Finding Spontaneity in Laos

How can two travelers soak up as much of the world as possible, while keeping their bodies and relationship intact? When Andrés and I started to dream up our adventure, we wanted to find a balance between the assurance of plans and the beauty of spontaneity. To create structure, we chose a direction. We made lists of places we wanted to visit. We researched which tickets and visas needed to be arranged in advance. We figured spontaneity would take care of itself, so we made a few reservations, secured one visa, and felt pretty proud of ourselves.

Now, as the trip sputters towards its last great hurrah, I am finding that spontaneity takes effort, especially when it’s a constant option. Since leaving Russia, our plans have been slapped together by navigating the trains, boats and buses that go to the far-flung consulates where we chase down visas. Most recently, we spent a few days in Vientiane, the sleepy capitol of Laos, where thousands of ex-pats living in Thailand on tourist visas swarm on a weekly basis to renew their stamps at the consulate. A few days became a few more days when we discovered that we’d chosen a week of holiday closures to seek the visa. It was a stuffy, stagnant ordeal, and once it was over, we were ready to get out of town. The local Avis had a truck available at a discounted rate. We picked it up from the temple next door, prayed to the Buddha for a safe trip, and drove north into the dusty red of broken roads and sunset, headed to Vang Vieng.

The reviews for that Avis rental agency were atrocious. The internet said driving after dark would be dangerous. Invariably, the worst laid plans are the most fun.

As a driver, I woudn’t have been able to negotiate the challenges of that 4-hour drive, but Andrés attacked the potholes and the dark, populated villages of the road with grace. The next day, I woke up excited to see what more our truck and its driver could do, but I still hadn’t learned my lesson in spontaneity. Over breakfast, I consulted Google maps to see what attractions were nearby. I looked at Trip Advisor’s list of top things to do in Vang Vieng. I asked the owner of the hotel for her opinion. From all of these sources, we chose a destination and set forth in the trusty dusty Mazda.

Steep mountains jutted out of the fields, and a dirt buggy wizzed by, its driver’s face covered with a handkerchief. A turn-off to the left was announced with a tantalizing sign: Swimming! Caving! Hiking!

“It’s not the Blue Lagoon, though. Let’s just keep going to the one we saw on Trip Advisor.”

We passed another sign, this one promising a beautiful look-out. But it hadn’t been vouched for, so we ignored it as well.

When a third sign became visible around the red bend of road, we finally came to our senses. The handwritten sign was multicolored and bilingual, boasting with loopy letters an ancient cave with “too many stalactites” and a swimming hole. Andrés slowed the truck. I hesitated. A group of boys playing with a spinning top stopped to watch us and we made or decision, turning onto the narrow road and driving towards the unknown.

Everything on this trip is unknown to us. Why do I trust a bunch of dorky foreigners writing reviews on-line more than a painstakingly written sign on the side of the road?

A little ways down what had now deteriorated into a gully, the road ended and we found a hut with two young women. A board on a post indicated that it would cost 10,000 kip…for what, we didn’t know. One of the women held a dangling handful of headlamps. She told us that she would show us a cave. Explore a cave with this young stranger, in the middle of the Lao countryside? The stiff, passive part of my brain said, “It might not be safe! We don’t know anything about this place or this person!” and then, heroically, the pliable part asserted itself and said, “We’d be a fool not to go!”

The path was broken with precarious bridges made of round bamboo stalks, tied together into slippery bundles. In our flip-flops, we scrambled to keep up with the agile young woman who so gracefully led us deeper into the fields. “Lemon,” she broke off a stalk of wild lemongrass for us to smell. “Look,” she said as she touched a sensitive fern, its leaves folding up with timidity. To one side, a group of cows picked at the ground, and their dull bells clanged pointlessly.

No one was at the swimming hole, and its water was clear and blue and rushed around a beautiful pock-marked rock that had fallen from the hanging cliff above. “You swim later, cave first,” our guide told us, handing us each a headlamp. “Be careful,” she said as our feet slid across the clay steps carved to reach the cave’s opening.

“Careful,” she told us again, and she shined her light on a rock jutting out of the low ceiling. “You like spiders?”

It only got darker, and slipperier, and hotter, and smaller as we walked deep into the cave. Clang clang clang. Our guide knocked a lighter against a trio of stalagmites, and each had a different tone. She shined her headlamp on the ceiling, where ribbons of rock had formed over the centuries. “It’s sparkle,” she said as she illuminated a mound of purplish crystal.

The ground was squishy with mud, and it was becoming harder to breath the damp cave air. My headlamp had broken into a hand lamp, and our guide kept saying, “A little further, it is the best.” Finally, we didn’t want to go any further, and to my relief, our guide agreed to lead us back. At the swimming hole, we returned our lamps, and thanked the young woman. “Tip for the guide?” she insisted. Our first offer was insufficient, so we gave her a little more. “I leave you now,” she promised, and we were alone.

The water was full of fish, and they nibbled at my feet while I guarded the backpack and Andres swam. It had been a strange experience, wandering around that cave with a stranger. I didn’t totally trust her, nor did I trust the man at the rental car agency, nor did I trust our bus drivers or the tuk-tuk drivers who charged us too much money. But despite that lack of trust, and the unknowns that people and situations represent, Andrés and I are still physically intact, and better friends than ever. It turns out that the tuk-tuks and the Mazda truck and the hot slippery cave in the middle of a cow field in Laos were all some of the best decisions we’ve made on this trip. With a little structure, and a lot of luck, even two tired travelers can achieve the beauty of a spontaneous decision.

Border Crossings

Two days ago, Andrés and I, along with a handful of tourists, Vietnamese merchants, and several bushels of cilantro, crossed an imaginary line together. The line wasn’t visible, nor was it tangible, but nevertheless it held a bit of that tension that zips along the lines defining countries. On a forested mountain, we waited on the Vietnamese side for our broken bus to be mended enough to cross over to Laos, taking the opportunity to stretch our legs outside with a cup of instant coffee from a ramshackle restaurant catering to a clientele with nothing but time.

International border crossings are serious affairs, requiring preparation and a degree of respectful watchfulness. Ever since I was quite invasively interrogated at the Port of Spain airport I have known that the zone between countries, whether imaginary or spatial, is a place where simple rights can slip away. To make the land crossing from Vietnam into Laos, we had prepared by researching visa requirements for each of our nationalities, and methods of payment. We had investigated the most viable checkpoint for our itinerary. We knew when the border opened, and what towns were nearby. We were prepared for every aspect of the (admittedly, easy) crossing into Laos. Unfortunately, we there was no way for us to prepare for the bus that brought us there.

I knew we were in for it when a man on a scooter met us at the hotel door to pick us up. We had no tickets for the 24-hour bus trip, but the man recognized the travel agency that we had booked the trip through, and soon we were following him down the busy streets of old-quarter Hanoi. It was impossible to steer our suitcases around the parked scooters and small tables that cover the sidewalks, so we walked in the street, trying to follow the man on the scooter with our eyes, already blocks ahead. When we finally caught up, he told us to wait, and swerved away to join the traffic of the city.

He came back a half hour later with more tourists. We were bundle into a van and brought to the bus station. The bus we met there was a double decker, but the bottom half was already full to the ceiling with boxes. We climbed up the stairs, taking off our shoes at the top, and found it almost as full as the bottom, not of people but of cargo: boxes, food, and building supplies stacked high on top of the seats. The cracked windows were held together with opaque advertisements, making it impossible to see outside. A few reclining chairs were available, and more below: the seats were also double deckers, and we were packed together, excuse the cliche, like sardines. I’ve never felt more like a sardine: salty with sweat, squished against my seat neighbor (luckily that happened to be my boyfriend) and somewhat horizontal.

And that was my position for 26 hours. “Somewhat horizontal” is very uncomfortable after only a few hours. A Vietnamese travel agent who was on the bus to research a potential contract with the bus company (not happening after this trip) told me that international buses in Vietnam make most of their money through shipping cargo. Having a few tourists on board has the duel benefit of letting them operate without a commercial license, and also ensuring a more lenient customs process, making it easier to smuggle in a few things. He said there isn’t really a better option for traveling via land to Laos, and that’s why his agency doesn’t handle trips to that country.

All things considered, the trip went very well. We made it to Vientiane in 28 hours, not too much longer than the estimate. The dust from the red dirt road that filled the bus’s air seemed pristine and unpolluted. No one lost their passport, and my preparedness meant that an unprepared young backpacker was able to pay his visa fee despite having no money on him. Compared to many border experiences, this was a piece of cake. But I hope to never ride another bus like that again.