The story of the path we wove through Laos is largely the story of how we travel–the ways we choose where we go and what we do. Tom and I have long wanted to visit Laos, and given that it is inexpensive and readily accessible from Thailand, it gained an spot on the itinerary early in the planning phase. As the Southeast Asian portion of our trip progressed, Tom was inclined to bail on Laos in favor of getting fat in Thailand. Let’s just say sometimes comfort trumps adventure. The kids, who are happy wherever they have internet and free breakfast, were inclined to agree. I put my foot down, reminding everybody that it would probably be a long time before we’d all be back in this neck of the woods, and they good-naturedly agreed to accompany me on my little trek through one of the world’s least developed countries.
Luang Prabang, the ancient capital, is one of the highlights of a visit to Laos and our first official stop (after our slow boat journey). I had read that many people are lulled into the lazy rhythms of the city and want to stay for weeks on end. We had only a few days to give, so we tried to choose our activities wisely. Again, the rest of the crew would have been happy to sit in cafes and get massages (both fulfilling pastimes), but I had an agenda. Back in 2000, I read a book called One Year Off, written by a man who spent a year traveling the globe with his wife and three young children (and much of the time a nanny). I cannot say it was the inspiration for our trip, because we already had visions of extended family travel, but it proved that what we wanted to do could be done. In the book, the author waxed poetic about the Pak Ou Buddha caves just outside of Luang Prabang. Based on the exotic picture he painted, the image of our family in these caves was permanently imprinted in my mind. So on one of our days in Luang Prabang, we hired a tuk tuk to drive us out to the caves (we’d had enough of boats for a while). In a nutshell, the caves stunk…overpriced, unimpressive holes in the mountain holding a paltry collection of small, crumbling statues. But it didn’t matter. The visit was symbolic. Getting there, no matter what our ultimate impression, was what mattered.
Even though the caves were lackluster, the drive to visit them was not and reveals one of Tom’s favorite lessons of travel: the journey is often more important than the destination. Though our ever safety-conscious McKane sweated the ride, it gave us our first window into rural Lao life beyond the riverbank. Our driver, a moonlighting high school math teacher, was so happy about driving our family that he stopped at his house to pick up his four-year-old daughter to make the trip with us. He said she had cried when he had left for the day and begged to go with him. Now, because he was driving us, people who obviously appreciate and tolerate wee ones, he could wipe away her tears and have a daddy-daughter date to the caves. His wife, also a math teacher, greeted us warmly and deposited the shy yet spirited girl in the cab of the truck.
It was reassuring to make stops along the way to buy the little girl water or allow her to use the toilet, since we often worry about having to do the same for our little ones. It turns out all kids get thirsty and fill their bladders, regardless of ethnicity. The drive was beautiful and worth ever penny we had paid. McKane played peek-a-boo through the window with his new Laotian friend and the rest of us took in the scenery. When we pulled off the paved road to work our way down to the riverbed, the driver asked if he could pick up a few monks standing on the roadside. They wanted a ride to the village up the road. Of course, we said, and shared a few peaceful moments with the smiling devotees. There were many other things that were lovely about Luang Prabang, but our ride through the country was the unexpected highlight.
I had planned for the next stop on our quick Lao tour to be the backpacker hangout of Vang Vieng. Fellow travelers throughout Southeast Asia had raved about tubing down the Nam Song and I thought it would be a memorable family experience. My fellow Andri were skeptical, and since the weather in the mountains was cool, they doubted whether the water would even be warm enough. I sat on the fence until we met up with our Canadian friends Tim and Rea. “You have to go,” they said. “It’s a blast.” They showed the kids video of their exploits on the “swings,” assured us it would be warm enough, and even Tom was convinced. We booked our minibus tickets to Vang Vieng for the next day.
We would have had to pass through Vang Vieng, even if we had skipped the town, and as such, there was no avoiding the minibus ride. Tim and Rea warned us that the mountainous roads were tough and cautioned against taking the bigger VIP bus. “We hear they don’t stop and people just vomit out the windows.” In the minibus, Asher just vomited all over me. (see McKane’s post for more details) Remember, travel is an adventure. This time, unlike the Buddha caves, the destination was the reward. Vang Vieng was spectacular. The town itself is shabby, but our hotel–the Elephant Crossing–was brilliant, one of our favorite thus far. Just check out our view.
The tubing was fabulous. Dax wowed our fellow tubers with his daredevil backflips and we practically had to drag McKane away from the 40-foot swing. The little bits dozed on their tubes while Tom and I soaked up the sunshine and marveled that the karst formations in Vang Vieng were better than those in Yangshou and rivaled Halong Bay in beauty. Chalk this travel victory up to following the advice of firends.
After Vang Vieng, it was a quick and easy bus ride to the Lao capital, Vientiane. The city gets a bum rap for being a sorry second to Luang Prabang and is commonly described as one of those places you can pass through in a day without missing anything important. It seemed nice enough to us, but since we had allotted it only the obligatory day, we would never know if its charms extend longer than 24 hours. Once again I found us a gem of a hotel with river views and free breakfast. And once again, we looked to a tuk tuk driver to facilitate our quick six-hour tour. I cared only about two things: the national monument, Pha That Luang and the bizarre Xieng Khuan Buddha Park outside the city. The monument would provide a good photo opp, since there aren’t all that many landmark buildings in the country, and the Buddha Park was yet another funky stop I set my sights on after reading other travelers’ accounts. Both were exactly as promised, and in a zenlike demonstration of the principles of travel harmony, both the journey and the destination were the reward.
Kieran frolicked through the Buddha Park with a sense of delight and wonder that melted his parents’ hearts. Though we inhaled fumes all the way, the tuk tuk ride proved the fodder of further travel lore. Our driver was a mature mix of Tom Cruise in Top Gun and Brad Pitt in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. He spoke no English but laughed with us all the way around the city and out of town. He stopped laughing, however, on the final leg of our jaunt–the 4 kilometer stretch between the Buddha Park and the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge. With no warning, and surprisingly not a sound, we blew one of the tiny tires on the vehicle, no doubt because the road was filled with potholes and the tuk tuk was loaded with our heavy bags….and big Tom! Like a scene from The Amazing Race, we wondered if we could find a replacement in time to get us to the border so we could make our train to Bangkok. Though Phil Keoghan didn’t come to our rescue, the tuk tuk owner whose house we had to come to a stop in front of did. A few minutes later we were on our way and Tom Cruise/Brad Pitt was on his way to the tire shop.
So, in summary, Laos taught us the following:
1. Sometimes it is the journey, not the destination, that matters.
2. Sometimes it is the destination, not the journey, that matters.
3. Sometimes it is both the destination and the journey that matter.
Isn’t life great! If you think you’re confused, try being us for a day!