students and their families especially now that we are entering the northern mountainous parts of Laos and the mighty Mekong River Valley. Here we see perfectly planted gardens, bamboo thatched houses up on stilts and slash and burn agriculture. Children squat in huddles playing next to the fields while the adults work. Everywhere are little rest huts with napping dads or young girls chatting. I imagine Chee Nou and Gao here – and their ancestors before the war. It feels like a happy place to be. I can tell that life is hard, but carefree.
Streams and rivers run everywhere through the area, and as the sun rises higher, I see the occasional bather in the stream. The land above the valley is rugged dotted with spires and cliffs of limestone and driftless ridges planted heavily with banana, bamboo, and palm.
Many of the homes along the highway double as a market shop selling everything from cooking pots and bamboo baskets to food supplies like eggs and oil. Often there is an eatery as well with a table or two for guests.
Here chickens and birds are kept in large bamboo cages that are half-sphere shaped allowing the animal some room to peck the ground and for the farmer to move them easily from place to place. A few goats amble about and dogs lay hot on the side of the road.
If the houses aren’t thatched bamboo or wood, they are made of bricks or cement. Many of the mountain sides along the road are being mined with little cement fabricating shops. I’ve seen large culvert pipes and cinder blocks. If homes are made of block, they finish smooth with flat cement, paint and most have glass windows, electricity and satellite dishes. Some are ornately decorated with pillars on the porch and window trim. Houses like these have tile roofs rather than corrugated metal.
Bright yellow warning signs along the highway on the 12 percent grade switch back descent into Luang Prabang read, “HSARP CURVE” then they get it right and the sign says, “SHARP CURVE,” but a little while later there is uncertainty about the English spelling for that phrase, and they try, “CHARP CURVE!”
This is a place that reminds me of both my Ecuador and Honduras experiences. People here live off the land on little plots where they grow vegetables and a bit of rice. Today everybody is harvesting a grass from the wild – I’m not sure what it is, but I jokingly referred to it as “wild rice.” Perhaps it’s some sort of rogue rice in season after the main harvest? It is the dry season now – dusty with very few paddies flooded – mostly brown in the fields.
We arrived in the funky little town of Luang Prabang around 5:00 pm. Jeff booked us in a very Frenchy colonial feeling building with balcony and shuttered windows – very sweet. There are two rivers, the Mekong and Nam Khan that surround this town, and our guest house lies just above the Nam Khan with rooftop views. This laid back town is very popular with travelers from all over the world.
Shortly after we arrived last night, a low-pressure system moved into the area bringing with it a plume of smoke presumably from the slash and burn fires that smoulder across the country this time of year and the evening cooking fires throughout the city. About 15 minutes after our arrival, I watched from our hotel balcony as smoke poured into the valley and got stuck with low pressure and unmoving air. The air is thick with the smell of wood smoke, and my migraine once again triggered as it was in Chiang Mai, Thailand just a few days earlier. Southeast Asia just may kill me. Migraines indicate that I appear to be a canary in a coal mine for any air-borne pollutants. Later when we fly to Hanoi, from the airplane above, I can see the blanket of clouds that arrives each evening and holds the smog to the earth as if punishing the humans for being such fools.
Our second day in Luang Prabang took us to the famous Kuang Si Waterfall where photography is all that and then some. It is a spectacularly beautiful place with black bears and azure waters…and a lot of tourists.
The world today has only 5 Communist countries remaining: China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam – we will have visited two of those – Laos and Vietnam. Listening to the Lao Karaoke at the bar outside our room, I am glad they have a 12 midnight curfew! Here is Laos, the internet is slow, food is slow, and drivers are slow – if not for smog – a lovely, peaceful world!