Observations From Two Weeks in Laos

Trying to get a spool of wire onto the top of a bus takes 5 Lao men and one woman on a cell phone
Trying to get a spool of wire onto the top of a bus takes 5 Lao men and one woman on a cell phone

It’s amazing all the things that you get used to after traveling for a while…like chickens walking through a restaurant, elephants and cows in the road and 30 people in the back of a pickup.

We heard the news about Michael Jackson’s death on a local bus from an English couple who heard it from their guesthouse owner that morning. I didn’t believe them until I went onto the net and confirmed it. So sad…unless he’s with Elvis, Biggie and 2-Pac now. Still alive on an island somewhere…

Houayxai, the border town, is a very interesting place. There are about five blocks that are all touristic with hotels, restaurants, shops and tourist agencies. The rest of it is untouched and unchanged.

I think I got hurt for everyone on the Gibbon Experience. I touched my ear to the zipline while using it, tearing off most layers of skin. I also bashed my shin, hit my head and got my finger stuck under the rollers.

The bathroom at our treehouse in the Gibbon Experience had a bees nest right underneath
The bathroom at our treehouse in the Gibbon Experience had a bees nest right underneath

There were bees nests under each of the bathrooms in our treehouses, making for a scary toilet/shower experience every time…though they never actually touched us.

Both nights at our treehouse we were all in bed before 9. Our second night we were so tired that we were just sitting around joking about how we wished the sun would just set so we could see the fireflies and go pass out.

The entire treehouse would shake any time someone would zipline in.

Our meals at the Gibbon Experience were usually some mushy mix of veggies. No one was quite sure about what they were, so we just identified them by color.

Even though we didn’t see a single gibbon, I had “hey hey we’re the monkeys” in my head for three days.

Mosquito nets are usually some form of mesh, but in our treehouses they were made of thick canvas. When we asked why we were told it was to keep the rats from eating through them.

The latest treehouse currently being built features a spa!

Crossing a bamboo log bridge in the Gibbon Experience
Crossing a bamboo log bridge in the Gibbon Experience

We opted to take the “waterfall experience,” that had a bit more walking but a stop at a waterfall. I guess it’s not quite false advertising because it was there, but the waterfall was one of the smallest ones I’ve ever seen.

Apparently, the gibbons are purposely kept away from the treehouses because all humans have some form of herpes (not necessarily the STD version) that the gibbons are not immune to.

The big joke while hiking was is whatever is around us good nature or bad nature. For example…geckos eating mosquitoes = good nature. Leeches on the ass = bad nature.

Our alternatives to the slow boat were a bumpy 15 hour bus ride or the six hour speed boat that is so dangerous riders are given crash helmets and fatalities are not rare.

It was amazing to see how much more populated the Thai side of the Mekong River was than the Laos side.

The seats on the slow boat ride are so notoriously uncomfortable that all booking agencies also sell pillows. It is especially funny to see all the towns the tourists visit after the boat ride using the left behind pillows in restaurants, guesthouses or just reselling them.

Kids storm our boat at a shoreside stop to sell food and beverages
Kids storm our boat at a shoreside stop to sell food and beverages

Every time the slow boat stopped at the river bank it unloaded something from the roof. These items include a satellite dish, chickens in cages, a bike, a bed frame, food and other supplies.

With all the people sitting on the floor of the slow boat, walking to the bar or bathroom was like navigating an obstacle course.

Most goods sold in Laos are produced in and imported from Thailand or other neighboring countries.

We were frequently quoted prices in Thai Bhat or US Dollars, as the Laos Kip is a very unstable currency after years of hyperinflation. There are also no coins, only bills.

An ATM that gave me money one day said that it did not accept international ATM cards a few days later.

In Pakbeng, as well in countless other cities on our travels, the most common sound is that of a generator providing power for the town. This is a very unique sound to traveling in the third world.

You can bargain for food prices in restaurants.

A sign showing proper conduct in Laos...these signs are all over the country
A sign showing proper conduct in Laos…these signs are all over the country

In Laos it is considered to put your feet on tables or chairs as well as to point your foot in the direction of others. This is very hard to remember…I hope I didn’t offend too many people. And where does a crossed leg fit into this? I tried to pull my foot into my stomach while sitting with one leg crossed.

A lesson we’ve learned too many times now…just because someone’s family is of Indian descent and they have an Indian restaurant, it doesn’t mean that they have any idea how to cook Indian food.

It’s tough having two people, one laptop and no books to read.

I got spoiled with fast Internet in Thailand, as the Laos net is sloooooow and overpriced.

A mountain range near Vang Viang that our bus had to drive through
A mountain range near Vang Viang that our bus had to drive through

It’s scary going on buses through the mountains as they hug the side of the road, especially on sharp turns, and there is never a guardrail separating us from a thousand foot drop.

Tiger Balm, which smells like Vicks Vaporub, is the Laos answer to all ailments. Mosquito bite? Rash? Bruise? Tiger Balm! Broken leg? You got it, Tiger Balm!

In Pakbeng, Carrie wanted to order a fruit smoothie. The menu had four different options and, although the place did not have any of them, the waiter let her ask about each one individually before reading the menu, trying to figure out what she wanted and then saying no. Did he not sense a trend here? Would it not have been easier to just say, “no fruit smoothies?” I just sat there watching and biting my tounge to not laugh outloud.

Our bus ride from Vang Vieng to Vientiane was our first local bus since Sri Lanka.

We completely skipped Vientiane, the capital of Laos, due to a lack of time and a lack of interest in anything there. In retrospect, we easily could have spent a few days there. Oh well…next time!

During one bus ride, the driver stopped for 15 minutes to do his grocery shopping at a local market.

People use plastic bags attached to sticks to keep flies off of food like this one at the Louang Phabang Night Market
A plastic bag fly swatter in the Louang Prabang market

Lao fly swatters are plastic bags on the end of sticks. They are most frequently seen at food stalls to keep flies off the grub for sale.

The Lao food vendors love to put condensed sweet milk on everything from food to shakes.

On a local bus ride we saw someone take a full barber set (sink, chair and tables) off of the roof of the songthaew.

It’s interesting how many communist flags and billboards are seen in a country called the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos.

It’s weird to drive on the right hand side again.

A popular children’s toy is a can or bottle on a string.

Monk heading up a boat on the Mekong River in Laos
Monk heading up a boat on the Mekong River in Laos

It’s hard to stay sleepy when going to the bathroom in the middle of the night involves finding an exit in a mosquito net, crawling out and walking down the street to the shared toilet.

It’s rare that a rental motorcycle has a speedometer, gas gauge or kilometer counter that works.

While in Houayxai, Carrie and I went to get some ice cream. The woman at the first store we stopped at seemed to have no idea what I was talking about so I made the pantomime motion of holding an ice cream cone and licking it. Literally, held my hand out and did a fake lick of the air. Turns out she actually spoke fluent English but for some reason didn’t respond at first. This is not the only time I’ve unnecessarily pantomimed.