Still loving it in Laos - how can you not

Trip Start Sep 02, 2006
Trip End Sep 01, 2007

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Friday, November 3, 2006

Sadly as I said goodbye hairy apes I left the 'Gibbon Experience' and toddled off to got into our transport to Houie Xai. I had expected a pick up however I had expected one of the big ones with benches, a cover to keep us in and such luxuries as suspension...

However we got a little pick up - full stop - and with active suspension. Meaning little to none. Funnily enough no one else was volunteering to get into however Yuri, Bjorn, Jacob and I thought what the heck and squeezed in with 4 locals. So that's eight in the back of a little pick up - cosy.

It was pretty mental getting to our first port of call about 5 miles as it was a rutted back road and we were getting thrown around everywhere. However, it became quite comical after a while, especially for Yuri aka Kinky Boy (as the numpty likes to be called) and I. So when we stopped and a few people decided to get out, Yuri and I decided to stay in the back of the pick up (along with a couple of locals who had no choice) instead of moving to a more comfy bus. It was only 2 more hours, how bad could it be? And what a laugh, it was easy one of the most memorable journeys of my life.

If we weren't being nearly thrown out - Laos roads being generally a rutted mess - we were getting a little dusty. In fact saying a little dusty is like saying Hitler was a little bit of a sod - we got covered by thick red dust. We both had sunglasses on and slowly through our trip we got darker and darker red and the whites of our skin below our sunglasses got more and more noticeable. Our teeth were gleaming too. Yuri kept laughing at me and I kept laughing at him as each dust storm we went through seemed to get thicker and thicker and we got darker and darker.

Quality laugh but an absolute pain to get off. I had to wash my hair 4 times and I felt like I needed to scrub off the skin on my face to get the red dust out. Ah well, no pain no gain.

Next day we decided to take the slow boat from Houei Xai to Luang Prabang (as most people entering from Thailand do). It takes 2 days but is extremely scenic and I highly recommend it. You can get a speedboat instead which gets there in one day but for me it's not exactly a relaxing option to be strapped into a little boat with a helmet shoved on your head and bulleting along. More importantly they don't serve beer!

By now there was ten of us. 6 from the Gibbon Experience - moi, Bjorn, Yuri, Ruben, Wolfgang and Caroline - plus a four others we met on the boat. Tine (Belgian), Dorien (Dutch) and Chris and Nick from the lovely town of Musselburgh. For the uneducated this is a town just south of Edinburgh.

Mekong is one of the biggest rivers in the world and the main life line for the majority of Laos people and is very important for China, Cambodia and Vietnam which it passes through. Being such an important river I was at first surprised that it didn't have more traffic on it, as it was pretty quiet. I suppose it must be more important for the fish it contains rather than as a transport route. All I know it has some muckle fishes in it; there is a type of catfish which is 300lbs in weight and the size of a grizzly bear. Plus in 1973, US marines caught this 7.8m water snake. I hate snakes and I could not think of anything worse than meeting that beast while I am going for a paddle. Okay Timmy Mallet [80s Childrens TV host] making a comeback would be worse...

After spending a totally unmemorable night in the most transient place I've ever been - Pat Beng - we arrived at Luang Prabang. On the way we passed apparently one of the main sights of the Luang Prabang area - Pak Ou caves. Don't go, it's rubbish. I spoke to a few people about it and no-one liked it.

Now I also spoke to plenty of people about Luang Prabang and they all liked it and I wholeheartedly agree. It's a UNESCO World Heritage site and was my favourite town I visited in Laos. It's super relaxed, quiet (only 25k inhabitants), a mixture of French colonial and Asian architecture, is small enough to walk around, though a bike is probably the better transport option. There are lots of vendors there (as it's a popular tourist place) but they don't hound you. A rare joy in SE Asia. Also we stayed at a great guesthouse (Cold River) which overlooked the Nam Khan river and they gave us free bananas and water plus one night cooked a free communal dinner for all the guests.

The first day in Luang Prabang, Ruben and I decided to explore the town on bikes. Taking in a game of locals playing boules and kids playing marbles for money. Boy those kids sure can play a mean pinball, I mean marble night I got to experience a bar called the 'Hive' which would not look out of place in any city in the world. Highly recommended except for the Lao Lao which should have a health warning attached to it.

Next day Ruben and I decided to part company while he headed more quickly for the Cambodian border and I stayed to enjoy Luang Prabang. I couldn't leave so quickly and even the 4 days we stayed there I could probably have happily tagged 2 or 3 more days on. This left 5 of us - Yuri, Bjorn, Tine, Dorien and big bad Alan.

One of the nest things about LP was the night market, where along the main street there are probably 100+ vendors selling clothes, artwork and nic nacs. I got a great portrait painting of an Akha women, which I am dead keen to get framed and a pair of Thai pants. These are lightweight cotton trousers which are super baggy so one size fits all and you adjust the tie around your waist to whatever your size is. Dead comfy but I suspect may not be all that practical for Scottish winters...

There is also a great food market where you can get a heaped plate of scrummy food for 50 cents. I plumped for the barbecued Mekong fish which was a delectable delight as was the coconut bread I bought too.

Now if you go to Luang Prabang (and why wouldn't you) then you have to go to Kwang Si waterfalls. It's about 15km from LP along a dusty road through some villages and is a must see attraction. The walk up the side of the waterfall was pretty tough and during the wet season would be impossible but is worth it.

If only for the view on this walkway.

Make sure you also bring your speedos as the falls cascade through into a few turquoise blue pools for swimming, jumping in off trees and general merriment. First dip of my trip and it was worth the wait.

Luang Prabang is famous for it's Wats (temples). In particular the Wat Xieng Thong which has a great mosaic at it's back, superb decorations on the internal and external walls plus a golden building which curiously was built around the funeral chariot for the last king of Laos (he died in 1958). I can tell you it's lucky that there is no more royalty as that chariot is not coming out of there.

Laos like a lot of SE Asia is devoutly religious and respectful of Buddhist monks. Every morning at about 5.30am the head monk and the rest of the monks go to receive alms - mostly from locals as this is a seen as a means of gaining good karma. Typically balls of sticky rice, bananas and the such like are given to them. Unfortunately and stupidly I left my money at home so wasn't able to give any, however Yuri was much more generous and bought a ton of food. Good lad.

There was a lot of monks, must have been 200+, all waiting patiently behind the head monk as he received his alms first. The head monk is 80 years old and is unable to walk far, however he always gets up to initially lead the procession.

It's a great and moving spectacle, however as often is seen, it was spoiled a little by a few (tourists) who insisted on either standing about 2 feet away from the monks snapping away at their faces without ever thinking of being respectful and asking their permission. These are the type of people who I am sure would be the first ones who would complain if someone was to do the same to them. In fact that gives me an idea, and I know what I'll do the next time I see this...

On leaving Luang Prabang I had another memorable journey, this time to Vang Vieng. We got on the bus and about 1 hour into the journey one of my 2 Dutch mates turns around and says something in Dutch to the other one, who then leans across to me and says the guy 2 rows in front has a gun! So rationally or irrationally - I'm not sure which - I think flipping brilliant we are going to get robbed. So I start to hide stuff down the back of the seats - the most important being my photo memory card. To be honest I couldn't have given two hoots about my passport or credit cards. They can be replaced but my photos couldn't. Then spend the next 1/2 hour trying to work out my escape route and peek to see if I can see the gun too while avoiding contact with the guy who looked pretty dodgy. Anyway you'll be glad to know that all was well.

He was armed (I saw the machine gun under his jacket at one of the rest stops) however he actually was an armed guard on the bus to prevent any robberies rather than commit them - there was a few about 3 years ago and the Laos government wanted to be extra careful it didn't happen again.

Panic over we got to Vang Vieng which is a bit of an odd mixture. It's the (self proclaimed) adventure sport capital of Laos with climbing, tubing and kayaking and is in a fantastically beautiful setting with lots of limestone mountains scattered around it. This is all great, however the town itself is an armpit, as are a lot of the people who visit it.

It's like a tacky tropical 'Spanish' resort. Where all the food is pretty much the same - either pizza or pancakes. They have perpetual 'Friends' re-runs playing in most of the bars. There is also a few who run 'Family Guy' re-runs and that's just hilarious so I admit I spent a damn fine 4 hours watching them one night.

Also Vang Vieng is famous for it's 'Happy Shakes'. Where if you want to get high then they'll put an assortment of drugs into your milkshake and your wish is granted.

Fortunately you can get away from this by finding a guesthouse next to the river and away from the town centre. We did this and stayed at a place called Champa Lao which had sensational views from their restaurant/deck. Little did I know that I would be spending an inordinate amount of time looking at these over the next few days.

One night we went out and had a chicken pizza. I got up the next morning and rushed to the toilet and dropped the kids off at the pool. When I went onto the deck Bjorn was lying there in the fetal position and informed me he'd been puking all night. Sniggering at myself I lay down and about 1/2 hour later, I thought mmm, I'm not feeling so tip-top. Leaning up I suddenly realise that things were going to rapidly go downhill so I put my hand up next to my face, just in time for me to vomit.

Now normally that may have been an okay idea as I could stop some of it, however this time it proved to be a BAD idea as I suddenly transformed into the girl from the Exorcist and projectile vomited. One second later I am laughing at myself as all the sick had deflected back over my hair, my face, my clothes. Two seconds later I stop laughing as I realise that it's going to happen again though luckily this time I make a quick hop, skip and a jump to the railing where I redecorate the bungalow roofs below me. Anyway both Bjorn and myself spent the next couple of days recovering.

Feeling better we tried our hands at tubing, which was majorily civilised as you just float down a river for about 5 miles, stopping off at various riverbank bars where they drag you in with ropes and ply you with alcohol. [Though I stayed off this as I wasn't fully recovered]. Leaving the bars was fun as they had swings for you to drop into the river.

Now the local kids aren't daft as they hung around waiting for the stupid westerners to swing in and then dived in after them to see if they dropped anything, under the premise that they were looking for fish. I am sure a lot did.

After spending 6 days in Vang Vieng rather than the expected 2 days we took a kayaking trip to Vientiane. We hoped that we could go all the way there however apparently some of the rapids are too strong for us non-experts so we had to settle for 4 hours on the first day and 2 1/2 hours on the second day. Bit expensive however it was worth it for the experience of capsizing and the cliff jumping we did.

Vientiane is the capital city of Laos and is tiny. One of the smallest capital cities in the world. I know some people think it's crap however I actually liked it. Granted it's seen better days and could do with some serious painting and repair work, however it's got nice wide avenues and some beautiful white washed buildings. You can really get the sense that it was special back in the mid-early 20th century when it was a French colonial capital.

We only stayed for a couple of days and in that time enjoyed a couple of great meals sitting on the grass next to the Mekong River (after 'marvelling' at the daily outdoor aerobics sessions). Plus we took a day trip to Buddha Park which is about 25 km from Vientiane and is a collection of concrete statues which were commissioned and donated by various well-to-do locals. One sculptor did it all back in the 60s and then apparently went loopy and disappeared off to Thailand. Fortunately he left his work and it's magnificent.

Now if this wasn't good enough we stopped off at the 'Beer Lao' factory which is the national beer of Laos. I like the idea of a national beer you can be proud of. Bit like us Scots who are proud of the best soft drink in the world (Nick agrees). If you'd forgotten it's Irn Bru.

Beer Lao is effectively the only beer sold in Lao and luckily it's good. Carlsberg must think so too as it bought the company. The four of us were the only people there so we got plied with a few cheeky little beverages, giving some stickers and shown around.

Next stop - 4,000 Islands - which is in the far south of Laos near the Cambodian border. There a number of islands down here (hence the name) but only about 20 or so which are inhabited. We chose Don Det, as it's small (3km by 1km) and meant to be pretty quiet and idyllic. Well it's relatively quiet however it's clearly getting busier and busier. Overall thumbs up from me with the great sunsrises and sunsets, bungalows overlooking the river and other little islands and a laid back atmosphere.

We spent one day putting the world to rights with a girl from Toronto (Nicole) and another from the mighty Chicago (Lliann). The next biking around the island watching the island life of fishing and rice farming though clearly in a few years (if not already) there'll be more money being made from tourism than anything else. Final day we spent being intrepid explorers and fishing using our homemade fishing equipment - even managed to catch one fish! Or rather Yuri did.

Sadly Laos is behind me and I've got to say I loved every minute of it (projectile vomit apart) and if you get the chance to visit. Do it and don't hesitate a moment. You hear me? Good.

Other memorable moments of Central and Southern Laos were:

(1) Experiencing Laos time for opening and departure times. It's risky to follow departure times too closely as they may leave early (normally if full) or leave late (normally if not full). For example, we were 1 1/2 hours late leaving Houei Xai on the slow boat to Luang Prabang as we were waiting for 10 people to get their visas after crossing from Thailand as the person at the immigration office had decided to take their lunch break about 10am instead of 12pm. Personally I would have said tough and let them get the next day's boat, however as you all know I am a heartless sod.

(2)Seeing the King and Queen of Thailand on their visit to Laos. I'm told it's really rare to see the King as he hardly ever comes out in public. Well I've seen him and just like hannibal from the A-Team he's a silver fox.

(3)Laos toilets are definitely an improvement from the Chinese and Japanese ones as they are sit downs like Western toilets. However what is weird about them is that they rarely flush, instead there is a big bin of water and a ladle and you do more of a manual flush.

(4) Playing Takraw with 3 young guys in Luang Prabang. Takraw is a mixture of volleyball and football played with a rattan ball. Unfortunately we went down fighting 11-9, mostly because of one kid who was a bit flash and even once did a scissor kick while balancing off one hand - show off.

PS You may or may not have guessed but these guys are actually better than I am...

(5) A nice French jeweller in Luang Prabang making a necklace from a snail shell that Tine had found the day before at Kwang Si Waterfalls. Then not wanting any money for it.

(6) You can get fly swatters here which are like electric tennis rackets and they're wicked and have helped me improve my backhand no end.

(7) The owner from our guesthouse in Vang Vieng thinking that we'd been ill on 'Happy Shakes' rather than food poisoning and told us to stay away from lemon juice as it would be very dangerous for us. We tried to tell him otherwise but I don't think he believed us.

(8) Sitting in a restaurant in Vang Vieng which seemed to have nothing to drink in it. When we asked for a coke they scurried across the road to another restaurant and served it to us. Same with Fanta. My pineapple shake proved to be a bit more of a challenge as that required a scooter ride to get the necessary fruit.

(9) I love sticky rice. It's a certain type of rice which you get in Laos (maybe Thailand too I don't know) and is a mixture of rice and cement but dead tasty. Now I'm in Cambodia I sure am missing it.

(10) Sunsets in this part of the world are really quick - like only a minute long.

(11) Meeting a group of 3 hippie travellers. Two of which had wives who were elsewhere, one even had a child but was away travelling and had been for 6 years, still 'keeping it cool'. One of the wives was actually finishing publishing a novel in Italian. Her husband is translating it into English and it'll be called 'Beautiful Piggish Souls' by Francesca Ferrando. You heard it here first.

(12) Staying over night on our kayaking trip and the 3 guides taking better rooms than we had. We were not happy campers, as we told them.

(13) Going to a local market and seeing gross things such as snake and squirrels. They even had some NSync CDs now that really is gross.

(14) Seeing too many road crashes. One a fatal one just outside of Vientiane were some young girl had been killed and her scooter had caught fire and was still ablaze when we passed it. Another one in Siem Reap which must have happened 30 seconds before we got there and fingers crossed the bike driver lived, but I am not too confident about that. As you might have guessed very few people wear bike helmets.

(15) Taking a karaoke bus overnight from Vientiane and finding out we'd picked up a couple of unexpected passengers during the night. One a pig which we'd hit and another a goat which someone else had hit. Presumably the bus driver had picked them up to give them a proper burial...

(16) Getting the best tuk-tuk driver in Pakse who flagged down a bus for us saving us about 3 or 4 hours.

(17) Constantly seeing the same faces when you went from place to place. Apart from the North of Laos there is a pretty obvious route which lots of people take. Saw one Belgian guy - Dean - in 6 different places - damn stalker!

(18) Finding out from Nicole and Lliann that you can make some good money teaching English in Taiwan. They managed to save about $1,500 each month in the 2 years they were there. South Korea is apparently pretty lucrative too but most other Asian countries are not - in particular China.

(19)Laos is definitely much more like a holiday than China. There are a lot more travellers around (mostly coming from Thailand) and you can nearly always find someone who can speak good English. Overall this is a good and bad thing as it's definitely easier when travelling about however in someways it's a little less rewarding as there is less challenges.
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vicbaker on

I can't believe you took a picture of roadkill!
But I have to say the picture of you after the dusty drive was hilarious, but I guess it meant you no longer needed to hide your ginger roots anymore!! My mates have just been through Laos and they bought the electric fly-swatting tennis racket too - must be the hottest souvenir in the country! Oh and they said the same thing about the lemon juice - apparently it's very dangerous after opium, so let that be a warning to you! I'm now wanting to book a trip to Laos thanks to your blog - might need your notes for the trip!

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