“Twenty years from now you will far more regret the things you did not do, than the things you did. So cast off your bowlines, set sail away from safe harbors. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
— Mark Twain
We ended our time in Thailand with a flight from Chiang Mai to Phuket (pronounced Poo-ket), an island on the southern coast of Thailand. Renee and Tony went diving while I chose to just lie on the top deck soaking up the warmth on our “mini-yacht.” They had a couple wonderful dives – they said some of their best ever.
And then we headed to the Bangkok airport. Renee and Tony would be heading back to Ohio for work, but I had decided to extend my time with a few days in Laos. Oh, what a luxury, to be able to do this, to just decide I’ll go on to Laos for a few days! While it is approaching three years since I left the workforce, I haven’t lost my sense of wonder and amazement with this stage in life (while some call it retirement, which denotes lying down and slowing down, I call it graduation). I am grateful nearly every hour, and certainly every day, that I have this chance to spread my wings and explore and grow – and sometimes, just be lazy :).
I feel so very inadequate as I write this, as I really know so little about Lao culture. But I hope for you it is an opportunity to join as I try to absorb at least a tiny bit of the culture of this land. To me, it’s like opening a book; you don’t know what it’s going to be about. But you read the words and turn the pages, one by one, and discover and absorb. Let’s start turning . . .
My flight was to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, right across the border from Thailand. I flew Vietnam Air and would be remiss if I did not comment on the flight attendants. I think the best way to describe them is to simply say “they were the epitome of class.” Perfectly groomed, extraordinarily polite, and every movement was graceful. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that much good posture in one place in my life! But the flight was an uneventful hour and a half and then we landed in Vientiane. Had to get a visa at the airport; if you’ve ever been through this process you know there’s no need to stress about it. “They” just shuffle you where you need to go and you end up with a visa, and then again shuffle you to passport control.
I had the agent at the airport kiosk arrange for a cab for me; when traveling alone, I’m always hesitant to just walk out and grab random transportation. Perhaps overly cautious but to me, just good sense.
My hotel was clean, simple, and certainly adequate. The bed was the typical hard bed but I won’t complain (when in Rome, do as the Romans). And my room was all of $27. I had to smile, though, at the repair to the door where the panels split away from the door. In the US we would likely replace the door. In Laos? Just tuck a piece of toilet paper in the crack 🙂
I had a few hours left to the day and headed for the Night Market along the muddy Mekong River, just two blocks from my hotel. The Mekong is the longest river in Southeast Asia (2700 miles), originating in China and ending in Vietnam, where it dumps into the China Sea. When I think of the muddy Mekong, I always remember the time I took a swim in it to rinse off after riding my bike into a chin-deep latrine in Vietnam. One of those travel moments I’ll never forget :).
There were many people out on the streets and walking through the market and while it was dark, I felt very safe. There were stands and stands of textiles, food, trinkets, souvenirs. The markets in Asia were different than some of the others throughout the world that I’ve visited; vendors were in no way pushy. They displayed their wares and for the most part, waited for customers to approach and display an interest. If you did, there would be some haggling on price but it wasn’t a relentless process. It’s also important to note that there were no children begging, haggling, etc., for which I was grateful. Items were priced so low, and I was reminded of the economic challenges the people of Laos experienced. While not a huge number, there were a few people who were begging. One, in particular, troubled me greatly. A woman squatted in the middle of the walkway at the market with three small boys, a bowl held out in front of her. The children were all lying on a small blanket/towel, two sprawled out on their back, one facedown, sound asleep on the packed mud walkway. I deliberated about giving the woman money. No – food would be better . . . pillows for the little ones to sleep on? I went back and forth a number of times but ultimately headed back to my hotel without doing a thing. I wondered if this would be something that I would remember and regret in 20 years.
I woke up to several loud bangs coming from down the hallway, and then . . .the lights went out. Waited a bit and ventured out into the hallway with my i-phone flashlight brightening the way. Never did figure out what was going – you know, that language barrier thing. Not that it really mattered; clearly the power was out and you just deal with it.
Vientiane was the smallest city I had visited since leaving Ohio and it had a slower pace. Currency had switched to Kip (vs. Baht in Thailand) and I grabbed some cash from a nearby ATM. Restaurants and massage parlors abounded (there were 25 massage parlors within a half mile of my hotel, with an average price of 80,000 Kip (around $8 USD) for a one hour massage). I wondered how many were simply massage parlors, and then how many offered “other services.” A meal at a local restaurant was around 20,000 Kip (slightly over $2 USD). A large bottle of water – maybe 64 ounces – was $0.50. Cars had moved back to the right side of the road (versus left as in Thailand) and the driver was now back to the left side of the car. As I understand it, there is a bridge between Laos and Thailand where the cars/drivers make the transition. Never saw this but it would be kind of fun and interesting to experience!
Tuk-tuks abounded, parked on every corner. The number of scooters/motorcycles had increased from Thailand, and there were a few people riding bicycles. I was surprised at how many well maintained and new model cars I saw. I’ve always been fascinated by the mish-mosh of electric lines (I assume these are electric and not telephone lines) in Asia and some South American countries; I just want to tidy these up! But when in Rome . . .
Similar to Thailand, but certainly unlike Seoul where traffic was very controlled, there really was no system for traffic here (other than most vehicles generally drove on the right side of the street). At intersections, vehicles went when they could. As a pedestrian, I was just very careful about when I headed out into the street.
While a small thing, one of the nuances I immediately became aware of was the holes in the sidewalk. Holes where the pavement had just given way. Holes that just waited for a distracted tourist to place their foot and break their leg! I became really careful about watching where I was walking!
And in the busier areas, there were street vendors selling food. Some were along the street and others were off the main drag, just in vacant lots, with grills set up as they grilled an assortment of meat. There were numerous stands for fruit smoothies and coconut pancakes and other such foods.
A street vendor set up in a vacant lot grilling some type of meat, and a large dirt area (a vacant lot?) with homes in the background.
The city had a warmth, an ambiance, despite its somewhat unkempt state (according to US standards). People were friendly and helpful, despite the language barrier.
I ended up getting a facial, just out of curiosity. It was certainly different than the one I had gotten in South Korea, which was a twenty step process (including the aesthetician slapping my face mercilessly toward the end, I suppose to increase blood flow?). This one was somewhat of a non-event; she slathered a few things on and wiped them off and then put on one of those white paper Korean masks that you can get from amazon.com. For $7, what can one expect though?
The electricity was back and I headed back to the hotel to grab a bite to eat at the restaurant there. I had hired a guide to tour some of the local attractions; “William” spoke very good English and was very personable and knowledgeable. The evening before at the Night Market had been troubling me, and so I asked him … should I have given? What will happen to these people, especially to the children? He quickly responded that one should not give as it just teaches people to continue to beg and to be lazy. Instead, he said, buy from the vendors at the market who were working hard to make a living. He also emphasized that the government has programs for those with disabilities, specifically mentioned those who had lost limbs due to the UXO bombs (undetonated bombs remaining from the Vietnam War – more on that later). This was consistent with what our guide in Cambodia a few years ago had told us – support the local vendors and do not give to panhandlers. A comment he made also came to mind – that it is appropriate to haggle on price, but don’t haggle too much. Remember that you have more money than these people. So very, very true.
Yet, it is easy to get caught up in that haggling process, sometimes haggling over a dollar, which to us means little yet to the people in these impoverished countries has significance. And so I made numerous visits to the ATM to get cash to buy from the local vendors.
Spending money to support these hard-working people – no, in twenty years, I will not regret it.