Laos - Vientiane to Nong Khiaw
Trip Start Dec 26, 2008
13Trip End Jul 17, 2009
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Where I stayed
White Orchid Guesthouse, Phonsavan
Levady Guesthouse, Luang Prabang
Sunset Guesthouse, Nong Khiaw
We left Chiang Mai on 5th April on an overnight VIP coach to Udon Thani. The bus was comfortable enough but the driver was completely useless. He kept grinding his gears, stalling and struggled to get up the slightest of inclines even though it looked like a relatively new bus.
As usual I managed to get some kip but Lois struggled to drop off. I was rudely awoken by freezing cold water dripping on my face from the air-con unit above ... no wonder I've been suffering with a cold ... 50 people's bacteria dripping on my face ... NICE!!!
We arrived in Udon Thani around half 8 in the morning and jumped onto the next bus to Nong Khai which was a 70's style bus with pink frilly curtains. While we were waiting for the bus to depart a monk got on and sat at the back. As we were about to set off one of the shopkeepers from the bus station jumped frantically onto the bus and ran to the back with a bag full of provisions for the monk.
The bus wasn't at all full when we left but at the next stop it became packed. Women from roadside food stalls boarded the bus to sell fruit and snacks for the journey ... this is a regular occurrence on buses and trains over here. Once we were back on the road we were subjected to Thailand's version of MTV ... all of the songs sound the same and every video depicts a love triangle or a story of unrequited love ... come on Thailand ... have an original idea will you!!!
We came to a sudden standstill and the doors opened ... a Thai policeman came along the aisle and wanted to see everybody's ID ... our passports were fine of course but 2 young men were escorted off the bus ... we left them at the roadside and drove on ... scenes like this must be normal here ... we never found out what they had done wrong if anything.
On arrival at the bus station in Nong Khai we were surrounded by tuk-tuk touts claiming we couldn't get a bus over the Friendship Bridge if we didn't have a pre-arranged visa ... for once they were telling the truth so we haggled until we could get a reasonable price. We didn't have the right change so when we arrived at Thai immigration on the Friendship Bridge our driver ushered us through the exit gate to a counter where we were expecting to get change, but were given 2 bus tickets and the difference for 500 baht. They didn't say what the bus ticket was for and were trying to force us onto a bus there and then when we hadn't even been stamped out of Thailand ... we requested our money back and went back through the exit gate to get the formalities sorted. Once we had been stamped out we went back to the counter and bought 2 tickets to get over the Friendship Bridge to Laos immigration. When a bus arrived all of the locals piled on and it looked unlikely we would get on, when a young Thai man called us over who had saved us a space ... well somewhere to stand actually but it was nice of him to help us out.
One thing that does get a bit annoying over here is that they don't queue for anything so being British you continuously find yourself being barged past and pushed in front of because you are too polite to do the same.
We arrived at the Laos border and made our way to the visa on arrival desk ... $35 and a few minutes later we were on our way into Laos.
As soon as we cleared customs a young Lao man offered us a tuk-tuk ... 200 baht (4 quid) for the 22km drive into Vientiane. He pointed out the Beer Lao factory ... he obviously took one look at us and knew we would be drinkers ha ha!!!
Along the way he picked up 3 Lao ladies who were really smiley. They studied us carefully ... one stroked Lois' arm and we think she meant white and hairy and another lady put her hand around the top of my arm ... I can only assume she thought I was chunky!!! The tuk-tuk dropped the ladies at the bus station and we continued on to Central Vientiane. All the way Laos people were smiling and waving from cars and motorbikes. First impression was that the people are more friendly in general that the Thais.
The tuk-tuk dropped us on a main road which ran along the bank of the Mekong River. Both in need of food after another overnight journey we sought breakfast at a sweet little coffee shop.
New country ... new start ... we were planning to get back into a healthy regime so ordered fruit salad with yoghurt and a sprinkle of muesli. We were a little shocked at how much more expensive the food was ... thankfully it was massive when it came out. Lois was delighted ... no more tiny Thai portions, however she was a little confused as to why there were black sesame seeds all over our breakfast ... must be a French thing (Laos is French colonial).
After breakfast I left Lois sat with the backpacks while I went to find a guesthouse. I viewed a few dumps, a couple that were well out of our price range and finally settled on Mixay Guest House. A decent room for 90,000 kip a night (7.50GBP), the only problem was the 3 flights of spiral staircases with backpacks on ... we made it to the top and were in desperate need of a rest with the fan on full blast.
Later that day we went for a wander and it was so peaceful ... considering it was rush hour there were very few cars around ... people rode past on bicycles ... it felt so relaxed.
We had been advised that the cheap meals were to be found at the food stalls along the Mekong River, but after a walk by and seeing flies all over the meat we decided we were in need of eating elsewhere, plus the stalls were no cheaper than the restaurants.
On my guesthouse hunt earlier that day I had come across a lovely courtyard with a water fountain which was surrounded by fancy French restaurants and the famous Scandinavian Bakery. We settled on a restaurant not on the square itself but we still had a great view of the fountain.
Lois being Lois wanted to sample typical Laos food and drink so we ordered a jug of Beer Lao, she ordered 'Lab' (also called Lap, Larb, Larp, Laph - depends on the restaurant) which is minced beef (can have other meats) with local herbs and sticky rice (it's not like sticky rice in Thailand with coconut milk ... this is plain rice steamed in a bamboo pot ... it basically comes out as a big ball of glued-together rice ... the Laos people tell us that with steamed rice you eat 3 times a day, but you only eat sticky rice twice a day as it is much more filling). She asked the waiter if it was spicy and he said not ... it didn't blow her head off quite as much as the green curry in Chiang Mai the previous night but it came in a close 2nd and was a different kind of hot.
We later learned that Laos food can be extremely hot and spicy and you need a strong stomach to handle it.
I went for vegetable spring rolls with spicy dip and Pad Thai. The service was slower than erosion but we didn't mind as they were very smiley and apologetic. We both enjoyed our first meal in Laos, but we were in need of something sweet. The Lonely Planet had recommended the Scandinavian Bakery and as we sat in the courtyard digesting our meal it called out to us and we couldn't resist. OMG!!! The cakes in the window were amazing ... we went inside and went a little mad ... 4 different slices of cake ... 2 forks ... yummy!!! By the end I felt pretty sick but Lois again being Lois cleaned the plates and then got a takeout ... fat greedy pig ha ha!!!
Day 2 in Vientiane we arranged our Vietnamese visa with our guesthouse, then went for Paris breakfast at a French café and mosied around the many craft shops and galleries. In the afternoon we took a tuk-tuk to the bus station in an attempt to buy a ticket to Phonsavan of the next evening. We were told we couldn't buy one until the day of departure but were re-assured we'd be able to get onto the VIP overnight coach.
Back in the city we found ourselves at our favourite resting spot ... the fountain ... where a young Lao man came over, sat down next to Lois and posed the question "What is the role of English in globalisation?" Not using your brain for 3 months takes its toll so we weren't much help to the poor guy's college assignment ... nevertheless he was grateful for our input.
That evening we grazed at a restaurant on the banks of the Mekong River. This time the service was great and the smartly dressed waitresses kept out glasses topped up.
Our final day in Vientiane we once again went to the Scandinavian Bakery ... this time for croissants for breakfast, before taking a long and sticky walk to Patuxai (Vientiane's Arc de Triumphe replica) for views of the city. Back at the guesthouse we collected our Vietnam visas and off we went to the bus station.
On arrival we were told that the bus to Phonsavan was full ... we were not impressed as we'd been told to go back at that time and we would get a ticket. A friendly guy in the ticket office told us that if enough people turned up he would arrange another bus. Thankfully others were going the same way so an old banger bus was brought out of retirement ... hardly the VIP we'd paid for!
I sat on the bus and got chatting to some Kiwi girls while we waited for it to fill up ... Lois paced around the station, tried to blag us onto the VIP coach next door and watched people hoist motorbikes and other unusual items onto the buses roof-rack ... it literally looked like it would topple over. Just when we thought the bus was full ... they brought out the 'extra seating' which was plastic stools for local people to sit on in the aisle ... hard to believe that's where they would sit for the next 12 hours overnight, but in typical Laos style they were all smiling and laughing.
As we pulled off the driver cranked up the volume on his sub-woofer and blasted out Laos traditional music and sang to his passengers at the top of his lungs.
Good job it was night time because the so-called air-con we paid for turned out to be open windows - lots of sweaty sardines ... it would have been unbearable in the midday heat.
This was to be the most testing journey so far on our trip ... not only were the seats rock hard but being sat on the front seats opposite the driver we could anticipate every approaching bend of the foggy mountainous terrain ... it literally was bend after bend and although the driver took them a little too quickly for our liking, the journey was still painfully slow.
There are no such thing as service stations in Laos so the toilet stops were at the side of the road where everyone piled off and ran into the bushes ... due to the millions of unexploded bombs dropped over Laos during the Vietnam war and the fact that many unsuspecting Laos locals have stumbled upon them and lost their limbs or even lives we thought it best to hold it.
About an hour into the journey the antique bus came to a standstill and when a few guys got off carrying unusual looking tools we thought we might be camping roadside for the night, but thankfully they wound it back up like a car in the old black and white movies and we were back on our way.
A little further along we passed another over-laden bus that had seemingly taken a bed a bit too fast and had lost some of the motorbikes off it's roof ... they were all smashed up on the road ... wonder if their insurance will cover that??!
Somehow the other passengers seemed to be sleeping but as we had a drunken old lady sat on a plastic stool next to us ranting away to herself in a hysterical high-pitched squeal, whilst the driver slapped himself around the face continuously and yodeled until 7am we didn't catch a wink.
As it got light the thick mist made the landscape resemble that on Memoirs of a Geisha ... it was a little eerie but as the sun continued to rise, the little villages we'd been passing through the night came to life ... ladies getting washed outside their bamboo huts, kids walking to school along the roadside and various farmyard animals wandering into the road.
After 12 hours of darkness this was our first glimpse of rural Laos and even with the thick mist it appeared very beautiful.
On our final toilet stop we witnessed the drunken old lady taking a pee Laos-style ... she was wearing a long straight skirt ... at first it looked like she was pulling a wedgee out, but in fact she must have been pulling her pants to one side ... without hoisting her skirt she stood with straight legs about a foot apart, leant forward from the waist and did the deed ... she walked back to the bus shaking her legs and flicking her feet to dry off URGH!!
On arrival at Phonsavan bus station the first thing we noticed was that it felt very cold ... we were in shorts and t-shirts ... it probably wasn't that cold but compared to what we've become used to it felt really chilly. We looked around and we were in the middle of nowhere ... thankfully the bus station was 4km out of town so we took a tuk-tuk. Phonsavan is a very strange place, with a wide and dusty main street ... it feels like something out of an American western movie. There isn't much there so it was a good job we were only there for a couple of days.
Lois found us a room at the White Orchid Guesthouse where they kindly let us check in straight away. My cold had started taking its toll so I curled up in bed and watched TV while Lois went missioning around the town in search of paracetamol and the best priced tour to the Plain of Jars for the next day. Thankfully it had warmed up by that time and she actually returned with a sweat on.
Later that afternoon I was feeling a little better so we took a stroll along the main street ... there were plenty of people around but it still felt like a ghost town. We found a restaurant called Craters which was recommended in the Lonely Planet so we decided to get some dinner. I went for a spicy vegetable dish and Lois tried Phat Pet for size (this made us laugh as we thought of Poppy our fat pet at home - although she may be thin when we get back with all those runs on Tynemouth beach).
A familiar accent piped up and the voice asked us where we were from ... it turned out the middle-aged couple sat behind us were from Darlington ... as they had no kids they decided to retire early, sell up and travel. On this trip they had already covered many places we plan to visit so they offered us some good advice.
The next morning we were up bright and early for our trip to see the Plain of Jars which is a large area to the west of Phonsavan where huge jars of unknown origin are scattered around in dozens of groupings. There are 3 main sites which have been largely cleared of unexploded ordnance (UXO).
At Site 1 the jars were spread out over 3 main areas. There were 250 jars in total, including the largest jar found so far. There are numerous bomb craters and you can only walk within the white markers which show that the path has been cleared of UXO by the British Mines Advisory Group (MAG). Our guide also took us to see a cave where the Vietnamese stored petrol during the war, which was targeted and blown up by the Americans.
On our way to Site 2 we had a brief tour of the whisky village ... it's actually quite nice but we couldn't drink a full bottle ha ha!
They sell the whisky with a scorpion, a snake or what our guide called a medicine tree inside the bottle. He reckoned if you are going to work tired you should drink the medicine tree whisky and you will be wide awake. We aren't convinced as we continue to find Laos people asleep at their desks.
Site 2 was much smaller with only 90 jars spread across two adjacent hillsides. At this site there is a lid which is engraved with what the guide said is the shape of a man. We were more impressed by the scenery and moved away from the group to take it in and breathe in the fresh air. As we looked out over hills and rice paddies and a gently breeze brushed past our ears we thought of our Dad ... he was a sucker for fresh air and a great view.
Before going on to Site 3 we stopped for lunch at a village called Ban Sieng Di. The ladies served us noodle soup ... I went for no meat of course and Lois wished she had when she pulled out the dodgy looking dog meat (well it could have been) from her bowl. We ate as much as we could and then off we went to Site 3.
Getting to Site 3 was a bit of an obstacle course ... first a bamboo bridge over the river which I was convinced would collapse but I crossed it anyway ... then through 2km of rice paddies ... over a couple of fences and then up a hill to Site 3 itself.
Feeling a little mischievous we waited for our guide to look the other way, then Lois climbed inside one of the jars for a photo ... naughty naughty!!!
The purpose of these possibly 200 year old jars remains a mystery and without any organic material such as bones or food remains, there is no reliable way to date them.
Archaeological theories and local myth suggest the enigmatic jars were used for burial purposes as stone coffins or urns ; or maybe for storing Lao-Lao (rice whisky) or rice.
Lois has devised her own theory ... as the entrances to the jars and the hollow spaces inside most of them are shaped like the bombs dropped during the war ... she reckons that some ancient Nostre D'Ames type dude predicted that dangerous cylindrical objects would fall from the sky and damage the crops so they built the jars to catch them and contain the blasts ... strangely enough this kinda makes sense as the Xieng Khuang Province (where the Jars are) was the most heavily bombed area during the war between 1964 and 1973.
On our way back to Phonsavan we stopped off to see a Russian tank used by the Vietnamese during the war, before dropping off an annoying Czech-Canadian woman who loved the sound of her own voice at the war memorials.
Back in town we were starving and went in search of Nisha Indian Restaurant ... it was really hard to find but after a couple of trips up and down the main street we found it. It was well worth the mission ... best Indian this side of Bombay!
The next morning we went to catch our minibus to Luang Prabang ... we'd expected to be sharing with at least another 4 people but as there were 2 vans we had one to ourselves. At first our driver was going really slow but as soon as we got outside the town he put his foot down. I had wished we were back on the overnight bus where I couldn't see the sheer drops as our driver swung us around bends in the mountains.
For much of the journey we were on cliff edges with drops of a couple of hundred feet or more. Even Lois looked a bit nervous. Drivers here take over on bends and they wonder why there are often head-on collisions ... one of which we saw the aftermath ... a pick-up looked like it had taken over on a bend and had crashed into a lorry coming the other way ... it was not pretty!!!
Our driver didn't speak English so even when we asked him to slow down he didn't understand and continued to throw the minivan around as if her was playing whacky racers.
The other van in our convoy was enjoying a cautious journey through the mountains whereas we were being put through a white-knuckle rollercoaster ride ... well that's what it felt like.
Both vans pulled up on the roadside and our drivers decided to show us the wreckage of a logging truck that had gone over the edge of a cliff and exploded because the driver had fallen asleep. You would think this would encourage our driver to slow down but no such luck.
As we passed through the small villages on our way to Luang Prabang it was evident that the Laos New Year water fights had already started as children lined the roadside with water guns and buckets to soak passing vehicles with. The first time in happened we got soaked as all the windows were wide open.
Eventually the 6 hour journey that turned out to be 8 hours (even though the driver was a maniac) was over and we arrived at Luang Prabang bus station. A short tuk-tuk ride into the centre and after dumping Lois at Joma Bakery with the backpacks I went in search of a guesthouse.
The only one that I could find was a dark 1st floor room with shared bathroom where the price would increase considerably during the 4 day New Year festival. The other guesthouses in that area were either full or out of our price range so I went back to the bakery a little disheartened.
Lois not being willing to settle for a crappy deal went off to the other end of town to look for something better.
While I sat outside the bakery enjoying a diet coke and reading the Lonely Planet I looked over at a temple on the opposite side of the road and to my horror a Laos man was in the gardens doing what I can only imagine was brought on by a dodgy curry the night before against a tree ... I think I have been mentally scarred ha ha ... hadn't been expecting full-frontal made nudity but I guess when you've gotta go ... you've gotta go!!!
About an hour later Lois returned having found a nice room at Levady Guesthouse just off the main street ... although more expensive than we'd hoped it wasn't a bad deal as even the cheap rooms had almost doubled in price for the New Year period.
By this time the night market along the main street was in full swing so it was a bit of an obstacle course ducking and diving under canopies with our snail shells on.
That night we were pretty knackered so after popping out to get some snacks we hit the sack. I think the run yourself ragged journey earlier in the day had taken it out of us.
The next day I was still down with a bad cold so didn't feel like doing much but as it was Easter Sunday back home (they don't celebrate it here) we treated ourselves to some chocolate ... Lois had spotted some full-size Snickers for the first time since Oz so we had to have one ... In Thailand they are tiny so Lois was chuffed with her find.
The next day on top of my cold I had killer period pains so didn't make it out of the room all day. Lois was determined to burn a few calories after all the French fancies we'd consumed so once more donned her unconventional jogging gear ... hiking boots and all and hit the streets of Luang Prabang. She returned wringing wet about 30 minutes later having jogged / walked along the Mekong. Although she was exhausted she was glad to have started a healthy regime again. Unfortunately she had to eat alone that night, but she kindly brought me some veggie rice back to the room.
Thankfully on Tuesday I awoke feeling much better which was great timing as the New Year festivities were due to start. In line with our new healthy regime I popped out to get us a fruit salad for breakfast and picked up 2 Super Soakers.
Armed with our water guns we went to get amongst the mayhem. First we went onto the main street for battles with groups of Laos kids and business owners who had huge water drums on the pavements and were throwing buckets over passersby. There were pick-up trucks full to the brim with people who were driving up and down soaking everyone as they went past. We were drenched ... it was so funny!!!
A procession came along the main street and ducked down one of the side roads which lead to the Mekong. We decided to join them and ended up down by the river where thousands of people were taking boats over to a mud bank in the middle of the Mekong (as it's half empty before the monsoon comes) to watch the building of the 'Stupa'.
We managed to get onto one of the boats and were soon on the other side of the river where food stalls were set up and Laos people were all drinking and dancing. We were very lucky to be part of the celebrations.
Traditionally the Laos people throw white flour over each other and then get something that resembles mud or tar and cover each other in that too along with the water fights of course.
To get to where the majority of people were partying we had to wade through the Mekong's murky water and then through thick sludgy mud in our bare feet ... NICE!!!
We somehow made it without falling in unlike a few others I witnessed take a dive. Once we were in the thick of it we were almost instantly covered in flour and mud by the young Laos boys.
Once again I got injured ... this time we were walking through some thick mud when something sharp went into my foot ... thankfully it wasn't too serious so I just did a DIY bandage job.
On the other side of the river we could see there was a lot of commotion going on so we hopped on a boat back so we could join in. After numerous water battles along the road that runs alongside the Mekong we found shelter in a riverside bar as we were in need of a beer (we were probably the only sober people in town at that point).
All of the guesthouses along the Mekong were hosting big street parties, each blaring out different music and keeping everyone's water ammo topped up.
From our safe haven behind a few bushes we had a great view of some entertaining Laos youngsters ... ladyboys dancing on tables ... halting cars, pick-ups, motorbikes, bicycles and pedestrians to give them a good soaking.
The atmosphere was highly energised and couldn't help feeling excited. Everybody was getting involved ... even pensioners as you couldn't escape the mayhem ... it was everywhere!!!
Rested and refreshed we were keen to get back into the chaos so off we went. Considering we were only a 2 woman team we did pretty well soaking some of the big groups, although literally every 5 metres we'd get a bucket of water thrown over us and get covered in mud and flour.
This may sound harsh but it's actually a tradition to wish you well for the coming year and most pour the water over you gently and it's often warm-ish, although you do get some crafty youngsters with icy buckets.
The Super Soakers are a relatively new addition to make is more fun for kids, teenagers and of course us tourists.
As we made our way back up to the main street we passed a temple and I noticed some young monks in the gardens. I was just saying to Lois how I felt sorry for them not being able to get involved when a bucket of cold water came flying over the wall and we could hear the chuckling from the orange-robed assailants. Lois retaliated and soaked them all which I watched in horror saying "You can't soak the monks!" and Lois shouted back "I bloody well can!" The monks soon retreated back to the temple.
On the main street we roamed until sundown and as the final buckets of water were thrown and darkness drew in we went for some dinner. The restaurant owners took one look at us and offered us soap and towels so we could wash the mud and flour off our faces before we sat down to eat.
That night Lois didn't get much sleep as half the Mekong she'd swallowed during water fights that day troubled her tummy.
The next day the Prime Minister was in town for the Pii Mai (Laos New Year) procession ... he started the festivities by banging a huge drum in the middle of the main street.
The procession was very colourful and the hundreds of participants put on a good show. The Prime Minister and other officials were given silver pots full of water and flowers to sprinkle over the performers and each other.
Afterwards the water fights commenced so we sought refuge upstairs in the Joma Bakery where we enjoyed a nice cup of tea, some naughty cake (yes, the healthy regime had again gone down the toilet) and we watched the madness with a birds eye view from the window.
That night we went to Pizza Luang Prabang as it was recommended in the Lonely Planet ... the food and service were rubbish but we got chatting to a nice old couple (Ron & Myra) from Australia. He was originally from Lancashire but moved to Oz when he was a boy. They were sorry to hear we'd had a disappointing time in Australia, mainly due to weather and said we could stay with them anytime at their house near Melbourne so they could try to change our minds. They also gave us some great advice about Vietnam.
The next day we sat at the bakery whose carrot cake Lois became addicted to and strangely enough watched the same procession as the day before except they were traveling in the opposite direction. Perhaps in the absence of the Prime Minister and the fact that the locals had been drinking Beer Lao for the last 3 days it wasn't taken as seriously and the locals soaked the performers ... it was still great fun to watch!
It was the last official day of the New Year festival so wanting to make the most of it we for our Super Soakers on and hit the streets once more. This time the majority of the action was on the main street. It seemed like lots of backpackers had just arrived and along with the young locals had made teams on both sides of the road and were having water battles and charging across to soak one another ... we joined one of the teams for a little while but decided that our 2 woman tag team was better so we took off.
During a beer break we got chatting to a guy called Tom from Brighton who was traveling with 2 Danish guys ... they had just returned from Vang Vieng where they had been Tubing (you go down rapids on a rubber ring and stop at lots of bars along the way). Unfortunately they had witnessed a girl die ... they aren't sure what happened but she was under the water for a long time and one of the Danish guys dragged her out ... she was blue and they took her away in a wheelbarrow.
Lois had wanted to visit Vang Vieng to do Tubing without the drinking, but due to a lack of time we'd bypassed it which we are now grateful for although Lois was gutted at the time.
When you hear about tragedies like this it really hits home that you really are on the other side of the world and safety is not taken as seriously. Don't worry Mum we are being careful!
The last few hours before darkness the water fights grew more intense ... last chance for a whole year ... we soaked it up literally!
Our description and the photos of Laos New Year don't anywhere near express how much fun the experience was. We would definitely recommend visiting Laos especially at this time of year as long as you have a sense of humour and don't mind getting completely soaked.
Friday was the first day since we arrived in Luang Prabang where you could actually walk around without getting soaked so we visited the Royal Palace Museum.
The palace was originally constructed in 1904 as a residence for King Sisavangvong and his family. When the king died in 1959 his son Savang Vattana inherited the throne, but shortly after the 1975 revolution he and his family were exiled to northern Laos and imprisoned in the caves of Vieng Xai, following which the palace was converted into a museum.
Cameras were not permitted inside the palace but there were impressive murals depicting traditional Laos life on the walls, lots of artifacts from Laos history and many gifts to the King and his family from different countries ... the one which sticks out in my mind is a tacky plastic space station given to the King by America.
After a stroll along the Mekong I was feeling a little unwell so went back to the room while Lois went to visit the temples on the slopes of Phu Si where she hiked up 350 steps for fantastic views of the city.
The next morning at 8am we caught our lift to the bus station where we got on a minibus to Nong Khiaw.
I had been dreading the journey after the terrifying trip from Phonsavan but I was pleasantly surprised ... the driver was not a mentalist and the scenery was wonderful as we drove alongside the river.
After only 2.5 hours we came to a small village and stopped at the end of a gravel track. We were a little confused as were expecting the journey to take 4 hours, which usually means 6 in Laos, but were told we had arrived in Nong Khiaw.
We were expecting a small town but were shocked to have ended up in a riverside village with very few amenities. We were planning to catch the bus to Sam Neau the next day and on to the Vietnamese border but needed a bed for the night so I went off to find a room.
After viewing several rooms I finally settled on Sunset Guesthouse on the other side of the river. I collected Lois and our packs and we made the sweaty midday walk back over the bridge.
We have stayed in some pretty basic rooms but this was basic with a capital 'B'!
Our room was actually a bamboo hut on stilts nestled into the bank of the Nam Ou river.
This was to be my biggest test so far being petrified of spiders as there were gaps in the bamboo walls and a 6 inch gap under the front door so anything could have got in.
On the up side we had a mozzie net albeit with lots of holes, a fan, a terrace with a hammock that Lois curled up in and a magical view of the sunset between the jagged limestone karsts. It really was the definition of peace and tranquility.
There was no ATM or bank and we didn't have much cash so we went to investigate how much our bus ticket to Sam Neau would be before going for dinner. Most of the locals didn't speak English and there was no tourist information so we found it difficult to get any answers. Eventually a guy at the tiny post office told us it would be 70,000 kip each which is what we'd expected and also told us it wasn't a fixed schedule so to get to the bus stop (side of the road) early.
Having only 200,000 kip we thought it best to go hungry just incase the price had gone up as it tends to do here.
Back at our little hut we sat on the terrace until dark ... lots of bugs ... my mosquito coils came in handy!
We were conscious that having the big light on would attract more bugs so we got ready for bed using torch light and quickly climbed into bed under the mozzie net.
I felt quite stressed being in a bamboo hut in the dark with who knows what about to crawl on me but eventually managed to settle. Lois was absolutely fine as usual ... in fact she felt quite at home!
Being only 7pm and us tucked up in bed we were hoping for a mammoth sleep of 12 hours ... turns out a birthday party had made its way to right outside our hut and the thumping music and loud voices didn't cease until after midnight. On top of all that I had a migraine and at one point the door blew open and I jumped out of my skin ... so not quite the peace and tranquility we'd hoped for after all.
Next morning we woke tired and hungry but didn't want to get breakfast until we'd bought our ticket. We checked out and made our way to the bus ticket office which was now open and to our dismay the tickets to Sam Neau were double what we'd been told. We explained that we'd been ill-advised and asked if we could pay what we had now and then pay the rest when we got to the ATM in Sam Neau but they were having none of it so our only option was to buy a cheaper ticket and return to Luang Prabang.
In hindsight we should have had more cash for the trip but with planning to leave the country that day we didn't want to have lots of Kip to exchange in Vietnam as you get a rubbish exchange rate. Lesson learned!!!
We had a 3 hour wait but now had a bit of money left over for breakfast so we found a restaurant and had a Laos Farmers breakfast (omelet, chilli dip, sticky rice and broccoli) which was thankfully really filling as we hadn't eaten since the previous morning.
Eventually we were on our way in an extremely overcrowded minivan with 6 monks, a Lao-Lao cowboy, 2 drunken lushes and a guy who tweezed his beard hair all the way right next to me, plus a few more non-descript locals.
I had one of the drunken lushes plonk herself between me and tweezer guy and she insisted on singing along with her iPhone and then kept falling asleep on me. I wasn't in the mood so nudged her over onto tweezer guy.
It was a very uncomfortable ride and we were glad to get back to Luang Prabang although it took longer than expected because the monks wanted a door-to-door service. In the end we got sick of all the ferrying around of monks so got out and walked back to Levady Guesthouse where they were pleased to see us and we got a cheaper room.
Our Vietnam visa was starting the next day and we were concerned that with the setback in Nong Khiaw it would now take us a long time to go overland to Hanoi and would be eating into our short time in Vietnam so we decided to look at flights. We felt a bit like we were cheating but we for booked up for the earliest available flight 2 days later.
We spent the next day soaking up the Luang Prabang charm that had been lost within the craziness of the festival. It really is a quirky little place where you can kick back and relax.
We have really enjoyed Laos ... not just the New Year water festival but also the way of life. The people are so friendly and are that chilled out they are often found sleeping during the day.
To say we have overindulged would be an understatement but the French bakeries are so good they are impossible to resist. Living on croissants and cakes for 2 weeks has made us rather porky so back to fruit in Vietnam ha ha!!!
(Pictures to follow)
We are now in Vietnam for 2 weeks ... travelling from Hanoi down to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) before going to Cambodia so we will hopefully update you with our travel tales again before we leave.
Lots of love to everyone back home
Sophie & Lois
P.S. Mum we still have no signal so please email us when our niece is born ... we will be checking for news every day!!!! x x x