And now it is the beginning of the end.
Its December 5th, around 2:45 in the afternoon and I have successfully crossed back into Thailand from Laos. Time is a funny thing out here, it really is of the essence and how you make use of it. According to native North American seasons, no time has really passed at all, it is still exceptionally warm; the sun never ceases to shine and burn my delicate, well now a little tougher, skin if I am exposed for too long.
Laos was yet another beautiful country, with lush green mountains with visible sedimentary rocks, cut through by the massive Mekong River. It is filled with caves, waterfalls, and many another natural beauties all tucked away but will be gladly exposed by a number of tuk tuk drivers for the appropriate fee. Lao is a very conservative country; with typically all women wearing long traditional skirts, even as the little girl’s school uniform! Most countries in SE Asia are conservative in dress, but Lao was by far the most, everyone wearing long sleeves at all time as well. It was the only country to have signs posted at the border and in tourist areas asking for people to please be respectful and cover up. I found the Lao language very soothing, almost sing-song in tones, but I might have an affinity for the Lao people due to how underdeveloped the country was and how much was left in its natural state, which I enjoyed in contrast to the bustling nature and grime of the big cities.
Noah and I spent some time in the quaint town of Luang Prabang; serving as a tourist destination but all in all a very pleasant place. Chaing Mai (Thailand) and Luang Prabang are examples of popular tourist sites that provide an easy and maneuverable and very Westernized atmosphere as well as all the information and transport to see the “real” countryside. Countless travel agencies line the streets in between handicraft shops and cafes that offer many 1,2 and 3 day package trips to visit local hill tribes, bathe and ride elephants, and trekking. It was an ironic thing to me that everyone would come to these towns just to get on a bus and leave them every morning, to whatever excursion they so desired. Noah and I tried to explore the towns on our own and by asking locals. It definitely made the event more difficult and cumbersome at times, but we felt better at being more independent (and saving money!). We visited Pak Ou cave, located along the Mekong and is filled with thousands of Buddah statues. It was used to religious ceremonies and celebrations, serving as a destination for the local villages during their religious holidays. Included in the drive to the cave, we got to visit a small village where they make rice wine, made from red and white types of rice, as well as whiskey infused with cobras, centipedes, and scorpions. They gave us samples of the wine and offered us the whiskey, explaining that it made you very strong, but I had to refuse. The labels even advised that you drink it twice a day, before a meal for the best benefits….uhh I guess?! Since all of the creatures fermenting inside the alcohol are poisonous, I thought it against best judgment to try it!
Coincidently, my friend Kim whom I met up with in Chiang Mai a few weeks ago, was also in Luang Prabang at the same time! Kim amazingly offered to treat me to a traditional Lao cooking course she and her cousin were taking, so I took her up on the offer and had a great time! We were first taken to a local morning market where most vendors get their vegetables and meats for the day, and our guide informed us about many of the popular items such as banana flowers, spices, herbs such as kefir lime leaves, lemongrass, mint, and basil, regular rice and sticky rice, palm oil sugar, rock salt, chilis, and yes, MSG. I have never seen MSG in its true form, and certainly not bags upon bags of it, looking just like bags of sugar. He said that in the U.S. we have signs promoting “No MSG” as a good thing, but he said if Laotian people saw that sign, no one would eat there. Pretty funny. We headed to the cooking school after wandering through the market, where all of our ingredients looked extremely fresh and sterile after being the grittiness of the market. We were taught how to make 5 different courses, some vegetarian and some meat, buffalo is very popular out here, and the best part was that was got to eat all of our creations! Most foods, vegetables and meats, are seasoned with herbs that have been ground into a paste with a mortar and pestle. They were all very easy to make and extremely flavorful and I can’t wait to try some recipes at home! My favorite, which I was actually introduced to when I was on the farm, is a roasted eggplant sauce, full of garlic and chilis, eaten with sticky rice.
As great as this little French town was, we wanted to see more countryside so we got on a bus to take us to the village of Oudomxay, approximately four hours North West. It is along the only road that leads to China from Laos, and serves as a stopping point for many coming from and heading to China, being only 100 km away and has thus merged cultures in one little town, filled with Chinese restaurants and signs in Chinese. We were dropped at the bus station of the town after hours of treacherous turns up the winding mountainside; and for the first time in South East Asia, no tuk tuk drivers were anxiously waiting for us and providing us with information on places to stay. So, we loaded our backs with our gear and began walking and soon realized in how small of a town we were in, and barely anyone spoke any English at all; I thought it was great to be away from all the tourists! We found a small, cheap guesthouse along the main road figuring it didn’t matter too much where we stayed because everything was in walking distance. We dropped off our backpacks and began exploring the town and found it to be a great little village with lots of families, farms, and wildlife. We heard a beautiful sound coming from one home and walked towards it, and saw a man blowing into a peculiar wind instrument, so large and with 5 pipes it had to played in a sitting position balanced on the ground. He motioned us over and spoke to us in Lao with a big smile on his face even though we couldn’t understand him or respond, and offered the instrument to us to play. Noah, (being a French horn player for many years) immediately made a great sound and when my turn came around, I could only made a sad little toot. Everyone laughed (by now his whole family was watching). We thanked him and continued on and all the little children would smile and say “hello!” very excitedly to us, and we realized not many “farang” (white people, or people of European descent to be more politically correct) come through this town at all. We had read one of the features of this town was a herbal sauna, and we were on the hunt for it. A few locals, young men who were students and eagerly wanted to practice their English with us, came up to us and we asked them about it, but no one knew what we were talking about. We have gotten very used to the reaction of “uhh…I have no idea” and so we continued back to the main road to our guest house. I quickly saw the sign for it and we decided to treat ourselves that evening!
When we began walking over to it a few hours later, it was almost dusk and we have noticed the custom, mostly in smaller villages, this is the time to blast traditional music, burn your garbage, and have a few beers with your friends. Usually the men are partaking in the drinking and the women are frying up various meats on sticks, but everyone is very happy and relaxed and singing along to the music. We walked though this happening on all sides of us and walked up the hill to the sauna, not exactly sure what to expect. We were greeted by a few women who asked if we wanted a massage as well, and for the price (totaling $5 for an hour massage and unlimited sauna use) we decided it was a great idea! We were given sarongs to change into and went into a bamboo hut where mattresses and two women were waiting for us. We lied down and the women began slathering a tiger-balm-esque solution all over us, giving a great and tingling massage. After they finished, they quickly got up and left, and we decided we better hit up the sauna. It was separated for men and women, two little rooms that are heated by a huge wood fire with a massive cauldron of herbs constantly being boiled, seeping into each room. Like the sauna on the farm, it was a little overwhelming at first but after a few minutes and the sweat began to pour, it felt very relaxing. All the women were massaging each other and chatting away and would smile at me and I made little conversation with some. The women would slather their skin with evaporated milk and even yogurt, I believe to give lots of moisture but at first it seemed very strange to me! Once you’ve had enough of the steam, usually about 10 minutes, you step outside and are greeted with an amazing view of a river and rice paddies, completely surrounded by mountains. Hot tea is also constantly being brewed on the raging outdoor fire as well, so I downed several glasses of the delicious herbal tea before returning back to the steam room.
The sauna was great because it was so simple, just a small wooden structure, nothing fancy, and right in the middle of a beautiful location. Everyone was very relaxed, all hanging out in their sarongs, sweating like crazy and drinking tea in between sweat sessions. We even saw the pickup truck deliver the herbs, probably from a very close location. After about an hour of intermittent sauna-ing, we thanked the employees, who had started cooking some rice and meat, and headed off to shower.
The next day we decided to do an excursion, since we were in the middle of the best waterfall location, and headed to the tourist office but found it to be closed for the weekend! That’s how we knew of how small of a town this was, usually most places will provide tours all day every day of the week. We asked many locals and got a driver to take us to the local waterfall, basically a private tour, and had a great time. We enjoyed the sauna so much we treated ourselves again, knowing it would be the last time we would have an opportunity like this! We headed back to Luang Prabang the next day, which now seemed like a huge city after 2 days in Oudomxay and got to relax and walk along the river and had a great dinner right at the water’s edge. Every year a bamboo bridge is built to cross the Mekong to get to a restaurant and a neighboring village, but the rain has been more frequent this year and actually destroyed it while we were there! Knowing this was the last part of our trip before making our 2 day journey back to Bangkok where we will depart from South East Asia for good, we did some great shopping at the night market and found some very unique and actually handmade items. We are really loaded down now with luggage, but I just have to make it on the airplane and I’ll be home free (the whole packing/unpacking and lugging my life around with me is definitely getting a little tiring).
We took an 11 hour bus ride from Luang Prabang all the way to the border of Lao and Thailand, stayed in a room for the night and headed across the border bright and early this morning, taking about 5 different buses and tuk tuks necessary for every part of the crossing experience, and got a great bus earlier than we expected heading to Bangkok. Since the trip is another 10-11 hours, we were fortunate to find a bus early in the morning and I felt so happy that everything went off without a hitch (normally things do not go this smoothly); we got good prices on all the transport, no lines at either border, and a bus leaving at a great time. After about two hours however, the bus suddenly stops (not that unusual) but doesn’t start up again, and we realize its totally broken down. Two incredibly hot and frustrating hours of waiting along a dusty highway (many people got their luggage and caught taxis to who knows where), and with incredible patience from Noah and lack of patience from me, the bus drivers actually fixed the problem and we are back on the road! We have about 7 hours left, and hopefully will arrive to Bangkok before 11 pm, whew, what a way to end the trip!
I will spend 3 more days in Bangkok where my epic journey ends and I must make my final farewells with being abroad (for now). I have had such an amazing time; saw so many sites and met a lot of great people in this 4 ½ month, 9 countrywide adventure. I am really going to miss the heat and the warm rain, the beautiful green mountains and winding rivers, as well as all the sounds, smells, and tastes that are so prevalent the moment you step outside, but I am so happy to be coming on home.
I hope my pictures give you a glimpse of my time abroad and I am so glad I could share it with you! Thank you so much to everyone who has been following me, it makes it worthwhile to have continued writing throughout my trip, and makes it feel like I have taken some of you along with me! I love you all….and “I’ll be home for Christmas, you can count on me. I’ll be home for Christmas….(not)if only in my dreams!”