Going solo: Traveling alone doesn’t have to be lonely or scary if you take these tips

Me alone in Vang Vieng, Laos, where the majestic karsts kept me company.

Me alone in Vang Vieng, Laos, where the majestic karsts kept me company.


“When you travel alone it’s never crowded.”

I left off the source of that great quote because it didn’t come from Mark Twain or Paul Theroux or any other great travel writer. It came from a guy I had a beer with at my guesthouse in Jamaica way back in 1982. I can’t remember his name or even his country but I found that comment so astute.

Just four years before, I had traveled around the world alone for a year and what he said hit home. I remembered. No matter how crowded a bus was, a street, a museum, a bar, when I was alone I never felt confined. I never felt trapped. I could always break away. The idea of traveling to find freedom and then locking yourself into an itinerary, let alone a tour bus, seemed a complete defeat of purpose. It’s like flying in an airplane and never looking out the window. Traveling with another person means you’re never truly away from home. Home is right next to you. The purpose of solo travel is to find yourself, not your friends.

This is my 40th year of international travel and I’ve traveled alone to most of my 102 countries. I traveled with girlfriends a few times. I traveled once with a platonic female friend and that turned into a travel tale from the Third Circle of Hades. I have never traveled with a guy, nor would I. Why?

I also have professional reasons to travel alone. As a travel writer, I want to write my own views, not those of someone else who browbeats me into veering away from my first impressions. I keep a journal everywhere I go. Try telling a travel partner to wait 90 minutes while you pound out an essay about your ride through an Indonesian jungle the day before.

There are drawbacks, of course. Traveling to beautiful places, inevitably you’ll find yourself in romantic places. Alone. I’ve never felt so lonely than one night on the isle of Crete when every traveler I drank with in the beach bar that night had a girlfriend. I was the 21st wheel.

Dining out on local cuisine with my B&B hosts in Liechtenstein.

Dining out on local cuisine with my B&B hosts in Liechtenstein.


I was once on assignment on Hawaii’s Big Island and walked out to my hotel’s beach-side restaurant for dinner. It was Valentine’s Day. I totally forgot. Every table was filled with cooing couples sipping wine under torchlight while I was speed dialing every friend with no benefits I knew, just so the others didn’t think I was a complete loser. Bringing a girlfriend, you not only never feel lonely but you take your relationship to romantic heights not possible back home.

It’s cheaper to share rooms. Another set of eyes is good for directions. Another brain is good for ideas.

But to travel alone and relying solely on your own eyes, brain and instincts shapes you as an adult. It steels you for future roadblocks in life. It builds confidence you can’t get from how-to books or jobs. I’m terrible with directions. I can get lost in an elevator. But I know I traversed Slovakia’s High Tatras mountain range, drove around Iceland, traveled the length of Laos and hitchhiked behind the Iron Curtain. All alone.

With the high tourist season upon us, I thought I’d give some handy tips on solo travel. I hope they all make sense and don’t impede your own personal freedom. Some may not make sense. Use it as a guide, not as a bible. I’ve written 10 for men and 10 for women, based on surfing other websites and talking to female travelers who don’t need company to eat out in the Third World.

Clip it. Put it on your refrigerator while packing and safe travels.

My money belts, new (above) and old. I never leave home without it.

My money belts, new (above) and old. I never leave home without it.


FOR MEN

1. Money belt. This is for anybody, even those on an American Express tour bus but it’s even more important for solo travelers as you don’t have a partner or group to watch out for you. It’s a long, wide, thin cotton pouch with two zippers where you put all the things you can’t afford to lose: passport, second credit card, ATM card, large amounts of cash. In the old days I put plane tickets in there. It clips around your waist inside the waistline of your pants. The only way you can get robbed is if they knock you out and strip you. Through 40 years, I have yet to be ripped off.

2. Don’t engage people who approach you. Every person who tries starting a conversation with me, especially in poor countries, wants something at the end of the conversation. It’s almost always money. The longer you talk to them, the more they think you’re indebted. However, if you approach a local, no matter where, you’ll likely wind up with a friend. People all over the world love talking about their country, their culture. Once in the Seychelles Islands, I asked a local in a bar about the best beach. He turned out to be one of the island’s top chefs. Shortly into the conversation, a raggedy man asked if he could talk to me. He mumbled something in French then I heard “money” in English. I returned to the chef and we wound up exchanging postcards for years.

3. Sports bars. It’s easier to meet locals when you’re alone. For some reason they take pity on you, mainly because they’d never do it. Every major city has a sports bar where you can catch locals watching local sports they can’t watch in person. Ask them about their sports, their town, whatever. They’ll engage you. Many sports bars are pubs filled almost entirely of expats. Still, it’s not a bad place to get Westerners’ views of the country you’re traveling through. One Brit who’d lived in Mongolia for two years told me in a bar in Ulaanbaatar that domestic violence is so bad there, if you take out a woman and just don’t hit her, she’ll go out with you again.

Drinking with Cubans in Havana's Savor Tropical.

Drinking with Cubans in Havana’s Savor Tropical.


4. Dating sites. I’m not a fan of these. Women lie about their weight; men, women tell me, lie about their age and height. (How do you lie about your height, guys?) But I did it once. Before the 2012 London Olympics, I joined a site and targeted London women telling them I was a traveling food columnist for my Denver Post newspaper and wanted a local guide to find London’s best gastropubs, a big trend at the time. If they wanted a free meal in exchange for some gastronomic insight, write me back. I made a point to say I wasn’t looking to hook up. I wound up meeting three wonderful women, two were sisters (Sorry. Not twins.) and I not only had great meals and wrote a good column but made a couple friends along the way. You don’t have to be a food columnist. Just tell them you want insight into local cuisine. You want food, not romance.

5. Do not ask taxi drivers where to meet local women. That’s a disaster. I did it twice: In 1983 in Mexico City a guy dropped me off at a brothel. And it wasn’t just any brothel. It was a brothel specializing in obese women. Yes, it was targeting chubby chasers. In 1997 a guy in Rio took me to a massage parlor. I was wondering why all these guys were sitting around the lobby in bathrobes. I bolted both times.

6. Don’t read during meals, not even your cell phone. I went to Sri Lanka three years ago and was devastated when my aging cellphone conked out after I landed. I couldn’t text friends. I couldn’t post on Facebook. However, with nothing to engage me, I was able to engage locals. I was in the cool, green hill town of Ella when a Sri Lankan sitting nearby filled me in on the Cricket World Cup playing on the TV above us. Meanwhile, at the next table, I couldn’t help noticing two couples didn’t even exchange words with each other. They were all looking at their cellphones.

Me and two new Icelander friends in a bar in Reykjavik.

Me and two new Icelander friends in a bar in Reykjavik.


7. Drink. Yes, drink. You’re not driving, or, you’re probably not. Get shitfaced a couple nights. Let the inhibitions fall and clink glasses with locals. As a travel writer, it’s easy for me. The best place to get a pulse on a city is a bar. I often talk to bartenders, people who talk to lots of locals. If you ask one question about a country to a group of people at the bar, you’ll usually start a lively conversation or maybe a debate. The best travel quote I got all last year was in a bar in Reykjavik. Poleaxed by the larcenous prices I’d seen everywhere in Iceland, I asked them, “With fish 35 euros, beer 13 and cocktails 20, how the hell do you guys take out women here?” They all raised their glasses, laughed and simultaneously said, “We don’t!”

8. Sit with a foot or arm around a strap of your bag or backpack. Without another set of eyes, you’re a target for thieves. Stay awake. If you do nod off while sitting in an airport or train station, you should be able to feel someone removing your arm or foot to steal your bag.

9. Don’t swim at empty beaches before asking locals about it. The south coast of Sri Lanka has really underrated beaches. After a couple of days in Goyambokka, with one of the most idyllic beaches I’ve seen in Asia, I decided to explore. I cut through the jungle to the west for 15 minutes and found myself on a deserted, perfectly shaped half-moon beach. I was alone. Why? I found a man working on a house and he said the beach has a bad riptide. He said, “But if you get past that first wave, you won’t feel the current. Then when you return, swim sideways a few hundred meters and …” If I’d gone in alone without asking, I might not be writing this.

In the High Tatras in Slovakia.

In the High Tatras in Slovakia.


10. If you’re hiking, tell the hotel or guesthouse or a friend at home where you’re going. If you don’t come back, they’ll at least know where you went. I lived in Colorado from 1990-2014 and one day in 1994 a Colorado outdoorsman named Aron Ralston went hiking in Utah’s remote Blue John Canyon. A dislodged 800-pound boulder pinned his arm against the wall. He couldn’t get out. He had told no one where he went. He sat there for six days. What did he do? He cut off his own arm. What he wound up with was a well-received book called (what else?) “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” and an appreciation of the before-mentioned rule.

FOR WOMEN

1. Carry a whistle. Of all the self-defense devices, this seems the most popular. Mace and pepper spray, in many countries where they’re most needed, are considered concealed weapons and illegal.

2. Dress like an expat. That’s a fine balance. Don’t dress like a tourist. No white fedoras. No Nikes. No souvenir T-shirts. But don’t dress completely like a local, either. Don’t dress head to toe in native garb. You’ll look like you’re trying too hard. Dress conservatively and comfortably, like what you’d wear at home. Thieves and men look for naivete. Expats who’ve lived abroad awhile are street smart.

3. Don’t get drunk. This sounds obvious but living in Rome, I’ve seen some cases where a woman gets too drunk and some “kindly Italian” offers to walk them home. He’s not interested in discussing Dante’s “Inferno” once he gets you there.

4. Day tours. If you want to meet other solo travelers, take a day tour that attracts them. Many major cities have free walking tours, a great way to introduce yourself to a place and make friends. I even take them.

In the High Tatras in Slovakia.

Even I tried yoga, in Varkala, Kerala state, India.


5. Take a yoga class. Yoga is booming all over the world. If you do yoga, or have ever been interested in yoga, find a class where you’re visiting. You’ll find local women who might put you under their wing and show you where the good places to go.

6. Have a Plan B for accommodations. I’ve read stories of women who get to an AirBnB or a CouchSurfing spot and the owner wants to show them more than the city. If you feel uncomfortable, have a second accommodation’s phone number handy to call for a quick change.

7. Cut back on the jewelry. Jewelry is a big fence item. Don’t draw attention to yourself with anything flashy. If you’re rich, don’t show it. This is especially true in Brazil where armed hold-ups are done in broad daylight.

Meeting a sambar deer in Sri Lanka.

Meeting a sambar deer in Sri Lanka.


8. Hide extra cash. I read this and didn’t quite understand it, nor did I want to understand it but I’ll trust women will understand it: Put extra cash in a tampon applicator and put it back in its wrapper. I do understand that will definitely hide the money.

9. No earplugs. While walking the streets, don’t wear earplugs. You need to be more aware of your surroundings, of people approaching you from behind. You must hear everything. The U2 tape can wait.

10. Doorstop. Many women carry cheap little doorstops and wedge them under their hotel room door for extra security. Some hotels are so cheap, a well-trained cocker spaniel could break in.

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.”

Chakhampa

Chakhampa


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

Lunch


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.
Peryenxang

Peryenxang

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.

Khaojepapa

Khaojepapa


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.

“No.”

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.

One.