In early February, I signed up for a wonderful backpacker trip conducted by Stray Asia Tours, that leaves Bangkok twice a week, guiding small groups of about fifteen travelers to the four beautiful countries filling the Southeast Asian peninsula. My group of twelve consisted of all ages and national backgrounds and we bonded instantly on the two minibuses that carried us north through Thailand. After exploring ancient temple complexes in Ayathuya, we boarded an overnight sleeper train for Chiang Mai. How I love the thrill of sleeping on a moving train! It brought back memories of childhood train trips between Florida and Massacheusetts to visit Grandmother Elsie. Three hours late arriving at our hostel early in the morning, we found our dorm bunk beds and curled up for a few hours sleep. Then, we kept our date with four hungry elephants.
In the morning at the Elephant Sanctuary, we fed small bunches of yellow bananas to four rescue elephants. They plucked the bananas ……skin, stem and all…. right out of our hand; caressing our fingers in the operation of firmly grasping the delicious and welcome breakfast treat. Two mature females and two juveniles, a sister and her younger brother elephants, now live happy and pampered lives after many years of slavery in the logging and circus trades. They even get bathed in the river by their adoring tourist fans who have never been that close to a Thai pachyderm in their entire lives. It’s a win-win situation.
Naturally, I hopped-off in Chiang Mai for two weeks, mostly simply to veg-out and get plenty of rest in the exciting and relaxing hostel environment. There are so many worthwhile and educational atractions, that if one has the time to linger, this is the way to avoid tourist overload. Entering Laos, we cruised down the famous Mekong River The dozen of us filled the graceful, roofed longboat, which motored swiftly downstream along this powerful and prime waterway. That’s where I first picked up on the Lao vibes, which are so uncannily peaceful. That night, we docked beside an indigenous native village and carried only enough for an overnight stay into the cluster of simple, wooden buildings with their winding footpaths between. We were served a lovely meal and then invited into the counsel house, where the whole tribe awaited us; as curious about us as we were about them. We sat in a circle on the floor at the center of the room and they stood in a large group, all around us. They are a very attractive people and quick to laugh heartily, which they certainly did after they inquired as to my marital status. As in, don’t I have a man to travel around the world with me? I slung my open arms into the air and shouted, “I’m available!” But, no one volunteered to become my escort. Then, we twisted around to face outwardly, but still in our center circle, and they lined up and processed around us to tie white cords on each of our upraised wrists; in order to bless us with good health and a healing of anything that ails us. Perhaps, their prayers for me also begged for a man to correct my regrettable single state?
We were parceled out, three at a time, to different families to host us overnight. We slept on comfortable mattresses with duvets, under a ceiling strung mosquito net. We slept very well and in the morning after a bountiful breakfast, we launched our longboat for another four hours on the river. This is how we arrived in the small town of Luang Prabang and I decided to hop-off again for a few days, which turned into almost two weeks. I made sure to extend my thirty day arrival visa for another month, through the end of April, because we still have quite a few important stops heading south along the narrow country of Laos, before crossing into Cambodia.
I have been a guest at the beautiful Chansavang Guesthouse during my twelve day hop-off in this sweet Laotian town. Next Tuesday, I shall rejoin my incoming Stray Asia Tour group and continue my slow, relaxed exploration of this whole, four-country peninsula. Stray is a very big company with overland groups leaving Bangkok, Thailand twice a week. I am glad I opted for the less-expensive option of lingering in a spot as long as I wish (and my visa calculations will allow for) and then joining a new group when ready to continue. I bought the whole package and still have all of Cambodia and South and North Vietnam to go. They give us a whole year to complete the entire course so a traveler could take advantage of the special price and then take journeys back home before returning for another segment. I had even considered running to the Phillipines between Cambodia and Vietnam, but will probably stay on target; as things always come up if you get too far away.
But, back to impressions of Laos. I knew that this modest, out-of-the-news country was special the minute I boarded the company’s longboat for our two- day cruise down the Mekong. There was something mysteriously different about this country’s atmosphere! You can simply sense it and others have commented on this, as well: Calm. Peace. Quiet. (none of the blaring music of most other country’s eateries). Peaceful babies. Self-managing toddlers!???! Happy, sweet faces. Awfully good, healthy food. Clear, sunny, days. The list goes on, in its unspectacular, but-highly-desirable, way. How does one dramatize the LACK of human undesirable and untrustworthy tendencies?
Well, I have found a star and I had no further to look than the open-air restaurant/lobby of my Stray-chosen guesthouse, the Chansavang. I have spent a lot of time here, due to their wi-fi availability; and I noticed that there were no protective devices to enclose the restaurant area at night when the dining room closes at 9 pm. That was confirmed when I asked the owner; although her husband’s beautiful artworks, exquisite, wooden carvings and many decorative objects line the walls. To say nothing of the beautiful tables, chairs and restaurant equipment filling the large room.
Anyone could walk into this large, open room; though the bar, kitchen and guest quarters are locked behind wooden, slated, doorways. A talented, but very tiny, waiter named Tang, sleeps in mosquito-tented comfort behind some of these slats; no doubt, patched into the Police, should the need arise. But it never has, so far!
Now, that’s what I call a trustworthy population! Of both locals and foreign travelers. And even, dogs and cats!