Tuesday, March 4, 2008

trekking in Laos and other stuff

We went on two treks in Laos. One with Penina and Shalom in the rain – a one-day trek including a longtail boat ride to a lovely waterfall. Yoni and I went swimming in the rain - we had to steel ourselves to take the plunge, but it was worth it. Couldn’t convince the boys to join us – even Tal, who has never balked at cold water in his life. Our bus got stuck on the way out and we watched as Yoni and the guides failed to pull it out of the mud. Seems that the footwear of choice in Laos – the flip flop – hindered their abilities. Eventually they succeeded, but they took off their flip flops and did it barefoot in order to increase their power.

Second trek was a two day affair with just our family after Penina and Shalom had left. The weather had, unfortunately, turned cold so we spent most of our non-hiking hours huddled around a fire. Here's a picture of Noam "crossing" a river with our guide. The rest of us were a bit more independent.

The villages we stopped through were wonderful. Would have liked to have been able to communicate more with the locals, and I realized once again what a blessing it is that Yoni speaks Chinese as it opens up so many doors for us here in China. In Laos we were only able to communicate through our guide . . and he was often busy preparing our food or doing other guiding related things. Here's some pictures we took while roaming through various villages. Note that the baby sling seems to have originated in this part of the world.

We got a bit frustrated with the concept of donations while we were traveling. Having traveled through countries where hordes of children can follow backpackers around asking for money and gifts, I was really pleasantly surprised that this never happened to us in Laos. The children always greeted us with smiles and waves, but never seemed to expect gifts. So when we were traveling I felt it was important not to hand things out, as I really believe this encourages a culture of begging – which is not good for the tourists or the locals. Although on the other hand, you really wanted to just empty your packs and give these kids anything you had. The conditions the families lived in were very primitive, as you can see by the pictures. So we chose to offer monetary donations to the local teachers or village leader. But one teacher that we gave money to was clearly not happy, although he accepted the money. He said to our guide that next time we should bring some gifts instead of giving money. Frustrating, and I realized again how hard it is to give in ways that are meaningful to the receiver. I'm attaching a couple of pictures of some schools we visited. Pretty bare, to say the least.

Anyway, the big event of the two day trek occurred about midnight when Tal suddenly threw up in bed. It was pretty cold and there was no water except what we had in our bottles. The village pump was far away and we had little hope of finding it successfully in the dark . . and the toilet, well, let’s just say there was a hole in the ground in a hut about 70 metres away. Kind of like vomiting in the middle of the night on a canoe trip. We were sleeping on these mattresses on an elevated wooden platform inside a hut, under mosquito nets, and Tal was right beside his brother. Miraculously, Tal was facing the correct direction and avoided throwing up directly on Noam - who luckily slept through the whole thing. I don’t know how Tal had the strength to hike six hours out the next day, but he did. I slowly got sick on the second day of the trek and by the time we returned to Luang Prabang was sick in our hotel room. My timing was better than Tal’s, but it’s still not fun being sick on vacation. My stomach wasn’t quite the same for the rest of the trip so I couldn’t even manage one last banana pancake before we left. I'm including a picture of the hut we slept in, as well as one of our lovely candlit dinner that night. Of course, this was before "the incident."

We had a variety of tour guides while in Laos – but nobody seemed to have a two syllable name: there was Da, Ping, Sak, and I’m afraid I can’t remember the other names. They were all pleasant, but not always knowledgeable. Oh well. But Ping was definitely our favourite guide. He lead us through a fabulous day of tubing and kayaking in Vang Vieng – the 20 something mecca of Laos. The last several kilometers of our kayaking trip we must have passed several hundred drunken foreigners floating down the river in inner tubes, stopping at these makeshift bars along the river blaring Bob Marley tunes and featuring giant swings that propel you over and into the river from tremendous heights. Y and I tried the “lowest” swing – but it still felt pretty scary to me (maybe after a few drinks it would have been easier). I’ve included a video of me swinging at the end of the blog – it may not look it but that was a significant drop. The only reason I let go of the bar was that I was worried I would crash into the platform if I held on any longer.

I'm attaching some pictures of Vang Viang - there's one in a stalagmite/stalagtite cave with our wonderful guide Ping. I think that's the cave where hundreds of locals hid (incuding our guide's older brother and family) during "The Secret War", "The War Against the US Imperialist Forces," or any other name given to this very ugly time period. On a happier note, there's a photo of Penina and Shalom having breakfast at our idyllic guest house, "The Elephant Crossing", and a beautiful view of Vang Viang on our day of biking through the karst peaks.

The whole drunken tourist scene was a bit disturbing. Towards the end Tal asked, with a very serious expression, “so is that what I’m going to do when I’m 18?” A good time for a lecture on the dangers of drinking and swimming. It's hard to imagine that a country that has only been open to tourism since 1999 can have attracted such a scene, let alone built enough infrastructure to sustain it. Some of the local restaurants played non-stop episodes of “Friends” while serving tons of Yoni’s favourite drink – Beerlao (Xi’an beer is terrible). Loads of young Israelis touring around everywhere. In fact, Beit Chabad had an outfit in Luang Prabang and several of our trekking leaders would say things like, “bo, yallah”, or acharei latzanchanim”. Ping referred to our inner tubes as “abuvim.” Those post army Israeli travelers sure get around.

A brief additional note from Yoni. Laos is an amazing country – in fact I find myself acting like an enthusiastic representative of Tourism Laos. The odd thing is that everyone I enthuse to about Laos tells me that someone else has done the same thing. Clearly Laos should represent a new direction in my research! I am looking for ways to get down to Laos for a couple of lectures through the Fulbright program… at the TWO existing universities in the entire country!

Another adventure we had that Linda failed to mention occurred when Linda and my parents were attending their Lao cooking class. Tal, Noam and I wandered down to a tributary of the Mekong river and then into a small village. There we stopped at a run-down guest house and played backgammon and sipped drinks out of the sun. The guest-house had a small, chained monkey that, according to the owner, never bit anyone who was male. So, intrepid boy that he is, Tal went over and made its acquaintance. They played a bit and then Tal returned for more backgammon. When we decided to leave, we walked past the monkey. The monkey, seeking to renew its acquaintance with Tal, jumped onto his shoulder. HOWEVER, Tal assumed that the jumper was Noam, and as all older brothers do, without looking, swatted Noam away.

Alas, while Noam has been described as a monkey in the past, this time it was in fact a real monkey. The monkey, offended, bit Tal through his shirt, breaking the skin. And thus began the long tale of the Rabies vaccine….crossing borders with a vaccine in an ice bucket …traveling by airplane and train and . . .

Perhaps the most lovely thing about the country - everyone smiles all the time. The people arewarm, welcoming and kind. Nobody seemed to be in a rush and seemed to genuinely want you to enjoy yourself. This contrasted with high energy, fast paced, and intense China - where recently I laughed so loudly at something in a restaurant that I caused this poor young waitress to, quite literally, jump! But then, that is a whole other story.