Saturday, January 24, 2015

Vientiane: Cocktails in the Capital

From Vang Vieng, it was a (relatively) short “VIP” bus ride to the nation’s capital: Vientiane.  For anyone wondering, VIP really just means that there are almost enough seats for everyone in an old double-decker bus.  Plus it’s a bit (50 cents) more expensive than the jam-packed minibuses so it was just tourists.

We’ve spent about 36 hours here in Vientiane, just enough to write a travel piece for the New York Times.  In fact, we followed a few of the Times’ suggestions from a 2012 piece to have great cocktails one evening (Jazzy Brick) and a fabulous French meal the second (L’adresse de Tinay).

However, the Times may have exaggerated the number of hours needed to tour this small city.  We’ve visited plenty of temples and had innumerable Beerlaos along the banks of the Mekong, so these activities perhaps didn’t hold the same draw as they would have at the beginning of our adventures in Southeast Asia. 

However, we did greatly enjoy wandering the streets of the city.  There are sidewalks everywhere (a rarity) and, since we were here over the weekend, the traffic was fairly calm.  The city center is home to sidewalk cafes, French bakeries, and even wine shops – all great places to escape the midday heat.  We also made our way up a long boulevard, which our guidebook attempted to compare to the Champs Elysée.  Although the comparison is a bit of a stretch, the tree-lined street provided glimpses of various government buildings, including the presidential palace, as well as Vientiane’s own version of the Arc d’Triomphe. 

Vientiane’s Patuxay, or Victory Arch, is quite an impressive structure from a distance.  Closer up, however, the cement is crumbling and even the city wasn’t incredibly impressed with its monument, at least according to the plaque it had erected.  However, we thought the most interesting thing about the arch was that it wasn’t supposed to be an arch at all – it was supposed to be an airport.  The US government had donated funding and cement for Laos to build a new airport, but the Laotians decided against this more practical use of the materials and erected the Patuxay instead.

At least there were great views from the top!

As the temperatures approached the low 90s, we decided it was time to take a break from wandering along the city’s sweltering sidewalks.  We determined that fancy bars almost always have air-conditioning, so stopped in for a cocktail or two at a new watering hole we had read about.  From there, we wanted to continue on to try a few other places we had researched.  That was when our afternoon started to head downhill.  The next trendy cocktail bar on the list had long since closed (thanks Travel + Leisure) and we simply couldn’t find the bar with allegedly great sunset views over the Mekong (thanks New York Times).  We thus decided to stop at a cute-looking wine bar we had passed instead.  We settled in to enjoy our drinks and watch the passersby; however, a homeless man appeared to interrupt our quiet afternoon.  He was not interested in Stephanie’s purse or our laptop, but was instead absolutely determined to steal Giorgio’s beer.  After he asked politely a few times, he simply took Giorgio’s glass and chugged the beer, also knocking over Stephanie’s wine.  At this point, we decided it was definitely time to head back to our hotel.   

After regrouping, our luck turned.  We thoroughly enjoyed the previously mentioned perfect French meal, followed by a nightcap at a "secret" cocktail bar we found down a dark alley.  After looking up the bar's name, we realized we were in some sort of Lao "Milk & Honey" where the bartender would create any concoction you desired for the sum of 50,000 kip.  We missed that memo, but still enjoyed a stiff gin and tonic and a full glass of scotch - also for only 50,000 kip each.

Today is our last day in Laos and we are about to catch our Thai Airways flight to Phuket, where we'll spend eight days at two different beach resorts on the Andaman Sea  It will certainly be a change of pace from backpacking through the rest of the region.  Onward to the "real" honeymoon!


Vang Vieng: Tubes (and Beerlao)

After our southbound minibus adventure, we arrived in Vang Vieng.  We quickly settled into the balcony of our bungalow with a Beerlao and contemplated our tubing expedition planned for the following day.

Located along the Nam Song River, Vang Vieng is the perfect place to float along with the current in a tube, carrying a Beerlao or two (or three) in your dry bag.  Until 2012, Vang Vieng was synonymous with backpacker hedonism.  Bars lined the river offering not just beer and shots of Lao Lao, but also actual printed menus advertising weed, mushrooms, opium, and meth.  The culture was so permissive that even the Lonely Planet contains a warning not to mix your opium with lime juice given its potentially fatal effects.

To add to the chaos, there were zip lines and diving platforms from which you could fling yourself into the river below.  Given the (very) low tide, many people were simply flinging themselves onto rocks.  Essentially, the entire tubing route and town were one big party – and a dangerous party at that.  After a few too many people died, the government shut down all the bars without licenses (ie: almost all the bars).

Since 2012, Vang Vieng is (unfortunately?) a bit more tranquil.  Although there is still tubing on offer, it’s no longer quite the free for all it once was.  That said, we had a fabulous day floating down the Nam Song with a few Beerlao!  There were plenty of people tubing (plus various large tour groups of Koreans kayaking).  Everyone stopped at the few bars that were still open where the riverside party was still going.  Each of the bars had workers stationed along the banks to throw ropes to pull us in along with our tubes.  We stopped to enjoy a drink (or two or three), the music (Hey Ya! AND Taylor Swift), and the scene.  (As usual, Steph was the only white tourist worried about getting sunburnt.  Although she may have been overdressed, she stands by her decision to avoid skin cancer.)

Was this authentic Laos? No.  Was it a really fun afternoon? Yes.

One day of tubing, however, was definitely enough for us (Steph decided) – after all, we have now both entered our fourth decade (Gio is still in denial, though).  Instead, we rented another motor scooter (unfortunately, another Chinese model) and headed up the pothole-filled highway to find a few caves hidden in the jungle.  Apparently, in China it is not necessary to know how fast you are scooting, or the distance you have travelled, or how much gas you have left – our dashboard was completely broken so we had no idea how far we had driven and missed our turn off.  Doubling back, we eventually found the correct dirt road and parked our scooter alongside the river.  Although a more permanent bridge is being built, we paid 10,000 kip (a little over $1) to cross the seasonal bamboo bridge spanning the water.

A seemingly helpful Laotian took it upon himself to show us the nearby caves and we set off behind him.  As we climbed over various fences and cut across a few fields, we were glad we had a local guide.  It wasn’t until we arrived at the caves that we found any signs.

Inside, we found stately Buddhas, rickety stairways, and caverns extending far into the darkness.  One of the caves apparently extends three kilometers deep into the hills, but we certainly weren’t prepared for such an in-depth exploration and eventually turned around.

Following our brief spelunking tour, it turned out that our “guide” was not as helpful (or good-hearted) as we had initially anticipated.  When Giorgio attempted to tip him for his services, he instead demanded hundreds of thousands of kip, which was his “usual fee.”  Refusing to fork over the ridiculous sum that would have gotten us about five meals for two in Laos another negotiation ensued.  As it became clear we were not going to reach an understanding, we handed him 20,000 kip (about $2.50) and simply walked away across the rice paddies.  Given the lack of complaints as we turned around, we continue to think we may have over-tipped.

Our next stop (and last southeast Asian bus!) is Vientiane, the capital of Laos.  Details to follow!


PS: #suckitowen

Friday, January 23, 2015

Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars: Bombs and Jars

From Luang Prabang, we headed southeast to Phonsavan, the base for exploring the mysterious Plain of Jars.  More on the Plain of Jars later because first we had to get there via southeast Asia’s always-entertaining mode of transportation: a local bus.  Having read various descriptions of this bus trip, some of which were horror stories describing winding roads and carsickness in cramped conditions, we were understandably a bit nervous.  Having also read that buses tend to break down, we wanted to – more than anything – prevent another FCE adventure.  However, when we arrived at the bus station, the bus to Phonsavan turned out to be a “VIP Bus” instead of a traditional regional bus, and more than large enough for the assembled passengers.  We didn’t just each get our own seat – we actually got our own bed!  Yes, for some reason we ended up on a sleeper bus in the middle of the day.

We settled in to our “bed” to watch Breaking Bad and read, ignoring the precipitous drops down the mountainside, the constant stench of feet (they made everyone take off their shoes prior to boarding the bus), and the repeated near-crashes with trucks, motor scooters, and livestock. We also ignored the Laotian woman two rows behind us who was carsick the entire time; we had read that the Lao people are particularly susceptible to carsickness, but were not sure whether that was really true – we now are.  Our bus never broke down, although we did stop several times to pour cold water over the engine when it overheated.  We have no idea how people actually take these buses at night and sleep in them comfortably, but we were content with our mode of transport for the day.

In Phonsavan, we had just one day to explore the enigmatic Plain of Jars.  If you’re wondering what exactly the Plain of Jars is, it’s pretty much what it sounds like – a grouping of giant stone jars in the middle of nowhere.  These ancient jars are actually found scattered throughout this region of Laos (and a few other parts of Asia), but we were only visiting the three jar sites located an easy drive from Phonsavan.

There are various theories attempting to explain the origin of the jars.  For example, local legends describe the jars as being used to hold rice wine – the massive vessels were used to drink in celebration of an impressive military victory.  A French archaeologist devoted years of her life to studying the jars, in the end hypothesizing that evidence of cremation in the jars demonstrated that they were used for burial purposes.  More recent research supports the hypothesis that the jars were used for funerary purposes, although there are still plenty of unanswered questions.

Whatever the explanation, we enjoyed exploring the three main jar sites surrounding Phonsavan.  After being quoted a price of over 1 million kip for a minivan tour with a guide (not as much money as it sounds like, but about a week’s budget in Laos), we opted to rent a motor scooter instead (a steal at 70,000 kip).  Our Chinese knockoff of a Japanese Honda Wave worked as well as can be expected and we were able to see all of the nearby megalithic stone vessels.  There were hardly any other tourists, so we spent the day wandering through each of the jar sites, poking our heads into the giant stones, and trying to ascertain exactly how heavy they were.  It turns out they are very heavy.  At the third jar site, we also wandered through various rice paddies and had a stare down with a few resident cows.

During the course of our visit, Giorgio proffered his own explanations for the jars, suggesting first that someone just put them all there to confuse later generations (in which case they succeeded) and suggesting second that they were part of a massive game of hide and seek.  Although the jars certainly aren’t a monumental construction on the order of some of the other ruins we have visited, such as the temples of Bagan in Myanmar, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, or even Wat Phou in southern Laos, we enjoyed puzzling over their origins and roaming through the various jar sites.

We tried to see a few other sites in the countryside besides the jars, but were unsuccessful.  After following several signs pointing us to a waterfall, all we found was a large, but empty, construction site.  The silence was eerie and we found no evidence of any waterfalls.  Our current working theory is that the construction has partially rerouted the river, causing what may have previously been a beautiful waterfall to dry up.  Our map also indicated that we could see a rusting Russian army tank just off our route, but as we were more focused on dodging giant construction trucks, we never found that either.

The Plain of Jars enjoys notoriety not just for its perplexing stones, but also for the area’s ubiquitous bomb craters and unexploded ordnance (UXO).  The region was heavily bombed by the US from 1964 – 1973, a period known as the Secret War because the bombing was carried unbeknownst to either the general US population or Congress.  Under the instruction and supervision of the CIA, the US Air Force and Air America (an airline covertly owned by the Government which only posed as a civilian air carrier) dropped an immense quantity of bombs on the comparatively small nation of Laos.  The purpose of these air strikes was to aid the Royal Lao Army in their civil war against the Pathet Lao (the Lao communist party) and to disrupt the flow of arms to and from South Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  During this time period, Laos gained the dubious distinction of becoming the most heavily bombed nation per capita in history.  The US dropped over two million tons of ordnance on Laos – equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years and exceeding the tonnage of bombs dropped by the US in Germany and Japan for the entirety of WWII. 

As Giorgio has already pointed out, Laos is communist, so the air campaign clearly failed to stamp out communism.  Furthermore, bombs were dropped indiscriminately throughout the countryside, destroying far more villages and farms than communists.  We saw evidence of the damage first hand – Site 1 was riddled with immense bomb craters.  We found the destruction to be even more shocking when we learned that many of the bombs were entirely unnecessary.  Pilots that for whatever reason couldn’t reach their original targets in North Vietnam needed to get rid of the bombs before landing back at the base in Thailand.  The solution?  Just drop them on Laos.

The devastating effects of the Secret War continue to this day due to the high levels of UXO throughout Laos.  The area around Phonsavan is riddled with UXO.  The Plain of Jars sites that are open for visitors have been cleared of UXO as part of the process required to gain UNESCO status.  Helpful signs explain how much UXO was cleared and colorful stone markers designate the path for visitors to follow; the areas outside the path have only had surface UXO cleared and you may still be in danger of blowing up.  There are dozens of jar sites that have yet to be cleared.

More importantly, UXO can be found everywhere – farmers’ fields, village streets, the jungle, and school playgrounds.  The majority of ordnance dropped on Laos consisted of cluster bombs.  Inside each cluster bomb are hundreds to thousands of smaller bombs, which are then activated by motion and are meant to detonate as they reach the ground.  Studies suggest, however, that up to 30% of the bombs dropped over Laos failed to detonate and are thus scattered across the country.  The locals call these “bombies” and the undetonated explosives continue to cause massive casualties in Laos, decades after the war.  Faced with the choice of plowing UXO-contaminated fields or leaving them fallow, many families choose the more dangerous option to ensure there is enough rice to feed their families for the year.  Critics have long pointed out the immediate risks to civilians associated with cluster munitions as well as the long-term, unintended consequences of such bombs.  Upon explosion, "bombies" shoot thousands of shards of metal in every direction like bullets; coupled with the large percentage of the explosives that fail to detonate until much later, they are the perfect recipe for massive civilian casualties.

We visited the offices of MAG (Mines Advisory Group), a UK-based NGO that works with local communities to clear UXO and educate people about the dangers of the bombies.  (Many children think the small brightly colored explosive devices look like interesting toys, or a tasty fruit.)  The exhibits in the small museum along with the afternoon movie showing we attended certainly provided much-needed context to the bomb craters at the jar sites, large cluster bomb casings found around town, and UXO warnings we’d seen at all the jar sites.  Several days later, Giorgio is still asking why he never studied anything about the Secret War when the class was discussing the war in Vietnam.         

After our day of touring the Plain of Jars, we steeled ourselves for the lengthy trip south to Vang Vieng.  Instead of a “luxury” sleeper bus, we travelled via minibus, which is essentially a minivan crammed with as many people as possible.  Although there is less space on a minibus, these vehicles drive much faster than the larger buses, cutting at least an hour off our trip.  When we purchased the ticket at a travel agency on the main street of Phonsavan, we knew that the claim that there would only be six other people on the minibus was too good to be true.  Sure enough, when we arrived at the bus station Tuesday morning, we were passengers #11 and #12.  Since there were only eleven seats available (one of which was a third seat in the front seat with the driver), we wondered where we would be sitting – would Stephanie be on Giorgio’s lap the whole way so we could really bond?

After much hemming and hawing, one of the passengers decided to board a different minibus and we were off, each in our own seat, along the windy roads to Vang Vieng.  In case anyone was wondering, the roads seemed even windier on the return trip – probably because we were driving twice as fast!

Fortunately, we arrived in the small riverside town of Vang Vieng unscathed.  Details of our tubing and spelunking adventures to come!