Laos isn't really known for much. I'd say what attracts travelers, besides the cheap eats and friendly folks, is the natural scenery, virtually untouched by the steel hand of industrialization.
I wanted to go a bit deeper into the countryside, and get off the main path of the 1-week-in-Laos traveler (I've got an impressive two). I ended up heading north to Nong Khiew, a sleepy mountain village bordering the Ou river. The electricity is sparse and the only running water, while I was there, was the river itself.
Mexai guesthouse, advertising "you are always welcome with us" on big yellow signs, proved good enough for my needs. My upstairs room boasted one hard double bed and a huge mosquito net, as well as a window opening up to views of the surrounding hills, all for a mere two bucks a night.
There was little to do in Nong Khiew, besides lie on the beach of the river and let local children show off their English to you. You could swim; you could read a book; you could drink beer Lao. I managed all three, but not at once.
There was, however, some really fantastic caves about 2km from the village. The walk there provided something out of a travel photographer's Asian fantasies: bamboo huts on stilts standing in the middle of hedged crop fields, women balancing two water buckets over their shoulders with wooden sticks, dramatic hills with limestone cliffs. The occasional villager would slowly pedal by on a barely functioning bicycle. Besides that, there was nothing but a whole lot of silence.
Silence helps when pondering things like war. The caves were used during the Vietnam war, although I never figured out if by the Americans or the Pathet Lao. There were some signs posted next to big craters in the ground, now overgrown with thick tropical foliage, where 800 pound American bombs were dropped.
I wrote that Laos was the most bombed country in history, but I didn't write that that designation reigned in 1973. I'm pretty sure it's been passed up by now by an oil-rich country in the Middle East, but I could be wrong on that one. One of the reasons it was so heavily bombed during the war, I read, was because Thailand wouldn't let the Americans land with a full load of bombs. So, after runs into Vietnam, our pilots would drop the extra load onto the Laos countryside.
It's really a trip to be in this area of the world, for many reasons, but most of all because recent history is quite tumultuous and hard to ignore. There was, of course, the Vietnam war, disastrous and dumb as it was (hey, did you hear we lost that one?). There was the genocide in Cambodia in the 70s, thanks to the Khmer Rouge, which was actually triggered by the Vietnam war, and ended in over two million deaths and massive displacement. The country's infrastructure, as well as its intelligentsia, doctors, teachers, and critical thinkers, were wiped out. Poof. Gone. China's recent 'Cultural Revolution' adds a bit of somberness to the region... and what else? Myanmar? Don't get me started.
One of the things I've realized since I've been here is how sheltered I've been from recent world history, and indeed, all news of life outside of the United States. I'm repeatedly embarrassed in conversations with Europeans, Australians, and even Canadians, by my lack of knowledge on the happenings in the world... whether it be about Gorbachev, Falun Gong, or cricket. Luckily, I've been catching up on a lot, and have gained an intense interest in all the things I should already know about. It really helps to give substance to things that, in the past, were only ideas.
While in Nong Khiew, I had dinner with a riotously funny mixed group of travelers, one of whom was an older been-round-the-globe sort of Dane. He was in Beijing in April 1989, and saw what happened in Tianenman square firsthand. Talk about a reality check. I've had meals with South Africans who speak of apartheid; learned about China's one-birth only policy from a spunky, drunk Chinese feminist; listened to Russian yuppies complain about the depressing state of Moscow. It's been good to learn.
I've read somewhere that only 14% of U.S. citizens have passports. I hope this isn't true.
One other benefit I've gained from being over here is perspective on wealth. I used to call myself a "poor student" or some other crap name because I was on food stamps, or I couldn't buy my friends a pitcher of beer at Pay N Take, or I wanted a new carbon fiber road bike and couldn't afford one. What a joke. Now, I feel incredibly lucky and priveleged to have things I once took for granted--a college education, a ton of books, a few bikes, not to mention the ability to up and fly around the world, even if it is a "budget" trip. Furthermore, having as much good food as I could possibly eat, and a warm home to sleep in every night, with electicity and running water, is very lucky. The rest of the world doesn't have all this.
Also, I've taken on a new appreciation for my health. India and Laos, especially, don't hide their sick and old folks away to make the scenery safe and comfortable for the rest of us. One thing that is so easy to forget is our own mortality and the fragility and fleeting nature of our bodies. Sometimes, when I'm sitting alone having breakfast, or out walking down a busy street, I slow down enough to feel myself breathing, and appreciate how nice it is to be able to stand up straight, to walk quickly and smoothly, to breathe with strong lungs. It really makes my worries about my unhip haircut or smog-induced pimples seem, well, ignorant. And futile.
Anyway. Long story short, it's good to travel and see these things. I highly recommend it.
To sum up the last few days, I headed back down to Luang Prabang for a night after getting enough of Nong Khiew. I really love the city--the French architecture, when mixed with traditional Lao homes, is really lovely. When I'd get tired of touring around on my bike, I'd head to this one alleyway in the middle of town where food vendors were hawking all sorts of gastronomic delights--pig faces, pig intestines, dried snakes, grilled fish, and a bunch of other gross crap I could barely look at. There's a "vegetarian food" stand, with 8 different sets of noodles, veggies, and rice to choose from, which you pile onto one plate and then the woman fries it up on a little wok and hands back to you for 50 cents. Mmmmm. I miss it already.
I left Luang Prabang for Vang Vien, or Ven Viang, I still don't know what its called. This is a backpackers dream town, that is if you like to sit around low-tabled cafe's and eat lots of pizza and pineapple pancakes while old reruns of 'Friends' are shown on the requisite big-screen in the front. I left after a day, but only after succumbing to a new movie called "The Incredibles", which kept me glued to the screen in drooling delight for a couple hours. It was really wonderful to step back into a safe little world of TV after being gone for so long. The whole experience is much more enjoyable when it's not a daily affair.