Monday, November 14, 2011

Battling the Vang Vieng Mud Monster with Hmong Help

Laotian village against mountainous back-drop near Vang Vieng 
Rent a bike- $2. Head out of the tiny tourist area and start cycling up the main drag. Contrasting the small bars, restaurants, and convenience stores that line the streets stands a Buddhist temple, lighting the road in its splendid colors, behind it the lush, rain forest covered mountains. I keep pedaling, not exactly sure what I am looking for or where I’m headed, but secure in the knowledge it’s impossible to get lost, this being the only road and all.
I stop at Vang Vieng high school, watching students ride in on their bicycles, all holding umbrellas, to shield them from the tropical sun this moment, and for their way home, the afternoon's guaranteed rain storm.
Vang Vieng children riding to school with umbrellas
Passing trucks and buses kick up dust from the dirt road. The drivers of SE Asia's ubiquitous motorbikes smile and wave friendly hellos to me as they slowly ride by. 
Seven km outside Vang Vieng, I pull off the road and onto a gravel path. Not far ahead a water buffalo sits lazily in a gigantic mud-hole. I try to impress him by riding through his domain, but instead of proudly passing by, my tire collapses into the foam-like softness of the terrain. If I was going more than 1 mph I would have flown over the handlebars, but without the necessary forward momentum to perform this feat, I instead fall off the bike to the side, my legs sinking close to a foot into the mud. 
I pull my right leg out with great difficulty, placing it back on more “solid mud” but my left leg is stuck. “Hey water buffalo, call for help! Use your bell!”
With enormous difficultly and strength, I remove my leg from the trap, well, most of it at least. The Mud Monster has swallowed my shoe. I had to pull so hard to get my leg out, my sneaker was the left over prize in the battle for survival. Warily I reach in, and attempt to pull it back to safety. The Mud Monster growls, but relents.
I continue, finally arriving at the river and the local Eco-Lodge. No one’s there, but looking around I find evidence of Laos’s Communist past.
Photo of Lenin on the wall in Vang Vieng at the Eco-Lodge
The bar is fully stocked and if someone were dastardly enough to wish to steal from these poor people, it would be all too easy. Instead I meditate for 15 minutes by the river before someone comes and offers to cook me lunch.

I keep going down the road, 14km later, I find signs pointing me towards the ”Great Caves of Vang Vieng.”  What choice do I have but turn-off and head in this direction. I stop by a canal with children playing, cannon-balling, diving into the water and cooling off on this hot day.
Hmong children at play in this distant canal
I finally arrive at cave headquarters, a simple stand renting “torches” (flashlights) for $1.25. A group of men lies on a wooden deck beneath a thatched roof. After briefly exploring the caves, which I was ill-equipped for, I ask if I can join them.
Their Hmong, a minority group in Laos who fought against the communist Pathet Lao during the Laotian Civil War, and were allies of the United States during the horrendous, turbulent times of the Vietnam War. Knowing that now, I shouldn't have been so surprised to find them able to speak some English
They tell me stories from when they were young children, of an American fighter jet being shot out of the sky, the pilot successfully crash landing close by to where we are. The Hmong found him first, alone, injured, and naturally frightened. “Come with us,” they implored him. He refused, behaving like a cornered animal.
“Come with us, we will protect you,” they tell him again, but he won't leave his downed plane which might be the only way the U.S. could locate him.
“Come with us before the Communists find you, they will kill you. We will hide you and contact your commanding officer.” Finally, he heads out with them. A few weeks later he is re-united later with his squadron.

They ask questions about America, amazed as I tell them the differences between their impoverished country and my own. Amazed at the possibilities, the resources, wealth, and ability to advance economically that America offers. It's as if I was describing Disneyland to a child who had never been. 
me and the local Hmong
I ask about the forests, and whether not there are tigers.
“Not here,” comes the response, “But over the mountains, yes.”
“Do you hunt tigers?”
“No, it is illegal. Plus when we have guests we like to show them the wild nature. We don’t see tigers, but occasionally, deep in the mountains, we hear them in the night. Their roars are very loud, but they are scared of man.”
“For good reason. So these forests are protected?”
“Oh yes, protected forests. The trees provide air conditioning, create rain, we like our forests. The government protects the forests.”
“The government protects the forests?” I ask a little surprised. ”Is the government in Laos good?”
I didn’t know it when when I asked, but this is a taboo question in Laos. It’s a one party system and there is no opposition. Speak badly of the government and you wind-up in prison, for how long no one knows. Only later did I realize that most people would refuse to respond honestly, but they answered me, and I believed them sincere.
“Government is good,” they nodded, “Protect forests, help us a little. Government okay.”
Later research corroborated that they were correct in telling me their forests were under protection, the reason for this however is not necessarily a forward thinking government, but rather how difficult it is to remove lumber from the very steep mountains, so why not go ahead and deem them “protected lands.”
fishing in the rice paddy
“It’s going to rain soon, you have long ways back to Vang Vieng,” they tell me. I nod my head, and thank them for their time. Before I leave, they ask me one favor. “Please tell all your American friends back home, that the Hmong people love them. That America is number one. We love America.”
“I can do that.”
“Tell them Hmong of Laos say America is number one. You promise?”
“I certainly do.”


  1. Incredible photos!! (the first and last are my favorites.) That place is absolutely gorgeous!

  2. I’m headed, but secure in the knowledge it’s impossible to get lost, this being the only road and all.


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