Category Archives: laos

should’ve, could’ve, would’ve

(Alternative title: Mom, don’t read this post! Really, I’m fine!)

This doesn’t really have anything to do with it, but earlier in the day, a French boy staying at my hostel came on to me too strongly, and it made me feel uncomfortable. He was crude, pushy, and stoned, and I didn’t like the idea that he knew exactly where I was sleeping that night. I removed myself from the situation, but it was not the best introduction to the city.


When you’re a girl traveling by yourself, people give you lots of safety advice: don’t tell people you’re traveling alone, or where you’re staying, or how old you are. But these people are usually imagining a creepy conversation with the taxi driver or bartender or local on the street. I’ve found that on the rare occasions that I have felt unsafe, it’s usually the other travelers who have made my skin crawl. They are the ones who have access to your stuff, your bed, your life story. Because if you can’t trust them, you’re living your whole life in lies, and then you really are alone.


That night I ran into a friend I had made on the slowboat, one I didn’t even know was in the same city, and we spent the evening talking at a bar and trying really hard to like this place. Vang Vieng is like a citywide frat party of the worst kind and I wanted to be more excited about it, but the makeup and hair gel and tank tops and beer pong and shotgunning seemed depressing in the middle of a third-world country of beautiful mountains and stunning rivers.

I remember talking about how I’ve been very mindful about staying positive through my whole trip, though, and how I did still love Laos, even if this city wasn’t for me.


My friend was walking me back to my hostel around midnight when the motorbike raced up behind me and the man on the back pulled my bag off my shoulder before I even knew what was happening. I must have screamed, because a group of travelers came running over. I was 50 meters from my hostel.


The friend who was with me stayed for two more hours as I alternated crying and moaning and feeling terrible. We are attached to the stupidest things, really, and instead of mourning the loss of my three-year-old phone—and photos and music and messages—I should be grateful for the boy who spent the night sitting with me in a foreign country when he barely knew me.


I should’ve been wearing my bag more securely. And I could’ve been more attentive to my surroundings, maybe. But I was doing everything else right. I wasn’t alone. I was on a main road. It wasn’t too late or too dark. And I had made a special trip back to the hostel before dinner to deposit my ATM card and extra cash to my locker (which was also holding my passport). So I lost my bag and my phone and about $10USD, but really, I was lucky.

During the same time I was in Vang Vieng, a girl I knew took a drunken ride home with a stranger and found herself robbed and raped. Another guy got his phone lifted from the charger at the foot of his bed at his hostel. And another had his phone taken from his bag when he was asleep on the minibus. A boy in my hostel went tubing and ended up with a concussion when he dove into the river.

When I was in Luang Prabang, a Korean tourist drowned after jumping into the river on a rope swing. In Chiang Mai, I met a couple who were T-boned by a car when they drove their motorbike through an intersection. And another friend lost his phone and camera at the Full Moon Party on Koh Pha Ngan.

But I’ve also had my car window smashed twice in Houston, and my passport stolen. I lost my wallet in Stamford and in Cleveland. And I dropped my phone in the toilet in Singapore.

All of these things aren’t necessarily equal, but there are dangers everywhere.


In terms of loss, this should be just like if I had dropped my phone in the toilet—except it’s not, exactly. You feel violated, being robbed. Like no matter what, you’re never really safe. I slept in those streets, walked them alone, and with all of my possessions. I trusted people and I always trust myself. And then something like this happens, and I feel myself falling apart.


You know when you’re sick, and you think, “When I’m better, I promise I’ll appreciate my health—I’ll notice how nice it is when I can breathe through my nose and when my throat isn’t raw and when I can eat solid foods.” But then you get better, and you still take it all for granted.

Except I have been appreciating. I was so grateful for my bag—it was perfect for what I needed it for and I remember thinking that almost every day. And my phone was the only valuable thing I carried, regardless of how old it was. Sometimes I think that if you appreciate things, bad things won’t happen. But I know that’s just naivity.


I am naive. For a bit that night, I hoped that maybe the two men would come back and give me my phone. What did they need it for, anyway? I just want the pictures.


This was not a personal attack. I think that is the hardest thing to wrap my head around. This is not karma or fate or Santa’s naughty and nice list—it just is. And I’m still a good person even though it happened.


I hate how this situation has shaken my confidence and made me go running to boys. I checked out of my dorm bed the next day to feel secure in a private bungalow with a friend, something I haven’t needed my entire trip. I finally opened the letter from him that I’d been keeping like a security blanket—and I hate how it was only the loss of property, of nostalgia, that brought me to this point after five and a half months on my own. And, of course, I thought about calling you, but perhaps that was only because this is the first time when I literally can’t.


So now what? I don’t want to lose my sense of wonder because of this. I don’t want to live paranoid and afraid. I don’t want to doubt people and take precautions that lessen my trip.

And I don’t want to want to go home, like I do right now. I want a happy ending.

So, I guess, I will buy a new phone in Hanoi, accept my lack of pictures of Laos, and continue on.


How to Take an Overnight Bus in Laos

(training for The Bus Ride From Hell on Friday… probably)

Step 1: Ask to book the overnight bus through your hostel. Don’t be entirely dissuaded when the hostel owner tells you she doesn’t sell that ticket because the 7 hour ride means you arrive at 3AM and suggests you book the morning bus instead; knowing Laos time, you figure this will put your arrival time at around 4:30AM.

Step 2: Make the decision to leave anyway too late in the day to book through a travel agency. Convince yourself that this is okay, because buying the ticket straight from the bus station is cheaper… and how many other people are crazy enough to do this trip, anyway?

Step 3: Overpay a tuk-tuk to drop you at the station two hours earlier than the bus you want to take. Find out it’s full. Buy a standby ticket and wait nervously.

Step 4: Be waved on to a more than half empty bus at 8PM. There is an Asian music video blaring on a TV and disco lights flashing through the whole bus. You and a French man are the only non-locals aboard. (At least there’s no chickens on the bus this time.)

Step 5: Finally leave at 8:30PM. Headphones and two reclining seats are your saviors. Pee in the dark behind a closed market stall when the bus makes a stop around 11:30PM.

Step 6: Wake at 2:17AM to the bus driver yelling the name of your stop. You are the only one who gets off. It’s slightly cold outside, and you’re in the middle of nowhere. Start to doubt your decision making skills for the first time.

Step 7: Meet a Portuguese couple who paid more to arrive a few minutes before you on the packed 6:30PM bus and feel a bit better. Ignore the tuk tuk driver and walk the 1km into town with them using the map you’ve downloaded. Sit outside a random guesthouse talking until 3:45AM, then find a bar with hammocks to nap in until it gets too cold, then sneak in to the hostel you’ve pre-booked for the next night and sleep in the common room until 7AM.

Step 8: Wake up two minutes before the morning staff comes on duty. Pretend you just arrived and ask to stow your bags there while you search for breakfast. Eat the best bacon and cheese omelette in Asia, and celebrate that you’re not spending all morning and afternoon on the bus today.


Transportation Math (or Maths, if you’re British)

I’m heading to Vietnam next week, which means I have an important choice to make. The bus from Vientiene—a 30-hour killer that has been fondly nicknamed “The Bus Ride From Hell”—costs 50 USD, while the VietJet direct flight clocks in at a whopping 140 USD, including one checked bag.

Despite my dad’s casual suggestion to splurge for the flight, I wasn’t even considering it until I found myself asking to use the toilet in a stranger’s house for the second time within one week because of two four-hour minivan rides with no bathroom breaks. (I will never ever deprive anyone of the toilet ever again.)

Even with Valium widely available over the counter at any pharmacy, maybe 30 hours isn’t such a good idea.

Still, the price difference is A LOT by Southeast Asian standards. Here’s what 90 USD can buy me:

– 240 bottles of water
– 16 nights in a hostel, including breakfast
– 36 entrance fees into a waterfall
– 72 big Beer Laos
– 1.6 kayak day trips
– 7.5 Muay Thai lessons
– 2 overnight elephant treks
– 10 oil massages
– 59 days renting a bicycle
– 43 trips to the all-you-can-eat ice cream buffet in Mae Sot
– 93 big Siam Sato rice beers from 7-Eleven
– 37 bowls of green curry with rice from the Night Bazaar
– 198 bags of fresh pineapple from a street vendor
– 15 all-inclusive nights at the organic farm
– 1.8 two-day slowboat trips across the Thai-Laos border

But put another way: spending 90 USD to shave off about 25 hours of sitting on a bus means that I consider my time worth at least just over 3 USD an hour…


temporary company

I am in quite possibly the most romantic place in Southeast Asia, a quiet little town in northern Laos full of private bungalows, surrounded by beautiful mountain views and split by the Mekong River. My future honeymoon, which will involve bargaining for all of my household decorations in the markets in Thailand, may legitimately start here.

I’m here with a boy who could best be described as a 6’5″ Dutch version of scruffy Ryan Gosling (think in The Notebook, when he’s building the house for Rachel McAdams), but we are splurging for two dorm beds in the only hostel in town (yes, this is actually MORE expensive than sharing a private ensuite room, because Southeast Asia is ridiculous) because we met three days ago and anything else would be weird.

The prevalence of couples around town is not a problem, though, the way it might’ve hit me a year ago. I’m here because I was surprisingly turned off by the busyness of Luang Prabang during two holidays, because I really wanted to go kayaking, because he has a guidebook and a plan, and because he casually asked me… not because I was caught by his dry charm and dreamy eyes.

So when we went on separate tours today because he wasn’t up for kayaking, we joked about probably being the only non-couples in our respective groups, and met up later. And when we go our separate ways on Monday, that will also be okay… though hopefully I’ll get to visit him back in the Netherlands someday.


Please Don’t Rush

I cross the border into Laos after seven weeks in Thailand and spend two days drifting down the Mekong River into my first city—what should have been a sign of the slow pace of this country.

The house next to my hostel burned down a few days before I arrive, which I guess was scary but relatively harmless for the hostel itself (except for knocking out the WiFi, to the chagrin of every backpacker staying there).

And yet, the 19-year-old hostel manager throws a party, complete with monks, offerings, and a massive outdoor feast to celebrate. Because here, they are more happy about the fact that no one got hurt than they are upset about any minor damage that might’ve occurred.

I try to learn something from this, but I can’t help getting more and more frustrated by the crawling internet speeds at various cafes around town. I’m not impressed with Luang Prabang, a curiously lacking UNESCO World Heritage site where I can’t seem to find the culture I found in the Medina of Marrakech or the beauty I saw in the Burgos Cathedral.

And then I finally find my new friends by accident at a local bar with an amazing view—without the assistance of technology—and I find myself slowly adjusting to this easygoing way of life. We spend all night bowling (typical in Laos), before I take a bumpy four hour bus ride up the worst roads I’ve ever experienced to Nong Khiaw.

It is beautiful… and I might be splitting my time here between lazing the riverbank beach, kayaking, and job searching.