One of the first expressions you learn as a visitor in Laos, is “Sabei, sabei“, meaning don’t worry, no problem.
– Bus is 6 hours late? Sabei, sabei!
– Bus is 10 hours late? Sabei, sabei!
– You don’t have the stamp in your passport? Sabei, sabei!
– Shop closed? Sabei, sabei!
– Shop closed again? Sabei, sabei!
With such a heavy use of sabei, sabei, you feel that Laos is the backwater of South East Asia. Traffic is sparse, the population is more often sighted in a hammock, than rushing around, and it is part of the hospitality that you have to wait a few minutes or quarters of an hour, before the waiter, or receptionist, or clerk rises from the hammock, or couch, or chair, and is ready to face you. Some people accidentally mistake this ability to be laid back as rude, but nothing could be further from the truth. Time is an abundant luxury in this otherwise poor country, that doesn’t need to be watched, or accounted for. People seem immune to efficiency, the contagious disease of western culture. I remember Momo, and how she dealt with the time thieves, and am lead to believe that there must be a laotian connection.
Ziplines! Jungle fun!
We left Vietnam in a very comfortable sleeper bus from Dong Ha, and arrived hassle-free in Pakse, southern Laos. The mighty Mekong river flows slowly, the city hugs the river shores, and the pace of the city follows the same rhytm. We are here in order to try an eco adventure in the jungle, called the Tree Top Explorer, lots of fun on zip-lines of several hundreds of meters, canopy walks and swimming in a waterfall, all embedded in the green jungle of the misty Bolaevan plateau, famous for aromatic coffee.
The famous coffee is served every morning and dinner, cooked in a filter over a cook fire, strong and aromatic indeed. Accommodation is in small huts built in the crowns of huge trees, access true to the camp style, by zip line only. There is a shared kitchen and platform, overlooking the valley, the focal point of which is a majestic waterfall.
– Namtok – our guide Bun repeats patiently.
“Nam” is water, “tok” is falling, and all our activities are concentrated around the waterfall, we zipline above, below, bathe in the water, and gaze at the spectacle when sipping our coffees. After sunset, as the tropical night descends quickly, accompanied by a choir of cicadae, we zip into our tree top hut with a cat under one arm, a preemptive measure towards another inhabitant of the jungle trees, the rat.
We were thrilled, this trip is pure, destilled fun. Things are well organized, we eat picnic lunch off banana leaves, and can follow the enjoyable program, a mixture of zipping along the lines, trekking, swimming, and relaxing in the beautiful jungle camp, taking in the amazing view.
Next destination is Green Climbers Home, a climbing camp in Thakhek.
We look around for bus tickets, and pick the one that promises a 6 hours trip as opposed to the 10 hours, the other vendors are selling, only to arrive in Thakhek … 10 hours later. It is dark, and we have to bike to the climbing camp under the starlit sky, and the feeble light of the head lamps. After an hours bike ride trough the darkness, the climbing camp appears, a flood of light, we can hear the laughter.
When we arrive, I see friendly faces, that we have met in China, climbing bags skattered around, the talk the same at all climbing destinations in the world, this is my tribe.
We stay for two weeks, I enjoy the rush of climbing, while Pawel and Magdalena are reasonably bored. It is hard to climb again after so many weeks of abstinence, luckily I can team up with Marcel, a familiar face from Yangshuo in China, and he is patient while I freak out on the low grades, and the power slowly returns, I redpoint a 6a+, with shaking Elvis legs, and feel as a climber again.
We spend rest days going to the city of Thakhek, there is a single shop with ice creams, and wifi, a massage joint, salt baked fish at the stall next to the river, where one can sit and look across at the Thailand side.
I enjoyed the stay at Green Climbers Home so much, I didnt even wish for Christmas presents, but Christmas is only two days away, and we have to go to Vientiane, and pick up Solvej, a friend of Magdalena’s, that has decided to join us for the Christmas holidays. When we are leaving, I wish I could have stayed in this paradise.
Our Christmas Miracle
Our Christmas Miracle was to find Jungle house, an amazing guest house run by amazing people, Mike and Xoukiet. I am short listing this guest house as a candidate for the title “Best in all the world”. It is a very special place, mainly due to the personalities of the two people, that run it. Their home is a beautiful house, with a junglelike garden, and from the moment you arrive, you feel like a dearly missed friend. We enjoyed really roal breakfasts in the mornings, and the pleasure of sipping Mike’s gin & tonic, sitting above the water pond while listening to the frogs chatting at sunset, and the highlight of each evening, meeting other guests at the dinner table, engaging in fierce philosophical/political/cultural/../ discussions.
Our Christmas Miracle was to meet Mike and Xoukiet. This couple, both deeply engaged in making the world a better place to leave, fundamental humanitarians, was a huge inspiration. Xoukiet battles human traffiking, Mike has founded the COPE center, to help victims of land mines, cluster bombs, and other effects of the Secret War, bringing more bombs to this quiet backwater country, than any other place in the world.
– We should not aim for what is possible to do, but for what is right to do. – recounted Mike, of his stance at the discussion of the UN committee for cleaning up the country from bombs.
– How many casualties should we accept? 0!
Things become very simple, when you hold such a fundamental view, when you hold a plastic molded leg in your hand, looking into eyes of the crippled human, whose life you want to improve, then war, bombs, the war rhetoric is meaningless, we are humans, and should treasure our lives, as a superior value, not something that we have the right to take away from others, diminish, or end.
Our Christmas Miracle was a dozen of strangers, meeting around a table to celebrate a special day, far away from our homes, determined to launch a new friendship, and our miracle was a beautiful fusion of traditions.
So we went from sharing the polish “oplatek”, sent by my mom, dancing around the christmas three danish style, complete with running around the house, and singing “12 days of Christmas” in unison, with Mikes powerfull bass voice delivering “fiiiiive gooooolden rings“, enjoying listening to a story read alout, that was published over a century ago, and has been cherished by generations of Boddingtons since, trough sharing the warmth and joy of being human, and together.
The house was quiet and asleep, when we managed to connect with my family trough Skype, the time difference such, that they were just beginning to gather around the food. When my mothers voice came crackling trough the static, I felt a lump in the throat, felt the enormous distance, so far away from home 119, 17, as opposed to 10, 55 …
Next stage in our journey is a bumby ride along the Mekong river to Sayabouli, where we have signed up as volunteers on a paid program in the Elephant Conservation Centre (ECC). Rattle is the only word I can find to describe the progress of a bus in Laos, and our bus rattles north, together with the suffering passengers, the helper boy distributes vomit bags, grabbed by eager hands. A mommy, daddy and a toddler are seated next to me, the little family takes turns vomiting, the plastic bag wobbles between our seats, brimming full with a “road soup” of undefinable color.
After too many miserable hours, we stand with two legs on the red ground again, the bus station being a raised platform in the woods, excited to see the elephants of the center, to learn about our duties as volunteers. Soon a beaten up truck arrives, and after more bumbing around, we arrive at the camp, a collection of simple bamboo huts, the location incredibly beautiful, surrounded by a magical lake, that mirrors the sky, the clouds, the sunrise and sunset.
I remembered the buddist story about a nun, that saw the mirror image of the moon in her bucket, while carrying water, and understood the nature of things, showing thus, that enlightenment can be achieved doing mundane chores, and meditation is not anymore or less fancy, than carrying water in a bucket.
Or looking at a magical lake.
We meet the other two volunteers, a polish couple living in Scotland, and the six of us hang out together, sharing the same fate.
There isn’t really any work for us to do, and this being Laos, the staff seems worried about us not to over exert ourselves. The days pass with hanging around the elephants, or swinging in hammocks, every night has a camp fire, music and lao lessons.
Riding on the neck of the elephants is fun, but even more enjoyable is just being around these magnificient animals, sensing them. The mahouts are so gentle and caring, the look of concern and love on their face, when they speak to their elephant, the mighty animals are controlled using the voice and body language only, no metal hooks or other malicious inventions. Every day, there is a boat trip to visit the nursery, where a 23 months pregnant elephant lady is awaiting the birth, her belly huge, we are hoping to see the newborn, but the baby will arrive after we have left the center. The staff explains, how the elephant, the very national symbol of Laos is threatened, the species on the border of extinction, as natural reproduction is hindered by economical considerations, and 10 elephants die for every baby that is born. The purpose of the center is to provide veterinary services, and support mahouts with pregnant females, so that they do not loose their income for the two years of pregnancy and three years of nursing, that a baby elephant requires.
Being volunteers, we feel an urge to contribute to both the cause and the paradise, and we settle on a bit of gardening, doing a yoga class, and organizing a treasure hunt for the kids in the camp, which is well received by the target group.
The owners invite us volunteers to stay for the New Years Eve, and we say goodbye to the old year with a barbecue party, complete with a roasted calf, foie grass and lots of Beer Lao.
When we leave, it is with a feeling, that we leave a paradise.
Luang Prabang and north
Next stop, after the mandatory bus rattle, is Luang Prabang, surprisingly touristy, supplied by a steady stream of farang’s, meandering around the colourful markets, and the majestic temples. Not being a family of temple explorers, really, we want to see more of the simple life, and rent scooters, to ride 70 km north to Ban Na Ham. That is where we meet friends of the family that runs our guest house in Luang Prabang, and we are treated to a self-organized home stay.
The whole village is suddenly there, curious about us, we about them. Life is simple, belongings few, the house is clean, the people generous. We go with the boys to set the fishing nets in the river, a local school teacher helps with translating. We are treated to a royal dinner, and even more royal breakfast, with sweet rice cooked in bamboo over the fire, and a fish, and chicken soup, made from a chicken, that was walking proudly around a few moments ago.
We visit the village, walk among the houses where women are weaving, and give an english lesson at our teachers school, teaching the students to clap their hands to “If you are happy and you know it”. When we are leaving, we are leaving another paradise.
It is Magdalenas 16 years birthday, when we wake up before sunset, as our night bus from Luang Prabang has sped trough the potholes of the mountain road, and has arrived in Vientiane hours ahead of schedule.
– Happy Birthday! – we hug the sleepy eyed main person of the day, and share a jar of cookies, as we wait on the bus platform, atop of our luggage, for Mike to bring us to our beloved Jungle House.
The night is a hardly a surprise, the Jungle House style elegant dinner, with stimulating converstation, champaign to celebrate the birthday girl, and a wonderful chocolate cake!
Having been on the road for a while, travelling, sleeping, eating, being together 24 hours a day, it is really hard to keep a surprise, and the birthday girl does not sound very surprised when the surprise is revealed.
I have found Backstreet Academy, a company that connects travellers with local people, that have something to teach, the experience is thus authentic, and not to reproduce on mass scale, a platform worth supporting. The surprise we picked, is a lao style cooking class, in the garden of a family, the father and mother in law look at us, as we are instructed by the pregnant wife, the husband tends the fire, and a young student handles the translation, everybody enthusiastic about teaching us how to cook the food. We relaxed while grilling the vegetables on the cooking fire, washed, peeled, and pounded at the ingredients, and the result was a delicous lunch with 5 dishes, that we could consume with our new Lao friends.
Time passes fast, visas, even when prolonged, run eventually out, and we have to say goodbye, leave the cosy nest we have in Jungle House, and hug Mike and Xoukiet goodbye. We continue the adventure on our bikes, as we approach the border bridge to Thailand. After a half year of travelling, we have discovered how time flows in a different, slow, pace, and that small pieces of Paradise can be found on our planet, and Laos has an amazingly high density of these small Paradises …