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Traveling Through Laos, At Last

Go Now to Experience True Cultural Immersion!

Children riding an elephant in Laos
Children riding an elephant in Laos.

We waited a long time to go to Laos. A small and much-abused country, used as a dumping ground for bombs during the American war, Laos has kept a low profile during its recovery. Now we anticipated elephants, caves, temples, and Buddhas. We were not disappointed. Our mode of travel would be sawngthaews (easier to pronounce than to spell), converted pickup trucks with wooden benches that went from town to town in the rural and not-so-rural towns and villages. Although perhaps not a comfortable form of transportation, we enjoyed the intimacy and the social contact. Hitchhiking and buses were backups, depending on the circumstances.

There is plenty to learn and grieve about in Laos, but plenty also to enjoy. Now, with a government softening toward the foreign visitors, its people are finally getting their piece of the tourism pie. Go now, while most of the country retains its pastoral pace! The guesthouses are popping up like mushrooms and there are already busy towns “zoned for partying.”

Getting There

The trip from the U.S. to Laos can be pricey, but once you are there the cost of traveling is low. From Bangkok, you can take a comfortable and affordable overnight sleeper train, plus a couple of vans or buses–-and you are in Laos. From that vantage point, you will probably spend your first night in the town of Pakse. When we arrived, the town was jammed with travelers and we had to try several hotels before settling on one for about $12 US. We walked all around the town before finding a place to eat with local people. We were lucky; they were two workers having noodles and drinks who spoke a little English. They were in high spirits, and entertained us well.

From Pakse, we headed to the countryside, starting with Champasak, a sleepy 1-road town with a few simple guesthouses along the road. We had our first view of the Mekong, and it was sobering to experience the formerly war-torn region so quiet now that you could hear the splash of a fisherman's net down river.

The half-a-dozen guesthouses housed fascinating panoply of international travelers including the usual Western Europeans and Americans. Other travelers were new to this scene: a Japanese man who had lost his wife, a young American and her travel partner who met on the couch circuit, Swedes escaping the cold, a few people from eastern Europe, and Yang, a solo young man from China we befriended, who was traveling with his computer and spoke good English. We were fascinated to hear about the changes in China in since our trip there in 1984 when China had just opened up. In fact, by the end of our trip in Laos we would meet travelers from more than 35 countries.

The big draw to Champasak was the Wat Phou festival. One afternoon relaxing at our guesthouse, we glanced toward the road and saw an elephant walking by. Making a beeline, not stopping to get a camera, we saw not one but nine of these placid behemoths, calmly marching down the road. The Wat Phou festival was coming to town. It was irresistible, and we followed the elephants a couple of miles to the temple grounds, where the area around the Wat was filling up with families and their elephants, and watched them settle down in the dusk. Later there would be seven arenas with painfully blaring Asian pop, food, and clothing for sale, games, plastic toys, and endless lines of people squeezing by each other on the way to and from the temple. We preferred to spend the celebration at our guesthouse with Yang, watching the midnight moon and its reflection shining across the river.

On our last day in Champasak Yang told us a story. He had gone to Si Phan Don, a popular area consisting of 4,000 islands, with beaches and fishing villages near the border with Cambodia. Yang had wanted to go there but did not have money to hire a boat. Neither did he know how to swim. Therefore, he bought a life jacket and proceeded to dog paddle across to the island. It took him two hours to get there. A fisherman found him on the beach, exhausted and freezing, gave him a sarong and a bowl of soup, and took him back to the mainland.

“What courage,” I said, “what compassion.” Yang was wearing the fisherman's sarong when he told us this story, and his eyes were shiny with tears.

Elephants and Happiness

We were developing a passion for elephants. We scanned the guidebook for places to go where we could see more of them. Kiatngong was the place to go. Elephants walking down the road, elephants waiting for their dinner, elephants herded home in the evening. We took a 2-hour elephant trek to the site of ancient ruin, sitting in a woven basket on the elephant's back (this mode of transportation is not for those afraid of heights). For some, it may be just as rewarding or even more so to watch the elephants in their daily routines. That said, it is probably worthwhile riding an elephant at least once in one's life, and it is good for the elephant economy.

We also made a point of spending time in the Bolavan Plateau where we watched elephants treated to daily baths in the river, and where waterfalls and good hiking abound. A bonus was a guesthouse that offered, in addition to comfortable digs, friendly family management and community dinners where you could help with the cooking or bring something to contribute to the family-style meal.

Our guesthouse owner had hired a young man to teach English to the neighborhood children. A group of students, from babies to teenagers, arrived on the deck by our room every night at 7 p.m. for their lesson. Since we were right there, we offered help with the pronunciation. The Rs and Ls are always the most difficult. We were skeptical about the archaic materials and pedagogy the teacher used, but, amazingly, within a few days the older children were learning English vocabulary, and even sentences.

Beautiful children in Laos
Beautiful children in Laos.

A Week on My Own

In the middle of a two-month-long trip to Laos, my travel partner Greg went to Bangkok to meet an American friend coming to Asia for the first time. I opted to stay on my own at a hotel in Thaket, a pleasant small town on the banks of the Mekong River. We had seen many women of all ages traveling on their own in Laos, solo, in pairs, and in groups, although I did seem to be, at 68, the rare senior. In general, Laos appears to be an ideal country for women travelers, with no apparent hassles. Even when some of the young women ignored the government request for modesty (no short shorts–-no revealing thighs), the local people seemed to handle the transgressions with tolerance. As an older woman, I was treated with respect and consideration. 

Author and partner in Laos
Author Sheila with her partner Greg.

Being on my own was a bit daunting because of my poor sense of direction and difficulty using the local currency, which consisted of small well-worn paper money in various sizes and colors. After a serious self-tutoring session, I still had difficulty when it came to paying an ice cream vendor. He calmly took hold of my wad of small bills, pulled out the required amount, and returned the remainder to me. After that, when I couldn't figure out the money,  I would pass over my handful of bills to the merchant, confident that  I would get back the correct change, and  just didn't worry about it anymore. In fact, knowing that I could get help with the money when I needed it lowered my anxiety level to the point where I could handle it with more confidence.

As to what to do with myself alone in Thaket, I walked around admiring the river, the colorful street scenes, and the brilliant sunsets. One day I saw a sign that said, in English, “Acupuncture.” I just so happened to have a sore toe from all the hiking we had been doing on the Bolivan Plateau, so I popped in to see if I could get it healed. The practitioner was a small sweet-faced woman in her 50s who spoke French, but no English. I speak Spanish, but no French. So we patched it all together, along with gestures and counting fingers, and managed to eke out a conversation, first about my toe, and then about all the things women talk about—husbands, children, earrings, clothes, our ages—albeit to a limited degree.

Two treatments did not do much for the toe, but our hugs and smiles were therapeutic and I returned just to visit two more times. It was interesting to see local people coming and going, for advice and remedies and socializing. I returned to say goodbye with warm hugs and an exchange of small gifts—a bracelet for her and a bamboo rice steamer for me.

I started going to one particular restaurant/international bookstore after a while, although there was rarely anyone else with whom to share conversation. However, one night, a solitary dinner of spring rolls and noodles spiced up nicely when five neatly dressed men walked in. "American?" I heard the word happily, and it did not take long to accept their invite to join them for a drink. Although only a few knew much English, one spoke excellent English and six other languages. They were an erudite group, each with a doctorate and their own corporation. However, the thing that brought them here was butterflies. They had met at a butterfly convention several years ago and had become friends and travelers together. Several times a year they would get together for a trip to a different region, seeking exotic butterflies.

On the fourth day on my own in Thaket I knew that I had to do something besides eat and walk up and down the waterfront. I had managed to move around town within a few blocks without getting lost by paying careful attention at every turn. A trip to the market sounded doable and I began by asking the pleasant young desk clerk at my motel who spoke a little English if the market was a near enough destination, and whether a tuktuk driver would know how to bring me back. Another time, I asked the desk clerk how much I should pay for a tuktuk. Finally, after sorting and studying my money one last time, I walked down the road to the tuktuk stand and stated my destination: “To the market, please.”

No response. I searched their faces for a sign of comprehension.

“Market, please,” I said again. Still the blank faces. Then it dawned. They did not speak English! I had forgotten the most important thing, the word for "market" in Lao!

Waving to one of the drivers to wait, I dashed back to the hotel and up to the desk clerk. The word she gave me, with a gentle smile, was "talat," or “dadat,” or as close to what she said as I could replicate. Then I ran back down the road. My driver was waiting patiently when I returned, and understood my rendition of the destination perfectly. I made a game of practicing the word as we rode along, and shared many good laughs with my driver. 

As the only foreigner in the market, for the most part, I was politely ignored. I managed to purchase a couple of sequined purses for gifts, bought some enticing tangerines from the gorgeous display, then just walked around and around. Finally, a fabric merchant took pity on me and offered me a chair to sit down and rest in his stall. He knew some English from a childhood trip to the US, and was pleased to have a chance to use it. In a generous gesture, he sent his daughter out to bring me a knockoff coke. I sipped it politely while we thought of things to talk about, as his wife, working on her sewing machine in the corner, smiled at me across the room.

The most meaningful experience in Thaket had begun when we first arrived. The guesthouses had been full and we had had a hard time finding a place to stay. Finally, we settled for the last room in a run-down guesthouse, with mattresses on the floor. There were people to a room. At least the desk clerk spoke some English and was as accommodating as he could be.

We found a nicer guesthouse the next day and were checking out when we noticed a notebook of English sentences just below the counter. What was that, we wondered? We asked the desk clerk. He told us he was teaching himself English. His method was to pick a word from his tattered dictionary, and then transform it into a sentence. He asked if we would help. We made some corrections and tried to explain. He had a lot to learn.

A couple of days later, after Greg left for Bangkok, I returned to James's hotel, and offered to help him with his sentences. It started with a short session that became longer each time. We developed our own ways of working on language. Many of these sentences were odd or hilarious, but he was a good sport and a diligent student. We were both sad when lessons were over and it was time to move on.

Making Yourself Useful in Laos

We encountered many travelers volunteering in Laos, in schools, hospitals, reconstruction, and even in fields of unexploded ordinance (UXO). Our style of travel is informal. Helping locals with their English was a good match for our skills, and fit in with our passion for making friends.

For example, in a small village we took a long walk across a bridge and along the river and encountered a group of high school students on their way home from school. They got off their bikes so they could walk along with us, and we took turns speaking English with them, switching conversation partners and topics. For example, one young man was painfully shy, so we gave him a long time to put his words together, and he warmed up, as he felt more comfortable. Another was interested in religion in America. Another, who spoke English quite well, told us that he tutored his classmates after hours and invited us to come to his after-school practice.

On the way home from a 15th century Buddha, and the Plain of Jars nearby, we discovered we had missed the last sawngthaew back to Phosavan where we were staying. We were going to have to try to catch a ride. Luckily, a truck loaded with young men on their way from home came by and picked us up. We discovered that some of these young men were English students and so we worked with them, especially on pronunciation, yelling the whole way at the top of our lungs in order to be heard.

Back in Phosavan, we had a real chance to teach English when it turned out that our hotel manager was also an English teacher. He asked if we would come with him to his classes and spend some time conversing with the students.

We were considering the invite. Then a shy young English couple arrived at the hotel, and they were invited to the classes. In spite of the young Englishwoman's trepidations, we all agreed to go. We showered and dressed in our best travel clothes. On the tuktuk across town, we wondered what we were getting into. It was already late afternoon.

The schoolroom that we entered was dimly lit. In front was a blackboard, but no chalk. The students sat quietly in their rows: four rows, ten seats in a row.

The teacher introduced us and then we introduced ourselves. None of us knew what we do next. Somehow, we did it. The young Englishman chatted with his group about Asian rock. Greg got the students to talk about their families. I taught them American children's songs and worked on pronunciation. The young Englishwoman spoke so softly I could not hear what she was doing, but it was clear that she and her group were engaged.

After an hour with this group, the students thanked us and filed out, and a group of older teens came in. This time the conversation was about sex and love, and how long should they wait to have babies. The discussion turned to what they would like to do when they finished school.

When the second hour was over and we had been warmly thanked, we returned to the awaiting tuktuk, which took us home at dusk. We got out at the hotel, walking on air, and danced down the street to the homemade ice cream shop. We all treated ourselves to ice cream on a stick before dinner.

Final Thoughts

Often the most memorable experiences are not the ones we are seeking. We took a sawngthaew to a small village near Thaket where we planned to stay for three nights, hoping to find the famous Mahaxi caves. Walking all around the area on a hot and sweaty day, we realized we had made a mistake and were nowhere near the area of the caves. We saw lots of vibrant green rice fields, but nary a cave.

Finding a place to stay in the village had not been easy. We were pointed, by villagers, to one unmarked house where we could get a bed for the night. The bed was OK, but we realized we were sleeping in the family bedroom when we had to cross a room of people sleeping on the floor to get to the bathroom during the night.

There was nothing much to see in town, other than a broken-down temple under repair, and a couple of stands with soft drinks and hard-boiled eggs. The highlights of our long, sweaty day of walking had been the watermelon we ate for breakfast and the watermelon we ate for lunch. Delicious, but not much of a meal! We decided to deviate from our 3-day stay policy and leave in the morning.

It was dusk and we were making one last turn around the town. I was listlessly trying to photograph the temple without getting the rubble in the shot, when I heard Greg at the end of the lane calling me to come.

'We have an invite for a beer,” he said, twinkling, know that would perk me up. Therefore, we sat down with our host at wooden stools on a rough table. We gratefully accepted the invitation. Our host knew a little English, so we learned that he was a farmer and 34 years old. He had learned his English working with an NGO on an agricultural restoration project.

We used everything we could think of to communicate using our ten words of Lao and his 30 words of English, gesturing, counting on our fingers, using facial expressions, pointing, and acting things out to get to know each other and to develop a warm feeling between us. As we talked, others joined us, first an older man with a small boy, then two women who pulled up a bench and sat down, followed by three small children peeking from behind their skirts, cautiously coming out and then smiling. We used everything we had in the cause of loving friendship and it did not fail. We said goodbye with many hugs and thank-yous. When traveling, these are some of the treasures we take home in our hearts.

Some Suggestions for Making Friends with Locals:
  • Do not always plan ahead. Leave time for last-minute whims.
  • Stay at least three nights to allow time to warm up.
  • Learn at least greetings and thank-yous in the local language and use them generously.
  • Use whatever you have to communicate: wave, hand gestures, clasp palms, and blow kisses to little children.
  • Bring photos from home to share with locals and give away at the end of the trip.
  • Have colored pencils or paints to use and to share.
  • Carry a harmonica and learn to play it when you are bored.
  • Pick a few unused trinkets from home to give for thank-yous and gestures of friendship.
  • Sing, dance, and communicate any way you can. Do not be afraid to make mistakes.

Sheila Signer met her travel partner Greg Kaufman in Cartegena, Colombia in 1976 and have been traveling together ever since. Drawn by shared good humor in the face of discomfort, they made a pact to continue their adventures between the exigencies of our respective careers, and to travel to one country every two years. Since then, they have taken 20 trips together, including northern and south America, India, west and southern Africa, Indonesia, and Borneo, always focusing on making friends in small towns and villages.

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