Sabaidi Laos!

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November 29th 2005
Published: December 2nd 2005
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Right, well, brace yourself, this a bit of a long entry. It starts all the way back on 13th November, back in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

ooh, well, it was just lovely to have a long lie in, and no cockrels to wake us up- woohoo!!! Our last day in Chiang Mai is a day of organising ourselves for our trip to Laos. We book our transfer with our GH, Eagle House (incl. accommodation, transport & 3 meals). We then try, in vain, to get hold of some kip (Lao currency), but no banks seem to have any, and the local ones have run out of US dollars (also accepted in Laos). So, off we wander in search of dollars!

I hear someone shout "Amy!" as we are walking along. It didn't sink in for a minute that someone was shouting for me, as you just don't expect it! For a few seconds I just stare at the person across the road and then I recognise who it is- Nikki Martin, my best friend from school in Portugal! We have a quick chat; she is here with her boyfriend Nick to do a two-week Thai massage course. We agree to meet up later that evening for dinner. We go to a fun restaurant, where the music playing is actually fairly recent, and in English (Thai music is normally playing everywhere- we were told by a Thai girl that their music is always about love, either in a lovey-dovey kind of way, or about heartbreak). I had thought Nikki and Nick were in Brazil, and by pure coincidence my brother had texted Nick that day to say I was in Thailand somewhere, and that same day Nick had then seen me accross the road, in Chiang Mai, of all places! It really is a small world! It was fun to catch up- and we roll about laughing at each others travelling tales!

The following day, our transfer to Laos began. Stage 1: a mini bus to Chiang Kong. Unfortunately our bus is very dodgy- everytime we go up a slight incline (not uncommon in north Thailand!) the engine cuts out! The driver doesn't seem at all perturbed- even that this is quite normal. Coupled with squealing tyres everytime we round a bend, it makes for an interesting (and slightly hairy!) journey. We arrive at our home for the night, PJ Guest House at about 6pm. Dinner is included, and for the first time since our flight here, we watch a couple of movies at one of the bars and then head to bed.

It's an early start to the next day. We get transferred to the border and complete all the immigration formalities, and then hop on a boat to cross us across the Mekong river (the border here between Thailand and Laos) to Houayxai, in Laos!

Again, we do all the immigration stuff, where you smile sweetly and hope they don't suddenly decide to make your visa invalid and not let you into their country!

We have decided to take the slow boat down the Mekong to Louang Prabang, the Royal Capital of Laos (and now Laos' 2nd city). It takes two days, but you stop overnight, about halfway, in Pakbeng, as it is not safe to travel the Mekong at night. It is possible to take a speedboat, which only takes 6 hours, but we have heard nothing but horror stories about them, so we give them a miss (you can hear them coming for about five minutes, but then see them for about five seconds- I decide they sound like giant mosquitoes).

Anyway, for the first few hours (and before your bum goes numb), it is very enjoyable; the scenery is beautiful- lush green vegetation, and you are surrounded by mountains, and waterfront villages sporadically dot the, well, waterfront. However, the novelty soon wears off, and you really just want to get to your destination. Again, our transport has a few issues- the engine cuts out! Word spreads along the river (how is a bit of a mystery as they have no mobile phones or walky talkies) and other boats come to help us. We are soon on our way again, and reach Pakbeng just before dark. We find our guest house, and Sanj (Brummie 28 year old guy) and Antje (a German, 34 year old girl) also from our boat, join us there. They are good fun, and we have some good chat. Our GH, Bunmy, is an absolute dump- Sanj calls it 'rank'. The Rough Guide has got it very wrong! We decide to go elsewhere for dinner! We decide on an Indian, and Nick and Marie (a couple from the boat /tranfer group too) join us. They have already been travelling for 6 months, and they are doing our route but in reverse, so it's handy to get some info and tips from them.

After an awful nights' sleep, I wake up with a full-on cold (boo!). We are back on the boat (a different one though, hopefully one with a working engine!), and if possible, is actually more uncomfortable than the last one. We head on our way- still lovely scenery but you just want to get to Luang Prabang now. They say this is a once in a lifetime experience- and I think for me it will be!

We finally arrive in LP in the evening, and find a GH (Seng Phet, meaning Chilli Moon....) with the smiliest man we have ever met. He is always smiling and laughing. If Heaven on Earth was a clean, white tiled GH with clean crisp sheets and as much hot water as you liked (and free tea and bananas), this was it! Bliss. Luke has also made friends with the resident kittens. We meet up with Antje and Sanj (who are both travelling alone for 6 weeks and 12 months respectively) at a waterfront doing soukhi (where you cook your own food on a little BBQ and in the soup on your table). Very tasty, and fun at the time, but Luke is not well in the night. Oops.

Luke is better the next day. It is such a luxury to have slept in a bed with clean sheets (instead of a sleeping bag liner), and to have a lovely, really hot, powerful shower. Si, our GH host, is still laughing and smiling (we think either alcohol or drug induced by the end of our stay!). We wander off to see the Royal Palace Museum, which houses the Pha Bang, the most sacred Buddha image in Laos (and how LP got its name). The main entrance is decorated with the symbol of the Laos monarchy (extinguished in 1975): Airavata, the three-headed elephant, being sheltered by the sacred white parasol. This is surrounded by the intertwining bodies of the fifteen guardian naga of LP; the naga is a sacred water serpent, both a symbol of water and its life-giving properties and a protector of the Lao people.

We then walk along the peninsula (the historical and cultural heart of the city) of LP, where you see the Nam Khan river join the Mekong. LP is a very relaxed place- you are not hassled here like in Thailand. UNESCO has put LP on the World Heritage Site List, for its outstanding universal value, founded in the harmonious relationship between the natural and built environment, and also the fusion of traditional Lao with French colonial architecture. It is a wonderful place, and we all seem to have really relaxed here.

We walk back along the Mekong waterfront and go into Wat Xiang Thong (The Golden City Monastery)- the most historic and enchanting Buddhist monastery in Laos. It never ceases to amaze me at how much effort and time must go into making these places so beautiful. It is a very graceful main temple (or sim), and standing at a slight distance you get a good view of the roof, its most outstanding feature. Elegant lines curve and overlap, sweeping nearly to the ground, and evoke a bird with outstretched wings- locals say a mother hen sheltering her brood. The walls inside (and out) are decorated and stencilled with gold motifs. They depict various tales, and also scenes of punishment doled out in the many levels of Buddhist hell. These depictions were meant to give basic religious education to illiterate lay people. It is, indeed, enchanting and you could probably spend a good few hours there. We meet up with Antje and Sanj at Joma- basically the Starbucks of Laos. Yummy cake, shakes and coffee- it was to be our meeting place for our time in LP.

After dinner we stroll around the night-market, which is rich in ethnic handicrafts such as hand-woven textiles, silver, wood carvings, mulberry paper and lanterns. If this was my last stop and I had an extra bag, I would have bought loads here. There were some really beautiful things, and so cheap (by Western standards). It does make you wonder how they make a living. There's also a lane with lots of food stalls serving local cooked food, cakes and fruit.

Friday the 18th November is a busy day! We rise very early (5.30am!) to observe 'Binthabat' (a sacred religious ceremony), the morning alms ceremony where the Buddhist monks walk through the town in single file carrying their alms bowls to give lay people the opportunity to offer alms and gain merit. Offerings usually consist of sticky rice, fruit or simple snacks. Irene, a German lady (rather eccentric, but very friendly and interesting) from our GH was also going, so she took us to the best spot to see it, and showed us the ropes. She was moving to LP the following year, and was on a bit of an humanitarian mission to help the Lao people: she would buy handicrafts at the market and sell them back in back in Germany and donate profits to Loas schools and villages etc. She was a fountain of knowledge, and told us that this food is all the monks get all day, as they are not allowed to cook. The Lao people all sit at the side of the road with their offerings- and pushy rice sellers try to get the tourists to buy their wares. The monks have told Irene that this food is often dirty. I think thats disgraceful- no Brownie points for the rice sellers! Slowly, the monks appear, and soon there is a long line of orange snaking down the pavements of LP. I feel very priviledged to be seeing this ritual, however not all the tourists feel the same. They do not respect it and thrust cameras in the faces of the monks, and also those who are praying. It's awful behaviour. Irene introduces us to the UNESCO representative in LP- they are here to record and video this ceremony, but more generally to monitor the tourist situation in LP. They are there to try to preserve it, and even have the power to close the borders and restrict tourist visas. Anyway, Binthabat was a wonderful thing to see.

Next, we decided to walk up Pousi- The Sacred Hill. It is a bit of a climb, but the view from the top was most definitely worth it. It is still dawn really, the sun has only just crept up over a hill in the distance, and the mist still hangs in the hills and valleys, and you can hear the sounds of the city just waking up. It is great to gain a perspective of the size of the city we are in. And guess who we see at the top.....Antje and Sanj! After breakfast, Luke and I head to the Phosi market, a little bit out of town- it is very much a locals market, and I don't think we see any other "falang" (Lao for tourist) there.

We drop into Wat That (officially known as Wat Phra Mahathat) which is situated on a rise, and is reached via a stairway flanked by impressive seven-headed naga. The windows and doors (which are a popular photo spot) are framed in ornately carved teak, and are a blend of Lao, Chinese and Khmer design. And all this before midday!

After a quick lunch at Joma, we head off in search of the Red Cross Centre, as we both want to give blood. Lao people have to pay between US$20-40 for blood if they need it, as there is such a shortage. Considering some people's annual income can be as little as US$50, you can see how awful this situation is. However, I find out I can't give any due to me being in the early stages of a cold, but Luke pumps out a pint for them (for which he gets a free t-shirt!). The sanitation is basic, even questionable, but the needles are sterile and that's the main thing. Meanwhile, I entertain the nurse's son, who delights at having his photo taken and seeing it instantly on a digital camera! (His mother also translates that he says I am very beautiful- which is I guess what he says about most white women that go in there, as we are so different from Lao women. Really the same thiing as why some white men think South East Asian women are so beautiful).

We head back, meet up with Antje and Sanj, and decide to cross the river to the monastery, Chompet, on the other side, which sits on a hill overlooking the Mekong and LP. It is great to watch the sunset, and you can see the golden stupas of the temples shimmering in the light. After crossing back, Antje, Luke and I decide it's about time to indulge in a Traditonal Lao massage, which uses no oil, but uses pressure points and stretching techniques to reduce tension, stress and improve circulation. I have to say it was pretty great (my calves were really tight from all the walking), but at times I thought they were going to leave me bruised! For our last night in LP, we have dinner at the waterfront and then wander the night-market one last time. If only I had that big, spare, empty bag......

We get yet another minibus to take us to Vang Vieng, a halfway point between LP and Vientiane. This time, at least, the engine seems to run smoothly, and Luke, Sanj, Antje and I bag the front seats. It's a very scenic drive, six hours worth. You have to travel through the mountains, so it is just so stunning, but the windy roads were making everyone fell very queasy. It is amazing to think that this is the road leading to the capital city (Route 13)- at times it is no more than a pot-holed dirt track. Once there we settle into our GH, Dok Khoun II, where Antje and Sanj join us too.

I'm not really sure what to say about Vang Vieng (VV), as I really wasn't taken by the place, and it's difficult to describe the place to people who haven't seen it. But I'll try anyway. Set amongst beautiful, stunning mountainous scenery and lush greenery, is this little town, where you see nothing but "falang" and only a few Lao people. It is a very surreal place- here to offer Friends episodes one after the other, booze and drugs (on pizza, in milkshakes etc). It seems a haven for underagers, as they know they can do whatever they want without any problems (VV has a drugs problem apparently- no surprise as there are no police in the town!). It's a very fake place. Maybe if I had been travelling for longer already I would have liked the chance to slob out in front of a telly- but we had only just got going! It had also been rainy and grey since we'd got there- maybe if it had been sunny I would have felt differently. One positive thing though, was that we tried lap (a Lao speciality of minced chicken, lemon, mint, herbs and spices, eaten with sticky rice) for the first time- it is yummy. And of course we had to find a bar so Luke can watch England V New Zealand in the rugby Autumn Internationals.

The following day, Luke, Antje and Sanj decide to go tubing (in rubber tractor tyre inner tubes) down the river that runs alongside VV. I decide not to, as my cold has got worse and it's quite cold outside (and I really just wanted to shift my cold!). It's ok, as they come back and tell me that I really didn't miss that much, and that they were freezing the whole time! We have lap for dinner again (it's just so good!), and Luke and I decide to have an early night. However, at about 12.20am, there's a loud urgent knocking on the door, and someone shouting in a language we don't understand (it isn't Lao), and they are jiggling the door knob, like they're trying to to into our room. I wake Luke (he sleeps through anything and everything). My heart at this point is beating furiously. They are still there, and one is outside our room trying to look in the windows. At this point, I am genuinely terrified and all sorts of thngs start going through my mind. They stay there about 20/30 minutes shouting and jiggling the doorknob. I hope this isn't happening to Antje, as she is in a room by herself. They give up on our room and decide to try others- I hear them unitl about 3/4 am, when it all finally goes quiet. Luke has since told me he could feel my heart beating in my chest, and that I wouldn't stop shaking afterwards. It was a terrifying experience. The next morning, we find out there had been some drunk/high Koreans staying at our GH and that they had been trying to get into the wrong rooms. Innocent explanation- frightening at the time. (Sorry Dad, had to tell the story- it's all my experience of Laos! But we are ok, don't worry!) We were also due to leave VV that morning, to head to Vientiane, the capital, and as it is only three hours away, it seems like a short journey!

We find a GH (Joe's Place) on the waterfront- nice, clean, so Luke and I decide to do the 'shared bathroom' thing for the first time (so far we have had private bathroom). We wander along the Mekong waterfront with Antje and Sanj (of course!) and Bernie, an Irish doctor who is making her way to New Zealand, where she will be working for six months.

We walk around the Nam Phou Fountain (no water in it) Plaza, which is the heart of downtown Vientiane. There are lots of nice restaurants around here, and Luke and I take a look (my Mum and Dad have said they will treat us to a special meal for each country we visit). We eat at the night stalls that night, and have, yep you guessed it.... lap!

After a bit of a lie-in (no cockrels here!) and brekkie, we wander along Lane Xang Avenue (Vientiane's version of the Champs Elysees) to Patouxai (its Arc de Triomphe). It is a massive ferro-concrete Arch of Victory to commemorate the casualties of war of the Royal Lao Government. It's a great view from the top- again it helps to gain some perspective of the city we are in; a very low-rise sprawled out place.

We meet up with Antje and Sanj, and head off to That Louang, Lao' most important religious building and its national symbol. Reported to look like a gold-covered pyramid, the tapering gold spire of the main stupa is 45 metres tall, and rests on a plinth of stylized lotus petals; it's surrounded on all sides by thirty short, spiky stupas (also gold).

Luke and I have chosen to go for our special Laos meal tonight, and we eat at Ty-Na, a French-run restaurant that specialises in crepes. We sit upstairs on the balcony- the whole floor (and a waiter) to ourselves. We each have a three-course scrummy meal, finishing with delicious crepes, and we also have a carafe of wine (which makes a very nice change from beer). And all this for under 20GBP. We then walk to find the night-market- only to find that it doesn't exist anymore! And I split my toe open on an uneven bit of pavement (very common here and in SE Asia in general), which is not so great! So I hobble back, where we meet Antje and Sanj for a drink. (Toe is healing nicely, thank you!)

The next day, our last in Vientiane, we get an earlyish tuk-tuk with Antje and Sanj to the Buddha Park, 27km out of Vientine. It is a collection of ferro-concrete sculptures dotted around a wide riverside meadow. It's a very peaceful place, if a bit quirky. There is a HUGE reclining Buddha that dominates the park, but there are statues of every conceivable deity in the Hindu-Buddhist pantheon. On the way here we also saw the Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge (a big concrete bridge donated by Australia that links Thailand and Laos here). On the way back we are dropped at Wat Sisaket, the oldest Wat in Vientiane. It was the only monastery to survive the Siamese sacking in 1819. It is a very old Wat, and refreshingly, not restored too much, so it looks like it has aged naturally, which I think is actually part of its charm. The sim (building housing the main Buddha image) contains very badly deteriorating murals, and outside the cloister holds countless niches from which peer diminuitive Buddhas.

We then go to the Scandinavian Bakery for a well-earned banana fruitshake (and delicious pastries!), and a while later we meet Antje and Sanj for a final drink and game of cards (no Mum, not Sevens!). As our visa is not valid for Vietnam until the 28th November (and you can't enter before that date), we decide to explore Laos a little more and head south to Si Phan Don, or "Four Thousand Islands". This is where the Mekong is carved into a 14km wide web of rivulets, creating a land-locked archipelago, and has created a labyrinth of islets, rocks and sandbars.

We catch the overnight bus to Pakxe, in the south of Laos- it's not too bad a journey; I sleep a bit more than Luke but that's not saying much! We arrive 6am into Pakxe. After a little walk around, we decide to soldier on through to Si Pahn Don, or more specifically, Don Khong (one of the islands). We already know the local bus should cost us $3, but the bus driver tries to get $5 out of us- we don't budge (it even says so on the board in the "office" that it should be $3!). We pay $3- nice try Mr Bus Driver!

It's a pretty slow bus, stops wherever it wants to- Laos is a law unto itself in the transport department! We cross to the island on a ferry that the bus squeezes onto, amd we find a nice GH, Done Khong, easily enough. We wander, have some lunch (yup, lap again!) and then chill out on the balcony which overlooks the river. It's so nice to just sit and do nothing- read a book, catch up on my diary...... We have dinner at Mr Pon's restaurant along the waterfront- a yummy Pat Thai and lap (again), and a really early night. We are asleep by 9.30pm!

We don't wake up until 10am, so we must have been knackered! Again, a relaxing day of doing nothing. Bliss. At dusk, all the bugs come out. We see a HUGE praying mantis, a bug that's a cross between a cockroach (eeeew!) and a grasshopper, and a bug that smells of marzipan when you squish it. Eek! We go to Pon's restaurant again- we are trying the local regional speciality of fish steamed in coconut milk in a banana leaf (you have to pre-order it 2 hours before). It was actually really tasty- we had been told that it would end up a bit like custard, but thankfullly it wasn't at all (just think...fishy-tasting custard...gross!). Seriously, was very tasty.

The next day we rent bicycles and cycle around the island, well, the South side anyway. It's about 20km, but Luke and I take a bit of a detour (ok, we got a bit lost and took the wrong fork in the road, but we saw lots of places probably not many tourists see!). It's great- you feel like you are seeing a bit more of 'real' Laos and not just the major tourist spots. Children come out and wave and shout 'Sabaidi!', and beam huge smiles at you. We cut back across on the straightest road I have ever seen- the Romans would be proud!

5.30am start to the next day. Yuk. We are getting the 6.30am bus back to Pakxe. Once on it we soon find out this is also the 7am and 8.30am bus too. So we sit on the bus until after 9am, when it finally leaves. Don't think we will make the necessary connection in Pakxe to get to Savannakhet (where you can get buses to Vietnam).

It was a very slow journey back to Pakxe- we get off at the South bus station- tuk-tuk men grab our bags before we even set foot on firm ground. I ask the lady on the bus (she speaks a bit of English and seems to actually know travel information) what time the last bus to Savannakhet leaves the North bus station.....'Savannakhet!?' she shouts, 'We go there!'. So, back on we get.

So off we head to Savannakhet, where we finally arrive at 7pm. Unfortunately there were also two very obnoxious American girls on our bus who were very rude to the Lao people on the bus- they are exactly the kind of American who give other Americans, and indeed any other white people travelling in these countries, a bad name.

We get there eventually. We change Guest Houses three times before settling at Leena GH (central, clean, friendly). We go in search of food (I've got the shakes as we hadn't eaten since 5.30am) and also for information on transferring across the border into Vietnam. By chance, the restaurant we choose also has information about that, so we zoom off to the required hotel to buy a ticket for the following day before they close at 10pm. And finally get to bed!

The bus leaves at 8am the following day, and the transfer to Dong Ha (in Vietnam) is pretty straightforward. Entering Vietnam is fun- they x-ray your bags and everything, and worryingly, look at my passport for quite some time- but they let me in anyway! You are also practically attacked by women trying to exchange your kip for Vietnamese dong- and they try to snatch money from your hands. The exchange rate they give is very much in their favour (10,000 kip for 10,000 dong- it should be more like 16,000 kip to 10,000 dong), but they know you can't change kip outside the country. Once in Dong Ha, we get a bus to Hue, our home for the next few days.

We arrive in Hue- feels strange yet nice to be back in a bustly city. We stay at Phu An Hotel (yup, a hotel), which is a relatively new place- it is more expensive for accommodation in Vietnam but we get a good deal: $8 for a double room, a/c, private bathroom with hot shower, satellite tv and free internet. And it has a lift- which somehow feels very luxurious! We have a meal at Mandarin restauarant (the owner takes beautiful photos of local scenes and people and has them all over the walls) and then head to bed. The next day is nice and chilled, walking around- and oddly, the hustle and bustle feels rather nice. We book our Open Tour (hop-on/hop-off) bus ticket that will take us all the way down to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon, and also a trip on a Dragon Boat on the Perfume River to see the local sights.


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