I spent the day yesterday on a slow boat headed down the Mekong to Pak Ou caves, which is a small network of caves surrounding Buddhist shrines which are hidden inside dark corners of the caves. The ride on the boat was about two hours, and provided fantastic visuals. The river seems incredibly dirty – it looks like chocolate milk. It moves at a very fast rate however, and the color could be due to the rapid movement of silt and dirt. The river winds and stretches through towering limestone mountains, many covered by bright green trees. Beyong the nearby mountains are more mountains, and beyond those are more mountains – they fade into the distance as far as one can see and from a distance don’t look totally unlike some of the mountains of southern Virginia.
On the way to the cave, we stopped at a small collection of villages. I can’t recall the names, but one was renowned for being a large producer of Laos whiskey, and the other for handwoven textiles. Both were tiny, with a population in the hundreds. The textile village had a dozen shops filled with the apparatus to make the textiles – large wooden structures build by hand, manned by women sitting in front of hundreds of threads extending five feet in front of them. They wove the threads into the textiles in a process which took weeks, depending on the size of the piece. A tremendously intricate and ornate 2×4′ piece which took two months to produce would sell for $100.
The whiskey village was filled with flaming barrels producing the high power drink which is everywhere in Laos. There are two kinds, one having a 15% alcohol content and the other with 55%, which is more akin to western whiskey. The weaker of the two is slightly thicker, sweet, and red, very much like wine. The more powerful is clear and tasted to me like grain alcohol. It was this that I drank with the old man on the porch of my guesthouse the day that I arrived in Vang Vieng. A wide assortment of both were available in bottles that filled large tables – many of them included various vegetation and snakes inside the bottles. I never really found what significance they had upon the drink; perhaps it’s just a cosmetic effect, or maybe the snake offers some kind of other purpose, as does the worm in tequila. I had a few shots of the clear whiskey with a vendor, bought a small bottle, and devoted half an hour to my own valiant attempt to communicate with the village locals. I passed a group of four women having lunch on wooden seats outside of the shop area and they offered some of their lunch to me and Cat. We both ate what they gave us, which wasn’t bad at all. I’m still not really sure what it was, but we both agreed that it tasted most like yams in coconut milk. We also found an area of the village entirely devoted to opium accessories, including weights and a truly wide selection of pipes. I saw one pipe in particular which caught my interest – it was nearly two feet in length and weight about four pounds. It was an intricately carved dragon, and the dragon had a small jade rock set into its mouth. This was really the champion of all non-glass pipes I’ve ever seen, and it was only $10. Although still too heavy and too large to travel with, so for now it will remain fondly in my memory.
I have to wait five more days until I can be issued my Chinese visa. My plan was to travel north, through Udom Xai to Boten at the Chinese border, cross there, and then head north through Kunming to Chengdu. Because I now have to remain in the country for an additional five days, and the travel from Laos to China would likely take another four or five days, I made the decision to depart from Vientiane by plane.
I truly love Laos, maybe moreso than Thailand, but at the same time I’m anxious and excited to return to China. In many ways, I miss it.