From what I have heard from other travelers, Laos is a very laid-back place. From what I have seen so far in Savannakhet, I would have to agree. Savannakhet is the provincial capital of the most densely populated province, but it is still a pretty quiet place. Tonight will be my fourth night here, which is already longer than I had thought I would stay. Somehow I have a feeling that I will stay through my one-month visa in Laos and then stay through another fifteen-day visa in Thailand, which will land me at the exact time I need to be at Oxford. I was hoping to go to Belgium, but with the enjoyably molasses pace of Laos (moLaosses?) I have already started looking at BKK-LON flights.
The easy-going vibes aside, there is another reason for my lingering in Savannakhet. The day after the bag debacle another “adventure” came my way: missing debit card! The discovery was made in the morning and the rest of the day was spent handling the situation. Thank goodness I had copies of my card and the number to call if this were to happen. Finding a phone, however, proved to be a bit of a problem. I tried the tourist office, the post office, phone stores, and internet cafes. No one had a phone. The owner of Chai Dee Cafe proved that his establishment deserves its name (Chai Dee means “good-hearted”) when he lent me his phone to use. He had recently lost his wallet in the Bangkok airport and knew how it felt. I made the first call to cancel my old card (no activity on it since I last used an ATM) and then sucked it up and bought a local SIM and a lot of minutes for my cheap Nokia phone.
After hours of phone-hunting and dropped calls, I had finally done all I could, which was to arrange a Western Union money transfer for instant cash and to have a new card sent to me here in Savannakhet. So now I am resigned to wait until it arrives. FedEx estimates it will take about a week more to arrive. That’s a really long time to be in Savannakhet, so I may take a side trip or two next week.
But all said and done, the situation isn’t that bad. While I was taking a break from crying (again — can’t be helped) and talking with the bank, I made the following list of good things:
– Just my debit card and not my whole wallet is gone.
– There has been no activity on the card since I last used it, meaning forgetful ol’ me probably just left it in the ATM.
– Bank of America is able to wire me funds from my account via Western Union, meaning that I don’t have to pay ATM fees for the rest of my stay in Asia.
– I already have enough hard currency to last me at least a week if needed.
– Laos excepts Thai baht at a uniform rate of 1 baht = 250 kib.
– I’m not dealing with this in India! (This thought has occurred to me a few times since then…)
And even if I do end up spending a week and a half in Savannakhet, it is not the worst thing in the world:
– The tourism department has done a good job of marking the roads and directions to attractions, even including an estimated distance. Maps are accurate and not impossible to find. I spent the whole day yesterday on a “treasure hunt” to see and photograph all the buildings marked on the self-guided walking tour map.
– The riverfront is shaded, breezy, and full of places to lounge in lawn chairs with a fresh coconut. I did this yesterday and will likely go again tomorrow and take up the offer for a riverside manicure that was proposed to me. At the time I had my fingers hard at work digging out coconut meat so I had to decline.
– Vegetarian food (besides coconuts) is easy to come by. In addition to the veggie- and in-general-friendly Chai Dee Cafe, there are two Jay — strictly vegan — shops in town. The one I have been to every day serves different kinds of noodle soups and I am on friendly terms with the mama in charge. She appreciates my efforts at Lao said maybe this weekend her son can take me to the monkey forest.
– Internet cafes are also abundant. There isn’t really anything to do after dark, so I have been coming to the place just around the corner from my guesthouse. While typing this post I am also simultaneously watching a BBC documentary (America Was Here: Vietnam and Cambodia. The grim reality aside, it is cool to see places I have been and makes me nostalgic of this trip already.) and have been taking some time to research travel in Laos and anything else of interest.
– Prices here are on par with Thailand, and vendors don’t inflate their prices just because I am a foreigner. That said, my ability with the language may be helping, though I get the feeling that in laidback Laos people may be slightly more scrupulous than their neighbors to the East and South.
– All this free time and my friendly status with a few establishments means that I am able to practice speaking and reading Laotian. As I said in my previous post, the languages are quite similar and each day I connect more dots.
– The people are super friendly, besides being honest. I get a few looks, plenty of smiles, and exchanges of Sabaidee! due to my farang status, though people don’t gawk and only young children will excitedly shout Farang! Farang! Even then, their parents shush them and tell them to give a proper hello. The lady at my veggie restaurant reminded me to take precaution with my bag and said that it would be a good idea to not wear my ring. (The only bit of jewelry that I have actually worn on this trip is a silver and turquiose ring that my dad got me at the Grand Canyon. I haven’t lost it yet and fear that if I take it off I will lose it. So the ring stays.)
– As my Thai family promised, there is plenty of nature in Laos. When it comes down to it, I like cities for the opportunity that they offer but I actually feel much happier in quieter places. Tampa or St. Pete, for example, are perfectly-sized and close enough to nature for me. Yasothon is also a good fit, and by extension so is much of Laos.
There are organized treks and tours that leave from Savannakhet, though unfortunately they are quite expensive. The cheapest is a day trip by bike and costs $50. In Bali I did an excellent tour (I must remember to start a TripAdvisor account and recommend them!) for $30 and in Hoi An, Vietnam I did a private afternoon tour for $6. Since I have the gist of the Asian bike tour, I decided to rent a bike and follow the map (yes, there is a bike tour map. Bravo to the tourism office.) on my own.
Leena’s Guesthouse (my home until further notice since that is where my card is being sent) rents out bikes, and I got one for around $2 for today’s adventure. It was a country-cruiser with a basket on the front and only one speed. I checked to make sure the tires were full, got a bunch of bananas and a big bottle of water, and set off. The ride was 30 or 40 kilometers, maybe more with the couple wrong turns I took. But it was a lovely way to spend the day.
Getting out of Savannakhet was easy, though the state of the roads vary widely. At some points it was nicely paved, other times it looked like a gymnasium’s worth of balls (sports balls) were dropped on the road and left an indent wherever they landed. A baseball here, a basketball there. Watch out for the beach ball potholes. My bike wouldn’t make it through that.
My destinations were Bungva Lake, That Ing Hang Stupa, and the Dong Natad Protected Area. Happily, I made it to all three. Bungva Lake didn’t seem to photograph well, but it was lovely. The road ran along the bank, separating the lake from the half-wild, half-rice fields on the other side. A family repairing fishing nets shouted hello as I whirred by, smiling and sighing at the beauty. A number of floating restaurants dotted the shoreline, and I imagine they are packed during the rocket festival and boat racing activities.
The Buddha himself is reputed to have spoken at That Ing Hang Stupa, and part of his skeleton is believed to reside there. I had to borrow a traditional sarong before I was allowed to enter (borrow on a pay-what-you-wish basis, much unlike the mandatory t-shirt purchase at Cambodia’s royal palace. I never did write anything on the shirt and have been using it as pajamas and a towel.) and was not overwhelmed by the place. The stupa sits at the center of a walled compound, with a vast collection of Buddhas standing guard in the shade of the inner walls. Only men are allowed to enter the sanctum of the stupa. My pictures didn’t come out so well, so here is a nice one from Google:
Next up was the Dong Natad Protected Area. I asked the lady renting out the sarongs for directions, and she pointed to the road that I was thinking of taking after studying the map. I set off, passing stand after stand of lotus blooms and banana leaf creations for worshipping at the temple, and evetually arrived at a dead end at a busy road.
According to my map, I was at Route 9 and had passed the forest several kilometers back. I didn’t remember seeing anything that looked remotely like a park entrance, so I asked some ladies selling fruit just to be sure. They pointed back the way I came. “I’m tired already!” I exclaimed in Thai, and they laughed, smiling at the strange behavior of this farang. (No Laotian would go carting themselves around on a bike in the heat of the afternoon to look at some trees.) A guy got out of a car nearby to add his thoughts, practice his English, and proudly say that he works in a goldmine by the border with Vietnam. Judging my his clothes, car, and clean fingernails, I doubt he is one the miners.
So I turned around and headed back, stopping to ask directions from the friendliest-seeming of the lotus sellers. She had waved at me when I passed the first time, and was curious what brought me back this way. “Go straight and turn left at the green sign.” Green sign? I don’t remember a green sign. But I thanked her and pedaled on. At the Sundry Shop (named so in English), I saw a green sign. I parked to try to make out the sun-faded lettering and asked a nearby granny if this was Dong Natad. Indeed it was! This green sign was a far cry from the brown signs including English that had got me this far. A quick pedal down a road (with lots of land for sale, I noticed. Someday…?) and there was a sign with an introduction in Lao and English to the park. That and a rusty open gate was the only indication that I had arrived.
Dong Natad has plenty of trails running inside it, and there is a scenic lake at the center. At least I think the lake is scenic. I didn’t make it that far. It is the rainy season now, and after getting stuck in the mud on the main once I decided to turn back since I knew it would happen again. I explored as far as I could on a few other side trails and was delighted. The shaded air was cool and my city bike was holding up under the rough terrain. And the butterflies! I saw at least twenty different species today. It was like going through a butterfly garden. At one point, a big brown one with a white spot on the bottom of each wing coasted between my arms in the draft of the handlebars. Even though I couldn’t get into the park proper, I was more than satisfied with the fauna on the outskirts.
So that’s pretty much what I have been up to. I have another week of “mandatory” relaxation before heading down to the Four Thousand Islands for some “optional” relaxation before heading north for some more of the same.
On another note, I found this video while looking for the BBC documentary. It is a short PSA about not texting all the time (I guess that’s a problem in Laos…? Haven’t seen it yet though.) and offers a glimpse at what Laos looks like. I think the city scenes were filmed in Vientiane, the capital city that will be my port of departure when the day comes. Enjoy! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvdA0mgziG4