Two days on the mighty Mekong River– from Luong Prabong to Huay Xai and a video game partnership with a monk

From Luong Prabong there are several options to get to Huay Xai, the Laos town that borders northern Thailand.  One can take a bus, a speed boat or slow boat along the Mekong River.  I’d had enough of buses over the last several weeks so my choices were slow boat or speed boat along the Mekong.

The slow boat option would allow me to enjoy two 8-10 hour days going upstream on the Mekong with a one night layover in Pak Beng, Laos.  In contrast, the speed boat option could make the entire trip in six hours but it would require me to wear a helmet and earplugs the entire trip – the engine of the fast boat is deafening and the boat goes so fast that if we hit an unseen log or piece of debris, or if we simply hit a wave wrong, the boat would flip and send me flying.  Hundreds die or get injured each year on these speed boats along the Mekong.  With this in mind I decided to play it safe and take the slow boat – it was a good decision.

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Ben had decided to go home a little early so after our last night together in Luong Prabong I made my way to the boat dock along the Mekong the next morning and bought a slow boat ticket to Pak Beng.  The boat crawled along at about 10-15 km per hour but the pace was nice and relaxing – the views weren’t too bad either.

The boat had a variety of passengers – old and young backpackers, locals, and even a monk.

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There were lots of interesting things to observe along the way.  Trees with intricate root systems dotted the shoreline.

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Herds of seemingly wild cattle grazed along the sandy beaches.

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Carved stone markers jutted up from the water and provided guidance to our captain on how to avoid the shallow areas.

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Packs and sacks of grain were packed at the front of the boat – supplies that some of the local passengers would be bringing to their riverside villages.

The boat made many stops at riverside villages along the way.  The local villagers would sit on the sandy beach and await the boat’s arrival, which would bring supplies and arriving family members.

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Near one of the riverside villages the local children use the Mekong as their neighborhood swimming pool, swim suits optional.

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It was at this village that the monk made his stop.

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Further on down the river a line of colorful fishing boats were parked, poles at the ready.

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Like our ride to Muang Ngoi Neua some parts of the ride were quite choppy but we always made it through without problem.

The engine of our boat was powerful and exposed for easy access.

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It had a loud roar but it was not as loud as the engines of the speed boats we heard fly by.

The bathroom on the boat was almost constantly flooded and I sensed some trademark infringement on the bathroom coathanger.

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I will be contacting Hello Kitty and notifying them of their potential claim

After about nine hours the boat arrived at Pak Beng.  Pak Beng is the halfway point between Luong Prabong and Huay Xai. Its economy is almost wholly based on passengers of slow boats going to and from Luong Prabong who need to stop and stay at a guesthouse for the night.

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The town has one ATM and one street which climbs to the top of a hill where the town’s temple sits.

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Despite the town’s small size there were monks busy praying and chanting in the temple.

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Before gearing up for an early bedtime I watched the sun set over the Mekong from the town’s temple.

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The next morning many of the same passengers from the day before and I boarded another slow boat, this one bound for Huay Xai. Huay Xai is a Laos town that borders northern Thailand and the “Golden Triangle”, an area where the opium trade use to thrive in SE Asia.

Like the day before it was enjoyable simply to observe the passing shoreline.  Early in the morning we observed a group of monks washing their Saffron spice orange robes by the river.

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A new pair of monks, one young and one old, had boarded our boat for the ride.  I think these two were the same monks I had seen praying in the temple the night before.

I ended up sharing an interesting experience with the younger of the two monks.  Between intermittently writing a blog post and taking pictures of passing sites on the shoreline I decided to take a break by playing “Limbo” on my netbook.   Limbo is an indie two-dimensional platform puzzle game where you control a small young boy and guide him through treacherous traps that block his way out of some sort of purgatory or “limbo”-esque landscape.

There are numerous ways to die in Limbo – massive spinning saw blades, shadowy monsters, and pits that you can fall into like in the Mario games.  Part of figuring out how to get around these traps and thereby solving the game’s puzzles necessarily requires dying multiple times within the traps themselves. You can’t know how to beat the trap until its beaten you at least 2-3 times.

After I had been playing Limbo for about 15 minutes the younger monk who had been sitting across from me started to take notice.  Eventually he was standing in the aisle of the boat so he could look over my shoulder and observe the gameplay in more detail.

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After asking permission, the young monk let me take a picture with him. The older monk, most likely a mentor of some sort to the younger monk, can be seen peeking from behind.

Within minutes this young monk, who had been silent and somber for the first four hours of the ride, was giggling like a little schoolgirl.  Every time I would fail to make a jump, get sawed in half, or get devoured by a waiting monster, the monk would burst out in laughter – he was truly getting a kick out of my failure.

But at the same time he was rooting for me.  He would observe me come to new puzzles, fail the first four attempts, and along with me he would slowly figure out the steps I would need to tackle the puzzle and advance in the game.  When I would finally beat the puzzle and advance he would let out a mini-cheer.  At one point after I had gotten past one of the most difficult puzzles after several failures I turned around and we gave each other a high five.  It is possible that he had never exchanged a high five with someone before but at the time he definitely knew what it meant – “Success!”

This isolated instance of the monk watching me play my video game, and sharing in my success and my failure, gave me a small glimpse into what is becoming an acceptable secular aspect of monks’ lives in SE Asia.  Like it or not it is 2012 and we are in a technologically age that is evolving rapidly.  To completely refrain from utilizing modern technologies’ benefits would be difficult, if not impossible, for monks, particularly younger monks.  I saw monks all over SE Asia smoking cigarettes, sending texts on cell phones, and doing lots of other things that none of us would ever associate with the religious choice to become a monk.  The one thing that remains constant and will remain constant is the orange robe.  Even if 20 years from now monks all have the new iPhone 25, I believe that they will still don the signature orange robes.

I knew the boat was getting closer to Huay Xai when we started passing large infrastructure.  All the rivers and rolling mountains in Laos have historically made road construction and transport difficult and less effective than boat transport, such as the slow boat I was taking.

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But as technology advances Laos is building more roads and bridges so boat transport will become less of a necessity, though after my two days on the Mekong I hope they never completely abandon it.

The second long day on the slow boat came to an end as the sun started to set.

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Within 20 minutes it was hidden but the sky still glowed.

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That night I grabbed dinner with dinner with a couple Germans and a couple boys from the US who had both been living abroad for several years – lucky guys.

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The next morning was misty and I boarded my final Laos boat ride to cross the Mekong into Chiang Khong, Thailand to begin the final leg of my journey.

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Loang Prabang, the City of Temples

The same day Ben and I left Muang Ngoi Neau by boat and arrived back in Nong Khiaw we took a bus ride from Nong Khiaw to Loang Prabang.  Our “bus” ride actually ended up being a four hour songthaew ride.

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The songthaew was packed with backpackers from all over the world – Canadians, Australians, Europeans, Kiwis, and even a few folks from the good ole U. S. of A.

About halfway into the ride our bus driver realized the necessary permit papers he had stored on top of the songthaew had gotten loose and flown off.

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He stopped the songthaew and after asking a few of the New Zealand backpackers in the back of the songthaew, ascertained that they had flown off over 40 minutes ago.  God knows why he had loosely stored critical papers on top of a fast-moving vehicle.  Whatever his reason was I’m sure he learned his lesson.

Long term world traveling is all about balance.  The right balance depends on the person and his or her mood at the time.

If you’ve been traveling with a group for a while and need some time to yourself, break away and go your own way for a while.  Then if you start feeling lonely and in need of company put yourself back into a hostel where you can meet other people.

If you’ve jammed your schedule with intense activities for a few days go somewhere where you can just relax.  If you get bored of relaxing get back out there and do some trekking.

If you’ve been navigating the chaos of a big city for a few days and start to feel overwhelmed get back to nature and go somewhere rural.

If you’ve been roughing it in rural villages for a week or longer and start to miss the modern comforts that a big city can provide hop on a bus and get back into civilization.  This is exactly what Ben and I were doing when we got to Loang Prabang.

Loang Prabang was the first modern-ish city Ben and I had been to in over ten days.  After rural Mai Chau, Quan Hoa, Dong Tam, Quan Son, Na Meo, Vieng Xai, Sam Neua, Nong Khiaw, and Muang Ngoi Neau, Ben and I were glad to be in a place that actually had 7-11 stores.  It sounds weird but the availability of a 7-11 slurpee signals a welcome back to modern civilization in SE Asia.  And it was good to be back.

After a quick lunch and settling into a guesthouse we went down to explore the night market at dusk.

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Loang Prabang’s night market is an endless stretch of blue and red tents.

The vendors’ wares are displayed on blankets underneath the tents.

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The market is difficult to navigate – the low hanging tents were not designed for people over 5’8’’ to walk under so Ben and I were constantly ducking.  The customer aisle is also quite narrow – the only time we were able to move somewhat freely was while the vendors were setting up.

A little farther from the night market is a food market.

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You can buy pretty much anything, including Babe’s head.

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That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.

Just as the Iowa State Fair can fry anything and put it on a stick Luang Prabang’s night market can grill anything and put it on a stick. These weren’t the “fish sticks” we were used to from home….

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After wandering through the markets Ben and I caught the sunset over the Mekong River.

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The Mekong River is to SE Asia is to what the Mississippi is to North America, what the Nile is to Africa, and what the Amazon is to South America.  The Mekong River is the biggest river in the region – starting in China, it continues and runs through and along the borders of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. The Mekong River borders Loang Prabang within Laos, providing a great means of transport as an alternative to bus travel.  It also provides a great place to catch a sunset.

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The next day Ben and I wandered to explore what Loang Prabang, “the City of Temples”, is known for.

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The temples in Loang Prabang vary widely in material, design, and setting.

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Many of them are spectacularly ornate, adorned with intricate gold designs.

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The weather is pleasant in December in Loang Prabang – mid-seventies to low-eighties, a pleasant breeze, and shining sun.

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Ben and I took a break from our temple tour to walk down to point where the Nam Ou River merges with the Mekong.  Ben and I could have taken a boat from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang along the Nam Ou but we had opted for the bus.

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A few boats lazily drifted by while we observed the slow-moving merger.

Loang Prabang’s “main street”, Sisavangvong Road, is crowded with colorful tuk-tuks waiting to give the tired tourist a ride back to their guesthouse or hotel.

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A restaurant along Sisavangvong Road had put out a basket of Bird’s Eye chili peppers dry in the sun.

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Bird’s Eye chili peppers are commonly provided on every table in every restaurant in SE Asia, along with limes.  Being a fan of spice, I would make sure to tear up and put these in almost all my dishes, be it soup, rice, or noodles.  A lesson I quickly learned was not to touch any other parts of my body, particularly my eyes, after eating – the spice stays on the hands and transfers pretty easily.

The courtyard above Loang Prabang’s main street provides a steep staircase with 328 steps that leads to the top of Phou Si Hill.

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About halfway up the staircase you arrive at a ticket booth to gain entrance to the top of Phou Si Hill.  A sign provides you with the number of steps you’ve already walked and the number of steps you need to go to make it to the top.  It is a smart sell to put this ticket booth halfway up – by the time most folks have made it halfway they feel obligated to go the rest of the distance, whereas if the ticket booth and number of steps were at the bottom of the staircase, lazier tourists may opt out.

Making it to the top of the staircase and Phou Si Hill is all worth it though.

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A balcony provides a view for 25 km in every direction.

Naturally it is a popular place for people to catch the sunset and Ben and I were one of many that day.

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It was a good place to catch our final sunset in Loang Prabang.

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Napping in riverside hammocks in Muang Ngoi Neua

Happy Monday!  I just got done spending the last nine days with friends from Chicago in Baronquilla, Santa Marta, and then Cartagena, Colombia.  They all headed back to the United States yesterday because most of them have work today.  While it is hot here, I definitely prefer the near-equator heat to the cold midwest right now.

Now on my own, I returned to Santa Marta yesterday to stay with Pacho Bottia, a professor of film in Colombia and the father of Juan Bottia, one of my friends and a teacher in Chicago.

Pacho is working on a new film, El Faro (translation, “The Lighthouse”) right now.  Right now the film is in post-production and they are gearing up to premier it in a film festival in Santa Marta.  He is letting me crash at his place for a few days before I head to Taganga to get scuba certified at one of Taganga’s many PADI schools.

But anyway, back to my SE Asia story.  This post is a quick read – simple and relaxing much like the place it describes.

Jon Schultz, a medical student at the University of Iowa that recently visited SE Asia.  He had lots of good advice for me and Muang Ngoi Neua was his top recommendation.  He was right on the money.

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Muang Ngoi Neua is only accessible by boat along the Nam Ou river.

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We took a long skinny boat from Nong Khiaw that typically leaves at 11 but waits until it is full before departing.  Thankfully lots of folks in Nong Khiaw had the same idea as us at the same time as us.

A local making the boat ride was using one of the most curious smoking mechanisms I’d ever seen.

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He was using a plastic bottle as a bong and then placing a cigarette where the tobacco would normally be packed.

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Many parts of the river were too shallow for the boat and at parts the ride was choppy but our boat’s captain knew the river well – he’d probably navigated this route hundreds of times.

The Nam Ou is flanked by steep karsts shooting into the air – sometimes the best part of the journey is just the ride there.

After an hour we reached our destination, disembarked at the dock, and started looking for a bungalow.

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Our top criteria for the bungalow were that it be on the river with a hammock and we found what we were looking for.

Ben and I each ended up taking solid naps in that hammock during different points of the day.  We rented the bungalow from a young couple – 24 year old guy from Holland, his new Laos wife, and their new baby girl.

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At some point we wandered through Muang Ngoi Neua’s village – its just one street.

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A restaurant in the village had a welcoming sign that gave me a chuckle.

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It was good to finally make it to toilet

There is not much going on in Muang Ngoi Neua.  Definitely a great place to come if you need to get away from it all.  We found the most activity near the village’s school.

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School had just got out and Ben and I joined some of the kids for a game of frisbee and volleyball.

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It was without a doubt the most scenic place we played frisbee in SE Asia, a small flat field tucked in the middle of rolling green mountains.

A little later we headed down to the “beach” near our bungalow.

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Ben went for a little swim while some locals unloading construction materials from their boats.

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I headed back up to our bungalow and relaxed until the sun set.  It may have been the most relaxing combination of the trip – riverside hammock, steep karsts, and slow burning sunset.

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Ben eventually joined me and we finished watching the sun set together with a few breskis.

After the sun set we wandered in search of food.  All the generators that provide electricity to Muang Ngoi Neua are shut off from 11 pm until 6 am – the villager’s respectfully request that visitors remain quiet during these hours as well.

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Ben and I grabbed dinner that night with two germans, an Argentinian, and a guy from Ecuador.  I plan on staying with the two guys from South America when I visit Argentina and Ecuador, respectfully.

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The next day all of us gathered for the boat ride back to Nong Khiaw.   We only spent one day in Muang Ngoi Neua but Ben and I were very glad we did – our spirits were calm and refreshed.

We ended up running into the Ecuadorian in Luong Prabong, our next stop.  But that will be the subject of the next blog post.

Recovery in Nong Khiaw – caves, waterfalls, squirt gun fights, jump rope and lots of French folks

After an awful 14 hour bus ride the day before we were glad to wake up in Nong Khiaw.

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Nong Khiaw is another small town in the mountains of Northern Laos.

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A main bridge connects the east and west sides of Nong Khiaw over the Nam Ou river.

Ben and I rented a couple mountain bikes and headed east on the windy road that had brought us to Nong Khiaw from Sam Neua.  There was a series of caves that were used by Laos fighters during the “CIA’s secret war” a couple kilometers east of town.

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A log bridge across a stream led us to a steep staircase in turn led to the caves.

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The caves would have made a good hiding spot for Laos fighters.

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There are several nice openings that overlook the nearby fields.

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These openings which would have provided a good lookout spot.

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Some parts of the cave were quite deep and dangerous.

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We didn’t brave the cave alone.  We had the help of a young Laos male from Nong Khiaw.

Our guide leads Ben down the steep staircase

Our guide leads Ben down the steep staircase

There was no electric lighting in these caves so the farther away we got from natural light sources the darker it got.

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The flash of my camera did a pretty good job of capturing the nooks and crannies we explored. Several of these hidden spots had signs posted that read things like “Bank”, “Munitions”, “Common Quarters”,

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Without the camera it was pitch black.

Without Ben’s iPhone light and our guide’s small flashlight we would be in trouble.  Well, Ben and I would have been lost – our guide knew these caves like the back of his hand.  Quite literally, he “could do it blindfolded.” He proposed getting a shot of us when we finished caving and I was happy to oblige, and happy to give him a good tip for the hidden places he showed us.

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After our cave exploration Ben and I made our way back across the log bridge, this time with eight Laos boys following us.

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Sadly several of these boys, aged 5-9, were smoking cigarettes and doing it with deliberate flare, no pun intended.  It was clear that they considered smoking to be machismo behavior.  The older ones would demonstrate to Ben and I as well as the younger ones how “good” they were at taking drags.

Ben and I continued east and were surprised to find a couple turkeys wandering near someone’s jeep.

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At the bottom of a big hill we came to a “waterfall”.

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Calling it a waterfall may have been a bit of a stretch though.

We saw several villagers taking turns washing clothes 50 meters downstream of the waterfall.

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Two of the younger kids that had accompanied their mother had brought squirt guns to keep themselves entertained.

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The formula for a good squirt gun fight is universal and these kids were doing it in the exact same manner Ben and I had done when we were young:  (1) Be near a relatively limitless water source; (2) fill your water pistol; (3) get within point blank range of your enemy (which, counter-effectively, allows your enemy to do the same with you); (4) fire away; (5) repeat steps (1)-(4).

The boy on the right is executing Step No. (4) here

The boy on the right is executing Step No. (4) here

Ben and I turned around at the waterfall and headed back west towards Nong Khiaw.  We got many of the same views we had enjoyed the day before on the bus ride, only this time we could stop and enjoy them.

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As we’d seen in three or four rural SE villages already the local kids liked to follow us and ride next to us on their bikes.

They don’t mind waving for the camera either.

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When we got back to Nong Khiaw we saw some kids enjoying another universal game.

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I took a turn to show him that I was once a rockstar in Jump Rope for Heart – watch how fast the girl on the left get swinging…

At this point of the day the sun was hitting the cliffs on either side of the bridge at just the right spot.

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There were all manner of vehicles crossing the bridge during the day.

I'm still not sure what this is.

I’m still not sure what this is.

A short distance from the bridge the green water of a tributary stream merged with the brown water of the Nam Ou.

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We took a quick lunch and a stop at our guest house to enjoy the view.

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Many guesthouses and hostels in the world have a “take-a-book-leave-a-book” bookshelf.  The idea is that backpackers generally carry and read only one book at a time.  Books take up a significant amount of real estate in a small pack so having only one at a time is generally a logistical necessity.  I noticed that the shelf at our guesthouse in Nong Khiaw, amid a majority of French novels, had a book from one of my favorite childhood series.

Sorry for the spoilers, but if I remember this correctly, in this book its bad to get your picture taken with the camera the boys find in the old Coffman house….

Sorry for the spoilers, but if I remember this correctly, in this book its bad to get your picture taken with the camera the boys find in the old Coffman house….

Later in the afternoon we took a windy steep ride north of town along the Nam Ou.

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It led us to another local village where I nearly killed myself trying to give a backseat bike ride to a local boy and his younger sister.  I ended up riding them up and down hills for about 300 meters until I was utterly exhausted. To finalize the interaction I gave them a pen – kids are just crazy for pens in Nong Khiaw.  They will ask for pens more readily than money.  I’m guessing (and hoping) they will be using them for school.

At the end of our day Ben and I stopped by Nong Khiaw’s schoolyard.

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Games of volleyball and Sepak Takraw went on side by side.

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The play was pretty competitive and the mountains provided a good background to the action.

We left the schoolyard and noticed a Russian flag along the left side of the street.

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This is the second Laos town we’ve been to and the second time we’ve seen Russia’s flag proudly displayed – I never realized the countries were such good allies.  We finished our day of mountain biking with some beers by the river and the beginning of the sunset.

Later that night we got beers with a French friend of ours.

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Just as Russians made up the majority of tourists in Mui Ne, Vietnam, the French take the cake in Nong Khiaw.  Half the people we met in Nong Khiaw were from France and most of the guesthouses had menus in three languages – Laos, English, and French.  Watch out Australians, the French have your number up here in Northern Laos.

Uneventful Sam Neua and a much-too-eventful 14-hour bus ride to Nong Khiaw

Happy holidays!  I just got done spending a nice, albeit brief, Christmas at home.  It was good to be home for a week and to see family and friends.

The blog is about three weeks behind and I am currently writing this post as I take a MegaBus from Iowa City to Chicago.  I fly to Colombia tomorrow and will be spending the next 13-14 weeks heading south through South America.  I will return just in time to attend my buddy, Keith Turner’s, wedding in New Orleans on April 6, 2013.

Back to the action in Sam Neua.  In actuality there was not much going on in Sam Neua but after two days of hellacious travel from Mai Chau “not much going on” was exactly what Ben and I needed.  We slept in and took it easy all day, save a little hike I took to the top of the town in the afternoon.

Sam Neua is set in a relatively flat area in otherwise mountainous Northern Laos.

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Two main bridges provide transport over the river that runs through the town.

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Like Vietnam, Laos is a communist country.  In the morning a truck rolls rides by the town’s diamond-shaped sculpture and from a megaphone-type-device plays a recording of that morning’s communist propaganda for the town’s citizens to hear while they wake up.

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A mural behind the diamond sculpture depicts groups of Russians and Laos people – the two communist countries are allies.

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My hike in the afternoon took me farther along the river that runs through the towns.

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A woman and her daughter wash their clothes along the river

The road I was hiking on sloped upwards and led to a hill overlooking the outskirts of the town.

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I passed by several women with full back-baskets patiently making their way down the hill.

At the very top of the hill I found a bus station, some antennae towers and a great view over the town.

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If you look closely you can see the sculpture in the lower left intersection.

I spied a temple in the distance on the opposite side of the hill I had scaled.

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Just as every town or city in (primarily Catholic) Europe has a church every town or city I visited in (Buddhist) SE Asia had at least one temple, usually between 5 and 10 depending on the size of the city or town.

Just as I had become desensitized to the beauty of churches in Europe after seeing 30 of them, by the time I reached Sam Neua I was not fully appreciating the splendor of temples in SE Asia.

Dark clouds loomed over nearby farmland but rain never came that day.

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On my way back down the hill two young Laos girls were very curious to see a white man walking by.  Like Mai Chau and Quan Son in Vietnam Sam Neua is a not a place where tourists come, making me an interesting thing for the locals to watch as I walked by.

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By the time I got back to the town the sun was starting to set.

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Ben and I took another easy night in and got rest for what ended up being a brutal 14 hour bus ride to Nong Kiaw the next day.

In the morning, instead of climbing the hill I had climbed the day before to get to the bus station we hopped on a songthaew.  A songthaew is a pickup truck that has been converted into a vehicle used to transport people, simply by adding bench seats in the bed and rails on the side of the truck.  I saw more songthaews in Laos than anywhere else in SE Asia.

Rides in songthaews are not priced by person.  Instead you must pay for the whole vehicle itself, so ideally you have as many passengers (within comfort) as possible to make the price cheaper for everyone.

It took me less than 30 minutes on the bus ride to realize that Northern Laos is the least flat place I’ve ever been in my life.  It is the exact opposite of Iowa.  The mountain range that is Northern Laos has no 14,000 foot peaks but the steep green karsts roll along forever.

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The views out the bus window were tremendous, but they flew by fast.

The steep mountainous terrain and the small winding (basically one lane) road makes the “bus” ride more like a roller coaster.

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Front, back, side to side.  Front front, back back, side to side.

Then sway right, sway left, sway hard right again.   For fourteen hours.

Within an hour of leaving Sam Neua our bus hit a major traffic jam.

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The small road was not designed for long industrial trucks and the driver of this truck tried to cut a corner just a bit too close.

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A serious crane was required to get the truck back on the road and it would be a long time before any crane would be coming so we needed to find a way around the truck in order to pass.  At first our driver and his fellow bus operator were resigned to the fact that we would not be able to get around until a crane moved the truck.

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But then they decided an attempt was worth it.  Attempting to get our bus around the truck proved to be a serious challenge involving very narrow margins.  Missing the margin on the right meant the bus would end up tipping into the ditch and missing the margin on the left meant the bus would end up rolling off the cliff to the left.

Thankfully we had some crafty bus operators.  After about 15 minutes of careful navigating and lots of  forward-turn-reverse-turn-forward-turn-reverse-turn-forward they were were able to navigate our bus around the truck.

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Though we were unfortunate to be the first bus stuck at the traffic jam (right after the truck got stuck) we were also fortunate to be the first bus stuck because on either side of the traffic jam there were 10-15 busses waiting their turn to navigate around the truck.  The people on the buses at the back would probably end up waiting for hours to pass and only if they were lucky enough for another bus not to get stuck.

My fellow bus riders and I enjoyed our successful pass but the success was short lived.  Within 40 minutes our bus broke down in a small mountain town.

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As I’ve mentioned before every bus driver (and each of his assistant money collectors) in South East Asia doubles as a mechanic.  This fact makes sense because our bus ended up breaking down at least four more times on the 14-hour bus ride.  When you know your bus is going to break down you also know you will need someone to fix it when it does.

While we were stopped in town one of the bus driver’s assistants went to the town’s well spout and hooked up a hose to draw water into the bus for the engine.

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Minutes later a few locals were using that very same well spout to take their daily showers.

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The kids didn’t mind the large bus full of people parked right next to the well. It was shower time, after all.

Eventually they got our bus fixed up and we were on the road again.

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In such a mountainous region every square meter of flat land is used by locals as farmland.

After the traffic jam and multiple engine breakdowns we still had yet to experience the worst part of the trip.  With about 6 hours to go the already-full bus stopped at a location and let about 20 more people on.  Because there were no more open seats left they packed the new arrivals (and their sacks of grain) in the aisle of the bus.  An’ they packed ‘em on tight.

To add to the fun the new arrivals had brought more than grain sacks on the bus.  They also brought violent illness.  Everyone that had just got on the bus that was now sitting within two meters of us was seriously sick, particularly the man who sat right next to Ben and who would end up vomiting for the next six hours straight.

I’m not sure if these locals get motion sickness or are stick from one of the countless other things you can get sick from over here.  Either way, this was the second time in three days that Ben and I had to sit in extremely close proximity to multiple people forcefully blowing chunks into clear plastic bags that were way too small hold the payload.  After enduring these vomit-rides through local Vietnam and Laos, I will never be able to complain about a bus ride again.  Even Megabus seems like luxury right now.

Needless to say it was an extreme relief when we finally reached Nong Kiaw.  I will bring you up to speed on Nong Kiaw in my next blog post.

Two mad days of travel from Mai Chau (Vietnam) to Sam Neua (Laos)

The morning Ben and I were to leave Mai Chau we saw a newlywed couple walking down the street.

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They picked a good location.  Like the day before the mist was dense in the mountains – the set of stairs that I had climbed to make it to the cave the day before were barely visible in the green mountainside.

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Ben and I would be attempting to navigate a series of six different local bus rides (Mai Chau to Quan Hoa to Dong Tam to Quan Son to Na Meo/Nam Xoi to Vieng Xai to Sam Neua) in order to accomplish our general goal of crossing the border from Vietnam into Laos.  Our Visas were about to expire and I didn’t want to have to bribe the Vietnamese border crossing agent for overstaying my welcome.

The Na Meo (Vietnam) to Nam Xoi (Laos) border crossing is rarely used by tourists because it is so hard to get to.   For Ben and I it was the closest border crossing to Mai Chau, though in this case closest did not mean easiest to reach.  I had researched a way to get from Mai Chau to Sam Neua (our ultimate destination in Laos) from a guy who had done it back in 2009 and provided an excellent and thorough step by step forum post, but as I’ve learned from previous reliance on forum posts they can be far from accurate.  And this route was complicated so even the best explanation of what happened three years ago would be subject to error.

I detailed our route based on the post, writing kilometers in between connecting lines and circling the prices I could hypothetically negotiate for each ride based on the prices the guy negotiated three years ago.

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This chicken scratch scrap of paper was clutch

We stopped on the side of the only street that runs through Mai Chau and watched for our first bus which would take us to Quan Hoa.  While there is an official “bus stop” in Mai Chau you can pretty much wait anywhere in the street that the bus runs along and simply flag it down when you want to hop on.  This is not the strict one destination stop bus system-“be at the bus stop at 4:10 pm or you miss your bus”-that you have in the U.S.   If you are a potential candidate that the bus driver can cram onto his bus and collect more money he will stop for you, even if his bus isn’t going to where you want to go….

I learned this the hard way on our first bus ride from Mai Chau.  As we waited for the bus which seemed to be late (no surprises there) we had been talking to some moto drivers about trying to get this bus to Quan Hoa, our first destination.   They were not being entirely helpful because they wanted to take us on their moto for triple the price of what a bus would cost.

A couple buses rolled by and I would flag them down (there is typically no way to tell where they are going) and ask them “Quan Hoa”?  The first two said “no” but the third bus driver said “ok”.  This should have raised red flags – I was looking for a “yes”, not an “ok”…. As we boarded the bus the moto drivers that we had been talking to started telling us “no no no! no go Quan Hoa!”  This also should have raised red flags but since they had been unhelpful earlier I figured they were still just trying to make me take a moto ride with them for triple the cost of the bus.

I again confirmed with “money collector” (each local bus has one of these guys – they take care of passengers getting on and off and collecting payment) on the bus that he was taking us to Quan Hoa, negotiated our price down to 70,000 Dong a person (only 30,000 more per person than what the guy had paid in 2009), gave the driver 140,000, and we started on our way.  The bus ride started innocently enough – just another local bus jammed packed with people and things.

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But then red flag number three rose after I handed over my money and the money collector started laughing up at the front of the bus with the driver while throwing glances back towards Ben and I.  Red flag number four shot up when at a small town only 15 km from Mai Chau the bus turned around, parked, and everyone exited the bus, including the driver and money collector.  I knew from my chicken scratch notes that Quan Hoa was 54 km from Mai Chau – hmmmmmm.

Ben and I sat there quite confused for about 3 minutes, wondering why we were the only two people on the bus.  Ben still held out some optimism that the guy would hold true to his word and take us to Quan Hoa but I was more than skeptical at this point.  I exited the bus and the man who had taken my money was sitting in the living room of a house with several people while smoking tobacco out of a bong.  He didn’t look like he was going to Quan Hoa anytime soon.  I knew we were most likely screwed when I looked at the buses new destination sign, “My Dinh”, a bus station in  Hanoi.  The bus was going back through Mai Chau to Hanoi.

Still thinking there was a chance he had not lied to me I started out by politely asking the money collector when he would be taking us to Quan Hoa.  He said “no go to Quan Hoa. My friend with moto take you Quan Hoa.  He take you for 300,000 Dong.”  On hearing this I was done being polite.  I angrily demanded that he give me my money back, repeating our conversation in Mai Chau “Quan Hoa?” – “Ok!” and explaining to him “We are not in Quan Hoa!”  He walked away shaking his head back towards the living room and I followed right on his heels.

I circled around him again demanded my money back.  By this point all the other folks in the living room started to take notice that I was not happy.  I was not afraid to shame him in front of his family and friends – he had taken my money and lied to me and I wanted my money back.  Feeling the gazes of his family and friends around him he sheepishly pulled his wad of money out of his pocket and handed me 60,000 Dong back.  Not enough.  I explain to him “I give you 140!  This is not Quan Hoa! Give me money back!”

He again refused but I remained in his face until he handed me another 20,000 Dong back.  Still not enough.  By this time Ben had exited the bus.  I explained to him what was going on and he joined me in yelling at the Vietnamese fellow, who now had two customers yelling at him in front of his family and friends.  He handed me another 20,000 and at this point I decided to terminate the conflict and walk away.  I had gotten back 100,000 of the 140,000 Dong I gave him and he did take us 15km, so I figured 40,000 Dong was fair for that.

The moto drivers standing nearby (friends with the guy I had been yelling at) knew that Ben and I were now stranded and began pestering us.  “I will take you to Quan Hoa – 300,000 Dong!” But at that point I was upset with all of them and with the situation so Ben and I walked away back through the small town.

We were now stranded in a small town that we didn’t even know the name of 40 km from Quan Hoa with no way to get there except for con men who wanted to rip us off.   It would have been an understatement to say that the first bus ride had not gone according to plan.  We hailed a passing car and asked them if they’d take us to Quan Hoa but the two Vietnamese men in the car also surmised we were stranded and wanted 1,000,000 Dong.  No thanks.

Just when it seemed like all hope was lost a bus rounded the corner with big flashing neon lights reading “Quan Hoa”.  Unreal, the bus we should have waited for in Mai Chau, on its way to Quan Hoa.  Never had I been happier to see a crappy local bus roll by.  We flagged the bus down and hopped on.  Crisis averted.  We paid the man 80 Dong (40 Dong per person, the price the guy got back in 2009) and were on our way.

At Quan Hoa my notes indicated that we would each need to hire motos for around 25,000 Dong apiece to ride us 16 km to Dong Tam, our next destination.  But we got lucky.  No more than five minutes after we had been dropped off in Quan Hoa another random bus rolled by that was on its way to Dong Tam.

The ride to Dong Tam had several seemingly random stops along the way like the one you seen in the video below.

But just as they will pick you up from anywhere along the ride they will drop the locals off anywhere they request along the route – it makes for a lot of short little stops.  Beyond that the ride to Dong Tam was enjoyable, set beside a big river.

At one point I took a film of some young local boys playing football on the side of the muddy river bank.

Dong Tam is a small town at the junction of Mai Chau, Than Hoa, and Na Meo, the Vietnamese border crossing town.  I knew that a bus would be coming from Than Hoa on its way to Quan Son, which was our next destination.  I knew this from my research and also because I confirmed it with a local Vietnamese man who had rode the bus with us from Quan Hoa to Dong Tam.  He used the back of my chicken scratch instructions to draw me a helpful little diagram.

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We ascertained from some locals in Dong Tam that the bus we sought would be coming through “at some point” and that we might have to wait a bit.  We took seats in an old local woman’s house/store and Ben fired up some Fifa on his iPhone.

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The device you see next to Ben’s leg is a bong that the local men use to smoke tobacco. You see it everywhere in Vietnam – they smoke tobacco out of these bongs just like people in the U.S. take cigarettes. While Ben and I were waiting two young local guys came by and smoked out of the bong you see here. As they always do, they offered Ben and I a try but we politely declined.

While we were waiting I turned on my netbook to work on a blog post.  When the old local woman saw me scrolling through my pictures she came over to stand beside me.  Locals are many times entertained by the pictures on my netbook – this may have been the first netbook the woman had ever seen.  I took a break from my blog post to show her pictures I had taken in Mai Chau.  She smiled when she recognized Mai Chau and called some of her other family members over to join in observing them.

After about an hour our bus headed to Quan Son and I was seated next to a young local man who was 24 years old.  He was really excited to be seated next to an English-speaking American and quickly pulled out and showed me his English book that he was using to learn English.

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He flipped through to some of his favorite “conversation exercise” pages and demonstrated his ability to speak sentences to me.  With his allowance I took a few pictures of the pages.  The book looked pretty basic and the “Units” seemed totally disorganized (the phrases and words in each unit seemed completely unrelated) but for him it was all he had and he seemed to be really happy with it.

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His English was broken but I gave him nothing but positive feedback and encouragement, which delighted him.  People in SE Asia really take it as a compliment when you tell them they speak good English so I always do (even if they don’t speak good English).

At times I would observe him sit and stare intently at the seat in front of us, sometimes for 30 seconds or more, while he worked up a question to ask me in English.  After his contemplation he would finally turn to me, smile, and stutter out his question.  I would always smile and nod, and slowly respond.  Though it was a stunted conversation I could tell he was really enjoying practicing with me.  He was a local guy who lived in Quan Son and right before the bus dropped him off at his house I snapped a picture of us.

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After snapping the picture the other locals in the front of the bus wanted their picture taken so they could see themselves on my digital camera.  At their request I gave them a shot as they laughed and then handed my camera to each of them so they could review the shot.

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If you notice the woman on the left, you are not seeing her teeth incorrectly.  They were black, very black.  I had remembered reading about this in Hanoi’s Vietnamese Women’s Museum.

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As explained from the picture I took of the museum’s plaque, Thai, Khang, and Lu villagers in remote areas of Vietnam would burn tree branches to extra resin.  Every couple days they would put three to four layers of this black resin on their teeth.

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Lacquered black teeth are considered beautiful on women from these villages – the blacker, the more beautiful.

Because the practice of lacquering teeth had largely stopped in the mid-20th century, the museum plaque stated that “[n]ow[adays], only a few elderly women have lacquered teeth.”  I guess I was just lucky enough to see one of these women and on a bus ride from Dong Tam to Quan Son of all places.

When we arrived in Quan Son started walking down the street it was almost as if aliens had landed.  Tourists never come to Quan Son so two white men walking down the one road through Quan Son was something rare for most of the locals.   People would curiously peer out at us from their houses/store fronts and many would wave and say “Sin Chau!”

Quan Son is a quaint little town set by the river.

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It was even smaller and quieter than Mai Chau.

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As it had happened to me in Mai Chau, a group of local Quan Son boys started following Ben on their bicycles, interested in the two strange white men walking through their town.

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As we walked the group of kids grew until I finally made them all stop for a picture.

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My research indicated that from Quan Son we would need to catch a moto to Na Meo, the Vietnamese border crossing town.  It was about 4pm and we probably needed to catch a ride before the sun went down but Ben and I were hungry so we stopped for a bite at a local restaurant near the river the runs next to Quan Son.  They served us up a nice steaming plate of meat and vegetables and the customary huge bowl of rice.

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As in Maui Chao our presence in the restaurant did not go unnoticed.  A group of local teenage boys sitting two tables away came over and asked to have their picture taken with us.

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And not just one picture.  They each wanted taking turns getting their picture taken with Ben and I.

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After dinner we talked to the local Quan Son doctor who lived across from the Quan Son hospital.  He spoke pretty good English and explained that we should probably stay the night in Quan Son and take the bus from Na Meo the next day.  This wasn’t part of our plans but the town seemed small and friendly so we took his advice and checked into the town’s one hotel.

As the sun set we observed the locals gathering at certain spots around the town to get their sport on.

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This volleyball match was intense – these guys were good.

About 100 meters from the volleyball game we saw Vietnam’s number one sport being played – badminton.

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There were a group of about eight teams taking turns playing doubles.  The woman in the below video was the best one on the court in this game.

This was not a “winner stays” format.  Instead, two teams would take a turn playing one game and as soon as it finished a different set of four players (two teams) would run onto the court for the next game.

One of the games we watched got really close and I had a chance to film the final four points of the match, all on the video below.  The fourth and last point was really intense.   Almost as intense as pickup basketball games at the University of Iowa’s Fieldhouse.

The locals playing invited Ben and I to play a game but after watching a few games I knew our attempt to play would be laughable.  No sense in playing if you can’t even compete.

After getting our sports fix we headed back to the hotel room.  Knowing we would face a barrage of rice wine shots from the generous and gregarious locals if we went out to grab a late dinner we decided to stay in and go to bed early.

The next morning we wandered to find some place we could eat breakfast.  Two local men munching on some noodle soup and smoking tobacco bongs motioned for us to come join them.  Ben was sick of noodle soup by this point so he went off to get a sandwich but I obliged the men and had them make me some noodle soup.  One of them wanted to try my shades on and get his picture taken.

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When Ben came back we pulled out the LP and started teaching one of the locals some English.

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In about 10 minutes a huge group of locals had started to gather at the random restaurant we had stopped at.

I don’t think it was because of us though.  This was clearly a pre-arranged meet up for what would become a massive feast shared by 20-some people. They invited me to join while Ben agreed to stay out front and watch for our bus.

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The feast was very big and it was nice to be a part of it.   Though it was only 11 am, for them it was 5 o’clock somewhere and they had 15 bottles of rice wine out for the occasion.

Just about every man at the feast came to share a shot of rice wine with me.  Even men at the other table would wait their turn to bring their bottle over, pour us both a shot, say “Sin Mai” and throw it down.  The eight guys at my table shared at least 1-2 shots each with me.  Maybe it was just the full sun, but I felt pretty warm by the end of breakfast.

Our bus ended up coming but it was packed to the brim and chances of getting on seemed unlikely.  To complicate the matter the bus driver’s money collector wanted 600,000 Dong each to drive us just to Na Meo, Vietnam’s border, which was just 55km away.  He even called his English speaking daughter to have her negotiate this ridiculously inflated price for him.

After several minutes of haggling which involved hanging up on the daughter, I said “150,000 for 1 person.”  I then showed the bus 300,000 Dong for both my brother and started walking away.  In hindsight this was a stupid move.  Our visas expired on that day and without this bus we were stranded in Quan Son.  But for some reason I felt it would work – most likely because I was emboldened by rice wine instead of orange juice for breakfast.  But it ended up working.  After I got about 10 meters away the money collector shouted for us to jump in and we did.  From 1.2 million dong, I negotiated him down to 300,000 and we still paid more than the locals did.

The bus drive to Na Meo was less than pleasant – it was the most crowded ride we had been on to date in SE Asia.  There were about 30 people crammed into a bus meant for 14 and the two women next to Ben and I were ill.  We had seen the bus driver hand small clear plastic bags to passengers and now we know why.

The sick women would vomit and noisily spit phlegm into the bags.  Why they make these things clear is anyone’s guess.  It is absolutely disgusting to witness someone sitting one foot from you blow chunks into a bag.  At one point one of the women filled her bag with vomit and phlegm and handed it to the money collector to toss out the window.  Unfortunately for Ben the man’s toss was less than perfect and the bag spilled out all over his leg on its way out the window.  He was not pleased.

Finally the long vomit ride ended and we crossed the border into Laos.

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I had sobered by this point and we were able to get out of Vietnam with 30 minutes to spare on our Visa.

But a new problem awaited us.  There is no place to stay in Nam Xoi, the Laos town at the border crossing so Ben and I needed to continue on this bus to Vieng Xai and then to Sam Neua but we had only paid for the ride to Na Meo.  The bus driver’s money collector, knowing we were stranded in Nam Xoi without him, was again asking for 600,000 Dong each to get us there.  He had a big advantage in this negotiation.  Nevertheless I brushed him aside and told him we would walk, which of course he knew was impossible.

Because the bus had about a 30 minute layover in Nam Xoi, to delay the inevitable disadvantaged haggle I was going to attempt, Ben and I explored Nam Xoi for a bit. It was a small town overlooking the river and border checkpoint in the distance.

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Nearby a group of Laos locals played Sepak Takraw, called “ka-taw” in Laos.

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Sepak Takraw is a combination of volleyball and football – essentially it is volleyball without hands on a badminton sized court.

Ben and I saw Sepak Takraw being played in several places in Laos – it seemed to be more popular than we had seen in Cambodia or Vietnam.

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The game seems incredibly hard to me but these guys made it look pretty easy.

Because it is so difficult many of the points are short but most points involved a skillful “winner” shot by one of the players, such as the bicycle kick winner in the video below.

Unfortunately the inevitable finally happened and the bus fired up to start the final trip through Vieng Xai and Sam Nuea.  Time to haggle with the money collector again.  As with last time I told him I would only pay 300,000 Dong and got to a point where he was willing to take no less than 600,000 for both of us.  This time he put on a hard bluff, getting on the bus and waiving for the bus driver to start driving unless we paid the full 1.2 million.

As the bus took off I responded with a counter-bluff, walking away and deliberately showing a sad face to all the locals I’d had a chance to meet on the ride to Na Meo.  My bluff was hinged on a gut feeling that they simply would not leave two Americans stranded at the border.  Luckily my intuition was correct.  The bus rolled about 25 meters away before they stopped and waived my brother on.  Sigh of relief.

But they had the last laugh.  On the cramped bus ride from Nam Xoi to Vieng Xai and finally to Sam Nuea, someone (I’m guessing the money collector) pickpocketed over $100 in Thai Baht from my pocket.  I had had my wad on me because I had paid for the Laos visa and forgot to put it back in a safer place than my pocket.

All in all I considered these two days to be two of the most memorable and real “experiences” of the trip.  You take the good with the bad when traveling and these two days of crazy travel, from Mai Chau to Sam Neua, had both.