Travel Stories

Pakse and Vat Phu - Laos

Loren and I flew out of Vientiane, as fast as we could from my perspective, there being very little of interest to me there except an authentic Italian restaurant, Aria, with white linen tablecloths and imported cheese (a welcome relief after 4 weeks of noodle soup), and landed in Pakse, Laos, where we found a good internet connection, checked in with the world outside of Laos, read about the demonstrations in Egypt and Yemen, found a hotel, rented motorcycles (I’d never driven a motorcycle before in my life), and headed out of the city. 

We stopped and separated at Ban Muang, about 40 km south of Pakse, where the ferries cross the Mekong to Champasak and the road to the holy site of Vat Phu. Loren headed another 100 km further south to the 4,000 Islands, Muang Khong, and the Cambodian border and I crossed the Mekong to the relatively small and unique strip of land on the west bank of the Mekong that belongs to Laos, all the rest of the territory west of the Mekong belonging to Thailand and the Mekong itself generally marking the Laos Thailand border.

“Ferry” it definitely is, but not necessarily like any ferry I’ve seen before.  What these ferries are is two metal hulls bound to a plank deck that is approximately three van lengths long and three van lengths wide, with wooden car and truck ramps that are lifted and lowered no more than eight inches controlled by hand operated chain pulleys attached to the far corners of the ramps and tall posts secured to the decking.  The ferry is moved slowly through the water by an eight cylinder automobile engine with one gear and a modified drive shaft that powers a small propeller.

On the other side of the Mekong are a series of lovely peasant farming villages in the Mekong Valley where the living conditions seemed cleaner than elsewhere in Laos, although the poverty was still quite apparent.  At the end of the road is Vat Phu, a spectacular temple complex actively being excavated and restored by Laos in cooperation with Italy, whose interest in monument and archeological preservation is renowned.  The city in which the site is located has been dated back to the first century, although the bulk of the buildings connected with the temple complex were built by Khmer kingdoms of the sixth to thirteenth centuries (as I understand it) and have Hindu origins and some Hindu iconography, although at its peak the temple was, and still is, a Buddhist center.  The reverence in which the Lao people (and government) hold the site is very obvious and immense attention has been paid to cleanliness, minimization of signage, keeping out autos and motorcycles, and archeological integrity.

As one of the few non-Asian tourists at the site I drew a fair amount of attention, all of it friendly and warm, including lots of kids calling out greetings to me, a Chinese family that insisted on having their picture taken with me, and Lao women who enjoyed putting small “blessed” woven bracelets on my wrists.  I was actually quite moved by the site, and by my overall experience of the day, filled as it was with awe, wonder, newness, adventure, and, at the risk of seeming a bit too impressionable, reverence.

At the exit from the Vat Phu site the Lao Ministry of Information and Culture Heritage has created a wooden archway on which it is written, “The Preservation of Antiquities is the Duty of All People.”  I like that instruction, repeated it to myself like a mantra I was trying to memorize as I motored back toward the Mekong and Pakse, and intend to apply it very personally.      

from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng by VIP bus

The ride from LPB to Vang Vieng is as notable a small journey as I have ever been on.  The so called VIP bus I’m on holds 50 or 60 people, only five of whom are tourists, the rest of the passengers being Laotians and their babies, some of whom sleep on the floor and some of whom sleep in the cargo area.  The second hint of what we’re in for is when the bus assistant passes out plastic vomit bags.  It is not long before they are in use.  The bus’ brakes squeal.  The driveshaft whines.  For the first hour or so all of the interior lights of the bus are on and loud contemporary Laotian music – which sounds a lot like American country music being sung by a woman with a strong soprano whine – is blasting out over a dozen loudspeakers while passengers on the bus are simultaneously trying to quiet their crying babies and talk on their cell phones over the music.  We make about eleven local stops that first hour and hardly travel as far as Sam and I biked two days earlier.  In the front of the bus a very large digital clock is displayed with glowing green numerals.  I try to keep my eyes closed and to do meditative breathing to see if the time will move from 6:56 to 7:00.  When I open my eyes after what to me appears to have been more than ample time it is 6:57.  It remains 6:57 for at least the next 10 minutes, or so it seems, before the time changes to 6:58.  It’s going to be a long ride. 

The main road from LPB to the capital is barely two lanes wide, and the bus must slow down, brakes squealing, whenever a large vehicle passes it in the opposite direction.  Most of the trip is up and down significant and closely placed mountains so that the road must curve and zigzag at least a half dozen times each minute, my head rocking from left and right on the rough fabric material that covers the seats until my forehead and temples are rubbed raw and my neck is sore.  There are no empty seats and I can’t figure our where to put my legs.  There are no bridges or tunnels to shorten the ride.  The boy across from me uses his vomit bag in a well-practiced manner two or three times.  I try not to look, but I can’t turn off my nose.  The bus stops after another hour at the side of the road for a bathroom and cigarette break, men standing and women squatting next to the bus relieving themselves in the open night air.  The bus is moving again in less than five minutes.  It makes three or four of these side of the road piss stops over the next six hours.  It also stops at an actual restaurant about three-quarters of the way to Vang Vieng where the proprietress and her staff are ready for the onslaught, bowls set out with veggies already in them, a huge pot boiling, beef sliced and ready to be thrown into the broth, noodles ready for dunking, hot bowls of fresh noodle soup being served for less than two dollars each at Laotian roadside restaurant speed.  I permit myself a bowl of soup, having hardly eaten all day and it being almost midnight.  Dozens and dozens of bowls of steaming soup are served and consumed in less than ten minutes and everyone is back on the bus, sneezing, coughing, throwing up, and sleeping on the floor.  The minutes of the big digital clock refuse to turn.  Sometime around 2:00 A.M. four of the foreigners are dropped off in a field at the side of the road and the bus continues on to Vientiane.  On the other side of the field lights are on and like moths we walk towards them.  What we find is a main street filled with dozens of drunk and rowdy European and American men and women in their twenties and some guesthouses, where I get a single room with a double bed, a bathroom, and no top sheet for eight dollars.  The Internet isn’t working but the room is clean, and mostly quiet at 3:00 A.M and for better or worse I am in Vang Vieng, only god knows why, reasonably comfortable, and ready for sleep.  

I wake up ridiculously happy.  The sky is gray.  The electricity is out in the whole town.  The streets are already noisy.  The sound of motorcycle traffic is relentless.  I hear the tap tap hammering that seems to be everywhere in Laos and feel as though I have landed at an international gathering of college students on eternal spring break.  Still, I’m happy. Birds are chirping.  I’ve slept in a comfortable room alone for the first time in weeks.  I’ve dreamt about a bus navigating very steep cliffs over a very beautiful but precipitous rocky ocean coast where millennia of wave action have carved sculptural human figures into the stone.  I dream about Sam shooting a basketball from far beyond the three-point stripe with great ease of motion, and although it at first appears that each shot will fall far short on its trajectory, in fact the shots are swishing through the net.  I tell someone in a joking manner, “I taught him everything he knows.”

I finally manage to get out of my room and into town by 2P after spending the morning reading, writing, and doing yoga.  The natural setting is fabulous, I mean fabulous, I mean stunning beyond spectacular, with verdant green jagged mountains, swiftly flowing rivers, numerous bamboo bridges over the rivers, and the sweetest bungalows on stilts lining them.  On the streets, however, bars, restaurants, and travel agents are lined up side by side, block after dusty block and quite a few of the bars are filled with what to me seem to be young white kids, some of them very scantily clad, indoors and drinking at 2P.  Still, I rent a bicycle for a dollar for the day and manage to get in a good explore on both sides of the river.  I eat a bowl of noodle soup at a restaurant where I am the only customer and thereby can “oversee” the throwing in of all ingredients into the big pot and the length of time they boil.  I also gladly book my bus ticket out of town for tomorrow.

A couple's massage with Loren

It was our second to last night together in Laos.  After grabbing a quick bite at the night market, Loren and I pondered what to do this evening.  After little debate we decided we would get traditional Lao massages.  We heard a lot of positive feedback from tourists about these massages (and how relaxing they are!!!!) and felt it would be a nice way to start off our evening (even though the night life in Laos is super lame).  We walked around the area surrounding our guesthouse looking for a suitable, professional place to get our massages.  We were not two tourists looking for happy endings massages or massages from super skimpy dressed Lao women, we wanted the real deal, professional, relaxing massage, although we did joke about what we would do if such a circumstance arose.

We eventually settled upon the Hoxieng Lao Traditional Massage and Spa, which looked like the most serious/professional joint in our area.  We walked inside and were greeted at the desk by an older Lao woman.  She handed us “menus” with the different types of massages we could go with.  These ranged from traditional Lao body massages (much like Thai massages from my understanding – a lot of deep pressure and limb stretching) to Lao massages with herbs or oils, to aromatherapy and foot reflexology massages.  We decided to each get the 1-hour Lao massage with herbs (not really knowing what that meant) for about 14 dollars US.

At the point at which we ordered, there was only one visible female masseuse, and we were unsure if she was the only one on duty and we’d have to share a masseuse (which we did not want).  She motioned us to come back into the massage area and we followed her.  She led us to a small foot bathing area where she asked us to take off our shoes.  We eagerly took off our shoes and socks and put our feet in the warm tub of water.  I was ready for this cute little Lao women to wash my feet when from behind the curtain to the massage area came a tiny, skinny, and very smiley Lao man!  He was wearing the same outfit as the other woman and I started to question if someone was going to be getting a massage from a dude.  Let me say this now, there’s nothing wrong with getting a massage from a guy, but when I imagined this experience in my head, I certainly did not picture a guy was going to be giving me my massage so I was a little concerned that my fantasy was not going to match the reality of this situation.  Before I could think otherwise, the male masseuse hopped down on one knee and began to wash my feet.  This was one of the stranger experiences I’ve had on my trip.  I was not expecting a man was going to be part of this experience so the whole thing kind of started on the wrong foot (no pun intended J).  I had my feet washed before during my Thai foot massages, but having a man wash my feet was super uncomfortable.  I tried my best not to laugh at the whole situation, but combined with my nervousness about this little man scrubbing my feet, I was as giggly as a schoolgirl and could not stop laughing throughout his foot wash.

Loren, who clearly is more mature than me, was able to get his feet washed with little problem.  We were then directed to the individual massage areas that featured long, soft mats, towels on the mats, and even a massage outfit that we were told to put on.  Yet again we were shocked to find that they had set up Loren and my massage mats next to each other.  Again, contradictory to our expectation, I think we both had hoped we would be in separate areas or rooms for each of our massages.  I don’t think we imagined we would be side by side for this experience.  It was also become clearer that one of us was going to be getting massaged by a man.  Something I don’t think either us expected or desired.

After we changed into our massage gear, we sat on our mats and had a quick laugh about what was going on.  We briefly discussed what we would do if one of our masseuses were indeed the little man.  I told Loren I would ask for someone else, but in my mind I knew it would be hard to do so and not offended this happy little massager.  Luckily as our masseuses entered the massage area, the woman came and sat down by my mat; Loren, however, did not receive such good fate, as the little Lao man trotted in an sat down next to Loren’s mat.  Again, I could not hold back the laughs as he told Loren to turn over onto his back.  My mind was completely in the gutter at this point, and I was certainly not helping the calm or relaxation of this experience as I literally giggled every couple minutes at what was going on.

Loren was a true sport about this whole thing.  He showed no problem with the situation, which I’m sure the masseuse appreciated.  However, a couple things kept me in a very silly state.  One, the massage was kind of ticklish.  My masseuse was pushing on my hamstrings in a way that made me laugh out loud.  Then every couple of minutes I would hear Loren moan from whatever his masseuse was doing to him and I could not hold back the laughs.  Finally, I was trying to keep my eyes closed, but every so often I would look over and see this little Lao man pounding away at Loren’s body and I would crack up.  It reminded me of one of those scenes in a movie where two guys go to get massages and one guy get a super hot woman (not to say my masseuse was super attractive), and the other guy gets a super strong ugly women or some muscular man (even though this guy looked anything but strong).  I could not help but laugh, or giggle rather as a result of these thoughts.  You know that time when you were in grade school and you couldn’t stop laughing about some stupid inside joke you had with your friend in class and the teacher made you leave the room?  It was like that for me, except I’m 24 years old…slightly embarrassing.  I can’t image what the masseuses were thinking either; either they thought we were laughing at them (which I did feel bad about) or maybe the situation, I don’t know, but it was a little awkward at some points, however, I was ultimately able to settle myself down and actually enjoy the massage.  That being said, I did have one more laugh thinking about how the scene would play out if Loren’s masseuse asked him if he wanted a happy ending.

After about 10-15 minutes of stupid laughs and mild awkwardness I calmed down and really got into the massage.  Some of the moves this woman was doing really felt great.  She used her entire body to stretch my arm and legs in positions that really loosened me up.  The part I enjoyed the most was lying on my stomach while she chopped away at my back and put pressure on different areas of my back.  The herbs were a nice touch too.  After each section of massage we received, our masseuses would get a bag (for lack of a better word) of herbs that had been sitting in boiling water.  They would then press the bags onto the areas of our body they had just massaged.  If the physical massage had loosened these areas up, the herb treatment then melted any remaining tension away.  I almost fell asleep at some point I was so relaxed.  Towards the end we were prompted to sit up and we were treated to an awesome head, neck, and back massage (I really enjoyed the hair pulling part…weird?).  To top it all off, the male masseuse switched with my female masseuse at the very end (which I was completely comfortable with at this point) and gave me the best back crack of my life!!!!

We were served hot tea and bananas to end our massages (which was a nice finishing touch).  In the end the massage felt great and were incredibly relaxing regardless of the comedic circumstances.  That being said, we vowed that if we ever went back we would stagger our arrivals at least 10 minutes apart to avoid another side by side massage.