Tuesday, December 10, 2013

So What do you Think of Laos?

Lots of rivers to be seen here
Well, I’ve been here now 6 days and it is very apparent that Laos is a hot spot for tourism at the moment, and I understand why!  It is a more relaxed country than Vietnam, perhaps a bit more pleasant when it comes to interacting with the people.  They are pleasant, calm, and polite.  They’ve been exposed to tourism, but they don’t blatantly take advantage of you.  When I ask for a price, you can just see it in their eyes,..those that hesitate and think,.. “What should I charge this girl today, she seems like an innocent tourist,” and those that don’t realize they could ask a lot more because I am a phalang, a foreigner.  I don’t understand much Lao, nothing except hello, thank you, and phalang.   When I’m around a lot of Laotians, phalang seems to be every other word out of their mouth, sort of like “vale” in Spain.

The market on the main street in Luang Prabang

You can tell Laotians are proud of their country, it’s similar to Catalans and their pride for Catalunya.  They know they live in a beautiful place and that it will be attractive and appealing to others.  Laos has a captive audience.  From the tiny unique towns along the rivers that get the slow boat tourists visiting them; to towns on the junction of roads where tourist pass through on their way from one site to another,…. guest houses have sprung up as a result of the constant flow of traffic; to Luang Prabang, a UNESCO world heritage site. 

One of the many Wats in Luang Prabang
Plenty of Buddha to see as well

I enjoyed a day and a half of sight-seeing in Luang Prabang, where there are Wats on every street corner like there are Caixa Catalunya’s in Barcelona or 7 elevens in Asia.  After about 3 or 4 visits to different Wats, I had seen plenty.  I walked down to the local market and had a look around.  I was surprised to see new delicacies, such as rat and bat, yes, meat that is, for sell at the meat stands.  In the afternoon I had some time to kill so I treated myself to a massage.  At 4 euro an hour, I couldn’t resist.  In the evening, the main drag of town turns into an artisan market with all sorts of handmade Laos crafts. After 3 stalls they start to repeat, yet the market goes on for half a kilometer.  At the end there are the food stalls.  There is one small side street that is completely filled with little stands and buffet stalls that advertise a plate for 10,000 kip, which is about 1 euro.  This of course is a bargain for a hungry cyclist and a great way to fill up on some delicious food.

The all-you-can-eat buffet at the night market.  I'd here every night if I could!

Coffee shops and bakeries lined the streets of Luang Prabang, so do monks collecting their offerings!  There are massage parlours and spa’s, western restaurants, tour operators, and shops galore.  In fact, I had this eerie familiar feel walking the streets in the morning, I felt like I was in the university district of Eugene or SE neighborhood of Portland.  Again, I had been off the beaten path so some time in Vietnam, that I forgot there were other tourists out and about exploring the same area.  I was quite shocked when I rolled into Luang Prabang and saw the masses.  I didn’t realize just how much of a tourist hot spot it was until I went to find a guest house and I asked a modest looking place for their rate.  They told me 43 dollars, yet I was expecting to hear 43, as in 43,000 kip, 4 or 5 dollars.  I was so shocked I think I confirmed the owner meant dollars 3 times.  I know 43 dollars is still a decent price for a hotel, but first of all, the price in dollars, makes no sense to me, and secondly, I’ve been paying 8 dollars tops.  There was no way I was going to fork over 43 dollars.  Luckily, the second place I asked had a more reasonable price.

You see the Laotians know they have become a tourist haven and they’ve played their cards right in developing the tourist industry.  They have some great sights to see, a lot of nature so they can cater to outdoor tourism as well as ecological tourism, and English speakers galore to accommodate us.  Not counting Luang Prabang, prices for accommodation have dropped slightly from Vietnam, food has gone up, but tranquility and peacefulness have soared.  All you have to do is look at the kids who greet me on the road.  Most say “Saibadee” rather than hello, and they do so in a very innocent way, as if they don’t see many of us. 

The only people to stop here are truck drivers and cyclists

Life is extremely rural and basic here.  When dusk settles in, unless you are in a decent size town, there isnt’t electricity.  Tonight I had my first washbasin shower, as there was no hot water heater in the bathroom.  Wireless is virtually non-existent, and it is even hard to find internet in most towns.  I see a lot of communal “water holes” along the road, where people are bathing themselves in the afternoon, often times naked or in their underwear, in groups.  Kids are rarely fully dressed along the side of the road, and they are always outside helping mom and dad, who look considerably younger than the parents I have seen in the rest of SE Asia.  Houses can be on stilts, small little huts, or one-room buildings made out of grasses and other plants.  Restaurants in these villages don’t exist.  I have to be careful planning my route and food stops.  You can usually count on fresh fruit stands along the side of the road, but yesterday, I went for about 30 kilometers without finding much more than a drink store.   
Early morning climb

These are the not so tall ones

Like I said, the terrain for now is all mountainous with some rolling hills. The day off in Luang Prabang with the massage really helped me feel like I had fresh legs setting out to Plain of Jars in central Laos.  I met up with a friend-of-a friend in Barcelona, who has been living in Laos for 6 years and he gave me some wonderful route suggestions and pointers on where I would find guest houses. Today I had a long day because there was an 80 kilometer stretch without any sort of accommodation.  The climate here is similar to the last province of northern Vietnam, but even drier.  Temperatures during the day range from 22 to 28 Celsius, which makes for warm riding, at night it cools down and I’m very lucky to not have any humidity.

Trying to vary the breakfast diet...nothing like donuts to start hte day with soy milk

I’ve been trying a lot of their donuts for breakfast, although this morning I had the brilliant idea to put condensed milk on sticky rice,….a breakfast of champions if I do say so myself!  I am still loving my noodle soup at night, it keeps me warm. During the day, I usually do rice with vegetables.  Their rice is by far the most interesting I’ve encountered.  Sticky is a bit of an understatement!  Roll it into a ball and you could break a window with it!  You see a lot of the locals crouched down just picking at balls of sticky rice in between meals.  There isn’t the tea culture here in Laos like there is in Vietnam, but soy milk is still everywhere, even the chocolate flavor!

First cyclists I've found on the road for 6 weeks-I was EXCITED!!!!

As you can see, no complaints so far with Laos.  I can’t wait to find that Mekong river although I did see it briefly in Luang Prabang.  I’m making a detour west before I head south.  I’ve done about 500 kilometers from the Vietnam border, and have a good 1,000 to go before hitting Cambodia.  Today, after more than a month on the road in SE Asia, I finally ran into other cyclists, a group of 5 Thai men and a Norwegian, ALL with surly bikes!  They were really fun guys and we stopped and talked for a while, took pictures, and as always, exchanged tips!  They told me there were more cyclists ahead going in my same directions, so hopefully I will catch up to 

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