Note to Reader: This travel dispatch was posted from Grants Pass, Oregon (USA) covering travel in Laos October & November 2012.
Cruising the main strip through downtown Grants Pass, Oregon, there's a banner hanging above the road which reads "It's the Climate." The sign has been there certainly for as long as I can remember and probably as long as most folks here care to remember. I never really thought much about it in previous trips to the small timber town in Southern Oregon, but these days I feel mocked. It could be due to the fact that the weather has been absolutely atrocious since I arrived on Saturday evening — everything from rain to snow to even the occasional cruel burst of sunshine (as if to remind you that yes, it's still there, but also that, yes, oh yes, it's still December in the Pacific Northwest). On a deeper level, I think it has more to do with the personal irony of having spent the last six months in the tropics and suddenly being transported to this alien planet to with such a sign.
Backpacking in the tropics isn't always what it's cracked up to be, especially if you find yourself in the midst of a late rainy season for much of it. We tried as best we could to plan around the weather — and would have been completely unsuccessful if it hadn't been for a last-minute decision to alter our plans significantly and head to Laos.
Rewind . . .
I suppose it all began when Lori and I decided, after one very backpacker-filled month in Thailand, that we were ready, once again, to try to lose the crowds and venture off on our own. We had been able to do this fairly easily in previous travels in Africa and Latin America and this is the way we normally prefer to travel. For the most part we had been able to travel independently on no definite "tourist trail" throughout India during the two months prior to arriving in Thailand and thought — for some reason — that traveling in Thailand would be much the same. We were wrong, very wrong.
In Thailand, it is indeed possible to exit the tourist trail, but the Thais (and their marvelous beaches and sights) make it very difficult to do so. Let's just say that most travelers — as adventurous and independently minded as they may be — don't go to Thailand their first time to hang out in obscure corners of the East or random towns that no one has ever heard of — far away from beaches, cultural relics, and mountains — where food and accommodation are the cheapest. Nope, most visitors (ourselves included) typically want to see what Thailand is famous for. And we're in luck, because the tourism industry and infrastructure in Thailand is highly developed, offering inexpensive door-to-door transit packages to/from any conceivable guesthouse in all the major destinations to really any other major tourist destination. As you might imagine, this creates a well-worn backpacker trail running the entire length of the country, via Bangkok, of course (which also happens to be the air and land transit hub for all of southeast Asia — and, Backpacker Central).
We loved our time in Thailand — we did — but in the waning days of our 30-day visa we found ourselves staring at a sea of Google Chrome tabs on the laptop searching desperately for ways to lose the pack. Chiang Mai may have put us over the top. Never in our lives had we been so far from home and yet constantly bumping in to so many Americans, Europeans, Brits, Aussies, you name it. Yes, in a very small way it was comforting — and certainly would have been unbelievably so if we had been air dropped into Old Town directly following our time in India. But after a month of trying to lose these people in search of something loosely resembling authentic, uncontrived, and exotic, we were on the hunt.
And Vietnam was the answer! (or so we had originally thought).
We had toyed with a number of ways to get our butts to Vietnam (and still somehow be able to include Angkor Wat). The plan was to spend a month in Vietnam and then nearly an additional month in southern China to round out our six month trip. But there was a problem — we had spent an additional month than originally planned in India and extended our trip in Thailand to the maximum our visa afforded (30 days). The original plan also encompassed a few weeks in Laos and Cambodia, but staring at the calendar now, it was quickly becoming apparent that we were going to have to cut nearly all of our time from both countries, opting for an overnight train down to Siem Reap with a quick stop to see Angkor Wat, then on to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). If we wanted to add time to Laos and Cambodia, we would have to cut precious time from Vietnam and China, something we really did not want to do. Trying to justify the decision, we asked each other, "what the heck's in Laos, anyway?"
In the end, it was a combination of things that ultimately made us decide to dramatically cut back our time in Vietnam (and completely throw out the rest of our time in southern China, with the exception of Hong Kong) and devote most of that time to Laos. For one, our cash supply was getting tighter and tighter, and we knew that travel through Laos would be far cheaper than Vietnam, but especially than China. Two, we simply didn't know much about Laos and had run into few people planning to travel through the country, which was extremely attractive in itself. But, to be honest, the clincher was the weather reports. The rainy season nearly everywhere we had traveled had been late, meaning we had somehow managed to find ourselves in the midst of monsoon every where we went. It hadn't rained on us the entire time, but it was enough to make life very interesting, and quite frankly, we were ready to dry out for a while. The two week weather outlook up the coast of Vietnam and into China offered thunderstorms for every one of the 14 days. Vientiane and Luang Prabang in Laos were slathered in bright beautiful icons of sunshine, with highs in the 70s and 80s. We altered our plans accordingly…