Handy tips on preventing illness overseas: Or why never to eat animal parts with hair

Grinning and bearing it while attending a game with the flu in 38-degree Frankfurt.

Grinning and bearing it while attending a game with the flu in 38-degree Frankfurt.

FRANKFURT, Germany — I just finished the worst road trip of my life, which is saying something after traveling to 101 countries and 47 states. That includes such backward rural outposts as Haiti, Borneo and Nebraska. This time I went to a very tame destination, one I’ve always enjoyed visiting and that has all the modern conveniences of every day travel.

Germany.

No one gets sick in Germany. You get hung over in Germany. You don’t get sick. It’s as clean as Switzerland with funner people. But how bad was my magazine assignment to Germany? In five days, I didn’t drink one beer. I didn’t eat one sausage. I mean, what’s the point of going? It’s like going to Italy and consuming nothing but Pringles and water.

It proves my point: When you are sick overseas, even Shangri-la seems like the third circle of Hades. That’s where I just spent five days, curled up in a feverish pit in Hell where I barely had enough energy to crawl to a grocery store for food rendered as tasteless as last month’s Der Spiegel.

This marks my 40th year of international travel. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. I’ve had very few illnesses overseas, but a lot of it isn’t luck. I know how to take of myself on the road. I get the proper inoculations. I know what preventative medicines to take and keep a keen eye on what food and fluids I ingest. Traveling primarily alone, I’m my own medicine chest/nurse/doctor/free clinic.

However, if you stay off the beaten path long enough, you’re bound to get nailed. It’s inevitable. Evil lurks in the unknown shadows of the world’s darkest corners. You won’t know what will hit you. You’ll just know when. However, if you try too hard to stay on that beaten path, for fear of eating fried tarantulas will upset your system, chances are you’ll be praying to the porcelain gods, too. I once met an American couple scuba diving in Mexico. The woman was so paranoid about the local food, she packed enough food to last her the whole week. She was violently ill in three days.

Overseas one must build an immunity system. Otherwise, any strange strain will invade your system like armed jungle bandits, all of whom I would’ve welcomed the one time I had typhoid in Northern Thailand.

For all those planning international travel in 2018, here are four key rules I’ve learned — the hard way.

Yangshuo, China

Yangshuo, China

DON’T EAT EGGS IN ASIA. I’ve been sick five times in Asia. Three times came from eating eggs. Eating street omelettes in Taiwan and South Korea left me retching in the streets before I even made it back to my room.

I once traveled 28 hours to the lovely Chinese lakeside village of Yangshuo. Arriving late at night, the hotel lost my reservation and they stuck me in a hotel out in the sticks, where dirt roads border rice paddies. The next morning, the crestfallen Yangshuo hotel owner felt guilty and came over with a free breakfast. That included eggs. Sometime about noon I finally stopped projectile vomiting.

In Asia, they often don’t refrigerate their eggs, and that region of southeast China in summer is hotter than the inside of a Buddha’s bowels. Heat plus spoiled eggs is not exactly sweet ‘n sour.

Buffalo salad in Vientiane, Laos.

Buffalo salad in Vientiane, Laos.

DON’T EAT ANY ANIMAL PARTS WITH HAIR ON THEM. This time last year I was in Laos where I woke before dawn to catch the Super Bowl at a U.S. Embassy annex. When it was over it was about lunchtime and I found a small outdoor place with an item loosely translated to “buffalo salad.” This “buffalo” was not the buffalo I enjoyed in hamburgers and stew in Colorado. It wasn’t the bufala mozzarella I eat with tomatoes and olive oil in Rome. This “buffalo” was the shin of a water buffalo. The chunks of buffalo skin featured little sprigs of bristly hair that don’t have the same palatable effect on a salad as say, oh, sourdough croutons.

The next morning, the symptoms of food poisoning came one at a time, like messengers welcoming me to Hell: “Good morning, sir. My name is diarrhea. Welcome to Laos.”

Buffalo skins in market

Buffalo skins in market

“Hello, sir, this is your stomach calling. Please empty my contents all over the toilet.”

“Hello, sir. My name is Migraine. And I’ll be accompanying you for all your waking hours today.”

“Good evening, sir. This is your fever. Try not to move too far off the bed.”

Fortunately, I was in the capital of Vientiane and the nice Lao woman in the pharmacy knew exactly what I needed and wasn’t surprised by my plea. I think she often gets cases of buffalo skin hangover. She sold me some Tylenol and Thai-made orange electrolyte powder and I was fine by morning.

TAKE PEPTO-BISMOL. They are little pink chewable tablets that serve as a contraceptive against stomach ailments. I eat two after every meal in the third world and my intestines are comfortably blocked up. You get a little constipated but that is much better than the alternative, particularly when taking an eight-hour bus ride through land void of bathroom relief.

Unfortunately, I didn’t take Pepto-Bismol in 1978 when I went trekking in Northern Thailand. I do remember eating stirfry from a street stall in the days leading up to the trek. I just don’t recall what was in the stirfry or where it was before getting fried. I learned quite painfully that if a pile of food has been sitting in the hot sun all day, it doesn’t matter how much they stirfry it. It’s going to explode inside you.

To this day, I am the only person I know who ever had typhoid. What is typhoid? It’s basically when your insides wake up and go, “FUCK IT!” and stop working. The list of symptoms could fill a medical dictionary: 103-degree temperature, vomiting attacks, diarrhea, migraine, severe dehydration, dizzy spells. I lost 20 pounds in eight days. I’m 6-foot-3. I was down to 138 pounds. I could put one hand completely around my bicep. I could put two hands around the top of my thigh. I looked like a ghost from Dachau.

When it happened I was two days hike from the nearest road. What did you do on New Year’s Eve 1978? I was throwing up my guts in a bamboo-thatched outhouse in Northern Thailand.

Yes, I did get a typhoid innoculation. Here’s the myth about innoculations: They don’t keep you from getting sick. They keep you alive. I put my head down and walked, without food, for two days to the nearest village. One bowl of soup resulted in a mad dash to a jungle outhouse where I got attacked by rats coming up from the hole in the floor. I made it to the major Northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai where they pumped me full of antibiotics, penicillin and glucose. No help.

I took a very painful overnight bus ride to Bangkok where I called my parents to say I was headed to the hospital the next morning. My mother was old enough to remember as a child when entire small towns in the U.S. were wiped out by typhoid. She immediately wired me $250 as I went to a local clinic specializing in VD.

This was 1979, pre-AIDS and I think I’m the only male alive to visit Bangkok and not have sex. I walked into this clinic and I made a zombie look like George Clooney. My eyes were bloodshot. My hair resembled a snake’s nest. My skin had a weird orange tint. My tongue was swollen. This Swede waiting to get treated for syphilis took one look at me and said, “My GOD! Who were YOU with?”

There is a happy ending here. After the clinic gave me another dose of medicine, the next day I didn’t vomit for the first time in four days. I built up enough strength to move on to Phuket, with my mom’s generous gift going to fresh seafood and beer. The typhoid also built up an immunity system stronger than a bank vault. I never missed a day of work due to illness in 40 years. Then came Germany and my new rule of the road …

Eintracht Frankfurt's Commerzbank-Arena.

Eintracht Frankfurt’s Commerzbank-Arena.

DO NOT, WHEN RACKED WITH FLU, SIT IN 38 DEGREES IN A SOCCER STADIUM FOR THREE HOURS. Part of my assignment was to attend a Bundesliga game and capture atmosphere in the best attended soccer league in the world. Eintracht Frankfurt hasn’t won a league title since the Bundesliga’s inception in 1963 yet still fills 50,000-seat Commerzbank-Arena almost every game. Cheap tickets. Beautiful stadium. Tradition. They all help. Also helping attendance is the kilometer-long road from the tram stop to the stadium lined with beer stalls. The walk to the stadium was one long frat party.

I sat in my press seat coughing so much I couldn’t have asked a question in the mixed zone afterward even if the one American on the team, Timotny Chandler, deemed me worthy to grant an interview. After the game, I had to weave through seemingly an entire nation of drunks. Women helped steady plastered friends onto the sidewalk. Men yelled obscene songs where translation was not needed. Fans stumbled horizontally on the dark sidewalk, glass beer bottles waving dangerously in hand. At the tram stop, I saw a man wheel an adult with severe cerebral palsy onto the edge of the platform. The man in the wheelchair was spilling his beer all over his lap. Even he was drunk!

For two days prior to the game, I laid in my AirBnB and stared at the ceiling, too weak to read, eat or move. The flu epidemic that has hit the U.S. has hit Europe, too. Alone, in pain and frustrated, I alternated between shakes from chills as if I sat in the stadium naked and sweats from a fever that made me think I was back in the jungle in Northern Thailand. I managed to take a tram to the train station pharmacy where they gave me menthol lozenges. They offered temporary relief but not enough to counteract a trip home that seemed like a return from Jupiter.

Part of RyanAir’s poverty-level discount fares is a bus connection from the Frankfurt airport to Cologne, 115 miles to the north. An airport shuttle bus took me to the FlixBus terminal on the fringes of the airport. The FlixBus terminal has no lobby and the lone seats are on a cement, uncovered platform, a lovely place to spend 90 minutes with the flu in 38-degree weather. How’d I stay warm? For 90 minutes I sat on the floor of the heated bathroom like a stray dog. In my delirium I asked myself, Where the hell am I? Rural Kazakhstan?

When I finally managed to land in Rome that night, Marina was there to greet me — with the flu. I happened to land in a two-hour window where she had enough energy to drive. We hacked and sniffled and shivered all the way back to my place where she dropped me off and went home to sweat out her own illness.

We’re fine now. Good pizza, pasta and wine are great Italian medicine. So don’t let potential illness discourage you from venturing into strange unknowns. When I sit around with fellow travelers, the best stories don’t revolve around museums, hotels and beaches. They often center around travel tales from hell, feverish hikes and strange clinics and foods of questionable origin. To truly travel, one must truly suffer. It’s the nasty little side effect of adventure. So is one other symptom.

I am dying for a sausage and a beer.

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.