Lazy last days in Southeast Asia

Trip Start Jan 17, 2010
Trip End Jul 17, 2010

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Where I stayed
Soutikone Guesthouse

Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Monday, June 7, 2010

Well our time in Southeast Asia comes to an end today here in Vientiane, as we catch an afternoon flight to Kuala Lumpur (1 night) and then on to Hong Kong (2 nights), before flying on to Tokyo. I suppose we've always thought of our trip as having three parts: India, Southeast Asia, and China/Japan. Using this methodology we're still partially managing to convince ourselves we have a third of the trip left. While travelling in this part of the world has been surprisingly easy - with services set up to ferry tourists/backpackers from one great destination to another, it has meant that opportunities for interaction with the locals on transport have been limited. The option for "local" transport always exists but always takes twice as long; only yesterday we took a mammoth "VIP" (aka tourist) bus journey covering a mere 320 km in a gargantuan 10 hours of breathtaking, but sick-inducing, winding mountain roads. The same journey by the local transport becomes a bit of a non-option. In that sense we're hopeful Japan and China will be a little more akin to our travel experiences in India, with a little more local flavour and little less backpacker shuttle bus. I suppose you should be careful what you wish for though, even as I write visions of only-made-made-for-asians legroom buses creep into my mind!

We've spent the past week in Luang Prabang, the beating heart of Laos culture and Buddhism and a beautiful French-colonial town. I can't say we've done too much, aside from enjoying the riverside cafes and wandering the streets, but we've had a suitably languid (if you can't beat 'em, join 'em) end to the Laos leg of our trip. After a we'd completed the journey as detailed above, but in reverse (as in, from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang) - meaning we would need to turn back on ourselves yet again due to our earlier decision not to enter troubled Thailand - by minivan, we plonked our troubled tummies in the nearest guesthouse we could find and collapsed. Owing to our late arrival (detailed in previous posting) we had little time or inclination for anything other than eating, meandering and sleeping - setting the trend nicely for the five days to come.

We did manage to spend a few days exploring the many Wats (temples) of Luang Prabang, which are dotted around every leafy corner - their striking gold roofs tapering up to the sky are quite a sight. As well as the impressive Wats, the city is famous for the hundreds of orange-clad apprentice monks who populate the many monasteries. Eager to practice their English, and extremely engaging, we had various long chats with several monks and gained a real insight into their lifestyles, sacrifices and daily rituals. As far as we could make out, and according to an apprentice Monk of some 4 years named Phete (who is now our new e-penpal, incidentally), Monk-hood is a passport to an education for many Laos young men from the villages otherwise starved of opportunity. Phete was aiming to leave his temple later this year for University and a career in law, for him and his family the sacrificial elements of the life of a Buddhist Monk - he sees his family once a year, rises at 4am every morning, and gives the majority of his study time over to the Lord Buddha -  are well worth it. When I was chatting to another group of novice monks in their late teens and caught sight of their tattered English textbooks (of "the cat sat on the mat" variety) it really hit home how poor the education system in Laos must be. On the other hand I was surprised by some of the freedoms afforded to them - chatting avidly on mobile phones, smoking and playing cards - in some ways they didn't seem any different to the college students I used to teach.

Aside from one particularly unsuccessful day of cycling - thanks to the increasingly, infuriatingly useless Lonely Planet (guidebook) and its, frankly crap, maps - the only other thing we've really done of note is finally succumb to the lure of the massage. Lord knows how the poor little Laos woman felt as she sighted my sweat-addled torso, but it didn't seem to put her off too much as Kanan and I were pummeled and pampered from head to toe by the two expert (if slightly mechanical and indifferent) masseuses for an hour or so. The one I had was so small it must have been quite some sight as she squat-walked her hands up and down my back, and oiled the parts that some masseuses presumably don't (or can't) reach.

Fully relaxed then, we're both pretty much ready to move on from Southeast Asia now, a fact perhaps illustrated by my increasing frustration with the various inefficiencies of everyday life - my illustrative watch-pointing is becoming more and more frenetic. We have loved almost every minute of our time here though, particularly Laos with is old-world feel and sometimes excruciating, but most of the time refreshingly slow pace of life. We are looking forward to treading a path hopefully a little less well trodden however (by tourists/backpackers I mean, how many people are there in China again?) and can't wait to get to Japan. We had a small taste of the kind of adventure which might lie ahead (careful what you wish for!) when reading some of the online reviews of our Tokyo accommodation, alongside excellent reviews, listed in the "cons" section: "Small rooms (can stretch out hands and touch both walls)". Without wishing to over-stereotype, I'm really hoping this particular review wasn't penned by a person of Asian origin, or I'm in real trouble.

Until Japan

Jo and Kanan (In Vientiane, about to fly into Kuala Lumpur for the umpteenth time).

PS I forgot to mention the "Ethnik Fasion Show" we attended - shown in one of the pics below. It was quite something. Thirty-odd local young women dressed in various tribal outfits, paraded in a local bar for our viewing pleasure. They seemed so innocent and coy when up on the stage - relics from a bygone age. As we left the bar we caught sight of a few of them guzzling beer lao, whizzing off on motorbikes, dolled up to the nines - shattering the naive, presumptious, and slightly pompous illusion!!

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