THE LAO NATIONAL SYMBOL IN REALITY
i am now in the Laos town of hoay xai, in the banks of the mekong river, opposite chiang khong in Thailand, to where i shall be taking the cross river ferry to tommorrow.
since my last blog, i spent a few more days in the laos capital, vientiane, before making my way through northern laos to here, via vang viang, luang prabang and luang namtha.
it cooled down in vientiane after some really bad thunderstorms, so that was a relief, remaining refreshingly cooler up until yesterday in luang namtha. i think that was something to do with cyclone Nargis. i had a pretty lazy time there, as its such a relaxing capital. spent a lot of time thinking about everything that has happened since i arrived in the region 6 months ago. i was looking up in a thesaraus to find the meaning of jealous, the antonyms were; generous, tolerant and cheerful. those adjectives could describe ekk perfectly. ekk is now back at work in hua hin, awaiting the TB results early next month. until those results are known, i have postponed starting work. the nights in vientiane were spent in dangerously cheap bars....
from there i
VIEW ACROSS THE RIVER
took a bus up to the town of vang viang for a couple of nights. i last visited there in 2004. at that time it was already becoming like a teenage gap year travellers ghetto, and sadly in 2008 it has become one. even the local market, which kept the place real, has moved out of town, leaving the place entirely to young backpackers (predominently from the UK, im shamed to say), watching football and movies on tv by day, and experimenting with the local herbs by night....and then recalling the experience the day after...
however the scenery around the town is amazing, with rivers and limestone karst scenery. i felt slightly misplaced in vang viang, being over twice the age of every other tourist there, but i enjoyed it, especially socialising over a few potent after hours cocktails with a couple of cute waiters from the luang prabang bakery/cafe...the rain continued there, and one night it was pretty bad, resulting in water leaking into my room all night, mainly because the 3rd floor above was not finished! some of the conversations i overheard from backpackers in the cafes were hilarious, i just hope i wasn't that niaive when
i was 18, or was i? its so long ago now i dont really remember!! i could sense i lot of the locals who service these travellers have become very very jaded indeed....
anyway, before i felt even more like an old git, i left , and took the 6 hour bus journey further north to the jewel in the laos crown that is the city of luang prabang. the road there is incredibly scenic, but also incredibly vomit inducing. it goes over about 4 major passes and in continually winding through village after village of bamboo houses. ive done the journey twice before, the 1st time in the opposite direction in 2002, where we were in the cloud and mist the whole time, so saw nothing. the 2nd time in 2004 there was a really bad haze at the time, so again saw nothing! this time there were views in all directions of river valleys and mountains, as for a lot of the distance the road stays high up on the mountain ridges. as we descended into luang prabang the torrential rain started again, lasting all evening and night.
stayed in a quaint gay owned, if slightly
THE MAIN STREET
inefficient, wooden guest house in luang prabang for about 5GBP a night. i stayed in the city for 5 nights, and the weather was mostly beautifully clear. the pace in luang prabang is even more relaxing than vientiane, if that is possible. i felt a lot more at home there, as it attracts more tourists of varying ages and interests. one thing i have started to notice on my travels is that there are more, mainly young, western women going around with mainly fit looking young local asian men, something that used to be very rare indeed. good to see these women too are realising the attractiveness of the local men! there is a huge outdoor night market in the city catering to the tourist "ethnic chintz" market. though hilarirously nearly every stall sells exactly the same goods, but it is a top place to come if you want to turn your home into an ethnic lao shrine...
luang prabang is, like vientiane, on the banks of the mekong, though it is not the thai border at luang prabang. there are many riverside restaurants and cafes and also lots of french restaurants all over town, which is all very
OLD WOMAN FISHING
HUSBAND WATCHING.. VANG VIENG RIVER
civilised. there are even atms now, at the time of my last visit in 2004 there was only one ATM in the whole country of laos (in vientiane), now there are atms in almost every town, most taking international cards.. i went to a local night club while i was there, it was an experience, especially as only one drink was sold, that was BEERLAO, the national drink. still, it was free entry, with absolutely no hassle or obligation to buy a drink! (thats something that i dont think wouldnt happen anywhere alse in asia...)
after luang prabang i took a public bus for the 1st time (as opposed to a bus solely for the purpose of transporting tourists). no air con, but the weather was cool still. the road to my next destination, luang namtha, was very poorly maintained, but more great views from bus, with even quainter villages all along the roadside, some perched high up on ridges, as was the road in places. loads of pigs, piglets, chickens, goats, buffalo dogs and cats all over the road as well as playing children. so little traffic though, just the occasional tractor and motorbike... A bus like that
THE COUNTRYSIDE AROUND VANG VIENG
THE MORNING AFTER A MASSIVE OVERNIGHT THUNDERSTORM
would be packed in thailand, but here it was half empty. there was no trawling the streets at a snails pace, looking for fares. also there were not people getting off and on every 10 yards, like in thailand! there were lots of toilet stops though, a bonus, and also a lunch stop at odoumxay, which looked and felt more like vietnam than laos.. as we approached luang namtha the route joined onto the wide and smooth newly completed main road between china and thailand, which after the thrills, spills and potholes of the route thus far, was bliss. we travelled within 20km of the chinese border, and the chinese influence was marked, not least by the passengers on the bus who think it is ok to hoik and spit loudly (ie like jack and rose did over the side of the Titanic...) every 5 minutes, a cultural difference ill never understand!! (such fond memories of travel in china, not!!)
arrived in luang namtha at dusk, in more bad rain, after a 10 hour journey. some western people on the bus were complaining about it, but ive had a lot worse. at least we all had a double seat
to ourselves and the mointain air was cool. spent two night in luang namtha, not a pretty place, as it was reborn after being flattened in the "vietnam" war, which is also the case of a lot of the forest growth around here. it also means it is very unwise to stray off the beaten track on your own, due to loads of UXO. still it was a laid back place to chill, before taking the bus to here on the mekong river again at hoay xai.
the morning i left luang namtha, there was a plague of really annoying little flies that i got covered in waiting for my pick up to the bus station, which was late, resulting in me having to take the last seat on the bus, right at the back! the route is now a modern two lane paved highway, just opened this year, so ignore guidebooks which say it can take a bumpy two days, it took less than 4 luxuriously smooth hours! (though it was still winding and mountainous....)
hoay xai is one of the main overland entry and exit points between thailand and laos, and will even have a bridge by
VIEW WEST ALONG THE MEKONG RIVER, FROM PHOUSI HILL
2012. a lot of people come here to take the boat down river for 2 days to luang prabang. there is also a speedboat that does the same journey in 6 hours. i did that on christmas day 2002, was very scary and i wouldnt recommend. its not a speedboat in the classic sense, rather a few planks of wood fashioned together, with a speedboat engine attached to the back. they have 6 seats, and crash helmets are compulsory. if you are planning to go on one, also take ear plugs, as you cant have a conversation, as its far too loud!
so once im across the river in the morning, im heading for the city chiang rai, then to chiang mai, before returning to bangkok next week. with the risk of tempting fate, i have amazingly survived this trip to laos without any illness. i think i have tried to learn from previous errors, by being very careful where and what i have eaten, and also being fastidious about washing my hands...(having said that though, the spectre of TB still looms large, so much so that im getting a chest x ray done when i reach chiang mai).
well, this blog has had a difficult birth, not least due to the unreliabilty and slow speed of the laos internet, but also due to frequent sudden power cuts...but it's done now...!
cu again soon...don't know where, don't know when....
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