Intially I had planned to spend two and a half weeks in Laos with Tammy and her sister Mary. This was to be my outdoor adventure holiday, and it was. Our trip started with the taxi, plane, bus, tuk tuk, bus, border crossing, and taxi relay to go from Bangkok to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. We made a short stop on the Thai side of the border to visit the somewhat freakish statue garden filled with 8-story cement statues of Buddhas, Hindu gods, and snakes with too many heads built by a grateful Laotian man who was saved from some civil strife sometime during the strife riddled history of Laos (one of the most heavily bombed countries on Earth).
Crossing the Friendship Bridge over the muddied Mekong in an over-packed, non-air-conditioned bus, Mary asked, "Where's the chickens?" and you knew you were in a truly third-world nation. Laos is like a laid-back Thailand (if that's possible) with French colonial and communist influences. The traditional food, language, and demeanor of the people is very similar to that of Thailand. Add some baguettes, la vache qui ri, and spam posing as pate and you can see how the French left their mark. The Soviet-era cars with the doors held together by string and Communist flags give a different flavor. We spent little time in the capital tooling around on rented bikes to see some wats and the fake Arc de Triomphe, then headed northwest to Vang Viang.
Our outdoor adventure begins with kayaking, caving, and swimming for the afternoon. If you prefer adventures of the more nefarious sort, those are available, too. Although we kayaked down the nam song, many chose to go by inner tube with lots of stops for beerlaos and other narcotic specialties of the region.
Then we left the next morning for Luang Prabang, winding our way up steep mountain passes on the VIP bus. It was a beautiful trip, with mountains, jungles, and Hmong villages along the way. It must have been roof-making season. All along the road the Hmong were drying reeds or pounding them on the roadway to be assembled into straw-like roofs. We also saw rice pounding, communal bathing in the evening, delousing of the scalp, children playing, and other standard village-type activities. The driver was excellent in his navigation of the winding road whilst dodging potholes, pigs, chickens, and oncoming traffic. Dubbed the jewel of southeast Asia, the city of Luang Prabang is a World Heritage Site. On the banks of the great Mekong, LP has lots of cute guesthouses, delicious food, and a great night market with nice silk tapestries. We stayed here for 5 days. I hooked up with some friends from school who were also visiting Laos and did a 2-day trek and spent the night in a Hmong village. I'm not sure if they were more fascinated by us or us with them. Again, it was your typical village life: mud floors, no electricity, more chickens and pigs, basic schoolhouse with wooden benches and tables, schleping water, schleping corn, schleping bamboo, schleping firewood--a lot of schleping. My education about fowl and pigs has expanded many fold. Roosters - hate 'em. They don't know what time it is. They cock-a-doodle-do ALL day and night. What good are they for other than fertilizing eggs and coq au vin?
We got back Christmas Eve. Christmas morning Tammy had stockings for me and Mary (actually they were her socks filled with a juice box, chocolates, trial-size shampoo, and gum). Traditionally I get an orange and a can of tuna (don't ask) among other things in my stocking. There weren't any cans of tuna available, but Tammy made sure I had orange juice. Christmas involved eating, wandering, eating again, reading and massage and herbal sauna, drinking, eating again, and a little shopping. Apparently in LP they turn off the electricity on Saturdays. My intent was a holiday email, but alas, no. We parted the next day.
Having seen enough of Laos, Tammy and I headed back to Thailand for some rock climbing in Chiang Mai. Thinking the 7-hour speed boat preferable to the 11-hour overnight slow boat, we booked our tickets, bundled up, and waterproofed our packs. This was not preferable. Imagine 8 full-grown adults sitting on the floor of a boat shaped like a pointy triangle with knees to chins, helmets, life vests, and lots and lots of layers. For 7 hours. Once you're in, that's it: no moving, no adjusting, no scratching your chin. You're folded up like an accordion--for 7 hours. At first we were in the back getting soaked and cold. Then we were in the front getting windblown and jostled around every time we hit a whirlpool. But it was beautiful--for 7 hours. This day was December 26, 2004, Boxing Day, the date when the ocean floor slipped, causing a huge wave to cover Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Thailand. Thank God, I was on the Mekong and not the Andaman Sea.