Into Laos

Trip Start Jul 20, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Thursday, January 24, 2008

Photos from Vietnam and Laos on this blog so if your waiting for photos on the last blog you will be sadly disappointed. We were really enjoying Vietnam but then we had one of those really annoying days and on a whim decided to leave the country as quickly as possible. From Ninh Binh we went to Mai Chau: a collection of tribal villages in the mountains of north west Vietnam. There wasn't much to do but we stayed in a house on stilts and there wasn't any motorbikes to annoy me.
But the problem with Vietnam is you always have to be on your guard for people trying to rip you off and after a while you snap  - you feel like Gary Neville, you've tried your best but everyone still takes the piss out of you. After spending 2nights in this women's stilt house, spending money on eating her food for every meal and buying there overpriced beer we feel we showed some loyalty. So when they offered to take us by motorbike the 8km to the bus stop we were thankful. Then they asked for 25,000 dong each despite it costing 15,000 to get there. I should point out that 1 Vietnamese dong is worth about 0.000000003p, approximately half the value of Leeds united, so we were only getting ripped off by 30p, however, having to be on your guard all the time regarding money becomes a bit stressful.

The bus we got on stopped at a roadside restaurant for food where we ordered rice and vegetables and were told 6,000. When we went to paid they wanted 60,000 and refused to take anything less. After a lot of shouting we left 18,000 got on the bus and decided to leave asap, the only problem being that we had no idea whether you could get a Laos visa on arrival at the nearest border crossing 200km away. We took a bus there in hope the next day and the customs officials looked slightly bemused as 2 English, 1 Chilean and a German started hi fiving each other in no mans land when they saw the 'visa on arrival' sign. It made me nearly as happy as when we ripped a Vietnamese guy off - i had a shave at one of the ubiquitous roadside barbers who was happy at first but got increasingly pissed off as it took 4 new blades to cut through my 10days of stubble.

Going to Laos from Vietnam is like stepping into a different world: the pace of life slows down completely until you feel like you've stopped and started going backwards - no one hassles you, no one is in a hurry and no one seems to care about much. We stopped for a night in Muang Kwa then took a boat to the idyllic Muang Ngoi. This village is deep in the jungle and only accessible by river which makes it incredibly quiet and peaceful. In fact, its an unwritten rule that your not aloud to make any unnecessary noise - we made a fire on the beach one evening with our American neighbours, one of whom had one of those voices you can hear for miles around and disturbs the peace. She walked to the toilet in the dark and fell into a 8foot hole which completely muffled her screams - have that - you won't be making any more unnecessary noise tonight! 

Only one place in the village had hot water and electricity was only available 3hours a day. Despite this we would have stayed longer than the 4days we did in our wooden riverside bungalow but had made a schoolboy error. We were told there was a BANK in Muang Kwa in Laos by many people, but when we arrived it turned out it was actually a CURRENCY EXCHANGE. Forgive me if I'm wrong but these are fundamentally different things. It meant we had $25, and it would cost $20 each to take the 3different boats required to reach the nearest ATM - in Luang Prabang, 2days of travel away. Luckily, an old English man on our bus took pity on us and was phenomenally kind in lending us $100 even though he didn't know our names or that we were international con artists.

So we headed to Luang Prabang and I have to admit i was initially a little disappointed with this place. I was expecting a city like Ulaanbator with a couple of backpacker hangouts, however, the place is completely swamped with restaurants, hotels, and shops aimed solely at tourists. Its all done very tastefully - built around and inside the charming old building - but at first glance it felt too much like a resort. We looked at the prices of one restaurant and the average Laotian would have to spend a whole months salary just to buy a plate of nuts. Furthermore, eating in Luang Prabang is far to orderly - you order and 15minutes later the food comes. Boring. In Muang Ngoi you order curry and 1h45minutes later they give you some sticky rice which should have gone to table 2 yesterday. Far more interesting.
They also have a night market which sells the sort of crap made out of fancy material that makes middle aged women go 'oooh, thats niiicccceeeee.' While it might appeal to some I'd rather be in the bustle of a fly infested shit-hole where local granny's are bartering for toothpaste and toilet role. 

That reminds me of another thing about Vietnam. In these shit-hole markets you can buy huge wads of photocopied $100 notes and feel like some dotcom suit head who goes to bed worth 77p and waked up worth $3.2billion. You can literally exchange 5,000 dong for $4.5 million. But why would you want this fake money? Basically, when the Buddhists go to the temples they give offerings to the Buddha's and God's - except in Vietnam they're too stingy to use real money so they go in and burn millions of fake dollars! I'm not the most enlightened on this subject however, i can't quite imagine the big man in the sky looking down thinking "ah, that same guy in Haiphong, he's sacrificed the GDP of Africa in the past few days, I'll make sure I get my favourite 2 Anna Kournikova lookalike angels to personally accompany him to heaven." Wait, thats Christianity, but whatever religion you follow, surely God isn't going to fall for the fake money stunt.

I digress, back to Luang Prabang. As we stayed longer here the place grew on us. The advantage of a big tourist infrastructure is that there are numerous things on offer to keep the tourists happy. One evening we went to a restaurant and did a Laos cooking course with the chefs - spicy fish in coconut milk and duck laap were amazing, spring rolls were less of a success. Then we took a 2day elephant training (Mahout) course which was amazing. After a couple of hours we were sat on an elephants neck taking the beasts through the forest and into the river for a wash. Now we're off to a book shop where local people come in and chat to foreigners to help improve their English. It is now day 5 in Luang Prabang and we still haven't really decided when we might leave. Just like anywhere in the world when you get away from the main street, or anywhere mentioned in the lonely planet, the place comes alive.

I've decided that maybe I should offer some advice on this blog for other people who may be traveling. All the guidebooks and other blogs I've seen give people help on what do to so I'm going to fill a hole and over the next few blogs introduce the type of people you need to desperately AVOID at all costs. You meet a huge spectrum of people while traveling but just like when you were at school, you get on with some but not others and whether you like them or not you will probably end up sat next to them in science. So when you get on a train/bus or arrive at a hostel be very wary of -

People to avoid while traveling No 1) The Moaning Parisian.

There are 2 types of French people - those from France and those who say - "I'm from Paris, well actually just outside, in a place called Bordeaux/Cameroon/anywhere 6hours drive away." And they insist on pronouncing it PA- reeee. Hearing this should set off alarm bells for a number of reasons. Firstly, their compulsive liars, secondly, they think you have the IQ of a termite, and thirdly they obviously view Paris as the most amazing place in the world. They will then spend the next minute/hour/day/week with you complaining about how things don't live up to what they're used to in Paris. For example, on a train in China - "this box of noodles is just pathetic, in PA-reeeeeeee every individual noodle I eat is personally hand-crafted by a gourmet chef  with a fancy mustache." Or in Laos -
 - "There is no hot water in the shower"
 - "I'm sorry, we only have electricity to heat the water at 6pm."
 - "Preposterous. In PA-reeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, when we have no electricity we get a bunch of frogs to peddle a penny farthing to make hot water."

If you bump into one of these people - run.
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