Before going to Laos (the “s” is silent, so it’s pronounced “Lao,” rhyming with “how”), we didn’t really know anything about the country. What we learned, saw, and experienced was very powerfully affecting, both joyful and sad, beautiful and at times heartbreaking.
We arrived on November 27, 2018, and we were there for 14 days. In that time, we visited the three main tourist spots: Vientiane (the capital), Vang Vieng (“backpacker heaven”), and Luang Prabang (a UNESCO World Heritage site).
Oh, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the food: Laotian cuisine is absolutely delicious.
We had a three-hour flight from Chiang Mai, Thailand, to Vientiane, so when we arrived we went to our hotel, napped, and then had a quick dinner. Our hotel, S2 Modern Boutique Hotel, was very new and modern, and had amazing customer service — all for very cheap.
The next day while Scott worked, I walked around town. I soon found a really amazing Free Trade handicraft store filled with the work of local artisans, 95% of whom are women living in poverty. This was the first of a few stores that I discovered in Laos that had seriously wonderful handmade products. I mean, like, totally handmade… cultivated on local silk worm farms, with hand-spun thread, hand-woven fabric, hand-dyed material, hand-sewn textiles, etc. I fell in love with the styles, the personal stories, and the quality of these goods. I literally wanted to buy everything. Unfortunately, not everything will fit into my backpack, so I bought a ring and a small bag to hold my jewelry.
The ring I bought is made of aluminum fragments collected from bombs that the USA dropped on Laos, a neutral territory during the Vietnam War. The goal in dropping the bombs was to destroy sections of the Ho Chi Minh Trail (a Vietnamese weapons and supply route) that ran through Laos. In fact, we learned that Laos today remains the most bombed country, per capita, in the world. From 1964-74, the US dropped 270 million (yes, 270,000,000) bombs, which amounts to one plane-load of bombs being dropped every eight minutes, 24/7, for nine consecutive years.
Of those bombs, about 30% failed to detonate. These Unexploded Ordinance (or UXOs) still kill or injure about 300 people every year when they detonate, often accidentally. There are a few NGOs trying to clean up the bombs, but the UXOs are everywhere. Many are buried beneath roads, farmers’ fields and rice paddies, school yards, etc.
One challenge that compounds the UXO problem is that some Laotian people actually search for the bombs so they can cash in the scrap metal. Doing so is illegal, but that’s hardly about to stop someone who is very hungry, living in abject poverty. Both adults and children alike are thus frequently in contact with the bombs, and because so many of the bombs are inert, people aren’t afraid of them anymore. The results can be, as you’d imagine, catastrophic and tragic.
I toured the UXO Visitor Center that educates people about the bombs and also provides prosthetics and rehab for those who’ve lost limbs. There I watched a documentary explaining the problem, showing the training required for safe bomb removal. Clearing UXOs is a very slow and dangerous job. I can’t find the exact video I saw, but here’s a short one to give you some idea:
Throughout our trip in Laos, we saw many victims of these bombs. Some had lost limbs, some their sight or hearing, etc., and many were permanently and terribly disfigured. It was so, so sad. My heart aches for these innocent, kind, friendly, helpless victims of what amounts to an attempted genocide enacted by the United States.
The next day, I decided to cheer myself up with a full day learning about natural dyes and weaving. I went to Houey Hong Vocational Training Centre for Women, whose mission is to provide new opportunities and increased income for Lao women. I loved it. I was the only person in the class, so I had the trainer to myself. She was learning English, so it was a bit of a challenge to communicate, but we got along fine. I even tried teaching her the Roman alphabet. I think I helped.
Upon arrival, I selected a pattern for the scarf I was to dye; my trainer then showed me how to fold it to create the pattern. Next, she had me choose a dye color from among the options, all of which were created from various plants and flowers. I chose pink. Dying the scarf was actually pretty easy, and once it was done, while it hung out to dry, I learned to weave using a Laotian loom.
This part was not so simple. I liken the loom work to a full-body contact sport. (Here’s a video showing Lao weaving, in case you’re interested in the process.) I chose the colors of silk thread I wanted, came up with a pattern, and then proceeded to weave another scarf for about 4-5 hours. My pattern looked good until it started getting crooked… at which point one of the master weavers kindly got it back on track for me. I don’t know what I’d have done otherwise. The result was not perfect, but I made it (almost entirely) myself! I took both scarves home and am very proud of my imperfect handiwork.
That Sunday, we had a very bumpy three-hour drive via minibus to Vang Vieng, known for its outdoor adventure activities and cheap backpacker accommodations. On the ride there, we literally hit bumps so fast and hard that we rose about six inches out of our seats. Scott actually hit his head on the roof of the van a couple times. It was horrible. Our butts and lower backs were very sore.
If the van ride wasn’t bad enough, the next day we decided go for a VERY bumpy ride in a dune buggy! Scott drove, and he was in heaven. Me, not so much. Our guide that day took us to several locations:
- a beautiful fresh water spring called Blue Lagoon #1 (there’s also a #2 and #3) that we jumped into and had a nice, cooling swim;
- on a hike up to and into the largest cave in Laos;
- our first Hmong hill tribe village; and
- the beautiful, mountainous countryside of northern Laos.
When we finished, we found a cool little bar well off the beaten path where we lay in hammocks overlooking the Nam River and had some beers (which was all very necessary to ease the back pain!).
Let me first start by saying that we both loved Luang Prabang. The whole city is super-clean (unlike most of the places we’d seen in Thailand and Laos so far), the people are very friendly, and most people there also speak pretty good English (and you’ll learn why in a bit). We also liked our hotel there and their homemade banana pancakes (which were SOOOOO good!!). We liked it so much, in fact, that we extended our stay by several days.
After another extremely fast and bumpy ride, we arrived at our hotel in Luang Prabang. Scott had to catch up on some work after all our outdoor activities in Vang Vieng, so after lunch I walked around town seeing the Mekong River. That’s when I really started to fall in love with this quaint, clean, lovely French-infused town.Big Brother Mouse, which is also a NGO non-profit Lao library and book publisher. All I had to do was have some conversations in English with the students so they could practice. The place was packed! I met six teenagers, all of whom were very sweet. Because of this organization, many of the townspeople know English and have been able to pull themselves out of poverty and embrace tourism. The whole place and its mission were so rewarding and inspiring! Afterwards, I had dinner with a few of the other volunteers.
On Thursday, December 6, I mailed all the Christmas cards we had bought in Thailand and written out in the interim. (To my knowledge, they still haven’t arrived as of January 16, 2019. Oh, well, it was a crap-shoot.) Afterward, I walked around town, including hiking up 500+ steps to the top of Mount Phousy to see the panoramic view of Luang Prabang and the temple on top. It was worth it: The view was wonderful. Two very young monks (like, 10-year-olds) asked me to take their picture. They were adorable.
Again, I fell in love and visited the shop several times while we were in Luang Prabang. I found myself once again inspired by the story of these two women starting something together that has since become one of the most important textile and artisanal institutions in all of Laos. And the silk scarves and wedding blankets they carried were gorgeous!
- the very crowded Kuang Si Waterfall;
- the Butterfly Farm (started by a non-Lao couple from Holland who had fallen in love with the place and were looking to bolster the local economy); and
- the Lao Buffalo Dairy, where we learned about an amazing group of four who traded in their Porsches for a good purpose: to start a dairy industry in Laos. We tried several types of cheese, the cheesecake, ice cream, and cheese donuts. (Okay, I ordered hungry. I should know better than to order hungry.)
That Saturday, we had yet another amazing experience — the Bamboo Experience, to be specific. We were the only people on this terrific tour that day, so we got individual attention from the founder, Somsay, and his assistants. Somsay picked us up and took us to a traditional Laotian house, where he taught us all about bamboo and how it’s used in everyday life in Laos. I had no idea bamboo was such a miracle plant! It is used in construction, of course, as we all know, but it’s also used for clothing, in household goods (furniture, containers, and all manner of other useful implements), as an ingredient in cooking, for fishing (both as fishing poles and in various traps), hunting (crossbows and many other tools), and basically any household need. It’s truly a wondrous plant.
A bit later, Somsay’s mother gave us a cooking lesson while she prepared several traditional Lao dishes, all incorporating bamboo. There was so much food. We stuffed ourselves, and we still barely made a dent. And it was soooooo goooooood. Her fish-and-bamboo stew remains one of our favorite dishes in all of our travels to date. We also learned to weave bamboo, shoot a bamboo crossbow, play a bamboo instrument, and do a bamboo dance. In all, we had an awesome day with a lot of laughs.
The Bamboo Experience might even be a site for an upcoming episode of The Amazing Race, so keep your fingers crossed for Somsay and his excellent work!
Hmong New Year
After so many busy days, I took it easy on Sunday and did some travel planning while Scott worked.
Earlier in the week, while we were strolling through a local handicrafts shop one evening, we met Khamchanh (who goes by Ton) (hi Ton!), the Textile Collections Manager for the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre in Luang Prabang. He offered to take us to the Hmong New Year festival, so we did that on Monday.
This week-long festival is a time when Hmong families from various different regions get together to celebrate the new year and to find a wife/husband. The singles among them play a game, in which they stand in two lines, facing each other, and toss a small ball back and forth — all the while chatting each other up. This was fascinating to watch!
The young people, some as young as 15 and some in their 60s, were dressed up in traditional Hmong costumes, tossing tennis balls to each other. If, during their exchange, two people decide they like each other, they can then go off together for three days, in sort of a brief “trial marriage.” If they really like each other at the end, they get married. If they don’t like each other, they go their separate ways and wait until the next New Year, when they can start the process over again.
That night we took a ride on a rickety old longboat to watch the sunset on the river and then had drinks overlooking the river afterwards.
Next up: Cambodia. (It’s already written, as are Vietnam and Japan, so they’ll all be coming soon. We’re catching up!)
—Connie and Scott