Imagine coming home after a really hard day, putting on a baggy shirt and comfy trousers, snuggling down into a soft sofa, with you favorite music playing in the background and a roaring open fire crackling beside you. Around you are your ever smiling family and friends, you are sharing a beer and a laugh..... Well this is how it feels every day you spend in Lao, it is by far and away the most chilled out, friendly and beautiful country I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. I have only been in Thailand for two days, as I write this, and I am already pining for Lao. It got me thinking; maybe I should have never gone to Lao, as now that I have had a taste, all other countries will be compared to it and to be honest I very much doubt will come anywhere close.
My first taster of Lao however, was far from chilled out, it was at the border with Vietnam and it was absolutely chaotic. Having just spent the last eighteen hours either on a bus or sleeping rough after my bus from Hanoi dropped me off at 2am in a desolate village
and told me that I would meet my connection at 8am, the chaos took on a almost surreal feel... There is no concept of queuing in most of Asia and the Vietnamese take this to another level - the border post consisted of a gaggle of about seventy people all shoving their passports in the faces of two very bewildered officers. Being British I attempted an orderly queue, tutting strongly and giving my dirtiest looks to those who pushed in. However I soon realised after the twentieth person had jumped in front of me, that if I did not still want to be here in the evening, I had better join the huddle.... I have never been so grateful for the Rugby training my Welsh comprehensive gave me... Finally after much pushing, waving of my passport and sweating I made it into Lao.... I still had another twelve hours on the bus and my journey in total from Hanoi was thirty hours... Painful, but well worth it.
My first destination was Vientiane, the capital of Lao and compared to the Vietnamese cities a mere village. Lao only has a population of six million, so there are no big towns...
It is not the most beautiful of the Lao towns, but never the less, I easily spent four days there. I spent the days roaming the town, visiting the numerous temples and checking out the river. I met a couple of local guys and French and Japanese travelers and went out to tour the bars most evenings. We even managed to find a couple of Lao discos. They are hilarious - there is a mix of western and traditional music. During the western songs you have a few young guys dancing like loonies. Then when the Lao music comes on all the locals get up and form lines. Basically the same as American line dancing - very peculiar, but a good laugh.
The next stop was Vang Vieng, a small touristy two street town, nestled against the banks of the Song river and between limestone hills and emerald green rice paddies. Very picturesque. The primary pass time in Vang Vieng is Tubing (in a tractor inner-tube) or Kayaking down the river, stopping off at the numerous ramshackle bars that line the river to fuel up on BeerLao. The bars all compete to have the most ingenious mechanisms to fling
yourself into the river - my personal favorite was the high trapeze, where you climb to a stupidly high platform, pray that your hands will not slip off the worn metal and swooped down to about six feet from the water and then back up to continue the pendulum. Depending on how brave you are and often how many BeerLao you have inside you, you can choose to cling on with your feet, or exit at the highest point and pirouette face down into the river, all off which will gain a favorable applause from the bars clientele.
In addition to the river, there are some nice caves around Vang Vieng and it is easy to get out of town for long quiet walks. Being a tourist magnet, the night life is pretty good, with bars catering for all tastes, often with Amsterdam esque menus blatantly advertising Opium and Mushrooms. I refrained!
From Vang Vieng I took the bus to Luang Probang and come to realise that there are no straight roads in Lao and the locals get quite travel sick. At least a 1/4 of the bus threw up, but to their credit they do it very
Luang Probang, a large sleepy town was one of my highlights of Lao. It is a travelers hub and I fell in with a fantastic crowd of people. Of those I felt particularly close to Felix, a young Hamburgian, Roger a New Zelander and James an Architect (or as the dutch say Arsitect) from London. We spent most days and evenings together and I cannot think of a time when I have laughed so much in my life.
Our first exploit was to climb the Phusi Mountian. As we climbed we immediately turned into ten year olds and started cracking jokes about the name.. It was also raining so the mountian was very wet. There is a temple at the top of the mountain and the view is incredible. There is also a massage salon at the base of the mountain, which is named "Phusi Massage", although some bright spark had removed the "s", so those people tired after the climb could now treat themselves to a "Phui Massage". Humm sounds appealing....
We also visited a couple of waterfalls close to Luang Probang. Both were incredibly beautiful. At the Kuang Si falls you could climb
up the sides of the falls and also pass along a washed away path so that you were perched halfway up the fall looking down as torrents of water gush around you. The Tat See falls are smaller, but wider with large open pools. It was fantastic to swim in the cool blue water at both sites after the long trek to get to them.
After our hard days, we would go for a massage and herbal sauna at the great Red Cross Salon and then check out the bars, often ending up in the ever open Vietnam Bar, where we would sample Lao Lao, fire water made from fermented rice....
James, Felix, Roger and I headed to Phonsanvan on the 23rd September and it turned out to be one of the most strange days of my life. Definitely the most memorable and probably best journey I have ever taken.
Felix and I were staying in the same guest house. We left early and were seen off by Mamma (our landlady), who plied us with fruit and took us through a Buddhist departure ceremony which involved the tieing of blessed string around our wrists for good luck
(I think the came in useful). We met the other guys at the bus station and jumped aboard a big yellow rickety bus, which was luckily not too packed. We headed off bouncing our way across beautiful maintains on a bright sunny day. I spent most of the first few hours reading and was in the middle of my book when there was an almighty bang; our yellow fun bus had collided with all things, a petrol tanker! I cant think of many worse things to hit. The collision took place a meter back to my left and there was an immediate smell of fuel... Luckily no one was hurt and we very quickly jumped out! The road was completely blocked and soon there was a tail back on both sides. The locals were trying to clear a path across the grass verge and a few pickups managed to successfully get through, with the aid of a few pushes. It was then the turn of a Tuk Tuk. The driver was taking no prisoners and floored the gas, hitting the verge at high speed, which resulted in him bouncing off and crashing into our poor old bus. We were in
It was going to be a long wait before we would get going again, but our luck was in; one of the trucks in the queue turned out to be a BeerLao lorry and we managed to buy a few bottles from the driver and sat on the beautiful mountain side sipping cool beer, playing cards and laughing until it hurt.. If Carlsburg made bus crashes..... Occasionally an AK47 toting local would come up to us, give us a toothy grin and try and work out what we were doing. We had head that there were local militia in the area so it was a little nervy. We also heard a gun shot or two in the distance, but nothing bad ever happened to us.
The police and insurance people finally turned up. It had taken them five hours to travel the seven kilometers from the next town! By this time a near perfect mud road had been made, bypassing the stricken vehicles and traffic was moving quite normally. It was time to move the bus and we watched from a safe distance as the bus pulled away, hoping that there were no sparks... All was well
and we jumped back on, the by now, very fumy bus.
We stopped at the next town for some food and were greeted by the high pitch, cat like wails of a lady boy singing Lao pop. It was terrible, but there was still a group of locals dancing their slow two step to the beat. We heard that the news of our crash had spread, there were now tales of people being decapitated and severely injured and explosions on the mountainside!
Thinking our excitement was over for the day (it was not) we boarded our bus again and made our way slowly through beautiful countryside. At dusk we stopped at a small village and picked up two boys of about 14. Both were brandishing very warn looking AK47 rifles and grinned as they swung them around... One sat next to Felix, just opposite from me and we all immediately shut up... We had no idea who these kids were and envisaged being shot. The lucky blessed string struck again and nothing came of it with the kids jumping off a couple of miles down the road... Eventually we arrived tired and bewildered in Phonsavan and agreed we
had one hell of a story!
Phonsavan is famed for the plain of Jars, a collection of large Jars carved from the stone. The is no definitive explanation for their existence, which dates back more than 2500 years, but they are very impressive.
After visiting the plain, we were invited back to our guides house, where we were offered a delicacy of raw ducks blood with peanuts. I am so glad I am a vegetarian! During the course of the day we had also found out that there is not much in Phonsavan that people do not eat. Other delicacies include; Cow Dung, which is apparently quite bitter, Praying Mantis and large Spiders... Tasty tasty!
James and I said goodbye to Felix and Roger in Phonsavan and made our way to the remote Xam Neua, nestled in the eastern mountains, close to the Vietnamese border. This time we had no bus, but instead a small open sided Tuk Tuk. As we left the bus station at the start of the 15 hour journey, we were the only passengers, we naively though; we have plenty of room, this should not be too bad! Oh how wrong we were
- after ten more stops and another 25 people piled into the Tuk Tuk, we realised... It then started to rain, we got very wet and it was very cold. A truly horrible journey.
Xam Neua is a strange town, very subdued and after 8pm everything is closed. We were the only two Ferangs (foreigners) in the village and were constantly laughed and pointed at, although not in a malicious way. It stayed wet for most of our time here, but this did not deter us from hiring a couple of scooters and heading to the Vieng Xai (Pathet Lao Caves) which were used by the Lao government to shelter from American bombs during the 60s and 70s. Lao's claim to fame is that it has had more bombs dropped on its soil than any other country in the world!
From Xam Neua, brandishing our tickets with the names "Mr F" (Mr Ferang) written on them, we jumped on a bus bound for Nong Khiaw. Apart from a puncture and the hilarious way the driver and passengers were jumping on the wheel brace to free the wheel, the journey was quite uneventful.
Nong Khiaw, was a chance
to chill out for a while. We met up with Jo and Jo and had quiet days visiting local caves and rivers. At one cave we had to negotiate a path full of leaches and were constantly flicking them off our shoes and feet. By this time our cravings for western food had reached new heights and on hearing that there was a guest house that had real cheese, we made a beeline for it. Even better it also had red wine and we had a very civilised cheese and wine evening in the middle of the Lao jungle, polishing off a Camembert, two Bries and a nice bottle of French red..
From Nong Khaiw we made our way to Luang Nam Tha a small town in the north east, famed for Eco Trekking. Meeting up with an Aussie called Ben and some old friends (Neil and Catherine) we had met earlier in Lao. We took some bikes out and headed up to a local waterfall, went for a couple of great massages and soaked up the atmosphere of the quaint town. One evening we decided to head to a local bar. The bar was pretty quiet and we
persuaded the owner to let us use the instruments that were already set up on stage... James jumped on the keyboard, Neil grabbed the guitar, while Ben and I sang... I'm not sure how good it sounded, but we had a great time....
James, Ben and I decided to do a three day trek into the jungle, which would take us to the Thai border. Armed with mosquito repellent and lots of water we joined four others and hit the paths. During the first day we walk constantly up, stopping at a remote village and then again to eat a lunch off banana leaves. That evening we arrived in the Na Lan, where we would spend the night. It was like going back to the middle ages - there was no electricity, all water came from the river, animals and humans shared the same shelter and everything was done by hand. A real eye opener, but not something I could stand more than a couple of days of... That evening we were joined at dinner by some of the villagers, including the deputy head man. The head man apologied to us the following day for not making an appearance,
informing us he was at the time to drunk to join us!! In the morning it was time to get into some Kayaks and head down stream. Paddling downstream soon turned into the secondary objective, our primary objective being to sink as many of our friends as possible, before being sunk ourselves. A lot of fun and a lot of swimming...
After another night at a slightly more advanced village (some huts had battery powered lights), we joined the Mekong and were on the last leg of our trip to Hauy Xai. Arriving at the border town we were told that there would be a celebration and boat race the following day. In the afternoon we joined in with the festivities. James and I decided to have a beer and soon got chatting to a group of locals - Not long after the infamous Lao Lao was circulating and the rest of the evening became a bit of a blur. We some how found our way to the party held by the winning boat crew - after this I have a very limited recollection...
It was really sad to leave Lao; a wonderful country, with incredibly friendly, generous
people who always make you feel very welcome. I am looking forward to going back soon.... Hope you are all well, looking forward to seeing you all in a little over two months :-)
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