let’s be inappropriate

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about clothing choices for southeast Asia. Starting back in the planning stages of my trip, and ongoing throughout each country. I read numerous blogs on the subject and pondered the matter over the course of the several weeks as I was putting together my gear. Ultimately I decided to pack conservative clothing and purchase new items as needed upon arrival. I just didn’t feel comfortable wearing clothing that yes, may be acceptable in America, but is considered offensive in these conservative and highly religious countries.

My first few days after arriving I was miserable. I literally had a constant sheen of sweat over my entire body, my skin appeared diseased from the little bubbles of sweat that couldn’t escape, which in turn started a long process of my skin peeling. Heat rash is not a ideal thing, and I quickly invested in Prickly Heat, which smells funky but is so effective at keeping sensitive areas dry. So yeah, I wanted to ditch my t-shirts and trousers and even my flowy top in favor of camisoles and shorts. And as I started noticing the clothing of the women around me I thought everyone else is wearing tank tops and stuff! I was tempted to follow suit. Throughout my entire trip I have seen very few female tourists not decked out in tanks and mid-thigh shorts. One girl with whom I shared a taxi was wearing boy-short-underwear length shorts. You could literally see her butt cheeks, and she felt like this was okay. In Myanmar. Attractiveness (I guess?) and comfort over respect and sensitivity, right? Anyways, it’s definitely the standard. But then I started paying attention to the local women. In a few cities, Bangkok comes to mind, there are locals in tank tops or shorts, or even sheer tops. But by far in the majority of places you will never catch sight of a native women’s shoulders, and rarely above her knees. So this is ultimately what I aligned myself with.

Sure, I could get away with scantier clothing. No one would say anything to me except at temples where I’d need a shawl or something. But, I would argue that…no one would say anything to me. It is my belief that the locals are far more comfortable approaching a foreign woman who is modestly dressed, than they would be to approach a woman wearing clothing that isn’t acceptable in their culture. It makes sense to me. And I’ve also had conversations with random strangers where I get the impression they haven’t interacted before with many foreigners. To westerners I doubt whether I stand out much. But I’ve been paying close attention, and really, I do stand out hugely from the majority of women. I’m okay with this distinction. It requires a modicum of extra discomfort, but I think it more than pays off. I’m happy to refrain from offending the people, and I’m also very happy to have the small interactions I have with people here and there. I like keeping my opportunities as open as possible.

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superfluous on demand

Back in December when I was last in Florida, I wrote a check for $2,000 to my parents. This was the money I owed them from what they had spent on Varekai (my house). A few weeks later I received a call from my dad informing me that, after much thought, he had torn up my check. “And here’s why,” he said “I just don’t think a couple thousand dollars means as much to me as it does to you. So keep it and use it on something special.” Which, I was obviously so blown away by. I had very intentionally planned to build that house on every penny of my own money. Maybe it was a pride thing, I dunno, I didn’t want help; I wanted to do it myself. But, after some thought, I accepted my parents decision to contribute that $2,000 because, like my father, I think some things have more value than their price tag.

That money was destined to the black hole that is my bank account – destined to be saved and largely untouched for years (until the opportunity to purchase a plane ticket comes along). Despite the fact I was instructed to use it for something special. I guess, in my mind, life is pretty special. Just cooking dinner with my roommate is a special occasion to me, or going to a cafe with a book and having a cup of tea, or renting a movie for pizza movie night – it’s all part of the extraordinary web of this existence…so, black hole is where my money goes. To be used on small, insignificant, daily getting-bys.

However, this lifelong habit of anti-spending encountered a window of opportunity. Upon docking in Koh Tao, I found myself in the superlatively optimal situation to learn scuba diving. It cost so much more money than I would normally be willing to spend. I’m surprised, really, that I even entertained the idea. But I did. And I remembered that $2,000. Maybe I would take my father’s advice and do something I wouldn’t normally do. So I did. I spent $400 on getting my open water and subsequently my advanced open water certifications. I traded $400 for an incomparable and ultra amazing week of exploring the world contained within our earth’s enchanting ocean. It was amazing.

Later, in Vietnam, I was gripped with the desire to participate in a two day cave tour, also a spendy adventure. Realistically, it would complicate my itinerary and equally havoc my bank account. But the prospect of trekking through the jungle and camping in a cave were dancing through my mind. I thought again about that unexpected money in my possession. So for $300 I was able to explore the jungles of Vietnam and sleep in the magnificent Hang En cave, third largest cave in the world. Those two days were unequivocally among the best experiences of my life.

At this point I thought: what if I do something I normally wouldn’t in every country? I had also spent several nights in this exceptional tree hut bungalow on the calm white beach of Otres II in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. While its bill didn’t come close to the hundreds of dollars from the diving and caving, it was a luxury of an accomodation. A splurge, if you will. And there I spent some of the most relaxing, free of expectation and obligation, contemplative days. That travel brochure worthy tree hut provided the perfect backdrop for my full-being-reordering.

Wandering the night market of lovely Luang Prabang I encountered so many interesting foods I wanted to sample. I decided to have a night market feast and try all of the things that caught my attention. This one is funny, because while I ate everything my continually-shrinking-stomach could handle, I only spent about five bucks. Which, is still something I would never have done when I could’ve gotten by on $1-2 for a decent meal and a few new dishes.

Myanmar didn’t immediately have anything that stuck out to me as something that I would like to do, but was exorbitantly costly. It kind of came out of nowhere, the decision to have an upscale dinner. This whole trip (ahemmywholelife) I’ve favoured street food with the absolute belief that the fare was far more worth my time. But, why not actually test that theory? I found the least obscenely extravagant, but still upscale restaurant I could and had a fancy five course meal for $15. The whole experience was definitely a standout from the rest of my clearly budget trip. I was able to try a week’s worth of traditional Burmese dishes in one excellently constructed and attractively presented meal.

I didn’t use all $2,000 (more like $750ish). But I did get more than my typical money’s worth during this trip. I still hold that you can have a stellar, meaningful, life changing travel experience on the tightest of budgets. But I definitely concede that money will provide you some things that your thriftiness just can’t afford. I enjoy budget travel more, I suspect, than I would enjoy luxury travel. But it has been fantastic having these bonus adventures.

So, all of this just to say a really huge thank you to my ever generous parents. I had some of the coolest and most incredible experiences from that check you refused to cash. Thanks for always being a sponsor for my life, whether that comes in the form of money, time, moral support, manual labor, advice, encouragement, putting up with sprawling and never-ending projects, coping with having an unusually-minded and admittedly stress-inducing daughter…I appreciate it immensely. I’m grateful for you, and I’m grateful to you. And I’m so excited about the exact life I get to live, in part because of your steadfast support, even when you don’t agree with my decisions (i.e. dropping out of university, hitchhiking, moving to the complete opposite corner of the country…) I think so often it goes unacknowledged, but it absolutely doesn’t go unnoticed. Parents have a certain role to perform, but you guys carry it exceptionally well. I couldn’t imagine a better set of parents, and I wouldn’t want them if they existed. You guys are just right. I love you immensely.

Thank you. 

agoraphilia 

It’s 5:30 in the evening, just past the heat of day, and I am strolling down Chiang Mai’s Wua Lai road. A few flashbulbs of lightning and a few explosions of thunder politely preceded the current state of sprinkling rain. While I do enjoy a good walk in the rain, that is not my current purpose – I have expensive electronics in my pockets, some which can take a nose dive off a waterfall and survive, but others which, decidedly, cannot.

No, the reason I am out tonight is to peruse another of a diverse smattering of markets I’ve been to in these past months. I love markets. I love them. It doesn’t matter how many I’ve been to, I am always exuberant about the prospect of a new one. Some of them are unimpressive and don’t beg for a return, but mostly they are such a pleasant way to spend an evening. Or morning. Or afternoon. 

I like arriving while the sellers are still in the midst of setting things up. Men meticulously lining hundreds of tiny silver and gold statues just so. Women gently folding soft, beautiful pashminas. Young girls helping to lay out colorful and loudly patterned elephants, giraffes, and monkeys. Young artists displaying their thin canvases of extraordinary paintings, and eventually settling ever so casually to paint several more over the course of the evening as easily as if they were merely writing their name. Anyone working at a food stand will occasionally be seen chewing contentedly, no inhibitions about sampling their product in front of customers. Usually the market scene seems a very social event. Everyone chatting to their neighbor, or flat out abandoning their stall to go giggle over some recent happening with a friend. 

There is a lot of repetition and similarities with items across cities and countries. Soda and beer cans repurposed into planes and automobiles; bamboo iPod speakers; plush elephants which I swear are all the same; simplistic and vibrant paintings of monks; the never ending parade of elephant pants. But without fail there are always new and fascinating handiworks and clever inventions. I rarely buy anything other than food, but I like just seeing everything. And as for foods, I am becoming more and more of the mindset that if I have no idea what it is, I’ll have one, please. 

I love when the day goes dark and all of the stalls with their different lights glow, reflecting the billions of colors and shiny, dangling objects contained on the rows and rows of tarps. 

The noises are more pronounced, too, with the awakening of the night. The first thing you notice is the human factor: the approach and retreat of conversations in at least twenty languages; oohing and ahhing over trinkets and displays; a constant stream of bubbling laughter; the shuffling of feet; the whole spectrum of haggling, from quietly timid to loudly insistent, and usually in a broken and lilting English on either side; the beautiful and sad music played by mostly handicapped musicians. The sizzling oil of hundreds of cooking dishes; the scraping of woks; the whirring blades of overworked blenders liquifying mountains of fruit and ice (and sugar, let’s be honest). Chimes and bells and whistles performing their little sounds in the hopes of being taken home. The clinking of coins as they change hands. All of this is gently folded into the mix of preexisting city sounds: the armies of motorbikes; the gangs of tuk-tuks; the rapidly filling bars; the crowded plastic tables at the usual suspects of the street food scene; and ordinary people going about their usual lives. 

The aromas come layered in surprisingly distinct waves: strong soaps, usually made to resemble fruits in this part of the world; smoky meats accompanied by a fiery heat that reaches you just moments after the scent; pungent jackfruit prevailing over the other fruits at the numerous shake stalls, usually some rotting rubbish odors making an appearance here and there, sweet crepes and roti that tug temptingly at every sugar addicted cell in your being, heavy clouds of jasminey incense, spice saturated noodle stalls, human perspiration and perfume. Normally I’d find such a cacophony of scents overwhelming and offensive, but in this setting it somehow completes the atmosphere. 

I love that here, if nowhere else, people take the time to stop their motion and really look at things. That is so rare these days. It isn’t conducive to efficient and flowing walking patterns, but then markets aren’t for the hurried. It’s like a lively museum of things you can own for very little money, and where you are allowed to actually touch things and interact with your surroundings.
I always walk through at least twice. Once to take everything in, and again to actually make my carefully calculated purchases. A noodle dish here, a new or favorite sweet there, a tiny sample of juice from some fruit I’ve never heard of before…
Despite my propensity to be overwhelmed and overstimulated, I love the muchness of the market scene. It is a perfect immersion for my usually quiet self. And it remains one of my favorite ways to interact with a city.

communist eighties deities

I had been told two things before my arrival in Laos:

1. 4,000 Islands
2. Slow boat

Unfortunately, due to doling out an unequal share of my trip to Vietnam (no regrets there) I made the decision to skip the 4,000 Islands. Partially because I wasn’t feeling up for one more long bus trip, and partially because I’ve already done a lot of beachy/rivery/sun-and-water-oriented things.

I did take the slow boat, though. The typical trip is down river, but I would be doing it backwards. Which, is kind of how this whole trip has been. The huge majority of people I’ve met are traveling clockwise to my counterclockwise. Which is fine by me.  The slow boat is a two day journey up the Mekong from Luang Prabang to the Thai border. The boat is long and open all down the sides. Rows of recycled bus seats are filled by mostly backpackers, but also several groupings of locals who get deposited at pierless and otherwise indistinguishable points on random beaches. Sometimes there is someone there waiting for them, and sometimes you can see small villages high up in the mountains behind them. But often it seems like they are setting off onto a desolate island. Despite the long days (eight to nine hours), the trip is enjoyable. As I might have mentioned previously, I’m fond of boats and water. And the views along the Mekong are well worth seeing. The banks are full of small goats, half-clothed fisherman tucked here and there into the large rocks that jut from the water, fleets of white butterflies, reddish and bluish water buffalo laying in the river, and tall layered banks of white sand. And yet again, you are enveloped on all sides by tall mountains that change from purpley-grey to shades of green and back to purpley-grey as the day progresses. My fellow travelers are pretty mellow. I connected with a group of German girls who had arrived at the pier as early as I did (over an hour before the boat was scheduled to leave) and together we figured out what was [disorganizedly] happening. Also, to my shock, I realized a guy from my cave tour in Vietnam was on the boat! What a crazy random happenstance? We were mostly younger folks, but there were a few older passengers as well.  I had packed myself lunches, which felt unnecessarily exciting. A baguette with some of the ubiquitous laughing cow cheese and a can of tuna. Also fresh spring rolls and fruit from the night market the day before. I was very glad for these, and I did indeed enjoy these silly lunches more than I probably should’ve.  The halfway point, Pak Beng, is a rather uncaptivating place. I doubt whether many people arrive and decide they need to stay longer. As I was assessing the room of a potential guesthouse, the young girl showing me had to open three different rooms because the lights were only flickering. Despite this, I made the decision to stay. I wasn’t really looking to get much out of Pak Beng. All I really needed was a bed and a shower. Which, was a fortunate mindset to have, because literally two minutes after I paid the electricity shut off completely. Blackouts aren’t exactly rare in rural areas, and this was my second. The only thing that really sucks is not having a fan. Anyways, I took a shower and went to bed shortly after the electricity returned. The following morning I lost my second baguette somewhere between my guesthouse and the boat. This left me with only a huge chocolate muffin I had purchased with breakfast for food for the entire day. So I ran back up the hill and purchased one of the crappy sandwiches that are sold strictly for tourists to take with them. To this egg sandwich I would add my cheese and tuna, and it would be great.  Day two on the Mekong was quite similar to the first, except even fewer people. Mostly the same people. I’m definitely a fan of going upriver on the slow boat, though I reckon it might take a tad longer. I noticed we clung mostly to the edge and fought the current at times. We had a lone monk traveling with us the previous day, who was one of the passengers deposited at a random plot of riverbank. Today we carried a lone monk with us as well, but this one was very outgoing. He went around and spoke with the different groups of passengers. He also played music for us from his laptop including American and French rock, as well as Lao hip hop made by his friend. I haven’t mentioned this yet, but I’m fascinated by monks. I have been too intimidated to approach any thus far, because I’m afraid of doing something inappropriate or offensive. If you aren’t aware, monks aren’t allowed to touch women, or sit beside them, or even pass an item back or forth – it must be set down and then picked up. So, I’ve kept my distance and silently watched. And mostly they have done the same. So this very gregarious monk was a surprise to me. He spent a long while learning Spanish from the Argentinians behind me. And I joined in the conversation about why he had chosen to become a monk, and about Buddhism in general.  It was my understanding, because of outdated internet information, that the Laos/Thai border closed at six. However I overheard the two older men on the boat arranging a tuk-tuk to the border. Apparently it didn’t close until eight. So I joined those two Irishmen and an Argentinian couple and we formed a border crossing coterie. It wasn’t exactly a straightforward ordeal, but it also wasn’t troublesome. We were charged $1 for crossing through after four or so. We had to wait for a time before the bus took us from the Laos side to the Thai side. The bus in question blared a song about niggers grab your women, women grab your niggers, louder than any vehicle I’ve ever been in. This caused our coterie to glance around at each other and we all giggled and danced along. These are the moments that comprise travel. Getting through the Thai side was pie, and a solitary tuk-tuk brought us to Chiang Khong. There appeared to be exactly two accommodations, and Alan and David (the Irishmen) took one, while Franco, Valeria, and I searched for something cheaper. It turns out the fancy resort that we hadn’t even bothered checking was half the price of the unimpressive hotel. So we booked rooms and found ourselves in a very nice lodge resort setting. We went in search of food, but this town seemed dead. We finally found the only place open on the street and had a really nice noodle soup. Subsequently I took the nicest shower I’ve had on this trip. It was a huge shower head coming directly from the ceiling overhead, which is quite a change from the small handheld units I have become accustomed to. I took an extra long glorious shower.

In the morning I had arranged to take the bus to Chiang Mai with David and Alan. That wasn’t until nine, and I woke at six. So I went for a stroll with the intention of breakfast. Down a side street I found the tiniest place serving breakfast out of their house. I indicated I wanted one (of whatever), and I joined a friendly local woman at her table. The bowl of food I was served was the closest local dish I’ve had to a western style breakfast. It was a super thick rice soup, almost the consistency of grits, with long very thin strands of ginger, chicken, some crunchy stuff, and I think what had originally been a raw egg thrown in that became cooked by the very hot soup. It was really nice and hearty. My new Irish friends, who are a bit like Liam Neeson/Dustin Hoffmanesque characters, and I set off for the bus station. Only to find that all of the buses headed to Chiang Mai were booked for the entire day. This is the first issue I’ve had with not booking transportation in advance. I have only booked my tickets the day of. So we were advised to catch a local bus to Chiang Rai and then continue to Chiang Mai from there. But..there were only two seats left, again, for the entire day. I suggested they take the two seats and I would find my own way, or perhaps just wait until the following day. But David insisted no, we were in this together, and we’d make our way together. So we looked into car rental options, we queried about alternative buses, we talked with tuk-tuk drivers. Finally we returned to the very friendly bus ticket agent and she made a call for us to some minivan. There was one leaving soon, were we interested? We were. We were taken in a pickup truck all the way back to the border and deposited into a semi-decent minivan.

In Chiang Rai I parted ways with David and Alan – they had decided to take a bus all the way to Bangkok, which would be leaving from a separate station. So I deboarded and went to inquire about tickets. The next available bus to Chiang Mai left at 6:30. It was 12 now, but I purchased it anyways. By now, six hours is hardly a wait. I had a Thai tea while I waited, and I listened to some podcasts. Mostly I people watched. Which, around 5:30 allowed me to catch sight of none other than David! I regrouped with him and Alan who apparently were leaving from this station. Our buses were scheduled to leave at the same time and we hedged bets about whose would leave first (I guessed mine). We also ran into Franco and Valeria again, who had left Chiang Khong after us, but whose bus from Chiang Rai left before ours. Crazy Thailand.

My bus did come first, and it was quite a nice bus, which even supplied cold water and cookies! It dropped me in Chiang Mai at 9:30pm. Instead of doing the sensible thing and finding a guesthouse nearby, I walked the four and change kilometers to the city center. Partially because I knew there were a lot of cheap places there, and partially because after being on two buses for several hours, and sitting for more hours in between, walking sounded mighty. And it actually was quite a nice walk. Having your first impression of a city by night is usually a positive thing. The contrast between the happeningness of Chiang Mai and the deadness of Chiang Khong the night before wasn’t lost on me. I certainly wasn’t hard pressed for food options, but then, as usual, my body didn’t want food after my three day journey from Laos. Though [had they not have just finished for the night] I might have made an exception for those coconut cakes I spotted on my way to the hostel…

if only, Adrien Brody

Finally I reached the winding mountain roads I had been expecting throughout most of this trip. Karst enveloped landscape swimming in fog. Something about the houses here struck me as much more attractive than elsewhere. It took me several hours to determine just what it was. Finally I realized it was the lack of signage and busyness. Everywhere, everywhere in this part of the world buildings are covered in beer banners (Beer Lao, Angkor, Tiger, Singha, Chang – depending on which country you are in), person-sized signs for ice cream, phone provider ads, Nescafé umbrellas. So much busyness everywhere, but these small roadside towns were completely devoid of it all. I am all for it. It’s so much more pleasant to behold the quietness of these villages.The minibus I caught from Vientiane to Luang Pranang is the nicest, newest, cleanest transportation I’ve taken yet. The driver seemed very safe to me, despite the quality of the road, despite the fact that we were driving on the edge of cliffs, and despite the fact that we passed one major wreck and one semi that had simply tipped over in a ditch into the side of the mountain.

Luang Prabang had an immediately noticeable nicer feel to it than Vientiane. It seemed smaller, and less official. I liked it already. My guesthouse very proudly offered free bananas, and I had my share. The building was old and wooden. The stairs to get to my room were so steep it almost seemed more like a ladder than a staircase. I liked my room immensely, too (despite the fact the walls were pink stained and unlovable), and that also took me a while to grasp the reasoning. Because it was my first [non-CS] room that was mine. It was as cheap as anywhere I’d seen, but this was a single room instead of a dorm. I would be taking full advantage of this fact.   I think I skipped dinner the night I arrived, but breakfast was the first order of business when I awoke the next day. I sought out a local noodle soup, despite the morning being already uncomfortably warm. The main difference I noted between this soup and the countless others I have tried was the abundance of thinly sliced, ultra crispy fried garlic pieces. Which were awesome. I walked along the Mekong for a long length of the town, particularly appreciating the [french influenced] architecture and the way the buildings here fit together very snugly. It boasts a very different, quaint aesthetic to all the other cities I’ve visited so far. During the afternoon I retreated to my room and splayed myself under the fan. This particular day I bought a small tub of taro ice cream and consumed the whole thing. Not a whole lot went down during the hours nearing 100°. But I was very excited for the evening. In Vientiane all I had wanted was to watch a film. Unfortunately for me, there is not a single cinema there. Not one. How excited I was to learn, then, about L’etranger – a bookshop in Luang Prabang that shows a movie every evening. I showed up early and ordered the local mak toum (bale fruit?) tea. The film that evening was The Cobbler, which sounded really charming, until you learned that Adam Sandler was in it (only one girl knew this fact, and when she shared it we all had the same reaction). Nothing against him, it just wasn’t what I was expecting based on the description. Anyways, the act of sitting in that beautiful space with a pot of tea, watching a film was exactly as magical as I anticipated. Afterwards I popped over to the night market, but it was already in the process of shutting down. Still, I came across these tiny banana leaf baskets stacked delicately with little coconut cakes. They aren’t exactly cake: they are fried and spongy on the outside, but the inside is a gooey, custardy molten lava of creamy coconut. They are perfection.   Soo…I might have even had them again for breakfast the next day at the morning market. This market had the weirdest selection of things I’ve yet seen. There were live frogs in a giant basket, frickin thigh sized lizards both whole and chopped up (I’ve seen a lot of dead animals around, but these chopped up lizards win the gross out factor for me), seemingly innocent baskets which actually held small dead pigs, and some other unusual meats and critters that I can no longer recall. There were no other tourists at this early hour. I did some shopping for the next day’s journey up the Mekong. 

For my heat induced indoor period that day I happily occupied myself with some sketching and painting. I almost indulged in another film at L’etranger, but decided instead to tackle the night market early. There were a lot of foods I wanted to try and I opted to have a night market feast. Despite my best intentions, I could only fit about $4.50 worth of food into my stomach. Oh well, it was a very exciting experience, and I’m certainly not going to complain about being satiated for less than five bucks. Between my various courses of foods I wandered back and forth along the long strip of tents filled with amazing handiwork. The skill of people here is so impressive. I think I probably spent like four hours lost in all of the colors and patterns and delicious smells there. This has been my favorite market so far.

It was only just lightening when I started out the next morning. I walked once more to the morning market to grab fresh baguettes for sandwiches…and one more helping of coconut cakes. I bartered with a few different tuk-tuk drivers before finally agreeing on a price that was favorable to both of us. And so I bid adieu to lovely Luang Prabang.

destiny and its many faces

I’ve been unusually stressed about getting to Laos from Vietnam. I’m not sure why it seems so much more complicated than any of the trips thus far. I guess because I’ve been unable to find very clear information on the Internet. Or maybe because I’m traveling a long distance across countries, and perhaps I should’ve broken the journey into smaller sections. I dunno. Regardless, I vacillated between plans for a week.

At the end of my trek to Hang En I was dropped of in town. The ATM was finally working, and I withdrew more money than I thought I needed, just to not be in the same situation, caught without cash. I assessed my options. I knew I was only 50km from the border, and it just seemed so silly to drive east when I wanted to go west. So I strolled into Easy Tiger and asked how much they thought it would cost to get a xe ôm to take me to the border. The guy working there this time was immensely more friendly and helpful than the first day I had gone there. He recommended taking the local bus to Dong Hoi at 5 the next morning, and catching the bus to the border from there. This seemed like the best option I had heard, and I asked if perchance they had a room. They did! So I checked in and he proceeded immediately to check me out since I was leaving so early in the morning. I had a meal there since I actually had money now, and I spent most of the evening catching up on writing.

I awoke at 4:30 and went to wait for the bus. As I was waiting I started reading the sign about the local bus. First, the bus I wanted wasn’t until 5:30. Second, there was another at 6:00 and another at 7:10. Did I really need to take the earliest bus? To the iPhone! I researched my options, and it looked like buses headed from Dong Hoi to the border every hour in the morning. And the bus from there to Vientiane wasn’t until the evening. Sweet! More sleep and free breakfast it was. I went back up to bed and came back down at the more reasonable hour of 6:30. I had my tea, fried egg, and baguette, and then went once again to wait for my bus. The guy next to me, who I assumed worked at Easy Tiger, struck up a conversation. We talked all the way onto the bus. He informed me that my travel plans were pretty unlikely to work out. He usually arranges trips for people to Vientiane, and I would probably need to leave from Dong Ha, where coincidentally he was going as well. He made a phone call for me and assured me there was a bus to Vientiane leaving Dong Ha at 12:30. So I would tag along with him and he’d deposit me at my bus. We proceeded to converse for the ninety minute ride to Dong Hoi. Come to find not only does he work at Easy Tiger, but he’s the co-owner! As well as being in charge of the local eco-tours and the wild animal refuge center. His name is Hai, and he is a really cool individual. We both agreed we were happy our fallen through plans had inexplicably changed the course of our respective days. He invited me to have breakfast in Dong Hoi and proceeded to pay for it, as the Vietnamese do. I went with him while he did some shopping for his businesses and then we jumped on the bus to Dong Ha. Which he also paid for. It was another couple of hours before we arrived. He took me to his friend the travel agent, and his friend quickly put me on the back of a xe ôm. A far too quick thank you to my new friend Hai and I was speeding off towards the bus that was waiting for me to leave. This is the point where the magical enchanting morning changes. Should’ve stayed in Vietnam. I was tempted.

I am currently on the most questionable bus I’ve ever taken. It’s a sleeper bus like the one I took between Hanoi and Phong Nha. But three quarters of the back is packed full of stuff. Lots of boxes, quite a few blankets, some random luggage. As far as I can tell there are eight other passengers, all from Vietnam or Laos, and fourish guys operating the bus. Like on all sleeper buses you are required to take your shoes off and place them in a plastic bag. In fact, they wouldn’t let me back until I had tied the bag. But despite the strictness concerning footwear, the crew is smoking as if it’s not an unusual thing. We’ve been watching this show that seems to be a competition of sorts of various couples trying to sing duets the most romantically. The crew is enthralled by it and have had heated discussions about various couples. I find this hilarious. These grungy guys all into the ooiest gooiest lovey singing you could imagine. Anyways, all of this seems a bit off to me. I’ve had a lot of thoughts running through my head. Like is this an entirely legal situation going on here? and if so, if this bus gets stopped, am I getting busted along with everyone else? and am I less likely to get through the border with these guys? or is this what a sex trafficking ring is like? Is this the time I’ve finally trusted too far?

The actual border crossing was where it really hit though. We were motioned to get out and the driver made a stamping sign with his hand. I followed two Vietnamese guys and we walked about a kilometer down a sun heated highway. I very decisively took my backpack with me; no way was I getting separated from my stuff. No way was I leaving it behind on this sketch bus. I wondered why we had to walk, and whether or not I would ever see the bus again. I had another predicament as well: I had almost exactly enough money for my Laos visa, but it was divided between USD and VND. Which just doesn’t work when you are entering a country. I had tried to research whether there was an ATM at the border, but found no answer. So I cringed when the Vietnamese officials stamped my exit. Point of no return and all. What happens if you are stuck at a border without cash to go either direction? I honestly didn’t want to know the answer. The two Vietnamese guys went to a separate immigration counter and I lost sight of them while I busied myself applying for my visa.

The man working at the visa on arrival desk was one of the nicest government officials I’ve ever encountered, which bolstered me a bit. There was, in fact, an ATM (hear that Internet? There is an ATM at the Lao Bao border.) As with Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam getting into Laos was really simple and non-troublesome. However, once I had my passport complete with a shiny new visa in hand (as well as my first Laotian phrase: ‘thank you’ stamped into my brain), my life was not so simple. My two Vietnamese comrades were gone. Like, definitely nowhere in the vicinity, and there was no sign of the bus. I hadn’t been told what to do, and I had no idea what to do. My heart sank. Was this my first Asian scam? It had been a really obvious one, if so, and they must have though I was so naive. I had heard so many stories of people being conned or cheated, but have managed to avoid any trouble so far. I wondered how long I should wait before finding alternative transportation to Vientiane. The man from the visa on arrival booth approached me and asked about my situation. He pointed me towards a seat and told me to wait there for my bus. Several minutes later he found me again and brought me to another of the passengers who had been on my bus. That gem of a border control man must have asked around for me. He told me to stick with this guy, because he was worried I would miss my bus. I breathed a little easier. At least I wasn’t the only one waiting here. And surely this local had more of a clue of what was happening than me? Also, if I was stranded here, at least this amazingly kind border control man would help me get somewhere. But, sure enough, our gaudy and overly packed bus appeared finally. I settled in [gratefully] for some more cheesy romance duets.

The road once we crossed into Laos was horrible. I’ve heard/read about ‘poor road quality’ and assumed that people were just being overly dramatic, but no. I just hadn’t experienced the extent of poor road quality yet. You literally could’ve ridden a bicycle faster. The large bus had to snake back and forth across the road to avoid potholes, and this with oncoming traffic doing the same. No wonder this seemingly short distance on the map was supposed to take so long.

The bus stopped for dinner and toilets at one of the usual roadside stops. The crew invited me to sit with them for dinner, which I did, hesitatingly. The locals at the restaurant appeared to never have seen a foreigner. They interacted very excitedly with my bus crew and even pulled out their iPads. Pictures I’m used to by now, but one woman walked around taking video as if to say ‘see, this is my establishment, and look what just walked in!‘ I smiled politely, but was relieved to get back on the bus. The spotlight is not my domain. I was also proposed to by one of the men on the bus, which, I’m not sure if I’ve talked about yet, but this is not unusual. I’ve had numerous proposals and declarations of love. Sometimes by the actual person, and often by an older individual for a younger man. They’ll point at the young, single male and pointedly say ‘I love you’, which is to say ‘this man loves you’. The man will smile sheepishly and I’ll perform the least awkward response I can muster, which is still deathly awkward. How are you supposed to respond to that? Anyways, if you are really desperate for a husband, Vietnam awaits you. Dress modestly and take transportation with the locals.

The rest of the journey was blessedly uneventful. Podcasts to drown out the duets and sleep before arriving around 5am at the soil of Vientiane. Thank God.

As a postscript, despite the sketchiness of the situation, I don’t regret it. And I don’t think I was conned. I had arrived in Dong Ha too late for the last bus to Vientiane, so I assume this was some sort of non-passenger bus headed that way that just took on what few passengers it could carry. In hindsight, this makes sense with a comment Hai had made to me about me maybe being lucky and still catching a bus. I suspect that if anyone else on the bus spoke English they could’ve easily explained the situation to me, but I just didn’t have any way of understanding what was happening. While I did have some concerns, if I had really felt at risk, I would’ve refused to board or gotten off. I’m not too shy for that. If your intuition kicks in, you pay attention. And that’s that. My trip to Laos was without question the strangest border crossing I’ve encountered. But I’m here, and none the worse for wear.