#3 Laos, January 30, 2007

Dear Everybody,

After Luang Prabang, I got a minibus to Vang Vieng, a small town midway between LP and Viantiane, the capital. I was collected at my guesthouse by a jumbo driver who also collected others from other guesthouses, then drove out of town to a mini-bus depot. What chaos! Finally I was motioned into a minibus where I was the 10th passenger to complete a load of nine Koreans who were traveling together. They were family and friends and of all ages—teens to old.

Two of them could speak some English. After exchanging our traveling info (“Are you alone?” etc.) a thirtyish man said, “You are very beautiful—would you mind if I asked you old you are?” When I answered ’71’, the whole group exploded into exclamations—which was very flattering until I could see that their exclamations were only because one of the men in their group (apparently single) was also 71! This was followed by, “You—him—friends!” and “He’s a very rich man,” and “Will you get married sometime again?”

This man had been born in Pyongyang, North Korea but after the Korean War had ended up in South Korea. After this was told to me, he launched into a 10-minute dramatic speech (in Korean—he didn’t speak English) about life in North Korea when he was growing up. I asked the younger man to translate what he was saying, but I guess his English wasn’t good enough to give me any detail.

The bus ride (five hours) was pleasant over a paved road through scenic mountains, occasionally going through tiny villages of bamboo-woven huts with thatched roofs.
They were threshing some kind of grain (rice?) by whacking bunches of it on the asphalt road.

As we neared Vang Vieng, beautiful limestone karst appeared, very like in southern China. Vang Vieng is mostly guesthouses, internets and restaurants but the scenic Nam Song River alongside the town and the gorgeous karst across the river, along with the Lao river activities made it a nice two-day stop.

Back on the road again to Vientiane, the capital. It’s a charming small city with the Mekong River flowing alongside.

The first day I had my beer and lunch/dinner sitting under umbrellas overlooking the river. The ‘restaurant’ was only a food stand out on the sand, but the sign said “Clean Food” and so I took them at their word, eating a noodle dish with egg and veggies, and a fried spring roll served with cold rice noodles, lettuce and sauce. It was all delicious. Since it’s the dry season, the river is actually a half mile away, across a sandy, dry riverbed, so it’s not so scenic but there was a pleasant breeze.

My guesthouse is A-1. I have a private room with bath, TV (CNN, BBC and CNBC) A/C (not needed now), a fan and a refrigerator. It’s well-located, has great ambience with a comfortable lobby in which it’s pleasant to meet other travelers, and lots of nooks and crannies with comfy chairs in which to read/write/listen to my iPod. The price includes breakfast—two eggs, bacon, a crisp half French baguette, jam and coffee or tea, all very nice (except the coffee.) And the price I’m paying for room and breakfast?? $10 per night. You don’t think I’m paying too much, do you??

I did the walking tour in the Lonely Planet guidebook to get a look at the city. I visited Haw Pha Kaew, a former royal temple that is a museum now that houses beautiful Buddhist sculptures.

The Lao Buddhas are especially beautiful, I think, with their flaring ‘skirts’ and austere, dignified look. Those of you who have seen the ‘Emerald Buddha’ in Bangkok (really made of jade)—well this is the temple from which the Siamese stole it in 1779. Now what kind of karma can that produce?

After a couple of days of sightseeing and settling in, I called your friend Art, Dorothy (they worked together in Laos many years ago). The next day we had lunch—Art, his Lao wife, Tip, their 3 year old son, Woody, and me—a very pleasant time. Thanks, Dorothy, for the contact.

We had breakfast this morning, too, and had such an interesting conversation. Art’s professional life started with the Peace Corps and he has mostly worked abroad for NGOs ever since. He presently works for “World Education.”

Then I also made contact with two women through the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree, both of them English teachers and both from the UK although one had lived for many years in Australia. Over coffee with them, I mentioned that I had gotten a 60 day visa, much to their surprise. Jo asked to take a look at it in my passport and promptly showed me that my ‘visa’ date (March 11) was the last date it could be presented; the ‘real’ visa was a stamp I received when I entered Laos and it said the visa was good only until Feb. 14th! I apparently would have been in big trouble if I would have left the country 30 days too late! They explained to me that it’s really easy to pop across the border to Thailand and come right back with another 30 day visa. I’ll do this when I’m in southern Laos as that’s when it will be running out. Well, all’s well that ends well!

Yesterday I again had coffee with the two teachers, this time at their houses. Jo lives near the That Luang, the big Lao gold stupa with temples, so we looked that over.

There were many women eating at one of the temples—Lao people like to share food. And many offered us food—and we did eat a spring roll. They had apparently brought lots of food to the monks for a special occasion, and now were eating the ‘leftovers.’

Then we took a tuk tuk to visit Lynda at her home. Both women live in very nice furnished houses. I think Vientiane will go on my list of places in which to live for a few months sometime in the future. The city is just the right size and ‘shape.’

A visit to the National Museum and maybe a trip out of town for 24 km to see the Buddha Park will round out my day, plus getting info on buses to my next destination (south of Vientiane) which I’ll probably take on Thursday.

All’s well.

Carol

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