5.6.08

How Now Brown Laos

The other day a middle aged albino woman from Colorado drummed up some conversation with this here passer-by backpacker from the little town of Melbourne. She claimed to be albino anyway… but I dunno…she looked more of a ‘ranga to me. At very least she had no eyebrows – this much we can be certain of. Regardless of the woman’s lack of epidermal pigment or deficiency of upper brow, this kooky old hippy was a breath of fresh air. After swapping tales of travel and yore, the ranga-albino bird poses me a pertinent question, ‘are you a Zoomer or an Ambler?’. I pondered the question between doses of fresh sweet chilli chook bought from a friendly Laos baguette merchant.
‘I think….both’.

Since the last instalment, It’s been a solid regime of zoomin and amblin around this mad, beautiful, wild, crazy, gloriously diverse continent. And its not that I haven’t felt the urge to divulge all the nitty gritty, all the ins and outs and ups and downs and roundabouts and creamy middles of this wild horse chase adventure. It’s not. A lot has happened…sometimes more than I even realise, especially when yet another day is spent falanging around on the SpicyLaos hostel balcony playing guitar, watching films and generally shooting the sheizer with whoever is around. There’s been a lot of intense moments, a lot of burning around, and as I said earlier, a Libra-scaled balance of zoomin and amblin (in Colorado drawl). To be brutally honest, despite basking in majestic glory of far off exotic lands, it’s been a bit of an effort to take everything in and do it all justice. That, and writing a blog for every waking moment as I did for the Europe trip seems ridiculous this time round, to the point where I’d have nothing to write about because all I’d be doing is writing….about nothing….Bit of a paradox, no?

But here’s what you need to know - here’s the lowdown on what’s going on inside the mindset of Dool as I zoom and amble across jungles, beaches and borders with nothing but my large pack, a bashed acoustic guitar.and a vague concept of what the hell I’m actually doing over here.

Pete and I took a relatively cheap AirAsia flight from Bangkok to a place in Northern Thailand called Udon Thani. The retreat from the ‘Kok was a true blessing; whilst I enjoyed the manic place to begin with, it well and truly did my head in after three nights. Pure chaos. It rained like God was incontinent upon arrival to Udon Thani, as Pete and I white knuckled our seats whilst trying to maintain a manly sense of ease and nonchalance. Deep down we were both shitting ourselves, fearing that our pilot was the son of a rich Thai businessman who forged his aviation papers with a shiny briefcase full of Thai Baht. The plane landed despite the storm as blood returned to our knuckles.

From here we crossed the ‘Friendship bridge’, the connecting point between Thailand and Laos, which perhaps should have been called the Bridge of red tape considering the process involved in getting a Laos visa. It was worth the wait, not just because of the cool full page glossy stamp on page 6 of my passport. Laos felt like a great place to be as soon we set foot inside the border. There was something in the air, a vibe of lethargic freshness.

Laos is a recent backpacker trailpath, for years unnoticed by the plundering Westerner, especially compared to the attention received by nearby nations like Thailand and Vietnam. One thing I noticed immediately upon setting foot into this country is that it is really just at its infant stage of coming to grips with an expanding tourism industry. Cautious of rampant Westernisation and compromising the good natured Laos way of life, the Laos government has been determined to maintain a fine line. A large ecotourism body has been instrumental in providing environment friendly tour programs and treks, and in general, it seems something is going right. The locals are layed back and friendly, welcoming, but certainly happy to see that their pride and joy is not overrun by destructive, out of control tourism.

Vientiane is perhaps the sleepiest capital city on earth. To our delight, we discovered that we were about to enjoy 8000 Laos kip to a single Australian dollar. Henceforth, Pete and I dined like kings, smashing a local pepper steak with fury, and gluttoning an entire pizza at a French-Laos diner not far from our Riverview Hotel. Laos felt good. In the stomach, in the mind and in the cockles. After feeling terribly displaced and brained from the intense ‘Kok this all felt like a breath of fresh air.

And it would go on in a similar fashion, to an even more enjoyable and somewhat bizarre extent. The next day we followed a tip off from our mate Matt from Brighton, suggesting the way forward was North to a little town by the name of Vang Vieng. Now picture this. In the middle of nowhere, after bussing through some lush mountainous road passing tiny shacks and shanty towns, you arrive at what appears to be a one horse town with a population of around 20,000. If that. As you trail down the main drag, the level of relaxation is such that you are certain the authorities are distilling valium in the eater supply. Veeeery relaaaxo. A plethora of bars and caf├ęs serving with ‘BeerLao’ ads adorning every entrance way line the main street and every bloody place in town is showing an episode of ‘Friends’ at a jet-engine decibel level, luring the unsuspecting and oft beguiled Westerner into their premise and plying them with the advertised BeerLao. Vang Vieng is the Laos equivalent of Las Vegas. It is bizarre. For the life of me I could not work out why every freakin place in town had to show Friends! Only one bar went its own way, playing every Goddam episode ‘Family Guy’ on repeat ad nauseum. Suitably, this bar was the only one with a menu featuring ‘Happy Pizza’, ‘Happy Garlic Bread’ and the potentially terrifying ‘Opium Tea’. Family Guy, im sure, would never be the same again.

After two enjoyable nights parked in a riverside bungalow, and one ridiculous write off of an afternoon tubing down the Mekong river in oversize rubber tubes, stopping off at the multitude of bars and rope wings along the way, we decided that ‘Vang Vegas’ was not doing the trip any justice and we should move further north. Boozy poms and wasted yanks get trapped in this town, smashing the tube day after day only to quell their hangovers the next morning and contracting Tinnitus from yet another caper involving Ross and Rachel’s love triangle. The place was weird man, and if ever I felt like the sheep backpacker following the herd, it was here. And after three episodes of friends I actually felt my brain vegetating.

As I write this, I am in Luang Prabang, 8 hours north of Vang Vegas. It’s been a strange week as I tick off my sixth night in this sleepy town, amblin more so than zoomin'. I’ve got a lot more to say. Hold that thought, go smash a coffee, take a bathroom break and read a novel in there. You’re crazy if you don’t. And I promise not to be too long.

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