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Published: February 12th 2009
Friday 6th February
We said goodbye to the lovely Sunrise Bungalows and headed down to the boat station.The ticket booth at the boat station was empty but eventually a sullen man sold me two tickets. He wrote tomorrow date on them but he didn't understand and when I pointed to the date on my watch he simply thought I was asking what time the boat went so I gave up. I had breakfast but Jen avoiding other than biscuits till we reach next destination which is a one hour trip up the Nam Ou river. Eventually we clambered aboard and as usual there was a ticket fiasco. They collected all the tickets but somehow there was one short so they gave them all out again and to my horror ours wasn't there (each had a name on). Eventually it showed up thank goodness. In the boat next door heading downstream they were starting to mutiny as they had been sitting crowded in the boat (one side catching the full hot sun) waiting to depart. They left just before us. There was a simple uncomfortable bench at each side of the small boat. I counted 22 people including the boat captain and a soldier in uniform who sat on the sacks stacked in the stern of the boat. We passed through small rapids and by small stilt house villages. At one a group of little naked boys were riding water buffalo and showed off by standing upright on their backs. Soon we reached the very small looking village, wjich is magically hemmed in by mountains which form the Ou valley. There is a simple riverfront where we disembarked and headed up the ramp to the single main street and the usual small shops, scratching chickens and lazy dogs. Because this village can only be reached by river there are no motor vehicles - idyllic. As at the previous stop, there is only electricity from 6pm to 10pm supplied by local generators. We soon found a riverfront bungalow with a verandah overlooking the river. (and thankfully a hammock each). The scene is even quieter than at Nong Khiew as there are less boats, less people and of course no motor vehicles. We soon recognised that Olivier, the Frenchman, was occupying the bungalow next but one to us. The town is lovely and the people friendly - they certainly have not been overwhelmed by tourism yet. It takes two minutes at most to walk from one end of town to the other. In the middle part of the street is an open structure like a Dutch barn which appears to be the
centre of local government. Some officials were sat at the desks at the front whilst the populace waited clasping papers waiting to be seen. Later from this 'building' we heard and kind of gong being hit rhythmically - summoning the people to some kind of meeting which appeared well attended. Jen was healthy enough to start eating again. We had lunch at a restaurant where the only other table was occupied by a slightly more affluent group of French escorted by a guide. (Later we were to learn that Olivier had seen them earlier any despises these bourgeois French people). We retired to our hammocks to see out the afternoon sunshine. My hammock is slung surprisingly high and the cords appeared only just adequate to support my weight so it was perhaps slightly surprising that I was relaxed enough to fall asleep (and snore - according to Jen).
Saturday 7th February
Because the lights go off early the town starts to close down from about 9pm so we went to bed early and got up early. We awoke to the sound of numerous cockerels crowing to announce that day had arrived in the valley. It was delightful just strolling the early morning streets. The streets were already buzzing with laid back activity. People don't hide away in their houses but sit out on the street. There was an endearing scene of a grandmother teaching her little grandson to read whilst she roasted the tiniest fish on a fork over an open fire. (I thought later that I'd misread the situation and that perhaps the boy was teaching his grandmother to read). Dogs slept in the middle of the road. We went for breakfast in a small family restaurant - really no more than an extension of the families home and kitchen while next door a woman was preparing the local riverweed by laying it on a frame and then whacking it flat with a bundle of twigs before hanging it up to dry.
A sound feature of Laos that is perhaps most noticeable to a westerner is the noisy hawking and spitting that goes on. It is usual whilst having a meal to hear someone loudly clearing their throat. All adults (both sexes) seem to do it with great regularity. It's strange to b admiring a pretty girl then hear her noisily hawk and then spit. First thing in the morning is worst - it's almost like a Laos dawn chorus. Jen and I ordered cheese baguette which of course meant one Laughing Cow triangle spread thinly enough to cover both baguettes - but the accompanying eggs were good. Olivier joined us for breakfast - he has had quite some incidents on his travels; he was on a bus which crashed in Malaysia in which some people were killed, he happened to be at a military base in Kenya when there was a coup attempt and the person next to him was shot dead - he attributes his survival to being thin. We decided to strike out into the paddy fields that follow a valley inland to some caves and tribal villages. Armed with no map but some information from Olivier who'd walked the previous day we set off. The track was clear to the caves. At the first cave we arrived at the same time as another Englishman who had hired a local guide. Strangely the guide waited outside and I left Jen outside whilst I ventured in. The guide had told the Englishman that it was possible to go for 30 minutes deep into the cave. I started off with him but my torch was feeble and the rocks were slippery and there were potentially leg breaking drops so after two minutes we soon decided to venture no further. There being no roads I dread to think how long it would take to reach a casualty department by walking track and then boat from here. Jen and I continued on coming to a junction where we waited to see which way the guide went. We met a tribal lady heading for town with a packhorse. We forded a river and followed the guide and Englishman at a distance but eventually lost sight of them. It was not clear which way to go so we followed our instincts and the biggest path through paddy fields. We passed water buffalo and normal cows grazing. The path narrowed as it neared a tall cliff. It then came to a riverbank. We forded this ( I deliberately didn't mention leeches to Jen as she was getting annoyed enough we me getting her lost in the wilderness - but I discretely checked that she hadn't picked up any). Frustratingly we came on another river within 50m and had to ford that. It was clear that cows or water buffalo had crossed it recently. I thought we must happen on one of the villages soon as the path widened but after another twenty minutes we decided to call it a day and retrace our steps before we became even more lost. It was a long hot slog back but we enjoyed it because it was easy to follow our way back as we could easily see the valley we were heading for. We stopped off at a second cave on the way back and I explored it briefly but being alone (whilst Jen waited in the sun outside) didn't venture too far. (Apparently Dutch cavers have found that it is linked to the first that I entered earlier). We stopped at the first cave again and sat by the clear pool outside where some young Laos children were playing. The Laos children seem to have lots of freedom and are left to fend for themselves. We've seen some sights that have alarmed us such as five year olds playing with meat cleavers and tiny tots crossing busy streets on their own. The real infants are kept really close - literally - usually in a sling on their mother's back. Jen has remarked on the near total absence of pushchairs or prams. We got back to town and went for a meal at a restaurant overlooking the boat landing. Something was going on as some girls and boys in a kind of uniform (possible young communist pioneers) were holding bunches of flowers and practising their bows and curtsies guided by an adult. Suddenly a flotilla of three boats came up river and disembarked about 30 oriental visitors the leaders of whom were greeted by what must have been local dignitaries and then given flowers by the children. The official photographer accompanying the party snapped away and another videoed. We were puzzled as to where all these well heeled visitors would be accommodated and expected to return to our lodgings to find that we had been summarily evicted (although they didn't look the type to occupy a reed hut bungalow). Luckily we found our hut and hammocks unoccupied so relaxed away until hunger drove us to a restaurant. It was near the council 'office' so we had a great view of the party that was put on for the visiting dignitaries. At first there were formal speeches then a meal and I think much drinking. A professional sounding singer had been engaged and his vioce boomed out at loud volume but as the night progressed the karaoke began and some ear splitting out of tune renditions rent the air - but great fun was being had by all and it was great to see the Lao at play. We returned to our bungalow as the music played on but it stopped by 10:30pm presumably because the electricity was turned off then.
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