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Published: February 2nd 2007
Hi from Kanchanaburi, Thailand, the site of the infamous bridge over the river Kwai. We've been exploring the area after a week of complete relaxation and catching up with my parents in Hua Hin which I'll cover in the next blog in a few week's time.
In the meantime, my last blog left us on the way to Laos, staying in the small border town of Stung Treng. This was a town that I passed through on my way south to meet Danielle in HCMC, so I was looking forward to similar adventures this time as we travelled north. The bus dropped us off late afternoon after a 10 hour trip from Phnomh Penh and we made our way to the only neon-lit place in town (must be as a result of 2 months in China that I now follow the lights!) and stayed in a basic place next to the river. We organised a shared car to the Laos border and onto Don Det at the 4000 islands the next day, so we hopped into a long boat to cross the Mekong, along with locals with their shopping bags full of dried fish and fruit but fortunately not with
the squealing pigs that we'd seen being unloaded the previous evening!
We were driven to a dusty border post 90 minutes away, along with a friendly couple of Slovenian girls who we'd met on the bus the previous day, and were dropped off in what felt like the middle of nowhere. Some very smartly dressed border guards beckoned us over to their hut and we approached with our $1 notes in our pockets, ready to have to "pay" to get stamped out of Cambodia as I'd had to do on entering from Laos a couple of months ago. As we waited, a film crew turned up and were whisked through the border, cameras out and filming the whole process and apparently saving us having to pay $1 on camera! The guards waved us through with a cheery grin and we walked the 500m through "no man's land" to the Laos side in the forest. The guards here had no qualms about asking for $1 each (no camera crew here!) which was duly paid, but it quickly became clear that the car that we'd paid for to take us to Don Det on the 4000 islands, was nowhere to be
seen. Calls were made by the guards who promised a wait of 10 minutes for some transport to arrive. We spent the next hour watching the guards swing in hammocks, play cards and generally relax at their post, under the shade of palms and bamboo. Every so often they patted one of the dogs that roamed around, or asked one of us to pull the rope that let the border gate swing open to allow the odd car through. In a bamboo cage lay a small leopard cat (thanks to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leopard_Cat for the identification!), looking completely bored and helpless, with a dead mouse tied to a piece of string for company. Eventually a group of backpackers with a guide to show them the way turned up and we hitched a ride on their bus, by now completely relaxed in this very calming workplace!
The minibus took us Ban Nakasang where we caught a long boat to Don Det. The 4000 Islands (known locally as Si Phan Don) are situated close to the Cambodian border and are a group of islands on the Mekong. The actual number of islands varies according to the time of year (wet/dry season) and we'd
Our Home On Don Khon
The 4000 Islands, Laos
heard a lot of good stories about how beautiful they were and ended up staying for a week on Don Khon. There are 3 main islands where travellers tend to stay - Don Khong, Don Khon and Don Det. Don Det is home to the main "port" - a fairly loose term as it's really just a boat ramp and is also where a lot of backpacker guesthouses are situated. We decided to head for the quieter Don Khon so got on another boat and headed for the island, past a herd of wallowing water buffalo and through groves of mangroves and palms to arrive at a guesthouse to stay in a $5 a night room, overlooking the Mekong. This was definitely an easy place to relax - with nothing to do but swing in a hammock and with the occasional exploratory jaunt on a bike, we stayed a glorious 5 nights. The islands have no electricity apart from generators at each guesthouse and restaurant so we had the luxury of completely silent nights, punctuated by the sounds of the jungle after 9pm when the generators completed their 3 hour stint each evening.
We hired bikes for a couple
of days, exploring the islands which are joined by a bridge built by the French to house the only railway they ever built in Laos. The Tat Somphamit waterfalls are easy to find on Don Khon and there are lots of bamboo fish traps spaced along the river here, which are tended to by fishermen with mountain goat-like agility and a faith in the river spirits that protect them on this fast flowing stretch of water. You can also visit a couple of crumbling steam locomotives that were left here by the French when they departed, and there's the opportunity to watch the rare Irrawady dolphin surface. We decided not to go to see the dolphins as we'd heard a few times that the chances of seeing them are, like the dolphin, rare but we managed to occupy the time here nicely.
One evening Danielle came running back to our hut to tell me that she'd seen a snake on the path, so we went back together to see it. Although only about 12 inches long, a child had seen it slither it's way near Danielle's feet and his mother had thrown a shoe at it, whilst the child
(aged about 6) beat it with a stone. The snake's bright red belly underlined why it was dealt with so quickly by the barefooted family, as a man walked past and slid his hand across his throat after motioning a biting action to us. We'd read that serious medical care was as good as non-existent in Laos (best to call an ambulance from Thailand!) so children are clearly taught from an early age how dangerous certain animals living around them are.
After a few days of complete relaxation, catching up on long-overdue diary writing and reading, it was time to move on to head north. We took a ride with the guesthouse owner in his boat one morning to the town of Ban Nakasang where we caught a swangthaew to Pakse, 5 hours away. Swangthaews are bascially large pick-ups with a roof that has a bench seat on either side and 1 down the middle - our's provided the wheels to 36 people and their luggage - including the 2 sat on the roof. The passengers were mainly locals who got on and off at apparently random points along the way and we quickly found out that if you
Wallowing Water Buffalo
Don Khon, The 4000 Islands, Laos
get a chance to move your feet and feel the rush of blood to your toes again - you had to take it, as the opportunity didn't last long!
Pakse proved to be a nice town to wander around for a day but is really a jumping off point to either the Bolaven Plateau to get into the countryside, or as a rest stop along the north-south Route 13, the latter of which we did. The following day we headed north to the capital, Vientiane. Only 9 hours away, we jumped on the so-called VIP bus (see previous Laos blog for the pics of a VIP bus), complete with garish lights, carpeted ceilings and cuddly toys.
We arrived at 6am in a freezing cold, misty Vientiane. The streets were full of people on motos rushing to work, bedecked in hats and thick coats, whilst we rushed past on a swanthaew in shorts. The city quickly heated up and we checked in at Joe's Guesthouse near the river. It proved to be a good area to wander around - taking in the sights of the many wats in the city. Wanting to explore further afield, we hired a couple
Don Khon, The 4000 Islands, Laos
of bikes and headed out, looking for the beautiful Pha That Luang. Built in 1566, it's the most important national monument in Laos - and is also an important symbol of Buddhism. It cuts a striking view from down the wide boulevard as you huff and puff on your bike up the hill, as the gold glints in the glaring sunshine. It was mysteriously quiet as we walked around it - an artist has monopolised the cloister-type corridors around the perimeter with his paintings and we had the place virtually to ourselves. The site was apparently originally used to house a piece of the Buddha's breastbone in the 3rd century and as you climb the stairs the gold reflects the heat back onto your face, like walking on a solid, sand desert.
After a brief respite (i.e. a few glasses of Beerlao) we headed onto the National Museum for a bit of education - this time about Lao history - the mysterious existence of the Plain of Jars and more uptodate information about the revolution and subsequent Communist rise to power in 1975. It was definitely worth a visit, if only to smile at the rather biased wording of
The Main Road
Don Khon, 4000 Islands, Laos
the Communist propaganda on show.
The following day we headed off again on our bikes to see some more of the Vientiane sights - including the Patuxai (Victory Monument) archway. Strongly resembling the Arc De Triomphe in Paris, it is at the end of a long boulevard (again, another slog through the traffic on our bikes!) and like Pha That Luang, very impressive from a distance but not quite as the description on the accompanying plaque states, "is even more of a monster of concrete close up"! It does have an interesting history in that it was built using money donated by the USA in 1969. However, that money was donated to be used to construct a new airport!
After a few days enjoying the hospitality of Vientiane, we headed north to Luang Prabang. Very much on the backpacker route, it is also a must-see place for package tours, awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1995, it is surely one of the most beautiful cities in SE Asia, if not further afield. It can be reached by bus, boat and plane and is only 11 hours away from Vientiane travelling through some stunning lush, mountainous scenery. After memories
of travelling the trip in reverse a couple of months ago - when the driver took a total of 45 minutes break in 23 hours, it was great to see the view by daylight - if only to gawp at the long drop as we climbed over the mountains.
Luang Prabang is perhaps best known for the number of monks that live there and they always seem keen to stop and chat - especially the younger novice monks who want to practice their English and learn about life outide Laos. Young men are expected to become monks for a short period in their lives (some obviously treat it as a vocation and continue in that vein) and it is very common to see them gracefully floating along the streets in their flowing orange robes, sheltering from the sun under brown and yellow umbrellas. We met some at Wat Xieng Thong who were visiting from their own wat. They stopped for a chat and explained that they all came from villages around Luang Prabang and most had never travelled further afield than that - although they all hoped to do one day. An old lady approached us with 2 small
ball-shaped bamboo cages, containing 2 even smaller birds. We'd seen some monks buying some of these cages earlier in the day so for a few Kip, we bought one each and presented them to the monks. Grateful is not the word - they were very appreciative and explained that it is good luck for monks to free the birds at the top of the wat (although we had a sneaking suspicion that the birds then flew to the bottom of the wat to start it all over again!). The oldest monk then invited us to join them at the service at his wat that evening. We felt very honoured to be invited and that evening made our way to the other side of town by bike. He greeted us at the gate and led us in. The wat contains a huge Buddha statue made completely of bronze, apart from it's arms that were broken off by invaders hundreds of years ago. These have now been replaced and the wat is an awe-inspiring place - very beautiful and peaceful with the buddha watching over you as you try to take in the Buddhist paintings that surround you. Our new friend gave
us a guided tour, before leading us to the back of the room whereupon about 50 other monks, all aged no older than 25 years, all filed in and sat, their legs to one side, bowing as they did so. A bell sounded and after staring at us as they looked around, they began chanting and praying. The room resounded with their voices and it reminded me of the monasteries that I'd visited in Tibet and western Sichuan, where the monks had also chanted to the sound of a bell.
As if to prove that they were all young lads underneath, a couple of them got involved in subtle pushing and shoving as they prayed - anxious not to let anyone see, they were oblivious to us watching and smiling as they pushed one another over. We were extremely privileged to be invited to a service such as this and once it was over, a chorus of smiles came our way as they left to complete their chores and learning - until they started it all again at 4am the next day.
The following morning, we left our hostel to watch the monks collect their alms at 6am.
Locals sit on the ground with pans full of hot, sticky rice and soup and hands portions out as the bare-footed monks file past. It all happens in complete silence, an act bestowing the devout local with good fortune and the monk with his food for the day.
That evening we headed to the night market, a few streets away from our guest house. Night markets are always a great place to get street food and this one was no exception - with lots of bbq stalls offering fresh fish, shrimps and chicken, as well as veggie options of stir-fried noodles and steamed rice, it was packed with both foreigners and locals. The market is also a good place to haggle for handicrafts and ubiquitous Beerlao t-shirts (okay, we both bought one!) and was full of tourists buying those must-have items.
We headed back down south for Vientiane after 4 days in Luang Prabang, back on the 11 hour bus journey! That's the price of not taking any flights anywhere! After a day in Vientiane, we jumped on the night train to Bangkok, after crossing the border into Thailand. This marked the start of the last haul south,
finally ending in Singapore in 7 weeks or so. The trip has taken me in all kinds of directions so far so it feels a bit strange just heading south for the last time now - but what a great trip it has been - and I know there are plenty of more adventures to come.
It is really great hearing messages from home (and elsewhere!) so please keep them coming. I hope the cold European weather isn't too bad at home. I'll do the next blog with tales from Thailand in a few week's time. Bye for now.
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