07/15/2010 - 07/16/2010 35 °C
The trouble with being an American (okay, I'll concede we have a few) is that by birthright we are a bunch of narrow-minded and cynical bastards. We're #1 and the rest of the world is out to get us. As such, I always wait until the last minute to announce my travel plans to my parents, as I've grown accoustomed to the "Oh my, no!"reaction that it usually generates. In their defense, they're only doing their job as parents worrying about me and offering words of (FOX News fueled) caution as I jaunt off to places like Myanmar, Nepal and now Laos. But to their credit, they've also always deferred to my judgement, especially now that this isn't my first rodeo. And even though I have traveled pretty extensively in my ripe old age, I'm no better. Whenever I'm approached by random strangers on the road, my first assumption is that they're out to get some from Uncle Sam, more specifically his treasury. No matter how many times I'm proved wrong, the thought still persists the next time around.
So today, as I rode a cheap, rented Chinese bicycle through the streets of Vientienne my spidey senses were on high alert. As I was doing this, the first thing I noticed is how friggín easy it is to ride a cheap Chinese bicycle around the streets of this capital city. To get to where I was going, I headed down the main thoroughfare of the city, essentially the I-25 of Vientienne. Were I to try to ride a bicycle down I-25 in downtown Denver (a small-sized city by American standards), I'm quite sure there'd be skidmarks and not just the ones being left on the pavement by the myriad of speeding cars. As it was, I was able to just pedal along as if I was Butch Cassidy with "raindrops falling on my head", feeling comfortable enough to even video my progress for short while. The next thing I noticed was how safe I felt whenever I would take a little detour down a side street. Imagine the terror a country bumpkin like myself would feel if I were to take a leisurely bike detour down say, Federal Blvd.
Feeling pretty good about myself, I make it to my first landmark, a structure that is essentially the Arc d' Triumphe of Laos. Having once been a French colony, there is a great french influence that seems to have kept the good and gotten rid of the bad (i.e. snooty Frenchmen). I'm standing around taking pictures and, tingle tingle, there go the spidey senses! Two Loatian guys approach me and seem to be up to no good. One speaks pretty good English and the other not so much, but seems to understand most of it. They tell me that they are students and would like to ask me some questions. I think of playing it safe by declining and moving on. But I'm also kind of a sucker for seeing where things are headed, so I ignore the spidey senses for a minute and tell them I have a few minutes to spare. I take a moment to make sure I'm aware of the security of my wallet and cameras.
The questions start coming and I'm preparing for the moment where they inform me that I should give them money for something or other. But that part doesn't come. At least not yet. After a few minutes of questioning me, the man pulls out a piece of paper and wants me to record the answers that I'd been giving him. So I write down my name, email address and the fact that I like American Football, Ice Hockey, Mexican Food and The Simpsons. After the question and answer period comes to an end, they grab a photographer from nearby and then insist on individual photos with each of them. Okay, here it comes, this seems fishy. Whamo! There it is! Oh wait, nope. . . nothing. They just smiled and let me go on my way. As I push my bike away, I'm working out in my head whether I'm up against such diabolical geniouses that they'll be able to empty my bank account with only the image of my face, my favorite sports and the fact that I dig a Chalupa from time to time. I guess only time will tell.
With that strange, but actually rather enjoyable encounter behind me, it was off to the giant golden pagoda that was my mission for the day (I'm leaving names out for now, as I don't have my guidebook for spelling). As I get to the magnificent site, I'm thinking that this national treasure is going to be an absolute zoo. Wrong again. Barring a few strangling tourists, I had the entire place to myself. Having read in the book that I was supposed to pay 5,000 kip as an entrance fee, I walked around a bit perplexed that nobody had demanded this of me. My sightseeing complete, I didn't want to shortchange Buddha or karma (afterall, the giant golden stupa looked damn expensive) so I tried to find someone who would take my money. An elderly woman selling trinkets pointed at a donation box that I could drop my money in.
With my actual "sight seeing" out of the way, the final stage of my "Tour de Vientienne" was to ride my bike down a lonely dirt rode on the banks of the Mekong River. After finding myself a good way off the tourist path, I stopped into a small riverside restaurant for a drink. As I sat drinking a cool Beer Lao, the lone foreign patron in this shanty bar, a woman from a couple tables over and my waitress asked to sit with me. Spidey senses tingling again. Feeling some sort of "proposition" coming. . . and then. . .nothing! Perhaps, it's good that I never went into the superhero line of work, because my spidey senses seem to be crap. Whatever their intentions (boredom?), they just sat and quietly chatted with me before I finished my beer and went on my way.
Now in Vang Vieng, I'm off to rent another bike and pedal around this unbelievably beautiful country town. I may pass out from heat stroke, but I don't think I'll be needing my damn useless spidey senses.