I had just entered a new world. Far from the relatively hard nosed, stony faced Vietnamese I was met with a small population of adorable souls so laid back they made Buddha seem highly strung. They occupied a land riddled with emerald jungles flaunting lush flowing rivers, aqua lagoons, cascading waterfalls and colourful butterflies. Understandably it surprised me to find this little piece of heaven had been the most heavily bombed country in the world. Apparently, during the Vietnam war the US dropped millions of tonnes of ordnance and herbicides (and deny doing so) which still sat undetonated in the country side, parking a perilous hazard in front of every unsuspecting countrysider. The locals, owning few assets, living in very basic housing, subsisting on tasteless, primitive food and sustaining themselves with poor quality or no education sat unfazed with smiles on their faces and warmth in their hearts. I love Lao!
Arriving in the capital, Ventianne after a very uncomfortable 20 hour bus trip which included a three hour, 2am stopover in a secluded, white fluorescent bug buzzing truck stop and 2 x vomiting seat mates, I stumbled on tranquility. The change in vibe relieved my body accordingly, shoulders slackened, brow unwound, I exhaled. The first two weeks I spent in the major cities and towns and soaked in the serene atmosphere while visiting Wats (temples), chatting to monks, swimming in rivers and waterfalls, kayaking, caving, hiking.
I then headed up north to a village named Muang Ngoi Neua. Inaccessible by road, I long boated it upstream excited by my potential future yet oblivious to the fact that the next few days were about to change my life forever. Stepping from the boat I headed inland and found the sweetest hotelier in the world, knocking me up with a ginger, lemon and honey tea she showed me around her rudimentary accommodation. My bedroom consisted of a mosquito net and hard mattress on the floor, no electricity and no shower but there was a communal western style toilet (no auto flush) which was negotiated in the dark and a garbage bin filled with water for washing. I opted for the river instead (for the washing, not the toilet). On my second day I trekked through the rainforest, sticking strictly to the tracks as I was warned to avoid losing a limb from an unexploded bomb lurking in the undergrowth. Famished, my German companion and I reached a village and went in search of some food. Coming upon two wooden benches and a table (a ‘restaurant’) we sat down and ordered some chicken and began chatting in awkward half sign language half simple English to an old lady who was weaving on the porch next to us. A commotion of chook squawks shifted our attention to our waitress who, wielding a machete, was running down an almost featherless, fleeing bird. As my unperturbed mate made no move to raise an eyebrow my very distressed city slicker self leapt into action. Hurtling into the dirt patch posing as a kitchen I cancelled our chicken order and set free the frail chick to struggle through another day. As I tucked into my bowl of noodles in ditch water I felt an inner shift take place. I had just become a vegetarian. Far from a whim decision the birth of my vegetarian mind niggle took place in Germany several years earlier. Touring around Europe in a VW combie van my companions and I ate vegetarian for several months purely for monetary reasons. That was until we stayed at the house of Bavarians who, truly immersing their Aussie guests in customary fashion, decided to cook us traditional and very meaty nourishment for breakfast, lunch and dinner. If you’ve tried this, gone without meat for a while and then crammed it in in ridiculous amounts you will surely know the corporal trauma it ignites. My mind never let go of the pain of meat and ever since, a poking herbivorous entity set up shop in a fold of my grey matter and most probably drew me to this very experience. An experience that snapped me into no longer being able to distinguish between a cute furry animal and a piece of flesh perched on my dinner plate. From this day whenever I consider that maybe I could eat meat my mind switches to a moving picture of me wandering through a meadow on a sunny day. I walk over to a healthy cow and as it’s wet, long lashed, trusting eyes follow me I take a bite out of it’s live hindquarter and acknowledge that eating animals is just not plausible. I have no idea where this brain film sprang from but it plays out any time I threaten to enjoy the wafty scent of a tasty BBQ. It was a big relief to finally deactivate that unrelenting mind poker but I became a little lost as to what I should feast on now. It quickly became apparent that out of major cities or towns my choices for food were eggs, fried rice or noodles usually swimming in oil and salt and sometimes graced with a meagre carrot or onion. Yet even though the food was rotten, I managed to pack on a couple of kilos with the intensity of carbs.
Returning back to Nong Khiaw I took advice from a fellow traveler and headed to Xam Neua (about 13 hours drive eastward near the Vietnam border) adding another notch on my bad trip belt. The tuk-tuk did a few laps of the town, filled up on fuel, the driver dropped in to check on his wife and kids and after 2 hours dumped me 10 minutes up the road where a waiting bus took me another 2 hours in the right direction. Again, I was told to exit the bus and wait for another one even though I’d just paid the full fare to go all the way. I sat by the side of that road on a piece of bamboo for 12 hours until 1am. I arrived in Xam Neua dog-tired but energised by the awesome description I’d received of this place and went wandering. Unbelievably I discovered…nothing! In fact being so close to Vietnam the town had absorbed their harsh character and there was none of that Lao ambiance that I so loved. Thoroughly dispirited and vowing to never take advice from another traveller ever again I headed back to my guest house. Passing a motorbike rental shop, a lightbulb appeared above my head the sexy Brrrrrrrrrrrm of the revving engine lapped at my ears. I didn’t know if falling over in front of the guy who hired me the bike was a dead give away that I’d never ridden one before but he made no attempt to check for scratches and so I wobbled off. Before I knew it I’d hooked up with a Kiwi couple and we were all heading to visit some caves in Vieng Xai. Pelting rain and dodging the array of people, farm animals and pot holes was absolutely awesome and I arrived back in town at the end of the day frozen stiff with a massive smile frost bitten into my face.
Going full circle I returned to Ventianne and after scouring a Lao map I realised I had another half of the country ripe for the exploring. I extended my visa for another 30 days, I was on a bucket list fulfilling roll and this country was way to cool to leave yet.