Monthly Archives: May 2012

Big Girls Do Cry: Disaster in Southern Laos


When traveling through foreign countries, there’s always an element of risk. Communication barriers are expected, though bigger concerns like theft, accidents or illness are always in the back of your mind. But somehow, being stranded in the middle of nowhere with no money, no friends and no idea how to get out was never a concern…

After having spent a day and a half in the Four Thousand Islands (Si Phan Don) at the tip of Laos, I was determined to squeeze in a quick visit to Champasak to see the town’s famous temple before racing to Pakse in time to catch a 15-hour bus to Bangkok where my flight to Myanmar awaited me. With Laos’ unreliable infrastructure and time restrictions, many said the trip couldn’t be done, but I was determined.

After discussing the situation with a travel agent, I worked out with the bus company to pick me up directly from my day-long kayaking trip in the Four Thousand Islands to take me to the boat jetty across from Champasak. The plan was to arrive in to the town in the evening, then rise early the next morning to view the temple before taking the two-hour journey to Pakse from where my bus would leave at 3 p.m.

Perhaps as a warning, my arrival in Champasak started off pretty bad. I reached the small village right after sunset and soon discovered how remote of an area I was in. No one spoke English, and though my guidebook had listed a series of guesthouses “near the fountain,” I saw no evidence of this anywhere. In fact, there were a few things my guidebook forgot to mention…

As I walked along the town’s main road in the dark, people just kept pointing further along, and I was beginning to think these guest houses were a myth. With my large pack on my back plus a smaller (and breaking) backpack in front, I would have gladly paid good money for a cab to a hotel, but there was no public transportation around. And as I walked about 10 minutes in, I discovered another problem: food poisoning.

Let me tell you, lost in the middle of nowhere carrying two large bags on either side of you is not the time you want to be running to the toilet.

Luckily, I soon found a hotel that, despite being pricier than what I had hoped for, was the best I could do given the circumstances. Since I only had 50,000 kip ($6.30) left on me, the hotel lady said I could just pay for the room and dinner the next day after I had reached the town’s only ATM in the morning.

When I awoke the next morning I had a very precise itinerary in mind: reach the ATM by 8 a.m., grab a quick breakfast, then spend two to three hours at the temple before heading back to the hotel to check out and grab the 12 p.m. bus to Pakse. If all went according to plan, I’d reach the city by 2 p.m., a solid hour before my bus departure. Ambitious? Yes. Impossible? No.

But as the machine returned my ATM card to me sans cash, I noticed the sign on the wall: “Foreign Cards Not Accepted.”

Ok, no big deal. The bank was due to open any minute and maybe they could work out something with me. As the clock continued to tick, 8:05, 8:10, 8:15, I began to wonder where the bankers were at. I knew things were more laid back in Laos, but geez, this was a bank and it was a Wednesday morning!

Soon I met another traveler, a German guy who was also disappointed (though much calmer) to find his ATM card didn’t work either. As the bank continued to remain closed, he remembered that today was Women’s Day, and therefore no women had to work that day.

Apparently all the people who worked at the bank in Champasak were women, because no one came to work that day.

At this point, my stress level began to rise. Apparently, the nearest ATM was in Pakse, anywhere from a half hour to a two-hour bus ride/boat ride away and also where I had to catch a bus later that afternoon. As I slowly accepted the fact that I did not have the time or the money to see the Champasak temple after all, I began to worry how I was going to get out. All I had on me was 50,000 kip, exactly the amount needed to take the bus to Pakse. The problem was, I still owed my hotel about $10 for my room and dinner, and there was no way I would be able to leave and return and still make my bus to Bangkok.

Luckily, the German guy had an idea. He too had to head to the ATM that day, and since he still planned to spend another couple days in Champasak, he agreed to return to my hotel to pay my bill for me, leaving his passport as a deposit. As it was still mid-morning, we thought we’d have plenty of time to reach Pakse before my bus, so we decided to try to hitch a ride.

As we walked along the road with our packs, the sun beating down mercilessly through the thick, sticky air, no one was stopping. We waited for more than an hour before the German guy had the idea to rent a motorbike and told me to wait at the shop for him to return with the bike. As he began to walk away, he suddenly turned around and told me that, if a bus comes along while he’s gone, I should take it anyway and not worry about paying him back for the hotel.

I waited nearly an hour and, not only did the bus not come, neither did he. As it was nearly reaching 12, the only guaranteed time I knew there was a bus, I decided I could not wait any longer. I had just enough money to leave and somehow I had to make it.

But as I headed back into town, I realized that I was back at the start near the boat jetty in the mysterious land of no English and no guest houses. No one seemed to know (or understand) anything about how or where to get the bus from Pakse, and it appeared my only hope was to reach one of the hotels on the other side of town.

As I looked down the road ahead, I began to panic. After not having eaten anything all day, I was feeling weak, and I was not looking forward to another long, sweltering, heavy walk. But as I looked at the time, I didn’t think I’d make it anyway. My German friend was nowhere to be found, and I honestly did not know what to do.

So, I did the only thing I could do, I sat down and cried.

This was definitely not one of my finer moments, but we all have our bad days, and this one was turning out to be pretty bad.

As I sat there, defeated, a Laos lady came over to me to ask me what was wrong. Though she could only speak a little English, I somehow communicated to her that I was stranded and needed to get to the other side of town to catch a bus to Pakse. The next thing I know, I’m on the back of a motorbike headed to the hotel area.

With only 15 minutes to go, I managed to book my bus just in time, relinquishing the last of the cash I had.

Nearly three hours later I reached my bus with just 10 minutes to go, enough time to reach the ATM (finally!), buy my ticket and run on board, honestly, desperately thankful to finally be leaving Laos.

I learned a very valuable lesson that day: always carry extra cash and never assume anywhere in Asia will have an ATM.

In retrospect, things could have been a lot worse, and I’m eternally grateful to the German guy and the Laos women who helped me on my way. Despite all the bad, it’s good to know that kind people exist everywhere.

Unglorious Food


Much to my father’s frustration, I’m not food adventurous.

I don’t eat weird parts of animals. I don’t eat weird animals. I won’t go anywhere near seafood. And, at the end of the day, if I can’t identify it, I’m not going to eat it.

This sort of limits my sustenance options when traveling Asia (and is probably why I will never get my own travel show :/).

That being said, I certainly have observed a lot of strange foods here, particularly in Laos, and have had one close call almost eating something I really did not want to try…

My second day in Vang Vieng, my German friend Marcel and I decided we would go explore one of the caves nearby. As we headed toward the entrance, we saw a row of women selling what looked like grilled honeycomb.

“I love honey,” I thought. “What a great chance for me to try local Laos food!”

Apparently, Marcel was thinking the same thing, so we both headed off to buy one.

Luckily, we decided to share.

Wrapped in pandanas leaves, straight from the grill, this new dish looked pretty good. But as Marcel slowly started to unwrap the honeycomb, I looked back at the grill and noticed something strange: there were bug larvae on top of those honeycombs.

Shocked, I looked at the grilling lady and pointed, trying hard to physically communicate the fact that her food was essentially covered in maggots. Seeing my reaction, she too communicated without words: she picked one up and popped it into her mouth.

As I turned back to Marcel, we began to look more closely at our snack. Instead of honey, we found that every single hole was filled with bug larvae! In fact, some of them were still wriggling around!

That was pretty much game over for me. Marcel, however, after his one bite, informed me the bug babies had an interesting nut flavor (he would not learn until later that many of them were still alive).

Please enjoy a lovely photo essay of our find plus a few other curious, apparently edible, things I’ve found around Laos.

Grilled Bug Larvae

Wriggling grilled bug larvae nestled between honeycomb

Chicken and Fish on a Stick

Chicken or fish?

Feces Soup

There are no words.

Little Fish on a Stick

Little fish on a stick in Four Thousand Islands

Monk Food

Alms made to monks in Luang Prabang

Eggs on a stick

Strangely, these eggs had no yolk in them...

Grilled Frog

Grilled frog in the Four Thousand Islands

Kruisin’ Through Kong Lo


Described by Lonely Planet as something out of “Star Trek,” the Kong Lo Cave is by far the coolest cave I have ever seen, and quite possibly, the coolest thing I saw in Laos.

Situated near Phu Hin Bun NPA in Central Laos, the 7.5-meter-long underground cave is accessible only by the motorized boats that travel beneath it, leaving you with a magical, albeit creepy, adventure through the dark.

To start, the journey to reach the cave is breathtaking in itself. Long bus rides drop you off in the middle of nowhere, where the only traveler support you have is a small row of guest houses situated in a tiny rural village less than a mile away from the cave entrance (i.e. no Internet, no ATMs). All around, endless green tobacco plants fill the fields, guarded by gigantic limestone cliffs (“karsts”), with only a handful of houses and bicycle-riding children breaking up a sense of overwhelming serenity.

Kong Lo Cave Village

Village outside of the Kong Lo Cave

The walk to the cave leads you through a small forest before reaching a sea-green river surrounded by more trees and karsts, which, aside from providing stunning scenery, holds the mouth of the cave.

At the edge of the forest, men playing a curling-type game and women selling snacks are eager to help you hire a boat. For about 50,000 kip ($6.30) a person, a boatman will lead you and up to two other people on a three-hour journey to explore the cave.

River Outside Kong Lo Cave

River Outside Kong Lo Cave

I took the tour with my new friend Ritesh, a man from Bangalore, India I met on the seven-hour long bus journey from Vientiane. And let me say, the cave was quite an adventure.

Entering into the mouth of the cave, things immediately get nearly pitch black, with the only light you have coming from your flashlight or headlight. As you cruise underground, sometimes stopping to carry the boat over shallow rocks, crazy-looking stalagmites and stalactites come into view, breaking up seemingly smooth cave walls all around. While I’m not “Trekkie” enough to vouch for the Star Trek reference, I will say half the time I was expecting Gollum to pop out from around the corner, or maybe a cursed locket

At one point, the boatman stopped so we could explore some of the cave on foot, and that’s when the really beautiful formations came into view. Icicle-looking stalactites dripped from the ceiling, while mini-sky scrapers came up from the ground, some connecting to all the way through from the top. At one point, I even found a “Michigan”-looking stalagmite, though in reverse.

Michigan Stalagmite

"I'm from here"

After about an hour or so, we saw a beacon of light ahead, “at the end of the tunnel,” if you will. Soon we found ourselves at the exit of the cave, floating along between more limestone karsts, green trees and water buffalo, where we had a quick rest, before plunging back into the dark.

While the ride back seemed quicker than the first ride, there’s something about cruising underground in a boat through the dark that is just exhilarating. For some reason, all I could think of was that I wished I had brought my iPod so I could play the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack.

I think next time I will ;).

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