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Published: February 12th 2009
We breakfasted where we'd dined the previous evening then hailed a tuk-tuk to take us to the bus station. The engine kept cutting out but somehow we eventually made it there. We clambered aboard the grotty old bus (of course referred to in the tmetable as an Express). We were mostly westerners with a smattering of locals so for once there was not quite so for once rucksacks outnumbered the rice sacks. The few locals arrived late and had to take the plastic stools which the driver put down in the aisle as usual. Also a last minute addition was a moped which was manhandled onto the roof. Leaving Vang Vieng we travelled along the valley floor with the magnificent karst peaks above the flat paddy fields. We passed a market in a village where the women were wearing their tribal dresses and were adorned with silver jewellery. At a stop we indulged by having an ice cream each - first ice cream for weeks. At first we sped along at good speed (slowing only occasionally for the odd cow wandering in the road) and consulting the map and registering the steady progress I couldn't understand how it was possibly going to take the scheduled five hours. The reason soon became apparent. At the first decent hill we slowed to walking pace and this continued as we climbed tortuously up the steep gradients - the bus wheezing to find extra power. The mountains became steeper as we climbed through a mountain pass. The villages at these levels appeared very poor and rudimentary compared with the lowlands. At one we stopped and took on board a petite strong looking woman from one of the minority tribes. She was small with tiny features but appeared to have a big personality. There were no seats left (not even plastic stools) so she squatted on a rice sack in the aisle right beside me. There was a huge cultural difference between the scantily clad couple of Australian backpacker girls in the seats opposite me and the tribal woman. She was very voluble when the conductor took the money. I think she may have been trying to get a discount. At one stage she became excited and started shouting but all it was that I think she had spotted someone she knew as we passed through another mountain village. The scenery was simply spectacular with astonishing densely wooded hills and valleys and mountain peaks so sharp against the horizon that they looked unreal. Incredibly we saw a few westerners making the journey on pushbikes. They must be masochists of the highest order. The road seemed to have a bend every two hundred metres and it must have been exhausting for the bus driver. Laos drivers seem to love cutting corners even on blind mountain bends so its sometimes best to look sideways rather than straight ahead. This stretch of road was apparently dangerous to travel because of bandit activity until only a few years ago. Having seen it I can see why it would have been difficult to police. Alarmingly with this in mind, we rounded one corner to see a man armed with an AK47 but I think he was just out hunting (not tourists I hope). After nearly five hours we descended into the valley of the Mekong and the town of Luang Prabang appeared and the most scenic bus journey of my life (so far) was over. As is normal with Laos towns, the first thing you see on reaching a town is a dusty bus station with waiting tuk-tuks. We agreed a price of 15,000kip each and sped off having given the driver our intended guest house name. In fact we showed him a map but he still took us to the wrong place. Eventually we ended up where we had intended but then he insisted that we'd agreed to pay 50,000kip rather than 15,000 each. He phoned his boss but we stood fast and eventually he grumpily took our proferred amount. The first guesthouse was a bit more expensive that we had been told on the grapevine so we headed for another very nearby (Thonys) which had a reasonable room with hot shower for 80,000kip and is right on the banks of a tributary of the Mekong called the Nam Khan. There is a common area overlooking the river which also seems to be the place that the family watch TV so it is very convivial. We headed into the main town for an evening meal ending up at an Indian restaurant - always a great change when you tire of Laos food. The main street seems very cultured and upmarket after Vang Vieng. Perhaps because there is an small airport it attracts a more affluent customer. There are however plenty of cheap places for backpackers like ourselves. We had a beer on the terrace at our guest house before having an early night.
Before it got too hot we followed the walk suggested in the Lonely Planet guide after a cheap breakfast. The Mekong riverfront is a great place to sit and have a beer watching the small ferry crossing and other small boats plying the river. Sadly the cargo transported by river has decreased as the roads have improved , but there are still some boats transporting goods and people. One very popular cargo seems to be oranges which a piled high beside the riverfront road. We thought that the weather would be cooler as we headed north but the heat by midday is still intense - although the nights are cooler and we even have to resort to blankets now. After lunch as we were continuing our stroll I had a bit off a worrying incident. My vision went strange and I feared that I was having a migraine attack. Parts of my field of vision became pixilated and I felt a bit strange, It was very scary. I had the same thing many years ago at a cricket match. Perhaps it was too much sun. Anyway as we decided to head back to the guesthouse normal vision came back. I decided to rest in a dark room whilst IJen went off for a massage at the Red Cross which raises money thereby. She said it was excellent. I felt fully recovered after the rest, so we headed to the riverfront as the sun went down over the Mekong. I've seen this several times now but every time is still magical. In the evening at a riverside restaurant Jen tried the local speciality - watercress salad. The taste of a BeerLao is something I'll always associate with a Mekong sunset. After dark we headed to the night market which has dozens of stalls selling handicrafts and mementos. I bought a BeerLao T-shirt - a compulsory backpacker item of clothing. Jen bought silk scarves. We passed a lively bar where a big screen was showing the Australian Open final Federer v Nadal live, so we popped in and tried the new Laos Brewery beer called 'One million elephants'. It was good but I prefer the original. It was great to see Nadal win because there was an obnoxious German man next to us who was supporting Federer. We had another beer back at our guesthouse and met a very cultured Frenchman who I now know to be Olivier. He is about the same age as us and an interesting character and we had good conversation with him. He is an intellectual and widely travelled. It turned out to be quite a sporting night as we joined the hostel owner and a backpacking Spaniard in watching the live match of Newcastle v Sunderland. However we were too tired to last out the full match.
We were out strolling early whilst the vegetable and meat market was in full swing. There were the usual south east Asian curiosities - our favourite was the rat and bat stall with neatly ordered bats and rats - the bats were so small they looked hardly worth eating for the amount of meat they must contain. There were also buckets of fat live toads and a gruesome looking thing that appeared to be the scalp of a cow. Water buffalo shins including the hoof were also available. We resisted all these tasty treats and eventually ended up at a lovely cafe called Utopia which has a fantastic terrace on stilts overlooking the Nam Khan. It was a little bit pricey by Laos standards but well worth the little extra for its location and ambiance. For some masochistic I again ordered papaya salad and yet again the chillies blew my head off again. My eyes streamed and my sinuses went into apoplexy. Some BeerLao followed by a Lao coffee soon restored equilibrium and we had a lovely relaxing afternoon just reclining back on the Thai cushions watching the occasional activity on the slow river. The silence was only interrupted by the occasional small plane flying low overhead as it descended into Luang Prabang airport. I headed off on my own to buy a ticket at the boat office. It took a while for anyone to appear and then when someone did, they told me to come back in the morning. Such is the way things are done in Laos. We had a lovely stroll as nightfell - through the lovely teak wood villas that make Luang Prabang so attractive a town. You can fully appreciate why Luang Prabang has UNESCO world heritage status. Some of the beautiful guest houses here would be wonderful to stay in - given the money.
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