Friday, August 13, 2010

Laos - Land of One Million Elephants

Communist Laos flung open its doors to tourism in the early 1990s and the last decade has witnessed an explosion in development. To be honest though, I had never even heard of Laos until I started planning the trip and looking at maps of Southeast Asia.  With it's mountainous terrain and more laid back pace, it sounded like it would be a good place for our next stop.

We left Chiang Mai, Thailand for Laos on a 2nd class bus which took 5 hours to get to Chiang Rai. We then had to catch the last bus in Chiang Rai leaving for the border town of Chiang Khong at 5 pm. The bus arrived at the station at 4:45pm, and when we went to buy a ticket to Chiang Khong, they told us that we had to go to another bus station across town. If we missed this bus it was going to put us back another day, so we hustled, caught a tuk-tuk, and made it to the other bus station at 5:10...luckily the buses never leave on time and we got on just before it left. The 3rd class bus ride was slow, but went through beautiful countryside. When we got to Chiang Khong, we caught another tuk-tuk and had him take us to Bamboo Guesthouse, which was recommended in the Lonely Planet book. When we got there, the place seemed semi-shady, but the room looked clean (although it was made of thatch and looked like it would fall down if I sneezed too hard), so we trusted Lonely Planet and took it. This is where our interesting night started...

In preparation for our trip to Laos, we read in our guidebook about the 2 day journey down the Mekong on a long and extremely slow boat, which required an overnight stay in a village along the river.  The accommodation in the village was supposed to be very basic with limited power, but worst of all, reports of "rats the size of beagles" inside some of the guesthouses.  As we prepared ourselves mentally for what might lie ahead in the coming days, we thought of the likelihood that these same mega-rats could potentially be in the same area where we were staying that night.  "No worries," we told ourselves.  "We are men and can handle it."  The more we looked at the holes in the ceiling and walls of our basic thatched hut, the more our confidence in ourselves dwindled. 
Our vision of a Beagle Sized Rat

That night in Chang Kong will be a night neither Jake nor I will ever forget.  About an hour before we cut the lights out for the night, we heard something scurrying up a tree outside the room.  Then a large thump as something heavy sounding landed on top of the ceiling.  "Holy explicative," we said, "What was that?"  It sounded large enough to be a dog, but we couldn't tell exactly what it was.  I assured Jake (and myself) that surely it wasn't the dreaded beagle rat and more than likely it was probably just a cat...since rats don't climb trees, right?  I'd been through rats in the ceiling before in Borneo so I was sure we could handle it without any worries this time.

We listened for a while as we heard something scurrying around above the ceiling.  We banged on the ceiling a few times and the noises subsided for a while.  Not wanting to seem like sissies, we both laughed it off and said that we would sleep with one eye open. I then turned the lights (the room was pitch black...couldn't see a thing), and we proceeded to drift off to sleep with visions of mega-rats in our heads.

And then it began again, but worse this time.  Heavy scratching sounds followed by eerie hissing/squeaking noises began on the ceiling above.  We both woke with tense nerves and the hair on our necks stood like two feral cats in a street fight (well, not mine, but Jake was terrified).  Then we heard the creature running back and forth thumping around heavily up above.  We turned on the lights and banged on the ceiling a few more times while yelling a few Thai explicatives at whatever it was since it probably didn't speak much English.  The noises stopped and somehow we managed to drift off to sleep again.

As we slept, the unimaginable finally happened.  A noise more violent and louder than all the others pounded down hard on the ceiling and a few seconds later as I lay there asleep something large and warm and furry fell from above onto my back.  Even though I was still deep in an almost delusional sleep, my senses were in commando mode.  While my mind was still in a state of innocuous sleep, my body reacted like a trained military forces agent.  I sprang to my feet on top of the bed like Rambo except the only difference between a commando and me was that I was screaming louder than Little Richard at his farewell performance and high stepping faster than any NFL prospect at the combine.

Feeling the warm fur running around in the bed, I jumped down to the floor where I continued yelling and cursing and furiously practicing my high steps.  Meanwhile, Jake hadn't had a chance to make contact with the beast, but was obviously panic stricken by the fact that the room was pitch black dark and I was screaming, "AHHHHH it's on meeeee.  It's on meeee, dude." 

Feeling what I thought was the massive rodent on the floor now, I hurled myself back up onto the bed and Jake and I both continued yelling and dancing like school girls.  Not wanting to touch the floor, we scrambled for a flash light and shown it around the room.  Unfortunately, I drew the short straw and had to be the one to look under the bed.  Jake envisioned that the beagle rat would come out and naw my face off, but luckily that wasn't the case. 

We knew he was in the room somewhere, but didn't know where. I got off the bed and turned on the light...nothing was there... but the noises above started again and even louder than before. We were both white with fear, and didnt know what to do at that point. I didn't have any scratches or bites, and we didnt know what just happened. After pondering leaving, we decided it was best to try to tough it out and go back to sleep. The noises continued until morning, and we both jumped every time something made a noise in the room. Neither of us slept a wink, and decided to leave at 6 am to get out of there. We later discussed the incident over food and beers and to this day are not sure what truly happened. Our best guess was that when Jake tried to wake me up, he hit me which made me think a rat had fallen, then he must have hit my leg... who knows... funny story though.

Slow Boat to Luang Prabang

The slow boat
The slow boat to Luang Prabang Laos down the Mekong River was pretty cool. The oriental style polished teak boat was great to see, and even better to be going down the river on. Although the boat was slow and moderately uncomfortable, the scenery was beautiful.  But back to the uncomfortable... the boat had two options for seating... the floor which was preferred or VIP seating or wooden bench seats. (Mind you that the boat ride consisted of (2) 8hr days). As we started down the river, Jake and I started scoping out where we could hang our hammocks from. We found some good ceiling joists and got them situated so we were partially hanging out over the side of the boat above the water... this was not only a great view but also had a nice breeze.

Despite the "I hate you and hope your hammock breaks and you fall in the water and drown" looks from the other uncomfortable passengers, we managed to rub it in a little more by breaking out a couple Big Beer Lao's to sip on.  It was an incredibly relaxing first day.  Day # 2, the rug was pulled out from beneath both of us... for some reason we changed boats. The new boats didn't have joists that we could hang the hammocks from and we were forced out of the super VIP hammock section into the wooden seats with the masses. Day 2 was a backbreaker, however we met two cool Canadians (Dave and Jan) that helped pass the time.
The Mekong River had little signs of civilization, other than a few small river villages. The boat must have doubled as a supply boat, because it carried bags of rice, chicken cages, and other supplies on the roof which we dropped off at the small river towns. Most didn't have power lines or any signs of roads leading to them, so I assumed they were pretty isolated. We we arrived at our destination Luang Prabang, which was more of a town than a large city.  So far it is a really cool town that seems to have a lot of French influence (used to be a French colony).  Dave, Jan, Jake, and I walked into town and found a nice guest house with a large balcony and a river view. The guesthouse was a whopping $3 for each of us and had to be one of the most ornately decorated guesthouse of our trip.  The house was completely trimmed out in varnished teak with large planks of wood that would have to cost loads of money at home. So far, Luang Prabang seems like a cool place to spend a couple days.

View from the balcony of our room

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