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April 24, 2005

A World of Contrast

I'd heard a lot about Vang Vieng--how touristy it is, totally catering to backpackers, with practically every building a guesthouse, restaurant, or internet cafe, and many places with TVs blaring a Hollywood blockbuster or episode after episode of Friends--someone on a travelers' message board called Vang Vieng "recess." I certainly saw all that the moment I stepped off the bus, and even enjoyed a few episodes of Friends myself, I admit. But, I also had some interesting and unique experiences in Vang Vieng, that felt way, way off the tourist circuit.

I stayed in a bungalow down by the river, a little out of town, and it was quiet and beautiful, surrounded by huge limestone cliffs and gardens. One evening at dusk, a few of us played soccer with some local kids and a few of the guys who work at the guesthouse. I'm a terrible soccer player, but it was a lot of fun.

After a few days relaxing in town, I went to stay at an organic farm a few kilometers away. It didn't provide quite the organized volunteer opportunity I was hoping for, but I did a lot of cool things there nonetheless, and also ate some fantastic food--the farm's primary crop is mulberries, and I tried these tasty berries, kind of a cross between blueberries and blackberries, in pancakes and shakes. The first evening, I went to observe/help out with the English classes at the community center in the nearby village--my first glimpse into what it's like for these kids to learn English, as well as what it'd be like to teach them. It was fun and interesting, but I can also see the frustration that could arise, trying to keep these kids' attention and make any real progress. And for them, with volunteer teachers who don't stay long and don't usually have much training, it must be just as difficult. On the way back to the farm that night, some of the farmhands called us over to a little stand on the side of the road to have some lao lao with them--homemade rice whiskey that tastes like full-on moonshine. It was fun sitting around with them, somehow learning a few Lao phrases from them, and taking shots from the communal glass. One of the guys had a English-Lao-Thai "dictionary," just some photocopied pages stapled together, with phrases like "Comrade, can you tell me how far it is to xx?" We used it to figure out that the guy next to me was saying "I'm glad to meet you" as he shook my hand and slapped me on the back like one of the guys.

The next day, I got up early to watch them milk the goats--I was too shy to try it myself--and I played with a one-week old kid, then learned how they make goat cheese (which I ate plenty of while I was there!). Then a few of us foreigners, including a French guy who's been at the farm for a few weeks and is kind of running some projects right now (he organized to bring the goats over from France!), headed out to one of the farm's remote fields, riding in a cart towed behind a tractor. We were quite a spectacle to the locals, that's for sure! We spent the day digging holes in one of the fields, preparing to plant elephant grass that will be food for the goats. We took a long lunch break and a siesta to escape the sun, and also had to take another break for the afternoon rainstorm, but we got a few good hours' work in, and I was exhausted! I wore one of the traditional pointed straw hats--a brilliant design, providing lots of shade and keeping your head really cool. I didn't have my camera with me that day, though, so no pictures until a fellow farmer gets some scanned for me this summer. It was amazing to be just across the river from town, practically in sight of the restaurants playing Friends, and yet be in such a completely different world, and working in such a stunning setting, with the limestone cliffs and mountains all around.

My last day on the farm wasn't a work day, so we got two of the guys who work there to guide us out to a cave not far away--we hiked over a mountain and then came back through the mountain--pretty cool!

While in Vang Vieng I also went on a kayaking trip down the Nam Song river, which was fun, but would've been more so in high season when there's more than a foot of water--we got stuck on rocks more often than I liked. We did find a few deeper spots with swimming holes, though, and in one place we stopped to jump off a 15-foot-high bamboo platform, which was scary as hell--I only did it once, but was so proud of myself for just walking right out there and jumping off without pausing.

I've just arrived in Luang Prabang, a much mellower, less touristy-seeming town, although I haven't seen that much of it yet. There are a lot of temples to see here, as well as some more caves and waterfalls nearby, and several options for trips up and down the Mekong River. I'm not sure yet how long I'll be here, or where else I met go in Lao, but I'm enjoying playing it by ear. It was a 6 1/2-hour bus ride here, on one of the curviest roads I've seen in a long time--I had to keep my eyes on the road to keep from getting carsick!

Posted by Amy on April 24, 2005 05:47 AM
Category: Lao

you jumped off a 15 foot high pier but you were afraid to milk the goats? Goats are so non-judgemental.

Posted by: missmobtown on April 26, 2005 09:09 AM

Sheesh, you're right! That sure puts it all in perspective!

Posted by: amy on April 29, 2005 08:47 PM
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