Truth be told I am having a love hate with Laos. It is at turns beautiful, crumbling, dusty, lush, friendly, rude and above all smokey. We have yet to see a snippet of blue sky or the hills and mountains that surround the city unless we are in the back of a tuk tuk driving up them. On our first day we hopped in a tuk tuk and headed up to Sueng Ki the famous waterfall with milky green water. And boy was it famous. The parking area rimmed with little lunch kiosks was rammed with busses, taxis and tuk tuks. Around the corner the wide gravel and dirt road leading to the entrance was lined with more food stalls, T-shirt hawkers and ice cream tuktuks. We pay our entrance fee and stream past the gate towards the falls. Then a happy accident – there is a moon bear sanctuary – I’m embarrassed to admit I had never heard of moon bears. They are over hunted for their gall bladders for medicine in China and they are also kept in cruelly small cages as tourist draws to restaurants and shops across Laos. We are given a tour by a wonderfully informative Australian guide. Aside from Sabine kicking what might have been the heaviest foot stool in the world over onto my big toe it was a lovely bonus experience. Then it was on to the falls – which were in fact beautiful – what was visible beneath the masses of tourists of which Chinese outnumber backpackers at least four to one. Chinese tourists get a bad rap. Yes they swarm around indiscriminately and think nothing of pushing in front of anyone – small children included – to get a good selfie. They are also very joyous with lots of laughing and joking around. Not to mention on the day we were at the waterfall I saw quite a few snappy dressers and the men were not afraid to strip down to their skivvies for a dip in the cool waters. The main downside we have found – and this is not exclusively directed at Chinese tourists because this has been our experience everywhere we have been in South East Asia – people really like to touch the kids without asking them first. They also snap pictures of them as well. Sabine – who is never afraid to speak her mind – just loudly says, “Don’t touch me!” But Anderson can be a little more skittish and on this day he scooted away quickly and ended up falling down causing embarrassment on both sides. The water was cold and the pools were also filled with the foot cleaning fish. The kids didn’t love it but managed to get in and swim up to the falls.
On our first night we were set to go out for dinner – it was a little late when we got to our guesthouse after the boat and by the time we figured out where to go and what we were going to have. The night market was vetoed by the kids who even though they had been on their butts for the entire day on the boat did not want to walk. They also did not want to eat Thai food – or Laos food. After a quick search we found a Mexican restaurant – it had good reviews so we headed out the door. Only to be thwarted by an epic meltdown which left only Sabine and I in the tuk tuk on our way. I almost didn’t go but I’m so glad that I did because I met the most wonderful Australian woman named Alicia who runs the restaurant with her Laos born, Toronto raised husband Pike. Along with having two girls of her own she was a wealth knowledge on things to do in the city. We ordered take out and had a great chat while waiting for our food and then she popped us into a tuk tuk and negotiated a great price for us.
Top on her list was Indigo Farms an organic farm just outside of town that has a full play land built onto it. There was a parcour course, BB guns, ninja star throwing, two play areas with toys, games, slides and balls, bunnies, baby parrots and a restaurant serving food prepared with the produce from the organic gardens. The seating for the restaurant was individual grass roofed bamboo terraces over a small pond. The only thing missing were more kids. Anderson and Chris had a blast shooting guns, driving rc trucks and doing parcour, while Sabine and I spent the day playing with toys, digging in the sand and feeding bunnies. The man who owned and ran the farm was from France so communication was easy and he was a super host. Our lunch was incredible too.
The drive home was – as usual – harrowing in the open back of a truck flying over budget gravel roads. But then we spotted a truck of monks just ahead so I guess if it’s good enough for the monks it’s good enough for us.
Chris discovered a company that runs half day classes – everything from spear making, pottery, crossbows, embroidery and cooking. So we sign up for a bunch of classes. I get to do a pottery class solo. Chris and Anderson decide to make crosssbows and fish spears and we decide to all take the knife making class. This company turns out to be the bomb! I meet my guide in front of a hotel not far from us and he takes me on a small ferry to the other side of the Mekong where we are met by a tuk tuk and driven not a village. There are three ethnic Laos tribes – Hmong, Mung and one other – there used to be many more but at some point they were made to amalgamate. This is a hmung village and it is where pottery is made. Almost every house in the village has a potter – there are shared kilns and machines to mix the clay but everyone has their own wheel. The wheels are shaped like an egg cut in half with the narrow end dug a little into the ground. As usual every crouches so I am thrilled to see two small stools on either side of the wheel at my spot. When I arrive I watch the wife spin the wheel for the husband and he throws at least three pots in about ten minutes. It’s incredible. They are all perfect and balanced and not too heavy. Next up it’s me and most of all I am regretting having worn shorts – once I am crouched on the bitty stool my shorts become hot pants creeping up my bum and my legs are not unlike a daddy long leg spider’s – useless appendages that seem to be everywhere. On top of all the women in the village are wearing their long skirts and t-shirts. I am not blending in. The clay is stiff and slightly grainy. It feels very heavy even while it’s being spun. The master lets me start but continuously reaches in to correct or fix. I get to throw about ten pots and of those ten four are ashtrays – the master is smoking through out the lesson. I’m definitely not a master my pieces are more doorstop weight rather than water bearing vessel weight. But it was fun to get into it. I leave with two small pots from the master as mine won’t be ready for two weeks although I highly doubt my will even get fired. The kiln is the most interesting and I am unable to get a really satisfactory answer to how it works. I am brought over to a hole in the ground like a well black with smoke and white on the sides and then we walk about 20 feet away to find a steep groove dug into the ground leading toward the bottom of the well. He explains they light the fire down there and push the coals through the tunnel to the bottom of the well/kiln. But I’m not able to ascertain how they set the pots into the kiln (which is like a tube). All in all it’s a fun solo day. The boys also really enjoy their crossbow and spear making – not certain how we are getting anything home or the weapons across the border but that is future Erin and Chris’s problem so I won’t worry about it now.
Sabine and I get to have a mother/daughter day. I have lofty plans to tour a couple of temples and then hit the Royal Palace. To get her in the mood I talk up the Royal Palace like she might get to see some princesses there and how we can get some delicious princess fruit shakes on our way. Everything starts well she is walking and talking and interested. We dip into a wat to watch the monks and see the statues and altars. Then down a few more beautiful streets lined with leafy trees and climbing flowering vines and I am feeling so good. Even through all the smoke and heat. There are huge beautifully carved teak doors, long narrow windows and doors framed in wood are open to the street. We are only out for about forty minutes and Sabine demands a carry or at least a ride in a tuk tuk so I think we can just grab one to the royal palace. Long story short the Royal Palace closes between 11:30-1:30 and Sabine is not into walking anymore so we head back to the guest house and get a tuk tuk to take us to an other Alicia recommended spot. The brand new five star Pullman resort where we can pay to hang by the pool and play in the kids club for the day. It’s a master class in colonialism. Uber lux with what seems like two staff to help us along – sign us in – bring us welcome drinks (Getting a cold virgin mojito for me and fresh watermelon juice for Sabine upon arrival with a couple cold cloths is worth the $20 day rate I say). Then two more staff drive us over to the kids club. A glassed in oasis with all the toys you can imagine. I settle in to write and read while Sabine plays and explores. We manage to while away a few hours and then head to lunch overlooking a murky pond jammed with fish and a few ducks – they bring bread for Sabine to feed the wildlife and we order lunch. Then it’s over to the pool which is actually about four pools – sadly there are no children – none – if fact it seems like the resort is totally empty save for hundreds of staff cleaning, raking and watering. They bring us a plate of dragon fruit and mango along with two tall glasses of ice water when we settle in by a pool. All in all pretty lux.
On our last day we take a class together in knife making. It was so amazing – again outside the city to a village up dusty narrow roads to the side of a house with a few low benches arranged around a metal stump. And so it begins – first we learn to pound on the flat side of our mallets then heat the metal to cut out the rough shape of our knives. We have been given a few to choose from. It is very hot and dusty work. There is a small kiosk beside the house selling cigarettes and homemade whiskey. The plug in leading to what is essentially a large blow torch to heat the metal is frayed and the fire from the blow torch is kept in check with some corrugated metal sheets propped around it. Sparks fly and land on our arms and legs and toes singeing our skin repeatedly. Nothing like the safety standards in SE Asia – if you aren’t hurtling along in an open tuk tuk with giant trucks piled high with unsecured bags of concrete you are sitting adjacent to a huge blow torch heaving a huge mallet with your nine year old. It’s a very involved process and the master has his son and an other helper working right along with us essentially completing everything we try. After four and a half sweltering hours we leave with some incredibly beautiful hand forged wooden handled knives. Next to get them across the border.
On our last day we make it to the morning market – we have been told it’s amazing and it doesn’t disappoint! It’s filled with all things not seen at the touristy night markets. Things like frogs, bugs and baby pigs with umbilical cords still attached – brains and skins and livers – it’s eye opening. The only thing we buy is a couple of cups of coffee, a fruit smoothie and a few croissant. The rest of the day is spent finding a box and packaging our weapons and knives and taking them all to the post office to send home. At the post office – Chris’s hard work is stripped in front of him – they cut open the box and tell us no knives can be sent. We have to put them in our luggage and hope they don’t get confiscated at the border. Then we have to pick up our Visas for Vietnam.
Leaving Laos I am as usual hot, dusty and sweaty. Both Chris and I are strung pretty tight as Anderson and Sabine can’t be near each other without erupting in screams and shouts. We have separated them all day while packing and running errands and getting ready to go. Transition days are always a little stressful no matter how hard we plan and try to time things out. But today Anderson has a smirk on his face every time he makes Sabine scream and she has started hitting him. We actually sit at opposite ends of the departure lounge. Maybe the heat is making everything worse – I mean we have been in tropical temps for a few months now but it seems particularly stifling here. My entire body is sticky and drippy and I desperately want to wash my hands about 37 seconds after I wash them. I have been feeling really ready to leave Laos – which is weird since we have barely been here a week. I’m itchy to move on. It could be that it’s not nearly as smiley a country as Thailand. You can feel the colonial past here or maybe I feel the colonial guilt. Like I am traipsing through indiscriminately. There are more shrugs and frustrated looks when trying to communicate and the biggest shock of all is that we hear no a lot. Not more than we hear yes but then do not get what we have asked for. So as I walk out of the barely air conditioned airport onto the sweltering tarmac I am surprised to see the sun yellow in the sky and the outlines of hills and mountains – it’s beautiful and I feel a pang of regret. I didn’t give Laos enough time – we came in the wrong season – we need a little break from the kids, the kids need a break from us and they need more kids around. I take one more look across the tarmac up into the hills dotted with small homes and climb the stairs into the plane for Vietnam.