Sabaidee from Laos!
I think that Laos has to be the biggest surprise of the trip so far. Everyone on the Cambodia/Laos/Vietnam/Thailand circuit seems to have party-party-party stories from Laos. And they all have a tank top from Sakura Bar. And the most famous activity to do there is go drunken tubing down the river in Vang Vieng (though the government has shut it down as much as possible due to the large number of tourists who died going beyond their limits).
So I had a nasty feeling that it was going to be the sad representation of backpacker and travel culture that manifests itself in drunken foreigners (Westerners) more interested in the next party than taking in the culture.
It was not.
I was so pleasantly surprised by basically everything in Laos. The scenery is absolutely stunning. Mountains and green everywhere, broken up by rivers. The tourism industry is strong, but not “grabby” from the locals and not sloppy from the travelers.
“You’re SO WHITE!!!!” Pon exclaimed in Vientiane. I was walking down the riverside boardwalk, taking in the sunset and the biggest PDE (public displays of exercise) I have seen yet, and headed to the night market to find dinner. I was wearing shorts. Though not culturally taboo, not a common clothing choice. So I stood out and in looking at my legs, Pon couldn’t help but notice my white skin. We both cracked up laughing. She is Thai and was in town visiting family for over a month. She explained the good sites to see, and more importantly, took me to her favorite kebab stand. We grabbed dinner and went back to the riverside, eating and chatting about travel (she works as a travel agent).
We shared food, laughs and the evening, all starting with what could have easily been considered an offensive statement. For people who jump to conclusions. Excuse me now while I look for a beach to get some apparently needed Vitamin D.
From Vientiane I took a night bus to Luang Prabang, arriving before sunrise as the monks started their alms procession. Some tourists were out taking pictures (with flash), which just felt awkward. So I watched and then walked around looking for accommodation. The morning market was bustling, even just after 6:00, and I was simultaneously trying not to step on fresh produce or fall over with my backpack on as I maneuvered through. I found accommodation and Wi-Fi and was happy to find out my friend Angie, whom I met in Sapa, Vietnam, would be getting in just a few hours later. I met her just a few months ago and we have now explored cities in three countries together. She is fun and funny and so cool, so I was excited to check out Luang Prabang together.
The first evening we hit the almost 500 steps to That Phu Si temple to catch the sunset. I thought I was getting over the hiking-a-ton-of-stairs-to a-temple-for-sunset tip that comes in seemingly every city, but as the sun dipped behind the mountains and splashed across the Mekong River, my fatigued legs felt just a little better. We strolled the night market and grabbed a few Laos beers to catch up on where each of us had been since last seeing each other in Thailand.
The next day we were off to Kuang Si waterfalls, a true gem of both Laos and Southeast Asia. I did not know it was the start of a day that would stay with me for a long, long time.
It started off as a standard trip to a tourist spot. Our driver was hilarious and we wove through traffic and lettuce farms. We grabbed a few local snacks before heading into the park. We checked out the bear sanctuary that is aimed at providing a safe home to bears that wouldn’t survive in the wild and educating travelers and locals about the species and their importance. We got up to the bottom waterfall and were blown away. The water was just so blue and there were several tiers of waterfalls and accompanying pools.
We kept going up levels of waterfalls, each getting more wows. At one of the pools, a tree sticks out and visitors, including myself, took turns jumping into the water from it. There were a lot of red bellies in that pool. It was a nice spot to swim and I’m guessing the fish that were in the water were the same as the ones used for fish pedicures because everyone in the water was in for a nibble session. I’m not sure my feet came out any softer, but I did laugh a lot.
What happened next is something you just don’t prepare for and I will tell you now it did not have a happy ending [if this makes you uncomfortable and you prefer to skip ahead, the next photo in the post designates where to pick back up]. I don’t share this for sympathy, I share because there are really tough days when you travel and I want to be honest and share all of them. And I’ve never gone through anything like this on the road, so I hope hearing how it went for me can be helpful for others.
Angie and I wanted to go up to the next level up. As we started to get in the water, we both noticed a guy coming toward the edge of the pool. A girl was floating in the water while he held her hand. Initially taking in the scene, we both assumed that like so often, it was a guy playing with his girlfriend in the water. Very quickly it became clear that was not the case when she remained limp, unmoving. He was pulling her towards the edge of the pool where there was a flat rock. Two other guys saw and helped him pull her out.
Angie and I turned and started shouting for help. Slowly more and more people on the water’s edge looked at us, but no one moved. The guys stabilized her body and started CPR. We kept shouting, getting frustrated with the inaction. I was trying to think if we were using the wrong words. What was the Laos version of 911? Another guy came running up – he was a lifeguard from the US and jumped in. CPR continued. A doctor came out and assessed; a nurse from the UK had seen CPR being done and ran down and into the water; the decision was made to move her out of the rock pool, to full land, though we all knew how much time had passed. We carried her out and tried not to fall ourselves as we covered the slippery, uneven and sharp rocks in the water. The crowd barely ebbed to let us through and one guy was taking pictures.
Her mother and family continued compressions even though it was too late. As the reality set in, I pushed tears down – there was 0% chance I was going to let one fall in front of the family. Everyone except the family moved away from the scene, where we could cover up our swimsuits (especially in the Chinese culture it is disrespectful to have so much skin exposed around the dead), let them have their time and find someone who spoke both Chinese and English. Though none of us knew much, we thought it was important to be able to tell the girl’s mother everything that we knew. She deserved at least that. We told her everything and she thanked us with the most sincere eye contact I have ever felt.
The mother and family’s devastation. The young woman’s face. These are images that have been running through my mind in the weeks that follow and I hope that this experience stays with me because it was terrible, and hurt, and was a lesson. I know that there is nothing more any of us could have done and I am proud at the way that a small group quickly acted to do the most we could. Despite language barriers and awkward terrain, people acted and helped. And some didn’t.
A few thoughts.
Emergency preparedness is a worthwhile skill to have. I have not been re-certified in a long time and will be seeking that out in the coming weeks. However, just a few weeks ago I was reading up on the latest CPR information to both keep my memory fresh and make sure what I had learned hadn’t changed. Little to know I would be recalling that information so soon. Traveling or not, it is a worthwhile investment to get educated and subsequently hope to never use anything you learned.
Western, and specifically American, culture gets kicked around a lot, but I am proud that the idea of helping, doing something, is so common for us. In fact, as I was reading an article about what a French tourist learned while in the US, and “do something” was one of them. However, in other cultures, this is not the case. I have heard story after story of tourists in foreign countries who watched as people drove by them after a car accident or who didn’t react when someone collapsed.
I love taking pictures, but often talk about places and poses that are inappropriate. Now I will add times. To the man who was taking pictures, I will assume positive intent and that you hadn’t processed what was happening, but I hope that every picture was deleted and you understood enough English to get what I meant when I said, “put that fucking thing away. Do not take pictures. Inappropriate.”
The people who deal with situations like this on a daily basis are courageous and strong, to opt-in to the emotion that comes with it. I had a really hard time the days following, even though I knew there was nothing else that could have changed the outcome. To see that over and over again is a strength that I respect even more than ever before.
This young woman drowned with hundreds of people around. I go swimming alone all the time. No one knows what happened, how she ended up in the pool she was in with the current keeping her body under the surface. When out swimming, please be intensely aware of your surroundings and safety (and skill) and for others around you.
The emotional impact of something like this is not something I knew how to handle. I was upset and cried a bit that night, but the next day thought I was sad, but ok. I posted on Facebook to beg a bit of time to process. The following day I had moved on to Vang Vieng and arriving at the hostel, the guy at reception told me about Pha Poak mountain, a viewpoint that was a hellacious climb, but worth it. I asked if a lot of tourists go there and he said it’s always empty when he goes. Perfect. I figured it was the perfect spot for me to get some space and feel feelings.
The climb was tougher than he described, but the view even more stunning. I took in the air and tried to just breathe. But because the climb took me longer than expected, I needed to head back down before it closed and the sun went down. I looked down from the top and suddenly felt crippled by an intense and new fear of heights. I started slowly back down, the fear taking over my muscles. The guy who ran the viewpoint was hollering up to me to come down. I kept yelling back, but he didn’t hear me. Once he did, he started saying things like “hurry, hurry” and “time to close, go home.” At this point I was basically crawling back down and knew that hurrying would only make it worse, so I called back that I was coming and he wasn’t helping.
His voice was getting closer, so he was coming up to find me. His tone changed as soon as he saw me, moving slowly down the rocks, muscles shaking, eyes flitting in every direction. He offered his hand in tricky spots and told me not to hurry each time I apologized. The panic was getting ready to boil over, but I knew it wouldn’t help anything, so I fought it until I was on solid ground.
The man headed off on his scooter and I fully ugly-cry wept walking back to the hostel through the rice fields. I got back to the hostel and read response after response to my post, the private messages people had sent me and was so moved. I took a shower to get my head on straight and had to sit down while I shook and cried.
While Vang Vieng is home to the aforementioned famous Sakura Bar, but I wasn’t really in the mood to party. But I had to see it, so I went for a walk to find some street food and checked it out from the outside. Everyone looked like they were having so much fun. I thought about changing and going, but putting on a dress wouldn’t have made me ready.
Because of the hopefully one-time fear of heights, I wanted to take it easy the next day and decided not to go tubing. If I had such a strange reaction on a mountain, I had no idea what being back in water so soon would bring. So Vang Vieng will be top of my to-do list when I come back to Laos, but until then I did a fair bit of exploring in the short time I had there and took in the views.