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A Heavenly Day Born In Hell

It was supposed to be a smashing day. Cruising Laos’ countryside via moto to the enchanting Kuangsi Waterfalls then back to charming Luang Prabang. By late afternoon, we would be living every world traveler’s nightmare in the unsavory emergency room of a third world country.

Asiatic Black BearAsh was not feeling well in the morning, so as she caught the requisite shuteye I negotiated a full day rental of a moto from our guesthouse. After yet another great breakfast in Luang Prabang, we set off for the thirty minute ride to the famed Kuangsi Waterfalls. Surrounded by green hills, curious schoolchildren on bicycle, and clean air, the leisurely ride was incredibly pleasant. We parked our simple moto in a dusty parking lot and followed other revelers into the park of cascading water. After visiting the Asiatic Black Bear Preserve, we came to a beautiful deep pool of emerald blue water enveloped in a green jungle scene complete with a sturdy tree reaching out with a rope swing. To the short queue I went, several times. On my fifth attempt, an awkward backflip was performed to the delight of the onlookers who grew tired of this lanky white man looking supremely nonathletic. Another hour passed as we explored the dashing scenery then made our way back to the parking lot.

Kuangsi Waterfall - Watering Hole Kuangsi Waterfall - Falls

Kuangsi Waterfall - Main FallWith helmets strapped to our heads and the camera around Ash’s neck, we headed back to our guesthouse in Luang Prabang. Along the same path we had traversed earlier, Ash snapped photos of our intriguing surroundings while I focused on the paved road. As we approached a small concave section of the route, I began riding the brakes in anticipation. Slowly crossing the indentation was simple enough, yet the operator ahead of us had taken it too fast and was losing control of his bike before he came to an abrupt stop directly in front of us. Faced with a split second decision, my brain processed the options: swerve off the road into the shrubs and trees, run into the rear of the now stationary moto, or try maneuvering around avoiding an accident altogether. As I turned the steering wheel to the left in an avoidance tactic, the bald tires lost grip of the asphalt strewn with gravel and the moto slid on its side. Ash’s body landed on my right side, but her left cheek met the camera edge that had struck the ground.

Greg Prepares for Death Defying Ride Greg on Rope Swing

Greg's Pitiful Attempt at Jump Off WaterfallMy first instinct was to check on Ashley’s well being and upon seeing all her limbs were operational, I angrily cursed the reckless driver ahead. I doubt the Laotian villager understood my verbal assault of English bullets. I turned focus back to Ashley who was on her feet, but holding her bleeding face, clearly terrified. Though several passing motorists offered us assistance back to Luang Prabang, we opted for our moto that was still fully operational. We arrived back in Luang Prabang after a tortuous ride where a rickshaw was hired to take Ash to the hospital. Pulling up to the single story hospital with an interior outdoor concourse, I hastily parked the moto and ran in with Ash. The receptionist nonchalantly told us to find a doctor, any doctor. Having no luck locating a physician after five minutes, Ash took a bed near the entrance to rest while I continued the hunt.

Moto Ride - Greg Driving Laos Town

I continued a near frantic search for someone to attend my beloved gal until I found myself back at the entrance. A miniature dump truck had pulled up and four men, each grasping a limb, were hurriedly carrying a bloodied Laotian man in his mid 20s. This time, the receptionist sprang into action, directing the unlikely rescuers to place the critically injured man in the bed directly beside Ashley. Me beside her, only three feet separated Ashley and the frightened man. Blood dripped from his nose, ears, and mouth. His eyes were lucid and frenzied, as if seeing the world for the first time. It is an image etched in each of our minds for eternity. Two doctors appeared shortly after his arrival and it was clear the man’s prognosis was dire. As if on cue, my eyes met Ashley’s and we shuffled out of the room. We made our way into an empty hospital room where we prayed together. Ten minutes passed until a doctor came in to evaluate Ashley. Her first inquiry was not about her face, but about the man’s well being. He smirked, then said matter of factly, “Oh that guy, he dead.”

Ash Being Creative with Camera Laos School Kids

The physician cleaned up Ash’s cheek with sterile supplies then announced stitches would be required. We were apprehensive, asking about his credentials. Comfortable with his education, experience, and supplies, he quickly inserted five stitches in Ash’s white cheek. As we barraged him with follow-up questions, shrieks and breaking glass came raining down across the courtyard. The perished man’s family had arrived and were beside themselves with grief. Ash and I sat in the third world hospital with our hands entwined, heads bowed, tears glistening on our faces. How did we end up here?

Ash's Cut Cheek Ash's Cheek Injury After Moto Accident

The physician set a date and time to remove the stitches six days later. Not a chance we were going back to that Laos hospital. The next day we purchased plane tickets to Chiang Mai, Thailand where an international hospital was located. The days after the moto accident were amongst our toughest in fourteen months on the world road. Had I not slowed the moto in anticipation of the dip as much as I did, we could have ended up like the poor soul who passed away that Spring day when his motorbike lost to a truck. The lessons yielded from this horrific experience are numerous. Yet my recollection focuses on the man’s face recognizing the end and my poor judgment at the wheel. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t blame myself for hurting the girl I love more than anything.

- Greg & Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. Up to this point in our trip, we had luck on our side. Nothing had been stolen, zero injuries, and just one near death experience on a volcano in Chile. But you can’t just rely on luck. I was careful driving the moto by purposely going slow and we wore helmets. Yet even these precautions weren’t enough.  So consider the risk / return on your activities.
  2. Travel in the third world is cheap, but that also reflects the status of local health care. Money is not available for full medical staffs, late model equipment, or modern facilities. Keep this in mind when visiting a place such as Laos. For example, a British girl had blacked out due to low blood sugar and knocked out seven teeth, two penetrating her upper lip. The Luang Prabang hospital did all they could for her, but were limited by their resources.

Treehouse Dining, Absinthe, Rocket Ship On Water & Saffron

Laos. A Southeast Asian country treading in Communism, bombed by America and grasping for an identity. Hard as it may be to believe, the nation opened its border to tourists in just 1990. Backpackers, ourselves included, hope the throngs of suitcases stay far far away. The quaint village of Luang Prabang is magnetic, what with insanely beautiful restaurant landscapes, saffron robed monks, exhilarating excursions on a myriad of rivers, and a charming old village complete with a bustling night market.

Luang Prabang - Typical Street Luang Prabang - Jeep

Flame TreeWe had escaped the bamboozling fraudsters in Vietnam. Or so we thought. Before getting in the taxi at the Luang Prabang, Laos airport, I triple checked with the driver on the price. Upon reaching our destination, I paid the driver and expected change back. The driver turned and headed back the driver seat. I restated our agreed price and demanded change. As he hesitated to hand over the money, my patience grew thin and he reluctantly gave me 30% of amount due back. My additional petitions fell on deaf ears as he pulled away. His bumper may or may not have been kicked by a Salomon shoe. With a “here we go again” feeling, we made our way down a narrow alley lined with banana trees. Luckily, the aforementioned taxi driver was the only bad apple that crossed our paths while in Laos.

Treehouse Dinner Flaming Shots of Absinthe

Street Night MarketNivan and Snay from San Francisco were sorting out a moto when we checked into our guesthouse. Its funny how you meet people with whom you instantly connect on the world road. Within five minutes of chatting, we had agreed a time and place to enjoy Laotian food and tall bottles of Beer Lao (my favorite foreign beer, that could be a whole other post). Next, we made our way across a risky bamboo bridge to the opposite bank of the Nam Khan River. Sitting in a treehouse, we had a smorgasbord of incredibly delicious local cuisine with Nivan, Snay, and an Israeli couple. To say the setting was picturesque would be an understatement. Under shifting moonlight and moderate rain we crossed the wooden span held together with ropes then found a taproom serving absinthe. The Estonian bartender lit the shots of green liquor on fire then we saluted our new pals. Already soaked, we happily rode bicycles through the warm Luang Prabang night back to the guesthouse.

Our Speedboat Arrives Man Throws Fishing Net

Mekong River ShelterNext morning, Ash and I met our mates from San Fran for a boat ride up the Mekong River to the Pak Ou Cave. Nivan had arranged a boat earlier in the day, so we carefully negotiated the steep embankment down to his vessel. We boarded a slender wooden boat with a low slung roof and motored up river for forty minutes. Roughly halfway to our destination, the captain grounded the boat on a muddy bank where we swapped boats, “upgrading” to a more slender boat with a pointy tip and powerful outboard motor. We shot up the muddy river at an incredible pace, the rocky shore turned a blur of brown. The captain never released the throttle, even goosing it when we quickly approached a fishing line stretched across the river to ensure the tip of the boat would force the line below. We explored the Pak Ou Cave’s 4,000+ Buddha statues then made our way through a dense mountain forest to the upper sanctuary. As interesting as our destination may have been, the thrilling ride made the the Pak Ou Cave look like chopped liver.

Pak Ou Cave Speedboat Up Mekong River

By far the most popular activity in Luang Prabang begins at sunrise and lasts all of ten minutes. The “feeding of the monks” is a parade of orange filling the streets where tourists and locals alike offer alms. The spectacle takes place in near silence as the shaved black heads walk in a single file line filling silver pots with white rice. The youth of the barefoot boys took me by surprise before they disappeared to their hillside pagodas. Every morning, the same quiet process is performed.

Feeding The Monks Alms For The Monks

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. Your first expenditure arriving via plane in a new nation is usually a taxi ride. ATMs generally distribute large bills that many cabs are loathe to break. Do your best upon arriving in a new country to get smaller bills from the beginning to avoid situations like the one mentioned above. Best spots to break money are at fast food joints, convenience stores, and gift shops.
  2. My favorite rule of bargaining is this: the money in your wallet is yours, not theirs. That is to say, don’t be pressured into buying something you either don’t want or think the asking price isn’t even worth countering.
  3. A corollary to #2 above. Think twice about buying items from locals in popular tourist areas. These places are prime spots to be ripped off. For example, Nivan paid the equivalent of $80 for two bowls of rice to distribute to the monks that was promptly gone in ten minutes!

3…2…1… Action – Dangerous Speedboats, Monks & Waterfalls in Luang Prabang, Laos

We could have spent a week just soaking up the rustic charm in Luang Prabang, Laos while being surrounded by monks. Yet the surrounding activities drew us to the dreamlike Kuangsi Waterfalls and an exhilarating slingshot up the Mekong River.

A rich tradition in Luang Prabang is offering alms to the throngs of monks who trek to town from hillside wats. Watch the colorful display:

It took Greg five tries to perform this strange backflip off the rope swing at the Kuangsi Waterfalls:

With our friends from San Francisco (Nivan and Snay) aboard a rocket ship up the Mekong River, we are nearly decapitated by a fisherman’s line. Pardon the foul language:

Watch a steadier and far calmer video of the speedboat surging up the Mekong:

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. There is strength and fun in numbers. By sharing the cost of the speedboat up the Mekong River, we split the cost four ways rather than two. Not to mention, we had a heck of time with Nivan and Snay.

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