In Laos the sugar packets you get with your coffee are plastic, not paper. Humidity.

We’re in Asia at the right time however. Nice and cool at night, dry and hot in the day but bearable.

It got better as we went north. We headed out of Bangkok in Pat’s car – with Pat – to Khao Yai, Thailand’s oldest and some say best national park. We spent the better part of two days there looking for but only hearing elephants. But we saw a big brute of an alligator as well as a hornbill, lots of monkeys, deer and the elusive yeti. No, we didn’t see a yeti, just checking if you’re paying attention. We did see a Wookiee. Turned out to be an Australian hippie.

Naughty monkey stealing from truck
Naughty monkey, not Wookiee

For more details about this amazing adventure, click this link. Click it, fools!

Our Khao Yai visit, and in general our road trip to Vientiane, where none of us had been, was charmed with good karma from the start. Entering the park we accidentally paid the gate attendant 40 baht (a little over $1) too much; she chased after us several hundred meters to correct the mistake. We thought it fitting to donate that money at the park’s resident spirit house.

Spirit houses are usually dollhouse-sized edifices on raised platforms, erected near dwellings, businesses, offices, anywhere man has set up shop, so to speak. They house and comfort the spirit who lived on the land that has been temporarily borrowed by humans. Invariably they are festooned with flowers and other decorations and littered with incense and food and drink – rice, beer, candy, anything. Spirits get hungry too. When they get hungry they get irritable. Doesn’t do any good to offend your local spirit.

The bigger the spirit house, the more important the spirit. Even gas stations have them. Some places have more than one.

Spirit house at 7-11
7-11’s spirit house

Giving “good karma” money at the Khao Yai spirit house gave the rest of our adventures, I think, a sense of cosmic favor. Without question we had mostly good fortune the whole way.

The rough hilly country of northeastern Thailand slowly flattened and dipped into the valley of the Mekong River as we approached the border of Laos. We crossed over on foot, for the first time touching Communist soil, to the imagined strains of La Marseillaise … it was a remarkably bureaucratically smooth process, given expectations. Where we got those expectations I don’t know. After a short tuk-tuk drive we were ensconced in a trim little room in downtown Vientiane, near the Nam Phu fountain and the famous Scandinavian Bakery, purveyor of delicious delectables. Mmmm.

We stayed in Laos’ capital for four days. We saw the justifiably famous Golden Stupa, Pha That Luang. Lovely.


golden-stupa.jpg Pat and Marc at Golden Stupa
Golden Stupa in the sunlight; Stupa-fied

We saw the Arc de Incomplete, also known as Patuxai, also known as “the vertical runway” because it was made with concrete donated by the United States for the construction of a new airport. Even the Lao call it “a concrete monstrosity.” They call it that on the side of the structure itself. Check it out, they really don’t like the thing. It was started in the Sixties, modeled on the Arc de Triomphe, but almost constant war and depredation and deprivation – Laos is very poor – forestalled its finishing. Now it’s just a grey, weatherstained protuberance squat in the center of Vientiane’s Champs Elysee-like main drag, an object both of derision and resignation. But from afar it doesn’t look so bad, and the views from the top are terrific.

Patuxai View from Patuxai
Views of (left), and from Patuxai

We hung out by the river and sampled the excellent cuisine. Vientiane has some great restaurants. We sampled Beerlao for the first time. That’s 8,000 kip, or about 80 cents, for 640 mL. Then Pat went home.

Last photo with Pat
Last photo with Pat

We hopped on a bus for Luang Prabang, in central northern Laos. And then our adventures really began.