We awoke on our first morning in Nong Khiaw – Boxing Day – eager to embark on our first hike of the trip.  To get to the starting point for this endeavor, we needed to travel by water.  This meant cruising 40 minutes along the Nam Ou River by longtail boat and it was here that we experienced our one and only (and very minor) logistical hiccup of the entire trip.  We made our way down to the shoreline to find that our boat had left without us.  The next thing we knew, our guide was on the phone and what couldn’t have been more than three minutes later a longtail boat arrived.  (It’s amazing how seamless this trip was.  I’m quite sure there was a near constant buzz of activity going on behind the scenes and below our awareness to make it appear so.  Color me impressed.)

Laos Nong Khiaw (45)

Don’t let the husband’s smile fool you.  Deep down he’s wondering how long before he can get back on a bike.

Finally we disembarked and began our trek.  Very shortly we came upon a Lowland Lao village.  One woman in this family was boiling rice to make Lao whiskey, a worthy endeavor if ever there was one.

As much as we enjoyed the cultural encounters, I’ll be the first to admit that the hiking on this trip wasn’t quite what I was expecting.  I didn’t think it would be as intense as say, hiking a 14er, but this was more of a walk up some hills on a wide road in hot weather.  I wouldn’t have minded so much but I ate an obscene number of crepes at breakfast that morning…

Anyway, in addition to admiring the scenery, we found other ways to keep ourselves entertained.

Laos Nong Khiaw Hike (19)
Fun with gigantic millipedes

I was particularly taken with the water buffalo dung.  It was so exquisitely layered.  It instantly brought to mind fancy European pastries, specifically Italian sfogliatelle

… and French crullers.

And yes, everyone on the hike – not least the husband – thought I was deranged for photographing what were essentially cowpies.  But am I right or am I right about the similarities?!  Interestingly, a hyperfocus on excrement would resurface later that night, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

We hiked on and eventually came to a village of ethnic Hmong whose New Year celebrations were in full swing.  According to our guide, these celebrations go on for close to a month.   Because I have taught so many Hmong students over the last decade and a half, this experience was especially meaningful to me.

Dressed in traditional clothing, many kids were in the midst of the ball-toss game.  If a boy likes a girl, he asks her to toss the ball.  I think the boys must have been shy because there were a lot more girls than boys participating in the activity.  There were also a lot fewer boys dressed in traditional costume.  So it looks like the world over, boys are pretty much the same: difficult. 😉

It was here that we learned of a disturbing tradition that sometimes befalls Hmong girls: bride kidnapping.  If a girl rejects an interested boy, he may return later with reinforcements, so to speak, and take her away to his home village where he marries her against her will.  This practice is now outlawed in Laos, but according to our guide it still occurs, though to what extent I cannot say.

We continued through the adjoining Khmu village, which was largely deserted, we were told, because they were all down the dusty road enjoying the Hmong festivities with their neighbors in a wonderful display of intertribal harmony.

From here we began the trek back to the river where, happily, our longtail boat was right where it was supposed to be.

If the scenery had been pretty on the morning boat ride, on the way back to Nong Khiaw it was truly spectacular, in a way this average photo-taker (photographer is too ambitious a term) could never truly capture.

Laos Nong Khiaw (58)Laos Nong Khiaw (60)Laos Nong Khiaw (64)

As soon as we got back to Nong Khiaw we were off again, this time to visit a cave that housed 800 Communist Pathet Lao in troglodytic austerity in the 1960s & ’70s.  The approach was via a long snaking bamboo bridge raised above the ground followed by some very steep – almost vertical -stairs.

It was difficult to get good photos of the inky interior, but suffice it to say that we couldn’t imagine how 800 people could tolerate daily existence in this not-overly-big subterrane for years on end.  Then again, when the alternative is taking your chances with the bombs raining down all around you in what would eventually become the most bombed country on earth, being cheek to jowl with your like-minded Communist brethren probably doesn’t seem so objectionable, inevitable hygiene issues notwithstanding.  Also, the mouth of the cave is well hidden by foliage, which prevented its inhabitants from being discovered by the enemy (the USA in concert with the Royal Lao government).

Finished with the day’s activities, we were dropped back in town for a rare evening on our own, meaning that dinner was not provided by R.E.I. and we were free to obtain sustenance however we liked.  Some people opted to dine at our resort’s restaurant, which had proven itself a good choice the previous night, but I had heard that there was a sizable Indian community in Nong Khiaw, and I never pass up an opportunity to eat Indian food.  After some cursory research online, which consisted of one quick stop on Trip Advisor where I saw mostly four-and-five-star ratings for Deen’s Indian Restaurant, I began lobbying for that.  The husband, though, had his own ideas.  He’d seen a restaurant he thought looked promising, but when we went to investigate, we learned it wouldn’t open for another 90 minutes.  Sensing the time was right, I pushed harder for the well-reviewed Deen’s and the husband acquiesced.

We sat down on the plastic furniture in their porch-like dining area and waited.  Eventually, someone came by and handed us some tattered menus.  After a quick perusal, the husband looked across the table at me and said, “You know, we’re taking a real risk eating here.”

Me: What are you talking about?

Him (looking around skeptically): This place.  We’re taking a risk eating here.

Me (waving dismissively): It got good reviews on Trip Advisor.  We’ll be fiiiine.

As you surely guessed from the title of this post, these are words I would come to regret.

After a while our appetizers came out: a huge samosa and some sort of bhajia, both of which we shared.  While not bad, per se, they were in effect tasteless.  If there’s one cuisine that is normally the opposite of tasteless, it’s Indian, or at least the Anglicized Indian we’ve come to know and love.

Then arrived our main courses and shared naan bread.  The husband had ordered some kind of meat and vegetable vindaloo.  I, some variety of curry with paneer.  For the unfamiliar, paneer is a type of white cheese that stays solid at hot temperatures.  It’s not as hard (or salty) as feta.  Perhaps queso fresco is a better comparison.  Anyway, I took one bite from my spoon, heavy with chunks of paneer and, well, let’s just say that the only thing that kept me from spitting it right back out again was four-plus decades of decorum bashed into my cranium by polite midwestern society.

Stupidly, I offered the husband a bite.

Me: Oh my God this is awful.  Try this.

Stupidly, he did.

Paneer is supposed to be kept refrigerated or frozen.  This paneer felt like it had been pulled out from the back of a dusty cupboard, forgotten since the second Indochina War.  It was hollow.  Paneer is not supposed to be hollow.  The edges were dessicated, like a brick of cheddar that has been poorly wrapped before being tossed in the back of the fridge.  The consistency was somewhere between a rubber eraser and salt water taffy that had been left on the counter overnight.  Disgusted, I tore off pieces of decidedly inferior naan and dipped them into my bland curry sauce, avoiding all the remaining paneer, which was huddled up at the side of my bowl in a scrum of rejection and disappointment.  I tried the rice – rice is pretty hard to screw up, right? – but it was like licking a block of salt.

Astonishingly, the husband liked his vindaloo and ate the whole thing.

Of course, I should have sent it back.  I should have complained.  I should have refused to pay.  But I was in a part of the world I’d never been to and didn’t want to offend – didn’t know if I’d be violating some sort of “save face” culture.  When the bill came to a grand total of $12, I found I was somewhat mollified.

We walked back to our riverside resort, had a nightcap in the restaurant with a Swiss-German couple the husband had met earlier, and went to bed.


Me (waking from sleep): I don’t feel so good.

This, folks, was the beginning of the gastrointestinal drama.  It wasn’t just diarrhea.  I felt awful.  I began to shake, sweat suddenly pouring off me.  My heartbeat went into overdrive and my face went ashen.  Minutes later the husband joined me in my distress.  Frantic searching for pills ensued.  After a couple of distressing hours of bed-to-bathroom sprints, I found that my inventive Immodium-Pepto Bismol cocktail was potent enough to curtail the worst of the uh, outward symptoms, though it did nothing to improve how I felt physically.  I remember mumbling, “Please don’t let me vomit.  Please don’t let me vomit.”

I didn’t.

About 6:00 am, though, the husband did.

Day 5 was not a good day to be sick.  Unlike the day before, when one of our tour group members vomited three times and wisely chose to spend the day in bed while the rest of us hiked, this was a traveling day, meaning we were checking out of our resort, driving three hours, and then kayaking four hours back to Luang Prabang.  There would be no staying in bed for us.  Our only choices were to do the best we could with the planned activities or spend the day laying awkwardly across the seats of the minibus.  So what did we choose?

Stay tuned…

Read more about our Dust-Farm-Pail List SE Asia adventures:

59 thoughts

  1. I’m sorry you got so sick while on your adventure. Nothing puts a damper on a fun trip like stomach woes. I feel for you, but will say that the photos you took along the way are amazing. And your insight that “boys are pretty much the same: difficult” no matter where you go rings true with me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s never fun to get sick, but it’s especially awful to be toilet bound when you’re on vacation due to a food that contained bacteria, viruses or parasites! I’m sorry you got sick, but the hiking adventure and beautiful views are certainly one of a kind. And what better way to start your hike than by going on a boat trip? Great post and fantastic photos, thanks for sharing! Aiva

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think it’s safe to say you’ve forever ruined pastries for me.

    Was it the paneer that caused your gastrointestinal distress? You said your hubby only took a single bite, but I guess that was all it took…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh dear. I’m so sorry. If anyone ruined pastries for me I would be very, very upset. Then again, it probably isn’t possible. I’m not even ruined for paneer or curries. I think I’ve had two since we’ve been back. Gotta get back on the horse, as they say.

      As for what caused it, we’ll never know. He ate a bit of mine, I had a taste of his, we both ate the appetizers and the naan. Your guess is as good as mine. But even if it wasn’t the paneer itself, that stuff was inedible!


  4. Yikes! I am often a bit weary to eat in certain restaurants when we travel, but what’s the alternative? Food poisoning can happen within hours, or up to days after eating the contaminated food so it’s often hard to know exactly what caused the symptoms, but it sounds like you pretty much knew the culprit. So sorry you went through this. Being sick sucks, being sick away from home is torture. .

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What an amazing adventure (outside the meal, of course)! This is exactly the type of adventure that keeps me yearning to travel and explore. The cultural side (how amazing to see Lao whiskey being made!), some hiking (I love it as much as your hubby loves cycling), and trying different foods (but hopefully not as bad).

    I’ve told you this before, but you have such a great way with words. The way you tell stories of your travels makes me feel like I was there. Thanks for sharing!! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Your pictures are so stunning and your writing takes me to Laos. I’m sorry about the pastries. Do you think it was the native curry (those can be much different than the ones we’re used to), some other ingredient, or do you think maybe not properly prepared?
    I did have to laugh though when you said, “Oh this is awful, try this” and your husband did. Isn’t that so human, “EW this candle stinks! Smell this!!!” and before you know it all of the strangers in Bath and Body works around you are smelling candles together and only sharing the stinkiest scents- yeah, true story. Never met the people, none of us were together. A half hour later we were facebook friends.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the kind words. That’s a funny story about the candles. I guess we’re all trying to connect to our fellow humans, even if it is over bad food or bad smells.

      I’m certain it was the poorly prepared curry/unhygienic restaurant. More will be explained in the next segment of the Laos/Cambodia series. 😉


  7. You know…I didn’t want to say it before, but the Google reviews for Deen’s are quite terrible. There are multiple complaints of food poisoning. https://www.google.com/maps/place/Deen+Indian+Food/@20.5693843,102.6151759,17z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m7!3m6!1s0x312e9cd275ed240d:0xff02200c2216d3b9!8m2!3d20.5693843!4d102.6173646!9m1!1b1

    Sorry that you got ill there. That is not fun.

    What is fun? Trekking and boat trips in Laos! We were so lucky to see the New Years’ parties, right?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Google reviews – who knew?! (You, apparently, and probably a zillion others.) I just looked on Trip Advisor and it still has 4 stars and on the first page of reviews, which was as far as I scanned, the negative reviews were all about unfriendly service or slow service – not food poisoning. Oh well, now I know. Google reviews. Got it. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Okay the water buffalo dung compared with pastry photos are well rather unique but nonetheless you definitely DO have a point. Ah yes the classic Delhi belly!! We have a travel food rule that we use for deciding what to eat, and we are pretty adventurous eaters, especially my better half – we only eat food that has a lot of other people eating it … ie the food is moving from being cooked to eaten, fast! Indian food definitely does not fall into this category haha (even in India we use this guideline). Love your storytelling!


    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much! Good rule. Another rule I just learned: don’t trust Trip Advisor! The Indian restaurant that made us sick still has decent marks on there. I don’t know if you read Jeff Bell’s comment, but he turned me (too late) toward Google reviews and there the truth is laid bare for all to see. Lesson learned. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Chocolate Donut? I totally see the cruller resemblance, and the other pastry, too. I doubt if I would have seen it if I’d ben there, though. Only through your eyes.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Wow sounds like a great adventure (Apart from the meal off course!) Ohh that’s bad that you didn’t have a good experience with Indian food. Paneer is actually supposed to be delicious. I am myself an Indian who loves paneer and love to travel and explore new places.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Great post! It’s got everything I want – amazing photos of scenery. And amazing photos of poo 💩AND tales of uncontrollable ‘exits’. On a serious note, it looks like a great experiment was had. Definitely putting it on my list.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Go as soon as this global crisis ends! In fact, though I’ve been warning others about Deen’s Indian Restaurant, I’m going to encourage you to go. We can compare notes. I figure if the same GI distress hits you (which it will) after your meal, you’ll just sweat it out. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Haha, another great read! I haven’t yet been to Asia but I feel like getting sick is one of those experiences that is inevitable on such a trip. I’m glad missing the boat didn’t disrupt your day though and was quickly sorted.

    If nothing else comes out of this virus, I will catch up on all of my blog reading and the podcast! Haha.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Wow, that was definitely a full-on day! So sorry you both got sick from the food though, it’s never fun when travelliing. I got sick just before we were due to take a night bus from Inle Lake to Yangon in Myanmar – I wasn’t sure whether I would make it (I did but it wasn’t a fun journey!). I need to know what happened next!

    Liked by 1 person

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