Published: September 24th 2007September 24th 2007
In honour of the current longest reining monarch in the world (>60 years)
We left you having arrived on 10 September in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. I'm writing this blog sat in an Internet cafe in Phonsavan, northern Laos, and we've certainly been travelling hard over the last couple of weeks.
Chiang Mai is very much geared up for tourists, and we spent a few days cramming in as much as possible. A day of visiting temples and the night market was followed by a cooking course (we both do a mean green curry, although my hot & spicy soup was rather too firey, having followed our Thai chef's lead and added 10 chillis) and then a trip up Thailand's highest mountain, Doi Inthanon - in reality, a minibus trip to within 50 feet of the summit, and then a short stroll to the top.
The next day Sarah and I went our separate ways, with Sarah doing a 1-day trek into the hills (more elephant riding - she can't get enough - visits to hill villages, and bamboo rafting). I decided I was in need of some fitness. so undertook a hike and bike - a 15km walk up a hill, and a 25km bikeride down the other side. I realised
Thailand's highest point
Well almost . . as you can probably tell, the highest point is a few yards beyond this sign.
I'd bitten off more than I could chew about 15 minutes into the walk, and by the time we finished (several hours later) I was on my knees.
I thought I would never experience pain like it - until Sarah and I decided to head off the beaten track into northern Laos.
We flew from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, a stunning Unesco World Heritage site in northern Laos, surrounded by lush hillsides and littered with French colonial buildings, market stalls and coffee shops. A fantastic place to relax, and take in the local sites, including the beautiful Kuang Si waterfalls.
From Luang Prabang, a 6.5 hour boat ride took us to Nong Khiaw. The trip was described in Lonely Planet as "one of the most spectacular river trips in Laos, passing dramatic limestone peaks, over rapids and past disgruntled water buffalo" - and indeed it was. The only downside were the wooden seats of the size you have in nursery classes. I was somewhat grateful when mine gave way about 2 hours in, and I spent the rest of the trip on the floor, which was so much more comfortable that Sarah soon joined me. Our
Thai cooking school
Green curry anyone?
accommodation in Nong Khiaw appeared rustic by daylight, and something that wouldn't be out of place on a bush-tucker trail come nightfall.
Our next trip was a 14 hour bus ride to Sam Neau, in north-eastern Laos, near the Vietnamese border. We had been told that the Sam Neau bus was due to pass through Nong Khiaw at 7pm, but in reality usually arrived between 10pm and midnight. Having spent a day exploring Nong Khiaw, we were sitting down to a drink at 5pm - and contemplating a shower - when Sarah saw the bus speeding towards us. Our rushed departure meant we had neither food nor water with us, and whilst the scenery was stunning, by nightfall we were reduced to very windy, and somewhat bumpy mountain roads, until the driver decided he needed to stop for a sleep at about 10.30pm. The rest of the bus therefore did likewise, with the only means of escape (to use the facilities) being through a window, as the bus doors were locked.
The trip was worth it to see the caves of Vieng Xai, about an hour from Sam Neua. Between 1964 and 1973, the US devstated eastern and
north eastern Laos with nonstop carpet bombing to counter the prescence of north Vietnamese in the country, as part of the ongoing struggle between the communist Pathet Lao (also supported by Russia, China and Cuba) and the Royal Lao armies, supported by the US. The US flew 580,000 missions in this period, dropping 2 million tonnes of bombs, of which 30% failed to explode - leaving a country covered in unexploded ordinance (UXO). The communists - who were ultimately succesful - coordinated their war effort (and lived their lives whenever the airplane warning sirens were heard) from a network of caves in Vieng Xai. Due to the difficulty of reaching the location, only 3 foreign visitors on average make it there each day - but the trip was well worth it.
From Sam Neau, another bus ride (10 hours) has brought us to Phonsavan, home of the plain of jars. The purpose of these stone, possibly 2000-year old, jars remains a mystery and without any organic material - such as bones - there is no reliable way to date them. But they cover the landscape, with several 1,000 jars found at over 50 sites - of which only 3
Yet more temples
This time in Luang Prabang
have been cleared of UXO to date. Very bizarre, but a very interesting trip.
So whilst some of the travelling has been tough, we are having a great time. Next stop, Vientiane, the Laos capital. In the meantime, I leave you with two thoughts. Firstly, if you've not read David Copperfield, it's an outstanding read. Secondly, Watford for the Championship? Let's see . . .
There are more photos below