When mulling over travel memories in order to dig out the one to feature as my Monday post, I thought of my 2005 visit to Laos. That spring, I just swam out of a difficult break-up and, in my typical fashion, ran off to Australia and Asia for five weeks of travel therapy. What’s a nomad to do? So I picked up a dear friend who was then living in Sydney and together we set off on a three-week journey around Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. My first encounter with Asia, this whirlwind adventure left me craving to see more, something I still intend to do.
It was in dusty Vientiane – perhaps the most provincial of all the capitals I’ve seen – that we hooked up with a friend of mine from New York who was backpacking around southeast Asia. One of the afternoons in Vientiane, we decided to check out the herbal massage and sauna at a Buddhist temple outside of town recommended by our guidebook as the most traditional around. So, off we were in a tuk-tuk to the forested temple of Wat Sok Pa Luang.
The next thing you know: we’re up in a sort of a tree house where a couple of smiling Lao ladies order us to strip into a sarong, push us into a pitch-dark wooden cabin with heavy herbal scents and a bunch of benevolent eyes you can half-discern through the steamy air. Just as I am starting to feel faint, we’re invited back out and onto the massage table, where I am treated to what is probably, to this day, the most vigorous massage of my life. It all happened very fast, without words, and with a sense of surreal comedy about it. We laughed the entire tuk-tuk ride back into town.
After the short stay in Vientiane, the three of us hired a driver to take us up to the Buddhist mecca of Luang Prabang on the Mekong River. With the only buses up north running at night, we didn’t want to skip what was apparently some of the most beautiful scenery in Laos. So we splurged on a private drive – definitely worth it! The nine-hour jaunt was packed with stomach-churning twists and turns through the mountains and a few unexpected adventures. At a tiny village where we paused en route, we accidentally stumbled into an impromptu karaoke session in somebody’s hut. Suddenly, we were a part of the afternoon party, dancing with a pair of grinning ladies, a lone drunk (or opium-high) man and a group of kids watching us in giggles.
We then came across a bizarre trading of dead animals. As we drove past a string of villages, men stood by the side of the road, exhibiting fresh kill for sale. At one hamlet, our driver stopped and inspected what seemed like a dead fox by poking it at several spots along the flimsy corpse. Meanwhile, we wondered whether the poor thing will end up thrown on top of our backpacks in the trunk. But we drove on foxless.
With bird flu at its most panicky height back then, we laughed out loud when the driver stopped for a lunch break at a roadside eatery. This – see photo! – was our only choice of food. Needless to say, we resorted to snacks for the rest of the long trip.
When we arrived to Luang Prabang – which stands out as one of the most serene towns of all I’ve ever visited – what awaited were a couple of days of exploring its many temples and – yet another funny episode! One sunny afternoon, we got a boat to take us to Pak Ou Cave (also known as the Buddha Cave for the multitude of Buddha sculptures that it hides) but it was only faraway from shore that we realized our boatman was absolutely wasted. It was a rocky ride, to say the least. We blamed it on the infamous Lao Lao rice whiskey, produced in a nearby village and known to be dangerously potent.
Among other things, Laos lives on in my mind as a good laugh.