Category Archives: Laos

Churr Bru

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Home again home again jiggity jig.

 

294 days, six countries and more miles than Google calculator can be bothered to deal with.

 

Here’s a final map of our complete route (and no, Jesus was not born at every yellow star…) Start and end in Auckland and do a kind of almost-figure-of-eight around both islands. Big BIG stopover in Wellington, our home from home.

New Zealand Final

(Nb. There was also two weeks in Tonga but that was too complicated map-wise. Just imagine it yeahh….)

 

From there it was a flight to Kuala Lumpur and then wiggling overland up to Hanoi…

Asia Final

 

Flight back to Kuala Lumpur and then HOME. And home is just as good as we remember it.

Churr everyone and hello again.

Bus is Best

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We’ve spent a lot of time on buses recently. Laos has proven to be a lot larger and longer than expected. And as our penchant for getting night buses has been gradually extinguished – bus company thieves rifling through bags in the hold, sharp corners and hard seats, and Celyn proving too tall (!) for even the V.I.P Sleeper Coach – we have been treated to some epic yet eye-opening daytime bus trips.

Laos map mark 2. Follow the blue line

Laos map mark 2.
Follow the blue line

Vientiane, Laos’ capital, came and went without either of us really noticing it. We wandered around the hot streets, completed some dull admin tasks and briefly looked round the rather uninspiring night market. In all honesty, it was just another capital city – functional yet strangely nondescript.

Having checked the capital city off the list, we got an early morning bus in to the mountains towards Phonsavan.  As the bus climbed along the stomach-clenchingly tight corners, the air grew cooler (we spent the best part of the journey with the coach door open and the conductor hanging out) and the population more sparse. Every couple of kilometres along the road we passed mountain-top villages consisting of a scattering of precariously balanced wood and thatch houses, most of which backed on to terrifyingly steep drops. This is the rural Laos, the mountain villagers who are named according to the altitude at which they live: Lao Thai (living in valleys up to an altitude of 400m); Lao Thoeng (midlevel mountain slopes); and Lao Soung living 1000m or more above sea level). I’m not 100% sure which groups we encountered, but seeing as we passed a 2819m peak en route, and that all our fellow Lao bus passengers reckon that it was freezing (it was about 30 degrees), I’m assuming the latter.

 

The three mountain tribes, as depicted on the 1,000 Kip note (worth about 8 pence)

 

There were kids everywhere –small children trotting alongside the road with a younger brother or sister strapped to their back, groups of girls in dirty dresses crouching beside a litter of miniscule kittens, a game of boules with family members from all generations, elderly ladies being terrorised by their grandkids or great-grandkids as they tried to wash them or comb their hair. Mothers would stand in the doorways to their houses, many of them unbelievably young and beautiful, a youthfulness equally matched by the fresh faces and taut bodies of their husbands. There was a communal tap in each village, evidently the sole source of water as each one was crowded with people washing themselves or their offspring – leading to a whole lot of naked soapy children cheekily escaping the firm hand of their mothers. So I guess some things exist all over the world!

 

Ponsavan, our destination, was welcomingly cool after a stuffy and (for some) vomit-inducing journey. It is renowned as the site of the mysterious Plain of Jars – a huge area scattered with thousands of limestone jars of undetermined age and purpose. Scholars believe that they were funerary urns, the locals prefer a tale about needing wine fermenters to celebrate a victory of the 6th century Lao-Thai hero, Khun Jeuam. No one knows, and the random scattering and varying sizes do give the plains a rather enigmatic feel. However, I think our theory that the jars were used as upside-down loudspeakers will achieve little recognition in the history books.

The mysterious jars

The mysterious jars

Another draw of the area, and perhaps one that is slightly more exciting if not a lot more recent, is that the whole area (Xieng Khuang province) was the site of the ‘secret bombings’ during the Vietnam war. The Ho Chi Minh trail passed through the Northern part of Laos, sparking the decision by the U.S. to carpet-bomb the area, in spite of the reticence of the Lao people to become involved.

 

Some empty shells gathered outside a house

Some empty shells gathered outside a house

For anyone unsure about the term ‘carpet-bomb’ (we had to look it up) here’s a definition and some stats:

Carpet-bombing: Large aerial bombing done in a progressive manner to inflict damage in every part of a selective area of land. Achieved by dropping many unguided bombs. The phrase evokes the image of explosions completely covering an area in the same way a carpet covers a floor. Also known as saturation or obliteration bombing.

The USA conducted 580,344 missions over Laos in a 9-year period (1964 -1973). Bombs fell by the planeload every 8 minutes during this time, creating a grand total of 2 million tonnes of bombs. That’s more bombs than were dropped in the whole of WWII.

So would we be wrong in saying carpet-bomb and annihilate aren’t too dissimilar?

Casual stack of artillery outside the Tourist Office

Casual stack of artillery outside the Tourist Office

Tragically, of all these bombs dropped, about 30% failed to explode, which left the North and East of the country littered with UXO – Unexploded Ordnance. The Plain of Jars site, which is now a dedicated UNESCO heritage, has been meticulously cleared and the ‘safe route’ through them is delineated with reassuring white markers. However, a lot of the surrounding land still contains UXO, which has rendered much of it out of bounds and essentially futile – it cannot be farmed, it cannot be built on, you cannot even walk there for fear of unearthing something explosive.

Discarded Russian Tank near a small village

Discarded Russian Tank near a small village

Fear not, however, as the Lao people are remarkably resourceful. When you walk about the town you realise that the empty shells are all being put to use – small shells used as decorative pieces in restaurants,  cluster bombs being resold as boules sets,  large ones artillery propping up the foundations of houses. Even the scrap metal from the bombs has been smelted and refashioned into cutlery. Their stoicism and refusal to get stuck in the past is both impressive and astonishingly humbling.

The keyring for our room key was even an empty shell

Our little sojourn also included a brief stop to a whiskey making village where we were invited to try the local specialty – rice wine.

Cel sniffs apprehensively next to our wine connoisseur...

Cel sniffs apprehensively next to our wine connoisseur…

Joe's not so sure..

Joe’s not so sure..

.. and Imogen's pissed already.

.. and Imogen’s pissed already.

Another gut-wrenchingly wiggly journey (sickbags, I love you) took us down to the border town of Tha Khaek – situated on the banks of the Mekong and facing Nakhon Phanom, Thailand. On arrival we were heralded with some aggressive thunderstorms, a theme which was to continue throughout our stay. In fact, the apocalyptic weather combined with a severe lack of accommodation and the unwelcome appearance of Imogen’s mysterious skin disease – misdiagnosed by my suffering self as leprosy, but rediagnosed (by Google) as heat rash – made us all feel rather ill at ease in this unusual town.

The ominous sky...

The ominous sky…

 

However, Tha Khaek more than redeemed itself the following day as we got on our manual motorbikes (MANUAL, I TELL YOU! WE MANAGED A MANUAL) and began exploring the province’s myriad network of caves.

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The landscape around Tha Khaek

Frankly, the caves were alright. I mean, a cave’s a cave. They were all sufficiently dank and dingy, many of them contained some sort of algae ridden water in the bottom, and nearly all were drowning in litter. What was far more exciting was steaming along the wide-roads, the paddy fields either side giving way to dark purple mountains, so steep they seemed more like vertical towers of rock; or trying to cross a swollen river with the bikes accompanied by a giggling audience of local children; or partaking in some miniature motor-cross racing as we found ourselves completely lost, along with some bewildered cattle, on trench-like dirt tracks. That was fun.

Kylie and Joe on the bike

Kylie and Joe on the bike

Can you imagine how this ended? (Notice how Kylie and I have somewhat wisely jumped off...!)

Can you imagine how this ended? (Notice how Kylie and I have somewhat wisely jumped off…!)

Still there was no time to waste and we were on the bus again the next morning for the last leg of our Laos journey – 11 hours on the road to Si Phan Don, otherwise known as 4,000 Islands. This is where the widest section of the Mekong is punctuated by sandbars and islands adorned with betel trees and sugar palms. Most travellers stay on Don Det, which is where we ended up; the facilities may have been basic but it more than provided a welcome respite from hours of travelling in cramped buses, tuk tuks and sorngtaaou. When you emerge from the ‘do nothing’ stupor of Don Det, it’s worth hiring a bicycle and pedalling over to neighbouring Don Khon, Not only does it offer stunning views across to Cambodia, but if you’re lucky you will catch a glimpse of the rare Irrawaddy dolphins that frequent the waters. We didn’t manage to spot any but were content to waste some time cooling off (cycling in 35 degree heat is SO SWEATY) in the hope that we might see them. Don Khon also has some magnificent waterfalls; great roaring cataracts and wild waters which make slightly nervous when you realise that only barrier between you and certain death is a flimsy bamboo pole. Erk!

Crossing the Mekong

Crossing the Mekong – muddy as the rains are just beginning

The Khong Phapheng Falls

The Khong Phapheng Falls

.. and again.

.. and again.

Wise sign

Wise sign

Did someone say Tour de France 2014?

Did someone say Tour de France 2014? (Imogen is SO UPSET about this)

 

Our two days R & R here were absolutely ideal, although the leprosy still hasn’t cleared up. I think with 4,000 Islands you need to know what you’re in for before you arrive. If you’re looking for luxury, go elsewhere. If you don’t mind an intermittent electricity supply, sharing your bed with a cockroach or two, yet some undeniably incomparable views, then this is bliss.

And so ends our time in Laos. Two very enthusiastic (mums) thumbs up from us both, it has had everything. Onwards and downwards to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where we will be joined by the three Musketeers. Watch this space.

Such a Luang journey…

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So we left you in Pai, the chilled out capital of Northern Thailand. Unfortunately, the journey across the border and into Laos didn’t really follow on the same vein …

Laos

The red path indicates our journey (ignoring the final line to Vientiane.. that came later): minibus to Chiang Kong, a nondescript town on the Thai side of the border; couple of hours sleep – fine for us but flea-ridden and sleepless for some of our fellow bus-mates; up at dawn for a short boat ride over to Huay Xai, our first introduction to Laos; faffing for hours at immigration – forms and queues and waiting and confusion; and finally, a two-day slow boat down the Mekong river to Luang Prabang.

Hefty.

The slow boat is an experience  in itself, and we highly recommend it. Actually, saying that, there aren’t many other options – it’s either that, a fast boat which has a terrifyingly high rate of annual casualties (you have to wear motorbike helmets – and so loud that you couldn’t possibly talk), or a non-air-conditioned bus which may or may not actually arrive at its destination.

A couple of other slowboats we passed en route

A couple of other slowboats we passed en route

The actual vessel is a wooden longboat, about 40-50m in length with the engine at the back and the driver (helmsman?) at the front. It was decked out with car seats (!), a miniature bar at the back and one rickety toilet. The roof is covered with a tarpaulin and the sides are open, creating a semi-cooling breeze as we drifted down the river. The Mekong is absolutely stunning; wide and fairly fast flowing, with towering ranges on either side covered in impenetrable jungle. Every so often you pass a narrow fishing boat with a single fisherman aboard, shying away from the merciless sun under a wide-brimmed straw hat. Groups of naked children splash in the shallows, and beautiful women dressed in Laos silk skirts and invariably with a baby strapped to their back, scrub clothes and lay them out to dry on the smooth rocks behind them. There seems to be an inordinate amount of butterflies, specks of white and yellow that flutter around the surface of the water and bloom in front of you as you walk.

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The journey passes in a blur of heat and chatter and unfamiliar sights. As you pull into Luang Prabang, a whole three days and two nights after you originally set out, you are so ready to hit dry land and stop blimmin’ moving, that you honestly wouldn’t care, nor probably notice, if you had just docked in Timbuktu. What a treat, then, that Luang Prabang is the gem in Laos’ crown and encompasses the ethos of Laos completely. When people say that the Lao people are gentle and genuinely interested in you, they are 100% spot on. There is no aggressive hassling, most people actually want to help you and their politeness and kindness is unrivalled.

 

Sunset from Phu Si

Sunset from Phu Si

The actual town is a delight. The first thing that meets the eye is an enormous temple – Phu Si – positioned atop a hill right in the middle of the city. It’s 100m high (190 steps, sweaty or wha?!), but the impressive panoramic views from top (sunset and sunrise in particular) are well worth the exertion of the climb. Phu Si sets the tone for the rest of the town as Luang Prabang is home to 39 Wat and has acquired the nickname, the ‘city of temples’. The monk and novice population is so omnipresent and so real that we never know whether we are actually allowed to go into the temples of if they are just for the practicing monks. We spent an afternoon in the library with two novice monks helping out with some ‘informal English lessons’, and ended up chatting about their facebook profiles and Steve Jobs. Pretty surreal.

 

Crossing a rickety bamboo bridge across the Mekong

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One of the many wats…

 

Yet, that is one of the delights of Luang Prabang – that the monks and temples are fully integrated into everyday life. A major draw is the renowned Tak Bat – a daily ceremony where novice monks form a line down the city’s main street to receive alms at dawn. It is a really beautiful experience, all carried out total silence. The alms givers are mainly women, who roll out a woven mat and kneel on it surrounded by their offerings, which mainly consist of sticky rice and small packets of biscuits. As the monks process past, they bow their heads and place a handful of rice into the alms bowl. Interestingly, alongside the almsgivers there were a few scruffy looking young boys, each holding an empty basket or bag and occasionally one of the monks would take a handful from his own bowl and put it into the boy’s basket. I asked later what this meant and the novices told me that they belonged to poor families or didn’t have enough to eat themselves, so the monks would in turn give them charity. These acts of charity, so very much in evidence in daily life, reflect the importance of religion in Laos as alms giving is one of the fundamental precepts of Buddhism.
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I apologise for the lack of photos of the Tak Bat but I didn’t really consider it appropriate to take a camera. This is especially relevant as the monks have recently threatened to stop doing it as they feel that the tourists are slightly taking the proverbial biscuit in terms of getting too close in order to get the perfect photo op, and are giving the monks old food which is making them ill just so they can feel that they are part of the ceremony. Having been there and seen the busloads of tourists that pull up bleary eyed, hop out and almost push into the line of monks wielding their super-hypo-panoramic-long-lenses with an astonishing amount of insensitivity, I can kind of see their point.

Added to this melee of monastic and layperson life is the ghost of the colonial French past. Luang Prabang is a UNESCO heritage site, which means that French architecture and Gallic cuisine are still very much in evidence, giving the place a quaint and serene feel. You occasionally come across French bakeries, and bilingual schools, yet according to our novice friends, no one speaks French anymore – only the oldies. The city is also home to an extensive night market – it’s certainly a sight to behold as you descend the 190 steps from watching the sunset at Phu Si and see a sea of red roofed tents and twinkling fairy lights as the market gets going.

The tented Night Market

The tented Night Market

 

One final draw of Luang Prabang (as if there aren’t enough already) is the close proximity to the Kuang Si Waterfalls.

The waterfall itself

The waterfall itself

Honestly, with brilliant turquoise water, natural Jacuzzis and great lengths of cascading waterfalls, this place looks like it could be some sort of multi-million pound resort, yet it’s ALL NATURAL! There are about 4 pools in total, many of which you can cool off in, which lead to an enormous multi-tiered waterfall at the top. Sitting on slippery limestone and feeling the ice-cold water on your back is just bliss.

 

Gearing ourselves up for the rope swing...

Gearing ourselves up for the rope swing…

 

...CHAMPIONING the rope swing

…CHAMPIONING the rope swing

One of the many menthol coloured pools

One of the many menthol coloured pools

Perfect for a cheesy photo op!

So much cheese I think I may be sick (I promise we’re not photoshopped in)

We had to leave Luang Prabang in the end – kicking and screaming and the like. It is an unforgettable place, whether due to the hilarious group of people we had magically acquired (legends), the city’s charm or just because Luang Prabang epitomises Laotian culture, ambiance and beauty. We don’t care why, we just know that we, for one, would love to go back.