Si Phan Don: Laos’ land of lotus eaters is 4,000 islands of bliss on the mighty Mekong

The Khone Phapheng waterfall is one of many in this far south end of Laos.

The Khone Phapheng waterfall is one of many in this far south end of Laos.

DON KHON, Laos — It took three days to travel from the northern tip of Laos to the southern tip. From what’s in front of me, it looks like I went from the tip of North America to the heart of the Amazon Jungle.

I’m sitting on my bungalow’s terrace staring out at the Mekong River. Birds are singing. A lone motor boat slowly buzzes by, its motor more soothing than irritating. Even the lone crowing rooster doesn’t feel so annoying here. Across the water is a string of palm trees, standing sentry to one of the most tranquil corners of Southeast Asia. I’m on Don Det, one of the islands of Si Phan Don. That’s Lao for “4,000 Islands,” a name I didn’t doubt the moment my motor boat maneuvered around dozens of them to arrive here.

Don Khon and the Mekong.

Don Khon and the Mekong.

The Mekong River, which stretches 2,600 miles from the southern tip of Vietnam to northwest China, is nowhere wider than it is right here. In the rainy season in spring, it stretches eight miles. I’ve been on the Amazon which stretches 30 miles wide in some places and seems more like an ocean than a river. But the Amazon doesn’t have 4,000 islands. They are sprinkled around this archipelago like potted plants. The crude longboat that carried me from the port town of Ban Nakasang maneuvered through islands no bigger than a schoolyard. But each one has a little pod of trees, like individual gardens. We passed the occasional fisherman. Water buffaloes bathed in the shallows. That was about it.

Of the 4,000 islands, two are the main destinations of travelers. Don Det is slowly becoming party central in southern Laos and has become a beacon for aficionados of baked marijuana goods. Nearby Don Khon is where one goes to get away from it all — or crash after too many baked marijuana goods. While sitting in the bottom of a cramped longboat, steaming through the mountains of northern Laos, I dreamed of a hammock, a book and a beer by the river. Brushing against my knee as I’m writing this is a hammock. On the table next to me is “The Coroner’s Lunch,” Colin Cotterill’s dark novel set in Laos. In the trash can in the corner is an empty Beerlao can, the first of many that will be consumed on this patio.

The view from my deck at Pan's Guesthouse.

The view from my deck at Pan’s Guesthouse.

Who knew heaven wasn’t in the sky but in a corner of Southeast Asia?

My bungalow is at Pam’s Guesthouse, run by a pretty middle-aged woman who doesn’t speak a word of English. It’s in a row of seven identical rooms, all facing the water, with stained bamboo surrounding the quaint patios. The room has two beds, both with tied-up mosquito nets and a large, clean bathroom and hot showers. A minibar chilled my beer and free bottles of water to Arctic lows in minutes.

Cost: $26 a night including breakfast. That’s expensive for Laos. That’s VERY expensive.

The energy I thought would be sapped from five straight days of hard traveling — trekking, motorboats, cramped buses — returned. I took a quick shower, raced to Pan’s kitchen, took a beer and came back to my patio. I drained the ice cold beer as the sun set behind the swaying palm tree to my left. I immediately fell asleep, looking like a bad drunk, passed out next to an empty beer bottle. I woke up to a pitch black night. I had to fumble to find my door.

Don Khon

Don Khon

But this is the land of lotus eaters. That’s a pretty white flower which covers the islands and puts your mind in a state where exertion and stress are as foreign as parkas and five-star hotels. Before exploring the Mekong by kayak, my itinerary will consist of breakfast and a hammock with a book on my chest. Life doesn’t move fast in Si Phan Don. Neither will I.


The Mekong River is the 12th longest in the world. It’s the 10th largest in water volume. It seems like I kayaked most of it in one day. At least my abs and upper legs feel like I’ve gone to northwest China and back. In reality, I only went four hours with lots of breaks. But I don’t remember being so thankful to see a muddy dock as I was when the sun set on southern Laos.

Longboats of the Mekong

Longboats of the Mekong

It was the needed completion of research for my story on adventure travel in Laos. If ziplining is the best way to see the karsts, kayaking is the best way to see the Mekong. Nowhere is the Mekong more powerful or beautiful than it is in this corner of Southeast Asia. I’m familiar with this river’s history. I once took a slow boat from Ho Chi Minh City to Cambodia. In that 180-mile stretch, the Mekong is the color of a soldier’s uniform after a month in “the shit.” It’s dirty brown, seemingly too thick for fish to swim let alone spawn. And hot? If I was a soldier during the Vietnam War, forget the Viet Cong. The heat would’ve killed me much sooner. I would’ve thrown myself on the horns of one of the water buffaloes who were forever soaking their massive bodies.

The water buffaloes I passed here looked positively happy. They swam in the water with their little snouts just above the surface. They shook water from their heads. They seemed to play.

The day started at my guesthouse where I met two young German women, Ramona, 28, and Tanya, 34, who signed up for the same kayak tour. We piled into a rickety longboat for a trip across to Don Det. We were led to a large guesthouse patio packed with travelers digging into the buffet breakfast.

Everyone here was on our trip.

Kayaking isn't as easy as it looks.

Kayaking isn’t as easy as it looks.

I was teamed with a little French girl whose name I couldn’t pronounce after three tries. Mirriam or Mirrim or Mirriamaman had just graduated from university and was traveling for three months. In a giant procession of 30 people, we all meandered down a muddy river bank where a squadron of kayaks awaited us. Calling these boats kayaks is like calling three-wheeled tuk-tuks limousines. The boats are big flat-bottom plastic boats with small insets for your butt and feet. There is virtually no back support. They are nothing like the one-man vessels where you’re tied in with the back firmly against the opening. To paddle, you must bend at the waist and rotate your arms over and over. Or, if you’re as inflexible as a week-old baguette like I am, you lay flat on your back and do it. I looked like a guy flying a kite from a hammock. However, sitting up for more than a few minutes had me nearly gasping for breath. About a dozen yoga lessons did nothing but convince me I’ll never be flexible — or a kayaker.

However, the scenery was unbelievable. The Mekong is Si Phan Don. You have to get in it to see it. We started and went out in the open water. We passed little green pods, the occasional boat with fishermen in conical hats, a bird in a tree sunning himself in the steamy heat. Miriam, or whomever, and I were a terrible team. She wasn’t terribly athletic; I’m not terribly flexible. Even with a shoddy, leather back brace on my rear seat, I couldn’t sit up for more than a few minutes. Laying back destroyed my leverage and we languished behind the small navy steaming upriver. My competitiveness and growing fatigue made me nearly forget the spectacular scenery around me. I vaguely remember the birds’ singing above, the lone fisherman’s motorboat or the water buffaloes chortling at our plodding kayak.

Li Phi Falls

Li Phi Falls

We finally docked and walked through a dusty village of stilted wooden houses where barefoot children ran up and gave us high fives. We descended a very precarious wooden staircase down a muddy river bank to a long rocky outcrop that served as a bathing area. To our right were Tat Somphamit. Known around here as Li Phi Falls, they were a countless collection of rapids that came cascading over a large collection of rock formations. The white water formed into a sea green stream that meandered past us as we sat resting in the sun. Some dangled their feet in the rapids. Other crazy Frenchmen risked broken ankles climbing to the top of the rocks. I found total bliss sitting in the middle of a rapid on the side, the pouring water gushing over my shoulders and down my legs, some of the water getting into my shorts. I had no intention of moving.

It was very cliquish. The French stayed with the French, the Germans with their Teutonic friends, the English-speaking Brits and Canadians stuck together. They all came from Don Det, the party island from where they compared the potency of marijuana cookies with marijuana pizza. (For future reference, fellow travelers, it’s pizza hands down.)

Selling egg rolls on the street in Ban Nakasang.

Selling egg rolls on the street in Ban Nakasang.

After a decent lunch of shish kabob and rice, we got back in the boats. This time one of the diminutive Lao guides got in mine. I took it as probation for falling so hopelessly behind the pack. He made some reference about upcoming rapids but even Lao know not to insult customers’ manhood. We paddled for about 30 minutes until we reached the widest part of the Mekong we’d seen. We were in a stretch of about three miles wide near the Cambodian border. We rested. I had no idea why but I didn’t complain. My upper legs cramped from pressing against the footholds for leverage. My back felt like I slept on a concrete floor for a week. I laid back, put my feet in the water and slowly splashed water on my face and chest. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon than splashing yourself with waters from the Mekong.

Then I heard, “SAW IT! THERE!” I looked up. I forgot. This trip included a dolphin watch. I had previously blown it off. Javy, the Hungarian I trekked with in northern Laos, did this trip and saw nothing. He said Lao officials claim the dolphins all went to Cambodia; Cambodian officials claim they all went to Laos. It was pretty much a given that the dolphins didn’t really exist.

“I think we have a better chance of seeing the Loch Ness Monster here,” I yelled. No one laughed.

Then I heard, “THERE! LOOK!” It was one of the guides. Kayakers were chirping. The dolphins were starting to surface. I kept my eyes peeled and, soon, I saw them. Little dolphins, about three or four feet long were visible. Their sleek, gray bodies and cute eyes were coming up in the water. I saw two. They are Irrawaddy dolphins who look like normal dolphins with elephantiasis. Their heads are bulbous. Their eyes look like buttons. Nevertheless, the dolphins’ seemingly ugly stepchild is considered by islanders as reincarnations of humans with human spirit. Local folklore has Irrawaddy dolphins saving villagers from the jaws of crocodiles. Unfortunately, their numbers have gone from thousands to 60. Apparently, only 10 still inhabit these waters. Lao and Cambodian fishermen are using dynamite and electricity to fish. Even if that isn’t killing the dolphins, they get caught in the nets. Fishermen are reluctant to cut up an expensive net for the sake of a damn dolphin. However, a joint effort by the Lao Community Fisheries and the Dolphin Protection Project is replacing the nets if not the fishermen’s mentality.

The dolphins’ struggle isn’t over. Laos is lousy with dams. I saw seven built on other rivers in northern Laos and until recently, the only dams on the Mekong were in China. Now Xayaburi Dam in northern Laos, schedule to open in 2019, may open the floodgates for more dams, an ironic analogy, I know. The dams have turned Laos into potentially “the battery of Southeast Asia.” Selling electricity for not only its growing population and tourism trade but also to neighbors is huge for Laos, which as recently as the late ‘90s was one of the 10 poorest countries in the world. Now the government is looking to dam more Mekong tributaries. Combine that with the increasing use of pesticides by Lao farmers and I figure I may be one of the last to see these beautiful creatures in the wild.

We paddled to shore again where we were met by an air-conditioned bus that took us along the mainland to one of the most remarkable natural sites in Laos. Khone Phapheng is the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia. It’s not that high — about 70 feet — but it’s huge. It is the confluence of six miles of rapids, which by the time they reach the falls, disgorges 390,000 cubic feet per second. A huge fenced-off viewing area hovers over the falls. Busloads of Thais and South Koreans pour in to take photos and buy ice cream from the frozen bins in the snack bar. In the 1860s, when France tried gaining a toehold in Southeast Asia, French explorers tried building a railroad into China. This waterfall defeated them. The lone trace the French still left is the shell of the rusted locomotive engine on display on Don Khon.

By 4 p.m., everyone was exhausted as we piled into the bus. We were hoping we’d get an AC ride back to our guesthouses. Then we realized we were on the mainland.

“No more paddling,” said one husky Brit, losing his machismo in exhaustion and rising heat.

Sunset on Don Det

Sunset on Don Det

We wound up on the same filthy dock where boats take tourists to the islands. But this time, we piled back into our kayaks and slowly plied our way to Don Det. I was whipped. I paddled for 60 seconds, maybe two minutes, and lay back as if shot by a sniper. Finally, when I saw the crude dock on Don Det, I started my kick. We landed and went up to the landing for a well-earned beer.
Don Det taxi

Don Det taxi

Our adventure wasn’t over. I was the only one in the group staying in Don Khon. Ramona and Tanya were the only ones staying on the other side of Don Det. Our trip included free transfers. No problem. We’d get rides back. Big problem. The ride was in a three-wheel motorized cart with a rickety wooden back end where the three of us rattled around like bags of rice. My back, already sore from sitting up in a kayak for four hours, was chaffed with every bump. It looked like a contraption that tilled rice when it wasn’t shepherding tourists around the island.

Ramona and Tanya became two of the nicer people I’d met. They stayed at the Mekong Guesthouse, a popular backpacker hangout with lots of communal bamboo hammocks. The previous tenant had left a bottle of Lions whisky, a caramel-colored concoction that looked like Johnny Walker except for the “PRODUCT OF LAOS” on the label.

We took a table with two German men: Jo, a straggly, skinny, road-weary guy from, like Tanya and Ramona, a small town in Bavaria, and Constan, a serious, bespectacled guy in his 30s who was from outside Cologne. Over the next four hours we drank shots of Lions mixed with the big bag of ice the tired, dumpy owner, Te, brought to our table. We mixed it with Coke, drank it straight and learned how to properly pronounce “chokdee,” the Lao word for cheers.

Living in teetotalling Rome for three years has dropped my tolerance for alcohol to the level of a 15-year-old boy. So it should come as no surprise that multiple shots of Lao whisky and bottles of beer had me announcing loud enough for the entire guesthouse to hear that Constan held a cigarette remarkably similar to Heinrich Himmler. I didn’t realize until I sobered up the next morning that I was the only one at a table full of Germans who was laughing.

However, we did laugh all night. I even turned my cell phone to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” by Iron Butterfly to show the young Germans what music in my generation sounded like. Kayakers and travelers all drinking heavily and swapping notes of music and love and worlds beyond most imaginations. In the land of lotus eaters, the Mekong not only flows through our guesthouses but our hearts.

Trekking in Laos: It’s where the Himalayas end and life for the Akha tribe begins

Trekking in Northern Laos isn't very high but it's steep, beautiful and fascinating.

Trekking in Northern Laos isn’t very high but it’s steep, beautiful and fascinating.

PHONGSALI, Laos — You don’t realize how long a country like Laos is until you go to its northern border. Laos is 1,280 miles long. I went from sweltering along a river in Central Laos to freezing my membranes off in the Lao mountains. I sat in my crude hotel room in this quiet, mountain town of 15,000 about 10 miles from the Chinese border. Phongsali, the capital of the province that juts into southern China, is the jump off point for some of the best trekking in Southeast Asia. It felt like it. I sat on the hard bed in my black turtleneck and khakis, very thankful I brought a stocking cap. I’d need it all the next day when I’d try to stay warm in an Akha family’s bamboo shelter.

This is where Laos’ well-trodden tourist path veers off course. It is an absolute, stomach-turning ordeal to get here. I arrived from a 15-hour bus ride that was right out of the popular book series, “I Should Have Stayed Home.” This would be the “Public Bus Edition.” The bus I picked up in Luang Prabang looked fine from the outside. It was your basic pullman. But as I stepped inside I knew these 15 hours would feel like 15 days. The steps up were filthy. Black grease and dirt caked each step. Half the brown leather seats were broken. It was fortunately only half filled and I slid into one of the broken seats. I could use a seat that reclined almost horizontally. Forget the fact that a crane couldn’t return the seat to its upright position. I needed sleep.

It was 5 p.m.

From Luang Prabang to Phangsali is only about 250 miles. Yes, it took 15 hours. The road zigzagged as if going up one giant mountain. The bus rarely went more than 40 mph and stopped at every hamlet with a noodle shop. It slowly filled to the brim. I offered a mint to the young girl next to me. She took it without a word or smile. I brushed it off as an insolent youth rather than an indirect slap at an American whose military probably bombed her village or killed her grandfather.

Akha mother and children

Akha mother and children

Then I saw a young man hand her something else. It was a baby, maybe two or three months old wearing a red stocking cap. He must’ve been her young husband. She started breastfeeding him right next to me. I didn’t take offense to it. What I took offense to was when she adjusted her breasts, the kid kept landing in my lap, his eyes closed, waiting for the next tit.

Meanwhile, after only about five zags, a woman one row behind me and across the aisle started to get carsick. Violently. The driver’s assistant couldn’t get the little blue plastic vomit bags to her in time. One expulsion splattered on the floor, leaving a yellow and white mushy mosaic that started to wreak despite the drop in temperature. I found myself breathing through my mouth. Making matters worse, borrowing a page from FAA regulations requiring “all screaming children to sit within one plane row of John Henderson,” a kid behind the vomitorium started to cry like Pavarotti after he gets his hand slammed by a car door.

And it was only 8 p.m.

A woman's headdress indicates her marital status.

A woman’s headdress indicates her marital status.

I tried to read but there wasn’t a single light when the bus started moving. We were a dark, black bullet heading into the mountains of northern Laos. I looked outside and saw brief snapshots of villages I would never hope to find on a map. What I made out were very crude houses on stilts to protect from flooding. Single bulbs shined from cracks in wooden windows. Rusted bikes and building materials stood outside crude fences or cracked courtyards. No restaurants. No parks. In the morning, chickens livened up the scenery as did tired women hauling water from a single hose into the house. Laos has 49 ethnic groups and I could see some wearing native garb, black skirts or pants with colorful hand-sewn designs. Their faces were wrinkled from age and too many years in the cold.

We were finally disgorged in Phongsali at 9:15 a.m. I joined Pablo, a French-Bolivian I met at the Luang Prabang bus station, to find organized treks through Amazing Tours, one of the top adventure companies in all of Laos. The last time I went trekking in this part of the world, in 1978 not far away in Northern Thailand, I got typhoid and lost 20 pounds in eight days. All I want this time is a good photo for my wall.

It won’t be hard. Here we were at the top of Laos, the bookend of the Himalayas. Not many people come to this part of the world. But Phongsali is definitely worth the trip. It is the provincial capital but a capital in name only. It has one main drag, a dusty two-lane road lined with cheap retail stores, open-air restaurants and government offices. Phongsali borders China’s Yunnan Province and Yunnan architecture is prevalent. The roofs curve upward at the end, a bit like a Chinese temple.

This is also the easternmost point of the Himalayan foothills. This is the end of the Himalayas and you can tell in Phongsali. The town is built on a hill. To get to a bowl of very good noodle soup, Pablo and I had to walk down the steep hill to reach this open-air terrace where a woman stirred a gigantic bowl of steaming noodles with a big pile of freshly cut pork next to it. From the main drag, I could peek through the single and two-story buildings to the valley below. It’s constantly covered in mist, particularly in the heart of Laos’ winter. A pond sits mysteriously at the bottom of the hill. So do the light standards of what looks like a large football stadium over the highway entering town.

Akha children rarely associate with other hill tribes.

Akha children rarely associate with other hill tribes.

I could also tell it’s the Himalayas because it was COLD! My cell phone said it was 56 degrees. Tell that to my frosty nose. As soon as I dropped my bag in my small but tidy room, I put on the nice turtleneck I bought myself in Rome. I dug the stocking cap out from the bottom of my backpack, the same stocking cap I sat in my Rome apartment wondering for 15 minutes if I should take it.

The room at the Viphaphone Hotel was also freezing. The windows are tied together by a little red string, leaving a one-inch crack for the cold air to come in, making indoors and outdoors nearly indistinguishable. But the Western staff is here teaching locals hotel management skills. Between their guidance (the American co-manager rode me around town on her motorbike trying to find a working ATM) and the 80,000 kip (about $10) price, I wouldn’t stay anywhere else.

And the views … oh, I could’ve been in Switzerland with worse fondue. I’d read about the spectacular “endless mountains” of northern Laos. It’s true. They stretch forever, a long, green, forested horizon shadowed in mist. They’re not large craggy, snow-capped peaks you see in mountaineering books. We’re really only about 6,000 feet in elevation. But it was winter here and we were high above the clouds. The mist forms a beautiful blanket below the trees that stretch high around us.

The trekking group at the start, from left, Yohann and Orianne from Bordeaux, France; me; Jani from Budapest and Pablo, a French-Bolivian living in Santiago, Chile.

The trekking group at the start, from left, Yohann and Orianne from Bordeaux, France; me; Jani from Budapest and Pablo, a French-Bolivian living in Santiago, Chile.

The day started slow but went long into the first night. I joined the same group with Pablo, Jani from Budapest and Yohann and Orianne, a couple from Bordeaux, France. It was a good group: fit, open-minded, well-traveled, funny. Pablo, a professor in Santiago, Chile, was doing research on the effects communist governments have on hill tribes and asked more questions than I did.

It took us forever to get moving. We went to the local bus station where a beat-up bus on its last muffler drove for 45 minutes on a gravel road past hamlets, each one poorer than the next. Houses looked like old Lego structures, just a mishmash of wood planks, propped up by wood poles with a rock base. Boulders were everywhere. Mud paths separated the homes. A Cyclone fence protected the lower end of one house. Roofs consisted of corrugated metal.They looked as if they were built in about 90 minutes. An old woman in a high red knit cap squatted in the mud. Men in ballcaps laughed on the bus.

We stopped at a pretty lake for some decent noodle soup. The lake was formed by one of the six dams the Chinese have built. Our guide from Amazing Tours, Bounhak, or “Boss,” told us the Chinese build the dams but siphon all the electricity to China. After 20 years, they will give the power to Laos at no charge.

“What happens if the dams don’t last 20 years?” Pablo asked.

“We don’t like them much,” Boss said. “We import everything from China, but they’re no good. We make the material here, ship it to China to make products to sell to Laos.”

We all piled into a long motorboat for a 30-minute ride along Lake Nam Ngai. Here, finally, we were away from civilization. We didn’t see a single boat, not one fisherman, the entire trip. The only signs of man were some clear cutting in a rubber plantation on a steep hill. A banana plantation wasn’t far away. It was a lovely trip. The weather was perfect, maybe 70 degrees and the forested hills disappeared in the mist above us.

We passed a small cluster of bright white blowers in full bloom. Poppies. This is where a good opium production started but the hill tribes don’t use opium much anymore. Apparently, lao-lao, Laos’ infamous rice whisky, will do.

The boat landing at the start of the trek.

The boat landing at the start of the trek.

The boat stopped at a small, muddy landing where three hard-looking Lao greeted us by pulling the boat up the muddy shore. We donned our packs, tugged at our zippers and started trekking. Up. And up. And up. It was a 1 ½-hour slog straight up at about a 45-degree angle. The hike is described as moderate high to hard. It wasn’t so steep or difficult. We were hiking along a gravel service road. But it was relentless. It never leveled. Occasionally, a motorcyclist would speed down the hill with his back loaded with firewood that stretched nearly the entire width of the road. I had stripped to a sweat-free sport shirt and shorts and the cool breeze felt like an electric fan as I stared down at the incredible valley. The forest-covered mountains led to a valley that stretched all the way to the horizon. The air felt as fresh as a perfume store in Monaco.

Boss pointed to the top of the ridge, seemingly 10 kilometers away and 2,000 feet up. We could barely make out a couple of huts.

“That’s our first village,” he said. “Lunch.”



The village of Chakhampa is about a couple dozen structures scattered around a dirt hill. We were greeted by a whole group of piglets, cuddling and sleeping in the sun. Not far away, another group savaged the teats of their overstuffed mother who was being pushed all over the yard by her hungry offspring.

Chakhampa is just one of 600 villages in Phongsali Province, where 90 percent of the population of 177,000 is rural. Hill tribes primarily live on agriculture, selling rice, corn, cardamon, tea, sugarcane and sometimes rubber trees. There are nearly 6,000 acres of rice paddies in Phongsali Province.

The Akha are one of the 45 ethnic groups in Laos and one of the seven main ones. They are as isolated as any in the world. We were greeted by Akha women who always dress as if National Geographic photographers are going to show up. They wore black leggings with black skirts and heavily embroidered jackets. Their headdresses symbolize their marital status and each is individually designed, sometimes with items such as silver coins, monkey fur or dyed chicken feathers.

Actually, this is how they dress every day. It’s also how they make their lao-lao money, apparently, The women told Pablo they wanted 5,000 kip for a photo.

Nouje, the village chief of Chakhampa, smoking a bamboo pipe. Yes, it's tobacco.

Nouje, the village chief of Chakhampa, smoking a bamboo pipe. Yes, it’s tobacco.

The village chief, Nouje (pronounced No-ZEE), is 55 years old. He had never been outside the Phongsali Province. That’s almost as bad as never being out of Nebraska. He had a long face under a ballcap at a jaunty angle. He had the slightly round eyes of a Mongol. He looked tired.

Through Boss, Nouje told us a village chief’s tour in office lasts three years and he can hold the title three times for a total of nine years. Hey, there just aren’t enough men to go around in a village of 300 people. Like all people in Laos, he does have complaints with the government. He’s fighting to get water, electricity and a proper school. They use solar power for heat and must bring water up from a well and boil it. During the rainy season in summer, the village turns to mud. People get sick.

He turned to Boss and said, “You’re crazy for coming up here every day.”

And he does. Boss takes trekkers every day of the week. In fact, his girlfriend gave him a raft of heat the day before for working on Valentine’s Day. Boss is 34 and speaks very good English. He went to university for a couple of years and then went to work with hill tribes. He’s only been a guide for seven months but is a Wikipedia of information.

He’s also in damn good shape. He’s about 5-foot-3 but well proportioned with a handsome, round face that makes him look early 20s. He’s a fantastic guide. We’re lucky to have him. So is Laos.



Lunch was eight bowls gathered on a table: chicken, pork, spicy pork, coagulated eggs, two different green vegetables, fish with veggies and chili sauce. I’ve been violently ill three times from eating eggs in Asia and wouldn’t touch the eggs if I was 10 minutes from death. The chicken and pork, however, were fantastic. Grilled on an open flame, they were served in big wide chunks that you could eat with your hands. They could’ve passed as BBQ in any backyard in America.

We continued trekking upward another 2 ½ hours before we descended into another settlement. Peryenxang village also had $50 houses with $1 million views. It consisted of about 8-10 crude wood structures, propped up with boards and covered by bamboo thatched roofs. I wrote my journal in a common area, illuminated by two small solar-powered light bulbs hanging from a long pole.

Another huge feast was prepared: eggs, pickled vegetables, vegetable soup, fish filled with more bones than flesh and pork almost entirely fat. For after-dinner drinks, the village chief brought out a bottle of lao-lao and, like a good host, ate and drank with us. If every night was like this with visitors, I’m surprised the Akha don’t have a top-notch rehab center. Lao-lao can sometimes be lethal if made incorrectly and it’s made in many isolated areas of Laos. The lao-lao in Peryenxang, however, was top notch. It was smooth as silk and chilled from the mountain air.

A lao-lao toast in Peryenxang

A lao-lao toast in Peryenxang

In between shots, we had an increasingly incoherent conversation with the chief about the life of the Akha. They number 400,000 in Southeast Asia, a potentially solid political force if they ever get electricity. About 80,000 live in Northern Thailand, many of whom bolted Laos during the Civil War in the mid-20th century. The Akha are not Buddhists. They are animists who believe that the being who created earth and life gave Akha the “Akha Zang” (Akha Way), their guidelines for life. They believe that spirits and people were born of the same mother and lived together until a quarrel led to their separation. That led to the spirits going into the forest and people remaining in the villages. Since then, Akha believe that the spirits have caused illness and other unwelcome disruptions of human life.


Spirits, however, did not disrupt my morning. At precisely 3:45 a.m., every rooster started cock-a-doodle-doing. Not one. Not two. All of them. It’s like they all organized the night before and said, let’s screw with the trekkers who stayed up until 10 p.m. drinking lao-lao. Then came the women working in the kitchen. Boiling water. Pounding cotton. Bashing pans. Then the babies woke up, crying. All of them. Between the roosters, women and babies, it was like Grand Central Station with better views.



For breakfast we had something called Khaojepapa, a coagulated sticky rice mix with sweet sauce. It tastes like sweetened glue. After three small bites, I joined the group as we visited a one-room schoolhouse then made our way back to the boat, retracing our steps in brilliant sunshine. We passed back through Chakhampa. We saw a lot of men sitting on their haunches, like baseball catchers, without a lot to do but chat. They seemed oblivious to the gorgeous view right off an Oriental tapestry around them. I was mesmerized. For two days of trekking, putting up with a vomit-stained local bus for 15 hours was worth it.
School at Peryenxang

School at Peryenxang

This isn’t Colorado. This isn’t the Alps. This is more. The paths of Northern Laos are definitely worth beating.

An interview with a monk: My time becomes spiritual in Laos’ Buddhism capital

Me and Bounnakh, 19, outside his monastery in Luang Prabang.

Me and Bounnakh, 19, outside his monastery in Luang Prabang.

LUANG PRABANG, Laos — I’m writing this on the banks of the Mekong River, in a cafe that wouldn’t look out of place on the banks of the Seine. Maybe it’s the quality of the chocolate croissant and coffee I just had but I feel as tranquil as I did lounging around the streets of Paris on my many visits.

Or maybe, just maybe, it was the conversation I had the night before with a Lao monk. He’s 19 years old and has the maturity and tranquility of a man twice his age. As so many encounters on the road occur, this happened by chance. But in Luang Prabang, the chances of meeting a Buddhist monk are pretty good.

This is the center of Lao Buddhism and has been for more than 500 years. This town, at the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers, has so many temples no one has ever made an accurate count. It was once the center of the Lan Xang empire, a Khmer-supported society created in the 14th century. In 1512, Lan Xang’s king accepted Pha Bang, a revered Buddhist image from the Khmer monarchy. Luang Prabang means “Royal Pha Bang.” When Lan Xang broke up in the 17th century, Luang Prabang remained an independent empire separate from Vientiane, Laos’ current capital.

Luang Prabang remained a mechanical and spiritual center, and monks from all over Laos poured in. They’re still here. You notice it as soon as you walk outside. After checking into my 10-euro guesthouse across the street from the Mekong, I walked down the crude stone staircase to the banks of the river. The sun was setting. A sunbeam stretched clear across the river, perfectly illuminating narrow longboats as they came to shore. The mist-shrouded hills in the background added another portrait to the Oriental tapestry through which I’m traveling. If I had a white tablecloth, a bottle of wine and Marina, it would’ve been one of the most romantic scenes of my life. Hell, I would’ve settled for a bottle of Beerlao and a mutant monk.

The Mekong River at sunset in Luang Prabang.

The Mekong River at sunset in Luang Prabang.

I walked along the Mekong until it joined the Kahn, then I curled up the street where I started hearing the steady beat of a drum, like the backdrop of a war march. The sun had set and the dull outlines of gold and orange temples started to appear. I walked past Wat Sibounheuang, a huge temple in garish purple, orange and pink. The peacefulness in the golden light made me slow down and ponder one of the most tranquil moments of my trip.

I could hear rhythmic chanting inside, beautiful chanting by young voices. I peered through the narrow windows and could see the temple filled with saffron-robed monks. I stood and listened for a bit then went around to the entrance. About 30 of them, mostly teen-agers, kneeled in front of a huge golden Buddha.

The chanting ended and the monks filed out silently. One came out alone. He was young, thin with a round, kind face.

“Nice singing,” said one of the two other men observing.

“It wasn’t singing,” the young monk said in near perfect English, almost scolding. “It’s chanting. Singing is something else.”

He said his name is Bounnakh. He’s 19 and been at this monastery for five years.

“You speak good English,” I said. “Where did you learn?”

“I taught myself,” he said, smiling proudly while sitting on a crude sitting board stuck between two trees in the courtyard. “TV news. Some books.”

I asked him how he became a monk.

“I come from a village away from here,” he said pointing over some buildings across the street. “My primary school only had two grades. I wanted to continue studying. My parents didn’t have much money. They said, ‘You don’t have to go to secondary school. You can help on the farm.’
I didn’t want to help on the farm.”

He said one day a monk came to his village. Bounnakh told him he wanted to study.

“He said, ‘Yes. Come to the monastery,’” he said.

He was 12 years old and after a two-year study program, he came to the monastery and nas been here ever since. His English was remarkable. He used near perfect grammar and a vocabulary more enriched than any Lao I’ve met my first week. I asked him why he liked being a monk.

“I like to meditate,” he said. “When I first came here. I didn’t know anything.”

I told him about my exasperating experiment with meditation in India two years ago. I went in hoping to stop thinking of ways to kill various people from my past. I left meditation after realizing that during every meditation I wound up going through my to do list.

He smiled.

“It’s hard at first,” he said. “You must learn to breathe.”

“I did.”

“You must breathe deeply and hold it.”

“I did. I even concentrated on the four points of concentration, the chakras, the forehead, heart, belly and waistline.”

“When you first start, only concentrate on one point,” he said. “That’s easier.”

I asked him if he ever experiences stress. He thought for a minute. He crunched his saffron robe in his fist.


Then again, if your life is meditation and chanting, what stress can you have? However, I delved deeper. What is the dream of a young monk? I asked. He could do this life until the day he died. I asked him what he wanted to do.

“I want to go to university,” he said. “I want to study computers. Is that good?”

“Yes,” I said. “Very good. It’s the job of the future. Don’t work for a newspaper.”

He didn’t smile. Laos has two newspapers, the state-run communist rag and the Vientiane Times, its English counterpart. Soon, the U.S. may not have many more.

I asked him if he’ll continue being a monk at university. He pointed at his robe and smiled.

“No,” he said. “I want to leave. But I will continue to meditate.”

I shook his soft hand, bid him good luck and continued past another string of temples. This is how the world comes together, an American atheist who continually blasts his new government while basking in the luxury of Rome, meeting a humble young Lao monk with dreams of shedding his robe for the future world of computers. Not surprisingly, I had more in common with him than many fellow Americans: lack of material possessions, a love for other people who aren’t like me, a sense of bliss, a quest for peace.

Tak Bat, giving of alms, to Buddhist monks.

Tak Bat, giving of alms, to Buddhist monks.

The next morning, I woke at dawn to join the locals in their daily honoring of Buddhism and the men who represent it. It is called Tak Bat. It is the monks’ call to alms. Every day at dawn, the monks walk the streets of Luang Prabang in silent single file. Locals gather on the street, on their knees, and hand out little gifts: rice, sweets, chocolate. It is the Buddhists’ display of poverty and humility and the locals’ display of spirituality.

I walked up the quiet side street when a middle-aged woman grabbed my arm and rushed me up the way. What, are we fleeing a fire? She pushed a small bucket filled with little sweets and a big bowl of rice into my hand. She motioned me to a street corner where I knelt next to two women with their hands clasped in prayer.

The monks filed past us, each stopping for a moment. I put little balls of rice and wrapped chocolates into their big round bowls. Aged about 12 to 60, they all walked past, unsmiling, unspeaking. Breaking the perfect silence and my perfect mood, the woman who shepherded me here began shrieking, in obviously practiced English, “15,000 KIP! 15,000 KIP!” She wanted the equivalent of almost $2 for the gifts I handed out. Feeling like a rube and my spirituality broken by this blatant act of capitalism, not to mention fraud, I gave her 8,000 — and her bucket — and walked off.

I probably didn’t score many points on the spirituality meter. Bounnakh would not have approved. Yet he gave me a sense of spirituality I couldn’t get by giving. Maybe I’ll give meditation another try.

Vang Vieng: Laos’ one-time party center no longer “Death in Paradise,” thanks to crackdown

Me at my hotel on the banks of the Nam Song with Laos' towering karsts in the background.

Me at my hotel on the banks of the Nam Song with Laos’ towering karsts in the background.

VANG VIENG, Laos — I’m writing this at my hotel dining room table looking down at boatmen readying their long, narrow boats to ferry travelers up and down the tranquil Nam Song. Across the peaceful river, seemingly as close as a short par 3, are the towering karsts, huge mountains with sheer sides and jagged peaks that have adorned Oriental tapestries since the Ming Dynasty. It’s a scene that has been featured in museums from Jakarta to Tokyo, on collectors’ walls from San Diego to Moscow. Watching it in the cool early morning mist of a Lao winter day last month, I felt as if I was drifting away on a soft current, butterflies shepherding my bow.

Yet this river, as recently as six years ago, was one of the most deadly sites in Southeast Asia.

In 2011, Vang Vieng’s small hospital recorded 27 deaths in the river. This does not include unreported deaths or people dying after getting emergency transported to Vientiane, the capital. Keep in mind, the Nam Song is not the Colorado. It has no rapids. The Nam Song (“song” means “river” in Lao) is as peaceful as a Swiss summer. The only white water ever found on the river was the beer foam that splayed a one-kilometer swath from all the bars that lined the banks.

A file photo of partying while tubing in Vang Vieng. Those are buckets of iced whisky and mixers they're holding.

A file photo of partying while tubing in Vang Vieng. Those are buckets of iced whisky and mixers they’re holding.

It all started with the inner tube, a symbol of leisure akin to a hammock or lanais chair. In the 1990s, adventurous backpackers seeing a path less beaten started trickling into Laos, a tourism backwater ever since the communists ended a 650-year-old monarchy in 1975. In 1998, a 60ish Vang Vieng native named Thanongsi Sorangkoun bought some inner tubes for the travelers who stayed in his guesthouse to volunteer on his 30 acres of mulberry trees and in his vegetable garden.

Word got out.

Soon, backpackers with a thirst of adventure — and, especially, booze — poured into Vang Vieng to float down the Nam Song. The local Lao, still struggling after 20 years of communist rule, cashed in. They tapped into the Westerners with loose wallets and damaged kidneys and opened bars along the river. More than a dozen lined a stretch no more than a kilometer long. Combine cheap beer (a bottle of Beerlao, Laos’ national beer and, well, ONLY beer is about 8,000 kip or about $1) with a river, regardless of its current, and you’ve got problems. Then mix in Lao-Lao, Laos’ brutally strong but surprisingly smooth whisky made even smoother when sold in buckets of ice which tourists mix with Coke and Red Bull.

Then add rope swings along unsurveyed river banks and you’ve got deaths. In early 2012, an Australian man cracked his skull on a rock and died after leaping from a rope in water too shallow to even float, let alone jump. Soon, a hastily written sign was posted near the swing reading, “Do Not Jump or You Will Die.” People tried swimming from bar to bar without an inner tube and drowned.

“I thought I would it would be a cheap and ecological way to see the river,” Sorangkoun told The Guardian newspaper of London. “I accidentally started the whole thing.”

In 2012, the Lao government tired of the Australian and British embassies asking pointed questions about why their citizens were dying in this small town in central Laos. It didn’t help when a TV crew from the Australian news program “60 Minutes” arrived for a documentary eventually entitled, “Death in Paradise.”

Soon, Vientiane police and even Laos’ president stormed in and did what communist governments are really good at. They suppressed free enterprise. They closed down all the unlicensed bars as fast as they could open a beer bottle.

Last month, five years after the crackdown, I walked down Vang Vieng’s dusty, narrow main drag. The town of about 30,000 had a sleepy quality to it although it’s clear tourism still fuels the locals. The streets were lined with adventure companies hawking trips with giant photos of screaming Japanese hanging onto a zipline or a mob of big white guys pulling their inner tubes through a cave.

Where there wasn’t an adventure company stood a hostel or a guesthouse or a restaurant advertising cheeseburgers and Western breakfasts. One place even specialized in fried chicken. I passed one hostel where backpackers filled an open-air lobby showing an old episode of “Cheers.”

On another main road near the abandoned airfield, I met up with Neil Farmiloe, a New Zealander who runs Pan’s Place, a hip, quiet guesthouse with an open-air courtyard in the back and pretty good pizza. He tired of New Zealand’s weather and came to Vang Vieng 11 years ago, at about the time when inner tubing began to explode. At one point, backpackers outnumbered locals here, 15-1.

Over tall bottles of Beerlao, I sat with Farmiloe in his open-air lobby and heard about the bad old days.

“If you were 20 years old, it was like paradise,” Farmiloe said. “It just got over the top with the number of people dying. The local Lao weren’t very impressed, either: people drunk wandering through town in their bikinis and shorts being sick all over the place. Now we still have people going tubing but there are no swings and stuff. There’s no place dangerous.”

The rural Lao are animists. They believe in spirits and firmly feel evil spirits live in the Nam Song after that era of death. You rarely see a Lao older than a boy on the river except for fishermen.

The Luang Prabang Bakery is one of the many French-influenced bakeries in Vang Vieng.

The Luang Prabang Bakery is one of the many French-influenced bakeries in Vang Vieng.

The crackdown hurt the economy only for a short time. Gone were the cheap backpackers. Coming were the middle-aged, better-heeled tourists who want to stare at the karsts while dining on Laos’ excellent French-influenced cuisine. Meanwhile, Vang Vieng kept its adventure chops by emphasizing ziplining, kayaking, caving and rock climbing.

The Nam Song is still around.

“I (recently) kayaked down,” Farmiloe said. “It was amazing. It was so nice and quiet. You could suddenly hear the river. Before that all you’d hear is loud music. It’s a lovely place now.”

I can vouch for that. I’ve kayaked rivers in Belize and oceans in New Zealand and California and nothing matched the tranquility of paddling down a river in rural Laos. I stepped into one of the larger adventure companies where some bored Lao perked up behind desks when I asked about a couple days of adventure. Caving. Kayaking. Ziplining.

Kayaking has replaced tubing as the most popular activity on the Nam Song.

Kayaking has replaced tubing as the most popular activity on the Nam Song.

I joined four Norwegians and three South Koreans for a somewhat riotous trip through a cave on inner tubes. We pulled ourselves through using an elaborate network of ropes that stretched 100 meters into a cave then turned around and returned. About three other groups were inside, all with headlamps which lit up the inside of the cave like Olympic Stadium. The screams of Koreans getting splashed by their guides made the cave feel like a cheap Asian horror movie.

The kayaks were a nice elixir. Kayaking the Nam Song is like a leisurely stroll through a park. It’s low water season, meaning the Nam Song moves at the pace of a swan. The kayaks are long, wide, yellow plastic boats with two seats and foot rests. Back support is limited and I found myself lying prone as if watching TV on a couch. I had no problem paddling.

Sunset in Vang Vieng.

Sunset in Vang Vieng.

The scenery is of an Oriental tapestry. On a brilliantly blue day in the low 80s, the krasts towered over us to our right, On the other side was quiet village life. A fisherman in a conical hat and pole over his shoulder walked along a path under a palm tree. Fishermen in T-shirts holding nets dove in the shallow river. We passed under little bridges. Butterflies fluttered over our paddles. Except for the growing tension in my biceps, it was the most peaceful time of my four weeks in Asia.

We also saw the remains of this river’s deadly past. Along the river are numerous crude wooden platforms built in trees. This is where many rope swings hung. This is also where many travelers met their deaths, swinging out of trees, tanked to the gills, and hitting their heads on hidden rocks or just failing to respect the current. We also passed areas where an entire series of tables and chairs were left vacant, the remnants of a party long gone quiet. These were some of the unlicensed rave bars the government closed in 2012.

Only a couple bars remain. They looked lonely. I saw three bearded men in their 20s pour themselves onto their inner tubes, hooting and hollering although there was hardly anyone else around to hear it. We stopped at another. Estelle’s “American Boy” played on the loudspeaker as we climbed the steps. I had Beerlao for 15,000 kip ($1.80). The Koreans crashed in hammocks, another couple appeared to sleep on a table. I stood over the river and photographed kayakers — sober kayakers — paddling along with smiles. My God, I thought, did I look this peaceful? Not one inner tuber floated by.

We traveled about five kilometers over about two hours, a nice little workout in brilliant weather. We docked right below my hotel where I sat on my sun-splashed deck and had a Beerlao.


Laos: My 100th country is slowly emerging from its poverty-stricken communist cocoon

Laos remains a center for Buddhist study despite communism's past efforts to curb religion.

Laos remains a center for Buddhist study despite communism’s past efforts to curb religion.

VIENTIANE, Laos — What do you call someone who’s been to 100 countries? Am I now a centenarian? A countriarian? It makes me sound so old. I guess I am. It’s 100 countries in 60 years. I need to include the caveat “(and territories).” Purists wouldn’t include Puerto Rico and Guam. Some wouldn’t include Scotland and Wales. The World Almanac recognizes Scotland and Wales. That’s good enough for me. Puerto Rico and Guam have their own governments and teams in the Olympics. That’s good enough for me, too.

Whatever, I’ve come a long way from graduating from college owning more cars in my life (one) than passports. From my first step across the British Columbia border after the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962 to landing in Laos on Feb. 4, 2017, I have hit about every corner of the globe. Considering I didn’t go to another foreign country from 1962-78, that is some serious globetrotting. I climbed Kilimanjaro and one of the Great Pyramids. I scuba dived with sharks in French Polynesia. I rafted with crocodiles in Costa Rica. I ate Chateaubriand in Chateaubriand and drank Chianti in Chianti.

Patuxai is Vientiane’s Arc de Triomphe replica built in 1969 with cement the U.S. donated earmarked for a new airport.

Based on the somewhat stodgy school of thought that you haven’t traveled unless you’ve suffered, well, I guess I’ve traveled. I caught typhoid in Thailand, got stuck in an underwater cave in Australia, got in a fistfight in Haiti, got chased out of a hotel room in Indonesia by giant wharf rats, had a machete pulled on me in Morocco, I thought I got kidnapped in Hungary and once stayed in a hotel in Egypt so filthy the shower and toilet shared the same drain. And once I even — and I shudder to even write this next sentence — woke up in Detroit!

In the realm of world travelers, 100 countries isn’t that many. The United Nations lists 195 member states. However, China blocks Taiwan from being a member. I do not. I have not been everywhere. I’ve missed all of southern and West Africa, the Persian Gulf, Central Asia and Antarctica. The oceans are dotted with lots of island nations I’ll never visit. I see no sense visiting an island with no beach unless you want to go to Kiribati and watch the locals drown stray kittens. (They really do. They say cats are bad luck.) I’m not into numbers. I only know it’s 100 because about 10 years ago I tired of people asking me. I finally counted. I didn’t even go to a new country in 2016. I revisited Hungary, Czech Republic and Belgium instead.

This year, No. 100 is attracting the same response from everyone.

“Why Laos?”

I always like that response. It means people know nothing about it. It’s the capital of one of the few communist countries left in the world. It has emerged from a past so provincial its economy as recently as the early ’90s was dependent almost totally on foreign aid.The government, following China’s lead, opened its arms to tourism and limited free enterprise in the 1990s under a reform called the New Economic Mechanism. The number of tourists jumped from 14,400 in 1990 to 4.68 million in 2015. According to Laos government records, revenue from tourism went from $2.25 million in 1991 to $406 million in 2011.

Yes, even communists need to eat.

Street stalls along the Mekong are where the locals in Vientiane eat.

Street stalls along the Mekong are where the locals in Vientiane eat.

From what I saw over four days, Vientiane, a city of 255,000, still has one rubber sandal stuck in its colonial past — which makes it one of the most charming capitals I’ve ever visited. It stretches languidly along the Mekong River separating Laos from Thailand. The narrow, quiet streets are void of many streetlights, let alone traffic jams. Street stalls share sidewalk space with family run noodle shops. The riverside is lined with locals selling fresh grilled fish and meats on a stick. You can eat fresh barbecued chicken for $1 then go upstairs to one of the many bars across the street and drink an ice-cold Beerlao while looking out over the Mekong.

From the moment my AsiaAir flight landed from Bangkok, I knew I’d like Vientiane. Its airport isn’t much bigger than some islands’ airfields in the Caribbean. Its immigration center is the size of a cafe. Standing in the long line waiting for my visa, I met a Canadian woman named Phillipa doing what I’d hear a lot of in Laos: She’s working in China and vacationing in Laos during the Chinese New Year which started Jan. 28. She’s been working in Shanghai for three years and still has that youthful exuberance of someone still excited about eating new foods and learning new languages. We met an Aussie who’s here for a six-month water maintenance project and a dour German woman who never paid me back for the cab we shared to our hotels. For nearly 20 years, Laos has become a haven for backpackers. Cheap beer. Sun. Good food. Laos has done something right.

The pool at my Vientiane Garden Hotel.

The pool at my Vientiane Garden Hotel.

We’re all on Sihome Road where the communist government put many backpacker hostels and hotels. It’s far from a gulag. My Vientiane Garden Hotel is set behind the girls’ Garden Hostel and an absolute palace for a budget traveler. I’m writing this near a pretty, little pool under the shade of huge trees and ferns. The hotel’s white concrete walls are set off by nice dark wood staircases and doors. A rusted barbell and two yellow buckets of empty Beerlao bottles in front of me are the only indication that this is still a developing country.

Actually, this is communism. During the Vietnam War, Laos had a neutral coalition government, whose Royal Lao Army the U.S. supplied with arms and money, while North Vietnam plied the communist Pathet Lao rebels. When the North won, Laos became the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, ending 650 years of monarchy. (Why do communist countries like German Democratic Republic and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea call themselves democratic when there’s not a hint of democracy?).

When the communists took over in 1975, they curtailed the private sector, forced the collectivization of agriculture and curbed religion. About 10 percent of the country fled. Those who stayed circled the drain of what became an Asian backwater. In 1991 the World Bank listed Laos among the 10 poorest countries in the world. Then it hit rock bottom during the global economic crisis of the late ‘90s. What does it tell you about a country’s economy when it must get bailed out by Vietnam?

A photo from the Lao National Museum of street protests in Vientiane during the '70s.

A photo from the Lao National Museum of street protests in Vientiane during the ’70s.

Laos also remained extraordinarily dangerous, not by gangs but bombs. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. conducted a “secret war” trying to keep Laos from becoming a communist domino. According to Legacies of War, a website dedicated to the memory of the Vietnam War, the U.S. dropped 2 million tons of bombs on Laos over 580,000 missions from 1964-73, many landing in the Plain of Jars in Northern Laos. Today, many of those bombs still rest in the countryside, hidden by overgrowth. Laos does nothing to hide the fact, even on maps. Anyone want to vacation in Bomb Village? Yes, that’s the name of a town near the Plain of Jars. Every year more than 60 Lao die from leftover bombs.

However, opening up the economic purse strings gave Laos a major financial injection. Here in the capital, they refurbished the waterfront and built new hotels and roads, mostly financed by China. Today Laos has one of the fastest growing economies in East Asia. From 2006-16, according to the World Bank, its poverty level dropped from 33.5 percent to 23.2 percent. More than half a million people were lifted out of poverty. Among the world’s poorest countries today, it’s not even in the top 25.

Vientiane now has the same relaxed vibe as during its days as a French colony from 1893 to 1953. I first noticed France’s lingering influence when I walked to dinner. On a dusty sidewalk, I walked past a tattered flag of the old USSR waving over a conference hall. In front of the hall stood a big clear glass case filled with gorgeous French pastries, some sprinkled with chocolate. And bread. Laos is crawling with bread, something I never had in Bangkok.

So the French left recipes, the Americans left bombs. Viva la France!

This goes back to answering the question, “Why Laos?” A big reason is food. While debating between Myanmar and Laos, Myanmar (formerly Burma) seemed like 90 percent pagodas and 10 percent human rights violations. I read virtually nothing about food. It makes sense. Who ever says, “Let’s go out for Burmese”? Laotian cuisine is heavily French influenced and I could tell by my first meal.

I took a local’s advice and went to Lao Kitchen. Walking past I saw it was clean and open air — and filled with tourists. The only Lao was a woman with a white guy. Maybe she was rented. Maybe they met on the Internet. I sat down next to three painfully young American girls scooping up their last bits of rice and nearly orgasming how great it was.

Laab at Lao Kitchen.

Laab at Lao Kitchen.

Whenever I enter a country for the first time, I try their national dish. In Laos it’s called Laab, or Lahp as Lonely Planet calls it. It’s either duck, chicken or beef mixed with fish sauce, shallots, mint leaves, lime juice, roasted ground rice and lots of chilies. It was one of the best national dishes I’ve had anywhere in Asia. It’s light, spicy and crunchy. The chilies didn’t overwhelm the lovely duck and the rice made for a nice crunchy substance. It was all of 40,000 kip ($5). My first Beerlao left me underwhelmed. It had the same industrialized taste as Singha or Budweiser. At 5 percent it didn’t give much of a wallop. But it was ice cold which means I can use it as a substitute for water the next three weeks.

I then found myself fed and lonely. I needed to talk. Two blocks away I found IBeam. IBeam is the perfect traveler’s bar. Arriving at about 9:30 p.m., I was one of only three Westerners. The rest were a bevy of gorgeous Lao women all dressed in skirts and heels. Not a single one winked at me or licked her lips. I didn’t have to learn the Lao term for “I have a girlfriend.” The bartender served me a Beerlao in a tall, elegant glass you’d find in Belgium and I settled back to watch a quartet called Black Magic play a nice collection of Western and Lao hits. While they played “Lady in Red,” “Desperado” and “Move Like Jagger,” I talked to a short, fit, bald American. He’s lived in Laos 16 years, right about the time of the economic explosion. I asked if he was happy.

“Not really,” he said. “I’m bored.”

He made Vientiane sound like a really small town, where places like the IBeam are the refuge after a long day battling communist bureaucracy. I asked him what he did for fun.

“This,” he said, raising his beer.

He works in ecotourism which has cleaned up its act over the last six or seven years. However, there’s a problem in going forward.

“They lack creativity here,” he said. “They never come up with anything new.”

He said the biggest problem facing Laos is lots of dam projects are threatening the livelihood of the rural fishermen who need the Mekong River, the 12th longest in the world, to make a living. Bridges are destroying the environment.

I left four beers and 80,000 kip later. That’s about $10. I wandered home, stopping briefly at an outdoor bar, one of the few allowed open past the 11:30 cutoff mark. Filled with expats and tourists, I nursed one last Beerlao and heard a Brit and French woman’s tale of their Danish friend thrown in a Chinese prison for two years for a murder he never committed. He’s still awaiting trial.

Communism isn’t dead yet, folks.

Touring Vientiane doesn’t take long which is why many travelers don’t stick around. Too bad. The relaxed atmosphere makes it feel like a giant fishing village. Vientiane is the only capital I’ve been to where you can count the street lights on two hands. Vientiane has a history going back 1,000 years with remnants still around through a 650-year-old kingdom, American imperialism and now full-fledged communism. But in pace, size and manageability, compared to Bangkok, Vientiane is color by numbers compared to Rubik’s Cube. I about walked the whole town in one afternoon, at least the central part.

Laos still drips with French influence such as Le Banneton cafe..

Laos still drips with French influence such as Le Banneton cafe..

I started the day at Le Banneton, a cafe right out of a back alley of Paris, no question built to remind the Lao that parts of the French yoke weren’t bad. I had a French chocolate pastry not much different than my fagottino back home in Rome and an espresso twice the size and just as tasty as mine. Lots of backpackers sat around reading Lonely Planet. Some expats sat inside from the growing heat working on their laptops. I couldn’t start the day any better.

Vientiane is lousy with pagodas. Unfortunately, none remain from its time in the sun: the 16th century when King Setthathirat moved the capital of the Lan Xang kingdom, Laos’ first monarchy dating to the 13th century, from Luang Prabang to Vientiane. Vientiane became a Buddhist mecca of sorts, attracting scholars from all over Southeast Asia.

But the Vietnamese, Burmese and Siamese took turns transforming the pagodas into so much kindling. The Lan Xang kingdom eventually crumbled and so did Vientiane’s period to shine. It became part of Siam’s empire in the late 18th century and Chao Anou, a Lao educated in Thailand, took over. He did a remake of the pagodas which is what dominate central Vientiane today.

It’s where I started my walk.

Wat Si Saket is one of the few temples in Vientiane not destroyed by the Siamese.

Wat Si Saket is one of the few temples in Vientiane not destroyed by the Siamese.

Wat Si Saket, built between 1818-1824, is a large block covering a bevy of temples. A long row of reclining gold Buddhas and black Buddhas are lined up on the side of the complex like sleeping sentries. The main temple has a sign that says, in English, that it’s due for a makeover — in 2014.

I guess Soviet-level efficiency hasn’t reached Laos.

The Presidential Palace once housed the French colonial governor.

The Presidential Palace once housed the French colonial governor.

Across the street stood the gargantuan Presidential Palace, as French as brie on a baguette. It’s what is called beaux arts and has three beautiful archways over an entrance. In a nod to the surroundings, the three steeples in the back give it a very Laotian taste.

I then strolled up Lan Xang Road, Vientiane’s main boulevard that is as wide as the Champs-Elysees. Here is where you feel the most French presence outside a bakery. At the end of Lan Xang stands the Patuxal. It’s similar to the Arc de Triomphe with a giant archway in the middle of a roundabout but the top deck is ringed with Oriental artwork and little pagoda domes. The American military gave it to the Lao government in 1969 to build a new airport. The Lao took the concrete and, instead, built a memorial to all the Lao who died in pre-revolutionary wars.

Thanks, Yanks.

The view from Patuxai.

The view from Patuxai.

The view isn’t bad. It’s just that there isn’t much to see. Vientiane is as flat as a rice paddy. I don’t think there’s a building more than five stories. It reminds me of Bangkok in the late ‘70s before foreign investment built a skyline and the new affluent Thai bought enough cars to ruin the air forever.

But some commercialization has ruined parts of Vientiane. Just past Talat Kua Din, a classic Asian fresh food market, stands Talat Sao. Apparently, for a generation, Talat Sao was Vientiane’s largest market and the place to go for famed Lao textiles. Now it’s just Vientiane’s largest market. A renovation turned 80 percent of it into a glittering mall. In the remaining 20 percent is stall after stall selling jewelry so gold it almost looked orange. In fact it’s about as valuable as fruit. An Indian shopkeeper told me it’s copper made in India. The famed textiles have been reduced to brightly colored wrap-around skirts with a sash, great if you’re going to an affair at an embassy here or filling some weird man’s fantasy but not appropriate anywhere in the Western world.

The walking took its toll. I tried looking for some place called Spirit House an allegedly classy cocktail bar perfect for sipping an overpriced cocktail as the sun sets on the Mekong. Instead, my thirst got me intercepted across the street at Chokdee. Chokdee means “Cheers” in Lao and the sign said, “Belgian Beer Bar.” The place was expensive. Imported beers were 35,000 ($4, about four times the price of your average Beerlao) but the lahb chicken with sticky rice was fantastic.

I kept a conversation with a retired Dutch guy named Andre. With the tired manner and frazzled hair of a world-weary old Asia hand, Andre spun a tale about his son who has lived in Laos for 18 years and runs textile factories. Andre told me you can get fined $2,000 if caught with a prostitute here. As in Thailand, it’s illegal; unlike in Thailand, it’s not overlooked.

Yes, despite the great French-laced food, quiet streets and meandering river scene, communist tyranny remains alive and well in Vientiane. The Vientiane Times is the English version of the communist rag that toes the party line. Laos has one TV station. It had endless video of government meetings with interviews of stoic officials talking about the coming rice crop. After watching for 45 minutes I thought I was in Pyongyang. Freedom of speech is strictly forbidden. The Lao are passive observers of a life that will never match that of neighboring Thailand. They don’t protest, not even to visitors. Then again, they know something.

Life in Laos could be worse.