Sunday, July 13, 2008

Just follow the nice man with the Machete.

First off- I would like to dedicate the following blog entry to the children of Laos who saved my life on numerous occasions over the last few days. Thank you, you've made this blog possible.

I crossed the border into a Laos a few days ago. It was easy, Laos was happy to have us. Unless you were Canadian of course, they had by far the highest fee of any nation to get a Visa to travel in Laos. That's right Canada, Laos hates you and everything you stand for, now cough up an extra 7 dollars and get your Canuck-butt back on the bus!

I arrived in the capital city of Vientiane. Nice city, about the size of Everett, WA, but with more temples, and embassies, and French restaurants. I got "dressed up" (put on pants) and walked to the Vietnamese embassy to get my Visa. I thought I should look a bit more professional for the Vietnamese, there was one other person there, a really shady looking dirty man with a long beard and a wicked gleam in his eye.

"I want six month visa with multiple entries" he said, I thought this guy didn't stand a chance.

"Sure," said the consulate and gave Shady McUptonogood a Visa. I got mine in a flash and I was on my way. But not before I paid too much for a fancy French meal. Peppercrusted Pork Loin with vegetables in a mustard gravy. Awesome.

Then I was off to Vang Vieng. The road was muddy and the bus was really slow and rickety, but the views were spectacular. I had never seen a rice paddy before, now I can die satisfied.

Speaking of dying, I'm not gonna do it, not here, not now, not with the children of Laos protecting me. Vang Vieng has touristically exploded recently thanks to one activity, tubing. Here's how it works. You get an intertube, they take you a few km up the Mekong River, you get in.

Then the drinking begins.

Before you've been in the river for more than a minute, there's a group of Lao kids throwing ropes and bamboo and life preservers at you. They are trying to draw you into the first river bar. Here you sit by the river, with some of the most amazing mountain views you've ever witnessed and you pound back a few Laos beers with your new friends.

There's a rope swing!

I love rope swings and this is the best damn rope swing I've ever seen. It's really, really high above the water and when you let go it's quite a drop. This is too good really, I'm embarrassed by how much I'm enjoying this. As soon as you land in the Mekong the current starts pulling you on down, but the good Laotian children who are STRONGEST SWIMMERS ON EARTH pull you back in.

So you get back in your tube, float on down to the next bar, and the next bar, and the next bar. You do some more rope swings, then a zip line, then you drink some more. Back in the water, next bar had volleyball and soccer, oh god make it stop. Too much fun!!! Now everyone is totally covered in mud and we're all dancing in the rain as the clouds cling to the jagged walls of the mountains surrounding us.

I'm not proud of myself, this can't be good for the culture of central Laos, and the whole thing feels a bit too much like Spring Break Vang Vieng 2008! But damn it, I can't help but love it. Soccer in the warm torrential rain! Rope swings! It's like if Shawshank Redemption ended with a beach volleyball match.

Watching people jump off the ropes is the primary entertainment, and I now have the reputation as "The Entertainer", my new friends are encouraging me to get out there and do something either spectacular or hilarious. I will not dissappoint them.

I take the rope and take to the skies. I am as Swayze as I wanna be out there above the river, I'm spinning and kicking and putting on quite a show. Now it's time for the dismount! I had pulled off a small flip earlier so now I'm feeling more ambitious. Especially since everyone knows I'm on my way to the Olympics. It's time to flip and spin. So I let go of the rope and go flippy spinny into the air. However I don't make it all the way around, oh shit . . . !


I hit the water with a thunderous ker-smack. "OOOOHHHHHhhhh DDAAAMmmmmnnnn" I can hear from the crowd as I come up for air. Worst landing EVER! I landed on my neck and side and it hurt like hell, for a second I thought I had done some real damage. The guardian angels of the Mekong (six year olds) pull me in. I'm OK . . . kinda. My neck hurts like hell and it's difficult to swallow. The left side of my torso is a mess. I have a bruise from armpit to waist that is purple yellow green and red. It looks like my side is covered with a mixture of oil and water, it's a dirty rainbow of pain. (when I have a chance I'll upload the photo, but you may not want to see it, it's nasty)

Screw the pain! It's time for some more muddy volleyball. I stay at the last bar just a bit too long and it's nearly dark when my friends and I get back in the water. By the time we reach the end of the tubing section it's dark and we don't know where we're going. Luckily there's a bunch of tiny girls who apparently are five times as strong as full grown westerners and they pull in the lot of us. Hell of a day.

The next day I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed and anti-social, I'm missing my friends from home and I'm fighty a funky feeling in both my brain and stomach. So I rent a bike with the mission of getting closer to those amazing mountains, maybe climb a little, just a little exploring on my own away from the crazy kids on the river.

I head out of town and into the rice paddies, after a few miles I see a sign that says "Cave with Buddha, great adventure way." I'm a sucker for that kind of thing.

I head down the lonely overgrown path and realize the bike is going to do me no good. So I ditch it, and start tramping through the mini-river in search of Buddha cave. The views again are spectacular. But after walking for a few hours, I think I may not be headed towards any cave, in fact, now the path is leading me away from mountain. As I re-enter the river I see a small Lao family climbing over a fence. The man I assume is the father jumps back over the fence and back into the river. He comes up to me, waving me off, since I'm obviously lost and going the wrong direction. I try to communicate.

"Buddha?" and I make the shape of a cave with my hands.

He beckons me with a head nod. This way, he seems to tell me. He begins to walk down the small river through the vines and trees.

At this point I realize this nice man is carrying a machete. Now I know all the children's books I've ever read say "Don't follow men with Machetes", but they've never been lost in a jungle in Laos. I'm following the nice machete man.

Another hour passes as we tramp on down the stream. Everytime we reach another fence he whips out his machete, cuts down some vines and repairs another fence.

See! He doesn't want to kill me, he's just doing some maintenence. He even opens the fence for me, which means I have to turn my back for a second, but at this point I'm not even scared. I love this guy! True to his word, he leads me to a very good path that leads me right up to the caves. Thank you Machete Man, you are a gentleman and fine repairer of fences.

I scale one of the Karst Towers and climb nearly a third of the way up. Looking back over the rice paddies is one of the greatest views I've ever witnessed. The caves have no Buddha, but I don't care. As I walk back down I see a big Lao family tramping along the path. I'm following these guys. They lead me, the muddy giant white guy, across the rice paddies and back to the road, I look ridiculous. Still, I make it back to town just before dark.

I've done a bit more travelling since then, I'm currently in the lovely city of Luang Prabang, and I had a wonderful day swimming in the waterfall yesterday. But now I've got to move on. I'm catching a plan to Hanoi in just a few hours. Soon it will be time to cross into China, which doesn't sound easy. All the other backpackers are like . . .

"You're crossing to China by land?"

"Yes, so . . . ?" I say.

"Ooh, good luck with that."

I highly recommend Laos for anyone travelling in this part of the world. I had a fantastic time, next stop Vietnam.
The world's worst ariel rope swing display above the Mekong River in Vang Vieng, Laos ended in the most embarrassing side-belly-neck flop in the course of human history. This is the massive bruise I still brandish. Plus, it still hurts to swallow. If you get even the slightest chuckle out of this ridiculous display of damaged blood and skin cells, just imagine the kind of river thwacking it would take to make such a mark.The world's worst ariel rope swing display above the Mekong River in Vang Vieng, Laos ended in the most embarrassing side-belly-neck flop in the course of human history. This is the massive bruise I still brandish. Plus, it still hurts to swallow. If you get even the slightest chuckle out of this ridiculous display of damaged blood and skin cells, just imagine the kind of river thwacking it would take to make such a mark.


Em said...

i am enjoying this blog immensely right now. you know how to travel, mark.

Jeanne Lee said...

Children of Laos, Mark's friends say, "Thank You".....

Ummm, I know you were lost in a jungle, but you followed a man with a machete?!!!! Yikes, are on quite the adventure.

It sounds gorgeous, stunning.....I hope you took lots of pictures!

erika said...

Good story Siano. If you're really that worried about a land crossing why not just fly straight to Guilin from Hanoi or Saigon? That should be a lot easier.

John Kranz said...

absolutely love the blog- this is the 1st one I ever read from top to bottom . Glad to hear you are still alive and rocking it in Asia. Miss you man. Can't wait to hear more. peace,love and michael mcdonald