BeerLao: The Beer of the Wholehearted People

*BeerLao is the best local brew we’ve tried in SE Asia thus far. The name might not be the most creative, but the slogan is nothing short of amazing.

Yes, it’s been a month since I last posted. Yes, we were in Laos for 12 days  about 3 weeks ago, and I didn’t write a thing about it. I have no real excuse, though I will say the laidback vibe of Laos got the best of us, and we succumbed to our inner laziness.

Laos is beautiful – green and lush with limestone karst looming overhead as you meander through small towns and sparsely populated countryside. It easily wins best landscape of our trip and offers unrivaled nature-type activities at pretty reasonable prices. Our 12 days were spent relaxing and reading and enjoying the simplicity of just be-ing, and there is no greater (or cheaper?) place on earth to partake in those activities. The people of Laos are quiet, reserved, and more traditional/conservative than their Vietnamese and Cambodian neighbors, but they are kind and helpful. It is a one-party Communist nation, but because it is poorer and smaller, we definitely felt the restrictions more than we did in Vietnam. An 11:30 curfew exists (unless you’re a foreigner who wants to drink, then you can go to the government-run bowling alley in every major town and pay for overpriced beers and popcorn while you party with other 20-something white kids. Which we did in Luang Prabang one night, just to say we did. It was just as ridiculous as it sounds).

We started our Laotian adventure with a late night flight from Hanoi to Luang Prabang. You can get a visa-on-arrival at the tiny airport, but don’t forget you’ll need US dollars or Lao Kip to pay for them. Fortunately, I found a $20 bill stashed at the bottom of my purse, and Tyler was able to change our Vietnamese Dong for some Lao Kip at a very unfavorable rate with a taxi driver. Visas successfully in hand, we made our entrance into this idyllic riverside psuedo-French town. LP is the Hoi An of Laos – extremely touristy, but somehow still utterly charming and peaceful.

LP wears its Buddhism on its sleeve. Turmeric-orange robed monks roam the streets and chanting can be heard easily from the many golden wats and monasteries where countless young men learn the teachings of Buddha. The vast majority of Laotian men join a monastery for at least a few years of their young adult life. This involves leaving their families in villages hundreds of miles away, staying in monastery dorms, eating only what is donated to you by the locals, not playing sports, focusing your education on Buddhism (though they also take the basics and English), and not touching a female. Monks are still extremely revered in Laos, and if a man has successfully completed even just a year of Buddhist monastic life, his ability to get a good job, find a good wife, care for his family etc. increases.

Though we enjoyed our time exploring LP, visiting wats and temples, taking a cooking class at Tamarind, visiting the Kuang Si waterfalls and hiking to the top, and eating delicious street food, our highlight was volunteering with Big Brother Mouse. Everyday, Laotians of all ages (but mostly young adults) stop by for any number of sessions/hours to practice English with volunteering foreigners. We had the pleasure of speaking with a variety of locals, including a 16-year-old monk, 3 hospitality industry workers trying to improve their English so they can be promoted to management levels, and 2 law students. Americans are the most sought-after volunteers because we have the accent they most want to mimic. Though English is taught in schools, the teachers are Laotian and their pronunciation is often incorrect. We had a blast talking to our partners and learning about their lives – it was educational, inspirational, and humbling – and for the umpteenth time on our journey, we counted our blessings for the lives we have been so fortunate to live because we were lucky enough to be born in America. Big Brother Mouse provides a variety of other reading/education services to Laotians, and if you are looking for a great nonprofit to donate to, we highly recommend sending some money their way.

Our next stop was the infamous Vang Vieng. After reading articles like this, I didn’t even want to visit the town. Hanging out with stupid drunk Australian 20-somethings is not my idea of a good time, especially now that I’ve already had the (dis)pleasure on multiple occasions around the world. Vang Vieng is utter paradise (and ridiculously cheap), and when it was discovered by backpackers 20ish years ago, it became backpacker heaven (and everyone else’s hell). The highlight – tubing down the Nam Song River. Throngs of young, drunk, disrespectful backpackers converged on the town, causing this tiny, conservative, beautiful town to erupt in loud drunken parties replete with whatever drugs you might want to enjoy and plenty of fights. Hundreds of bars and hostels opened up – a disparately large number for the actual size of the town – and the town boomed economically, but was crushed, morally. Despite begging tourists to wear shirts and shoes and be respectful of the local customs, somehow young Western kids thought running around naked covered in bodypaint was okay. And then people started dying. Who knew being drunk/high and tubing/jumping into a river with rocks and a pretty quick current was a bad idea? Oh right, any normal person. But not drunk backpackers. After 20+ deaths a year for the past few years, the conservative Laotian government (at the behest of the Australian government because it was mostly Aussie kids dying), finally shut the whole circus down … the week before we arrived in Laos. Hurrah!

VV is nothing short of paradise. I realize the Garden of Eden is supposed to be somewhere in the Middle East, but if someone wants to make a movie about it, they should use VV as the set. Its majestic breathtaking scenery is incomparable. We were going to spend 2 days there and ended up spending a week. We couldn’t get ourselves to leave, and the only reason we finally did was because we were tired of the food (not a lot of options). It helped that we were staying in a lovely guesthouse for $13/night including breakfast, wifi, and AC. We went tubing (still allowed – just no alcohol) and had the river to ourselves. The water was a refreshing temperature in the extreme heat, and watching the lush forest and karst formations float by was cathartic. We also rented a scooter and ventured around to a few of the different caves/waterfalls in the area, and I think we both read at least 2-3 books in a week.

Laotians are, generally speaking, not the most ambitious. They aren’t lazy, but once they reach a certain level of comfort/happy, they are content to stay there forever. They don’t understand the American rat-race, and we had multiple conversations that started with something like “Why are Americans always so unhappy/stressed/sad/tired?” If they need to eat, they have rice. What more do they need? Not a lot. If their neighbor doesn’t have enough rice, they give them some. Period. Life is slow and simple, and even though American materialism has reached these parts, it hasn’t taken hold (yet). It was marvelous and refreshing and the most perfect place to just take a step back and be. And when you do that, when you take those extra minutes, you really see all of nature’s beauty around you. You catch the color shift in sunset every few seconds, you notice the patterns and movements of the clouds, you follow a bug’s flight and admire its grace, you look forward to the cowbell and rooster’s crow, and your mind settles as your heart flutters with appreciation. It may have been paradise lost when the backpackers took over, but it is certainly our paradise found.

Our last stop was the capital of Vientiane, a city of French heritage now facing a Chinese takeover. The riviera, grand boulevards, and cute cafes certainly give you pause (wait- where are we?!), but the smells are overwhelmingly Asian. China has a hand, arm, and leg in Laos and is using their tiny Communist neighbor for its timber and farmland. As far as Asian capital goes, Vientiane wins – it’s so small, not hectic or overwhelming, has great food, and is cheap. But it doesn’t have a lot to do. The highlight (or lowlight, depending on how you want to view it) was a visit to the COPE Center (another worthy donation receiver) to learn about landmine and bomblet damage in Laos at this facility that provides orthotic/prosthetic devices and rehabilitation services to victims. Some statistics to keep in mind:

  • 260 million
    Estimated number of sub-munitions (bombies) from cluster bombs dropped over Lao PDR between 1964 and 1973.
  • 2 million tons
    Estimated ordnance dropped on Lao PDR between 1964 and 1973
  • 580 000
    Estimated number of bombing missions flown over Lao PDR between 1964 and 1973
  • 30%
    Estimated failure rate of sub-munitions under ideal conditions.
  • 80 million
    Estimated number of sub-munitions that failed to explode.
  • 1,090,228
    Estimated number of unexploded sub-munitions destroyed by UXO LAO from 1996 to December 2009.
  • 300 
    Estimated number of new casualties from UXO incidents every year in Lao PDR

Sources: NRA Annual Report 2009/NRA Website

Once again, we sorted of hated being Americans – bombing countries we weren’t supposed to be bombing, causing casualties even today, refusing to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions (treaty banning cluster bombs) – but it’s important for us to learn, accept, teach, and continue to be better.

We left beautiful, green, peaceful Laos on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and headed to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where we spent my absolute favorite holiday with my best friend of 16 years (a diplomat) and her husband. We ate turkey, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, mac&cheese, and pumpkin pie (and more!) and enjoyed the company of friends. We facetimed with my family just as they were putting the finishing touches on their meal and were able to skype chat with various members of T’s family. I’ve never been thankful for technology the way that I am this year. Actually, I’ve never been more thankful – in general – than I am this year. This was a Thanksgiving we’ll not soon forget, but a year of adventures, memories, lessons, and living that we will be thankful for experiencing for the rest of our lives.

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