Nong Khai (Sala Keo Ku)

The trip to Vientiane was an interesting experience. I travelled on a night bus that had (not so) reclining seats, down a windy and treacherous road. My seatmate was a very nice Israeli lady who had recently finished the military service. She got an amazing discount for us and two Hong Kong girls on the Tuk Tuk to the city center; the Lao driver initially asked for 80.000, but the mighty Jewish bargaining skills on the army lady brought it down to 25.000. I was very impressed.

Vientiane is very chilled out, has a nice view of the Mekong, and is itself quite a cute looking place, with a nice blend of traditional Eastern temple and colonial French style. But I'll not write about Vientiane today.

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Today I'll talk about Nong Khai, a small city on the other side of the Mekong, in Thailand, and Sala Keo Ku, a small village outside Nong Khai, with a very special statue park.

After a forthnight in Vientiane, my Lao visa expired and I had to leave the country and enter again, spending a a few days in Thailand. The closest city from the border is Nong Khai, which I did not explore much, but it didn't seem to have that much to offer anyway. Nevertheless, I was surprised to see how friendly people were, and how much more open, compared to Lao.

Here in Vientiane you can find quite a few 'after-40' expats who are trying to find a pretty local flower, but in Nong Khai I saw a much higher percentage. Some fellow travellers have given me their opinions about it, and it's usually negative. And usually against the old white western ugly old man who is in South East Asia trying to find a nice young wife. Well, the way I see it, it's not so bad. They probably have other reasons to be hanging around here, and finding a younger wife is no sin. But even if some of them are creepy old men who are here just for the plucking of flowers, well, I wouldn't say they're the evil villains and the locals are the poor victims. They seem to be nice guys, and their (usually ugly) girlfriends seem to enjoy the whole thing quite honestly - and I heard that they often break the old gentlemen hearts, after they build houses and exchange promises.

But the greatest part of all the "Visa Run", as they call it, was certainly the statue park and the temple within it. Some of the sculptures are just plain wicked!
While I was walking through the park, mesmerized by the really cool stuff there, enjoying the interaction with the Thai tourists, I heard a deep low beat somewhere, irregular and vibrant, which made me think of some sort of slow-motion DubStep. I followed it, and reached the temple, in which people were praying and... playing the Mighty Gong, which reverberated through the whole building. I could feel the sounds not only with my ears, but my whole body. I really hope to become the owner of a Gong in the future.
(I recommend seeing the following pictures in larger size, through this link)
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Luang Prabang

With the Vietnam visa over, I needed to decide where to go next. Lao was the most obvious choice. After being in Hanoi for a while, with its busy streets and long roads leading to distant neighbourhoods, I looked forward to taking the bus to Luang Prabang - a small town in the North of Lao, in a beautiful mountainous area. The trip took around 27 hours and was quite testing, as the roads in the mountains were not so smooth.

I had an idea of how Lao would be different from Vietnam. Nevertheless, I still got surprised by the cultural and infra-structural differences.

In Luang Prabang, I have been told, things are even more quiet and chilled out than the other main Lao destinations. I can say that the locals are very relaxed, and the street vendors are not nearly as pushy as any of the Thai, Cambodians and Vietnamese who do the same line of work. It's even more surprising to notice this during low season, when there are far fewer tourists. If you want it, you buy it. Otherwise, peace, and see you around - that's their attitude.

To make things even slower, it rained during most of the week. On the first 3 days I was there, it rained relentlessly, and tourists were trapped in their guesthouses (which are many, and well equipped, though the internet is really slow - I've been told by locals and foreigners that it's not the equipment, but the many filters that the government applies, and all the "communist privacy invasion").
The surrounding nature is remarkable, as the pictures from the waterfall show.

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Unfortunately, though it is a beautiful place, I learned that it is quite poor as well. As it is usual, there's the need to criticize US behaviour here as well (I wonder - will I find a land outside Europe where they haven't fucked everything up?)

During the Vietnam War, the US and Lao had a peace agreement. Which was completely ignored by the US, who carried out a "secret war". They dropped bombs in Lao like it was "bomb rain season", which helped the country in becoming the most bombarded nation in the history of warfare.

The cherry on top of it all? About 30% of these bombs, many shaped and colored to resemble pineapples, did not detonate when they were dropped. Which means that sometimes, a farmer's wife will try to grow a new rice field and will lose a leg. Or children will play between the trees, and picking up what they think are pineapples, or even metal scraps (which are worth quite some money for them), will blow up to pieces. The incomparable works of Uncle Sam.

Having suffered such atrocities in the past, the socialist government is now trying its best to not let the western world fuck their people in the ass again. Therefore, I understand the quite unique law they have here; sexual intercourse between Lao nationals and foreigners of any nationality is illegal, as is prostitution. Ironically, the age of consent is 15.

Though a great thing in my opinion, as it prevents sexual tourism from happening (which is now quite common in Thailand or Cambodia), it does discourage many of the Lao nationals from having any kind of exchange with foreigners. I had a really hard time meeting locals, and only managed to have interesting conversations with a few of them. While in other countries the ladies will look at me and giggle, and possibly approach me with the usual "Where are you from?", here in Lao they just look away; being with a foreigner can put you in jail, so they don't even want to be seen talking to one.

From what I heard, tattoos are also illegal, though that I do not understand at all.

Next stop: the capital city of Vientiane, because now my South-East Asian part of the trip is about to end, and I must arrange the details of the next part of the trip: China.