Vang Vieng – Vientiane – Ban Na, Laos
November 2 – November 4, 2013
After two buses and a tuk-tuk that broke down we ended up in Vientiane after five hours or so in search of a guesthouse, which seemed as though it took another five hours to find.
Coming out of our abode we strolled around the capital and found a stupa (a dome shaped structure erected as a Buddhist shrine) and then a café serving tuna melts. I preferred the tuna melt. KT: With a side of rootbeer! Mmmmm
At night the waterfront came to life with stalls selling mostly women’s garments and unnecessary touristy trinkets. I found the sitting area for the men. It was full. We carried on looping around passing a geriatric fitness club in session. Everyone was wearing purple. I don’t know. Afterwards we found a café and planned our escape.
It feels a little as though we are trying to find ourselves in Laos. At first it was a refreshing break from Vietnam that we had longed. It was nice evading the money hungry vendors, but as of recently we have been reminiscing about the Vietnam we miss. Katie summed up Laos perfectly when she said “The whole of Laos is like rural Vietnam” – even the cities have a lackadaisical feel. It’s just getting to the point where we are a little templed out and
we are craving something we can’t yet put our finger on. That is just yet. As of late it feels as though we are just doing our rounds on the tourist circuit. Ever since we entered Laos in the North we had been boat & bus-side a handful of familiar faces. Now don’t get me wrong, we aren’t that hypocritical backpacker couple that keep to themselves and are looking out only for their lone personal experience that’s unique from everyone else’s- at least I don’t think we are. Dang, maybe that is us. But goshdarnit some people you just click with and some people you don’t.
We left the café and made haste back to the café for tuna melts before they closed. Tomorrow we break free from the tourist circuit. We have a plan. The plan will work. Oh yes, it must! It’s a mighty fine plan.
DAY 12- Ban Na Village
Sixty kilometers north east of Vientiane lies the village of Ban Na. Some years back a company came to them and in one word or another got them to switch their crops from vegetables to sugarcane. I assume it was either pressure, or more lucrative. Well they did and before long a herd of wild elephant came and ate all the sugarcane. After a few attempts of fruitless efforts they swapped crops back to vegetables because of their elephant-sized problems. The only downside to this was that the elephants never left. That is to this day. So in order to combat the costs of these hungry beasts they installed an observation tower and began offering hikes and stays in the forest. We thought it would give us a chance to break free from the circuit.
We ate breakfast and grabbed a tuk-tuk to the local bus station. It was something like 8 km out of the city. From there we boarded another local tuk-tuk that left the station and parked itself on the street in front of a baguette stand for 30 minutes- now we were running on Laos time. Once we started cruising, the countryside opened up and we shared the breeze with a bus full locals. Three hours down the road, the tuk tuk driver actually left the highway solely for us, and drove 2km down a dirt road to a large gated field with a hand painted sign out front that read Ban Na Home-stay.
A man came to greet us and give us the lowdown. It turned out that the water levels were low and the elephants had headed for the hills. With that being said, we decided to do a home-stay rather than sleep at the tower – mostly because it was cheaper. So we opted for that route and booked a trek the next day knowing that elephants would be out of the picture. And believe me this is no Segway into an OMG LOOK AT THE ELEPHANTS! WE LITERALLY SAW NO ELEPHANTS! BWOP…BWOP…
We paid and the guy walked us down the dirt road and into the village. The village was laid out in the shape of a Y with the two north-facing ends leading into buffalo filled meadows and then further out into the forest. Our guide began yelling at a few locals trying to auction us off;
“Anyone want to make a couple dollars?” he shouted.
“What do I have to do for it?” asked a woman.
“Well I have here a couple of Canadians. I need you to watch, feed, and keep them occupied until tomorrow?”
She asked if there was a catch. “No catch mam… pure and simple. Cash for Canadians!”
She agreed and he walked us into her home, aptly named homestay #5. She told us her name and it sounded something like Candy, but less stripperish and more Laotion.
We’ve passed thousands of village homes along our travels and we have always tried peaking in, although we have never stepped foot. Inside the room was split in half. One side laid ocean blue ceramic tiles while the other an earthy brown, separating the family room from the dining room. There was one couch and two love-seats along the outside wall. All three of them were bursting with stuffing, so much that you could almost see a guilty tail stuck between a couple of hind legs.
The room was empty and simple. A TV sat in the corner on a dresser but it was never introduced to us and we had not expected one. Behind a wardrobe, a curtain draped off a thin mattress on the floor underneath a mosquito netting. This was our room. Outside in the back was their kitchen. A kettle brewed on an open fire while another pot splashed with our dinner. Her daughter was by her side washing and chopping herbs & veggies.
Out front we found a boy who turned out to be a neighbour. He was 10 years old and paused a great deal before answering our questions. I brought out a hacky-sack & soon the three of us were in a full on game. Then it turned into a game of baseball after we turned a stick into a bat. We took turns throwing each other pitches until we ended up in wacky routines of rounding the hacky-sack around our head, between the legs, and behind our back before lobbing in some obscene pitch. We played until I got sweaty and quit.
Dinner was on and we were called in to a bamboo basket of rice, two four-egg omelets and then a huge bowl of sweet and sour tom yam soup with fish and a heap of what looked like seaweed. We struggled to get it all down.
KT: The portions were obscene! I started feeling belly rumbles shortly after finishing…
After dinner we played our habitual game of cards, and like many times before, it drew a crowd. Being guests in their home we taught the daughter Thangmo and her father. After running over the game in an open hand we challenged them to a game – and following suit with the law of first in gaming, Thangmo and her father won the first two games in spades.
KT: They didn’t just win. Thangmo and her pops KICKED our asses!
The house shut down around 9 and we made our way into our little netted cave and woke in the morning to a harem of rooters as I shouted mocking their clucks with bursts of “someone eat him already.” And I meant it.
KT: I woke up with a belly full of rumbles. I knew it wasn’t going to end well for me today…so I brought along a roll of TP and slapped a smile on my face. Candy fed us another massive meal for breakfast. A couple more omelets, huge bowl of noodles and more river greens, and more sticky rice. This didn’t help the belly rumbles.
The hike commenced the next morning. Two men in their 40’s to 50’s showed up at Candy’s door. One with a backpack and the other with a bag of eggs and a machete. Bushwhacking was my first instinct. The hike was simple. We mixed paths along sandy red earth, blanketed underneath bamboo thicket, and stretches of rippling barren stone fit with sinkholes until we eventually came to a river and stripped down to go swimming. I cannonballed in and instantly became encircled by a school of mini fishes. Some had orange fins; some had vertical black stripes while some had horizontal. But they were all interested in me.
I have always enjoyed spitting in the water and watching a pool of fishes tear it apart and pull it under – and these fish would not disappoint. And when I was out of spit, Katie threw crackers.
We eventually made our way to the observation deck where Katie was able to release herself of a deserved puke. All day she had been ill, presumably from the mix of eggs, seaweed and fish soup. Her puke was green and I had to pull back the dog from getting at it. He was just like those fishes. Up in the tower we met an active man from South Africa who came to see the non-existing elephants along with his two loud Lao tour guides. It could have been their excessive drinking and high tonal frequencies that scared off the elephants, because the water looked like it was flowing pretty well.
Katie lied down on a matt and skipped out on more fish soup and seaweed and tried to think happy thoughts. When everyone woke from their little post-lunch siesta we got back on foot. Unfortunately, Katie’s stomach never prevailed from the battle and our guides called in a favour from a buddy who showed up on a motorbike. As he road to safety we carried on and were back within the hour.
When I got back Katie was out cold so I let her sleep. I ate a little rice and soup and played cards with the family. The knew a similar version of Asshole except they didn’t know about the trading of the best & worst cards between President and Asshole. I drew them a diagram 1—&—4 (best 2 for worst 2) and 2—&—3 (best 1 for worst 1). It didn’t work.
After cards I went out back to check out the stars and Katie came out to puke at my heels. On the way in we saw an intense looking spider the side of a child’s face. So naturally now I cannot sleep because a)I’m only lightly draped under a curtain in a bed on the floor and b) fearing those two freaky eyes, scrambling long furry legs and hurty fangs of a mammoth spider just chilling outside waiting for me to close my eyes so it can scamper onto my legs and dance across my body. So there is that!! And did you know that gecko’s scream in the night? Well they do! And they also hang upside down, all foot and a half of them. And in the corner of the room I see another two eyes poking through a gap in the concrete. I think it’s another gecko’s boyfriend and he’s coming home late. Ahh I just heard something land and run, but the sound it made lacked feet, it just cut through the air whoosh! Ahh! It just smacked against a wall and I can hear it gripping the wall on its way home to its gecko wife. Then I heard:
“I’m sorry baby!”
“Don’t you I’m sorry baby me, Leonard, we have a child! Do you know what time it is?”
It’s a rhetorical question, Leonard! Don’t answer! Just apologize! I say to myself.
“I know honey, but…”
Ahhh he blew it!
“No but’s, Leonard…No buts!” she fumed.
Then it went silent and I slowly closed my eyes. Then I heard a fish jump. Tin pot with a lid style – swoop bang splash! The pot shook and rattled in the backyard kitchen. I closed my eyes once again trying to sleep. Bahhh!!! The spider is all my mind can think of. It’s tricking me into believing I see them. But now there are seven of them. He called his friends. I eventually dose off with the covers tucked into every inch of me.