Posts Tagged 'laos'



Travel Tip: Accessories Will Save You

Now really, there is just no need for this.

The rainy season may have arrived early in Laos this year. But think that means you’ve got to tromp around in ugly boots and plastic tarps?

I say nay. I say accessorize.

I once heard on Oprah that the difference between people and animals is our ability to accessorize. I couldn’t agree more. Enough of these chimpanzees in zip-off pants and Tevas. A proper display of one’s humanity obviously includes a few well-chosen statement pieces that take you from Backpacker Bum to Hobo Chic.

Take the belt. It is perhaps the most crucial travel fashion accessory—it is both practical and stylish. Kate Middleton recently made heads turn when she left the Buckingham Palace for a post-wedding getaway in a belted blue dress. There’s no reason one can’t have the same effect at tourist attractions in Laos.

The $2 plastic poncho purchased at the town market may not scream “Style Icon.” It may not be the most form-flattering and may make you feel like you’re wearing a sweaty trash bag with a too-small head hole. But don’t let that get you down.

Throw on that handy belt you’ve packed, and you suddenly have both a waistline and a powerful statement to make: “I will not be held back by weather conditions, budgetary restrictions nor poor local fashion standards.”

Yes, you can hold your head high, your pants up and your waistline in, all with one well-chosen and easily packable accessory. Oprah would be proud.

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My Legs in Laos and My Heart in Cambodia

From the bus

“It’s crazy,” Alicia leaned over and whispered, a precipitous landscape of green huffing past the bus window, “how much healthier people look here.”

We sat in the cramped seats of a leaky-window bus, an 11-hour ride from Vientiane up to Luang Prabang. We passed mountains of limestone that rose up like the Angkor towers, dense forest and slash-and-burn fields of black, where smoke spindled like skinny incense. Punctuating the wild were villages of thatched-roofs and rusty satellite dishes, women swatting plastic bags at the flies that hovered over their roadside produce stalls, dirt-faced children who looked up, startled from inside doorways, then smiled and waved.

It was our fourth day in Laos.

I nodded; Alicia was right. There were the racial differences—lighter skin, sharper eyes—but also a kind of impoverished solidity to the people: lean but sturdy, skin firmer, less taut than that of their Cambodian neighbors.

Laos ranks among the world’s poorest 20 countries, and it endured its own US-fueled war and rounds of secret, incessant bombing. But there’s a difference between Laos and Cambodia, a lack of trauma that feels palatable.

We arrived that night in Luang Prabang, the country’s biggest tourist attraction—a Unesco-site of colonial chill. Vientiane was pretty mellow itself, but it’s hard to get a feel for a country by one city, especially its capital, often bound to be wealthier than the rest of the place.

It’s been a week now, and little differences between Laos and Cambodia have continued to reveal themselves to me. Like there aren’t private security guards sitting in plastic chairs outside every restaurant and guesthouse. There aren’t girls, bare arms folded and legs crossed in short skirts, sitting in similar plastic chairs outside of karaokes. I haven’t seen twelve-year-olds on the sidewalk, hunched over and breathing deeply into plastic bags that fill and deflate, fill and deflate, with the rhythm of addiction.

The foreigners are different too. There’s more backpackers, nearly exclusively backpackers, it feels, all wearing a uniform of flip-flops, shorts, Beer Laos tank tops and hungover sunburns. I’ve only seen a few Western white men with local women, and in most of those instances, they’ve had mixed-race children in tow. I haven’t seen any older burn-out travelers, with missing teeth and weathered skin and the particular wiriness that decades of addiction bring (think Iggy Pop in sandals).

I’ve read the newspaper a few times; it hasn’t been filled with stories about child rapes and murders and bizarre happenings (ie: a monk being disrobed for getting caught having sex with a married woman). Signs in my guesthouses haven’t advised me against having sex with children. I don’t finish all my food at a street stall, go to pack it up and take with me, then realize there aren’t street kids to give it to. There’s sidewalks, and the electrical wires stretch down the streets in smooth, discernible lines.

I hadn’t expected these differences. They’d existed in Thailand, but Thailand is wealthier, didn’t survive a war just a few short decades ago. I’ve been experiencing them as a series of little moments, realizations, that have started to add up in me, assemble in a line, make some sort of shape—a constellation of tragedy, a map of the way tragedies continue to exist in us, reverberating like sound waves or the rings inside trees when you cut them down and turn them sideways.

Cambodia, I’d thought, didn’t seem like a place that a genocide had occurred in. Phnom Penh, when I’d first arrived and walked its blossom-lined streets, didn’t seem like a city that had been evacuated, abandoned, left to crumble and rot for four years.

But the longer I’d stayed, the more I’d become aware of these strange things, little fucked-up moments that sparked and burned like dying stars. They felt like glimpses in to something too terrifying to look at squarely. So I suppose I didn’t look, didn’t think about them more deeply than a passing pang. This is how you deal with suffering, the same way I step over junkies in the Tenderloin: you build a wall around yourself, and you need this wall—if you let it all in, you might snap, go over into that dark side you’ve glimpsed and not ever come back. It happens; it sounds dramatic but you’ve seen it happen, like the kid in middle school who takes too much acid one night and is never the same. It could be you.

What I mean to say is that I normalized all the trauma in Cambodia, in the way people normalize everything—begging children and tuk-tuk drivers that couldn’t read maps, karma-scarves faces atop pick-up trucks, eyes that blazed black in the dust.

Sometimes it takes leaving a place to really know it—the way I’ve come to know the US much better by having traveled outside it. And now that I’m in Laos, somewhere chiller and possessed by a less horrible history, I’ve suddenly become aware of all these observations that were collecting quietly in me. It’s made me reconsider Cambodia, redefine it by a comparison country. And oddly, it’s made me miss it, crave it, the way we love things we can’t save.

“I was glad I went,” Suki said as we strolled the night market tonight. “There were some cool moments and it was really educational, but man,” she paused, shook her head slightly and her earrings followed her, glimmering, “I was ready to leave. It was heavy there.”

“How do you mean?” the writer in me asked, wanting details, specifics, scenes to cite.

Spooky dolls at the market

“I don’t know, it was just this heaviness in the people.”

I looked around at the gentle bustle and glowing lights of the market, and nodded. “I think I know what you mean.”

April 25: Sobreity and Getting Stolen From

Didn't take many picture in Vientiane. So here's one of people on the exercise equipment along the riverside.

Vientiane, April 25th: it was one of those perfect days. Until I found the money missing.

April 25th is my sobriety birthday, the day I get to think to myself—“This is the number of years my life has been getting better.” This year was eleven. Eleven years of slowly, sometimes painfully, learning to live in the world and in my own body without killing myself. It’s a pretty good thing to celebrate, not in a balloons-and-cake kind of way, but in a way that’s stiller, sweeter.

The theme of the day, I’d decided, was self-cafe. Which didn’t seem like it would be hard to achieve in Vientiane. We’d arrived the previous morning, slept off our 24-hour-bus-ride aches and spent the afternoon strolling around the town, eating at the local night market, reveling in all the differences from Cambodia (“Sidewalks!”).

The air was lighter, softer in Vientiane. We were farther north, and it was cooler, an oppressive edge eased. The streets were free of rubbish, and the traffic was mellow, orderly even—girls in sarongs riding side-saddle, holding frilly sun umbrellas. With its shady streets and fountain square, its cafes and riverside promenade, the city felt—I hate to say it—European.

Everyone had talked about how insanely mellow Laos is, how when you cross the border you exhale this breath you hadn’t know you’d been holding. And it was like that for me. So I decided to mellow out with it. April 25, there’d be no hard-core traveler shit, just doing things that felt good for me.

So I spent a couple hours writing in the morning, then went for fruit shakes and Western salads. We took a tuk-tuk out to a fitness center recommended by the guidebook; I ran sprints on the treadmill, swam in the pool, read in the sun, drank fancy coffee, got an hour-long massage. We went back into town and my friends treated me to Indian food. Cool air blew off the river, and I felt healthy, serene, filled with a simple kind of gratitude you don’t need words for.

“This has been a fucking great day,” I told my friends as we walked back to the guesthouse. “Really, guys—thanks for sharing it with me.”

I needed to stop off at our room to grab some more cash. I’d changed a bunch of US dollars the day before, and I never like to walk around with too much money on me—a lesson learned, I suppose, growing up in Oakland. I know you’re not supposed to leave anything of value in hotel rooms, but it always seemed a toss up to me. And in six years of traveling, I’d never had a problem.

Housekeeping had come, we noticed: fresh towels and soap packets. I reached into my bag, a pocket that I’d left, admittedly, half-zipped. I pulled out the book I’d tucked my cash into—as it happened, my favorite recovery daily reader (yeah, that’s right). I flipped to the page I’d stuck my money in—as it happened, that day, April 25.

And it wasn’t there.

“God. Damn. It.” I closed my eyes, dropped my arms to my side. “My money is gone.”

I commenced what I knew was a fruitless effort, digging through all my shit. Alicia and Suki joined in. “Did you put it here maybe?” opening another pocket, lifting up another pile of dirty laundry.

It was gone. $150, about 5 days worth of travel. And I knew there was nothing I could do. Every hotel room I’d ever stayed in, this one included, has had signs telling you they weren’t responsible for missing property. I had travel insurance, but how do you prove you had cash stolen?

And it was partially my fault. I hadn’t been careless, per se, but I hadn’t been as vigilant as I should have. I’d broken one of the cardinal rules of traveling, right along with leaving your bags unattended or keeping money in your back pocket.

I went down to reception, even though I knew, just like searching through the room, that talking to the manager would be fruitless.

I told him about the missing money. “I know there’s nothing you can do, but I just thought you should know.” He went through the motions of calling staff (“They said no one cleaned your room today.”), searching through the video recorder of the hallway (“I didn’t see anyone enter the room.”).

He told me they’d never had a problem before; a couple minutes later, he suggested I’d lost the money. “Maybe because you are three,” he offered. “Once we had three people staying, and they also lost something. They called the police; it was a big problem for us.”

I sighed a long, pained sigh. “I thought you said you’d never had a problem before.”

He shook his head, dismissing my observation. “I trust my staff.”

“Well, that’s good. But someone stole money from me, so I don’t.”

I sat down in the gaudily carved bench in the foyer, defeated. My brain ran through a list of should-have’s, why-didn’t-I’s. I pictured all the end-of-trip indulgences I wouldn’t be able to allow myself. I felt nauseous. I got, I’ll admit it, teary.

I went back upstairs, flopped down on the crisply folded sheets. I smirked at the irony of getting money stolen from a recovery text, on my sobriety birthday, a day that had been so healthful and serene.

What do you have control of in this situation? I asked myself. I couldn’t get the money back, couldn’t file a claim with my travel insurance, couldn’t prove that it was stolen in the first place. All I could come up with was my attitude.

I sighed again. Not a pained sigh, but a long exhale, the kind they say you do in Laos. So someone took my money. Was I going to let them take my serenity too?

It’s been a few days. And while I still feel the sting, while I have to be extra careful about what I spend money on, the main thing I remember from April 25, 2011 isn’t getting ripped off. It’s of taking care of myself, giving myself what I needed—a day of fitness and relaxing and good food—and sharing it with friends.

[For what it’s worth, the hotel I stayed at was the Riverside Hotel. And they’re breakfast was pretty awful to boot.]


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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