July Month 7: Water (Part Two)

Challenge: Drink Water!!
Charity: Tearfund
Total £ accrued: £7
Status: Doing the pee dance does not get you ahead in the queue…

The Seventh Challenge: To Drink Water


Downing to Drinking

I don’t know how it happened, but one day I looked at my half empty water bottle and realised that I hadn’t been forcing it down my throat. Had I developed a taste for it? Would I start craving water in the same way I craved a good mango daiquiri back in Thailand? Could I manage… gulp… two litres of water?!

Do not drink
Oh well, if the sign says no then I guess this month is cancelled…

Yes and no… No, I still don’t enjoy the taste of water and I couldn’t imagine ever savouring the flavourless liquid in the same way as I would a good cocktail. BUT… I had managed a full two litres on more than one occasion! To me, that’s a success!


Restrooms are for Customers

Along with the success of 1 – 2 litres of water a day, came the downfall of 1 – 2 HUNDRED pees a day (slightly exaggerated). And it didn’t get any easier finding ways to manage the much needed toilet time.

Oh look! A beach after a 6 hour long boat ride down the Mekong Delta… I wonder if they have bathrooms…

Consuming that amount of liquid needed planning, where am I going to be in the next couple of hours? Will there be toilets there? Am I prepared to hide behind a sand dune and pee in a hole on the beach on a 6 hour boat ride down the Mekong Delta (it only happened once, I promise!). And sometimes this meant putting off the water drinking activities until I was sure I would have toilet access.

I had high hopes for my trip to the US because I knew there would be shops everywhere, and where there’s shops, there are also “restrooms” (that means toilets, or loos in American).

Laos Toilets
Parents, hide your children’s eyes. This is what I had to deal with in Asia…

Doing the pee dance around the entire Heathrow airport after following the bathroom signs that seemed to lead me in a perfect circle, I found out the hard way that no matter how dancy your pee dance is, you will not get ahead in the long queue for the ladies.

water - restrooms customers

Upon entering the United States, it didn’t take me long to find out that my restroom plan was pretty shot. That’s because every shop has the sign “Restrooms are for Customers ONLY”. Apparently I’m not the only one doing the water challenge here.


Forming Good Habits

Rained On
Getting Rained on: When you thought you were drinking water but actually water was drinking you…

I have to admit, it didn’t take long before planning for water became a regular part of my day. Everyday I think about where I can go to fill up my water bottle or buy a cheap one and most days I have been able to meet my 1 litre target (at the very least).

I realised, you have to start in the morning or you won’t do it! It seems to make all the difference. Also, have a bottle that is 500ml or more. That way you know you only need to fill up twice for 1 litre or 4 times for 2.

Now, when I go to a restaurant, I almost always opt for water rather than a sugary soda (that’s American for fizzy drink).


The Conclusion

Success rate: 89% (7 days failed out of 31)
Cost per fail: £1
Money raised for charity: £7

I will definitely be carrying this habit forward with me, hopefully into the rest of my life. Annoying as it can be… but nobody said that I can’t also consume other delicious liquids!


Next Challenge: Saying Yes!


13 Weeks of Wandering – Destination: Laos

Bangkok | Cambodia | Vietnam | Laos
New York >> Miami | Portland >> Vancouver

Where To? Laos
How long? 5 Days
Thoughts: The slow routes are always the authentic routes.


13 WoW – Destination: Laos

Before I had made any plans to get to Laos, I had already been warned off going there by land by multiple people who advised me that flying to Laos was the best way. I was also told that there was no way to go into Laos from Sa Pa, that I would have to return to Hanoi before I could get to Laos. Well, I didn’t listen to any of them and thank God I didn’t because I saved time as well as money.


How to get to Laos from Sa Pa

In Sa Pa there are a number of tourist agents and you will see a few shops advertising tours or coaches to certain destinations. In addition to that, most hotels will also have information on tours and may even have the facility to book you onto a coach to your desired destination. I went to the Anh Nhi hotel to book my bus to Laos and the manager presented me with a couple of options on how to get there. I could either do a 24 hour bus directly to Luang Prabang, or I could break it up and head to Muang Khua then hop on a boat the rest of the way.

Now, it didn’t turn out to be quite as simple as that (especially with the drama I had before I even left), but it was cheap (just over 200 VND) and it was an adventure; in the end that’s all we really want!


The Journey

Sleeper Bus
Single Sleeper Beds

At first, it all started well. I’m not a complete newbie to sleeper buses having taken several to get to where I was, so it all seemed pretty dreamy when I realised I’d been booked onto a double bed sleeper bus! So much room!

My first mini drama happened when I spotted, very near my head, a large spider. After pointing it out to the driver, he gave me a look that literally said “bitch please”, rolled his eyes and then walked away. I then had to deal with the situation myself, by using my cap to flick the spider to an unknown location (a.k.a probably somebody’s bed – SO sorry!).

The rest of the journey continued to be relatively uneventful as I took full advantage of the free wifi aboard and dozed in and out of sleep.

The major problem I had with my journey was the language barrier meaning that I had literally no idea where I was supposed to be getting off and how long for etc. So, I decided that Laos is pretty far away, the border is going to be a while to get to and at that stage I would probably need my passport, so I made a plan. The plan was simply to not get off the bus at any point until I saw people getting their passports out. Pretty good plan, I thought. Until…


Left Behind

IMG_4649 (2)

I needed to pee, pretty desperately. By this point the bus had made several stops in which I shot up, groggy eyed, and looked for people with their passports. Some stops people went to buy food, others had been bathroom stops and even drop offs. At all of these stops, the driver had shouted something in Vietnamese and everyone but I had understood. This time seemed no different, so when the bus stopped, I thought I’d make communication with the driver to see how long the stop would be for. I interpreted it to be, 15 minutes.

I dashed to the bathroom which was hidden around the back of the “petrol station” and it was nearly pitch black behind there. I found the lights and paid my dues, rushing to get away from the dark eerie area round back. As I made my way back to the bus, I could hear the rumbling sound of the engine running, and to my horror the bus had begun to move off.

I legged it as fast as I could waving frantically, my heart rate up a million, my mind flashing images of me being stuck in the middle of nowhere with all my belongings on this coach. Luckily for me, the driver spotted me and stopped. As did my heart. And when I was finally let back on, he was laughing guiltily as I tried to laugh back. It was not funny. I did not get off that coach for anything after that.

So, my night was pretty sleepless as I sought for signs as to when I was supposed to get off the coach. When the coach finally came to a rather elongated stop, the driver yelled a few times in Vietnamese and one by one people began to exit the coach. I was not moving, not after what had happened. A good 15 – 20 minutes must have passed before I and some other foreigners started to get suspicious as more people started to get up and exit. I finally tried to ask my fellow passengers, two Japanese boys, who in broken English told me that they think we need to get off. So I approached the driver repeatedly saying “Muang Khua?”

It took a few repeats before he registered what I was saying and then nodded enthusiastically pointing to the hold. I think that meant, “get your bags”. After a while standing by the bus with my bags, the driver yelled “Muang Khua” and another man popped up out of nowhere. It was 5am by this point, my eyesight was questionable. The second man pointed to some seats where I waited with my bags unsure of where I was or what I was doing. Then I was joined by two others, a couple from Barcelona, also going to Muang Khua!


The Local Bus


An hour later, post brushing my teeth in the “bathrooms” that were holes in the ground with “sinks” that smelled more like urinals (deffo used bottled water to rinse). Myself and my two new Catalan buddies were ushered to a minibus with more seats than there should be inside. The bus was soon filled to overloading with locals, parcels, strange smelling packages, food and even chickens. This Spanish couple and I were the only tourists on the entire bus. The bus made many a stop after leaving Dien Bien and each time I thought “we couldn’t get any more in this bus”, and each time we did. One huge roll of plastic tubes atop the minivan here, and one chicken in a box under your feet. But aside from the odoriferous cargo and the stridency of the animals, the most uncomfortable element of this leg of the journey was the spitting.

Asians spit, a lot! Especially in Vietnam. I figure that this is due to the over-population which has lead to severe air pollution in some areas. Heck, I even wanted to spit at times! Ladies and men, boys and girls, young and old all do it, and not just a delicate projection of saliva in discreet intervals. Sorry to describe this, but they give it 100 with their spitting; a long, drawn out snort to clear the throat before launching saliva (and whatever else) far distances.

This may be why the window seats are so desirable, but it didn’t seem to bother the locals if they hadn’t managed to plonk their behinds on the sought after window seat. I learned this after witnessing an elderly lady, most probably in her 80’s, tap a young man on his shoulder, snort, lean over him and spit out of the window!

Feeling rather squeamish, I prayed a silent prayer that nobody beside me would get such a notion. Thank God, they didn’t.


Crossing the Border


This little local bus was the bus I used to cross the Laotian border. What you should expect at the border is A. Completing a fair share of paperwork and B. Going to a number of windows to pay through your ears for various whims (one window took my temperature and then charged me for it). Have a good amount of US dollars on you, and you will want to change cash to Laotian Kip if you have the chance as the likelihood of you coming across a working ATM in Muang Khua is minimal. I had $90 and just managed to get the visa, pay for one night shared room with the only two other tourists on my bus and get the boat in the morning. The visa was close to $45 in the end but I’m sure that could vary.

*Hint: Choose to pay in Kip if given an option or they will try rounding up in their conversion.


Muang Khua

muang khuoa view

The local bus stops by the river where the slow boat departs every day, but the two tourists and I decided to jump out early hoping to get some money out from a cash machine. I had lent them $2 at the border as they also were caught off guard with the excessive charges.

We headed to the first cash machine in the village and found that it was not working and had been out of service for some time. After speaking with locals, we found the second cash machine and the third, but none of them worked! They were the only cash machines in the village, none of them worked, and nobody cared – they didn’t need it!

Hopeful that the banks may be open early the following day, we decided to put our money together and all share one room for the night. Dinner that night would be packet noodles that we shared with some coffee (tea for me) and biscuits. But before we settled in, we had time to explore the little village and see what it had to offer.

*Hint: If, like me, you find yourself stuck without an ATM, but you have foreign currency to exchange, try local shops. I was able to change my dollars (albeit at a bad rate) in the local electrical shop.

Muang Khua is very small and two rivers meet right by this village; Nam Phak which comes off the much larger Nam Ou. The highlight of the area was the suspension bridge where we could enjoy lovely views of the Nam Phak river. We also enjoyed playing a bit of football with the local children who got very competitive, and, following our walk across the suspension bridge, we enjoyed some super fun Karaoke at a local pub where we instantly made new friends.

muang khuoa suspension bridge

I really recommend stopping by a Karaoke bar in this neck of the woods, it’s so warming to see the locals giving it their all, laughing, joking and having a good time!


The Slow Boat from Muang Khua to Nong Kiaw

The next day, the banks were not able to help us get any money out, so we headed straight to the dock in the hopes that we could get the cheapest tickets.

The way the slow boat works is that it only departs once a day and the time it departs depends on the number of people, as does the price you pay. The time it leaves is between 9am and 10am ish, so I recommend getting there at 9 and waiting. You can charter the boat yourself if you miss the regular daily trip but you will pay heavily for it.

muang khuoa dock

As it turned out, we waited from 9am until around 9.30/10 when we had enough people to leave. The good news was that two German families who were backpacking with their 9 and 11 year old kids, topped up the numbers meaning that we could pay lower rates (I paid around 200 kip).

I’ll be frank, the boat journey is not a comfortable one and if it’s raining, you will be wet and cold. But it is definitely worth it for the unique experience and incredible views. Expect it to be a slow journey, taking over 6 hours, with many stops to pick up or drop off cargo and people.

muang khuoa boats

*Hint: Be prepared to pee on a beach somewhere along the way if you need to go!

muang khuoa break

There are small beautiful villages on the way which you could stop at for the night if you have the time to, I recommend stopping in Muang Ngoi. I said good-bye to my friends here as they took 3 days to relax in this stunning location, but I carried on to Nong Kiaw hoping to get there in time to catch the bus to Luang Prabang. My original plans of getting the slow boat all the way to Luang Prabang were dismantled when I was told that the Chinese had built dams that now made that journey impossible.

muang khuoa dam

See if I ever make it to Luang Prabang, and what challenges I face when I arrive in Nong Kiaw with no money, in my next post!


July Month 7: Water (Part One)

Challenge: Drink Water!!
Charity: Tearfund
Total £ accrued: £1
Status: There’s no feeling quite as terrible as of a stomach full of water.

The Seventh Challenge: To Drink Water

It’s really unfortunate that I begin this challenge in the most rural of areas and not in the comfort of my own home. With frequent need for a bathroom and little more than a hole in the ground available (if indeed a bathroom is nearby), it makes this challenge more… challenging?

Water? Really?

Yes water! And it’s not because I couldn’t think of anything better. It’s because I hate the taste of water (please, let me stop you there with your “but it doesn’t taste of anything”)! Sorry people! But the taste of nothing is just so unappealing.

So I have a bit of a problem, in that, I don’t drink water. In fact, I just don’t drink. The trick to not drinking is to wait until you get a dehydration headache and then down a 200ml mixture of diorralyte. It’s true, it sorts me out within half an hour (it’s also a hangover cure, you’re welcome)!

Tip: In order to truly rehydrate, you don’t just need water- you need electrolytes to help you absorb it. Try having a packet of salty crisps with your water.

The other thing I hate so much about drinking is the inconvenience of needing to go for a wee… frequently!

They say the reason you pee a lot when you go out drinking is because alcohol is a diuretic, but for me it’s normally that I just haven’t consumed that much liquid in days!

Taste Acquisition

When I see all you water lovers guzzling it down like it’s milk and honey (neither of which I would guzzle down but you get the picture), I do think you are crazy. But a part of me wonders if just maybe water is an acquired taste, sort of like wine. I remember the days when I looked at the grown ups with their wine glasses and thought “eugh, why do they like that gone off grape juice?!”

So I’m hoping that this is just another one of those “things”.

But for now, I’m sat here in my “hotel room” in Laos (it’s actually closer to a mud hut) forcing the water down like a dirty pint, having just been for my third pee in three minutes.

I’m actually scared to leave the room in case I wet myself, plus it’s raining heavily outside which really doesn’t help.

The Challenge

I’m going to be real with you, Rome wasn’t built in a day and nor was my bladder. So, although the recommended daily water intake is 2 litres, I am not going to pretend I can manage it. So, the challenge is to have at least 1 litre (seriously cringing as I say it) of water a day.

It has to be clear water, not mixed with anything.

If not, it will be £1 (because I’m currently poor, especially as the last month just wiped me out) to Tearfund who provide clean water and sanitation in impoverished communities.

Wish me luck, I’m going to need it!

Part Two

13 Weeks of Wandering – Sa Pa: Beauty & Calamity

Bangkok | Cambodia | Vietnam | Laos
New York >> Miami | Portland >> Vancouver

Where To? Vietnam
How long? 3 Weeks
Thoughts: In the end, the bus dropping me in the middle of nowhere was the best thing that had happened.

Like a Local 

SaPa 0

Rain pounded down on the house of wood and showed no sign of easing up. Mama May had been cooking and I could already smell the sweet aroma of pancakes when I forced my stiff muscles to move me out of bed. A hot shower did the world of good. *Grunt Grunt* The pigs were still curiously pressed up against the glass door whilst I did my morning routine. I couldn’t help but laugh at the bizarre scene.

The mother in law took the opportunity, whilst I was scoffing pancakes with condensed milk and bananas, to pull out her hand made selection of pillow covers, bags, purses, headbands, bracelets and the like. They did not come cheap (by Vietnamese standards) and I knew full well that I could get better quality items in the town for a cheaper price. I still bought. They were a family doing their best to make a living in any way that they could, how could I not support that?! So although I was certain the price had been majorly inflated for me, I didn’t drive a hard bargain as I chose some beautifully embroidered purses.

SaPa 1

Outside the girls, young and old, all sat around on the veranda sewing their own traditional garments. Each stitch took time and they weren’t afraid to un-stitch and re-stitch for perfection.  Mama May brought out her clothes, “would you like to try these on?” Would I? I couldn’t have been more excited to put on those snug fitting garments as she taught me how to wrap each layer. The children giggled as we stood next to each other and posed for photos. I looked like a local girl, they said.


The Delicate Wings of Butterflies 

Despite the persisting rain, a half day hike was in order and this time, Mama May had the bright idea of letting me hike in her traditional clothes so that I would look like a local. I obliged! I got a lot of compliments from people who thought I was local at first and then did a double take when they realised I wasn’t.

SaPa 2

Mama May started to talk about setting me up with a local man, and was all too quick to inform me (upon realising I was 25) that I was a bit old to be unmarried. By that age her daughters were already married with children. You see, in Sa Pa, they marry very young, most girls will have found a life partner by 17 or 18.

Trying to describe the views that I saw on my half day tour is futile. Here are a few words I would use; breathtaking, awesome, stunning, incredible. Aside from squeezing past even more buffalo, I witnessed the famous layered rice fields of Sa Pa, passed through colourful tribal villages, inviting corn fields, and awe-inspiring waterfalls. The wellingtons I borrowed from Mama May’s husband certainly served me better than the flimsy plimsolls now so spoiled that I had to throw away. I was grateful for these in the parts so slippery that I very nearly fell.

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A magical moment happened when we walked past a butterfly on the ground beaten down by the rain. At first I thought the beautiful creature was dead but I took a closer look. Her wings were soaked and the large drops of rain were beating down heavily on the butterfly. I knew it was only a matter of time before she drowned or was trampled over.

Using a twig, I let her hold on tightly whilst I moved her to safety by a nearby plant. She would be safe there, she could wait out the rain and fly again when her wings dried.
I didn’t realise at the time when we were crossing bridges and rescuing wet-winged butterflies whilst attempting to shield ourselves from the rain, that we plodded along with a new friend hitching a ride on our umbrella.


Much More Beautiful Than This

I was grateful when we could finally stop hiking and start eating! Guess what I had for lunch? Yep, you got it- noodles! Eating and chatting with the locals (whilst warding off the children selling bracelets), I returned Mama May’s garments and thanked her for the whole experience. It had truly been one of a kind, but it didn’t stop there.
Soon her husband came to get me on the back of his motorbike to return me to Sa Pa town.

SaPa 6

As I rode on the back of the motorbike through the Sa Pa mountains, the wind blowing through my hair, the raindrops stinging my cheeks, the cliff side overlooking rows and rows of bright green rice plants, I thought “it can’t get any more beautiful than this”. But it did.

Rounding a corner of the mountain face we spotted a small crowd of people around a bleeding woman. At first we thought there had been an accident and Mama May’s husband immediately stopped to help.

SaPa 25

We realised, she had just given birth to a beautiful baby. She brought a new life into the world, right here, on this road, by the edge of this cliff, overlooking the stunning valley of colourful rice fields. And I had been lucky enough to share a small part in her joy. I was in awe. Yes it did get so much more beautiful.

I shed a small tear.


The Calm before the Storm

I sat in the hotel lobby waiting for my bus to Laos, fully satisfied that I had experienced everything of Sa Pa that I needed to.

My Vietnamese Dong was running low but that didn’t matter because I wouldn’t need it any more crossing over to Laos. Realising the hotel didn’t accept card payments, I sighed, I guess I’d have to take some money out after all. I headed to the nearby ATM, unaware of the huge system issues my pre-paid master card had been having at that very same time and I punched in my pin.

I waited for my money to come out, but it didn’t, instead an error came up. I cancelled the transaction and waited for my card to be spat out, but it didn’t come out. The machine went back to the welcome screen as it waited for it’s next victim to put their card in and I stared, mouth wide open, in utter disbelief! It took a minute for panic to set in and I frantically looked for an entrance to the bank that owned the machine- closed! It was 6pm and the bank was closed. In 15 minutes, my bus would arrive to take me to Laos and my card, my lifeline, was stuck in this machine!

Desperately, I tried calling every number displayed on the foreign signs within the ATM but with no luck, the phone must have been out of minutes. No options left, I ran back to the hotel and urgently tried to communicate with the manager. Speaking minimal English, he had no idea what I was saying only that something was obviously wrong.
I burst into tears and tried, between sobs, to use my most basic English combined with dramatic hand gestures. But it still took me dragging him to the ATM before he realised what had happened. A woman was happily collecting her own money from the machine when we arrived, “ask her if she’s seen a card!” I frantically gesticulated. He obliged. Nope, she had not. My sobs resumed. He did not know what to do. Wanting to help, he took it upon himself to get in contact with the ATM provider as the bank was closed.


A good hour after missing the bus, it was clear that I would have to wait until the next day to retrieve my card from the bank. In a final attempt to calm me down, the manager offered a room to me at a discounted rate and refunded the money for the shower I’d taken earlier. He also called the bus company and rearranged for a the bus to pick me up the next day instead. I will always be grateful for his assistance, and I recommend you visit the Anh Nhi Hotel if you ever go to Sa Pa!

SaPa 13

It was good to have a normal comfortable bed to snuggle into that night and have some luxuries that I’d been missing the past few weeks, even month. Like a TV, with movies playing! I couldn’t remember the last time I watched a movie. And a hairdryer, free hotel toiletries etc. I decided I would make the most of it…
I had a hot shower, washed my hair, blow dried it into a slightly straighter, slightly less frizzy mop and then got snug and painted my nails. The hairdryer doubled up as a source of heat when my limbs started to get cold. And I enjoyed a film dubbed over in Vietnamese.

This can’t be the worst situation, I thought before I closed my eyes.

The Storm Before the Calm

The next day I was out as soon as the banks were opened. I packed up, left everything in the lobby and went to collect my card. With minimal trouble I eventually got it back, then did some obligatory sight seeing in the unceasing rain.

SaPa 14

Again, I waited and waited… and waited in the cold lobby with my bags packed. This time, the hotel manager received a call. The bus was not coming! Again, I burst into tears. And again, the hotel manager did not know what to do. So he put my sobbing self on the phone to the bus people who also did not know what to do. “Sorry…” They offered, but the sobs kept coming. I was on a tight schedule with a flight to catch in Thailand- I could not afford these delays. I was also tight on money and certainly could not afford yet another night in the hotel. “Please stop crying” the man on the phone practically begged me, “I’ll pay for your night in the hotel and for your breakfast!” My crying began to subside, “and I will refund you half of your ticket!” He pleaded with me. I managed to pull myself together enough to thank him. I could almost hear the sigh of relief the other end.

So I was back in my room, with the hairdryer warming my feet, watching dubbed over movies. But the drama was only just beginning. It seemed a very strange creature had made it into the room with me and was up for a bit of a fight! The strange looking large flying insect made a dart towards my face and I used a pillow to shield. Scared out of my wits, I jumped into a wing chun stance with the pillow in hand waiting for the next dart. It must have looked like a hilarious pillow/sword fight with an invisible person from the outside my window as I dodged and floundered my arms in the air. But the insect was scary AF and my heart was pounding out of my chest! When it finally landed in one corner of the room, I dove to the opposite corner which was thankfully by the door and pathetically threw a shoe at it. I ran out of the room before it had a chance to retaliate and sought out a big strong man to deal with it.

The hotel manager had done enough for me, he really didn’t owe me any favours! But I was desperate and afraid so I still sought him out. Instead I got a younger waiter who was the only man around, and he didn’t speak any English. It must have looked strange as I dragged him to my room, but he soon understood as I cowered in the corner and pointed across the room. He laughed at me as if to say, “are you f-ing serious”?! But he obliged and removed the insect from the room. I had the audacity to ask if he would do a scan of the room to ensure none of the insect’s friends and family remained and he also obliged. I thanked him in every hand sign possible and he left.

Let’s just say, I slept with the covers pulled over my head that night.


A Final Mountain to Climb

There was hope in the air that morning, maybe today was the day I would finally make it out of Sa Pa! It was still raining.

Making the most of Sapa, I went on a thorough exploration despite the drenching rain wearing the only shoes that were sort of waterproof… flip flips!

I went inside the Mau Son temple and I explored the street markets that hadn’t been there before. I was after some cheap street food as money was low, so I followed my nose up some steps which lead me to grilled corn on the cob. I fancied something else, so I kept following the steps onwards and upwards. I was distracted at first by stalls along the side of the steps, but the steps just kept going.

I reached a barricade that didn’t seem to have anyone manning them so I went through, this time curious as to where these steps would lead. They kept going, and going, getting steeper and more slippery as my flip flops started to slide on and off my feet. I didn’t stop.

There were beautiful gardens, and then tourists who seemed desperate to get a photo by a flower bed that spelled “Sa Pa”. But there were still more steps! So I went on.

SaPa 21

I’m not sure how long it took or how high I was but when the steps finally ended, I realised I was on top of a mountain! The Hàm Rồng mountain to be exact!

I laughed and took in the, albeit cloudy, view. In the end, I realised, the bus dropping me in the middle of nowhere was the best thing that had happened to me.

Next stop: Laos!