Crossing into Laos
Our first view into Laos from Thailand. When we got to the border, the border guards took our passports and said, "Come back in three hours."
As nice and comfortable as our start to Thailand was (it was SO nice to have a comfortable place after the hardships of India!), we quickly got a little bored of it. Everywhere you go is well geared for tourism... great big groups of English and Australian lager louts patrol the streets noisily. The culture is a little thinned down as a result (certainly compared to India!), and everything had the feel of being staged, or put on for our benefit. We made our way North to Chiang Mai and Pai, in search of places with a little more 'reality'. But it was by no means unenjoyable - far from it. We had an excellent time; banana pancakes on every corner, cheap ice lollies, cold drinks and beer... and massages everywhere. Nice.
We crossed into Laos (PDR), via Chiang Khong/Huay Xai, and made our way North to Luang Nam Tha. Here we found the quiet, local, genuine feel that we were looking for. A small town, bustling with locals, and the tourists that were there were all verylike minded to us. We went on a 2 day overnight trek through mountains and jungle to an Akha village. Between us, and
Luang Nam Tha Hiking
Hiking 'over the rivers and thru the woods'. There were loads of crazy, thin and wobbly tree trunks to hike over raging waters. Actually, usually just a trickle of a creek...but the bamboo was still wobbly!
an Australian, we were able to get our guide's commentary across to Torsten, a german guy with good english and french, who then translated (in french) to one of a pair of Spanish girls also in our group, who would then translate into Spanish to the other spanish girl, who could speak neither english nor french. The chinese whisper effect and all, I wonder what she actually took home as far as impressions of the life in the village...
Village life there is surprisingly non-communal - each family owns their own pigs, and chickens and dogs etc, and they feed only their own, even though they all wander freely through the streets. Some branding of larger pigs goes on to define ownership, but we still have no idea as to how they decide which chicken is whose! Similarly, each family is responsible for their own fields. These fields grow rice for that family alone, and while the fields are worked equally by everyone, anbd the rice all stored in the same place, everyone is to use only their own rice from the store, and theft is punished severely; the family's house in the village would be burned (incl contents),
Laos food is some of the most fantastic we've had. The guides kept bringing out weirder things and gettting more and more spicy as the trip went on just to see what Lachlan's limit was. Lachlan would always try it, they would watch in anticipation, L would blow out and say, "mmmm...!" and they would crack up! It was a great introduction to the local food and we knew what to order in the restuarants from then on!
and they would be forced to live for a few weeks outside of the village. Also, the spirits would punish them perhaps, with twins, or a baby with 6 fingers. If that were to happen, their house would again be burned, and they would again be ostricised...! Youch.
All the houses are on stilts, and the young boys live in a tiny cell of a little shack, high up on stilts, separate but near to the main family home. To the best of our understanding this allows the boy to entertain the ladies, although they don't look structurally sound for much rocking!!! We saw the local shamen sacrifice a dog and a chicken to appease the spirits and heal a sick family member at one house (pretty gruesome), we tried the local booze, Lao Lao, which is a rice whiskey which will blow your head off, and we were welcomed as honoured guests to the village by a ceremonial massage before bed. This sounds great, and it was, once we got used to the whole idea, but we were all a little 'surprised' to find out that our masseuses were 8-12 year old village girls, with stern faces and
Bam Nam Lai
The village we stayed in for one night.
manically brutal techniques. Their dress was impressive, and they were eager to pose for 'mokatoh' (photos).
We were introduced to local food (getting away from the restricted 'for tourists only' menus of thailand), which is hot and tasty. Jeow (chili paste/salsa) with sticky rice has come to be something we crave almost daily. They have the most delicous and succulent river fish too. Pbet pbet is a phrase that helps a lot too... it means spicy spicy, and repeated several times will normally get the message across to your server that yes, you really do want the local food... so cook it right!
We witnessed a horrible accident involving a tractor trailer full of locals. They lost control of their 'monster machine' and just fell of the road down a cliff. One guy broke his arm and leg/pelvis, and one old lady had a terrible head wound and was unconscious for almost half an hour, bleeding very badly everywhere. We tried to help the best we can, but being foreign I am sure that we just got in the way (at least we established that the woman had a regular and strong pulse, and we were the
Two for me...
Dividing up the daily fish catch. You could always see a few boys walking home in the evenings with a harpoon and scuba mask. If they were lucky, they had a bag of fish for dinner.
only ones that seemed to care about getting some transport to get the injured off to some help). Hopefully they realised that we cared and we weren't unaffected by the whole thing.
We spent a few days lounging in Luang Prabang, with our new Australian friend and temporary travel buddy, Lon, before heading down to Vang Vieng for some serious chilling out. We spent a day floating down the river on a tube, soaking in the sun and spectacular mountain sides, and splashing around at the riverside bars along the way, jumping into the river from massive pendulum swings and zip-lines. We heard of freezing rain and generally miserable conditions back in St Louis, and I have to tell you that it really did make us feel deliciously selfish as we trundled downstream at an agonisingly slow and comfortable speed!
From here we had a 2 day, overnight stay in Vientiane, the bustling capital city of Laos (pop 200 000). We enjoyed a serene (and surreal) dinner, alongside the Mekong looking West at a beautiful sunset, being attended to by a team of manic wait-staff, all wearing santa hats! We headed further south, through Pakse, to the 4000
The Village (Little) People
It was funny how these kids don't have much exposure to the world as we know it, but they already realize when tourists take photos of them, they get to see themselves on the camera. So they would run up to you saying, "Sabaidee! Moh-ka-toe", while rubbing their fingers up to their eyes (like a binocular motion) to get their photo taken. When they saw themselves on the camera they would erupt into fits of laughter.
islands of the Mekong delta; home to the phalic Irrawady dolphin (we didn't see one), and the largest waterfall in SE Asia (maybe ALL of Asia???), which was very impressive. It gets more and more touristy as you proceed south, and the places are seriously 'chilled out' and 'happy'. All meals can be served 'happy' for an extra 5000 Kip or so (50c). Many places openly sell 'bags of weed', and the tasty sounding 'Hanger Breakfast' (Sausage, Bacon, Eggs and the rest, with 500mg Paracetomal, and 50mg Valium). Not our scene really, so we've spent a while now moving on and on, and now, after a crazy bus journey (read 'scam'), we find ourselves in Siem Reap, Cambodia (Angkor Wat!).
We endured a late boat, a dodgy border crossing, and 5 bus changes, all of which were accompanied by long delays and included several unscheduled stops to pick up about 1 tonne of wood, several 10 gallon jugs of water, and various other common weekly shopping items! The scam is to totally wear you down, depositing you battered and weary at overpriced restaurants and guesthouses so that you no longer have the will to find somewhere else. In return,
Would you feel safer with him and that big knife with you on the hike, or without him and that big knife...?
they get kickbacks... money... and a good laugh I guess! Some passengers just took it quietly, knowing that no alternative exists, while others got angry. It was a great journey in the end... watching people lose it at the driver, and then at each other. The bus was definitely divided (scarily equally!), and tempers were flaring. B and L disembarked at their stop, 5 hours late at 9pm, leaving the rest to continue on to their final destination about 4 hours further down the road! Oh to be a fly on the wall...!
Cambodia has been quite nice; although we have no time to properly see it. Straight to Siem Reap to see the sights of Angkor Wat, the 'best' cultural/religious site in the world. To be honest, after delaying a day to recover from fish-induced illness, we found the whole thing to be a bit of a let down. It is good, and interesting, but pretty dull compared to other things we've seen, and perhaps not worth all the effort we made to get here.
Cambodia has some interesting scenes though; gas stations selling Johnnie Walker bottles full of petrol, that look just like petrol bombs. It's
The locals would never smile in photos, but we assure you they were happy! This girl seemed to be the oldest and "in charge" and insisted we retake her photo about five times before being happy with it.
a pity that this whole area has apparently become over-touristed over-quickly. Tuk tuk tours cost far above what should be the going rate, as about half of them have to just sit idle all day long due to an 'overpopulation' of that particular niche of the industry. The children are pushed into force selling things to anyone white ("If you don't buy from me I'll cry!" No joke!), and basically at every turn there is someone trying to sell you postcards, or scarves, or tuk tuk rides, or food, or 'cold drink', and even 'ladies'.
The money has been crazy since leaving Thailand. We exchanged about 60 dollars into Laos Kip once, and receieved in return 8 bundled stacks of banknotes, less than a quarter of which would actually fit into my wallet! Every note lookes the same! Cambodia use US Dollars more than their own currency (riel)... The ATMs all spit out $. Where does it all come from? Oh to be a forger of US dollars in Cambodia!!! I wonder if a lot of it IS fake...?
Anyway... we're off to Bangkok tomorrow, and then on to Koh Lanta island for C Mas itself. Hopefully
everyone is enjoying the festive season. Take a break to sit back and laugh at the crazy folk turning into animals in the shops if you can. It is always my favourite pastime this time of year, although this year we'll be working on a new one... lounging on a beach sipping cocktails! Check the blog around christmas if you can... and we'll think about you all over the hols.
L and B
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