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Published: March 10th 2013
Waterfall- Luang Prabang
Stunning waterfall in Laos with pools to relax and play in
Right. I've been incredibly lazy over the last few weeks, the last time I wrote a blog was back in Thailand and since then I've travelled down the Mekong River in to Laos, been to pearly blue waterfalls and caves full of Buddhas in Luang Prabang, travelled from Luang Prabang to Vientiane on the deathly roads through the night traversing the stunning karst mountains, visited a charity in Vientiane which specialises in limb replacement for those injured by UXOs from the secret war, flew from Vientiane to Hanoi in Vietnam, experienced the best booze cruise through Halong Bay- one of the 7 natural wonders of the world, night bussed it to Hue to relax on pearly white beaches and visit another UNESCO world heritage site. So all in all a hell of a lot to cover so if you are so bored that you're reading this blog anyway, sit back and have a ganders!
Since Chiang Mai we travelled north-east to a small town called Chiang Khong located on the west side of the Mekong River, looking across in to Laos (the bloody Loas kept me up all night partying, bastards). The journey to Chiang Khong was interesting to say
Some of the artificial limbs they make for those injured by UXO's
the least, for a couple of quid we started off on a pretty comfortable bus, definitely better than most busses I've been on in England, so the journey up to Chiang Rai was pretty decent but our second leg up to Chiang Khong was hilarious. We just managed to arrive on time to the bus depot and grabbed the very last bus of the day up to Chiang Khong, the only problem was this was a local bus and the Thais have next to no time for health and safety. I swear to god if someone was desperate enough to get a bus that they would simply bungee cord themselves to the side. The bus itself looked to be about 60 years old, the fan was stuck to the roof with a coke can and none of the doors closed to allow thai people to hang on when full. The trip itself though was pretty uneventful but enjoyable just because of the piece of crap we were travelling in. Unfortunately for me, Chiang Khong didn't seem to agree with me and is where I have to assume some bastard gave me food poisoning and gastroenteritis because I then spent the
next 13 days quite simply (and elegantly) exploding out of my behind. Never in my life have I understood how shit (pun intended) diahorrea really is and just how dangerous it can be. The next morning we crossed the Mekong River in to Laos on a local boat which is practically an elongated kayak only made of wood and purposefully unstable. From there we jumped on the oh so delightful 14 hour slow boat down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang, taking 2 days and a hell of a lot of bowel control. The others all loved the trip down but sadly because of my surfacing illness I spent most of my time trying to be foetal on a wooden bench willing time to fly by. On the plus side I was able to get some decent snaps because the route really was stunning, with fisherman jumping between the boulders checking their fishing lines they'd stuck in to the rock face and the towering karst hills on either side were fan-bloody-tastic. At the half way point we stopped off in a small village called Pak Beng which had practically surfaced as a result of the slow boats having to stop
somewhere so was really just a lot of hostels and cafes. I didn't actually have any time to enjoy Pak Beng because I spent my time running between the toilet and sweating one out on a mattress on the floor. But one thing I did learn about Pak Beng, if caught with crystal meth they fine you a couple of quid and kill who ever sold it to you by firing squad, so all in all if you take drugs in Asia you are beyond stupid, the definition of a dry lunch.
Luang Prabang couldn't come quick enough for me but the true storm if my illness was over and just had to deal with the remaining 11 days taking Imodium like it was going out of style (sorry for the illness details but it really was the defining issue of my time in Laos). Luang Prabang itself was interesting if not a little weird, as Laos was once a French colony the architecture was a mix of Mediterranean and Asian and the place was absolutely full of French tourists. For the first time in my travels the English speaking nations were not the dominant force of visitors. Over
Insane group of people
the 5 days we spent here we climbed up a karst hill right in the middle of the town to visit a temple and enjoy the spectacular views...the 600+ steps we had to negotiate was knackering. We visited a waterfall that was infinitesimally better than the one we hiked 6 hours to see in Pai. It cascaded down a 8 metre drop in to a plunge pool which then led on to for series of pools and smaller waterfalls for visitors to relax and swim in. The water itself was beautiful, it was perfectly blue with a tint on white calcite which was deposited over tree roots and rocks in the water practically fossilising them. It was definitely a highlight of my time so far in Asia and what I expect to be of my entire time travelling. The day after we checked out a cave full of Buddha statues, Ollie loved it as he's a culture gooter but Dan, Ryan and myself felt a little short changed as the site was described to house 3000+ Buddha statues I was expecting slightly more than a tiny cave covered with statues which were only a couple of inches tall, but it
was still an interesting place to visit and the trip there in a tuk tuk was pretty memorable. And finally, FINALLY! Vietnam decided to relinquish it's curse and let me get a visa. I've tried 4 times, once in England, twice in Thailand and finally in Laos they let me have a visa. YEEEES!
From Luang Prabang we headed south to the capital, Vientiane. We forked out about 13 quid for the mini van, well expensive but it was awesome. The mini van turned out to be a brand new swanky van kitted out with about 10 fully reclining leather seats. What made it even better was the 4 of us were the only ones on it so we could spread out a bit, recline our seats back and watch the scenery speed past. The views were incredible, online I'd seen reviews describing our route as 'the death road' as there are no railings on the road side to stop you plowing over the edge down the mountainside to your death and every year busses fall off, killing everyone inside. Although our driver was a bit of a lunatic, overtaking lorries on sharp blind u-turns it felt safe enough.
50p beers, I'm getting used to this
I'm not really the kind of guy to sleep on trips, preferring to watch the world go by and on this trip not an ounce of me can regret it. I saw razor sharp karst mountains jutting out of the valley floors, towering above us with bare rock faces and rainforest littering their sides. It was also bordering on the full moon so the landscape was lit up just enough to see around us but not enough for anything to come up on photos. For me perhaps making it more memorable as I only have my memory to go by and it's something only I have enjoyed, it can't be shared with anyone (I always was one to share).
Vientiane like all cities in Asia wasn't very clean and was rammed full of traffic. We only spent a day here which was probably enough, in the evening we walked along the Mekong River watching the locals, some having a communal yoga/dance session to pounding euro-house, it was hilarious seeing the locals at the back not really trying to stay up with the routine and instead just throwing shapes and thrusting at their neighbours. In the day though we did visit a charity called Cope. Cope is a charity working alongside the government to help those injured by UXO's (unexplored ordinance) or bombs to most people. UXO's to this day are littered around Laos after the insane number of bombs, especially cluster bombs dropped by the US as part of the Vietnam War and became known as 'The Secret War' as those back at home knew nothing of the bombing campaigns until near the end of the conflict. The US were trying to disrupt and stop the transportation of weapons to the south of Vietnam using the Ho Chi Minh trail which ran down through Laos on the Vietnamese border. Cope works to help those injured by UXO's by rehabilitation and fake limb replacement, they also help to train Laos people to become members of bomb disposal teams. A video we watched in the Cope cinema was pretty gut wrenching stuff, it documented Laos' struggle with the remaining UXO's present, the bombies (the explosive parts of a cluster bomb) and the education of the rural population to avoid scrap metal collection as the metal found in the bomb casings and bombies is worth a fortune but absolutely lethal. The place was an enlightening experience and I just felt really guilty for not being able to leave a donation to such a deserving place. I'd stupidly left my cash and cards back at the hostel.
With Vientiane and Laos over and done with in a week (far too short but we are on a seriously tight schedule) we flew in to Vietnam to the capital of Hanoi. Although the flights cost us just over a hundred quid it saved us about 3 days of travelling through what has been described by friends as absolute hell. Hanoi was a spectacle. I thought other cities I'd visited were bad but Hanoi blew them all out of the water in terms of traffic and sheer pandemonium where ever you look. The laws of the road don't seem to be enforced at all, people just drove on the other side of the road whenever it suited them, there were few traffic lights and unlike England where horns are used in emergencies or when you're seriously pissed of, the Vietnamese seem to just lean on the horn, using it if they're going round something, coming to a junction or apparently just driving in a straight line. Nutters.
With one night of Hanoi completed we signed ourselves up for the 'Castaway tour' with the hostel we were staying at, Hanoi Backpackers Hostel. The Castaway tour is a glorified booze cruise, it cost an arm and a leg but it was Ollies 22nd birthday and Halong Bay is an unmissable place for anyone visiting Asia. It's one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World, I don't really need to say how stunning the place was but if you don't believe me Google it. Halong Bay is basically a karst mountain range, over time becoming submerged by the sea leaving only the tallest of its peaks emerging from the incredibly still sea. The Castaway tour was definitely a highlight of my travels, without a shadow of a doubt. Our group of 40ish people were incredible, everyone was keen to get involved and have some fun with no one taking themselves too seriously and by the time we had reached Castaway Island (yes our own private island) everyone had gelled and good friends. Our tour guide Macca, a Canadian on his last tour was a nutter, determined to make his last time a gooden getting involved with everything and leading by example. By 8pm we were playing ring of fire, culminating in Ryan, Dan and myself having to swap clothes with some of the girls. I got a fetching set of dungarees which gave my downstairs an unprecedented amount of freedom and I simply didn't want to return to the world of close clinging shorts. Next dresses, they must be fantastic. Ollie got absolutely smashed, being forced to complete a series of challenges (all involving booze) but he kept himself together and didn't spill his guts like I was hoping for. Clearly the morning after we were all hanging out of our arses, truly reflecting the amount of booze we'd forced our bodies to deal with. But nothing sorts yourself out quicker than being on a tropical island with friends, free to try kayaking, tubing, beach volleyball when ever it suited you. The second night was even heavier than the first, it was Ollies birthday proper so was a target for everyone when playing the giant game of 4 card game, culminating in us having to do forfeits like kissing Macca and sticking my head in a bin. Ollie was a state, turning to me at the end with about 8 hats on his head he had collected and proclaiming 'I just want to give everyone a massive fucking hug right now', always better to be a lover than a fighter. Serious shapes were thrown, on tables, on the bar especially with the 'Irish contingent' a group of Irish girls we became really good friends with. It was surprising how long it took the paint to appear but within 2 minutes of it appearing I was more paint than man and Ollie was stumbling around, persuading an unfortunate looking girl to draw a scar on her forehead as she looked identical to Harry Potter. We jumped in the sea, loving the phosphorescence in the water which glowed on contact. Castaway Island and the tour was insane! The junt boat back to civilisation included more drinking but pretty chilled in comparison to all the other days, but I guess it was 8am so drinking a beer after going to bed at 5am was really just topping us back up anyway.
Every person from the tour was incredible, a huge laugh and definitely a group of people I'd like to keep in contact with, when back at our hostel most of us went out in the night for more drinks even though my liver probably couldn't deal with anymore but it was a great way to see off people, even though I hope to see most of them again.
The rest of our time in Hanoi was spent recovering, doing a bit of sightseeing and shopping (such a bunch of girls). We visited a prison built by the French colonials to house political leaders and high profile rebels, keeping them in shocking conditions and always shackled to the floor or put in confinement cells for weeks on end with no sunlight. A number of prisoners had managed to escape through the sewer system which was incredible but the prison largely annoyed me because it was full to the rafters with propaganda, portraying the Vietnamese as a nation of saints completely glossing over the fact they have used some disgusting forms of torture in their recent past. Sure all countries paint themselves in the best light they can but perhaps because Vietnam is a communist country, the wording of information and no real detail really got on my nerves. The second day we spent in Hanoi was chilled, going on a walking tour, having a bit of a shop where I managed to buy my mum a silk scarf like she'd been pestering me for and really put my new found haggling skills to the test. England is going to be quite a shock when I start trying to haggle for a Mars Bar in WH Smiths.
For Vietnam we decided the best way to travel is an open bus pass, allowing us to move between 4 of the main cities/towns in Vietnam at our own pace. The sleeping bus from Hanoi to Hue was interesting. The beds are definitely not made for Europeans, even I could only just fit in and it was far from comfy but I managed to get a few hours sleep and read 2 books. I really need to buy some more, or some delightful person could just send me some, hint hint. My bed was also stuck at the back right next to the toilet, definitely not a good thing. I flat out refused to use it so held my wee I was bursting for after the first hour of the journey, pretty impressed that I didn't explode at some point over the 15 hour bus journey.
Hue was a lovely little town, it had an ancient citadel in different states of disrepair, some parts crumbling to the ground and others looking as good as new, it also contained the highest and largest flag I've ever seen. The scale wouldn't show up on photos properly but it had to be a good 20 metres long. We met up again with some of the Irish contingent in Hue, going to the beach with them and some other British girls in our first day and doing what their nation apparently does best (joking racism intended), drinking. Later on in the day I went on a bit of a spending spree, buying presents for my mum and dad and getting myself a few things. Vietnam really is a bargain, even after all the bartering I knew I was paying far more than any local ever would but for 24 quid in total I managed to buy 2 very expensive and high quality silk scarves for my mum for her birthday, a hand made laughing Buddha statue for my dad which I watched the guy spend 6 hours crafting for me, and finally a silk embroidery picture for myself. Bit gay and is pretty basic but it shows a typical local house, a local boat and some palms all signifying what I've seen in Vietnam so I thought it was a great souvenir for myself to remember how much I've enjoyed the country.
Now I'm on a bus heading south to a place called Hoi An where I can apparently surf! DING! And I haven't had the chance to write a blog in ages so I thought this is the perfect time to type it up on my iPhone. After Hoi An we are travelling to a place called Nha Thrang, where you can apparently snorkel around untouched tropical islands; before finally heading to our last stop in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City where I can go down in the famous tunnels used in the Vietnam War and learn all about the conflict, so should be pretty incredible! I might even fork out the money to fire an AK 47 as it's something I've always wanted to do.
Hopefully my next blog will be sooner rather than later so I don't have to write such a huge story again. If you've managed to read all this, you are fantastic and presumably incredibly bored. Eye up prices to visit Vietnam and come and join me, there is no way in hell you would ever regret it.
When I was ill I was beginning to think maybe I should just ditch travelling and go back to the comforts of home. Thank god I ignore myself when more than most people, because I'm back to having the time of my life.
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