I Love Laos

Trip Start Oct 03, 2011
Trip End Dec 25, 2011

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What I did
Chilled out in the UNESCO town, caught a boat

Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Saturday, October 29, 2011

Instead of attempting an uncomfortable and protracted bus journey, complete with dodgy border crossing, we decided to hop on an hour long flight from Hanoi to sample neighboring Laos. We decided we quite liked Vietnam from our initial visit, but our first impression of Laos is more like love. As the plane glides closer we see tropical sun-drenched mountainous forests stretching out for miles and miles, pock-marked by occasional deforestation. A quick introduction: Laos is a former French colony of 6 million and as such has not been as war ravaged as its surrounding countries, possibly because it's borders are surrounded by mountains. It's one-party politics is backed heavily by Vietnam and China, the latter using this "friendship" to exploit the expanding logging industry in return for infrastructure improvements.

We land in the early morning heat worried about being let in. Michael left his passport pictures in his rucksack and as such is forced to pay the $1 penalty. Phew! A quick hop in a legitimate taxi across a rickety wooden bridge leads us to the hotel Merry Villa Laos I, "Merry Villa Laos I by the river?" the owner asks, "Well that's my brother's! 2 doors down!". We think there are over 6 "Merry Villas", which is a good thing judging by the one we end up in!

We head out in the baking sunshine and stumble across our first Vat (or temple), a huge stone tomb structure faces a temple containing unusual Buddha statues. One pose is arms down by the sides, "Rain Buddhas", calling for the end of drought and look a bit like aliens. The second have their arms up, palms facing forwards, urging people to calm-down, calm-down and share the rainwater fairly, "Scouse Buddhas" I think they're called. Stunning place. We head to the nearest Lonely Planet (what would we do without it?) recommended place for lunch, graced with air-conditioning. Amy, pleading her pasty Scottish upbringing, stays a while and catches up on her correspondence. Michael (and some mad dogs) walk around the main street sorting out safe passage onwards and checking out guided tours.

We later venture to the Luang Prabang National Museum, which includes a history of the country that poses more questions than it answers, but does include some cool (usually gold-painted) exhibits. We then haul ourselves up an unknown number of steps to the Vat overlooking the entire region to see the sunset (it's still very warm!) and are met with great views including a little Fokker F-70 plane land at the nearby airport. We skip back down the steps in the twilight straight into the Luang Prabang night market - probably THE best market we have strolled around (we are market connoisseurs, of course). The stalls are run by local people selling products that they or family members made recently, Amy is taken with silks, cottons and beautiful lamps, Michael with paintings and home-made alcohol with snakes, scorpions and centipedes whole within each bottle. We buy a fair few bits and bobs, happy to pay over the odds - it's hard to argue the price of things when you are bartering with people from one of the 20 poorest nations on Earth. We head home delighted with our treasures and ready for the next day's adventure.

It transpires that the only practical way to travel north-west (where we are headed) is via boat upstream on the Mekong river. Opting against the speedboat (a term used loosely to describe a small wooden frame with motor Frankenstein-ed onto the back, cause of ecosystem damage and a fair few deaths) and take the slow-boat.

And relax... Stocked up on reading materials we begin our cruise (read "First they killed my father" by the way). Unfortunately we were misinformed on the "food is provided" line but came prepared with a couple of delicious sub sandwiches which we ration throughout the day. There are 20-30 people atop of the former car seats in the boat, some tourists, others locals that get dropped off throughout the day. That night as the sun sets we dock at Pak Beng to swarms of children persuading us to stay at this lodge or that. Accommodation for the night secured we head to the local Indian for some great cashew-nut pakoras and poppadoms with a riverside view.

Highlights spotted throughout the 2 days: wild goats; cows; water buffalo; an ELEPHANT!; numerous fishermen with a variety of lines and nets; a dead cow(?); quite a bit of rubbish; excited children waving, swimming and playing on the bank; wooden hut villages and the occasional glimpse of a speedboat whooshing past.

Safely out of the water, tomorrow will see us enter the forests...
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