Career Detour: I Was A Travel Writer! (Kind of)

When I first started traveling around the globe during college, I decided I wanted to be a travel writer.  I thought it would be cool to just travel around and write about my experiences!  So I asked a well known writer, Joe Cummings if I could assist him as a travel writer.  A few years later he contacted me from Thailand and said he needed help.  I was already living in Phuket, Thailand at that time, so I quit my job at a resort in Phuket and moved to Chiang Mai to start work as a travel writer assistant.  Basically I just went from village to village all around Thailand and Laos checking up on the things in the guide book that needed to be updated.  It was exhausting, dirty work but I enjoyed the ride.   After I was done with the gig, I knew it was not something I wanted to do for a living.  I had worn the same clothes for six months and had been in and outside of enough flea infested bedbug hotels to last me a life time..but what a ride it was!

I decided to write about some of my experiences in Laos..read on...




The Rat Capital of Laos
Back in 1998 when I took a position in Thailand as a research assistant to Joe Cummings, author of the Lonely Planet Thailand and Laos guides at the time, I expected to spend my days covering the beautiful beaches of Southern Thailand and the colorful hill tribes of the north. None of my travels in Thailand in the past five years had prepared me for the experience that lay ahead of me in Laos. Laos was not part of my original agenda. However, Joe had a deadline to meet and at the last minute, he decided it was better for me to make the quick tip into Laos while he stayed in Thailand to finish editing his manuscript.

I didn’t really know anything much about Laos, and Joe didn’t go into very much detail. He basically said that if I could deal with traveling in the Philippines, I could deal with traveling in Laos. He told me that travel was rougher there than in most Asian countries I had been to so far, and that it was a few decades behind Thailand as far as infrastructure was concerned. That was an understatement. Nothing he could have said could have prepared me for my adventure into this unknown region. Every experience you have on the road of life is different, but especially in the mountains of Laos where people eat rats and live in bamboo huts on stilts!

From Chiang Mai, Thailand, I flew via Lao Aviation – the national airlines of Laos – into Vientiane, the capital city. I had never been on such a smelly, dirty plane; one of the other tourists on the plane commented, “It smells as bad as it did the last time.” I think Vientiane is one of the ugliest capital cities I’ve been in – an ugly city with terrible potholes, dirt roads, low-grade cement Chinese-style shop houses, over-priced French restaurants, and a huge 500-year-old gold-leaf dome.

In Vientiane, they have a three-currency system; US dollars for all white people regardless of where they are from, Lao kip for the local Lao population, and Thai baht for the Thais or anyone else. At Joe’s suggestion, I stayed in a tiny unventilated room in a guest house near the Lao Aviation office for US$10 per night. It had a shower and a Western toilet. Not too bad compared with what I thought I would get. But I immediately noticed some black specks moving on the white bedding. In order to lie down, it was necessary to spread out my clean clothes on top of the bed like a blanket. So much for the clean clothes I had brought along. Instead of wearing them, I was using them as a barrier to protect against lice and bed bugs! I barely got two hours of sleep both nights.

My first assignment was to go Sam Neua, a small village in Northeast Laos which Joe’s guidebook had dubbed “the rat capital of Laos”. To get there, I had to fly in on a small Chinese aircraft called a Y-12. In Laos you cannot buy a plane ticket and fly out the same day, nor can you buy a plane ticket for a domestic flight and be guaranteed you will get on that flight. They’ll cancel a flight if the plane is not full or for any other possible reason. To buy a ticket, I had to go directly to the Lao Aviation office in the center of Vientiane. There are computers in the main office where you purchase international tickets, but in the adjacent domestic ticket office, everything is done manually. There were several desks with agents sitting behind small signs, each indicating which town in Laos they serviced. As I got in line to purchase my ticket, I noticed that the Lao man in front of me paid about US$25 worth of Lao kip for his ticket to Sam Neua. When it was my turn to purchase a ticket, the woman said it was US$70. I was shocked, and to top that off, she wanted it paid in US dollars only, not kip or baht. She wanted genuine US dollars or she would not sell me a ticket. Imagine that – there I was in the middle of Timbuktu, about as far away as I could possibly get from the US, and they wanted dollars!

The plane was an old beat up 17-seat Chinese plane that was bought by Lao Aviation when they started up their airline in 1989. The plane was terribly loud and frightening. All the passengers were crammed in among bags of rice, fresh produce, and loaves of three-foot-long French baguettes. Apparently, the Lao tradition of putting as many people as possible into a small space applied to the airlines as well. There were plastic bags, luggage, and rice bags stuffed into every possible crevice on the plane; in the aisle, under the seats, on your lap, everywhere. I was lucky to even find a seat belt on that plane. Obviously, Lao Aviation did not have very strict safety regulations regarding passengers or luggage. It was no surprise that the airplane smelled so bad. On this two-hour flight, I prayed and dozed all the way. In his Laos guidebook, Joe had mentioned that there was an enticing view of the mountains as you descended through the valley of Sam Neua. I did not want to witness this wonderful view as we were coming through the valley. I was just praying that this would not be the “Valley of Death”!

The landing was very rough, but went fairly well considering that they had to land by sight; no air-traffic controller was guiding the pilot. As we deplaned, I looked around me. I had arrived in a mountainous village with no familiar view in sight. There was a one-room shed with a green corrugated aluminum roof that served as the airport terminal. I looked around for signs of hotels or restaurants, but all I could see around me were thatched-roof shacks and black potbelly pigs. Nothing looked familiar like in Thailand. There were not even any taxis or motorcycle samlors. I started to panic because there were no signs or directions anywhere. For the first time in all my travels, I felt totally out of my comfort zone. The people were dressed in weird bright clothes, which looked funny because I was comparing them with clothes people wore in Thailand.

At that moment, Thailand seemed like heaven compared with this ugly village. At least in Thailand, they had stores and cars and motorcycle taxis. Here they had nothing. I was even beginning to worry about what I would find to eat. I wasn’t familiar with their food. And I was utterly exhausted; I had not slept the previous two nights. I had gone about 50 straight hours with no sleep. My head was pounding and my eye sockets hurt. As I sat down on the cement steps and waited for the flatbed truck to bring our luggage, I noticed the locals were hill tribe people in traditional dress. I was not really interested in all the culture that I was exposed to at that moment, because I was so exhausted and dehydrated. The women were wearing hand-woven sarong-style skirts and bright blouses. Some of them had on unusual headgear decorated with silver buttons, chains, and bangles. The men were wearing trousers and shirts. The locals were wearing traditional dress, not the usual Western-influenced commercial T-shirts like you’d see in other parts of Asia such as Thailand and the Philippines. Most of the people were wearing rubber thongs or cheap shoes on their feet. Finally, I noticed a man who drove up with a motorcycle car thing that I suspected was a taxi of some sort. I asked him in broken Thai if he would go to a hotel. “Pai rhong raem, pai mai?” (Do you go to the hotel?). He answered, “Dai” (Can).

He put my bag on the roof of the jumbo tuk tuk and I climbed into the back with some of the other passengers. Our first stop was in the middle of a local village. The children crowded around to stare at me. They were pretty cool kids. A 13-year-old boy was holding a young baby on his back. One little boy was pushing this toy around on the ground. This toy fascinated me. It was a stick attached to an old spool and when the spool was rolled along the ground, a tiny little propeller would spin around. It was a very cool handmade toy made from recycled materials. This was my first exposure to how resourceful the Lao people are.

After the driver dropped off all the passengers, he stopped at a guest house on the corner of the market. It was full – the man yelled out, “Tem laew!” Then we went to the next shabby place with the English words “Guest House” on a sign outside. It was also “tem” (full). I decided to just let the driver decide where he wanted to drive me to next, as I didn’t know where the places were and I was too exhausted to care. Finally, we went up to this dilapidated cement two-story building surrounded by a courtyard with a sign in English that read “hotel”. According to my guidebook, it was the only hotel in the village. A beautiful young woman from the front desk came out, and said in Laos “Wahn nee tem laew. Proong nee mee hong nawn.” (Today we are full. Tomorrow there is a sleeping room).

 At this point, I lost it. I started to cry big, fat tears. It was the first time I had cried out of desperation and exhaustion. I was beyond tired, I was hallucinating. There was no place for me to go. I couldn’t lie down. I needed some water, I needed to sleep, lie down, whatever. My head was throbbing and my mind was cloudy. The front desk girl noticed I was silently freaking out. I didn’t even try to get out of the back of the taxi. I just sat there paralyzed with a sense of abandonment. She came up to the back of the taxi and said, “Miss, we are full, can you come back tomorrow?” I was like OK, whatever. I was not going anywhere. The driver appeared to be a bit exasperated as well. He had this blond chick from America and there was no place to take her.

So, we drove back to this guest house that we had driven by before. A young, pretty Lao girl with chubby cheeks and wearing a sarong came out of the front and started speaking Lao to the driver. Basically at that point, I realized that if I did not take responsibility for my own welfare, no one else would and I could end up on the street. I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands. I got out of the back of the taxi and I said “Mee hong, mai?” (Is there a room?) The girl looked at me with these big huge brown eyes, and I repeated the question…. “Mee! Mee!,” she said. (There is! There is!) Obviously she understood the first time, but she was so shocked that I could speak her language that she could only just stare at me. Little did I know that this ratty looking guest house would turn out to be my favorite place to stay during my whole trip in Laos and Thailand!

The Lao Hong guest house was basically a cement two-story structure with four squat-toilets, 20 tiny rooms with handmade wooden beds, and one shared bath area. The bathroom was a giant room with a large cement water trough. To take a bath, you had to dump ice cold water over your head with a small plastic bowl. The Lao girl helped me carry my bag upstairs. The 10’x10’ room had a cement floor, two tiny beds covered with two thick blankets, and a white mosquito net. It was a bit chilly in the mountains, so the thick blankets came in handy. I was so relieved to have a place where I could lock the door, but the lock on the door broke immediately the first time I used it.

Right after I got my room, I went in search of drinking water. It was already quite warm outside and I had not had a drink in over six hours. I went downstairs into the “dining room” section of the guest house. It was basically just a small room with three or four tables, a small refrigerator, and a cooking area. There were plenty of Cokes and Sprites imported from Thailand lining the wall in the back. One of the Lao women followed me into the dining area and asked me what I wanted to eat. She opened up the refrigerator and showed me an egg and a bowl of rice.  “Ao khai dao? Ao khao niaw?”(Do you want fried egg? Do you want sticky rice?) Those were two items I was familiar with and knew were quite edible. “Ao.”

I sat down, gulped a Sprite, and waited for my fried egg and sticky rice. It was quite good. While I was eating, two young Lao guys drove up in a funky looking Russian army Jeep. They climbed out and to my surprise they were wearing Levis and “Cat” leather work boots. The two young Lao girls who worked at the guest house obviously were friendly with the two guys. The four of them sat down and starting drinking big bottles of Beer Lao. Within minutes, they insisted that I join them for a drink. So I spent the next two or three hours drinking Beer Lao with my new friends. I soon forgot how exhausted I was. It was really fun. I learned so many things about them with our Lao and a little understanding of English by one of the guys. The two girls who worked at the guest house were sisters and the cute Lao guy was the younger one’s boyfriend. He was getting drunk and he kept putting his arm around her. It was how they spent their afternoon siesta.

Around noon the whole town shuts down for a two-hour lunch break. At 2 pm they get back to work. A lot of people take that time for a nap or a few beers with their friends. Beer Lao is great. Everyone drinks it, even the waitresses; they join their patrons for meals and drinks. Lao people think it is essential to eat with someone else. If you choose to eat alone, they think you are weird. I never had so many invitations to eat with other people in my entire life. The whole time I was there, every time I would sit down to eat I was invited to share a meal with others. It was the most hospitable place on the planet that I had ever been to. It was fabulous. Unfortunately, the food was a bit strange; they ate half-boiled chicks in the eggs, fermented fish, strange vegetables, wood rats, and intestines from various animals. You never really knew what you were eating. It was best for me just to eat friend eggs and rice – a little spicy fermented fish sauce was good with that.

Stay tuned...to be continued when I have the time....



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