Laos, oh Laos. How you make us chuckle. You really know how to reel people in with your gorgeous landscape and fun rafting trips and then you just hit them HARD with insane bus rides and stomach cramping foods! What I am trying to say is that we have some mixed feelings about Laos and we strongly believe that a little piece of Laos’ heart hates us.
Laos is a country that I feel like is semi-new to the Southeast Asia backpacker trail and we were very excited to explore places that seemed to be a bit off the beaten path. With that in mind, we searched and searched for unique experiences and places more undiscovered and that lead us to the Northern part of the country – Luang Namtha. Not ones to shy away from a little adventure, we found a company that was willing to customize a rafting trip for us that had included a list of things that we loved: rafting on a gorgeous river through Jurassic Park like scenery, rope jumping that made us feel like Tarzan and Jane, cooking and eating traditional Lao style cuisine served up on banana leaves in the jungle and evenings spent in traditional villages with families that welcomed us into their homes. All aspects of our 3 day trip were amazing and challenging in their own ways, but I can honestly say that we will never forget what it felt like to immerse ourselves in a culture so unknown and unique to us. The only way I can really describe the feelings of arriving via raft to the Camu Villages both nights is by allowing you to imagine a scene from Pocahontas. Their wooden boats that resembled canoes rocked back and forth together as the river made them sway. The children played in the water as their mothers and fathers did their best to grab ahold of them so they could be bathed. Fishing nets were cast in the river in hopes to catch dinner for the evening. Fires burned and ignited the coals to create the perfect temperature for cooking sticky rice. And the kicker? The chief invited us to stay the night in his home (that’s a sentence I never thought I’d say!). Our awesome guides introduced us to many of the village people and told us all they could about the Camu culture, who were originally from Cambodia. With beers in our hands and the glow of the fire as the only light, we watched as dinner was prepared over the open flame. Old techniques came to life as the chief’s wife did her evening ritual of making sticky rice to accompany the meal. We sat (taking notes of course) and marveled at the way she so rhythmically moved about her bamboo kitchen that was perched on wobbly stilts. After dinner was made, we gathered around their little dinner table on the floor and dug in with our hands – using stick rice as a binding agent for everything. It was all wonderful and delicious, but little did we know, that sticky rice would soon seek vengeance on all of our bellies!
Our time on the river was in many ways, unforgettable. I will never forget how much I LOVE our bed back home after sleeping on the bare wooden floors of the chief’s house. I will forever remember the peacefulness that laid on me like a warm blanket as we drifted slowly down the calm river…or the “oh $h!t moments” of being surprised by a strong rapid. I can’t get the image out of my mind of Sean and Taylor throwing the Camu children off their shoulders and into the water as their smile radiated from ear to ear. It’s hard to forget the feeling of “all eyes on me” as we approached the villages that rarely see, or have never seen an American. I can still hear the Mulan song, “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You” playing back from when we belted it at the top of our lungs on the jungle trek. I WISH I could forget the 6ft long python that we watched slither on top of the water right in front of us. I will always remember the fact that I am not good at jumping from a rope swing and the laughs that filled the air from my best friends and husband. These are moments that will resonate in my mind as wonderful memories from a handful of days that were so unique and out of the ordinary. Isn’t that what traveling is about?
In our Thailand post, I wrote about the transition we have felt from being “fake” backpackers in Europe to now being “real” backpackers in Asia and oh man, after an 18 hour bus ride from hell, I feel like we are officially on the “real” backpackers list. We have made it! Here I am celebrating our new title when all I really want to do is totally forget that dreadful day. I know I am over-exaggerating but I am still getting used to this whole thing so please bear with me. As we boarded the “14 hour” bus ride from Luang Namtha to Vang Vieng, we were pleasantly surprised by the bunk-bed style seating. We imagined movie after movie, a quick nap, maybe some blog writing and a beautiful ride through the mountains of Laos. With all of those wonderful things in mind, we thought that it was going to be a very lovely and relaxing day full of the rest and recuperation we needed all whilst making our way from point A to point b! Well about an hour into our ride, we had the sad and very real realization that it might just not go that way. As cigarette smoke filled the bus and the lack of AC slowly suffocated us, we arrived at a 2-hour stop with zero explanation. We just sat and waited…and waited…and waited…until finally they loaded us back on the bus and moved onward. Why did we just stop in the blazing heat for 2 hours?! When are we supposed to arrive?! All questions…no answers. That was the theme that day! Well, after nearly dying a few times on the mountain roads, we arrived to Vang Vieng. Pitch black, nowhere to stay and the slight relief we felt from being off the bus and in a pack of other travelers. We meandered along the town in the middle of the night in search of a room to shower off the musk of that day and a bed to lay our heads down. After a little searching, we found a place and we drifted off the sleep hoping that bus ride was really just a bad dream. We awoke in search of some serious coffee and the desire to be at our pre-planned AirBnb bungalows just outside the hustle and bustle of Vang Vieng’s crazy party and tourist scene.
Our host was an angel sent from God. She was so lovely and made us feel like family the moment she picked us up. Her warm smile filled our hearts and made us feel at ease. We felt a sense of calm when she pulled up to her beautiful bungalows nestled at the base of a cliff and surrounded by trees and greenery. Ah…that is what we were looking for. A soft breeze filled up our little wooden rooms as we enjoyed the motions of unpacking and letting our stuff have a home for a few days.
The heat continued to creep in during our time in Laos so we found ourselves seeking water…in anyway shape or form! We visited the beautiful Blue Lagoon where we jumped and swung and played in the crystal blue waters. We rented tubes and floated down the iconic Vang Vieng River with beers in our hands. We enjoyed the Lao New Year at our bungalows by completely dowsing anyone who drove/walked/rode by with buckets of water (as per tradition!) and allowed ourselves to be totally soaked for an afternoon. I am pretty sure that every day of our Asia portion of this trip has been spent in or around some body of water and honestly, with this insane heat, that’s the only way to do it!
Our intent was to spend a few days in Luang Prabang but unfortunately, our bodies had other plans for us. Stomach viruses took ahold and we were forced to allow them to heal and take the days slow…which meant for a few movies, some Ritz crackers and no more Lao food! I’d like to say the food wasn’t bad, but lets just say we were definitely ready for a change and I don’t think we will seek out a Laotian dish anytime soon! As for Vang Vieng specifically…that city is so catered to people looking to party the day away and western tourists so with that, there doesn’t see to be much of a food culture. All of the street carts were full of greasy sandwiches, burgers, French fries, and a bunch of other food that could battle a case of the munchies so maybe I don’t really know what Lao food is? Maybe it is wonderful? Maybe it’s not just all sticky rice and saucy things? Well, I guess I’ll never really know.
Ya know those places that you visit and appreciate them for what they are but you have this little piece inside of you that knows…”Well, that is a place I don’t really feel the need to return back to…” – yeah, that is what Laos is to us. I am so thankful we were able to experience this country for what it was and the handful of wonderful people we met, but we feel satisfied. We feel accomplished. And who knows? Maybe the day will come where we feel God pulling us back there to see things we didn’t get to see…or re-experience the places that we did. But until then, I will cherish the lessons we learned and the experiences we had during our time there. Now, off to Vietnam!