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Saturday, February 04, 2006

Biking Laos

Luang Prabang is giving Hoi An a run for it’s money as my favorite city thus far. There’s a tranquility and peacefulness here, a pace of relaxation that envelops you the second you land in this quaint little town and doesn’t let go, even after you leave. I’m in Vientiane right now, and on a larger scale, Laos, as a country is awesome, there’s a Zen charm to it, an authenticity of place. If I had the time, I’d stay in this country for a few weeks (or months).

Luang Prabang sits right on the Mekong River, and every night at sunset you could find me at one of the many riverside cafés, a BeerLao and my journal in hand, watching the amazing sight in front of me. I spent four nights in LP, and all four of those sunsets were fantastic. My days were filled with lazy bike rides through the town – which is really comprised of two main streets, one bordering the Mekong, the other a boulevard, if you will, of open-air restaurants, internet cafes, silk and wood shops and tour companies. In between ran little alleys lined with guest houses and lodging for the many tourists that come to Luang Prabang, another UNESCO World Heritage site that’s having it’s tourist hey day (which detracts a little from the experience, but not TOO much). The Laotians are the kindest, gentlest people I’ve met yet. They all smile as you go by, saying “Sabaidee!” which is a greeting in Lao or “Hello Miss!” with these huge grins on their faces. I’ve been to so many poverty striken places at this point and it NEVER ceases to amaze me how happy these people are, regardless of their lot in life. It’s so refreshing. Sabaidee! (I’m such a loser…)

I arrived to my guest house, Le Calao Inn, in the early morning to be shown to the only room they had left, a super-large, super-luxe family suite on the downstairs level. Right, me and my three kids are staying here, did I mention? PERFECT. Three beds, a foyer, an outdoor patio as big as my apartment in Manhattan overlooking the river – why argue? “I’ll take it!” From there, I went to explore the town. Being past dark on the night of my arrival, I merely walked thru the Restaurant Boulevard, I’ll call it (since Laos has been occupied by the French, the Burmese, and the Thais, depending on who you ask the streets all have different pronunciations. Maps – depending on the client they’re catering to – Asian, European, American -- all have different spellings so “Restaurant Blvd” is just easier) and into the Night Market, which is basically the sidewalks of the main street, on both sides, lined with vendors selling silks, paper lamps, silver and wood trinkets, CDs, BeerLao t-shirts (yes, I bought one), and other assorted souvenirs of Laos time. The city, being small and devoutly pious, shuts down at around 11:30 PM – LATEST – and the only place to go is the Laos disco, a $.50 tuk-tuk ride outside of town. At dinner my first night, I met a group of six people, who had all met the night before – Swedes, Danish, Brits and Canadians. I added American into the mix. We, obviously, headed to the disco, anyone looking in from the outside would think we’d know each other for years…

My next days in LP were spent seeing the various wats (I must confess, I’m getting “watted out” at a ferocious speed…there’s just TOO DAMN MANY WATS over here in Asia), hiked Mount Phousi in the middle of town, toured the Royal Palace, and got a Lao massage (not as good as Thai massage). Everywhere you go in Laos (as in the temples in other cities), you have to take your shoes off to enter. I always worry about coming out to stolen flip-flops, as someone I met in Hoi An was wearing the nappy shoes of a stranger (the only “choice” in his size), after his were swiped while inside a wat. How un-Buddhist, right? Meanwhile, since you have to take off your shoes everywhere, I’ve noticed that I have freakin’ gorgeous feet, comparatively. I know you’ve all made fun of my potato-toes, but lemme tell you – these Asians are funghi-friendly folk when it comes to toenail cleanliness. I cannot tell you how many nasty ass feet reign supreme here in the Far East, tap dancing through the temples. And it makes me and my potatoes feel just gorge…sans pedicure and all.

Of course, the other thing that stays with you about Laos is the monks. 60-80% of Laotians are practicing Buddhists and any faithful male Buddhist must serve as a monk to complete his duty to the Buddha. But, the monks in LP are different than in other places, they are so friendly and talkative and just looking to learn from you, as you learn from them. You sit and shoot the shit with them at any hour of the day. The LP monks have to serve six years in a monastery, (continuing after that is their choice) living in the wats and off the generosity of the town. So, every morning at 7 AM, the 500 monks, who only eat one meal a day, at noon, make their daily alms, collecting food from the people that they will eat for their meal. They cannot buy food, it must be given to them. So, at dawn, you see the barefoot, orange-clothed monks each day, being handed rice, cakes, food, for the day’s meal. It’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. A parade of men, living off the kindness of others, every day. It blew me away.

One of the attractions of LP is also the waterfalls that are about 25 miles out of town. Everyone in LP rides bikes around the area, so on day three, I took my rented bike to get in some exercise, y’know – feel productive. So, about 30 minutes into my bike ride, I see a sign that says “waterfalls” (or some Lao variation) and decide I’m going to take my pink bike with basket up to the ‘falls. How hard (or far) can it be…? About an hour later, without any water, roadsigns or paved roads, I sweat through my first village where I say “Oh, I’m FINE” and continue past the huts of the Laotians without buying a bottle of water. Who I was proving what to, I’m not sure…. About another 30 minutes later, I smell and drip my way into village number two, stop for water, where the ladies of the village start cooling me with makeshift fans and admonishing me in Lao amongst themselves. I’m sure they were saying things like “You fool of a girl – nobody basket-bikes to the falls!” And, they would be correct in that I hadn’t seen one other BIKER along the way. After my water-break the ladies help me get the bike back to pedal-position (it had a weird kickstand that seemingly confused me) and send me off with a whole lot of “Tsks, Tsks” as I went. At this point, I pass two or three tuk-tuks carrying foreigners, with flat tires (!!), on the sides of the roads. People yelling and asking me if I was crazy in English. I’m dirty as hell, the trucks that pass me on the unpaved are kicking mountains of dust and gravel into my face, nevermind the lack of proper exhaust systems they drive with over here. My contacts are dry as the desert, my knees are cramping, I’ve finished my water, there’s no new town in site, I can’t read the Lao street signs that are telling me (possibly) how far I have left to go, the tuk-tuks are all breaking down and I might as well have showered in the Mekong to my right, I’m so damn mud-drenched. Two hours – time to turn around. And bike home. I still feel semi-satisfied at my efforts.

The next day, curious to see both the falls and how far I got on my ride, I hire a tuk-tuk to take me there. The same ladies that fanned me and giggled at my idiotic attempts wave as I pass, beaming like the Laos just do. I am QUITE proud to say that I probably went ¾ of the way, the last part being all uphill at an impossible angle. At this point, I’m feeling that Lance Armstrong couldn’t complete the trip. So, I get there, and after seeing waterfalls that had beautiful aqua blue water (but urination-strength volumes of actual “falls”) I start to head home and am flagged down by a 65 year old, 200 pound, New Zealand woman . . . . . .

Yeah – SHE biked all the way to the falls. Was looking for a ride back.

I’ve decided I’m sticking to beers and sunsets. ;)


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