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Lao People's Democratic Republic 26th July to 7th August
We made it to Lao and yes, it was definitely worth the effort, especially Luang Prabang, but if we did the journey again I would fly one way at least.
It didn't start well. Online Jim had read that it was no problem to buy your train tickets on the day so we checked with the hotel travel desk in the morning to see if they could get the tickets to save us making 2 journeys to the station. They could, but the lady said it was very unlikely that 1st Class tickets would still be available but that 2nd class was air conditioned with 40 berths in the cabin. I couldn't believe she was saying 40 and kept asking, “14” until she said loudly Four Zero
It was better than we expected. The train left an hour or so late as it does every night and about half an hour into the journey, (about 9.30pm) the guard came and converted the seats to bunks and put on lovely clean bedsheets and pillow cases. I slept quite well but Jim struggled in the smaller upper bunk, especially when he had to descend to visit the bathroom in the night. The train goes as far as the Mekong, where you have to have your passport stamped out of Thailand, cross to a small local train, (the only one in Lao), to travel 15 kilometres across the friendship bridge to a small station where you then enter Lao PDR and pay for a visa to be placed in your passport. We were surprised to see offices at this station for the Director and Deputy Director of Lao Railways. Seems a little over the top for 15 k of track but perhaps there are plans for expansion!
We arrived at the hotel in Vientiane, the Lao Capital about 10am and they were very helpful as they gave us a room immediately even though it was long before official check in time.
Vientiane is a small town for a capital, and the French influence is evident in the tree lined avenues, some buildings and the delicious bread
The food is very good with French restaurants as well as Indian, Thai and Lao. As Jim was suffering from an over abundance of Thai food, he was very relieved to find the Joma Cafe and Bakery just around the corner from the hotel. Joma provides delicious European style food and snacks such as quiche, scones, soup, pizza, all beautifully presented by a huge staff team (I counted more than 20 excluding people in the kitchen), who were super efficient. Even better, they seemed to have fun and enjoy working together. They wear a uniform of orange T shirt and brown beret, pulled down over their hair and looked like busy cartoon characters racing about. Despite their speed the atmosphere was very relaxing and people came in to read papers, have meetings etc. We also stocked up with their food for the coach journey to Luang Prabang as we did not want to eat at the coach stopping place. Joma makes a donation of 2% of profit to Lao charities and helps by training young people.
We arranged our coach journey to Luang Prabang through the hotel, choosing the daytime 'sitting bus', not the 'sleeping bus' as we wanted to see the scenery. It is not an easy journey as we discovered, 12 hours driving on very bendy roads through the hills, a journey which without fail makes a number of people travel sick – not pleasant! Although neither Jim or I suffered that fate, the bus, despite being labelled VIP, was the oldest and dirtiest I had ever travelled on, until I did the return journey on another one
Luang Prabang is worth the journey. It is a lovely small town at the point where a tributary, the Nam Kham joins the Mekong. We stayed 5 nights and loved every minute, partly thanks to the excellent service at the hotel, Le Bel Air. It is not very big but set in lovely gardens by the river, and 10 minutes walk from the town centre requiring, on foot, a crossing of the very rickety old wooden bridge. The footpath stretched along the outside of the main bridge and has lots of loose planks. Crossing in the dark is very exciting. We even crossed the bridge on bicycles, no mean feat when you are required to stay on the centre planks and there is a line of motor bikes building up behind. They had a shuttle which would take guests the long way around across the new road bridge, whenever any one wanted to go.
What makes the hotel so special is the manager, Jean Paul (a Canadian) and his team of young Lao people. Every morning he would ask if we needed any help planning the day, he gave local information, (like where we could see the Alms giving to the monks down the road at a local village with no other tourists), answered questions, recommended other places to eat and generally made sure everything worked like clockwork
We chatted much of the time over meals to a young member of the team who wanted to practise his English and he told us about his family, members of the Akhar ethnic group, who are still largely Animists, and his 17 year old brother who is a novice monk in the town. He helps support his brother as being a monk is a way of gaining an education which will benefit the whole family. The brother has completed 5 years and has another 4 before hopefully he will go to University. His day starts at 3am with chanting and meditation, then all the monks walk barefoot to collect alms between 5.30 and 6.30am, after breakfast they attend school and do jobs. It is a long day for the young ones. They receive food from the local people and that provides 2 meals, breakfast and lunch and from what we were told that is it for the day as they do not have an evening meal. I found it fascinating watching the women (it is mainly women who participate in the ceremony) put the food into the monk's bowls as I wanted to know how they manage to apportion it so they don't run out before the end of the line.
Jean Paul explained that the system of bringing young boys to the Wats from the country acts as a form of social integration of the different groups, as well as an education as there is so little available in rural areas
Another day we road bikes around the local villages and on a very hot day, we went on a boat up the Mekong to 2 caves where thousands of Budhas have been places in niches, nooks and crannies. They are ritually cleaned once a year by the local dignatory. Sailing along the river was lovely and we had lunch at a floating restaurant across from the Pat Ou caves.
It soon became time to board the VIP bus (definitely no Advertising or Trades Description legislation here) and return to Vientiane. Soon after we set off the search for sick bags started yet again!
From Vientiane after a days rest we were back on the overnight train but this time we booked ahead and managed to get 1st Class seats. The cabin had an upper and lower bunk, and a hand basin and was clean. Everything was looking good for a decent nights sleep.
All was going well for 60 seconds and then I saw an insect, some kind of louse I think about as big as a finger nail
We are now recovered having had a couple of nights back in Bangkok where we had left one of our bags to make the journey to Lao easier. Tonight we take the flight back to the UK and arrive early Friday morning. Gilli is coming to meet us at Heathrow and then we shall drive up to Nottingham to stay with Anna and start the annual jobs. After that we hope to catch up with friends around the country before spending a couple of weeks in Sussex where Angela and Paul have very kindly offered their barn again despite our unplanned extended stay last year. Although our trip this last 10 months was 'Plan B' because of Jim's medical emergency last September it all worked out really well, and we still have Costa Rica to look forward to hopefully in 2014. Before then in the autumn we plan to visit (possibly) Southern India and then meet up with Richard and Beverley in Sri Lanka, returning to have Christmas in Lanzarote with Anna, Gilli, and Nick, so no blogs for the next couple of months.