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A Great Day In Laos

  • Written by Mac BKK
  • February 25th, 2009
  • 24 min read



So I’m up in Laos and visiting with my English friend Peter who’s there on a project for about a year and has his Thai girlfriend Nit there with him. They have arrived recently and I would have given them more time to settle in before visiting but I can’t always control when I have my vacation so it was either now or wait for quite some time. We decided on now.

They stay in Luang Prabang (LP) and while I could never do what my friend does and commit myself to this sleepy town for an entire year, or more, it is certainly a charming place that is well worth visiting. I was there for a week and I imagine I did most of what there is to do and saw most of what there is to see in that time. But I had a great time and if you enjoy going out for a good meal and a few really good beers, as in Beer Lao, or a few glasses of decent red wine and finish the evening before midnight without much action then LP is a very nice place to visit, very relaxing. And I like this. On occasion. On other occasions I prefer places like, say, Pattaya, that are perhaps not quite as quiet and relaxing.

Laos, beautiful and quiet. Pics taken with mobile phone, hence the poor quality.

I want to write about one of the days I spent in Laos when I had a great time. Peter had to work but his girlfriend Nit and I are good friends since before. I consider myself a good cook and when she was back with him in Farangland they visited my corner of it and I cooked for Peter and her on several occasions. I made an effort to stick to dishes I thought she would enjoy and included sweet tasting desserts after every meal. My cooking got serious thumbs up from her and I’ve been in her good book ever since, we get along really well. So the decision was made that she and I were to spend the day together and do some tourist stuff while Peter worked.

Peter’s been in LP before and suggested we go to some waterfalls in the jungle and that Nit take his motorbike and that I rented one. He said this was a great place to have lunch as there are benches and tables where you can sit and eat just by the waterfalls. I thought this sounded great and said I also wanted to include a trip to some caves I saw in a tourist brochure. Nit’s made some friends in town in a short time and her best friend Yong is a schoolteacher about Nit’s own age (26) and Yong happened to have the day off. Calls were made, plans were hatched and suddenly we had ourselves two guides as well. Yong and her friend who is also a schoolteacher would accompany us and yes they knew where the waterfall was and it took about one hour to get there and yes they knew where the caves were and they were much closer.

We had a plan and I got a motorbike rented the day before and practiced driving it. Nit was not at all impressed with my driving skills but I assured her that I could drive one 20 years ago when I was a freshly baked teenager but that we farangs move on to cars in our late teens so I haven’t driven a moped since then and I’m just a bit rusty is all. She did not look convinced.

On the day in question I woke up early, got a hearty breakfast, took a stroll along the Mekong river and then met up with Nit. She drove Peter’s brand new Honda and I had a similar albeit a slightly older one. We both had helmets and although mine was too small for me I was determined to wear it. Off we went.

Peter had advised me to bring my own food as there is apparently precious little that will suit a Farang on site at the waterfalls and the plan called for us to have a picnic lunch there. So I and Nit went by the Scandinavian bakery in the centre of LP and I asked to have one of their delicious chicken baguettes wrapped up to go. When I asked Nit if she would want a sandwich or if she was going to have Lao food I was met with the frustrating indecision that is so common when dealing with Thai ladies. Granted, it was a very tough question:

Should she go for Farang food that she knows she likes or Lao food that she might like even more but might not like as much, or even at all? With the actual meal a few hours away how could she know what she’d be hungry for in such a long time? How to choose? What if she made a mistake? What if she went for a sandwich and then got stuck with it while the other girls had delicious Lao food that she would have liked so much more? That would amount to torture. The same applied the other way around. If she rejected the admittedly tasty sandwich now and then the Lao food was crap she’d have to watch me with enjoying a much tastier meal than her, torture as well. So she’d better choose wisely. But there just seemed to be no safe solution. What to do?

I enjoyed watching her discomfort for a while and then said why don’t we get an extra sandwich and she could first look at the Lao food when we got there and choose then what she wants. And if she would rather have the Lao food I’d try to eat two sandwiches or we could save one for later or maybe she could eat half and have some Lao food as well. Nit lit up, smiled widely and readily agreed that this was a great solution to her tough predicament. So we got two chicken baguettes wrapped up and off we went.

We met up with the two schoolteachers who we were going to spend the day with and that were going to be our guides. Nit had only known one of them for a few weeks but it looked to me like a meeting of old and dear friends. They were Yong, who was Nits newest and closest friend, and Dee, another friend. Both pretty girls, not sexy but pretty. They arrived just after us, the two of them on a decent but quite old motorbike. I smiled, they smiled, and introductions were made.

From Yong I got a distinct “hello” and from Dee I got a shy “nah-to-me-u” that I interpreted as a “nice to meet you”. I greeted them in return and then that was it and all further conversation was relayed via Nit who spoke English with me and Isaan-Thai sprinkled with some Lao with them. It worked pretty well actually but both Lao girls were a bit shy and the conversation we had was quite basic. But they chatted away amongst themselves perfectly comfortably and I and Nit did the same.

At this stage it was time for some surprises. The first one was that we were apparently supposed to leave Yong’s motorbike behind and Young and Dee was to go on my rented one while I and Nit went on Peter’s bike. I sensed that it was perhaps a question of not wanting to waste their fuel. The cost of fuel for a motorbike is negligible if you’re a farang, but I felt that perhaps they still thought it costly to go on such a long trip and since they were going at our request I didn’t argue. And when Nit asked me if I wanted to drive and had a look on her face that said “I hope, I hope, I hope he lets me drive” I didn’t raise the point that I only rented a freaking motorbike so that I could drive one, instead I submitted to riding bitch for the whole day.

This is actually not too bad as you don’t have to focus on the road and is left free to look around more. If you’re a tall guy like me and are sitting behind a small Thai girl it’s perfect as you can look over her head as well as to the sides. You look like something of a twat of course but why worry about that?

The second surprise was that we were accompanied with two more friends. A guy that had previously worked at a low level on the same project as Peter but had been fired because he’s a lazy booze hound and an unserious prankster, as it was told to me on the road by Nit and later confirmed by Peter. He looked the part, being in his mid to late twenties he looked like a Laotian version of a Riviera playboy. He rode without a helmet of course and had mirror glassed pilot sunglasses on. His name was Chung and he had his quite cute, quite young and very pregnant girlfriend sitting side saddle behind him which looked dangerous as hell. She did have a helmet though. In her lap.

We were off and I had a delightful time. I really enjoy travelling by motorbike in South East Asia if it’s in the countryside and the traffic situation feels safe enough. And in Laos I felt perfectly safe because Nit is a good driver and most Lao people, although not Chung, seem to drive sanely and follow speed limits. Also the traffic is not particularly dense. I like to sit there with the wind in my face and look at stuff passing by: small villages, children playing, all manner of farm animals, small businesses, the landscape itself. It looks so idyllic in one way and so backwards in another. It’s intriguing.

The ride was about an hour and the road was decent and paved all the way so the only discomfort was my tight fitting helmet. Otherwise it was great and we arrived without misfortunes and parked our motorcycles.

At the arrival area there was what can best be described as a small bazaar with goods and the focus was now on food. Stuff was scrutinized then selected or rejected and I just stood there happy with the thought of the baguette I was carrying as the Lao food looked, to be perfectly honest, really nasty to me. Nit seemed to be very interested in a big grilled fish but in little else from what I could tell. I stood at the ready to pay for whatever they chose as I was sure it’d be cheap and since I was the one who was being shown around. Also I knew I probably make more money in a day than any one of them makes in a month, because Laos is really poor, much more so than Thailand, so I felt it appropriate that I should treat them to lunch. But in the end nothing seemed to be purchased. The exception would be Chung who disappeared and then came back with 6 big bottles of Beer Lao that he has already paid for, and a huge smile to go with them.

I was a bit confused but Nit told me what was going on and as I understood it there were more food stalls up by the waterfalls. I bought enough water and iced tea for everyone and I had to pay an admissions fee because I’m a long-nosed farang (Or Bouxidaa as they call us in Laos) while the others were let in free of charge. Nit was ecstatic that she could pass for a local and didn’t have to pay. If a group of Thais came here they would have had to pay just as I had to she told me, but she can “look Lao” she said with a wide grin. So that saved me an extra admissions fee I guess.

Waterfalls in the middle of the jungle

We walked up a path, past two caged Asian black-bears, and soon got to the waterfalls. It was the dry season so the flow was much less than what it apparently can be but it was still a really beautiful setting. Water runs in streams down the mountain from plateau to plateau and there are natural made pools you can swim in. It’s really a place well worth visiting.

We walked the path up to the highest plateau and selected a table with benches and sat down. There is a steep path that snakes further up the mountain so you can view the main waterfall from above but only the mad farang of the group, that would be me, contemplated such an exercise. First, however, it was time for lunch.

Now I got what I didn’t get before. There are no food stalls up here but they had placed orders before and food was now brought up here and apparently they’d managed to pay it already without me noticing because there were no demands for money. I had missed my chance to buy lunch for everyone but no one seemed to be in a foul mood and I did buy the drinks, except for the beers which Chung bought and then insisted that I help him drink. In the end I reckon I did drink one of them and he downed the other five at a rapid pace. I’m not at all adverse to drinking beer and sometimes lots of it but I like to be sober in the day and drink in the evening. Chung really did seem to be the slacker Nit told me he was. But he was also a really funny guy and I was not at all crossed that he came along.

After a very long lunch where Nit amazingly managed to finish half her baguette but all of the chicken that was in it, a big grilled fish, some balls of icky-sticky rice and some other stuff that I’m not sure what the hell it was, we went down to one of the larger pools where you can swim. There was a tree with a rope where you could swing yourself like Tarzan and drop into the water. There were a bunch of mixed tourists here already. Everything including Laotians on their day off, groups of backpackers, a few older folks and two young Japanese couples with the girls completely overdressed in expensive designer outfits and high heeled shoes, just like you’d expect them to dress out in the jungle.

In our little gang the girls all took a swim fully clothed and they waded into the water from the side of the pool. Chung is a prankster and he was now pretty drunk too so he managed to get everyone’s attention when he swung on the rope and screamed to high heaven before he plunged into the water. But the bastard is athletic as well and of all the guys who tried this he pulled it off best. I went for it too and it was great fun. And how could it not be? I’m in the middle of the jungle, swinging on a rope and plunging into a pool of clear, bright blue water fed into the pool by a mountain waterfall. Sure beats sitting at my desk in the office back home.

One of the natural swimming pools. The tree on the left with the rope is where one could swing and drop into the water.

When we were ready to go I had a hard time watching the semi drunken Chung get on his motorbike with his pregnant girlfriend behind him, both still without a helmet on the head, and speed off. But I know better than to interfere in a situation like this. Had the farang mentioned that he was in no state to ride his bike a guy like Chung would probably have taken it as an insult and a questioning of his driving abilities and he might have made it his personal quest to show that he could indeed drive full throttle the whole way back. So I cringed but said nothing. We did pass them on the way when he’d stopped to take a piss but he soon caught up and they whooshed by us again. They would not accompany us for the rest of the day and this was the last I saw of Chung and his girl whose name I never caught.

At this stage it turned out that the info I had obtained about the location of our two chosen targets for the day was somewhat flawed. I had assumed that we would be going to the furthest one away, the waterfalls, first and basically do the caves on the way back. This was not so. First we had to go all the way back to LP and then we had to go in the other direction from there on a ride that was not as long in terms of distance but took just as long in terms of time due to the bad roads.

The first stint was pleasant enough as we rode parallel to the Mekong river and the view was great, sometimes bordering on magnificent. But just as I thought we had arrived when we went into a small dirt road I saw a sign that said “caves 20 km” and thought uh-oh! Now I was suddenly happy I was riding and not driving because I would have had a hard time to negotiate this bumpy road. It was filled with holes and irregularities and covered with a thick layer of a very fine red dust that whirled up in plumes of dusty smoke.

The road was actually much worse than it looks in this picture

At one point, about mid way, I heard a rumbling behind me and was surprised because surely no car could go as fast as a motorcycle on this lousy road. Well I look back and realise this one can. A big-ass, brand new Hummer is right behind us and eager to get past. It was quite threatening and I felt very exposed. Like an Iraqi on the road must feel when the Marines are right on his tail in a huge Humvee with the .50 cal pointed in his direction. Sort of. Eventually it roared past us and kicked up so much dust that we had to stop for about five minutes before we could go on.

Often there were steep inclines and declines to conquer. Yong and Dee had a weight advantage because they were two small Lao girls whereas Nit and I was a Thai girl and a big farang so our motorcycle carried about twice as much weight. At one particularly steep stretch I even had to jump off and run the last way to the crest because not even in first gear could we go on. But our little Honda soldiered on bravely and eventually we reached our destination.

We parked the motorcycles in a parking ground just outside a village. There were several small tour buses, and the Hummer, and I guess not many tourists get here by motorbike like we did. Some Lao people jumped us immediately and I paid what I believed to be admissions fees to the caves for all of us after which we were free to stroll into the small village.

In the village we entered there were some places that clearly cater to tourists and we were all thirsty from the ride so I bought a round of drinks. I got a Coke and a bottle water and the girls all opted for Iced Tea. We stood around in the shade of the open air shop chatting for a while about the ride on the dirt road and the girls all thought it was pretty funny but they were frowning when they found that their clothes were now all dirty with reddish dust, as were mine although I cared less. But the mood was high and we had a few laughs.

I found this place in a brochure and presumably it’s in the Lonely Planet as well because there were some farang tourists around. A group of four women in their late twenties or thirties came strolling from the direction where the caves were supposed to be and entered the shop opposite the one we were in. They spoke English and I think they were from the UK but I am not completely sure. I briefly considered asking them if the caves were worth the visit but I didn’t bother because there was no way I was going back without seeing the caves after the long ride to get here, no matter what anyone said about them. So I continued chatting with Nit while we got ready to go on.

Guess what happens next. As I passed by the women I got the nastiest stink-eyes possible from them. One said something to the others and I heard the word “disgusting” included, loud and intended for me to hear it. They looked at me like I was lower than dirt, they looked at me like they really hated me. WTF! I’m in the company of my friend’s girlfriend and two local schoolteachers and we are having a nice day of sightseeing. What’s wrong with that? And I’m 34 and the girls are around 26 so even if I was Nit’s guy it could very well have been a perfectly normal relationship for all they know. Yet they see a white guy with Asian girls and automatically assume I’m a sex tourist with a hooker. That’s just so fxxxing unfair!

OK, I am a sex tourist also but I wasn’t being one right then and there and there’s no way for them to know that I am one. And they were also assuming that at least one of the girls is a prostitute, which none of them are and none of them look like they are, and that’s pretty damn insulting.

I felt an urge to walk over and tell them the nature of my relationship with the girls I was with and ask them if they had some sort problem with this, just to put them in their place. But I knew Nit would understand that they had assumed she’s a whore and that she’d be very hurt and upset by this, so I didn’t. Instead I flashed those fat cows my widest wolf-grin just to piss them off.

I’ve thought about this some more afterwards and while I wasn’t at all hurt by it I might have felt very different if I had a real relationship with an Asian woman I loved. What If I made the effort to date a quality girlfriend and we had been together and were perhaps engaged or even married and we had to put up with shit like this when we go places? I’d be seriously pissed off then I should think.

Anyway, we walked along the path and soon it became obvious that the caves are across the river and that we had to pay a boat to get us there. But it’s small money and I was happy to pay for both myself and my guides. There’s no way in hell I would have gotten this far on my own if I hadn’t gone with a tour group which I wouldn’t have done so Yong and Dee had proved to be necessary as well as fun company. Plus I’d get to ride a boat across the Mekong which is sort of a small adventure in its own right.

Going by boat can be fun.

So we got a boat, crossed the river, and only then did I find out that we didn’t really pay an admissions fee before. I guess we only paid for our motorcycles to be looked after (read: to not be stolen or sabotaged because we didn’t pay protection). Here is where the admissions fee is to be paid and it would be pretty stupid to rebel against that at this stage, and it’s a pittance again anyway. So I pony up for us all. Here even Laotians have to pay. Or is it that Laotians in the company of a farang have to pay as the farang will surely pay for such Laotians? I don’t know. I just pay.

There’s really not much good that can be said about these caves. There were two of them, an upper and a lower one. The lower one is a hole in the mountain wall with a lot of small Buddha statues in it. Nice looking but nowhere near spectacular. Where ever you stand in the cave you see every other place in it, it’s that small. I ask about the upper cave and someone tells me it’s bigger. Well, good, I think, let’s go see that one then.

To get to the upper cave we had to walk up some pretty steep and long stairs. I could have managed in one go but I’d be sweating all over in the heat so I didn’t object when the girls insisted on taking two long breaks on our way up. We eventually got there and we had to rent some flashlights before we could go into the bigger cave. Yes it’s bigger. It’s almost fifty meters deep and somewhere inside I think I saw a Buddha statue. Whoohoo!

Nope, these caves are nothing much to see but that didn’t really matter. All the admissions fees and the boat trip were cheap and I had a fun ride to get there and good company while I was there. The caves sucked compared to any other cave I’ve seen mentioned as any kind of attraction but that’s no big loss. What the hell do I care about caves anyway? I just wanted something to do.

Crappy caves, seen from the Mekong River

Walking down the stairs from the upper cave there were small kids abound, selling trinkets and small birds in small cages that you can ”give flee” for ”one dola” if you so desire. Of course the bird will fly right back into captivity again as most people know. Yong and Dee smiled and joked with the kids and I decided to ask Nit what sort of teachers they are and who they teach. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Yong and Dee, do they teach small children like these?

Nit: No. Teach from seventeen year to twenty one.

Me: OK, do they both teach at the same school?

Nit: Teach different school but teach same same.

Me: So what do they teach?

Nit: Teach English. They English teacher.

Me: Of course they are.

Yes, I had been in the company of two English teachers the entire day and had not gotten so much as a sentence in English out of them. And the fact that they were a bit shy has, according to my friend Peter, nothing to do with it. They never speak English, because they can’t. They can only teach it, not speak it.

The ride back was fun as well but the novelty factor had worn off and I felt like my ass must have looked like that of a baboon after sitting on the saddle for so long, and riding around all day had left me pretty beat. I was sure the girls felt the same because for one they are girls and girls get cranky and also they had had to drive while I just had to ride. But I had the added disadvantage of the eight or so bottles Beer Lao I had sunk the night before so I felt ready to call it a day by now.

We got back and we said our awkward but friendly goodbyes and I offered to take them all out for dinner the next day to thank them for the guided tour (ulterior motive: to have nice dinner companions). It took a while for them to get this but they finally accepted with shy giggles and smiles. Then I got a shower and some shuteye before going to dinner. I don’t really remember what I did that particular evening but it sure had been a great day.

//Mac

Stickman's thoughts:

Sounds like you had a nice day out.