July 19, 2007

Reveling in Rice
Vang Vieng, Laos

I tend to just wander around a lot. When you're looking for something, it's hard to find it. When you're looking for anything, it's quite easy. This was how I ended up in the middle of acres of growing rice.

Walking along a rural dirt road, leading to Lord knows where, I came across a make-shift bamboo ladder, constructed for the purposes of circumventing the barbed wire fence flanking the road. Cave visits are a popular pastime for travelers to this city, and someone had created a small, hand-painted sign with an arrow pointing to such a place.

I was less interested in the cave as I was in access to the rice paddy. Up and over I went—the smile growing as my eyes widened. This was my first time in a rice paddy, and something I'd always wanted to do.

It was early evening, just after a rainstorm, and the scene couldn't have been any more wondrous. Green paddies of rice, in various stages of growth, were stretching towards the horizon. Rugged limestone mountains jutted up the earth, like the fingers of a great hand encircling a palm-filled plain of rice. Rainwater still clinging to anything green, the stillness of the landscape was only broken by distant animal calls.

I slowly made my way through the rice, my field of vision absolutely saturated with the color green. If the color was a taste, it was almost palatable in this place. I lost interest in walking to the cave, instead using the remaining daylight to walk amongst the growing grain.

The rice paddies are absolutely teeming with life. Tiny frogs leapt from my path every meter or two, small fish swim about in the flooded paddies, butterflies and dragonflies floated in the air around me—I was rather entranced by it all, knowing full well that I could only grasp but a superficial fraction of the complex paddy ecosystem I was immersed in.

I tried to keep my mind off the biting/stinging animals and insects that I didn't want any part of: Leeches, (dengue-carrying) mosquitoes, and snakes. On my way out of the fields I saw a large splash about two-meters ahead of me. I was trying to photograph some of the minnows in the shallow water (rather unsuccessfully), and wondered how big the fish was that made that splash.

I stood motionless, my gaze piercing through the green of the paddy, when I caught sight of what made the disturbance. I saw it only for the briefest of moments, as it sped out of the water, crossed my path, and vanished into the field to my right: A massive snake, with the girth the size of my forearm. Yeah, that was enough of a hint to make my exit.

The Best Cheap Guesthouse Yet

I'm absolutely enraptured by the guesthouse I'm staying at. This is, dare I say it, probably the best of the cheapest places I've ever lived in.

Maylyn Guest House (telephone #: 020-560 4095) was recommended to me by a meek female traveler from Holland in Nong Khai. Its location is striking distance from town, tucked away in a small, isolated community that lives across the Song River. During the rainy-season the river swells, knocking out the dry-season bridges. The only way to access to the opposite side is to pay to use a pair of private, recently constructed bridges. To cross here requires a toll payment of about US$0.20 for pedestrians, which is (thankfully) enough to keep visitors, vehicles, and development away. Locals pay as well as tourists, and make their trips into town count.

Maylyn Guest House is a collection of thoughtfully constructed bungalows and chalets, situated in the middle of a rustic garden that could easily double as a butterfly farm. I've never seen such a concentration of wild butterflies in my life (as I have here), and some are so large in size they easily surpass the wingspan of small birds.

My $3 Room at Maylyn Guest House

There's no man-made noise pollution in this place. The only sounds I hear are that of the rain, nature, and the occasional snorting pig or calling rooster from the neighbor's property.

My US$3/night room/guesthouse has a smiling staff; private quarters; a new, hole-free mosquito net over a comfortable bed; clothes hangers; a door I can use my own padlock on; patio; western toilet; and—best of all—a hot shower. I've stayed in plenty of US$3/night beds before, but the access to hot water pushes my opinion of this place over the edge from good to great.

The downside to Maylyn stems from the same qualities that make it so good. It's isolated from town, over a toll bridge, which means you've got to pay to access Internet and food options (that are the opposite of plentiful on this side of the river). There's also the nature, which for someone who has finally suppressed their fear of (small) spiders—ahem, me—can lead to terrifying encounters with sizable arachnids that desire not to eat flying insects, but rats, birds, and disobedient children.

Rooms go from US$3–6. Extra dollars daily add a bigger living space with queen-sized mattress and bathroom en suite.

A Town in Ruins

The same girl that told me about Maylyn had given me her less than enthusiastic opinion of Vang Vieng proper. We seemed to be in tune with our choice of accommodations, and it was no surprise that her thoughts on the town were in line with what I was seeing.

I'm not sure what Vang Vieng looked like a decade ago, but it has since turned into a utter traveler ghetto. It's taken me a day or so to get around to visiting the place since I arrived, and what I saw tonight was Thailand's Khaosan Road.

Taking a queue from Thailand, the Lao people have discovered tourists and their love of "pancakes"—I've never seen such a saturation of pancake-producing street vendors in one location before—easily ten fold the number found around Khaosan.

Repetitive food vendors is a problem found all over Latin America—diversify, people! Do yourself (and everyone) a favor a change your offerings up. If I saw 30 vendors selling pancakes (or fried chicken, if we're talking about Latin America), and then saw someone selling salads at midnight, I'd probably hit up the salad (instead of walking away). But no, there's 31 vendors, all selling the same thing—like a bunch of hookers reporting back to the same pimp. The pimp doesn't care who makes the money, as long as someone's earning.

And then there's the television bars—restaurants designed for the sole purpose of getting people liquored up enough to endure the sitcom Friends, which most every establishment has on DVD, looping repeatedly for the past few years. I'm dead serious—it's mentioned in my dated guidebook, which means the phenomenon has been going strong for the better part of this decade.

My guess is that Lao trial and error eventually settled on Friends, which requires a heavy amount of alcohol in the bloodstream to find entertaining, as opposed to Seinfeld or The Simpsons, which are fun to watch sober.

Bars and bungalow encampments by the river feel like a modern-day, Vietnam-esque decompression lounges for G.I.'s on leave (minus the hookers and fights). I swear this place is as close as you can get to a cluster of opium dens, without the opium.

I'm so thankful that I'm on the opposite side of the river, and away from this mess.

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