Leaving Laos!

What was supposed to be a trip of a few weeks turned into an adventure of almost three months. I was “embedded” with an international NGO medical crew (more on that in later posts) photographing their activities. Now I’m leaving Laos. Click any image for a larger version.

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Fisherman on the Mekong, my last night in Laos.

Laos is amazing—I think I’m in love. This is one of those posts that could go on and on, and I was going to try to keep it brief and to only 20 28 or so images. However, if you are looking for brevity, this ain’t the post… I go could on for hours. I will write some more posts on certain aspects I want to delve into in greater detail in later posts, but let’s get on with it…

Laos is full of stunning temples, both ancient and new, and all of them are guarded by some sort of fierce creatures. I prefer the dragons:

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Carved stone and a metal tongue… nice.


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Pha That Luang Stupa in Vientiane.

One of the wonderful things about Laos is that you just never know what you are going to come across. It might be a herd of water buffalo on the road, a diminutive Hmong woman with the traditional black laquer on her teeth, or, a pachyderm being “driven” down the road by her handler, a mahout. Well, when I saw this elephant I got so excited that I ignored one of the rules I learned as a kid when I was regularly around large dogs and horses: don’t ever go running up to an animal you don’t know or understand. Nope, not me, throw past experience to the wind. I charged out of the Land Cruiser like an idiot without even putting my shoes on and went running right up to the elephant. The elephant looked as scared of me as a dreadnought would have been of a dinghy; the Mahout, on the other hand shouted something to (or at) me. But, in my blissful ignorance of his language, I had no idea whether he said “Don’t ever run up to an elephant like that, you jackass!” Or, if he said “Take your damn picture, would you, my elephant and I are hungry and we don’t want to be late for dinner!” And, as if to prove I hadn’t startled the elephant in the least, she turned her head and sprayed her mahout with a trunk full of water. She wasn’t bothered by me; can’t guarantee he wasn’t.

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Elephant’s not pissed in the least. Mahout might be otherwise…

One of the things I was a little disappointed about was the fact that the dogs and cats here are much more wary of humans (Some Lao eat dog, and I saw some butchered in the market. I don’t think I’ll post those pictures. I asked about eating cats and one of my Lao friends looked at me like I had slapped her grandmother: “Only the Vietnamese eat cat!” she said, most indignant. Yep, I’m still a cultural fish out of water here). My falang friend said the dogs were wary because I smell different than the Lao and that I’m much taller. And, to my bafflement, my usual methods of “talking” to dogs and cats with certain vocal sounds and gestures worked exactly 0% of the time. Neither dogs nor cats would respond like their brethren in US! I couldn’t believe it, but it makes sense. They’ve never been called or commanded in my language, so why would they respond to it. Interesting.

However, not all was lost. After a long, hot, and dusty drive in the Land Cruiser, my group stopped to cool off by a river in the Xiengkhor District. I took a seat by this fine fellow who was taking in the view of the river passing by a nice little garden. I petted him, he lolled his tongue out and leaned over in that posture dogs take when they are comfortable with you.

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Yep, all is good in the world.

Another wary animal I regularly came across on my many adventures exploring the Xam river were water buffalo. I really like water buffalo, not sure why. It just seems cool that I would come across them grazing or deciding that it was time for a dip in the river. Mind you, these aren’t small animals, they typically weigh anywhere between 600lbs. to 1200lbs. And they actually submerse. I have a video clip of this herd and at one point one of them goes completely underwater for about 5 or 6 seconds. And if you haven’t read it, here is an interesting post about some Hmong killing one of their buffalo for food (warning to the squeamish). Alternatively, I’ll have a very funny water buffalo/falang story coming soon.

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Herd in full submersible mode.


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A fairly small female. Still, don’t get between her and her baby if you value unbroken bones…

Another cool thing about Laos is the omnipresent geckos. I have a saying that if you have a gecko in your room, he’s your lucky gecko. Lucky? Yeah. After you get the barrage of vaccines required for traveling in this part of the world, you realize that many of the diseases you will encounter are lovingly delivered by mosquitoes. Geckos are pretty rapacious eaters of mosquitoes, so you can see why having one or more hanging out in your room is good luck indeed. The next picture, however, isn’t of my lucky gecko… more like two geckos getting lucky.

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Hmmm… maybe the geckos here read the Kama Sutra??

I’m no entomologist, but other than the mosquitoes I really did like seeing some of the fascinating bugs they have in Laos. Some of them are completely wicked looking, but I was never bitten by anything other than the damn mosquitoes. Oh, and it isn’t an insect, but I did get attached onto by a leach when I was photographing near a stream. Didn’t even feel the bugger stab/bleed me. I don’t think I’ll show that picture either, it’s kinda bloody and gross because the leach was inside my shoe. Back to the insects:

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Looks like a huge queen ant. Finger for scale. Pinchers fore and aft?


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Man, serious thrusters on that moth! Close up they look like feathers…


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A walking stick. More like a walking branch, as it was 4″ long, with antennae, 7″!

This Praying Mantis was a trip. He moved in this really slow back and forth movement, like an insect cha cha cha. And, when I put my camera near him, his head whipped around and he looked directly at me with both eyes. He started the cha cha cha towards me, but at the rate he was going it was going to take him fifteen minutes to get 10″. So, I grabbed another bug and put it in front of Mr. Take Forever. Wow… talk about a blur! He moved so fast I barely saw him take the bug out of my hand. Snatch is a better word. And he started chowing on that bug like he was at a speed eating contest. Bug was a goner…

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Praying Mantis. About 5″ long.

Of course, you can’t talk about Laos without talking about what it looks like. I’m committing a severe disservice here… the countryside is so gorgeous I could make a post longer than this one with just landscape photos. So these will have to do. Or, of course, you could dust off that passport of yours and make the trip…

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Panorama of rice fields near Xiengkhor

This is just one of those picture you can’t capture with a point and shoot camera. The sun was red orange, with a ring of darker red around its circumference. During many of the nights in April, the moon would rise and be red. Now, I don’t mean red-tinged, or red-ish, but this amazing almost pearlescent burnt red. Looking at the moon during that period made me feel a sense of wonder.

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Red. Burnt red. Pearlescent Burnt Red.


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Down the river. I love the colors of the boat.

One of the things I will really miss is a slight variation on a staple of the country: sticky rice. Not just the standard sticky rice (or the black sticky rice that when cooked turns purple)…. no. But the sweet sticky rice that is mixed with coconut and then pressed into a piece of very thin bamboo. Convenient to carry, easily decomposable packaging, and really wonderful contents:

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So simple yet so delicious. I’m going to have to try to learn how to make this at home…

Ok, ok, so one of the things I like to do when traveling is look for the hilarious mangling of the English Language (sadly, it was pretty easy to find this also in NYC.) or what are most likely mis-translations. This was on the wall of my favorite guesthouse (essentially a small hotel) in Phonsavan. So… moving the furniture is just as bad as putting nude pictures up on the wall? Or since moving furniture is listed first in item #10, is it a greater offense to move furniture than put up nude pictures? The must have been a real translation party as the left side of the sign is in Lao and the right English. However, the owner is Vietnamese… and after showing him the word for “Receipt” in Lao script in my phrasebook when I was checking out, he had to call someone on his cell to find out what it meant. I’ve stayed there on four or five occasions and now I just greet him in Vietnamese and mime everything else. He smiles, I get a very nice clean room. It works.

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I ALWAYS get permission from the manager before hanging nude pictures on the walls. Seriously.

This was one of my favorite finds in a Vietnamese restaurant in Xam Neua. In the USA, a grown female chicken is a hen. A male is a rooster. However, in much of the world a male chicken is a cock. When roosters are bred for fighting, they then engage in a cockfight. Of course in much of the English speaking world, cock is slang, and refers to male genitalia. There are numerous variations… just check out the twenty three pages of definitions of cock in the Urban Dictionary.

Anyway. Now you can rest assured that somewhere in the world you can not only eat regular Rooster Penis, but Sautéed Rooster Penis. Or, a regular Cock’s Cock, or Sautéed Cock’s Cock. I digress. But what a digression! And on top of that, you get a free language lesson! You can order your rooster genitalia and preferred method of cooking (from top to bottom) in Lao, English, and Vietnamese. See how traveling expands your world view!

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50,000 Kip for a Sauteed Penis Cock! Man, what a deal! That’s about $6!

Now, back to what’s important… the above all best thing about Laos was the people. I’m not claiming everyone was a shining star, but that pretty much goes for every country. To meet the gems, you have to deal with the assholes. After a total of twelve weeks in country, I’d have to say the the gem to asshole ratio swings much more heavily to the gem end of the spectrum. To wit:

I regularly frequented this small store on the main street in Xamtai. The young woman that ran it was very nice, they were open pretty late for Lao standards, and her sweet grandfather was occasionally there late minding the store when the grand daughter was taking care of the rest of the family. As a matter of fact, he was the one that introduced me to Laolao, the potent rice whisky homemade all over Laos. I was dragged down into a circle of octogenarian Lao men late one night and offered a shot of the whisky from a clear gallon jug with herbs floating near the bottom of it. I’d never had it, it would have been rude not to accept it, and I’m always ready for something new. Well, almost always. Good god, it was like Tequila gone bad, then mixed with a little petrol. Probably diesel. Definitely homemade, and I briefly feared I’d lose my eyesight. But other than being more unpalatable than any other liquid that has touched my tongue, I survived. I kindly thanked them and motioned that I had to get going with the other falang (who of course were all laughing at me)… and quickly got up before I got talked into another shot.

So, in addition to the infant, the daughter has this young man for a son. I liked him immediately, because the first time I came to the store he barreled out to me and said Saibidee! While giving me a nop. I would be walking by the store and he would come running across the street and he would give me the Lao greeting. So, I started to teach him how to shake hands and say Hello! (A lot of shouting going on here between the both of us, one of those odd mistakes that seems to persist that if you raise your voice to someone that doesn’t speak your native tongue, they will understand you better). So then, he would come out to greet me any time he saw me and we would do the Lao greeting, then the Western greeting. Occasionally he would shake with his left hand, but hey, things take practice.

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The coolest kid in all of Xamtai.

As I have mentioned, I spent a great deal of time on the Xam river photographing the agricultural water wheels (a small folio of those coming later this year) that were prevalent there. One day I wanted to make it to the other side, but I didn’t want to hike all the way back into town to the only bridge and then hike all the way back up to where I wanted to work. So, I was standing there on the shore feeling perplexed about getting across—remember, I had 40lbs of camera gear strapped to my back. I looked over and noticed this woman and her infant looking at me. She saw the gears turning in my head about how to get across and then just pointed at me and the pointed to the bank on the other side of the river. I’m guessing I was a pretty odd sight standing there but she must have thought that was what needed to happen. I gladly jumped in (trying not to capsize the shallow boat) and we were across in about two minutes. I gladly thanked her, and I handed her some Kip, but I think that surprised her and I hope that I didn’t offend her. Then she was off, back to the other side of the river.

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Gangway! Load of Falang coming through!

On one of the days when the the crew spent an inordinate amount of time bouncing around in the back of the Land Cruiser—hot, sticky, and getting coated with the ever-present fine red road dust—we stopped at a stand selling watermelon to stretch our legs and eat some of their delicious offerings. I was wandering around as usual with my point and shoot and came up to this tiny house with a large tarp covered in drying rice:

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Drying rice before it is hulled.

Being my nosey self, I walked up the embankment to take a closer look and take a snapshot and the kids were all smiles. Then, the mother called the two girls into the house and I was about to move away not sure if I had just inappropriately crossed some sort of line. But, moments later as I was about to go down the embankment, the mother and kids all appeared… but the girls had their matching sweaters on for a photo! I gladly snapped away. These are the times that I wish I had a Polaroid to give them a print, but I just have this digital image, nothing tangible to give them for their posing for me. Nothing to reciprocate (other than showing them the LCD screen on the camera) for making the effort to look their best for a visitor to their country. I feel like I’m just taking and not giving anything back. That makes me feel a little sad inside.

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Man! What is up with this falang and his camera?!

During my time in Xamtai, I spent a great deal of it in the hospital. So I would often see kids (and adults) sitting around waiting, bored, not unlike hospitals in most places. I’d set up my camera to photograph something and then I’d get that tingling sensation that I was being watched. Sometimes it was curious adults who would want to know what I was doing but didn’t know how (or were too intimidated) to ask. But more often than not, it was some kids. They were more curious, and often less intimidated. So, I started engaging the kids more. These cute Lao/Hmong girls found me entertaining for a very brief period. They both had sick relatives in the hospital and pretty much wandered around doing whatever kids their age would do when there isn’t anything to do.

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Cute Lao/Hmong girls not knowing what to make of me.

This is a picture of the girls with my favorite nurse. She was one of those complete hard asses with a heart of gold. An endless number of times I would come to the hospital with my gear and she would look at me like I was completely nuts: More pictures?? I would reply Oh yes, many pictures! And she would shake her head and dismiss me with a sweep of her hand. Then she would smile a slight smile. Actually, every time I saw her very serious face there was laughter in her eyes. She took her job seriously and I felt… I felt that somehow she was taking care of me also.

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Nurse, cute Lao/Hmong Girls.

As I mentioned above, there was no shortage of camera assistants in Laos. While I was taking an image at the front of the patient ward, these two fine gentlemen snuck up behind me to see exactly what the hell was going on there. Their mother barked at them to stop bothering me, but I motioned to her that it was OK as long as they didn’t bump anything. It was great fun for them. I have a 5″ LCD monitor on my camera that looks like a small television. When I was done shooting and contemplating what to photograph next, one boy ran inside through the field of view of the camera and the other saw that it was live—they were on television! Utter chaos ensued. One would run through the picture whilst the other one would watch laughing hysterically. Switch. Rinse, lather, repeat. I earned serious marks for being the entertainment that night.

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Can we run in front of the camera again? Please???

Yep. More assistants. In this case, near a remote health center very far out in the countryside. So, as I was setting up these six decided that I was mostly harmless and that a closer look would be worthwhile.

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Critiquing my technique. A tough crowd!

On a pretty hardcore trip to Xiengkhor (eight hours driving the first day, visiting three hospitals the next day, and eight hours back to Xamtai the next) we were invited to what we thought was going to be a small dinner with a friend in a local family. Surprise! It was also a going away party as one of her daughters was soon to leave for Vientiane for school. So, instead of a small dinner, the entire village was there celebrating a Baci (pronounced Buy-see). Eating, drinking lots of Beerlao and Laolao, and traditional Lao dancing to a really loud live band. To the right is our friend’s younger daughter, and to the left her friend. Both decked out. The girl on the left asked me to dance (there is no touching in Lao dancing, the men are in a circle on the inside and the women in a circle on the outside, the circle rotates and you stay next to your partner. Every so often you spin around your partner and return to your respective circle). Both the men and woman make these very seductive motions, but only with the hands. I’m sure I looked like I had some serious nerve disorder; the woman did it with amazing grace.

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Super cute. And in their nicest silk sinhs.

I really do have an attachment to Laos. I don’t want to sugar coat it, it has numerous problems like every other country. It is communist run, so it is advisable if anyone approaches you and asks you political questions, you either act like you don’t understand or immediately just move away. I was also offered drugs on two occasions, both times in Vientiane, the capital. Once by a tuk-tuk driver, and I just acted like I didn’t hear him. Another was an offer of opium by a very old woman in the back of her store right on the boardwalk of the Mekong! My friend and I demonstrably motioned that we absolutely did not want that. It could have very well been a scam with the police as corruption is pretty rife. You buy it, and the cops are waiting for you. They then confiscate the drugs, then they hit you up for a bribe—to not take you to jail. Then again, I’ve been offered more drugs in one hour in a park in NYC than in three months in Laos. And don’t ask about political corruption in the USA—it’s just been legalized there. Just avoid those two things in Laos and you shouldn’t have any problems.

I don’t want to end on a negative note though. This was a life-changing experience for me and I found the people so kind and caring that at the beginning I didn’t even know how to respond. I really hate to admit this, but I was even a bit suspicious. Every time I went to explore the river by myself, I would be repeatedly asked by the national staff where I was going and if I was going alone. It irritated me at first; then someone much wiser than I set me straight: they felt seriously responsible for me. They wanted very much that nothing bad would happen to me, and would accompany me or help me if I just asked. Amazing.

Another thought: As I crossed over the Friendship Bridge into Laos the first time, I had a brief, but interesting philosophical conversation with Lynn, a Canadian woman sitting next to me. At one point, she said “We North Americans aren’t very kind.” At first I bristled slightly at the comment. What did she mean?! I’m kind, aren’t I? But now after three months, I realized I had found true compassion in Lao and am sad that I didn’t always reciprocate it. She was right: it was foreign to me. Try this mental exercise on for size: you see a Lao or Hmong trekking through your neighborhood. Do you walk out and try to greet that person? Do you invite them in to your home for tea and dinner?  Would you do that?

Even though I am not religious in the least, I do find the basic philosophical tenets of Buddhism (desire creates suffering) are brilliant and meditation has helped me immensely with stress. I think that much of the kindness and compassion I found in Laos stems from this. I hope Laos can hold onto its Buddhist core while it develops. It will be an infinite loss if it doesn’t.

Leaving Laos.

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  1. Lisa Marie Hellmer May 15, 2013 at 9:59 am #

    Thanks for letting me “see” Laos through your eyes, you are so talented, cute too…

  2. KR May 21, 2013 at 3:02 pm #

    People are truly missing out on a very good view of another country if they do not read this mans blog. They may never see this country in person but thru Jon’s eyes are able to visit so to speak. Even with language barriers life is good. KR

    • Jon Witsell May 22, 2013 at 10:09 am #

      Hi KR,

      Thanks for the kind comments! Laos was an amazing place, and without a doubt I’ll be heading back there to visit again..

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