Category Archives: Laos

pig in a sack

Our bungalow kids in Don Det, LáoAfter two days in transit we are finally in Vietnam and without the border crossing rip-offs that we’d heard so much about. We spent our final day in Don Det in the four thousand islands doing the best thing possible, very little. You wake up, stumble out onto the balcony in the morning and sit reading in the hammock whilst contemplating breakfast. Eventually you put on a t-shirt and wander up to a riverside restaurant for some pancakes and coffee before a morning stroll and then it’s back to the hammock to lie, sway and read. Mid afternoon the kids of your bungalow owner pop their heads round to say hello and have a play with your digital camera (which they are surprisingly adept with, the two attached are ones that they took) and spend the next half hour photogrpahing other travellers walking by! And if you are really lucky the farang with the bakery will stop by your bungalows mid afternoon with buns and carrot cake for sale. Actually we did manage to go and hire ourselves a boat to motor out into the islands and watch the sunset on our last day. Don Det, LáoWe rode out past the inhabited islands, the wooden bunglalows framed with palm trees and continued weaving between sandbanks and green bushy islets until we reached a wide area of the Mekong with the hills of Cambodia in the distance. Just us and the fishermen and the sun reflected in the still waters as the day came to an end. I tell you, this travelling life is incredibly hard work.

Our next two days were slightly less relaxing. To get from Si Phan Don to Savannakhet took one boat, one minivan and one incredibly slow local bus that stopped for everything; piling on cargo, bags of rice, quick stop for the driver and his friend to have a beer, you name it, we stopped. Plus, and I never thought anything would surpass having to watch the ‘Perfect Storm’ three times on buses in Mexico, we were subjected to Thai Karoke videos for about six hours. For those of you that have never had the delight it is the worst ear-bleeding music you have ever heard accompanied by the kind of videos that make your brain cells voluntarily start committing suicide out of your nostrils. So it was 9pm, with a heavily impaired IQ and sense of sound, that we arrived, found a guest house and then discovered all the restaurants were closed. We managed to find somewhere for some noodles and a Pepsi before collapsing into bed. Then 5.30am we were up again and back to the bus station to get the local buFisherman, Láos to the border. Now I like to think of myself as a veteran of the Asian local bus, I’ve been on the good, the bad and the ugly and I’ve seen livestock on plenty of buses, but seeing pigs wrapped up in sacks with just their snouts sticking out and put squealing in the luggage hold under the bus, is a new one! Still, we got to the border and after convincing the Vietnam official that I was the person in the passport (the new haircut doesn’t help) we were in Vietnam. We managed to get a minivan straight to Hue at a pretty reasonable price and found a guest house before realising that nobody had tried to rip us of or exhort money out of us along the way. Ah well, there’s still time!

Hue is a chilled out but bustling (if the two things are possible) city on the river opposite a huge citadel we are visiting tomorrow. We checked in and headed straight to tourist central, the DMZ bar, and sat in the restaurant above it drinking beer and eating burgers and pizza, okay so not very local but hey, we’ve been on a bus for two days. Definitely time for a little guilty backpacking RnR!

forty metre buddhas and four thousand islands

Sunset over Vientiane, LaosI left Vang Vieng with a hangover so it was just as well that it was only a short bus ride of four hours or so to reach the capital of Laos Vientiane. One of the things that amazes me about Laos is just how many people are backpacking here. So much so that for a while it looked like we would be sleeping on the streets of the capital. Guest house after guest house had signs up saying FULL as Bron, James and I trundled along with all our stuff. Finally we ended up sauntering into the rather smart lobby of the Intercity hotel on the river front on the off chance they had a vacancy that wasn’t too overpriced. It was the only room we could find. So for US$20 each (really expensive by Laos standards) we ended up in the deluxe room on the top floor with all the trimmings and a balcony overlooking the sunset on the far side of the river. This kind of inconvenience I can occasionally handle.

Buddha Park, Vientiane

Vientiane is a fairly relaxed Asian capital city and feels more like a large town. Most of the river is a dried sandbank at this time of year providing a huge area for evening strolls and kids playing football. Tiny food stalls and market stalls line the pavement and give rise to the unmistakable smell of an Asian city, the fragrance of noodles, chicken and chilli sauce in the evenings. We decided not to visit the usual temples in the city and instead hopped on a tuktuk out of town and went to visit Buddha Park, 25km away. Buddha park is a kind of theme park full of the most unusual and bizarre Hindu and Buddhist sculptures I’ve seen in Asia so far. It is the brainchild of a priest-shaman called Luang Pu built in 1958 and runs amok around the traditional religious style of Hindu gods and symbolism. A giant reclining Buddha lies across one side of the park in a vaguely familiar pose, around him are multiarmed serpent gods, giant crocodiles, Grecian styled women carrying flowers, skulls, winged men, horse-bound warriors and a giant pumpkin you can climb up inside. What more could you want from an afternoon in the park? Our side kick, Bron, left us to head back to Thailand and James and myself caught a rather swanky sleeper bus complete with duvets and bad Laos karoke TV down south overnight to Pakse, breakfast, one minibus and one rickety wooden boat ride later we arrived on the island of Don Det in Si Phan Don, otherwise known as the four thousand islands.

Si Phan Don, Don Det, LaosAt the very southern point of Laos by the Cambodian border the Mekong river fans out creating a series of tiny to large islands, sandbanks and waterfalls. Most of the islands are deserted and the others populated by farmers and fishermen, chicken and buffalos. The farmers on Don Det have cheerfully jumped on the backpacker buck and just about all of them have built a few simple wooden bungalows on the water’s edge, and set up tiny restaurants and even two internet cafes to keep us travelling bums happy. It took a while to find somewhere to stay but our walking was rewarded by finding a place on the emptier west side of the island with the perfect viewpoint for sunset.

Don Det SunsetLife on Don Det is very, very laid back. In the afternoon we hired a couple of very girly looking bikes and cycled down the length of the island passing through dry fields, grazing herds of uninterested buffalo and theoccasional local game of pétanque. At the end of the island we pushed our bikes over the rocky obstacle course that serves as a bridge with the neighbouring island of Don Khon and visited a tumbling white water fall disappearing into a narrow gorge and then on to the tip of Si Phan Don where a sandy area of beach led down to the water. By now I was desperate for a swim and dived into the cool green water, I let some American guys go first, just to be sure it was safe!

Don Det, Laos

The evening is when this area really becomes its most captivating. On the terrace of our bungalow the heavy clouds were reflected in the still waters as the sun gradually disappeared behind them. A few fishermen started up their narrow boats and began disappearing between the floating clumps of bushes and the cicadas started up a deafening chorus in the trees.

the slow seduction of the backpacking cliche

Vang Vieng viewsI can’t help but love Vang Vieng depsite the fact that it is one big backpacking cliche from the ‘happy’ pizzas, internet cafes, bars showing friends episodes and bonfire parties on the island. It is, however, stunning beautiful, a shallow swift flowing river runs through the town in front of a backdrop of huge limestone hills, bamboo bungalows and palm trees, at sunset the setting rays twinkle over the ripples as the river flows beneath a series of rickety wooden bridges and local kids play around in the shallows. we’ve also run into a bizarre number of people here, because everyone tends to travel the same way through Laos you run into people from your slow boat trip, or from Luang Prabang, and it’s actually quite nice to bump into everyone along the way!

Tubing in Vang ViengAlso in Vang Vieng there is a lot of going out, drinking bucket cocktails with Lao whisky and partying around fires in the bars on the island in the lake. Me on the tubing day, Vang ViengThen yesterday James, Bronnie, our new Aussie sidekick, and I all went tubing which is the thing to do in Vang Vieng. We got dropped off north of town with our rubber tubes and set off drifting down the river. We hadn’t got 50 metres when we got pulled in to the first riverside bar. Then a group of guys with Spider Bar written on their chest virtually kidnapped us into the next one…well what could we do? In total the two hour trip took us seven hours to do and the sun had set by the time we washed up on the banks of town. There may have been a significant amount of drinking stops going on but it was so much fun! Let’s just say my dry weeks of alcohol freedom in North India are long since passed! Today however, after a relatively chilled evening in the sunset bar with some friends last night which ended about 4am, I am feeling slightly worse for the wear. Am I getting to old for all of this?

stone jars and secret wars

James and I left Luang Prabang on a local bus to reach the eastern town of Phonsavan about 10 hours away. The day was overcast and surprisingly cold and torrential downpours and thick fog made the journey over winding hills through stunning, but cloud shrouded scenery, a little hairy. We nearly broke down leaving the town and a mechanic had to disappear under the bus to investigate some clouds of black smoke before we could leave. We passed two accidents on the hill roads and almost got stuck as we approached a jack knifed lorry across the road between the cliff face and the drop down the other side. We all got off the bus which managed to just squeeze round the side without toppling over and we were on our way once again.

Plain of JarsPhonsavan is a small, frontier style town nestled among low lying fields and farmlands in the East of Laos and is the closet place to the Plain of Jars, a series of sites that hold hundreds of giant sandstone jars believed to be anything from 2000 to 3000 years old. There are two current theories about the use of the jars, some believe they were used to store Lao rice wine and others believe they were used for cremating the dead whose urns were buried beneath the jars. This is hard to prove as hundreds of years ago Chinese invaders dug under the jars looking for loot and toppled many of them over. Others were blown up during the secret war but I’ll come back to that in a moment.  James in a JarWe spent a day on a tour with many of the tourists we’d met on the bus down from Luang Prabang visiting three sites of jars surrounded by gentle rolling hills, small villages and rice fields. The jars themselves are not spectacular in themselves but the large numbers of them strewn around beneath the trees on the hill tops and the history surrounding them, not to mention the comedy photo opportunities made for a good day trip. We also got to visit a village where they make the rice wine which we all had to sample. As local paint stripper goes, not bad. And we stopped by a rusted Russian tank next to a local village as well.

UXO in PhonsavanIn the town after we came back from the jars we went to visit a small display shop set up by MAG, the Mines Advisory Group. I was quite horrified to realise that up until now I was completely unaware that the most bombed country per capita in the world is Laos. In 1962 at the start of the Vietnam war, America signed a Geneva treaty to state that Laos was neutral territory and would not be targeted as part of the war. Then between 1964 and 1973 they dropped 2 million tonnes of bombs at a cost of $2.2million per day on southern and eastern Laos in an effort to prevent supplies reaching the Viet Kong and to cripple the burgeoning communism in the country. 2 million tonnes of bombs, the vast majority in the form of cluster bombs which break open in mid air showering down hundreds, thousands and millions of tiny fruit-like explosive devices called Bombies that fall onto the countryside like rain. They weren’t aimed at military targets, these were aimed at killing civilians; women, farmers, children. Thirty percent of the bombs that fell didn’t explode and have killed 20,000 people in the ensuing decades. Every time the country wants to build a new road, schools, hospitals the ground has to be checked and cleared of unexploded ordanance, UXO.  Bus ride to Vang Vieng from PhonsavanWhen farmers need to till their land, stake in Buffalo ropes or look to expand their farms they risk striking and exploding bombies and other UXO.  A third of deaths and casualties are children than come across the bombies and pick them up thinking they are toys or fruit. A group of ten of us watched a 50minute documentary about the war and the work that MAG is doing in Laos and were all very moved by the experience, more so for actually being in the country where it occurred. All the restaurants and guest houses in Phonsavan are filled with bomb casings as ornaments and bombies as ashtrays. It’s very bizarre. What is crazy is that Laos was never even declared war on, it is such a beautiful country and full of more warm and welcoming people than anywhere else that I have travelled. And yet they are still living through this terrible legacy. Even at a rate of clearing 100,000 UXO a year, the grandchildren of today’s generation will still be farming land where they run the risk of coming across unexploded bombs.  I consider myself a reasonably well read and well educated individual and in constantly horrifies and humbles me just how little I know about the world.

the march of the monks

MonksI left a rather grumpy James in bed to get up at 6am and go and see the Luang Prabang monks do their daily walk down the main street collecting alms (rice and food) from the local towns people. Of course this religious ritual has become somewhat of a tourist parade but it is hugely captivating to watch the huge long line of brightly orange garbed monks, mainly the younger ones, in a long chain winding their way down the road.

Streets of Luang PrabangFor the rest of the day James and I decided to get involved with some adventure sports in the countryside around Luang Prabang. So we spent two hours in the morning mountain biking up and down some very rough roads out of the town past small villages, buffalo and coconut tree fields and ended up on the banks of the River Nam Kaun where our guide transferred us into a cute little two seater kayak and off we went down the river past some stunning scenery. In fact it was the scenery that proved to be my undoing. The river in the dry season is very flat and calm so the kayaking is fairly leisurely with no real rapids to speak of. Lured into a false sense of security and desperately wanting to photograph the scenery I pulled out my camera from the dry bag and took lots of photos. River scenes, Luang Prabang After a picnic lunch on the banks I decided to keep the camera out, hooked onto my life jacket. Then we hit our first rapids. These were the smallest, rippling rapids known to man but somehow they managed to hit our kayak side on and we capsized and along with myself and James my beloved camera tumbled into the water. Game Over. To my amazement two days later the camera is completely fine apart from the fact that the flash doesn’t work, long live the canon!

Night Market, Luang PrabangLuang Prabang has been the loveliest place to spend a few days. The old town is completely set up for tourists but it feels so laid back and is so picturesque it’s hard not to love. Our guest house was right opposite the Mekong and it was great just spending a day wandering around the temples, the roads, seeing the beautiful small colonial houses and the river peeking through the palm trees surrounding the peninsula. The town also has a small, colourful and embarrassingly cheap night market, even James didn’t bother bargaining. We spent our evening playing cribbage in the Lao Lao beer garden eating Buffalo steaks and drinking Beerlao (probably the best beer in SE Asia) and drinking two for one Lao whisky cocktails, this is definitely the life!

messing about on the Mekong

Flight of the Gibbon
Descending down between platforms, ThailandJames and I saw a slightly recovered, but still weak Mum off at Chiang Mai airport for her flight home and then went about planning our escape to Laos, but before leaving Thailand we found out about a zip-line tour through the forest canopy which both of us had previously done in Costa Rica but had never heard about being able to do in Thailand. The reason for this transpired to be the fact the activity only opened in January this year.

“We have had two months and no accidents or deaths!” Our grinning guides proudly announced.

Huge trees in the forest, ThailandWe started off visiting a nearby waterfall in the middle of some lush green forest with views out across the valley. It would have been a very peaceful morning had not the guy on our trip (a Hawaiian in Thailand with his wife for dental treatment!) said he’d seen James going further up to the top. So I waited for James to reappear and after a while as the others started walking back down became a little concerned so I went to check he was okay. I walked a good 20 minutes steeply up the steps, scrambling up over some slippery earth and so far up that I got turned back by a bloke with a large knife! And still no James. By now I’m convinced he’s fallen down unconscious somewhere. Of course I ran into him looking for me as I was going down, he’d been back at the start all along. Oh well, I was just glad to find him in one piece!

James incoming!After lunch we headed out to our starting platform, one of fifteen, for the zip-lining. For three hours the eight of us in the group got harnessed up to long lines from platforms suspended up in huge thick trees in the forest and went zooming along them or dropped down between platforms. Our guides were hugely entertaining, even when my bamboo stick ‘break’ that was tucked into my side strap nutted one of them in the crotch as I came into land! James spent most of the afternoon taking very amusing videos of himself zooming down the lines. It was huge amounts of fun especially flying over parts of the valley and seeing the canopy below you as you whiz along and finally stop, or in my case forget to use the break and half crash, into the guide waiting for you at the next platform. 

Chiang Mai Walking Market, ThailandWe got back to Chiang Mai with enough time to take a stroll through the walking night market, I gazed hungry eyed at all the stalls and crafts on sale but managed to restrain myself by just buying some fisherman pants and a banana waffle. Then we came back for a final farewell to the wonderful luxury of the Tri Yaan Na Ros and got picked up by minibus to take us to Chiang Kong and the Laos border.

Cows on the Mekong, LaosCrossing into Laos was one of those bizarre exercises in Asian chaotic organisation which seems, somehow, to work surprisingly well. We’d booked a kind of arranged trip to get us to Luang Prabang. Five hours to get to the Boom house Guest House on the border where instead of arriving for breakfast at 6am we arrived at 3am but got given a really cheap and fairly nice room so I managed to get a welcome four hours sleep. After breakfast we were taken down to the Thai immigration, got stamped out of the country, then across the river in a tiny boat to the somewhat chaotic immigration for Laos on the far shores. Despite the numbers of tourists milling around and filling in forms, changing currencies and crowding around the booths it was only about 35 minutes to get a visa and the entry passport stamped before a few of us were relaxing in a cafe up the road before the slow boat was due to leave.

Views down the Mekong, LaosThere are two ways to get from this border at Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, a speed boat or a slow boat and I am pretty glad we opted for the slow one. The speed boats zoom down the river dodging huge rocky outcrops and the occupants, beside getting sprayed, have to wear crash helmets, apparently when they do crash it tends to be the kind of head on collision with a rock or another speed boat where the survivors number 0, crash helmets or not! Our slow boat was a long brightly coloured wooden boat with bench seats, a well stocked bar at the back and it was carrying about 80 passengers, so fairly crowded, and pretty much all farang(tourists). The Mekong is a beautiful river, a wide flowing silty river that cut through scenery of forested limestone hills, high white sandy banks with jagged outcrops of rock protruding from the edges of the river banks. We saw the occasional herds of black and pink (!) buffalo grazing on the shores, fishermen drifting by in long thin wooden boats, their nets suspended from the rocks, and small groups of children playing in the water by the banks of tiny bamboo villages on stilts tucked away within the trees. We sat with bottles of very drinkable BeerLao and watched the scenery roll past.

James boarding our boat at Pak Beng, LaosWe spent the night in a little rustic stop over village, full of guest houses,  called Pak Beng and were thankful that our guide had got us to pre book a room back at the border crossing, as a small group of us were taken out of the throng of locals, farang and rucksacks and went up the hill to the Boun Mee Guest House which was basic but nice with a wide wooden terrace over looking the now darkening Mekong. Ben and Ronnie, an English couple we’d been chatting to on the boat came down and Ben’s usual blond afro was considerably larger than it had been during the day. In trying to get the lights to work in their room he’d flicked a breaker and been thrown across the room by an electric shock. Luckily he didn’t seem to worse for the wear and the owners found them a less deadly room for the night. Locals on the Mekong, LaosThe next day we continued for about 7 hours down the river, by now my bottom was getting a little sore, despite the cushions and I was hugely thankful when we finally arrived in Luang Prabang. I also realised that I am getting old. A small group of 21 year old Brits, Aussies and Americans were rowdily doing beer bongs at the back of the boat and having the most inane conversations I have ever heard. There is a limit to how often the word ‘like’ should be used in a sentence, certainly not as every other word! James’s all time favourite quote from one of the American guys to one of the British guys was:

“Didn’t you guys like just have a war with Argentina?”

Enough said! I am too old to be hanging out with 21 year old travelling piss heads anymore. James says I am turning into a travelling snob. Well with 46 countries, 4 months in India and having been away for 11 months I think I have earned the right to take the backpacking high ground. However, I think he maybe right!

Port sunset in Luang Prabang, LaosLuang Prabang is lovely, relaxed, picturesque, friendly and really laid back. The buildings are small and wooden with sloping roofs, potted plants and small balconies and the whole old part of the town is just ridiculously, charmingly cute. We wondered around a little last night after finding a cute guest house opposite the banks of the Mekong. We had a really cheap and really gorgeous dinner (I had Laos aubergine, chicken and bean noodle soup, James had a cheese burger!) along the main street of restaurants before having a few beers in a small bar and heading home to bed. This morning we’ve just been wondering around the streets, long the river side and visiting a beautiful old Buddhist temple called Wat Xieng Thong. There are brightly robed monks walking about everywhere, in fact they are even in the internet cafes checking their emails!