Time Travel In Laos by Julie Emrich Fredrick

“Just how far outside of the box are you thinking?” My husband’s concern was mounting when I announced that Laos should be the destination to celebrate our 10th anniversary. We had agreed that we wanted to visit a country that was off the beaten tourist path, and a couple of Australians that we had met while traveling convinced us that Laos was truly “magical.” “It’s like Thailand 30 years ago.” We’d never been to Thailand, but pictures of the temples and landscape piqued our interest. So I read the few guidebooks available and studied the internet. Not a whole lot out there…that should have been a clue…

Jeff, as usual, said “you arrange the details, I’ll get the time off work.” Not one to examine the itineraries I so carefully put together, he seemed to like the element of surprise. Jeff and I are not package tourists. We stay in budget accommodations, with some stipulations. I want my own toilet, one that allows me to take my sweet time without exposing me to Charlie horses or worn out knees from squatting over a hole in the ground. We want a shower, too, at least every couple of days, with warm water, please.

For this trip we agreed to temporarily redefine our comfort zone, knowing there simply were no such accommodations available for our village stays in Laos. Our method of transportation would mainly be by kayak. We would be sharing quarters with our local guide, with the outhouses located a fair distance from the living quarters. We were prepared to bathe in the rivers, as the locals did. (I even purchased a really cute sarong for modesty’s sake.)

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After countless tweaks to my itinerary, we finally arrived in Laos. We had taken the overnight train from Bangkok to the Lao border, walked across the Friendship Bridge connecting the two countries, and boarded a ‘tuk tuk’ into the capitol city of Vientiane. “Tuk tuk. That’s quaint, I wonder how they got that name?” The minute we climbed aboard, our driver started up its 2-stroke engine. Tuk tuk tuk… we easily maneuvered through the busy street in our brightly painted yellow and blue motorized tricycle.

At the tourism office, we hired a local guide to take us down-river to several villages. We were introduced to a short, stocky twenty-year-old, dressed in camouflage pants and a faded black AC/DC t-shirt. Proud of his high school education and military training, Pon took his job as a guide seriously. “My name is Pon, but you call me Porn Star. I am know my country very good. I chow you everything.” As we learned more about our eager leader, including his mandatory two years spent as a Buddhist monk-in-training, we realized that another tourist had dubbed him Porn Star as a joke, and Pon had no clue as to the meaning of his moniker. We convinced him that Pon was an easier name to pronounce and agreed to meet him first thing next morning.

At sun up, our Laotian alarm sounded. “I am here for take you to river-we have tea then go for boat!” Pon’s enthusiasm was catching, and after gulping some hot tea and a biscuit, we hopped into the tuk-tuk and chugged along the potholed road to the river’s edge, where we boarded our kayaks and set off.

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The main mode of long distance transportation in Laos has always been by river, and given the choice between the national airline, whose aging fleet of 17 Russian and Chinese-made planes had been declared unsafe by most foreign embassies, and complaining about a wet ass for a couple of hours, we chose the latter.

Cramped legs and sore butts aside, travel by kayak definitely afforded us the opportunity to not only see, but also to hear this magnificent country. Exotic birds and numerous species of monkeys screeched at us from the trees above. Along the way, we passed locals standing in the river washing clothes or bathing. We were greeted with a smile and wave, the children often chasing our brightly colored plastic boats, so unlike their wooden dugouts, along the banks of the river. The scenes reminded me of my hometown in rural Appalachia, where the shacks and trailers of the underclass were perched precariously beside the river, seemingly waiting for the next flood to wash their homes and belongings away forever, where outsiders were greeted more often with suspicion than a warm smile and wave.

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On our first night in the village, we were invited to play a common drinking game with eight of the local men. The “winner” of the game took a drink from the communal jug of rice wine. I was immediately intrigued by this game, reminiscent of my high school days, though I was now over forty and the youngest of this oddly assorted bunch of men. I was also the only female taking part, and from the whispers and sideways looks, I imagined that few blonde-haired southern girls shared in this ritual.

Rice wine is made by fermenting raw rice husks in a big clay jug that is buried under ground for several weeks. When it’s good and ripe, the jug is unearthed, the seal broken, and the wine is tested. The jug then gets passed around for the group to sample (I suppose that this is to make sure no one goes blind or dies immediately ). It tastes nothing like the wine that we drink, and in fact burned my throat like the pure moonshine that was once commonly stilled in my home state of Kentucky.3d67269d0

I was the first to take a drink. (I still believe the game was rigged). The straw was pushed in my direction. The others ooohhed and aaahhed, talking among themselves in their guttural Laotian language, then, as I drank, an eerie hush fell over our audience. I had vivid flashbacks of the Russian roulette scenes in “The Deer Hunter”, wondering if I would ever get out of the Laotian jungles alive. Finishing my drink, my audience clapped and gave me many toothless smiles, as if to tell me that indeed, we were welcome here.

The Laotian people were very accommodating. If they perceived that we wanted something, they always tried to furnish it. When Pon saw me searching around for my toothbrush, he immediately fetched the communal one that hung from a nail on the wall of our hut. “OK, ok, we have toothbrush here for you.” I was relieved that Jeff found his so quickly, since it was considered rude for a guest not to accept something offered her.

Eating in the villages was a new experience. Eating with our hands was not only acceptable, it was required. No utensils, napkins or individual plates were used. We just balled up our sticky rice (the primary food in these Asian cultures), reached over our neighbor, and dunked it in whatever we wanted. “Whatever” was anything from young bamboo soup to yesterday’s scrambled eggs, fish (head intact) or other unrecognizable staples of the local diet. Leftovers were then bagged up for the next meal. No refrigeration meant premature ripening, leading to smells associated with our Dempsey-dumpster the day before trash pickup. By the third day I was relying heavily on bananas and bamboo shoots for nutrition.

One night in the village, we were given a choice between duck or chicken. “Oh, duck, definitely! What a nice change!” Only then did we understand that our meal was being chased around the yard, quacking vociferously, on its way to becoming dinner. It was fresh and delicious, and made an appetizing soup for the next day, as well.

As we headed downriver in our kayaks a couple of days into our adventure, rain began to fall in a steady downpour. My initial reaction was to dig in my pack for my poncho, but feeling the clear, cool water rolling down my face and dripping from the ends of my hair, I leaned back and enjoyed the shower. My intention had originally been to bathe in the rivers, but after my first foray to the water’s edge, tie-dyed sarong and biodegradable soap in hand, I was put-off by the cappuccino-colored currents flowing briskly past.

The tranquility of the rain was abruptly interrupted by several thunderous explosions, followed by mushroom-shaped blasts of water exiting the river in front of us. Jeff and I ducked low in our kayaks for cover. Those imaginary visions of war came rushing back, and I was sure we’d be taken prisoner in the surrounding jungle. “Blast-fishing with dynamite,” explained Pon. “Probably Burmese people, it’s illegal here.” I spent the rest of the day wide-eyed and on edge.

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Pon arranged for us to go on a Laotian BBQ with two of his friends and their girlfriends. Our first stop was a colorful market where we picked up fresh lettuce, rice, and a variety of local produce. The crowded stalls were filled with fresh vegetables and fruits that comprised every color in the rainbow, and the sounds of vendors hawking their goods, which often quacked or oinked, permeated the stalls lining the dusty lanes.

Next, the six of us boarded a small, flat-bottomed motorboat and motored out on a huge lake toward an island about an hour away. Jeff and I took a long walk around the island and went for a swim. This was as clean as I had felt in nearly a week. After drying off, I helped the girls prepare a salad from our bounty of vegetables. Realizing we had no fresh water to wash them, I voiced my concern. “No problem, lake is good!” I caught Jeff’s eye to remind him of the safety precautions that we had read– Never eat the salad (we did), make sure all meat is fully cooked (it wasn’t), wash your hands before every meal (no one did). “Guess I’ll be eating bananas again” I whined. “None left” Jeff quickly pointed out. And the fresh-caught fish (undercooked as it was) smelled so good. “Oh, well, when in Rome…” I reasoned. We knew that we were tempting the gastro-gods to punish us. And punish us they did. By bedtime we were both questioning our wisdom at having thrown caution to the wind. At 2:00am, I was in a desperate search for the headlamp to find my way to the outhouse.

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Going to the bathroom in Laos was an adventure in itself. Toilet paper was not used, at least not in the villages we visited. Instead, a bucket of water was placed inside the outhouse. In the bucket was a scooper used to wash yourself (left hand ONLY). The physical structure of the outhouse did not lend itself to the privacy we are used to at home. The walls were built about two feet from the ground, and anyone standing taller than five feet had a clear view of their surroundings.

The morning following our BBQ, while in the outhouse for what seemed like the tenth time, I was shocked to see several little heads pop under the door and walls, no doubt questioning my frequent visits. Desperately craving some privacy, I bared my teeth and snarled at them like a rabid dog. “GRRRRRRR!!!” With deer-in-the-headlight eyes, some banging their disheveled little heads on the walls of the privy, they scattered like mice, running to report the movements of the “yellow-haired one” to their elders.

Bedtime in the villages came early, as there was generally no electricity, and the Laotians lived according to the sun and moon. They always cleared a space for us, had floor mats laid out all in a row (me, Jeff, and Pon) with a big mosquito net hanging from the palm-thatched ceiling. Thank God Jeff had the foresight to bring a hefty stash of sleeping pills! “When we get home, IF we get home, I am going to have to kill you,” Jeff half-joked several times during our trip. Despite his keen sense of adventure, I knew that this trip had genuinely challenged him. “Next time, you may want to read my itinerary a little more closely” I’d retort sarcastically. I would never admit that I, too, had been tested by this experience.

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Back home in Atlanta, in our cushy environs complete with interstates and Super Wal-Mart, we had plenty of time to reflect on our trip while examining the digital photos we had processed in just under an hour. “Wow-remember that market—it was so colorful!” “The kids all thought your digital camera was magic!” The more we reflected, the fonder our memories became, and the funnier our once “harrowing” experiences seemed.

Joining some friends at happy hour several months later, the subject turned to travel. “We’re looking for somewhere unique to go. Can you suggest someplace that you enjoyed?” asked Terri, my cousins wife, who never ventured anywhere without her hairdryer or travel iron. Jeff and I looked at each other and smiled. “Laos”.
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Julie Fredrick jnjfredrick@gmail.com worked as an adventure travel consultant and tour escort throughout Latin America for several years, before deciding to make her own adventures to share with her husband.” I believe the closer you come to the edge, the better the adventure, and certainly the more entertaining the story. At least a few of my adventures have brought me in close contact with law enforcement or personal danger, but I like to think that the difference between an adventure and an ordeal is attitude. When I am not planning our next big adventure, I serve as the European Travel Editor for Bellaonline.com and freelance for fiftyshift.com.
I live in Atlanta with my husband and 3 rescued dogs.”