Four days ago Clayton gave George the assignment to write a blog entry after a great bike ride, “It’s your turn Dad.” But 3 days later, you know George’s phrase, “hey! I’ve been busy,” and Clayton is still waiting. And now George’s assignment has grown into documenting what has been an exceptional week. This explains the lapse of blogging this week and so I will help out my husband with a little writing of my own.
Before I begin, I left Clayton and Katy the second week of November on a dirty side street in Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal. For the last two months I’ve looked forward to this trip to Cambodia and Laos, but each morning I’ve woken up with the thought, “I can’t believe those two are still on their bike.”
First things first, in Luang Prabang we rented some mountain bikes and rode a 25-mile loop into the Chompett District, northwest of Luang Prabang. (And I thought those two would want some time off the bike.) We had to first put our bikes on a boat (giant canoe) to cross the Mekong River. Our boat driver pushed off from shore before checking to see if the engine would start. The current wasn’t too brisk and we were rescued a quarter mile downriver. Transferring bikes and people from a boat that is 25 feet long but only 3 feet wide onto another boat of similar dimensions can be very comical! George’s weight distribution almost sent us all swimming.
At last we were on our way biking on a very hilly dirt road. A bumpy road, rutted tire tracks, and hills after hills tested my legs. But not Katy. She can power up hills like nobody’s business. We think she was so happy to be the one out in front for a change. The country was extremely rural, with small villages consisting of just three or four homes here and there. No one spoke English . No signage. Just us and Clayton’s GPS (which is usually asking town people for directions and a lot of pointing). The best is to come upon children playing in schoolyards.
Around noon I started getting hungry and didn’t think the single can of Pringles in Clayton’s pack would feed four hungry mouths. “Don’t worry Mom, we’ll find a meal,” Clayton reassured me. After Duck Duck Goose at a Primary School we stopped at a village funeral luncheon. Clayton doesn’t hesitate in diving right into funeral luncheons. Who wouldn’t? After sticky rice, chili paste, greens and meat, George was motioned to enter the village temple to see the coffin of a deceased wife and pay for our lunch ($2/person) by an offering to the funeral. Or maybe he was invited in cause he looks like a bank.
The day was magical. “Look George! We aren’t in Kansas anymore.” Rice fields. Water buffalo. Poinsettia trees in bloom. Palm trees. Bamboo houses with thatch roofs. Children transporting siblings to school on the back of their bike. Laos is a beautiful country. And this day we discovered how beautiful the people are.
Thanks Clayton for being our bike guide!
My turn, oh my gosh. Big shoes to fill. Very well, where do I begin? The details of our week were quite . . . inconsequential? This is Clayton’s Father, Dr. Evil.
Humor aside, we’ve had a fantastic last couple of days.
One issue my wife Charlotte and I have discussed is how much time, when traveling somewhere new, should be spent in a particular location. Should you move around a lot and see as much as possible or settle in to one location for a longer time to let the place sink in a little deeper. This trip has definitely been the latter approach. First three nights in Siem Reap Cambodia to see Angkor Wat and all the associated temples – some Hindu, dedicated either to Vishnu or Shiva, and some Buddhist, dedicated to the Buddha. Every king back in the Khmer period (900 – 1300) had the job of building an awesome temple, and as Clayton’s youngest brother Eli might say, I’d like to congratulate them all on a job well done.
One thing I enjoy in particular about traveling is learning about the different religious beliefs and practices since, in the long run, that will end up being the only part that matters. One big plus of Buddhism over Hinduism is its relative simplicity: just one Buddha versus the seeming chaos of deities over in India. But I am not crazy about the Buddhist chanting. It is low pitched and very nasal, and gives me a bit of an upset stomach. So three days in Cambodia was a great way to get started.
Then we flew to Luang Prabang Laos, and this is our sixth day here. And it has been just great settling in here for a solid week. This is kind of a tourist mecca in Laos – the number of guest houses has tripled since 2005. But it is still a quaint, charming small town, on the Mekong River. We are staying at the northeast end of town on a peninsula where there are numerous Buddhist monasteries populated mostly by 12 – 18 year old “novices,” who will decide by the time they are 20 whether to become full-time monks or go out in the “real world.” We have talked to several. Very nice young men, which is no surprise because the Lao people (“Laotian” is no longer used – that is a French vestige) are perhaps the most consistently kind, gentle, and HAPPY people I have been with anywhere. It seems everything is funny here.
The country is poor but people are industrious and energetic. There is no sense that the relative absence of things that Western culture has been so good at producing is cutting into the quality of life here. We have had great food, and some of the best food has been the cheapest. Clayton leans very strongly toward “street food” which he claims has much more flavor – including the barbequed chicken feet he picked up for a snack this afternoon. Also, lots of sticky rice.
Sticky rice is the ‘bees knees’ of Lao cuisine, and will be mentioned in a separate entry.
This has been a great place to live for a week. I would recommend Luang Prabang to anyone who just wants to settle into Indochina for a while in a beautiful mountain setting and relax, have some adventure, and hang out.
I need to give credit where it’s due, however, for the high quality of our trip. Clayton and Katy are like a travelling machine. Trained professionals. When we arrived here Clayton led a night tour through town – down a dirt alley, then down very steep wooden steps, across a bamboo bridge over the smaller river in town, up to the night market – all as if he lived here. And I have had a few conversations with Katy and different locals where I have no idea what is being said and Katy is just following along as though a native. So we do have first rate tour guides and that is very much appreciated. It has been totally fun traveling with them and really not having to figure anything out. (Because after all – I’m an old man, I’m confused.)
Charlotte has already written about our 25 mile bicycle ride into the hills. I get to write about our overnight trek back into the mountains, which was the next day. We got into a tuk tuk taxi first thing and were escorted by our guide Nong. The others in our group were Hi, (he was our porter and didn’t speak any English, I don’t think), and one other tourist, Helmut, from Germany. We drove about an hour north and then headed on foot and over river up into the mountains. Lunch was served on a couple of banana leaves in a little outdoor hut, consisting of sticky rice and an assortment of vegetables, and was delicious.
We passed through several villages along the way. One problem I had is that they all reminded me of some scene from a Vietnam War movie – Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Apocalypse Now, even Forrest Gump (“Get down, shut up!) where the villages all get napalmed and incincerated. It was nice to see some of these beautiful villages where that wasn’t happening.
Just before we stopped for the evening we walked through a Hmong village. There were perhaps 80 dwellings, and people there living a very basic life. Weaving bamboo, taking care of farm animals, that sort of thing. Speaking Hmong. Even Clint Eastwood learned to love these people.
Then we climbed over the brow of the next hill and below us lay a Khmu village, roughly the same size. We wandered into town just before sunset. It was amazing. This little town is completely self-sustaining, with many pigs and chickens and ducks, wandering everywhere between the various dwellings, which are made of wood and bamboo. The people were living about the same as say a thousand years ago, with a few notable differences: many corrugated metal roofs, a couple of little stores where you could buy a soft drink (warm), several motorcycles, and some electrical generators.
Otherwise this could have been an ancient village. We had sticky rice (of course) for dinner, we watched them kill the chicken we ate, and also had a good assortment of greens. Among his many other roles, Nong was an excellent cook. The kids were everywhere, playing, playing, playing, and laughing. There were a couple of central bathing areas where you could clean up.
After it got dark we crawled into bed. We slept on mats placed on wood platforms inside a home with dirt floor. The home right next door had just been completed, and the local custom is to inaugurate a new building by partying all night. So the generator was used to power music that went well past midnight, I think, at a very high volume. Bad timing for us sleep-wise, but now and again these things just got to be done! The music was really great: a little disco-ey, and some reminded me of Pink Floyd, but all the singing was Asian (maybe Lao, how would I know)? All very danceable.
Morning came and we didn’t want anyone to think we were a bunch of stiffs. So when they stoked up the music again at breakfast time first Katy, then Clayton, then Charlotte and I stated dancing out in front of our place. And attracted quite an audience. They were all very amused – by Katy’s dance moves, Clayton’s celebratory hairstyle (ponytail on the side, reserved for special occasions), and somehow although this is one of the most surreal things I have ever done, it all somehow seemed to fit. The little kids joined in and it turned into a nice morning dance party with the Khmu hill people in northern Laos. Little did we know at the time that the women had resumed the inauguration ceremony inside the new building by drinking rice wine from long straws. This was a fantastic experience.
A couple of words about our guide, Nong. Like many of the Lao we have met, he was extremely friendly and upbeat. He was maybe 27 years old. His English was excellent, and he was very well educated and informative on a wide variety of subjects. He had grown up in a small village not unlike the Hmong and Khmu villages we visited. He was just an exceptional person.
He told us that between 1972–74 his parents, before they had married, lived in a cave about 50 kilometers southeast of Luang Prabang, for about two years. The reason? Nong said that during that time the United States was constantly dropping bombs in northern Laos. I knew about the secret bombing of Cambodia that stemmed from the Vietnam War but I had never heard this before, and was dubious. I checked it out. Between 1964 through 1973 the US carried out one bombing mission, EVERY 8 MINUTES, 24/7 – for nine straight years. More bombs were dropped on Laos than the US dropped in all of World War II. Tens of thousands of innocent people were killed. There are still TONS of unexploded cluster bombs dotting the northern Lao countryside, and several hundred people annually get killed by them. The full extent of all this was not disclosed until the Clinton administration. The missions were carried out because Viet Cong soldiers were here.
Sorry to end this little insert to The Touring Tandem’s blog on a downer. But after having been exposed to a wonderful culture full of very beautiful, happy people I was just a bit stunned and disgusted by this information. When Nong sensed our collective reaction to what he had told us, he was quick to add, “It was a very hard time for the Lao people, but we don’t blame American people for that. People are usually not the problem, it’s a problem of government and politics.” And the topic changed and Nong laughed again.