I rubbed the gunk from my eyes and stepped off the overnight sleeping bus in Pakse, Laos. A pack of cutthroat taxi drivers instantly surrounded me, jostling and jockeying. “Where you go?” shouted one. “I give you best price,” insisted another. “Sinouk Cafe,” I answered groggily. The taxi drivers exchanged a knowing look that should have tipped me off. Fortunately, one use of the filthy, overflowing toilet in the bus during the night had convinced me to wait until morning and I was squirming to find a bathroom. By the time I returned, not a taxi driver was in sight, so I hefted my backpack and asked directions to the cafe where I was supposed to meet up with my fellow passengers for the Vat Phou Cruise to Four Thousand Islands. It was less than two blocks from the bus station, an easy walk that would undoubtedly have cost me dear if I’d hired a taxi.
With two hours to wait, I cracked open my laptop and settled into an easy chair with a Cappuccino and pastry. Other passengers trickled in and gathered in groups, all chatting in French, and it was soon apparent that I would be the only English speaking guest on the cruise. Though languages come easy to me, French is not among my repertoire and I wondered how I would get through the next three days, since none of my fellow passengers seemed to speak English.
After a briefing (in French) I followed the Mekong Cruises representative down to the river where we boarded a longtail boat that would carry us to the Vat Phou cruise ship. Having been reassured that an English speaking guide would join me on the boat, I tuned out the unintelligible French chatter and focused on the scenery. Unlike the mud-churned, rapids-laden Mekong River I had experienced during the Luang Say Cruise in northern Laos, here the river ran glass-smooth and emerald green. Fish jumped, sending concentric circles racing across the mirrored surface, and hawks screeched overhead, putting us on notice that we were intruders in their domain. Rather than jutting rocks, the southern reaches were pierced by innumerable sand islets that appear and disappear as waters rise and fall with the seasons, earning the area its nickname of 4,000 islands.
Around a final bend, the Vat Phou boat came into view. Originally a ferry that carried teak wood between Vientiane and the south of Laos, in 1993 the steel-hulled teak barge was converted into a luxurious floating hotel. As we slid alongside I registered my initial impressions. Frilly. French. Like a giant, top-heavy wedding cake. Could this boat possibly stay upright? I climbed aboard, deposited my shoes on the lower deck for the duration of our cruise, and climbed to the upper deck for another briefing, also in French.
We enjoyed a gourmet lunch as the captain motored toward Champasak township and the Vat Phou Ruins, a majestic pre-Angkorian 10th century temple complex regarded as the most important ruin in Laos. Just as we were finishing up he eased the giant vessel out of the main channel and gently bumped the sand embankment, allowing us to disembark and climb aboard tuk-tuks for a 30 minute ride to the ruins. This particular site was chosen because it sits at the base of a curiously shaped mountain topped by a 45-foot high monolith that was revered as a natural lingam (phallic symbol) of the Hindu god Shiva. The Chenla Empire, a great civilization stretching south into Cambodia, north and west into northern Thailand and as far as Burma was responsible for the building of the original temple between the 6th and 12th centuries. Nothing remains of the once great city of the Chenla Empire, since all but religious sites were built of wood.
Between the 11th and 12th centuries, Khmer architects restored and rebuilt many sections of the temples and they now have many features characteristic of the ruins at Angkor Wat in Cambodia – stone causeways, decorative lintels and many carvings. Today, the two large palaces on the valley floor are slowly being repaired and restored through the UNESCO World Heritage project, one by a team of French archeologists and the other by an Indian team, each of which has employed vastly differing Read More
Dave Bouskill and Deb Corbeil, photographers and travel writers at The Planet D, invited me to participate in a fun travel blogger exercise called “My 7 Links.” The goal of the project, which is the inspiration of Tripbase, is to share lessons learned and create a bank of past but not forgotten blog posts that deserve to see the light of day again. So with no further ado, I give you:
My Most Beautiful Post:
Ah there are so many, but if forced to pick one I have to say my trip to see the gorgeous fall foliage in New England in 2008 has to be one of the most beautiful trips I’ve taken.
My Most Popular Post:
No doubt about this one. I wrote about traveling with your iPhone without incurring huge bills about a year ago and it is hands down my most popular article. Read More
I arrived at the bus station in Vientiane, Laos, bound for Pakse in the southern part of the country via an overnight bus. In the dark parking lot the sign on the double-decker bus brilliantly declared: “Sleeping Bus.” I expected seats that reclined but was surprised by a triple tier of double beds stretching down either side of the narrow aisle.
My “bed”was all the way at the top; I climbed up and introduced myself to my bunkmate for the evening, thankfully another woman. By wedging myself against the window and tucking my backpack behind my head I was just able to straighten my legs and I was fast asleep before we had gotten a few miles down the road. My bunkmate wasn’t quite so lucky. The metal railing on the outside of the bed wasn’t high enough and she spent the night hanging onto the rail to keep from falling into the aisle each time the bus rounded a corner. I woke up only once – to the sound of banging as the driver and crew changed a flat tire in the middle of nowhere sometime during the night. The Lao Sleeping Bus has to qualify as the craziest bus in the world.
As a single woman who spends most of her time on the road, it’s no surprise that I don’t cook. I rarely stay in accommodations with kitchen facilities and even if I did, it would be too expensive to buy all the spices and staples needed to prepare a decent meal. But though I rarely cook, I LOVE to eat! Eating local fare is one of the best ways to tap into the culture of the countries I visit, thus I’m always eager to try vegetarian dishes at street vendors, restaurants and during home stays as I travel.
Laos offered one of the most rich culinary traditions I have ever experienced. From the moment I arrived in Luang Prabang, I was tempted by mouth-watering delicacies like deep fried crispy spring rolls; sesame and seaweed crackers; sticky rice with a variety of exotic dipping sauces, and famous entrees like Padsapao and Mok Pa. By the time I arrived in Vientiane to visit my friend and fellow blogger, Candice Broom, I was hooked on Lao food, so when she offered to introduce me to one of the capital city’s gourmet restaurants I jumped at the chance.
Candice, who has been living in Laos for a number of years teaching English at a local elementary school, brought along a fellow teacher Morven Smith when we dined at Mak Phet Lao Restaurant. Between bites of dipping sauces I learned that Morven had recently opened Lao Experiences, a company that offers half-day cooking classes focusing on traditional Lao dishes made with fresh, local ingredients. Though her concept had been under development since 2010, the company had opened just one month earlier and the timing couldn’t have been better; Morven was looking for guinea pigs and I was anxious to learn more about Lao foods and cooking. Before we were halfway through dinner, she invited me to be one of her first students.
The following morning a tuk-tuk picked me up and transported me to Morven’s home along the shores of the Mekong River just beyond downtown Vientiane. Sang, Noy, and Tuk greeted me at the gates and led me into a lovely enclosed garden compound, where tables were laid with platters of gorgeous vegetables, spices, and fresh-caught Mekong fish. I tied on an apron and was quickly put to work grinding up sticky rice, spices, and chunks of fish in a traditional mortar and pestle. Once thoroughly mixed, I spooned the concoction onto a banana leaf square, folded and fastened it with a toothpick, and placed it in a wicker basket sitting over a bed of coals. While the Mok Pa steamed we skewered fresh eggplant, chilis, tomatoes, onions and garlic, basted them with black bean sauce and cumin.
While the veggies were roasting I checked on the progress of a whole salt-encrusted fish sizzling on yet another grill. The clump of lemongrass protruding from its mouth sent a scrumptious fragrance wafting through the air, making my mouth water with anticipation. I stripped the golden brown vegetables off their skewers and pulverized them in my mortar and pestle, making Read More
Unlike the ancient capital city of Luang Prabang, whose 32 temples coerce visitors into hurry-up mode, the current capital of Vientiane encourages a leisurely pace. Here the brown Mekong River, virtually hidden behind a high earthen berm that protects the town during annual monsoon flooding, flows sluggishly past parks and small, exquisite temples that dot the waterfront. With no high-rise buildings and broad sidewalks that lie deserted in the searing midday sun, Vientiane may be the sleepiest capital in SE Asia.
On an especially hot afternoon I strolled for hours, checking out a handful of Wats, museums, the old Presidential Palace, statues, and street after side street crammed with French colonial inspired architecture. Despite attracting thousands of visitors Read More
My first inkling that Phonsavan, Laos was not the sleepy little town it first appeared to be came when I walked past a row of rusty old bombs standing on the sidewalk outside Craters Restaurant. Curiosity and my growling stomach led me inside, where the owner was just putting on a documentary about the Laos Secret War, the U.S. bombing of Laos during the Vietnam War. For the next hour I sat, spellbound and horrified, as I watched the film unfold.
From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. flew 500,000 missions and dropped two million tons of bombs on Laos, two tons for every man woman and child in the country, making it the most heavily bombed country in history. Nearly a million of these were cluster bombs designed to break apart in mid-air, releasing more than 600 small round bomblets loaded with explosives and ball bearings. Upon impact, the ball bearings screamed through the air at 2,000 feet per second, tearing into the flesh of anyone within half a kilometer.
Since the bombings were a violation of the Geneva Accord, which prohibited military involvement in Laos and to which the U.S. had become a signator in 1962, the CIA conducted the criminal operations in utmost secrecy. Neither the American people nor Congress were told about the campaign, which began in earnest in 1968, following President Lyndon B. Johnson’s announcement that all air, naval, and artillery bombardment of Vietnam would cease. Missions were focused on two areas of Laos: in the north they were directed against the Pathet Lao communist insurgents who were fighting the Royal Lao Army, while bombings in the south targeted the Ho Chi Minh Trail in a futile attempt to cut off supplies being delivered to North Vietnam.
Unfortunately, enemy troops were the least affected; civilians in rural areas bore the brunt of the bombings. Unable to plant rice due to the daily bomb runs, they fled to area caves, where they lived in a near state of starvation for years. When the criminal action was finally exposed and military operations ceased, Laotians emerged from the caves, only to confront another kind of terror. Up to 30% of the bomblets, which Lao call “bombies,” had failed to explode upon impact, leaving a legacy of 10-30 million unexploded bombies scattered across the country. Read More