I’m on my way to Vang Vieng, Laos!! I have about 12 weeks to see South East Asia, and although my initial travel plans when I left 18 months ago (yes, 18 months!!) were to spend a month in each country, this time, I decided that I needed to see more. I also feel more confident wandering so nothing is planned, except for my decision to volunteer for three weeks on a farm in Laos. Why volunteering? Sometimes, I can hardly believe I’ve been a nomad for this long, but over the course of this time, I feel like the universe has given me so much that I need to give a little back to the world. Why Laos? Let’s just say, paths collided and there was a meeting of the minds. So, here’s how the adventure begins…
It was a lively crowd on the noon flight out of LAX to Hong Kong, which I knew would make for an interesting fifteen and a half hours. I had a window seat and was sitting next to an older Asian couple, who were perfectly content fading in and out of sleep. I was well into my third movie almost 9 hours into the flight, catching up on all the Oscar nominated films that I missed, when the octave level of the passengers seated two rows behind me kicked up a notch. They had been talking and joking loudly the entire flight, but the conversation seemed to have turned into an argument. They were so loud that I couldn’t hear my movie and when I turned around to see what was happening, about four flight attendants were gathered all around the row of seats asking a very inebriated, Spanish-speaking man to calm down. For the sake of the story, I’ll call him Mr. Odioso. There was gesturing, then shuffling of the passengers in the row where Mr. Odioso was seated and clearing of the passengers in the row in front of him. Everyone’s patience seemed to be wearing thin. I had turned back around for a moment to pause my movie and when I glanced back again there was some sort of scuffle. Did Mr. Odioso have the neighboring passenger in a headlock, or was he just pulling his hair? I couldn’t tell, but that was the beginning of the end for him.
It didn’t take long for the flight attendants to issue more escalated warnings to Mr. Odioso, which seemed to be met with complete disregard. A few minutes later, one of the flight attendants came back with plastic handcuffs and it only took two seconds for a rather burly man one further row back to volunteer to hold Mr. Odioso down so that they could handcuff his hands behind his back and then strap him into his seat with a seatbelt at both his waist and across his chest. At this point, he proceeded to yell and whine and threaten what he would do if he got out of those restraints. I recognized some of the Spanish slang and curse words, and he seemed hell bent on letting everyone know that he was from Mexico. Ok, Mr. Odioso, way to represent Mexico. After about an hour, his rants trailed off into what sounded like a 4-year olds temper tantrum, and then eventually what I can only describe as the kind of whimpering that you might hear from a puppy. This went on for nearly 5 more hours. It wasn’t until the last hour of the flight that they allowed him to use the restroom and then moved him to a different seat in the back of the plane. Hmmm… think twice before you decide to get drunk on a plane these days. I’m fairly certain that Mr. Odioso went straight to Hong Kong security when he deplaned and that is no way to start a holiday.
Once I got to Hong Kong, I had a short layover between planes. In my transition, I couldn’t help but notice that the restroom attendant was outfitted in a hospital mask and was carrying a bag of trash in one hand and a pair of large kitchen tongs in the other hand… the kind of tongs that you might use while grilling. It struck me as such an odd picture and made me wonder, why was she using kitchen tongs in the first place and what exactly was she picking up that required such long tongs? Hmmm. I didn’t speak enough Thai to ask, didn’t have enough time to wait and see, nor did I think that taking a picture in a public restroom appropriate. At this point, I hadn’t really slept a wink and when in a dazed state, I tend not to engage others in a foreign country. So, as I waited for my second flight to board, I listened to music and observed. There were many more people walking around wearing masks. I did recall this from being in the Bangkok airport last year, but had forgotten. I wondered… do they wear masks because they’re sick and they’re politely shielding us from their germs, or are they trying to keep from breathing the rest of the world’s germs? Or is it both? Hmmm.
When I arrived in Bangkok, I was relieved to move rather effortlessly through passport control, baggage reclaim, and then the taxi stand. My hotel in Bangkok was close to the airport and turned out to be a bit of an oasis outside of the crowded downtown city area, which was fine for my short 3-night stay. Why only three nights? Well, I had a hard time figuring out where to start and I procrastinated a bit when booking so only a week before I departed, I decided it would be least expensive to fly to Bangkok, get an initial feel for the city and then decide if I wanted to go back. It would also help to acclimate to the region before I started working / volunteering. Finally, my travel doctor made a strong case for obtaining the vaccination for Japanese Encephalitis since I would be working, trekking, and traveling through very rural parts that have had cases. As it turns out, the best vaccination for the disease is made in the US but only sold in Asia and the easiest place to get it is Bangkok. It’s also about a fifth of the cost of those sold in the US. So, after what felt like a very short night of sleep, I ventured off to Bangkok Grand Central Hospital to request my vaccination.
When I arrived at the hospital, it was easy enough to find an attendant who spoke English and explain that I wanted the vaccination. She in turn, found a nurse, who took my vitals. The nurse then passed me on to a doctor who clarified and verified what I was requesting. The doctor sent me to the pharmacy technician who administered the shot and the technician sent me on to the cashier. Every single one of them looked at me a little funny and asked in a tone that was half question, half statement, “you want Japanese Encephalitis vaccination?” “Yes”, I would say not wanting to get into too much detail. “O-kay” would be the response. I’m fairly certain they were thinking, hmmm, crazy American.
One of the side effects of the vaccination is muscle soreness, which I felt almost immediately after receiving the shot, so although initially I thought I would stroll for a bit, the hospital wasn’t really close to any sites so I quickly changed course and hopped in a taxi. I’ve heard some great things about Bangkok, but I’ve got to tell you that it was nearly 100 degrees (38 degrees Celsius), smoggy, loud, and traffic was terrible.
I asked the taxi driver to take me to the first green space that I could find on my map for a little peace. It turned out to be Lumpini Park. It was lovely and long, with blossoms half covering the grounds, and new flowers in bloom. There were gardeners tending to the watering and it seemed the only other people insane enough to be outside in such hot weather were other tourists snapping a few photos. After walking the length of the park,
I decided to do as the locals do and find some air conditioning, which led me toward Central Plaza. I enjoyed my first Thai meal, rehydrated, purchased some Lonely Planet phrasebooks for Thai and Lao, and realized that I was still exhausted and sore. I also wanted to get out of the city before rush hour, so back in a taxi I went to my little oasis.
As we drove back to the hotel, I saw mopeds riding down the shoulder on the wrong side of the road, families of four on motorcycles, mothers with babies strapped across their chest on their moped, and plenty of bicycles carrying two people. I’ve witnessed this in smaller towns and villages but wouldn’t necessarily have expected to see it in such heavy traffic on main highways and roads. Hmmm, interesting. Also, while walking on the sidewalks near the highway that day, I decided that the masks everyone seems to wear are to keep germs or dust out and I wished I had one.
My next day consisted of exploring my neighborhood, tasting some local fruits at a nearby market, getting a fantastic Thai massage for $6, relaxing by my hotel’s koi pond while feeding the fish, and studying my Thai and Lao phrasebooks. It was just the type of day that I needed to battle jetlag. Everything else required almost an hour-long taxi ride into the city anyway so I decided I would come back and stay in the city next time. The following morning I was off to Vientiane, the capital city of Laos.
Vientiane was an easy hour-long flight and we still received a full breakfast on Bangkok Airways. Visas were simple and cost $35 upon arrival. The center of Vientiane was a quick 10-minute taxi ride and I could tell immediately that this place would be a bit more my speed. It was smaller, bustling with backpackers, and cute shops and restaurants. Buddhist temples dotted the route and I could instantly feel the surrounding
community influence. My hotel allowed for an early check-in, so once I dropped my bag, I was off to explore. I booked my bus ticket for the following morning to get to Vang Vieng, got a watermelon shake and decided to try some Indian food, which was delicious. By the time I had walked around for two hours and finished lunch, I was so hot that I had to go back inside for some air conditioning. When I went back out again to explore the temples and museum, they were closing, so instead I wandered through the neighborhoods. By this time, the sun was setting, the air was cooling off a bit and people were in their homes.
Wandering neighborhoods is one of my favorite things to do when I travel to get a feel for how the locals live. In Vientiane, the homes were close together and very open – the front of many of the homes seemed to have doors resembling garage doors, which were wide open so I could see the living area. Hmmm. I wondered if many people work from their homes or leave the doors open to get air since it is so hot. There were people playing cards, preparing food, playing games, doing hairdressing, organizing supplies, and all sorts of other activities. The children were playing
in the streets and dogs were roaming freely. “Sai-ba-dee”, the kids would shout and wave. Sai-ba-dee, I would reply – it is the standard greeting in Laos. I stopped by the local street vendors and chose randomly from the selection of fried foods. I bit into what turned out to be some type of donut with coconut custard in the middle. It was delicious! By the time I walked back to the main street where my hotel was located, the entire street had come to life. It was almost 8pm and the restaurants were getting busy and the bars were just opening their windows to let in the cooler night air. I wasn’t all that hungry in the hot weather so I lingered just to absorb some of the energy before going back to organize my things for the morning.
My bus ride the next day would be between three to four hours and once I reached Vang Vieng, I would have my orientation for working on the farm…
Revelling in gratitude … to be continued…