2006 Loas: Tad Lo

Click above to see the photo set.

Click above to see the photo set.

Okay, so this one IS about me…

I left Siem Reap and headed for the Laos border. Traveling over land this way is all about the “experience” like sharing the back seat of an old-model Toyota Corolla with four (or maybe even 7) other people for three hours. I can’t complain, I have seen Cambodian and Laos vehicles so packed, so absolutely packed, with goods and people they are works of art. The people carry more things on more types of vehicles than you could ever imagine, especially motorbikes and trucks. But you never hear a word of complaint, just resignation on the faces of the people. Only the farang complain.

You might spend the night in a dinky town, in a sad bed with a fan and no windows so the fan just blows hot air around the room. The next day you might leave and wonder who you missed, what Loas or Cambodia friends you may never have met. My theory is you will make friends while traveling, but you have to put in the time, you can’t spend a day or two and expect to make any lasting friendships with the local people.

The border between Cambodia and Laos is at a point where the Mekong breaks into a thousand pieces and I was headed to a small island called Don Det in the “4,000 Island” area of south Loas. I met a few good people on that leg and it’s funny how traveling a short distance, say a bus ride, will throw you and a group of fellow travelers together , so that by the end of the ride everyone is lookng out for each other. Some times it’s good and sometimes bad, but it’s always funny when they ask at a guest house “one room?” and these two people who maybe have barely talked to, but spent eight weary hours together on a truck watching each other’s shit will jinx, quickly yelling “TWO! We aren’t together.” Often times you need each other to help share tuktuk expenses or make decisions. I tend to eschew backpackers if possible, but they are often good sources of information, and that can be handy. Especially ones leaving the way you are going. I just hate when they sit around and smoke and talk about a guy who ripped them off for $.25, or how much they paid for a tuktuk across the island, or how their cousin’s friend was bitten on the inner thigh by a rat on Koh Chang. I am constantly saying “Let’s talk about something positive!”

Don Det is a small island and the east side serves mostly backpackers with simple bungalows and electricity provided by gennies. My observation, in my short visit there, was the Laosians seemed a little sad. It’s just the impression I got, on this small island, and maybe it’s wrong, but no one seemed genuinely happy. Maybe I just missed the laughter of Stand #2? Whatever the reason, when I heard about Tad Lo, an area several hours north with a waterfall and stands being erected for Sangkron (New Years festival) in a few days, I had a powerful notion to head that way in time for the festivities.

Tad Lo is beautiful. Pure heaven. I timed it perfectly and got the only bungalow with a giant “window” which was more like half the front wall folding down, affording a view of the river and waterfall. I took several days off from doing anything touristy, spending a lot of time photo editing and catching up on writing about Stand #2, and just listening to life on the river outside my bungalow. It was a great office. The preparations for Sangkron were fully underway. My first night there and we were drinking the great beer Beerlao (truly the best “cheap beer” I’ve ever had) and dancing with partners (but not touching!). There were only four songs being played, but one was an electronic version of Hotel California. I must have heard that song 20 times. They would call out “Mr. Tony from California” and have me dance alone with Bun, the 30 year old manager of the restaurant, for about 5 seconds and then everyone would get up and dance. Fun, but a little maddening as well with one partner, no touching and only four songs to choose from. I loved that Bun would try and mouth the words but have no idea what was being said.

The first day of Sangkron came and I was slightly disappointed I wasn’t drenched immediately upon stepping out of my bungalow as i had read sometimes happens. The Thai, Cambodian, and Laos New Year celebration is a time for cleansing, so after they wash the Buddha, they tend to spray water or dump baby powder on each other. It’s really a great celebration I want to adopt. Someone asked me what we do in America on New Years and my reply was “Nothing really, we cheers (“yolk” in Laos) and kiss.” It just sounded so weak.

I went to the temple were a Buddha was being washed and got some good photos, but not before a little boy fell down the perilous wooden steps taking a huge gash out of his head on the concrete below. While many folks looked on, I put a wet cloth to his head and made sure the mother put direct pressure on it. I am trying to be more bold with medical services. My experience with injured people in SEA is that a crowd gathers around and watches a hurt person without offering much assistance. That’s just my observation of the accidents I’ve seen.

Tad Lo was alive with all these temporary stalls set up for food and games, and the waterfall had people climbing all over it. A big sound system was set up near the waterfall, and I really felt like it was a great place to be for the New Year with the Laos to farang ratio being great. Very few backpackers and tons of Loas coming in from the country side.

On that first day of Sangkron I started drinking around 10:30am with a few friends from the evening before, and by the time I found some backpacker friends from Denmark (Hey Nana and Mikael!) I was shit-faced. It was maybe 4pm and I made the fatal mistake of not eating.

(side note: While there are tons of little observations that go unreported, the absolutely most vile thing I have seen eaten, and I have pictures, is steamed duck embryo [Bulat]. That is, they wait until the duck is a day away from hatching, steam the egg, then eat the fully formed baby duck, feathers, bill, feet and all. It’s a horror show for most of us. I won’t go into the details of how one eats them, I’ll save that for any person who really wants to know, because as a good reporter I watched and learned for you sick and twisties out there.)

We went back to the restaurant and buckets of water were flying and BeerLoa was flowing. A few days earlier I pointed out a very funny, illustrated booklet for farang on some Loas culture hints. One of the pages shows a drunk farang mauling a young Loas woman and the notion that boys and girls do not touch was the lesson. Well, I knew it was time to leave when I became a character out of the book having put my arm around Bun and getting scolded by an elder. Later, Mikael told me a young boy threw an entire bucket of water on me and I just turned and glared at him, a look Steve Fruhwirth would understand, like the time he was wasted at a bar and I pinched his ass really, really hard, and he just slowly turned and said in a deadpan slur, “Oh, it’s you.”

I stumbled home and fell asleep. No problem right? Well, when I woke I had forgotten to put down my mosquito net and that big old wonderful front window was open and I got eaten alive in a place in the world where you don’t want to get bitten once. I put down the net and fell asleep again.

I woke the next day hung-over but felt more sick than that. I though I might be sick sick, but I slept most of the day and rallied at 4pm for more beerlao, this time making sure I eat dinner. Several travelers and I started partying and I felt fine then, but we split up when I got invited to go to a small camp serving all the Laos people who where there for the party. More beer and I finally split them at maybe 10pm or so.

The next day I knew I was not right. No drinking, just sleeping and listening to the partying going on at the sound system. I did venture out once, but was too sick to think or walk straight and more folks came from far out farm land and were literally just staring at me, the farang. I was still not sure if it was just a bad hang over or if I was really sick, but with all those bites, malaria was a serious concern of mine. I wanted to get to a larger city, so I left the next day for Pakxe and closer to the better hospitals in Thailand. Delirious getting off the bus I found a hotel room with a phone, spoke to Menyui for some advise and slept for 18 hours. It was one of those fever induced monster and daemon sleeps you might see in a movie, with the chills and cold sweats. I think I dreamt about wrestling red wine and Joseph Kolb was laughing and there were children throwing buckets of duck embryos. I made up my mind to go to the best hospital in Bangkok the next morning, because at the height of it I could not see being better in the morning.

Fevers are funny though, because somehow, I was better, or at least not worse.

I was still determined to head to Bangkok to make sure I didn’t have anything serious, and was informed there was a hospital in Pakxe. A quick blood test there showed I probably didn’t have Malaria but maybe had Dengue Fever. That was enough to get me moving toward Bangkok.

A most remarkable thing happened crossing out of Loas to Thailand. A very, very cool family took me under their wing and we shared a taxi to the border of Laos and Thailand at Chong Mek. Once across the border they gave me a ride most of the way to Ubon Ratchathani and the airport. All flights were full to Bangkok, but a super cool women named Nikki (who may be reading this right now!), told me about a good private hospital in Ubon. She was right, the hospital was great and the result of a brief conversation with a doctor was that maybe I had Dengue and we’d do a blood test the next day. I slept well that night and drank lots of water and so today had a blood test done that showed I probably didn’t have Dengue but some random viral infection. So I’m on a bus heading to Vientiane, Laos and back on my (undetermined) track. I feel okay, I have minor lapses of chills but for the most part am back to normal.

Epilogue: Two weeks later to the day, as predicted by the doctor, I had a 24hr fever relapse in Luang Prabang. Crazy how accurate that was, it came on in about 5 minutes as I was sitting at a restaurant. I took Tylenol and slept it out, feeling much better the next day.

(Sorry for this “all about me” post, I’ll return to more “observational” posts next.)