Entering Laos was like entering the land of sunshine and Dok Champa flowers. The national flower can be seen everywhere growing in its natural state on trees, used as decoration in womens’ hair, painted on park benches, and used as offerings to the gods.
Piercing the skyline like dogmatic swords, Laos’ Buddhist temples are intricate, bold, and colorful. Their dramatic Asian architecture with multiple sloping roofs, sharp repeating edges, and scaling dragons demands attention. Walking around the capital, Vientiane, we discovered over ten sprawling temples and thousands of miniature spirit houses, or “haw pii” as the Lao call them. No less impactful in their presence and emotional role played in Laos society, these animist spirit houses standing just five feet tall and two feet wide, are tightly woven into the daily lives of the people. They are intended to ward off mischevious spirits and bring continuos good luck. They also act as a shelter and shrine to keep the spirits happy, and we watched as daily each city inhabitant placed offerings of fruit (bananas, pineapples, dragon fruit, etc), burning incense, flowers and pyramidal oragami made from banana leaves and marigolds on and around their temple. Some spirit houses are even festooned with daily items the owner enjoys like Coca-Cola, Beer Lao, and even lit cigarettes. Before any construction can begin, Laos people erect a haw pii in a prominent spot on the land to ensure that permission is asked and granted by the spirits to utilize their land, and in hopes to secure positive spirits and luck in the future.
The most visually stunning temple we visited was Wat Si Saket, a collection of over 2,000 Buddha statues, both large and small, arranged in an infinite pattern over four main rectangular rooms. The dripping age of the chipped walls juxtaposed against the shining gold Buddhas painted a surreal picture.
Interestingly, the men in Laos are expected to enter a Buddhist monastery for at least a few months, and many choose to study and live as monks for much longer periods of time. The subtly varying shades of bright orange worn by monks draw your eye towards their seemingly simple activities as they congregate inside temples, water the grounds, wash clothes, and drift down the city streets. Women are not to talk to or touch monks, so I quietly observed from a distance and was most impressed with the way the elder monks took the younger novices under their wings and showed them the beautiful world before them.
Throughout the capital we were hit with a mouthwatering collision of culinary firsts. Splayed out in front of us on streetside grills were an array of meat lovers’ choices: sun dried cow liver, pork and beef sausage, chicken on a stick, and lemongrass-stuffed salted fish. Lee sprung for chicken feet and later chicken heart, which he enjoyed so much he ate nine of them. To get a look at the flip side of Laos dining, we also tested out the cuisine at several higher end sit down restaurants. Makphet was a standout, the food presentation was impeccable and the restaurant supports a good cause, operating as a training center for underprivildged kids from the street to learn how to cook, wait tables, manage money, and practice English. However, our bellies kept bringing us back for noodle soup at Nam Phu Cafe, a hole in the wall spot that has an open cart acting as their kitchen on the side of the street and basic plastic tables set inside. Lining each table was a long row of spices in liquid, freshly cut, and pickled form, along with a plate of mung beans and sliced limes. Each soup had a unique flavor made personal by the greens and spices added tableside. In addition to these Laos staples, we had great french bread and sweets at a number of local bakeries thanks to the left over French influence, Laos having been colonized from 1893 to 1954.
Having heard about wonderfully inexpensive massages ($3 – $10 an hour), we decided we must seek one out. We read about a serene spa abutting a Buddhist temple just outside the main city and grabbed a tuk-tuk with high hopes of the hour of ultimate relaxation to come. The driver stopped directly in front of the Buddhist temple gates and since he did not speak English, shooed us into a small opening underneath overgrowing palm trees and bouganvillas to the left of the temple in hopes that we would find our way. There were no signs for any spa, or any commercial buildings at all, just a dirt road with glimpses of various temples through the brush. Looking at each other, we shrugged and laughed and carried on down the path to see where it would lead us. Before too long we started seeing long-legged chickens pecking at the road and then a few rudimentary houses with fires burning and men playing checkers outside, and then we came to a fork in the road. Pausing for just a moment, we heard “You wanna massage?!” floating down from the treetops. Without knowing who to respond to or even where to look, we responded in kind to the trees, “Sa Bai Dee” (hello in Laos) “…yes!” Moving toward the voice, we saw an open air structure made of dark wood raised 10 feet in the air with low banisters encircling the space. We were told to come around the side and climb the stairs. Once we reached the platform we took quick stock of what we were getting ourselves into. Three heavyset men wearing just towels around their waists poured sweat from every inch of their exposed bodies. It was hot, but not that hot. One steaming tea pot and three small mismatched tea cups sat on the low table in front of them and they sipped in leisure. Three or four more men hung back in the next “room”, divided by the same low banister, with several raised mattreses taking up the majority of floor space. Some of the men were sleeping, one was clipping his toenails, and another was looking listfully into the trees. There was a swinging saloon door to our left and a full door to the only closed room next to that. The woman who called to us from the trees asked if we wanted sauna and massage, and with an even smaller idea of how the day was going to go than when we started our journey, we agreed. At least that explained the profuse perspiration from our fellow spa mates. We were then handed two towels and pointed to change through the saloon doors. Very little communication happened throughout, we mainly sat long enough in one place to determine the moves of those around us and would respond in a similar fashion. The three heavyset men opened the sauna door and steam rolled out like a cloud of smoke from a volcano. We followed suit and entered the sauna. Tight, dark, chokingly damp, and swelteringly hot, we lasted several minutes before retreating and basking in our own glistening heat. We took two more mismatched tea cups from a tottering stack and poured just enough tea to sip on. With no direction from the “hostess”, we continued the sauna-to-tea cycle several more times. It seemed that this cycle would never cease as no mention, impatience, or sense of a next step was ever portrayed by the hostess or our spa mates. Ready for my relaxing massage and worn from the extreme heat of the sauna, I finally inquired with the hostess if we could move on to the massage. After a few moments of misunderstanding, it was apparent that we were to take showers, get a new towel, and then receive our massages. More pointing ensued as they directed me to the shower down the stairs and behind some shrubery. Once on the dirt path with no shower in sight, I looked back and was encouraged with hand gestures to keep walking. I reached a large bucket of standing water that had a green film covering the surface; that would not be for me, no thank you. There was another bucket of water, less green, but not much more inviting than the first bucket. A hose was nearby but the faucet handles did not turn it on. The hostess must have noticed my struggles and sent a helper down who then flipped a master switch and intimated with the hose that I should shower. Great, but clearly the spa folks could see me through the sparse greenery so removing my towel and showering naked was not an option, nor did I want to soak the towel through in the frigid waters. I quickly washed my legs, arms, and hair, flipped off the master switch and was glad to have that portion of the spa visit over. To allow Lee the full experience, I didn’t relay my story but just sent him on his way. He used the bucket water, like everyone else! Alas, the massage. There were no options, no oil or aromatherapy, Swedish or Sports, just straight forward Laos. We laid down on two of the raised mattresses next to eachother, wrapped in our towels, and our masseuses climbed onto the beds, sat on our legs, and began the massage. It was a mix of pulling limbs, popping joints, twisting torsos, and knocking knuckles. Half of the time I was nervous the masseuse might pull or push or twist too hard and end my life. The hour ended with a yanking of the ears, tweeking of the nose, and bop on the head.
At night we soaked up live music by the city’s central fountain that was illuminated by a light show and made hip by all the local 20-somethings drinking and dining at the al fresco restaurants encircling the fountain. Each night a different three piece band would play American pop classics mixed with Laos favorites. After getting our fill of Beerlao and music, we would walk to the Mekong just steps away and join the bustling crowds of locals at the night market. Stall after stall sold food, clothes, artwork, and jewelry. People of all ages were strolling the market, seemingly looking for nothing more than a socializing night out. Every evening at the same locations along the Mekong, free public excercise classes began with booming techno music, enthusiastic instructors calling out the moves from tall black pedestals, and crowds of people following along in unison. I joined in and was quickly swept into the fervor of group exercise; kick left and right and up and down, again!
Further down the Mekong stood a bronze King Anouvong, a large rigid statue of the last king of Vientiane extending a miltant hand to shake. Surrounding the statue were seated women selling lotus flowers as offerings to place on the statue. The lotus petals are a recurring motif in Laos architecture and can be seen throughout the country as a Buddhist symbol of divine purity and enlightenment.
To get a view of the city on high, we climbed the steps of Patuxai, or “Victory Gate”, and looked out over the pristine parks and sprawling streets radiating below. A small plaque at the entrance of Patuxai read, “Victory Gate of Vientiane…from a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete”. We thought it was quite nice, but with an official sign like that, you have to wonder. Looking further into the history of this war monument, we found out that in fact the U.S. government gifted all of the cement used for Patuxai with the intention that the Laos government would use the materials to build an airport. For this reason, the monument was nicknamed the vertical runway. An explanation for the bizarre plaque still eludes us.
Branching out from the capital, we took a wobbling overnight bus to Pakse where we found one of the best guesthouse deals of our trip. The hotel was just opening and they spared no expense with tiled bathroom floors, endless hot water at all times of the day and night, fresh linens on a new mattress, and even a wooden bureau. We joked that our standards for “fancy” had noticably dropped some decibels and agreed that we had become much more thankful for even the smallest details (i.e. toilet paper included in the bathroom). The town itself was a bit lackluster, but we wandered around several temples and through well worn dirt passages past backyards full of tents and playing children before chowing down on noodle dishes at an outdoor corner restaurant. Sunset drinks along the Mekong was the perfect way to end the evening.
The next day we decided to take the local bus from Pakse to Tad Lo, a small town on the Bolaven Plateau renowned for their coffee and waterfalls. Upon our arrival at the Pakse bus station we felt we had finally discovered the true spirit of the city. There were hundreds of merchant stalls and the Laos people ran in every direction calling out to all passersby. One motorcyclist arrived with a cartload of live chickens and ducks, all roped together and flung underneath a wired netting to keep them from escaping. A gloved woman then proceeded to unload all of the flapping animals and placed them directly next to an idling bus. She took stock of their health, feeding an opaque liquid to the least sturdy of the flock, and shared birdseed with the rest. Life rushed forward around the chickens and ducks as women sold hot soup in little plastic baggies twisted at the top to hold the broth and veggies and spoon inside. Other women sold fruits and juices and eggs and bread, walking by all the bus windows to see what the riders might buy for their journey onward. Still others gave manicures to passengers awaiting their buses. We were the only foreigners at the station and when we handed our bags over to be loaded underneath the bus we heard a thunderous, “Falang!” (meaning foreigner) as a boy came rushing towards his shouting father to take our bags. We had a great ride through the countryside and saw many coffee plants growing in small plantations. Every so often a village popped up along the road and all the people living there were dedicated to the production of coffee. Their front yards had gated patches to allow coffee beans to be placed flat without any dogs or pigs getting at them. The beans were then raked and turned to allow for optimal drying and to ensure no part of the bean rotted. The people worked at a calm and steady pace.
As soon as we stepped off the bus and collected our bags we noticed a rancid fishy stink and then a wetness seaping through our bags to our clothes. The bags had been loaded in the bottom of the bus along with a handful of leaking packages full of half-melting fish guts, or so it smelled to us. We had no choice but to carry on, so we plugged our senses to the smell and trodded on down the road with no strong inclination of which direction to head since our maps were incorrect, there were no signs, and nobody spoke English. After a mile or two we were passed by a Laos teenager on his motorcycle with his younger brother and a white woman seated behind him. They were headed in the same direction as us and we hoped that meant good things. Another mile or two later and we found the town. We stopped in several guesthouses in search of a good price and a cozy room, and did not even try to explain why we stunk like last week’s rotten dinner. The last guesthouse we looked was perfect. It was full of smiling guests and had rustic prairie ranch feel to it, and to top it off, it was right at the base of the town’s main waterfalls.
After cleaning up, we spent the next three days exploring the area. For breakfast we posted up on the porch of our guesthouse and enjoyed the view of the roaring waterfalls above. We then hiked through deserted forest paths, stopping each time we heard running water to find a glimpse of a different view of the first falls. We passed two large hotels, fairly far apart, and beautiful in construction, but completely shuttered. So far off the beaten path, and closed to traffic, these oases were admired by too few people to keep them running. A few paces further and we saw the second set of beautiful waterfalls. To get closer we climbed over a few small boulders and across the most haggard bridge I’ve ever dared to cross. It was a simple bridge made of sticks hammered together, but half of the sticks were missing, and another half of those remaining either had rusty nails poking through to the air or were completely loose and could not support our weight. Several breaks in the side frame of the bridge also meant that portions were tilting steeply downwards. Though the structure was daunting, the bridge was only two feet high so falling through would not result in too much worse than a broken leg or ankle (but flowing water and slippery rock piles pretty well guaranteed injury so falling was not an option). Having made it successfully across the bridge, we crept towards the edge of the water and up several tree roots jutting out from the side of the hill. From our perch on top of a rock, we escaped the sun and appreciated our surroundings while savoring a bag of goldfish, a very rare American snack for us!
That afternoon when leaving the waterfall we saw two small brown terriers followed by a man with a stick. The dogs were running about, in what I thought was clear excitement to be out exercising, when Lee pointed out that they were probably hunting dogs in search of rats. We continued on our way through the woods and came upon at least 30 naked children bathing in the waters, splashing and squeeling and paying little attention to us. Just a bit further down the path and we ran into their village. Much deeper into nature thanTad Lo, this village was only accessible by foot paths, so had no vehicles and seemingly no running water. Wooden houses were raised on stilts to allow for drafts of air to cool the inside, while the shade underneath the houses provided escape from the beating sun. Men, women, and children lazed in these shady patches laughing and talking. Puppies and piglets romped and played together in every direction we looked. Peanuts lay drying on a tarp in the center of the village and the well trained animals stayed far from the food. One boy showed us his pet bird which was no bigger than my fist, colorful as can be, and as personable as they get. By now the bathers had finished washing up and were returning to their homes shouting “Sa Bai Dee” to us with big smiles illuminating their faces.
On our walk back from the village we saw the man with his terriers again, only this time the man was holding two freshly killed rats. As unappealing as that may sound, it was incredible to see man and animal working so harmoniously together to reach an agreed upon result. We also saw more coffee trees and decided to take the long way home to try the fresh roasted coffee we saw advertised on a wooden sign in white paint outside a white picket fenced yard. Several tree stumps were strewn across the yard creating tables and chairs. Since I’m not a coffee drinker, Lee took the reins and selected Arabica typica grown in the surrounding hills. The shopkeeper then roasted and ground the beans before brewing the freshest cup of coffee Lee had ever had. Under the spell of the aromatic beans we dreamt of a life in Laos, so much had the people, culture, and landscape impressed us. Not knowing it at the time, we would be back before we knew it.