Saturday, April 27, 2013

Northern Laos

I've been slacking on the blogs. I got up this morning and headed to a cafe to catch up, but when I opened Facebook for some pre-writing procrastination, I learned my brother had a bad fall pole vaulting at a track meet. A few minutes of all-consuming panic followed. I called my Dad at the hospital and he said Billy was moving his hands and feet. The x-rays came back with nothing broken. He was released from the hardboard they had him strapped to and able to go home, albeit in pain.

A few hours later, I'm happy and relieved. Although left wondering, in the wake of a brief but draining panic, how I will ever have kids when life with them can be so scary? "You just kind of live through it," was my Mom's answer. But what if your natural inclination in times of crisis is to recoil into an inoperative ball of anxiety? Oy. A small comfort is that - if genetics have anything to do with it - my children will probably be wildly nonathletic. Pole vaulting? I doubt it...

So Laos!

Presently, I'm in the capital, Vientiane. After northern Vietnam, there was a grueling nighttime bus ride (the highlight of which was a Polish couple, my heroes, shouting "DON'T SMOKE" at a Vietnamese guy who lit up on our little, packed-to-the-gills bus immediately after a pit stop. The Polish couple was like, "We are also from ex-Communist country..." by way of sheepish justification for their stern rebuke).

After the mountainous, curvy, not-totally-paved journey, plus a couple hours at the border processing, I spent an afternoon drinking beer with fellow travelers in a do-nothing stopover town. The next day there was a six-hour slow boat ride down the Nam Ou to Nong Khiaw, a beautiful little village with a relaxed backpacker scene.
Nong Khiaw                                            
More child labor! Another hiking guide.
She asked me if she could have my binoculars and tried to pull money out of my wallet. Then asked if I wanted to buy a beer, or if I wanted to buy her an ice cream. I appreciate the moxy.
I wound up staying a couple days, it was just so pretty. Unfortunately, my hotel was the buggiest place I've stayed yet. I left the light on at night so if I felt them I could see them. I also hoped they wouldn't be so bold when denied cover of darkness...

I couldn't get enough of the limestone cliffs and green riverbanks, so I decided to spend three days immersed in it on a kayak trip down the Nam Ou to where it meets the Mekong - a 123-km journey.

Future model? Lao girl in the village where we homestayed the first night                                            

It was great to see the river slowly. The guide pointed out things I would've never otherwise seen: a shaman performing a sacrificial ceremony for a tree spirit, dozens of villagers gold panning, a pair of hunters smoking an iguana out of a tree so they could shoot it with their extremely long-barrelled rifles. There were rapids on the river so my camera spent most the journey tucked in a dry bag. Sorry about that.

I did get a few shots, like of this gang of 10-year-old monks splashing in the river.

Getting ready to dive in                                 
Fun in the river
This was the second night. After we pitched our tent on the riverbank, I put on my swimsuit and joined them. They laughed a lot, mimicking me and practicing their beginner English ("Hello my name is..." "1,2,3,4,5,6,7!").

When I got out, I didn't want to track my sandy feet into the tent to change, but the sun was going down and the boys were lingering on the shore. After standing around a bit, I turned shrugging to my fellow kayaker, a Swiss woman, and said, "Well, if I were Scandinavian I would've already changed a long time ago." As anyone who's been in a dorm with a Swedish girl knows, those ladies don't give a hoot about getting nekkid. I think this is a cool testament to the gender-equality achievements of northern Europe. Guys think it's cool too, maybe not for the same reason...

So I went around to the side of the tent blocking their view, but as soon as I did, wouldn't you know, all the orange-robed brats started scurrying up the bank.

"You all should be ashamed of yourselves, I know exactly what you're doing - NAUGHTY! NAUGHTY!" I yelled and pointed (not really mad).

"Naughty! Naughty!" some of them parroted. There was also a "THANK YOU!" and an "OH YES!"

Lesson? Boys are the same everywhere. Even the orange-robed, shaven-headed ones.

The kayaking was tough enough I had the beginning of callouses on my fingers and palms and was totally exhausted every night. But in the end 123 km felt like an achievement. And navigating some of the rapids was pretty cool. Back in the US, I want to learn to Eskimo roll.

This view...
Pro Tip: If you stumbled across this blog looking for info on kayaking in Laos, I recommend Green Discovery. My guide spoke great English and was eager to explain everything along the way. He was trained in first aid and knew his kayak stuff.                

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