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Published: February 24th 2015
So much has happened in the past couple of weeks that it would be impossible to condense it all into a blog entry without writing a dissertation. In summary:
In luang nam tha I cycled to a waterfall out of town. The journey took me through some local villages and impossibly green rice paddies and agricultural areas.
After luang nam tha I returned to Huay Xai. Here I embarked on the gibbon experience. It lasted for three days and it was exhilarating. I ziplined at dizzying heights over dense jungle (this was fun in the dark at 5.30 in the morning), trekked, jumped in a freezing waterfall pool, stayed for the night in (apparently) the tallest treehouse in the world, enjoyed bamboo soup which the guide had rustled up from the jungle and managed to stomach shots in the treehouse and shots in the tuk tuk on the way home. All in all a fantastic experience.
After that I caught the 2-day slow boat to Luang Prabang. First journey 7hrs; second journey 9hrs. I passed the time by playing the monopoly card game with people I had met on the gibbon experience and listening to music. The journey seemed to pass quickly and I think the strikingly beautiful landscapes on either side of the Mekong river helped with this.
On arrival in Luang Prabang I could not for the life of me find an available guesthouse. I was searching around the town for a bed vacancy for over two hours but everywhere was full up; those guesthouses that were not full up charged (in view of my budget) an exorbitant amount for a night. It was getting dark and as I strolled the streets to no avail with my weighty backpack I was subconsciously starting to clock benches for a place to rest my head.
I bumped into two strangers who also had backpacks on whilst I was searching for a room. I started chatting to them and we ended up finding a room at an inflated price which we went splits on. I slept on the floor. We found a hostel with vacancies early the next afternoon after people had checked out, and spent the rest of the day exploring the town. We had a few drinks at the hostel that night then formed a group with others we had met and got a tuk tuk to a local bowling alley, the only place in town that serves alcohol until 2am.
The following day we visited the hypnotically serene Kuang Si waterfalls, one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Crystal blue pools tumble gently over layered rocks. Just beyond these is a strikingly tall, multi-tiered, crashing waterfall. I climbed to the top of this with a guy I had met on the minibus and absorbed the views of the rolling karsts in the distance.
I stayed one more day in Luang Prabang then got the bus to nong khiaw. As soon as I alighted the bus I was breathtaken. Nong khiaw is a small town and it is skirted by a staggering mountainous landscape. Light clouds circle the tops of some of the karsts and dispel as the sun burns through in the afternoon. I spent some time enjoying the scenery at sunset on the bridge over the river which cleaves the town in two.
Next day I visited some caves in the area. Winding paths lead you deep into the earth and at times I was on my hands and knees, sliding through the dirt, completely alone in the dark. I sort of loved the claustrophobia. I dared to turn off my light at one point and have never witnessed darkness like it, apart from maybe in the treehouses at night on the gibbon experience. On my visit to another cave, a 12 year old local boy called Patwa guided me on a trek to the cave and led me round inside, helping me climb amongst the rocks and navigate the underground network. I have never given a tip so easily.
I got the boat from nong khiaw to Muang ngoi Neua. I thought it couldn't get more serene than nong khiaw but Muang ngoi surpassed it. At present the only way to get to Muang ngoi is to climb on a boat so the town doesn't receive as many tourists as yet and is somewhat isolated. This will change once the construction of the road connecting to nong khiaw has been completed. The town is small and authentic rural life still prevails here. Imposing karsts loom over small shack roofs and trees and at the ends of the dusty town paths. The beauty of the natural environment is ever-present.
I spent the first day visiting another cave on my own. This one was bigger and sprawled further into the depths of the earth. Deep inside I saw a red liquid substance splattered on a rock in my bouncing torch beam and barely managed to suppress primal panic. It was jam. I think.
Whilst strolling around town I learned of a village homestay outside of the centre from a sunfaded wooden plaque - it would be a one and a half hour walk through the countryside. The first time I heard about Lao homestays I knew straight away I had to do one according to my travel litmus test, since my first instinct was not to do one.
So the next day I travelled to Huay bo village to stay with Mr and Mrs kee. It took longer than one and a half hours to get there since the signage was on the inadequate side. Apparently the first village you reach before you get to Huay bo has been tearing down Mr Kee's signs with a view to preventing tourists from moving on and thereby maximising its own income. After getting lost more than a few times, jumping over Buffalo pats, pushing through leaves and branches and wading through a stream, I eventually reached Huay bo village with a couple of others I had met along the way.
Mr and Mrs kee were very welcoming. It cost me less than a quid to stay the night. Mr kee led me through the jungle and showed me the makeshift dam that the village had erected to control the flow of the stream. The shower was a trickle of water flowing from a narrow pipe which protruded from the ceiling of the bathroom-shack. I had pumpkin soup and sticky rice for dinner and it was good. I chatted with Mr kee for a couple of hours over the course of the evening and then joined the village locals as they gathered round the fire. It was soothing to listen to their voices over the crackling flames as they spoke in lao and to hear the children playing excitedly in the village grounds under starlight. There is such a sense of community and I think I felt some envy.
Apparently there are just over 200 people living in the village and 43 families. Mr kee has lived in the small village all his life, in the same way as his parents and grandparents. There are chickens, pigs and dogs running around and numerous buffalo in the adjacent field. The pastoral animals are sold for meat. Mr kee thinks that once the road is constructed more tourists will flow into the village. I asked both him and Mrs kee if they thought this would be a good thing. The answer was a resounding yes. They want more money. Clear and simple. They want a more comfortable life and they want their daughter to have an iPhone. No ambiguity. It makes me wonder whether the discussions that many travellers have about the cultural sacrifices that have to be made for 'all the tourists' - always in a lamenting tone - really only amount to a complaint that registers in the minds of the privileged.
My intention is to move on to vang vieng. Time is running out because of my visa so I'll be skipping into Vietnam within the next couple of weeks. Need to grab a visa from the Vietnamese embassy in Vientiane.
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