Published: July 22nd 2006July 21st 2006
Next time you walk into the local branch of your bank, take a moment to count how many cash machines there are in it. More than one? Congratulations, you are in the presence of more ATM's than there are in the whole of Laos
Vientiane, the country's capital, is the location of this unique money withdrawal machine. The word capital usually conjures up images of skyscrapers, parks and a busy, bustling city. This sleepy, run-down little town couldn't be further from that scenario. I didn't stay long.
The two things I saw while I was here were actually quite impressive though. Pha That Luang is a big golden structure and is the Laos people's proudest monument. And Wat Si Saket is just another temple really, except it's home to a million billion images of Buddha or something, with tiny little statues placed in small niches all around the walls of the building, with bigger ones standing guards in front. It was a lot of Buddhas anyway.
Anyone who's been to Vang Vieng will know it as the 'happy place' where each bar competes over how many episodes of 'Friends' each one can show their customers
in a single day. And it is 'happy', but only because the 'special menu' comprises a number of interesting platters such as 'happy pizza' and 'happy shakes'. I'll leave it to your imagination.
Well the only thing I did here was tubing, where they give you an inflatable tyre, tuk-tuk you 3km up the river, and let you float your way back down to the starting point. Not only is the scenery pretty beautiful, but they have bars along the way that hook you in with big bamboo sticks so you can sample the only
beer in Laos, appropriately named: Beerlao.
Floating, carelessly, down the river was pretty relaxing. Until it rained, and then it was hell, except a cold and wet version. Needless to say we soon jumped out of the water and temporarily dried ourselves with yet another nice cold beer.
It was important not to miss the original starting point, else you could end up floating all the way down into Thailand. One of my friends did
miss the exit however, and the last thing I saw before he disappeared round the bend was him abandoning ship. He eventually turned up later, and for
Some more jars
Count yourself lucky. I have 25 more photos of jars that if you're fortunate, you'll never have to see.
the next few days we were repeatedly subjected to hearing him mourn the loss of his favourite flip-flops and tales of his 'near-death experience'.
This was the nicest town yet, and it had a very French feel about it. A lot of South-East Asia is French-influenced as there used to be a high froggy presence here (sorry mum!), and though I know nothing about architecture, I am told by my bible that this is why.
I'm on a tight time budget, so am trying not to spend too long in too many places. Thus, I spent only a day here, with a fleeting visit to the night market and an afternoon at a beautiful waterfall (again!) with loads more places to swim. If it hadn't been so cold I may have had a longer dip!
If you're a big jar fan, this is the
place to be. These jars are hundreds of years old, and like many mysterious ancient artefacts, noone knows how they got there. They're not even made of stone, but apparently are a mixture of blood, animal skin, sand, and loads of other stuff. And nobody knows what they were used
Their own Arc de Triomphe
Built with the concrete the Americans had given them to build a new airport....
for, anything from punishments to celebrations, using the jars as rather cumbersome drink holders!
There are 3 main jar sites, and we visited them in turn, each comprising 50-100 jars of all sizes. The surrounding views were spectacular though, Laos is a very beautiful country, with untouched hills and forests as far as the eye can see.
But there is a reason it is so untouched. During the 1960s, the Americans dropped over half a million
bombs and missiles over the country of Laos, not because they were at war with them, but because these weapons were left over and Uncle Sam's pilots decided such a sparsely populated country was the ideal place to release unwanted cargo. While some of them destroyed various parts of the country, creating enormous craters and damage everywhere, some remain unexploded till this day, lying in wait for an unsuspecting villager to make a wrong move. Slowly but surely, parts of the countryside are being cleared, but until then the Laotians are confined to their towns and villages, which makes hunting, farming, and lots of other things very difficult.
And these jar sites were right in the middle of them. There's no
way you can get off the beaten track here, it's not worth the risk.
Si Phan Don (literally, Four Thousand Islands)
I can't believe there are exactly four thousand, but there are a lot. I reckon. I didn't really see that many because you'd probably need a helicopter, but I stayed on a tiny one called Don Det, with electricity available for four hours a night only. The islands are situated in the middle of the mighty Mekong river, which is a lovely brown colour. Hammocks were provided in most guesthouses, and there was little else to do but make full use of them, have to get your money's worth!
It was a beautiful island though, and as a few of us cycled to a crazy waterfall (that's all there ever is to see, those and temples anyway) we passed a multitude of cone-hatted workers labouring in the rice paddies with their water buffalos. Makes you realise how far from home you are.
My last experience of Laos was crossing the unofficial border with Cambodia, which consists of driving down a tiny dirt track in the middle of the forest, reaching a small wooden hut armed by
police, getting your passport stamped and then bribing the officials a couple of dollars to let you through. Then the same again for the Cambodian side!
There are more photos below