Barb and Ben Dietrich, recently retired, travelled through Southeast Asia for three months last year and sent emails “home” about the journey.
We took the slow boat from Thailand into Laos. It was a two-day trip down the Mekong River and we stayed in a little village on the way down. It was a trip I will never forget.
We loaded on the boat at 9 in the morning. It had seating for 70 people and they loaded over 100 people on the boat. They won’t leave until the boat is full – so we waited over 3 hours. The seats are old car seats and none of them are bolted down. The driver lives on the boat so the back part of the boat is his home – you could see laundry hanging out the back.
There was not a life jacket to be found but no one seemed too concerned. On our second day we hit some rocks and cracked the casing on the propeller, so we went to shore and 2 of the men dove under water, pulled the casing off, and then using only two pieces of wood and a machete they fixed it and off we went. We saw the most amazing village scenery all along the way: many fishing lines in the water, women doing their laundry, children playing, gardens on every inch of available space. We even saw an elephant logging!
Our first stop in Laos was Luang Prabang and we were so ready for this and ended up staying a couple of extra nights, enjoying the restaurants and markets. The city is set in the mountains along the Mekong River and has beautiful Buddhist temples and French architecture. You see many women selling their goods and food on the streets, some even cooking the food as they walked along. There are many bamboo bridges; they have to be taken down during the rainy season when the water is higher than the bridge.
The next stop was Vang Vieng and it is beautiful, right on the Nam Song River with limestone mountains in the background. It’s a big backpacker town, famous for caving, rock climbing, trekking, kayaking and tubing. Apparently this town was featured on 20/20 not long ago because young kids flocked here for the tubing and villagers set up drink stops along the way. It became such a problem with drugs and alcohol and many deaths that in December the government banned all drink stops and imposed hefty fines for anyone breaking this law.
Ben and I did some tubing and could see young children hiding in the trees calling the tubers over to buy their alcohol but not wanting to get caught. We kayaked down the river and there were some pretty good rapids in spots but so calm in other areas. It took us a couple of hours to kayak back. It was beautiful.
The cave tour was done on a tube; you just follow the rope. We had to use headlights in order to see where we were going. A bell hanging in one of the caves was an old bombshell from the Vietnam War. Our guide told us that 5,000 bombs were dropped for every person in Laos and that the people used the caves to hide in.
Our last stop in Laos was Vientiane, described as one of the worlds most laid back capitals. We only stayed for one night. They have a beautiful walkway along the Mekong River that goes on for miles and you can see Thailand across the river. People cook on the sidewalks and you can stop and sit on little stools and have your lunch. It was very common to see women selling their goods from their bicycles. Can you imagine peddling around town all day with that weight on your bike!
We found a rooftop bar and met some very happy Laos men drinking green label Scotch. Ben says it is very expensive liquor at home and these 3 guys were on their second bottle and offered Ben a drink too. Sitting behind us were people from China who kept turning around and taking our picture. It was quite the night but so fun as our nightlife has been pretty limited.
Everyone seems to work in Laos. We have seen very few tractors and it is common to see water buffalo pulling the plough and workers in the field hand picking crops.
Travelling here is very cheap. Our hotels vary, usually from $30-$40.00/night and all have been very nice and clean and include a big breakfast, which keeps us going until supper. Dinner costs around $10.00 for the two of us. A local beer is 60¢ to a dollar and if you drink their draft beer, it can cost as low as 25¢. I can see why so many young backpackers love to travel here.
The songtao is one of their main modes of transportation. People sit along the benches and when the benches are full they stand on the back shelf and hang on.
Our travels continue to be going well and we are loving the experience of travelling in such a different part of the world. The culture here is truly amazing and almost every day brings something new.
On to Vietnam.
Follow Barb and Ben’s journey:
They left the farm to see the world: First stop Thailand
They left the farm to see the world: Stop #2 Laos
They left the farm to see the world: Stop #3 Vietnam
Barb’s letters are reprinted with permission; the content has been condensed and edited.
Photo credits Barb and Ben Dietrich
© Riding the buses 2014