The overnight train to the Thai/Laos border was such a luxury for us that we were actually happy when we arrived 4 hours late. We were just one overpriced tuk-tuk ride away. We didn’t argue about the price due to peer pressure from our newly acquainted travel companions (not worth making a scene in front of friends). The stamping out and entering Laos portion, however, was a breeze. By then one of our “well-traveled” companions began negotiating a taxi for the last 24km to Vientiane. Once he started, I was so embarrassed by his tactics that we explored ways to ditch him. He stood by the border yelling, “the price is too high, you drivers are all too rich.” Joshua and I found a set price shared taxi and decided to invite him to join even if it meant 30 more minutes of “travel lessons” from what I would define as a crotchety novice.
When we pulled into Vientiane, Joshua and I knew that the driver was trying to drop us at the city’s edge instead of the center as we had discussed. The bad haggler jumped out and was happy to pay another tuk-tuk to take him the last few kilometers – amateur. We just joked with the driver about where we were on the map and where we were supposed to be. He laughed with his friends and ended up taking us the rest of the way. The scams are abundant but oftentimes harmless when you know what to look for.
We spent the first afternoon on the road to recovery. At a “Wat” temple at the edge of town there was a herbal sauna called Wat Sok Pa Luang. It is closed in the morning to anyone except the monks that live there, but later in the day locals and foreigners are welcome to have the same treatment. We were given plaid towels to wrap around ourselves and encouraged to enter the steam sauna filled with 23 herbs. It was really just a wooden box with little holes in the floor where they could light the fires. The room, err walk-in closet, was so steamy that we couldn’t even see where to sit.
I do not do well in hot environments (Bikram yoga, etc), so even 10 minutes of soaking in the sauce felt like a huge accomplishment. We took a break to drink what I would call dirt tea and Joshua indulged a few more times while I sat soaking wet with my head between my knees.
The sauna was followed by a cold bucket shower, a towel change and a Laos massage. It was very different from our Thai massage…more pressure points, less pretzel. In the end we paid $6 for a few peaceful hours in the jungle, said goodbye to our large and sweaty Laos comrades and headed into town to have the best Philly cheesesteak-like sandwich made by a guy from Seattle. Laos has a huge French influence so baguette sandwiches are a popular dish. These had just a little bit of flair but gave us all the comfort we needed.
Since Joshua was still unwell and worried about his health, we made another doctor visit to a charming French practice complete with dentistry and physical therapy. The doctor tested Joshua for the gamut. His tests (and mine) came back healthy which was again surprising considering how sick we felt. The doctor’s guess was Giardia from India’s bad water. The medicine for which made me even more sick. The most shocking news wasn’t that we were healthy but that we both weighed less than we did in high school…that’s a lot of “sick” for me. It hasn’t stopped us, but it’s definitely been a drag.
One of the biggest draws for me in Vientiane was the COPE Center, a program that provides free or low-cost prosthetics for victims of unexploded cluster bombs dropped during the Secret War that received much less press than the Vietnam War just next door. The United States dropped nearly a billion bombs in Laos during that period, 100 million or so of which are still unexploded. Despite clean-up efforts, during the last several decades people have been blasted walking through fields, collecting scrap metal, building houses or even cooking. The Center was moving and poignant although it made me cringe at past American behavior (Laos is the most bombed place per capita in the world). I was proud to see an American General for the Asia-Pacific region visiting the museum simultaneously. I think it would be valuable to learn from the past in such a position.
We met our cousin Larry again in Vientiane as he made his way south through the country before heading to Vietnam. We got to enjoy a day of site-seeing, a delicious Chinese New Year/Valentines’ Day/his birthday dinner. My favorite was the “Arc de Triumph” Laos decided to build with money and materials the US donated for an airport…which they now, thoughtfully, call the Runway.
Our favorite part about Laos so far has been the food. We found a delicious coffee shop called Joma that makes a mean salami sando. We had one every day. Forget cheap Laos food, we have been going straight for quality no matter the expense these days. It feels a little like we’ve gone soft, seeing less and less of the major highlights and enjoying more and more the days where we can sit at a cafe (I love the cafe culture here) and people watch.