Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Song and Mekong Rivers, Louang Phrabang

November 2000


Lou wanted to go to Laos; Joan didn't. Another bomb had been discovered in the Vientiane airport and the U.S. State Department was warning of terrorist activity. Cambodia looked a lot safer to her than Laos. So Lou flew off to Laos for nine days while Joan remained behind in Siem Reap where she taught English in a Buddhist temple school.

Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is called a "40-wat" (temple) city, but Lou was all watted-out after so long in Bangkok, so he spent his time hanging out in beer gardens with former student Mana and Westerners. His favorite evening hangout was Khopchai Deu, an old French colonial home cum restaurant whose attractive court garden is now an orchard of lamps glowing above the bar and wrought iron tables. The place was perfect for meeting ex-pats and travelers from other Western countries.

The grand Lane Xang Hotel where Mana arranged for Lou to stay the first night for $22 was clean, spacious, modern and formal. But it wasn't conducive to meeting people so Lou switched to the small Vannasihn guest house for humbler and friendlier lodging at $4. Lao cuisine is like Cambodian food, less spicy than Thai. There're steamed fish dishes on every menu; you can get red and green curried chicken, pork and beef with potatoes and greens and lots of sticky rice. The French left a superb legacy in Laos - rich coffee, the bagette and French toast. The best street snack in Vientiane was a foot long bamboo tube stuffed with slightly sweetened, purplish sticky rice.

The bus to Vang Vieng was packed to the gills with Westerners. Because Lou was traveling alone without his love, he was delighted to talk with so many English-speaking travelers from Holland, France, Norway, Australia, England and Switzerland. The new friends were great and so was the Beerlao.

Vang Vieng is a way-laid-back village. Here at the higher elevation, the days are merely warm and the nights are cool. It's quiet, too, except for the occasional shrill gobbles of Laotian turkeys. The most exciting event Lou observed was a "soccer-volleyball" game on a patch in front of the TelCom office. Six young men played with no hands - serving, passing, digging and slamming only with heads and feet. A dazzling display of athleticism. The warmth of the first afternoon drove Lou to the cool waters of the beautiful Song River. It was a half-day inner-tube float past karst formations, partially submerged buffalo, women laundering, children splashing, and interesting V-shaped wakes on the water's surface. "But those poisonous water snakes!" wailed Joan, when she learned of this. "They didn't come very close to me," replied Lou. "Drat," said Joan. Well, no she didn't.

The next day Lou and Pierre from Paris went biking through the countryside past Hmong farmers harvesting rice, thatched, rattan-walled pole houses, and haystacks with "hats" of tied-off tufts of rice stalks. Children along the way gave them "Sawadee" greetings and requests for school pens. They beat the heat exploring a fantastic cave for over an hour, then climbed down to the river to swing out over the water and release into its coolness.


Once the seat of the Kingdom of Laos, Luang Prabang is a World Heritage Site - said to be the best preserved traditional town in Southeast Asia. You can tell the French were here not only by the tasty food but by the motorcycle sidecars and the popular French bowling game of ptang. The town is situated at the confluence of two busy rivers - the Khan and the Mekong. During the dry season, the waters recede and the farmers terrace and work the loamy banks until the June monsoon floods their patches. Along the banks you can see men loading bags of rice onto cargo boats, children imitating their fathers dragging fish nets in the shallows, and passenger ferries plying the waters between the banks. Sunsets along the Mekong were strikingly beautiful.


One day Lou with a Swiss couple and an English ex-pat from Sri Lanka went in search of old dilapidated and deserted temples in the hills on the other side of the Mekong. They found the temples (see one below left) but their Buddha statues had long been removed and stored underground. They then searched for and found the deep recesses where termite-eaten Buddhas lay buried. "Did you get lost?" worried Joan. "Only once," replied Lou. "if another traveler hadn't waited for me at an intersection, I never would have found my way out of the cave." "Drat," said Joan. Well, no, once again she didn't.  


Luang Prabang has an unusually high concentration of monasteries. The monks in their bare feet and flowing orange robes are everywhere. If you rise before dawn, you can watch them filing through the town begging for rice. Charitably-minded donors are already up and seated on the sidewalk in the dark. As the monks pass by, they lift the lids on their bowls and are rewarded with golf-ball-sized gifts of sticky rice.

Lou poked around several wats and struck up a conversation with a 16-year-old monk named Ken, whose name means "offering." Ken was very ill when he was younger and when he recovered his mother gave him as an offering to a local monastery. Ken described his daily routine: Every day, he prays (chants) from 4-5 a.m. then meditates until 6:00. From 6-7:30 a.m. he begs for food, taking his wooden begging bowl out into the streets. The rest of the day is devoted to 1) prayer study (i.e., the memorization of chants), and 2) Sanskrit study so he can read the 81 books of Buddha's life in the original texts. He takes a break from study to weed and water the neighbor's garden. He prays for another hour at sunset before bed. (Monks cannot eat after 12:00 noon.) Lou was very impressed with this young man, who was articulate, purposeful and peaceful. After thirty minutes' conversation, Lou made an offering at the altar, thanked Ken with a cum chai! and bid him goodbye.

Meanwhile, back in Cambodia, tanks were rolling through Siem Reap - one of them being towed! An attempted coup in Phnom Penh (perhaps staged by the government to divert attention from the calls for a trial of the Khymer Rouge) led to four deaths and 38 arrests. For all her concerns about Laos, Joan was in a hotter spot than Lou. Next time, she'll just stick with him.


From Laos, Lou flew back to meet Joan in Bangkok, then we flew to MYANMAR



GUIDEBOOKS:  South-East Asia on a Shoestring (Lonely Planet); Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos Handbook (Moon Guides)




Lou and Joan Rose     joanandlou@ramblingroses.net