Vientiane may be the quietest national capital in the world. The common aphorism that Lao PDR stands for “Lao, Please Don’t Rush” is particularly appropriate given the laid-back nature of Laos‘ capital. The Mekong river maunders next to the city and seems to vacuum out the impetus and pressure of daily life here.
But quiet though it may be, it is suffering from a growing traffic problem as more people purchase cars. Of course, compared to any other major Asian capital, its traffic jams are laughable. The above photo from Flickr user rkzerok shows central Vientiane around rush hour.
However, Vientiane was never meant to handle much traffic at all. Its tiny roads can seem pretty packed despite only boasting as many cars as a Wal-Mart parking lot. And in response, the Lao government has even implemented laws to ease the congestion.
In the West, randomness is a crucial, torturous pillar of border security. Those who have been to Asia know that active sadism is supplanted by bureaucracy, vanity and venality. In my opinion these are highly preferable alternatives. Once you know how land borders adopt these principals, they can be easily navigated with a bit of tact, patience and occasionally a small financial stimulus. I find these vagaries far easier to deal with than the gleaming desks and suspicious minds that protect Western countries against threats ex umbra. At least the caprices of Asia’s gatekeepers are motivated by personal incompetence, not institutional torment.
To make things easier, I’ve noticed after a long period of driving my own car around Asia, with all of the bureaucracy that entails, that there are some core motivations that drive Asia’s customs officials. These motivations result in eerily similar individuals from border to border. And so it is one of the peculiarities of driving overland for long distances that you can have a near-identical experience crossing the borders of countries so disparate as Iran and Cambodia.
I haven’t been to everywhere in Asia, so I can’t say these truths are universal. But the following four types of border official have shown up at almost every land crossing I’ve been to so far so it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if these were pan-Asian characters.The Break-Taker These guys just left and won’t be back for a couple of hours, sorry.
Entering Pakistan from Iran was a long process. We signed gigantic registers with entries dating back to ’80s and traipsed from building to building over barbed-wire fences. When were finally ready to go, having been in the borderlands for hours already, we had to wait for our security detail. We stood impatiently in the rapidly warming desert waiting to get under way. And waiting. And waiting some more. Where was this guy?
“He is having tea, of course,” someone informed us. “Would you like some?”
Time has no meaning when you’re dealing with authority, so we sat down for chai and were off promptly when we finished.
Later, in India…
“And so I can go now?” I asked, having laboriously acquired half a dozen stamps and bits of paper with Hindi scrawled all over them.
“You will have to get your car inspected by the safety officer.”
“And where is he then?”
“Oh, I am sorry sir, but he is unavailable right now. He is having his lunch and should return in a couple hours. Perhaps you would like some tea?”
Even later, in Cambodia…
“You cannot go,” the customs agent told me. “You need to have your car’s documents stamped by the head of customs.”
“Is he having tea?”
“No, lunch actually.”
“And when did he leave for lunch?”
“Two hours ago, maybe. He should return soon.”
The Wal-Mart Greeter Oblivious to his country’s immigration and customs protocols, he welcomes you like an old friend, often to your detriment.
Deep in leafy green forest in northern Malaysia there is a small border post with Thailand. I stopped at the Malaysian checkpoint and they stamped my car’s papers and practically pushed me out of the country. I inched my car down the lane into Thailand, expecting someone to stop me and ask for papers, passport, where I was headed… anything. Ah! A Thai guard at the end of the lane was watching me from the security lane and he beckoned me toward him. I drove up and rolled down my window. He smiled broadly at me and indicated I should just keep on driving.
I pulled away from the border and drove slowly down the road. I noted Thai people buying fruit from stalls and walking around with the evening groceries. I was in a bustling Thai market. No passport check, no vehicle registration, no searches. I parked and walked back to the customs building and proceeded to confuse everybody.
“Hey there, can you stamp my passport?” I asked the immigration desk.
“Where is your Thai entry stamp?”
“That’s what I’m after.”
“When did you enter?”
“Three minutes ago.”
“You are leaving?”
“No, I’m coming.”
“Why do you come from Thailand?” he asked, seeing how I had walked over from the Thai side.
“I’m not sure.”
“Where is your Malaysia stamp?”
Of course, I hadn’t been stamped out of Malaysia either. I trotted back across no-man’s-land to the Malaysian office where I had more or less the same conversation with the border guard, who couldn’t understand why I needed an exit stamp when I was clearly coming from Thailand.
Later, in Laos…
A few months after, I entered Laos by way of vehicle barge, sharing the boat with two gigantic cargo trucks for the 4-minute ride across the Mekong. As I drove up the ramp to the main road at Huay Xai, I stopped and asked a uniformed man where to get a visa, showing him my empty passport. He only grinned and nodded. So I drove on, and I was suddenly in a town. I sat down at a riverside bar and drank a Beerlao, enjoying my minor transgression. Eventually I found the immigration checkpoint 3 miles downstream from where the barge had dropped me off. The customs officials seemed slightly perturbed because no passenger boat had come across for an hour, so where had I come from? This required a fairly taxing explanation, which they eventually and begrudgingly accepted.
The Smuggler’s Dream His only job is to check you’re not carrying anything illicit, but he’s either too trusting, confused, or it’s too hot outside today.
I don’t officially advocate smuggling or anything. But boy, if it isn’t tempting when it’s so easy.
Entering notoriously strict Iran from Turkey, I had done the paperwork dance, and it was time for customs to inspect my car. I nervously led a gruff-looking man dressed in fatigues to where I had parked. He barked at me to open the trunk, which I did in haste. He glanced over the heap of gear from afar, his eyes lingering on the possibly suspicious-looking photography and electronic equipment, camping gear, backpacks, and food.
“What is that?” he asked, nodding at the pile. “Clothes?”
“Well, yes, among other…”
“OK!” he interrupted, signing the form. “You’re good.”
Later, in India…
As I entered India, a small moustachioed official eyed my car suspiciously.
“So you have some objectionable things then? Things from Pakistan?”
“Drugs, other things…” he trailed off, his hand moving in circles to fill in the blanks.
“Uh, no, but…” I began, because I certainly did have things from Pakistan. But I was interrupted, as in Iran.
“OK!” he exclaimed, “You’re good!”
Even later, in Thailand
In Cambodia I had picked up some fellow travelers and the trunk was packed with bags. The Thai customs officer looked through the window when we rolled up.
“What’s in there?” he asked pointing at the back.
I figured I’d keep it simple this time: “Just stuff.”
The Jailer Lonely, bored, vain or incompetent, he finds a way for you to hang around much longer than you want.
After my inadvertent entry to Thailand and the subsequent confusion about visas, I still needed to register my vehicle to drive in Thailand. In a fan-cooled room in the Thai customs house I found a fat uniformed man melting into his chair, as if squashed by gravity and the weight of his immense responsibilities. He barked orders at two demure women as he fanned himself with my car’s customs documents. He seemed in no hurry to let me go, raising objections to every one of my attempts to move things along. After stonewalling my paperwork for a while, I realized the problem: he actually had no idea what he was doing, as he never did any of the work himself. With this established, it was a simple task to organize things with the two friendly ladies, who filled everything out and then deferred dutifully to the great squinting Hutt for his precious signature.
Later, again in Thailand…
When I left Thailand from the north, I realized the ghosts of customs past had followed me up the entire length of the country. The big man in the south had neglected to give me some obscure piece of paper that would allow my car to leave Thailand.
I insisted to the guard on duty that I had no idea what he was talking about.
“You need to get the papers where you entered the country,” he told me.
My words came to me slowly. “But… that’s 1,300 miles away…”
“Not my problem,” was his response
“So wait, wait. You will let me drive back to where I came from without any permits, but you won’t let me leave?”
About halfway through my sentence he had turned and slithered back into his freezing lair. I leaned my head into the small window and another official batted me away like a stray dog.
“What the hell am I supposed to do, then?” I called after him, a question he dutifully ignored.
So I did what a dog would do. I stood there staring forlornly into the distance for 10 minutes, whimpering softly, until he came back. He had a document in hand, and he was smiling at me.
“Just fill these out and you’re good to go,” he grinned magnanimously.
He was now my best friend. I was on my way.
Bonus Guard: The Sleeper The sleepers will do whatever it takes to get you gone so they can get back to their dreams.
I still had to get my car’s customs documents stamped first before I could leave Thailand. I didn’t expect this to go any better. I climbed the steps to the customs office and poked my head through the slightly open door. A young guy in uniform was out cold at his desk, his belly rising and falling in a peaceful rhythm. I cleared my throat and he awoke with a full body spasm. He looked mildly ashamed when he saw me, his wide eyes betraying the guilt of a lurid dream. I whipped out my form.
“You need to sign here, here, and stamp here and here.”
He shrugged and started stamping, offering me a self-satisfied grin when finished, as if there were no easier task in the world.
As we reported recently, the adventure travel market has grown into an $89 billion industry. With that kind of money being tossed around, it is only natural for the travel options to diversify and one of the fastest growing segments of the industry is women’s only tavel. On these adventures, the men are left behind, and the girls get to have all the fun, as they visit remote, far flung corners of the globe on a trip of a lifetime.
There are a number of travel companies that specialize in this growing trend, including Adventure Women based out of Bozeman, Montana. They’ve been offering ladies only trips since 1982, and have some spectacular options for hiking and skiing in the American west as well as great international escapes to such destinations as Mongolia and Morocco. Perhaps the crown jewel of their offerings however is their trekking excursion to Nepal, during which the travelers hike a lower altitude portion of the Annapurna Circuit and visit the Chitwan National Park for whitewater rafting and wildlife viewing. The 15-day adventure offers spectacular scenery, cultural immersion, and adrenaline inducing thrills all in one complete package.
Rogue Wilderness Adventures, a company that specializes in rafting and hiking expeditions in Oregon, has also begun offering options just for women. Next spring, they’ll lead a multi-day hike along the Rogue River National Recreation Trail, covering more than 44 miles through some of the most pristine wilderness in the U.S. The adventurous ladies on the trek will spend their days hiking a spectacular 110-year old trail and their nights staying in historic lodges enjoying fine meals and sipping local wines by the fire. Travel company Journeys Within offers a number of great tours to Asia, including options to visit Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. But they also offer a unique seven day journey entitled Laos for the Ladies which is an interesting mix of shopping, relaxation, and culture, with a dash of adventure mixed in for good measure. Highlights include hiking Mt. Phou Si, learning to cook Laotian food, shopping the famous night markets, and a small boat tour of the Mekong River. The trip is a great escape for those looking to experience a wonderful culture, not to mention a fantastic getaway with just the girls.
Finally, for the past three years Sheridan, Wyoming has played host to an All Girls Getaway put on by Rangeland Hunting Adventures. Over the course of that weekend, the ladies explore the Big Horn Mountains on foot and horseback, while fishing, camping, and taking in the wonderful natural beauty of the area. The girls stay in a pre-constructed campsite that includes comfortable tents with cots, while gathering round the campfire with their favorite beverage, while a tasty dinner is prepared for them. Next year’s ladies weekend is scheduled to take place August 12-14, but registration is already open and reservations are already being filled.
These women’s only escapes prove that adventure travel isn’t just for the guys any more. The next time you’re feeling the need to put a little adventure back into your life, grab your passport, gather up the girls, and hit the road. After all, why should the boys have all of the fun?
Amniotic fluid tastes like chicken soup. At least, that is, the amniotic fluid that comes from Hot Vit Lon, a Vietnamese delicacy consisting of an duck egg with a half-formed baby chick nested inside. As I squatted on a flimsy plastic chair in one of Saigon’s labyrinth of steamy back-alleys, with a cracked-open Hot Vit Lon in one hand, sweaty bottle of Saigon beer in the other, I had to wonder – just what exactly was I about to put in my mouth? Like so many of the favored foods of this rapidly changing Vietnamese metropolis, it was a question with many answers. Saigon’s top notch food scene is much like the city itself – a range of conflicting identities shouting to be heard – a place where the traditional, the sensuous and the social merge as one.
Understanding Saigon in 2010 means juggling these different personalities. It’s a place that’s modernizing rapidly, a mish-mash of high-rises and wooden houseboats, Gucci stores and low-budget guesthouses. Cao Dai, a religious sect based near Saigon, counts Jesus, Buddha and Victor Hugo among its deities. Even the city’s official name, Ho Chi Minh City (adopted in 1975), is up for debate, often rejected in favor of the historic moniker “Saigon.” Yet somehow these conflicting traits manage to work together, particularly when it comes to the town’s legendary culinary diversity. Saigon eating is much discussed in food circles, not only for the quality of the ingredients but also for the mind-bending variety of cuisines on offer. Everything from Western Haute cuisine to street food can be sampled.
This past January, I visited Saigon in order to see for myself why everyone has been talking about Vietnamese cuisine. I found a world-class food city with many different facets, each more tantalizing and top-notch than the next. Curious to get a taste of Saigon eating? Keep reading below.
For hundreds of years, the hallmark of Saigon food has been its simplicity and wealth of high quality ingredients. The city sits along the edge of the Mekong Delta, a fertile agricultural breadbasket that provides a fresh-from-the-garden array of produce, locally produced meats and a mouth-watering array of flavorings. Perhaps no dish better epitomizes this blending of simplicity and freshness than Pho, a simple noodle soup made with beef, bean sprouts and a farmers’ market-worth of fresh veggies and herbs.
I arrived in Saigon fresh off an arduous 10 hour bus ride, exhausted, hungry and looking for comfort. I found my salvation just blocks from my guesthouse at Pho Quyhn, one of Saigon’s many top-notch Pho restaurants. Soon a steaming bowl of broth was before me teasing my nostrils with its beefy aroma. Beside me a whole plate was piled high with fresh mint, cilantro and salad greens, ready to be added. It was a “hug from mom in a bowl” – warm, comforting and familiar.
According to a traditional Vietnamese food proverb, “To eat you must first feast with your eyes.” It’s a statement that rings true for much of Saigon cuisine, says Vietnam food expert and “Indiana Jones of Gastronomy” Richard Sterling one day over lunch. Richard has volunteered his expertise to help me experience a totally different side of Saigon, one that will expose me to the riotous colors, textures and sounds that are just as important as taste to the enjoyment of Saigon cuisine.
We convene that night for a “seafood feed” at Quan Ba Chi, where we devour whole soft-shell crabs cooked in a sticky-sweet tamarind sauce. We grab at huge plates of pinkish-orange crustacean that yield their sweet meat with a satisfying CRACK and shower of juice. I’m overwhelmed by not just the delicious taste, but the sloppy tamarind goo and bits of crab shell that work their way between my fingers and onto my shirt. It’s a feast not only for my tastebuds, but for my eyes, ears and fingers as well.
Daily life in Saigon doesn’t happen at home. It’s best experienced out on the street. The neat line that divides public and private life in the West is blurred in Vietnam, a fact that is frequently on display here. Everything from shopping at food markets, to locksmiths carving keys, to barbers cutting hair happens on the pavement, open to view. It leads to an environment where a meal is something to be shared, discussed and displayed: eaten in the open at communal tables.
To get a taste of this communal atmosphere, I make my way towards Saigon’s District 3 to a Quan Nhau restaurant – open-air Vietnamese beer halls where locals gather each evening to trade gossip, drink beer and enjoy plenty of tasty treats. I sit down at a shared table at Lucky Quan, kick back a glass of Bia Hoi and some grilled mussels with garlic and within minutes I’m trading stories with the Saigon locals sitting next to me. In Saigon, food is clearly a conversation starter.
Traditional. Sensuous. Social. Saigon cuisine is all of these things and none of them. Ultimately in place that claims so many identities, travelers have an opportunity to pick what they want the city to be. Much like choosing from among the city’s dizzying range of delicious foods, it’s something you must experience and settle upon for yourself.
Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.
Welcome back to Gadling’s series on backpacking in Southeast Asia, South by Southeast. As travelers, we have a tendency to overload our trips with adventure and movement. This is especially true in Southeast Asia – as I’ve discovered in Thailand and Laos, there’s no shortage of motorbikes to ride or zip lines to catch. But if you truly want to understand this part of the world, it’s not a vigorous itinerary you need. Instead, you need to spend a few days on foot, letting the pungent smells, vivid colors and urgent sounds of the Southeast soak into your subconscious. And there’s no better place for this to happen than Luang Prabang.
Located in the sleepy nation of Laos, Luang Prabang is truly a crown jewel of Southeast Asia. This former royal capital, atmospheric river port and UNESCO World Heritage Site has emerged in recent years as one of the region’s newest must-see destinations. It’s not the blockbuster sights that make Luang Prabang such a fantastic place to visit. It’s the simple act of walking and observing that becomes the focus of your stay: exploring fading French villas and evening handicraft markets, sampling the town’s fresh-baked baguettes or watching a procession of orange-robed monks silently march down the road.
This sensory overload is what makes Luang Prabang a must-see for any Southeast Asian traveler’s itinerary. Curious about visiting this underrated Laotian capital of French/Asian style, vivid color and Buddhist serenity? Let’s take a look at some of the essentials and highlights of any Luang Prabang visit. Keep reading below for more.
%Gallery-81156% Getting There Luang Prabang is located smack-dab in the middle of Northern Laos, making it easy to reach from points North or South. Overland travelers from Thailand will often stop in the Laos border town of Huay Xai, where a two-day “slow boat” plies the Mekong River all the way to Luang Prabang. From within Laos, frequent buses connect Luang Prabang with the nation’s capital in Vientiane and backpacker hub of Vang Vieng. Luang Prabang’s airstrip is also served by a number of Southeast Asian regional airlines including Bangkok Airways and Lao Airlines.
What to Do Due to its unique location at the confluence of two rivers, Luang Prabang has long been an important religious, political and economic hub. You’ll find the town reflects this historic grandeur, dotted with ornate Buddhist temples and lavish royal palaces. The main highlights include:
Wat Xieng Thong – in a city studded with important Buddhist “Wats,” Wat Xieng Thong is perhaps Luang Prabang’s most ornate and well-known temple complex.
Royal Palace – until they were deposed by the Lao Communist Revolution in 1975, the Lao royal family made its home in Luang Prabang. Visitors can tour the ornate royal complex, peering into the King and Queen’s teak-lined living quarters. Out back is a collection of vintage cars gifted by the French and American governments.
Night Market – as the sun begins to set each evening, Luang Prabang’s main street is crowded with an huge array of vendors, selling everything from grilled fish to locally made textiles to handicrafts.
Kuang Si Falls – about an hour’s ride outside Luang Prabang you’ll find an impressive series of waterfalls at Kuang Si, as well as a swimming area and a “Bear Rescue Center” for mistreated animals.
Keep in mind that “seeing the sights” of Luang Prabang is only half the story: the longer I spent wandering this picturesque river peninsula, the more I enjoyed simply soaking in the town’s unique atmosphere. Make sure to leave some time to simply explore without purpose.
Where to Stay There are accommodation options in Luang Prabang to suit just about any budget and lifestyle, from luxurious boutique resorts housed in ancient French villas to clean no-frills backpacker haunts. For those on the thrifty side, you’ll find plenty of simple and clean guesthouses (under $10/night) clustered around Sisavong Street near the Joma Bakery. Those looking to splurge should check out 3 Nagas, a beautiful mansion nestled in the heart of Luang Prabang’s historic district (rates start at $125/night).
Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.