Laos is incredible.  It’s my favorite place yet, only surpassing Hsipaw, Myanmar by a fraction.

But I’m typing this and realizing I am hyper-focused on something else, which is preventing me from writing about Laos.  So let me get this out of the way, first.

OK, so the US is known around the world for ridiculous caution labels, because of our law-suit friendly society. I mean, we have hamburger wrappers that have labels indicating, “Caution: May contain animal products.” But in Asia, I’ve seen some similarly ridiculous caution signs, which are usually also paired with an absurd visual, or series of visuals to demonstrate the jist of their message.  This has been a surprise for me, and a pleasant one, because it shows me that it’s not just my country that has gone bonkers with this kind of stuff, but it appears to be a world-wide phenomenon.

This one is from my hotel room here in Vang Vieng:

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I can’t read the local language, but I’m pretty sure it translates to something along these lines:

  • Don’t grab for the sink in an attempt to save yourself from cracking your head open
  • Don’t stand on the sink and dip your toes in the water to test its temperature
  • Don’t treat the sink as a piece of fitness equipment
  • and CERTAINLY don’t use the sink as a toilet in the event that the actual toilet is clogged.

I once saw a sign that depicted the appropriate way to use a “Western” toilet: it is to sit on the thing, and NOT to stand on the seat and then squat over it.  It was quite graphic.

I just love these little things that are so ridiculous. They’re everywhere. It’s as if they’re reminding us that even though we are adult enough to come all the way to Vang Vieng and rent a hotel room, we still aren’t quite capable of understanding how to interact with standard appliances.  I recently had a lovely hand-washing lesson, I think in Brunei:

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I mean, how detailed can they get?  It’s as if they assume the worst–that their patrons have never washed their hands before in their lives–and so they want to make absolutely sure they don’t miss any steps.  I sit here and wondering if it’s always been this way. I wonder if, in 1909, for example, there were little notes next to the candles in your room at the bed and breakfasts that said “Warning: flammable.”  I should look it up.

You know, I love this country I’m in–Laos–and besides the sign in my hotel bathroom, I haven’t been able to find one thing about this place that I don’t absolutely adore. Kate and I left Don Det and headed North. We stopped over in a town called Pakse for a night, but quickly moved on to the next place as it seemed everywhere we went we ran into the wretched Czech guys from our bus ride.  See in Laos, there is only really one way people go–North.  Or South, if they entered the country up North.  So since we had the misfortune of meeting these people in the furthest South town in Laos, the chances were high that we would be seeing them again.

We were having dinner that night in Pakse, with Jana (the German woman, who spent a couple of days with us in Don Det) after meeting up with her again upon arrival. We sat down to eat, ordered our food, and what do you know–the three most terrible people in the world showed up.

“Oh,” Jana said, as we filled her in on the story of our bus ride, “that man fell off our boat this morning as we were going from Don Det to the mainland.”

But Jana was still shocked when the same man who had fallen off the boat (which, I might add, is not easy to do), laid down in what I call a “hepatitis puddle” in the middle of the street, and proceeded to sleep there–at around 5 pm.

Disgusting.

We left the next day, and headed North to Vientiane via a sleeper bus.

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Now, the sleeper bus in Laos–VIP sleeper bus, to be exact–is hilarious. It is undoubtedly the most unsafe vehicle I’ve ever ridden in, but the laughs we had as we found our “bed” will not be soon forgotten.

The aisle of the bus was not even wide enough to walk through if you faced forward. You had to turn to the side and shimmy your way down the path to get to your bed. Then the beds were about 5 feet in length, and about a foot and a half in girth. So Kate and I became very close that night.

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Practically on top of each other, we couldn’t sleep at all; so we spent most of the night talking, and comparing our perceptions of the smells coming from the toilet, which was right beside our bed, and which seemed to emit waves of intolerable smells throughout the night.  We quickly learned that all buses in Laos are called “VIP.”  But no truly VIP would ever set foot on these vehicles, I can promise you that.

When we finally arrived in the capital city of Vientiane we were knackered. The previous night had been quite an exciting experience, and we must have each slept only about 1 hour. We still had another 6-hour ride to Vang Vieng, though, making this one of the longest serial-bus-rides I’ve ever been on.  We grabbed breakfast in Vientiane with a lovely man named Alex, who changed our lives in 10 minutes of conversation.

We met him at the bus station.  He is 43, and from Chicago, and he has been living in Northern Laos for the past 7 months, playing bass and riding his bicycle around everywhere he goes. Since he left the US, he has lost 140 lbs.

[Pause.]

140 pounds.

This guy is incredible. He picked up his life where it was in Chicago–unhealthy and uninspired–and made a move. He came out here, and made the changes he wanted to in order to be healthy. He exercises every day, and has cut meat out of his diet entirely.

In Asia, it’s actually quite difficult to be vegetarian. I thought it would be the opposite, but it’s not the case. They put meat in everything, and you must be very proactive and conscious to avoid it. But Alex has made it a point to eat only vegetables, and to keep himself active; he is living proof that you can make the changes you want in your life, if only you try.  And we talked about meat consumption quite a bit in those 10 minutes.  The amount of meat we eat in Western culture is simply bad for us.  If you don’t even consider the environmental repercussions, and only look at the health impact of consuming excessive amounts of meat, the case for becoming a vegetarian is quite strong.

We were rushed to finish breakfast and then jump on the next bus North, so we jotted down his contact information and moved on. But both Kate and I were in agreement: we need to exercise and we don’t want to eat meat anymore.  I will eat a steak when I get home, but after that…meat will not be a major part of my diet.

Anyway, another 6 hour bus ride later, and we finally arrived in Vang Vieng.

Vang Vieng is a little mountain town between Laos’ two biggest cities: Luang Prabang and Vientiane.  It is a lovely town with great scenery, but there isn’t much to do there besides rent an innertube for $15 (an enormous sum of money out here), and drunkenly float down the river. I wasn’t buying. I had gone tubing for $1 in Don Det, and the scene of heinously drunken Europeans acting like assholes on innertubes just didn’t appeal to me.

The town is littered with shops selling t-shirts that say “I went tubing in Vang Vieng,” and so it seems a little silly to go all the way there and not go tubing.  But I wanted to stay true to the promise I had made to myself, which was to refrain from doing things simply because they are the popular choice of travelers.  Just because it’s the thing to do in Vang Vieng does not mean I should feel pressured into doing it.  So I didn’t.  And you know what?  Kate and I rented bicycles for a dollar and spent the day riding around the town.  It was a really fantastic day.

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I love the mountains, and Vang Vieng has a beautiful backdrop of mountains all around it.  It was breath-taking, really.

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“I’m so happy I’m ending my trip in Laos,” I said to Kate as we rode down a dirt road away from the town center. “I started in Myanmar, and ended in Laos–the two most amazing places I’ve been to in the past 5 months.”  Could things be more lovely?  I doubt it.

I am leaving Southeast Asia in just over one week, and it feels just right.  I am just the right amount of homesick, content, wanderlusted and tired, so I feel like ending my trip in this–the most lovely of places, with my lovely travel companion (Kate)–is the most perfect thing ever.

But you know what, I want to stop typing and get outside.  I still have only one more week to relish every little bit of Laos, and that’s exactly what I intend to do.