From Vietnam with love: it's all about people - Dal Vietnam con amore:la gente soprattutto

Monday, February 09, 2009

Our Trip to Laos

Laos was the best vacation we’ve taken as a family – which is kind of funny because it’s also the poorest country we’ve visited with the fewest “attractions.” In fact when we arrived in Vientiane I was disappointed at first to think that we'd be spending two days there because there is really not much to see or do. I think I just needed time to relax and adjust to the slower pace. The Mekong runs through the town, and our hotel (a small place with peculiar, funky furniture) was right on the river. The “downtown” was within walking distance, along an unpaved riverside road lined with little thatch-roofed restaurants serving grilled fish. The sunset along the river is really pretty, and it was nice to have a beer and watch the sun go down (except for having to rein in Francesco who was always trying to climb over the railing to plummet to his death).

It's hard to believe that Vientiane is the capital city because it's really more of a sleepy, backwater town along the river. There is one ATM and a few streetwalkers and cross-dressers but that's not enough to give it a big-city feel. We walked around the town to see the sights described in our guidebook - mostly unremarkable Buddhist temples and Communist-style moments. More interesting was the market, which included an area where craftsmen were making gold jewelry on the spot, melting and forming the gold into rings and pendants.

We ate dinner at a cozy restaurant run by a French guy. We stuck to Lao food, though, which heavily features sticky rice. (Francesco never wanted to eat anything else during the whole trip). The cuisine is the same as northern Thailand, with lots of spicy ground meat salads and green papaya salads and grilled chicken and fish. The best part about our dinner there was that a table of tough-looking motorcycle riders (I think they were German or Australian) and their Thai molls sat next to us, and one of the burly guys got up and played ragtime jazz on the piano and the kids danced. Francesco also spent a lot of time on their bikes, going "brrrrrrooom!" which they loved.

From Vientiane we flew to Luang Prabang, the former capital and a UNESCO world heritage site. It's a lovely town high in the hills with two rivers running through it, old wooden houses, Buddhist temples and a lot of charm. We weren’t the only ones who thought so - besides the orange robed monks there are a LOT of tourists, from backpackers to rich retirees. There are plenty of shops and a night market catering to them with local handicrafts and stalls selling oreo milkshakes and nutella crepes alongside more traditional fare, such as grilled river fish which is marinated in lemongrass and garlic and is the best thing I ever tasted.

We walked to a nearby craft village where we saw craftspeople weave and embroider cloth, make paper and carve wood, steadying little Buddha statues by holding them in their feet. Maia was thrilled to watch all of them. We bought some pretty wall hangings there at a better price than in town.

After a few days in Luang Prabang we took a boat up the river to an eco-lodge, which was the best part of our trip by far. The place consists of several tent-houses in a beautiful, unspoiled natural setting on the sandy banks of the Mekong. The restaurant was in a thatch-roofed building on stilts, surrounded by rice paddies and vegetable gardens that provided the food - healthy with lots of local vegetables, although a bit watered down for tourists' palates.

On the day we arrived, the lodge guide led us and the other guests in some afternoon activities. We visited the Kamu minority village that is right next to the lodge. It was very, very poor, with no running water or electricity, lots of children running around dirty and barefoot. It seemed like going back in history - I'm sure nothing has changed for these people in the past several hundred years. The village children got a big kick out of Francesco, who to them must have seemed like a freakishly enormous white baby. Marco had him in the backpack carrier, which scared some of the kids. The lodge contributes a dollar to the village for each visitor it brings, and also donated money to build a new school. So I guess they are luckier than some other villages, but still...Later Maia and Francesco played with some of the kids in the sand near the river. It was really sweet. At first everyone was shy, until Maia gave the kids and orange and then they managed to make up games together in spite of the language barrier, as kids do.

We also learned to shoot a bow and arrow (although now the villagers use guns for hunting - we heard a couple of shots during the night). Our target was a papaya and Marco shot an arrow right through it! A French tourist called him a "gladiateur romain" which made us laugh. We also panned for gold in the river much to Maia's delight but unfortunately found none, and watched an ox plowing the rice paddies.

The weather was really cold at night - strange climate there, very hot and sunny by day but cold enough to need two heavy blankets at night (and we still felt cold!). The next day we went on a lovely, easy hike to see a cave and then returned along the river. That evening the village children did a show for us in their intricate traditional costumes, including singing and dancing and a bamboo-hopping game.

On our way back to Luang Prabang we stopped along the river to see some caves full of thousands of Buddha statues big and small. Then on our last evening we decided to try the gourmet restaurant in the five-star resort recommended to us by the French couple we met at the eco-lodge. I thought it wouldn’t be possible with the kids, but Marco suggested that we call the place to see if someone could babysit them while we ate, and they said yes! And it worked! A lovely Lao waitress stayed with them and they didn't fuss at all. We had a romantic table by a pool with floating candles, with a little bucket of burning aromatic wood near us to keep us from feeling too cold. We ordered pasta for the kids and the restaurant expertly brought it out first so that they could eat and then go play in the other room. The appetizers were pretty good but I have to say not better than the Lao food in other places. For the entree we shared the tastiest chicken I ever had, in some kind of creamy mushroom-chicken liver sauce. It was a lovely evening, although I felt very scruffy because I had no clean clothes left so had to wear my dirty t-shirt and my hair was way frizzy. Still, a nice ending to our trip, and I hope we can go back there some time. There are no direct flights from here and to get there is expensive, but hopefully that will change...