Luang Prabang, Lao PDR
Finally, I've found a bit of what I didn't realize I was looking for.
The last few days have been slow-motion mayhem, like a bunch of inept drivers steering their cars through snow for the first time--chaotic and uncontrolled, but slow enough to buffer any true danger. A stew of misadventure and serendipity.
I didn't see it while in Thailand, but with this new contrast I understand what I've been missing:
Thailand felt like a vacation. Everything was shaped around tourism. It was all easy, required little imagination, and something about it felt very false and Disneyland-esque. The main pastimes for locals and tourists alike seemed to be eating and shopping [with the secondary options of getting massages, partying, and sightseeing]. It's a place where I felt I either had to make an "itinerary" or else ambled around placidly, wondering what I was doing there, trying to figure out my "role" as a "tourist", feeling vaguely uncomfortable and embarrassed to be affiliated with some of the other tourists there, many of whom were behaving rather disgustingly: stomping around with a sense of entitlement, dehumanizing the natives, being indignant just for the sake of being indignant. Several ex-pats there, with pasty bellies covered with Hawaiian shirts and little Thai wives in tow, spoke less Thai than I did after being there for only two weeks, let alone read any.
In contrast, in Laos I feel like I'm actually living. I haven't been uneasy about being a visitor here. The tourists I've encountered seem more childlike, adventurous, flexible. Even the rich kid spring breakers who are just here to get wasted on lao lao whisky seem happy and playful and basically like real human beings.
If I won't get screamed at for generalizing, culturally Laotians themselves are a sharp contrast to Thais [who comprise many of the tourists here, as well]. They seem a lot more rambunctious and easygoing—whoopwhooping loudly when a power outage strikes at night, playing weird little hop-scotch games and acting like kids, singing or laughing raucously and at random, giving less of a shit and just having a good time. They're easygoing and friendly, but don't kiss our asses or seem to care much that we're here [unless they're trying to make money from us, understandably]. And not only do they have really good English [much better than virtually all the Thais we met], but many of them speak Thai and French as well [I've spoken more Thai here than in Thailand].
In contrast, most Thais we met, while very likeable, seem more like your average first-worlders: more polite and "civilized" [at the expense of being a bit stuffy or insincere at times, if you ask me...but I tend to like people who are uncouth and consider "civilized" a pejorative], and certainly more materialistic. Like everyone else in this globalized world, I suppose.
The hundreds of small children we've seen have all been really self-sufficient and healthy: kids as young as six pushing their bikes up a steep hill a couple miles out of town, waving to us as we pass by, wandering through the mountains on their own, helping the adults with manual labor, playing with bugs.
Everything's gone "wrong" or has otherwise been "unexpected", but it's all worked out perfectly. In Thailand I felt like a grown-up on holiday--here I feel like a Lost Boy in Neverland, laughing deliriously at how absurd life is, much more present in the moment, disinterested in checking my email or researching "things to do" or "things to know" online.
While I really enjoyed Thailand...Laos is way, way more my bag. I haven't stopped giggling incredulously since I got here. If Alex and I were to pigeonhole our views on life, we'd probably both call ourselves absurdists...an outlook Laos seems to amplify.
The countryside is breathtaking, and Luang Prabang feels like being in someone else's dream. We want all the people we love to get their asses over here. If we had more money, we'd buy plane tickets for our closest friends and family in a heartbeat. Someday.
We left Chiang Mai for Chiang Rai [after leaving the lady at our guest house a thank-you note in Thai that was more likely than not full of mistakes, though we figured she'd find them amusing], which we thought might be a bit of a smaller, more rural version.
Chiang Rai, while half the size of Chiang Mai, felt distinctly more "industrial urban" when we first rolled in. Our bus passed several car dealerships and wove through a lot of slummy looking shops an office buildings before arriving.
When we got off our bus, we had our first unpleasant interactions with Thai natives.
The tuk-tuk drivers were pushy as always, but with less good humor--several of them gestured as if to grab me and made animal noises at me, laughing and saying things like, "get in tuk-tuk or you don't know where you're going, backpack too heavy for farang girl."
We kept walking and found an Internet cafe with the pushiest restaurant staff we've ever met. As a sharp contrast to the friendly and laid-back establishments in Chiang Mai, everything was very calculated: the moment we stepped up to the entrance, we were chivvied forcefully to a table [even though we said we just wanted to check out the prices outside], stood over and stared down by a notepad-equipped server before we even had a chance to peruse the menus, even when we asked to be given a few minutes; the bathrooms cost 20 baht for non-customers; the wi-fi was only available to those who made an order of at least 50 baht; the food was all unappealing Western options [pizzas, Caesar salads...not even so much as pad thai] and unusually pricey [about four or five times what we've been paying for meals].
We shrugged and ordered a small dish in order to get Internet access, and when Alex tried to plug in our hand-me-down tablet [which wouldn't turn on otherwise], he was stopped abruptly by a staff member who said it would cost 20 baht to plug in his phone.
"Well, we just made an order so we could use the Internet."
"Yes, you can use Internet free with your order, but you have to pay to use the power."
"But we can't use the Internet unless we plug in our tablet. It doesn't cost you anything to let us charge it, and no one else is using the outlets, so why do we need to pay to use one for ten minutes?"
"It doesn't even matter why! It's only twenty baht! For you, twenty baht is so little, it's practically nothing." From all the spite in his voice, he might as well have been spitting on us.
"Hey. Look. No one owes you money just because they have it, you still need to treat them fairly and give them a good reason to buy from you--good food, or at least friendliness. Your prices are already much more than a local would pay, there's no way a local would ever eat here, but we were still going to eat here. I'd rather give two hundred baht to someone else who was honest and respectful. Or at least good-natured." I gestured to Alex to leave.
"Should I cancel your order?"
"Probably. We won't be here to pay for it."
Even the scammers and pushy vendors we've met have been fun to interact with, smiling and joking their way into our pockets.
Look, I fucking get it--we're tourists, and the fact that we're even in Thailand means we're well-off by Thai standards, even if we'd be paupers in the States. We're coming here to visit your town, often quite disoriented at first, and you're being adaptable and resourceful by capitalizing on it.
I don't even mind being ripped off [for instance, when it's obvious I have no other option but to hire the one tuk-tuk at a remote bus station, so he overcharges me]—I can understand it, and I've laughed it off when it's happened. It's fair—the ride is still worth paying for, and in his position, I'd do the same thing. But at the end of the day, it's still a cordial interaction between two human beings.
I try to be receptive...but I'm a bit proud. I'm not going to shell out to someone who treats my presence with scorn and feels entitled to my money before I've even had a chance to cause offense, even if it means walking an extra few kilometers with a heavy pack, or settling for a lesser option.
Soon we found a cheap enough guest house to settle for [Chook Dee, 250 baht for a private room]. The place was a bit alienating—super rasta-ed out, with black lights and Lisa-Frank-meets-stoner fluorescent murals on the walls, the lower floor cafe full of Europeans with dreadlocks that looked like pythons [five feet long and as thick as my arm, weighing down skinny little French pretty boys in designer clothes], reggae music in the background. 420-everything. It was owned and run by a few Thais, most of whom seemed rather wary of their tenants.
"Do you think the owner is genuinely into this scene, or is this his conception of what'll appeal to the tourists who come through here?"
"Moreover, if this is his conception...is he right?"
Our room itself had a weird under-the-floorboards-seedy-bordello feel to it. Dimly-lit, dark wood. A picture of Bob Marley hung on the wall [which made me laugh]. The one small window opened out to a tiny tucked-away balcony with a bamboo bench and table you had to clamber out through the window to get to and a low roof that made you feel like you were in a secret hiding place looking out onto the street below. I absolutely loved this feature; the balcony was completely littered with other people's beer bottles and cigarette butts, but if anything this almost added to the appeal. The whole place was a bit crusty; the comforter obviously hadn't been washed in a while [jizz stains, human hair, dirt...] and we wondered if there might be bed bugs, but we resolved to embrace the whole thing.
"It's nasty. It makes me kind of uncomfortable. The other tourists staying here seem washed up and kind of creep me out. But I kind of like it...because I don't like it. Besides, every other vacant guest house is twice as expensive."
One big difference in Chiang Rai was the blatant segregation between the Thais and the ex-pats/tourists. In Chiang Mai, there was a bit more intermingling--the town had embraced its status as a tourist destination, and there seemed to be a symbiotic relationship between Thais and foreigners, for the most part.
Chiang Rai was a lot less touristy, but still full of tourists. The ex-pats seemed to be there simply because it was a cheap place to live, and not because they actually liked the place. There were markets specifically catered to tourists, and ones specifically catered to locals, with little mixing of demographics. The foreigners were cold, deadbeat. The locals were dismissive.
We figured it'd be worth sticking around a couple days to see if our attitudes tot he place changed, and decided to look into things to do [because we'd run out of ideas after one night of exploring]. Online, the main attractions listed were the night bazaar [which we went to on our first night] and the clocktower [which was right next to our guest house]...other than that, there were temples to see, a couple uninteresting-sounding museums, and some natural sites to explore out-of-town [some of which were only really open to tour groups rather than self-guided adventures]...many of which were described as "once pristine, but a bit trashed now thanks to inconsiderate tourists."
"...Well, you know, we could just spend a few days studying the hell out of Thai, and playing ukelele, spending next to nothing. If we were somewhere more interesting we'd be less motivated to study."
We were a bit homesick for Chiang Mai, but were surprised at what things we missed. The two things we missed most:
- The 1 baht water filling stations, some of which were very hidden [at the ends of back alleys, obscured behind marketplaces, etc.] that made us feel like we'd stumbled across hidden treasure when we found them and, overtime, saved us several disposable plastic bottles and hundreds of baht.
- An adorable lady with a coffee truck that had a counter under the window just big enough for the two of us to sit, struggling to spell out titles on Thai-language magazines she provided, while she laughed at our broken Thai and made us the best iced coffee and tea drinks in town [for 25 baht each]. Every time we went, she'd make us an extra free drink even better than whatever we'd ordered [a shot of special Thai coffee, or milky green tea with tapioca pearls]. We both regretted not saying goodbye to her before we left town, and she's the first person I'll look for if I go back.
However, Chiang Rai had its good points:
- The disdainful attitude to tourists was kind of a blessing in disguise: it made our interactions with Thais more rewarding [since we had to prove ourselves a bit first before they'd pay us any mind] and gave us more opportunity to practice our Thai [since a lot of them didn't bother learning English or putting English names on their menus--and a lot of the ones who did know English would pretend not to when approached by foreigners]. A lot of the natives would stare coldly and silently at me as if to say, "I don't sell hamburgers here. Are you lost, little girl?" Then I'd read something off the sign or eke out a few sentences, and they'd smirk, visibly surprised. I'd ask to get something extra spicy, and they'd laugh incredulously, clearly thinking I was ignorant, but would throw in an extra chili. Then, when we successfully ate the food without dying and thanked them for it, they'd warm up to us, and the next time around would have a completely different attitude: they'd help us read the menus, teach us new words, or correct our pronunciation, and encourage us when we made efforts. There was something kind of American-east-coast about it all that we kind of appreciated: our interactions felt a lot more genuine, a lot less "customer service"-y, and in that way actually made us feel a bit more a part of the community.
- A lot more varied merchandise than in Chiang Mai [where you see the same few products in every booth, much of which is sweatshop-made]. Some higher quality goods. Much better prices on the cheaper/generic products.
- Distinctly different food. Also cheaper. And the best som tam I've ever had, made by a brusque but awesome Thai woman on the street.
Anyway, another blessing in disguise:
A couple nights in, I woke up at about 4:30am to find Alex collecting bed bugs in a plastic cup, looking disgusted and amused.
I blinked at him for a while. "...I told you so."
"Meh. Ew. Shall we find another guest house tomorrow?"
"Actually, why don't we just get the hell out of here? It feels forced, like we're holding out to find reasons to be here. We both keep trying to convince each other that it's worth it, but neither of us really wants to."
"...Yes. Where to?"
"How about Laos?"
"Sure. What's in Laos?"
"Who knows? We're idiots, we don't know anything."
"Laos sounds fantastic."
The next day there was no one at the counter to inform about the bed bugs, so we just left the cup of bed bugs on top of our key and went on our way, following a route we'd found online that would get us to Luang Prabang by the following morning [...or so we thought].
From Chiang Rai, we took a bus for a couple hours to Chiang Khong, a tuk-tuk to Thai immigration, a shuttle to Laos immigration, which was a clusterfuck of paying fee after fee for who-the-hell-knows, and then were crammed into a songthaew with several other backpackers from different parts of Europe who--we were relieved to see--seemed just as confused as we were ["Okay, so we're not the only suckers here, that's nice"] at the fees, at being made fun of by the snarky bureaucrats, at the locals offering scalped tickets.
By this point, Alex and I were so delirious that we were reduced to cackling at everything: the fees we kept having to pay in three different currencies without knowing why ["Forty baht because it's a Saturday! One dollar for smelling funny!"] going to the ATM for kip and entering a withdrawal amount of 1,000,000 [we counted the zeroes several times to make sure we had it right since we couldn't stop giggling], the fact that we hadn't encountered food for several hours, the fact that the songthaew driver knew that none of us were really in a position to haggle with him [we were in the middle of nowhere, and no other drivers were around to compete with him], then the fact that we all got packed in with our backpacks like a bunch of sardines with no room to spare.
Everything was hilarious. In a backwards way, we were having a fucking blast. The other backpackers seemed a bit less delirious [and a lot more grumpy with the situation].
The two of us were dropped off at the bus station, which was also in the middle of nowhere. We went to go buy tickets for that night's sleeper bus...only to find they were sold out.
This made us crack up more, which seems to have become our default reaction to everything ever since crossing the border. Everything is absurd; everything is funny. A lot of Laotians we've encountered seem to feel the same way, and laugh loudly at everything [and nothing]. Maybe there's nitrous oxide pumped into the air here. Seems like it would keep the peace...and eliminate the need for social programs. Hahaha.
The sun was setting. We'd finally gotten some noodles in our system and could sort of think properly.
"Well...we have a mosquito net. We could set up the hammock somewhere."
"There are no trees. Or poles. We could sleep on a bench?"
"Beer first. Decisions later."
Facing off on either side of the bus station were two identical-looking narrow strip buildings. One contained a row of shops; the other turned out to contain a row of rooms [presumably for people like us who'd been stranded]. Instead of a lobby, we simply walked up to a window in the middle of the building.
It's difficult to describe what that place felt like--but it reminded me of being on the outskirts of Joshua Tree. Sort of an eerie, haunted, portal-to-hell-at-the-edge-of-the-world feeling that I nonetheless really liked.
The room seemed out of place--we walked in and instantly felt like we were inside of a motel in the states, rather than a guest house in Southeast Asia. On the far wall was a small Alice-and-Wonderland-esque door, which we opened, only to see find that it was actually a window that looked out onto nothing. ["Probably a portal to an alternate universe."] There was a TV in the room--it had been at least a week since I'd seen a TV--and we turned it on out of curiosity. A Thai-dubbed version of "A Walk to Remember" was on.
We wandered out to explore. At this point, we appeared to be the only people there, and it had grown dark. Still, we heard some dancey music coming from nearby-ish. Past a thicket of trees, we could see the flickering of LEDs.
"No fucking way. Is there a bar out here? No one is here."
We followed the blinky lights and noise, which felt reminiscent of Burning Man, and discovered where the music was coming from: on one side of an empty, lonely road, flood lights lit up a huge inflatable Angry Birds bouncy slide, which a bunch of kids were climbing up and rolling down unsupervised. What sounded like Thai salsa music was blaring at them from speakers.
We stood there for a long time, uncomprehending.
The blinky lights, on the other hand, were coming from a small bar about a hundred feet away. It was half-hidden by the trees, completely dark and silent, and looked closed except for the ropes of neon lights all around it. We walked inside, and after a moment or two a woman rolled up on a motorbike, sold us a couple beers, and led us to the back patio. A few seconds later, music came on--an alternation between Thai pop, and Justin Bieber covers.
Still giggling and delirious, we gave up on trying to make sense of anything. A small orange tomcat snuck up on us out of nowhere [I'd thought he was a huge rat at first] and stepped into my lap, meowing beseechingly at us every once in a while. He stayed there until we left, at which point I'd gotten rather attached.
To further exacerbate the feelings of "this place is fucking eerie/haunted/otherworldly", that night was a bit odd, as well:
- We woke up in the room at the exact same moment, both completely alert and under the impression that it was morning. Alex glanced at the time and said it was 8:50 a.m. We started packing up, and then I opened the door--it was pitch black and deserted outside. We checked the time again, and it was about 2 a.m. Eventually we fell back asleep.
- I realized during a dream that I was dreaming [having only had one lucid dream before]—but instead of being able to take control from there, the dream turned into a mind-fuck nightmare, hit me with a crazy intense body-high that lasted after I woke up, and left me in a weird in-between state where I was still stuck asleep but could see our room, hearing freaky dream-voices of people asking to be woken up. I still remember the whole thing as vividly as if it had actually happened, but won't bother going into further detail. Then I woke up, experienced sleep paralysis for the first time [which was fucking terrifying] and, after I could finally move, had a conversation with Alex—only to realize a few moments later that the conversation had only happened in my head, and that I'd dreamed/hallucinated it, as well. He woke up, and then we had the conversation—in reality—that we'd already had in my head a few moments prior [which I also told him]. In the last year I've been experiencing some rather fucked up and terrifying dream-related phenomena for the first time ever [successions of false awakenings, for instance], but this was new.
We stayed up for several more hours having decidedly morbid conversations about dreams and death and how much credence, as self-proclaimed skeptics, to give the metaphysical. And about Laos: how enclosing of a place it seemed to be. As the most-bombed country in history, it's still unsafe to go bushwhacking in remote parts of Laos due to unexploded bombs. Also, in addition to being an extremely poor country, it's illegal for Laotians to hook up with foreigners, and outside of Laos, kip [an unstable and inflationary currency] are completely worthless and can't be converted to foreign currencies. Many Laotians working full-time with families live on about $1-2 a day, and even college-degree-holding Laotians may make just over $100 in a month.
"So...it seems like, if you were born in Laos, you're pretty much here for the haul, whether you want to be or not. It'd be hard to save up enough money to leave, even if you get a degree, and not much chance of marrying a foreigner."
"You know...I've met a lot of Americans whose families were from everywhere else in Southeast Asia, but I haven't really come across nearly as many from Laos. Well, or Myanmar. I don't think it's as common."
"But the people we've met so far all seem so happy. Even if they're here by default rather than by choice. Minus the border officials, but border officials never seem happy."
"Maybe that's why. They don't have as many choices, so they figure out how to be happy with the choices they do have, and the decisions they make. We're lucky enough to have the paradox of choice, so no matter what we choose, it's hard not to wonder if we could've chosen something better."
The bus ride the next day was hilarious and a bit terrifying. We were crammed into little upper-bunk capsule-recliners without enough room to sit up or straighten our legs. There were cheap little helmet-strap seat belts to keep us in place...but they were broken. So, we had to hold onto anything we could find in order to avoid rolling or bouncing out of our bunk. For fourteen hours, the bus wound around mountainous roads that were curvy, steep, sometimes unpaved. At points, it looked as if we were going to drop straight off sheer cliffs. We kept our shoes in plastic bags and had to enter the bus barefoot. Every once in a while, we'd stop, and everyone would stumble blearily out of the bus and go pop a squat at the edge of some magnificent canyon. We alternately slept [I'm amazed we could sleep], continued to laugh deliriously, and watched movies like Mulholland Drive [after our weird night at the bus station, we were in that sort of mood].
The scenery was incredible. We passed small villages of stilted huts and busy people, many of whom waved and grinned as we passed by, wild and lushly overgrown mountains, huge green valleys--scenes that nothing we saw on the several buses we took in Thailand could hold a candle to that left us in disbelief ["Where the hell are we? Is this a real place?"]
We arrived at the bus stop around midnight. A solitary tuk-tuk driver was there, and took us and two other backpackers into Luang Prabang.
It was silent. For about an hour, the four of us wandered like lost children from guest house to guest house, waking up the proprietors only to be told there were no available rooms. We were exhausted, but couldn't stop grinning at how gorgeous the town was, even in the dead quiet dark. After checking at about thirty places, Alex and I settled for a room about twice what we were hoping to pay for, eager for a bed. The other two continued on, determined to find a cheaper place.
I'm Completely Fucking Infatuated
If I ever find a place more beautiful than this one, I'm moving there, no question. I might move here, eventually, if it doesn't change for the worse.
Luang Prabang is beautiful and strange and enchanting. Being here in and of itself feels like falling in love.
I'm at a loss. I haven't taken a single picture in town. We don't want to pull out the camera because we'd rather be fully present, immersed in this place, without the distraction of taking photos. Any pictures we took wouldn't do the place justice, anyhow.
And there's too much. We could take photos of everything. The whole town almost feels like an interactive museum or art piece [but also feels like much more of an "actual place" than, say, the more touristy parts of Bangkok and Chiang Mai, though Luang Prabang is also a heavily-traveled area]. I guess that makes sense--the entire town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There are the Mekong and Khan rivers, the gorgeous Secret-Garden-meandering-alleyways, colonial French architecture, stilted huts, the jenky-as-shit bamboo footbridge across the Khan that looks from town to be so much further below and so much longer than it actually is [since it's so thin]. Not a single part of this town isn't enchanting--even the poorer areas, the residences, the back alleys. And, whereas many of the temples in Thailand almost looked fake and Las-Vegas-y, with tacky restored facades, souvenir booths, and signs, the ones here have stopped us in our tracks and compelled us to stare, or to walk in [or up hundreds of stairs] to get a better look at. They feel like real places--the impeccably-maintained ones give you a sense of having traveled back in time, and the ruins gave you a sense of their history.
I'm at a loss to go into further detail, though my mind's been reeling with taking it all in. Crossing the footbridge last night, after several hours of aimless wandering, Alex put it well, "It kind of feels like we're in someone else's dream."
If I had more money, I'd buy plane tickets for everyone I love most to come here, right this second.
We woke up in the morning and, before we'd even left our guest house, had been asked by a couple girls from the Netherlands to go with them to Kuangsi Waterfall, which we'd never heard of. We agreed, grabbed breakfast on the way, and spent the next half hour gathering a group of eight people and haggling with songthaew drivers until one would settle for our price. On the way we passed incredible terraced rice fields and so on and so forth, which made most other "countrysides" I'd seen look, in hindsight, like barren wastelands.
Kuangsi was the only place in Laos we've bothered with picture-taking, so far. Once there, we passed a bear rescue center with several moon bears [which I'd never seen or heard of before--weirdest looking bears I've ever fucking seen], then jumped off trees and small waterfalls into into bright turquoise water that didn't look real. There were several tourists here, but of a different ilk--it was a lot of adults acting like kids, making friends with strangers despite language barriers [you don't need to speak the same language if you're just jumping off waterfalls together and laughing at one another's belly flops], excited to be there, and the site was clean despite the large number of visitors. After that, Alex and I climbed up to the top of the enormous falls further along--an uphill climb very few visitors seemed to want to bother doing.
When we got back, we only had to walk for a few minutes before a Laotian guy on a scooter asked us if we needed a room and told us he ran a guesthouse, handing us business cards/maps and asking us to follow him. I recognized the name of the place as one of the guest houses we'd tried during our late-at-night-asking-around, so we followed him, and he showed us to a really nice room at the cheapest rate we'd found in town so far. I kept waiting for a catch, but there didn't seem to be one, and we're still staying there.
I might as well stop here. It's really a place that defies description.
Notably, I haven't seen a single beggar here, nor anyone who appears poor, or otherwise destitute or unhealthy. It's almost suspicious. It looks so clean here [front-of-bar puke piles notwithstanding].
Not sure how long we'll be here...currently wishing we'd gotten longer visas [we've only got a month], but we're running out of money anyway.