Archive | Laos RSS feed for this section

Laos. Been ‘dere, Don Det.

21 Mar

(sorry – saw that on a T-Shirt)

Have you noticed a pattern emerging – these blogs always seem to start with ‘onto a another bus’. One day, I will write ‘onto yet another Chieftain Tank’ and see if anyone notices.

Friday

Anyway, it’s onto another bus, across the river, onto another bus, drive for two hours and then stop. They’ve dug up the road. The driver makes a valiant (if stupid) effort to keep going down a bit of road that even I can see isn’t wide enough.. I’m not panicking, but I am busy working out what to hold on to if the bus does topple over the edge.…. eventually discretion has the better part of insanity and we walk the last half mile…and here we are.

Final walk to Ban Nakasang (1)Final walk to Ban Nakasang (2)

Si Phan Don. The Four Thousand Islands. I doubt anyone has counted them, but it’s a reasonable number… a score of larger islands like Don Det and Don Khone, thousands of little islands, some of which are no more than a piece of rock poking into the air – and some that haven’t got that far, and in a fit of pique at not being sufficiently above water level to be called islands sit around all day lurking just under the surface, ready to trap the unsuspecting fishernan. I think some of them are just trees, pretending to be islands (and, I have to say, looking pretty convincing)

Across to Don Det (9)Don Det (17)

And then a final boat ride into Don Det, my home for the rest of my stay in Laos. This is a backpacker paradise, full of fa rang who have washed up here in search of a little peace and quiet. And since there is an 11pm curfew and island wide ‘lights out’ they probably won’t be partying too long!

Thondon LodgeThondon Guest House

The island is full of little guesthouses, mostly with little cabins built over the river. Mine isn’t – mine seems to be built over two cockerels. This should make for an early rise in the morning. But I wander the island, finding little communities hidden away behind the resort, a vegetarian restaurant in the middle of nowhere that even I  can’t be bothered to walk to, a massage parlour in a tin hut, and herds of water buffalo and cattle roaming the dried up rice fields. I doubt I could stay a week here, but three nights is going to be just fine….and Mama’s spring rolls are amazing…as I eat, I watch a couple tubing up the Mekong (normally, you tube down river, but here the Mekong is so slggish that it’s possible to swim against the flow. Looks like bloody hard work though, and unlike Vang Vieng, there’s no one to throw you a rope and offer you a cold one.

Don Det from Thondon Lodge (3)Don Det (18)Don Det (26)Don Det (32)Don Det (44)Don Det (6)

The sunset is muted tonight – it’s been a dull day, and rain has made one or two attempts, largely unconvincing. But when curfew falls… it all goes silent. Even the cockerel and the cicadas go quiet, and an unearthly peace settles across the island (unless you happen to be at the Monkey Bar, where everyone is celebrating St Patrick’s Day. Everything is still, everything is silent. Until, that is, the English girls next door turn up at 2am (apparently the curfew has been lifted for St Patrick’s Day) and break their key in the padlock. In a demonstration that the age of chivalry is not dead, two of the other guys apparently spent the night in hammocks so the girls could have their room.

So, it’s just me up early then – when the cockerel planted underneath my room wakes up. At 4am. I doze until 6 though. I’m convinced that there’s an ocean running under the hut – I can hear water crashing on the beach. Eventually the sound is traced to a washing machine outside my door.

Saturday

Time to hire a bike and tour Don Khon – the island is attached by an old railway bridge, so I cycle down Don Det to the bridge and across, paying my 20.000 kip toll (Lonely Planet says 9,000) and cycle off to the waterfall. Which, it turns out, is an understatement. It’s actually hundreds of waterfalls, created by the Mekong carving its way through the hard, hard rock and creating dozens of routes through, each one forming its own series of falls and pools, some foaming and others pouring in a smooth cascade over the edge. Walking down the path reveals a different view and a different set of falls at every view point.

Tat Somphamit (53)Tat Somphamit (37)Tat Somphamit (28)Tat Somphamit (27)Tat Somphamit (21)Tat Somphamit (14)Tat Somphamit (11)

I’m also convinced that there’s a pterodactyl on top of the rocks – what do you think?

Tat Somphamit (17)

And at the bottom there’s a sea serpent, I’m sure – isn’t there?

Tat Somphamit (52)

Further down, the river gathers itself together again, ceases its midlife frolicking, and resumes its slow, purposeful journey south. I, on the other hand, stop for fresh spring rolls and banana & coconut shake and nearly pass out with sensory overload. These spring rolls, full of crunchy fresh vegetables wrapped in a lettuce leaf and held together with such a thin pancake that it looks like cellophane. And the peanut and chilli sauce.. and the shake… In fact, I do fall off my chair while offering one to the French Canadian couple next to me. Incredible (the food, not the falling off the chair).

And so off to the southernmost point of the island, along the old railway line, past scrub burning and palm trees, trying to avoid being run over by a motorcycle driven by a 10 year old (or so it seems to me – maybe I’m exaggerating and he’s only 8 or 9. From here you can see Cambodia – and the rare Irrawaddy fresh water dolphins. I’m thinking of taking a boat to see if I can spot any, but decide I will do it tomorrow – until I am approached by the lovely Fumiko (hope I spelled that right – I did check twice) from Osaka, who is looking to split the cost of a boat. Sounds good, so we find a boatman and set off in pursuit of dolphins.

Dolphin Watching (8)Dolphin Watching (11)

They’re out there, alright – sometimes just a splash as they surface and slide back below the water again. Other times we are treated to them leaping part out of the water, and in one glorious moment three of them leap in synchronised grace

Dolphin Watching (7).Dolphin Watching (13)

The trip is worth the 60,000 kip just for the views, and the dolphins make it special – although I am convinced that most of them are behind us, making faces and snickering.

Fumiko and I cycle back – or at least we do until a huge explosion from my rear tyre heralds a catastrophic puncture. Graciously, she walks with me, and we chat about her family (all safe after the earthquake), her travels, and where she learnt her excellent English (Europe, apparently).

Fortunately, at the top of Don Khon we find a little old man engaged in cycle repairs, who agrees to the extortionate sum of 10,000 kip to fix the puncture. Or around 80p. We play with the cutest kitten I have ever seen while we wait – not only has the inner tube burst, but the tyre has shredded too, and the valve is leaking. I pay him 20,000 kip… I simply can’t face paying less! It feels like that a lot over here – I find fa rang arguing over the equivalent of 50 cents, and am tempted to follow the approach of one friend, who tended to bargain upwards….”How much? 50,000? That’s outrageous. 80,000 and I won’t pay a penny less” – his perspective was that he was (by comparison) wealthy and so he wanted the chance to give a little bit extra back to the communities he was visiting.

Cycle repair (1)Fumiko & kitten (3)Fumiko & kitten (2)

Anyway, all is fixed, and we ride off into the sunset. Then turn around because we’ve gone the wrong way and can’t climb up the side of the bridge…

It’s been a fabulous laid back day…

Saturday

And so to my final day in Laos – time to plan where I am going in Cambodia – and how I am getting there..but before the afternoon is out another surprise – Kerry, who I last saw getting on a bus going North, is now in Don Det – having come back South. And she’s brought Scrabble.

And for a final adventure, and in lieue of a shower, I swam half way across the river to one of the islands (only 3,997 to go, now. Tomorrow – Cambodia.

Don Det (17) Swimming to this island!

Wat Phu–The Fast and the Furious

20 Mar

Well, perhaps not furious. It’s difficult to get cross in Lao – 7 million people in an area about the size of the UK – and 6 million of them live in rural villages in homes on stilts. Which makes a lot of sense – all your ‘stuff’ out of the way underneath, and living accommodation on top. Place for some chickens, a pig or two, one or two dogs, cats, and other assorted wildlife. And they smile all the time. And yell ‘Sabaidee’ at you for no reason. Lovely, gorgeous, unspoilt people.

Anyway, off to Champrasak. I am surprised to find Jean Luc and Kathy waiting at the crossroads, but we catch a very full bus together – turns out we are all off to Champrasak.

The bus turns into Pakse station, and we fend off the offers of tuk tuks to Pakse – instead, it’s smaller transport for us for the hour trip to Champrasak. Unfortunately, the song thaew ain’t going to leave early, so we have an hour watching the market unfold around us – the sales of baguettes (a huge legacy from the French) and some careful tying of a basket of live fish onto the back of the song thaew. And check the water bottles on the top of this one…

DSCF2263

An uneventful trip, apart from the fact that the road is closed, which means we need to divert down a dusty track. My Buff comes in handy, but converts me into a gangster lookalike. Waiting for a photo of that one….

As usual, the driver drops us at a guest house he has some sort of deal with – but at 30000 kip it’s a bargain even without airconditioning and with a cold shower (more like lukewarm, jokes the owner – he’s right)

I’ve planned to spend two nights here, but Jean Luc, Kathy and Keri (Kerry?) from Canada, who we’ve met in the restaurant, suggest we could go to the temple today – which sounds like a good plan to me. Into a tuk tuk for another theme park ride through the Lao countryside – over rickety bridges and down bumpy lanes until we get to Wat Phu (there’s a joke there, I just haven’t worked it out yet).

Wat Phu is probably the most significant historical sight in Laos – originally a Hindu temple built by the Khmer as part of the capital in the 5th century, and then transferred to Buddhism later. It’s a beautiful location, nestled in the mountains (Phu Kao – still searching for that joke). There are beautiful frangipani trees just bursting into blossom. There’s a huge but gorgeous climb to the temple, and views over the plains below.

DSCF2274DSCF2289

DSCF2298

The hill is regarded as phallic out here.. and hence the phallic symbology all the way up the path too. We couldn’t stop Kathy indulging in a little fantasy.

 

DSCF2267DSCF2271

It’s probably the prettiest setting I have found out here – there’s a lot of work going on from international groups to restore the temple to something of its former glory – but just to sit in this kind of scenery is a real treat!

DSCF2268DSCF2284DSCF2309DSCF2292

We’ve got Hindu depictions aplenty (although the shrine is treated as Buddhist – so we find Shiva dressed in the Buddha’s robes.

DSCF2296

Scattered around the ruins are carvings of an elephant and a crocodile – and the Buddha’s foot print.

DSCF2302DSCF2306

And so back to Champrasak – a really brief visit, and the view from the restaurant across the Mekong is gorgeous – I can see the fishermen checking their nets – and a gorgeous sunrise (I was scared awake at 4am by those infernal roosters)

DSCF2316DSCF2317

but there’s not much to keep me here now – and so it’s time for a trip to the islands… but not before I temporarily mislay my wallet (NOW you find the ‘furious’ bit) although I later discover it hidden away somewhere safe. Too safe, perhaps. Doh!

A boy named Sue

17 Mar

what’s that got to do with anything… and what does THIS say in Lao?

Tim Guesthouse (1)

All will be revealed…later

I saw a poster while I was staying at the guest house in Pakse – a day trip into the Bolaven plateau. Very tempting – but I realised that I would end up charging from one place to another – and I didn’t really need to see a tea plantation – or a coffee plantation either. The waterfall sounded nice though!

But, I thought to myself, could I just go and do what I wanted to myself. A little bit of research revealed that if I got a local bus to Ban Khoua Set and then a local transport to Tat Lo, then I could go and see the waterfalls, live in a Lao village and have some fun too. And I might even be able to stay in Tim Guesthouse. Sorry, but that’s just too good to resist!

I knew I needed some more cash, so down to the ATM to get another million out… I thought about getting more out so I could be a multimillionaire…..

And in the morning I hopped into a tuk tuk (this time, one that’s essentially a motorcycle side car, only without all the safety features), negotiated the driver down from 30,000 kip to 25,000 and set off. Half way there, my hat blew off… but fortunately all the traffic missed it (try doing THAT in Bangkok – would bring a whole new meaning to the words ‘flat cap’.

I arrived at the bus station, gave the driver 30,000 kip anyway (with a grin – it’s all a game) yelled ‘Tat Lo’ to anyone who might be listening and was told that the bus was just leaving. With my new lighter pack (see the next blog for more details on THAT one) and having lost a few pounds myself, I sprinted to the bus – backpack on the roof, me inside.. best not to get those confused. There are bags of rice in the aisle, and a little girl moved onto her father’s lap for me to sit down. I spent the next little while as he explored my copy of the Lonely Planet – reading slowly with a little bit of help, and marvelling at the pictures of Laos (and Cambodia, come to think of it).

The bus dumped us at Ban Khoua Set with a confused French and Canadian couple saying ‘well, this is where you wanted to come’ – I pretty quickly diagnosed the fact that really they didn’t want to be in Ban Khoua Set and thought they were already in Tat Lo. (Ban – town, Tat – waterfall). Having worked out that we all wanted to go to the same place, I commandeered a local truck, negotiated a price to Tat Lo and hopped on.

Fortunately, they had a place at Tim’s. The owner, Soulideth. named it after his wife…it turns out in Laos, ‘Tim’ is a girl’s name. So I have a Lao girl’s name… which explains the title of the post, maybe.

Tim Guesthouse (2)Tim Guesthouse (4)Tat Lo truck 2

It’s in the middle of rural Laos, although the waterfalls have made it a bit of a haven for the fa rang – and even the dam that destroyed the third waterfall (damn!) hasn’t demolished its appeal.

We have a British couple  who are motorcycling round the world, quite a few Europeans.. and some lovely Lao here. I’m in a wonderful traditional bamboo hut on stilts.. I am intrigued by the continual noise of a little boy making motor car noises at all hours of the day – until I realise it’s actually a pig next door.

DSCF2249There are a couple of other noises I haven’t identified, but nothing that causes me to worry unduly. There’s good food, and smooth jazz playing incongruously in the restaurant Although my sleep is somewhat disturbed by an insomniac cockerel and the labourers who start concreting the wall next to my hut at 6am

My place at Tim's (1)My place at Tim's (3)Round the world bike www.2roundtheworld.com

 

The waterfalls are lovely, though – first of all a walk up to Tat Huang, just above the village. The kids are out (what, no school?) and the locals are looking for fish – or eels, or something – in the river. River at Tat Lo (7)River at Tat Lo (1)

There’s a fisherman at the foot of the falls, looking for fish in the foaming waters below, and I wonder what the falls would be like in the rainy season.

Tat Huang (11)Tat Huang (1)

Rather than take the road, I decide to walk up stream, discovering a couple of elephants on the way. It’s not that easy to walk on the bank, and eventually I have to drop into the river to make progress, but eventually I arrive at the second falls, tat Lo itself. Again, it’s beautiful – I take a dip and find that the current is quite strong, turning it into another treadmill. Some other tourists and a couple of locals take a jump off the top of the falls – I’m tempted, but a little wary of spinal injury.

Up River (21) - CopyTat Lo Falls (3)Tat Lo Falls (20)Tat Lo Falls (24)

But I do discover a version of Munch’s ‘The Scream’ in the rock – what do you think?

Tat Lo Falls (12)

It’s so peaceful here, there’s lots of time to think and plan- time to write some cool blog posts, and time, also to really encapsulate what I am about – some really lovely insights, and some more pieces falling into place. Merlin and Arthur are in there somewhere, and some Neuro-Linguistic Programming, some Huna, and some of my story. Man, I am going to be busy when I get back!! But something really crystallised today about what I do.. I need to work on how I communicate it – it needs the right set of words, but it’s really what people have been telling me I do for some time now – just the crucial piece of the jigsaw that allows me to step back and say ‘I know what it is now!’. And that was worth coming here for!

I decide to take a walk in the country the next day – just wandering through villages and farms, looking up at where the old waterfall would have been (and it would have been gorgeous).

Tat Lo village (3)Tat Huang evening (3)

I wandered round to Tat Huang in the evening – just me and the waterfall – and watched a thousand mayflies whirling and soaring above me, while in the water a hundred water boatmen fight the surge of the current.

It’s been a great stay – but I have itchy feet again, and I’m starting to remember what it’s like to keep moving, keep exploring, keep looking for new things…so, back on the bus to Champasak, via Pakse (again)….and one or two closing shots of Tat Lo village – note the incongruous satellite dishes..

 

DSCF2255DSCF2257

To the south

14 Mar

So, a few hours to spend in the bus station, peoplewatching, reading and, incongruously, watching the FA Cup semifinals. As evening falls, the sun hangs like a huge orange fireball in the sky, watching over a world for whom everything will be different in the morning… slowly descending as the sky fades into muted pinks. I looked at the bus options for getting to Pakse, and decided against the 17hour boneshaker local bus (strictly for masochists, says the Lonely Planet, and who am I to argue) and went for the top of the range VIP sleeper bus. With beds. It’s actually a really nice arrangement – although if you’re travelling on your own, the possibility of being stuck (like I was) in a narrow double bed with a random Lao is quite high. Nice and snuggly for couples though.To Pakse (1)

I spent the first half of the night gazing out at the darkness, the occasional punctuation of homesteads and farms mixed with restaurants but set against the backdrop of an inky black sky, the stars reassuring me that all was well in my world.

Eventually, a spare bunk opened up, and I managed to snatch a few Zs before arriving in Pakse – a sleepy little town but none the worse for that.

Although the bus says ‘None stop’ (sic) it stops, rousing me at 5am – enough time to watch the water buffalo amble lazily around the rice fields. Sometimes the bus stops (mostly for stray cattle) causing the occupants to slide down the bed and pile in a jumbled heap at the bottom. I finish my second bag of keenhu crackers from Luang Prabang – kinda honey and chilli biscuit… I hope I can’t find them again, or I am going to get FAT.

And into Pakse. For the first time on this trip I have no hotel booked – but the tuk tuk takes me straight to a lovely little place recommended in Lonely Planet (what, you don’t think I’m doing this without some advice from somewhere, do you). I love the sign on the wall which reminds me that I should ‘ask the Boss of the Guest House to watch over my values’, (I thought that was my job) and invites me to ask Mr Vong or Mrs Phet for a free service (any time I need my values serviced, I know where to come). I’m also not sure what to make of ‘In case a loos we don’t accept no responsibility’  but this may just be a warning to take care in the bathroom. What I do know is that, judging by the giggles when I attempt any Thai or Lao, I may not be making much sense myself. And I’m glad, since I moved into Room 13 on the 13th, that I’m not superstitious.

Sawaydee 2 (2)

Sawaydee 2 (4)

And while we are on signs, I was somewhat alarmed by this outside the Tourist Office, showing the different types of transport available to get to Si Phon Don. Not sure the last one is totally practical..

Odd Sign

 

I’m roused from my revery by the sound of rain, which was a surprise. On closer inspection, I find their hosing down the corrugated iron roof of my room, which is quite welcome if a little disconcerting

 

Sawaydee 2 (6)

Not much to do really, but it is where the Se Don flows into the Mekong, which by now is wide and slow, hitching itself up to create the Mekong delta. So a bit of a wander round town, a chance to say ‘sabaydee’ to lots of interesting locals.. visit another wat, see the rivers, and find a cafe that Jonny would approve of.

Panda CafeSe Don (5)DSCF2116DSCF2119

and then a wander out for a Lao massage at the recommended Clinic Kee Ou Done.. a bit of a walk out of town, but reallly nice. On the way, the sun was setting so I got some shots over the bridge.

Sunset in Pakse (5)Sunset over Mekong (1) 

And then I submitted myself to what felt like the attentions of a chiropractor with a grudge. It’s quite a comedy trying to communicate with each other, which is mostly of the ‘point and wave’ approach. From what I have experienced, and I am no expert, I prefer the Lao approach to the Thai approach… the Lao seem more… insistent.  She may only be little but she’s tough! Mind you, I now smell of Tiger Balm (for those who’ve not come across Tiger Balm, think Vicks Vapor Rub with more ginger in it). You know, I thought I was coming out on a sort of spiritual pilgrimage, not on a comparison of massage approaches across Asia. Still, if the job needs doing, I’m your man.

Just wondering…

While I was there, I did start thinking that the reason I’ve not really got into massage in the past is that I actually have quite a deep seated reluctance to let people give to me. I’m so focussed on how I can give to others, how I can help them out, that the whole question of letting others give to me is swept away. There;s a sense of too much pride ‘- ‘I can make it on my own’ – and I think, too, that we can get afraid of losing control, of perhaps being in someone’s debt – when in fact all they want to do is to give and let go of the gift (which is the right way to give – expecting nothing in return, and knowing that the Universe will bring it back to us).

I can often not ask for what i need – like with the tuk tuk yesterday – I should have been very specific about where I wanted to go, not assume that it would work out OK. Or like the hotel in Vientiane – I should have made sure I got A/C, free WiFi and so on. If I had asked, I would have got – but I didn’t ask. Sometimes, I think, we actually block the flow of goodness into our lives simply because we don’t allow it to happen – we push it away and resist it.

So where do you need to open yourself up to being cared for by others? Where do you need to be clearer about what you want, knowing that others are ready to give to you? Where do you resist the love others have for you – and when would now be a good time to start letting even more love into your life?

Mystic River

13 Mar

In this case, the mighty Nam Ngum north of Vientiane, where I have taken refuge in the relaxed and lovely Rivertime Lodge, run by the effervescent Barnaby (originally from Milton Keynes). The rest of the staff are either Hmong or Lao.

RiverTime Lodge(97)RiverTime Lodge(74)

The lodge web address is www.rivertimelaos.com and it’s well worth a visit… they built the place without chopping down a single tree, and they’ve got really rustic little huts, with dorm and double accommodation – I’m in a dorm with Mack & Chelsea – it’s cool to have some friends around. In one sense it looks as if it’s been thrown together, in another it looks like it completely belongs in the jungle. I’ve got to say, when I arrived I wondered what I had done, with the ramshackle outbuildings and the home carved signs and furniture – but after a few minutes, I loved its rustic charm and ethic authenticity. The river runs past the front of the lodge, there’s a floating restaurant with a pool cut in the deck, and hammocks. Just upstream is the local ferry – 2000 kip a trip. They have a car ferry which actually looks quite stable and safe, provided I don’t think about the fact that it’s built on a few home brewed metal pontoons. Mind you, when anyone walks across the restaurant it bounces – a close inspection reveals a large number of oil drums supporting us, and I do wonder if the restaurant is securely moored to the bank.

As soon as we arrive, we’re part of the party – there’s a Baci blessing ceremony going on for a couple who just got married – Sienna Miller and Jude Law have had this ceremony performed for their wedding – so I have now been blessed three times, and I have three string bracelets round my wrist to bring me luck and good fortune. Although Laos is a communist country, and Buddhism is the primary belief system, the belief in spirits runs deep (one Rivertime employee won’t cross the river because of the dragon that lies beneath the surface). The Baci is a huge part of Laos identity – it takes a couple of days to prepare and bless the centrepiece (although this was a small one). And as the ceremony ends, the sun sets above the river… another sign of blessing for me. I suppose I should expect it, but over the next few days I really do feel as if I am under some divine blessing, as so much thought becomes clear, so much that was hidden becomes obvious..

Baci Ceremony (6)Baci Ceremony (2)

First night there’s a rustle in the roofspace – I decide to investigate, but can’t see anything. We’re assured the wildlife isn’t hazardous to our health – but we do find a cool gecko on the wall (he seems to have stuck his arms behind his head for some reason), and there are some humungous (and beautiful) butterflies too, that I spend ages chasing round the forest waiting for them to alight on something for a photo.

RiverTime Lodge(120)RiverTime Lodge(69)RiverTime Lodge(131)

So, apart from drinking and eating, it’s been time to . . .laze in hammocks, listen to the river flow past, wander along the narrow paths round the resort,kick back, read a book, watch the activity on the river and the ferry going back and forth… there’s no pressure on me here to go and do anything – to see the sights, to visit a temple, to tour some ruins, do an activity.. I don’t have to work out where to eat dinner… it’s just a time to take it easy, to think, and dream (and, actually, do some work that I am very excited about – watch this space!!).

RiverTime Lodge(82)RiverTime Lodge(78)

And Laos does its best to add to the collection of great sunset photos too…

RiverTime Lodge(107)RiverTime Lodge(113)

It was international women’s day on Tuesday, which is (in a blinding flash of insight) a national holiday in Laos. So the pool is full of kids, and the bar is full of women – and one very drunk Lao, who invites the three of us to join. So, after a few bottles of Beerlao, and friendly consumption of the local rice spirit (comes in a recycled water bottle and is actually quite potent) we are invited to karaoke in the village the other side of the river. So, a dozen Lao, two Americans and one Brit pile onto the ferry and escape to the village to spend the evening dancing and drinking in someone’s house. So much alcohol is consumed that we have to send Mack off to the shops on the bike – he ends up at another party so the next time he takes me along as a diversion – I do the dancing with the women while Mack buys the beers.

RiverTime Lodge(87)RiverTime Lodge(89)

We never do really find out if the intention is to marry me off to one of the villagers, but it feels like a close thing – there’s lots of laughing at my dance moves, and lots of laughing generally. But the food is good, and the energy is very engaging! When we sit down with the head of the household, I do make sure that I’m careful about when I nod and what I drink to – would be a bit of a crimp on my plans if I accidentally got engaged in Laos. Our original inviter decides that we really need to get back across the river, so we hop on the ferry and back to the lodge.

RiverTime Lodge(84)

I do decide to jump in the pool, with hat attached – it’s a bit like an aquatic running machine – you’ve got to keep going to stay still. I do get a bit spooked by something that’s trying to wrap itself round my leg. Until I realise it’s the rope from the innertube, at which point I can relax. The inner tubes are vital, here, simply because the river flow is so fast (and this is dry season)

Rivertime JumpRiverTime Lodge(101)

This sign is aimed at the locals, who are a bit confused by our toilets in the same way as we are confused by theirs

RiverTime Lodge(125)

Mack and Chelsea do a cookery course in Lao food, so breakfast is really good (and ‘Lao Spicy’) this morning… although it’s a bit gentler than the green papaya salad we had last night, which was hot to the point of dangerous. Think they were trying to call our bluff.

RiverTime Lodge(122)RiverTime Lodge(123)

And then M&C are off to the airport – destination Hanoi. I doubt I will catch up with them again on this trip (although anything is possible)

RiverTime Lodge(124)

I had an extra couple of days at the Lodge – I soent that time chilling, relaxing, and working on some of the great programmes that I planning for when I get back. I took the time to work on changing spme of the beliefs and behaviours that have so far limited my succcess… but otherwise a pretty relaxing and uneventful couple of days (apart from nearly electrocuting myself when the shower malfunctioned – I decided a dip in the river would be a wiser and safer move!)

And then I’m off in a song thaew (open taxi 0 like a tuk tuk only a bit bigger) along potholed country roads at a speed that probably qualifies the driver as a health hazard to himself, myself and to the wide variety of other road users (including the oxen), and reminding me of the Runaway Mine Train at a Disney theme park. And after all that, he delivered me to the wrong bus station – and I had to spend another 50000 kip going BACK the way I had come.Oh well….

 

Next stop… Pakse!

Bakeries, Buddha and Banking–and Millionaire Status

9 Mar

Saturday

And so into Laos – another backpacker bus overnight from Bangkok that delivers a confused tribe of westerners to a little hotel on the Mekong to have our passports checked and to fill out immigration cards. They don’t TELL us that’s why we’re there, which results in a lot of us wandering round bewildered for a while.

And so to the border at Nong Khai… it’s odd crossing a land border – mostly we get used to emigrating from one country, getting on a plane, and a few hours later we hit immigration in the next country. When you go by land, there’s only a few minutes between the two… in this case, a trip across the Friendship Bridge that links Thailand and Laos.

I get special attention as I leave Thailand, largely because I have overstayed my visa by a day, and have to pay 500 baht fine.

And so into Vientiane… there’s a bit of a laid back continental feel to the place, and the Lao are a more relaxed people too. Lots of European style bakeries, demonstrating the French influence – plenty of croissants and cake, baguettes and bagels. And good coffee.

Not much to do here – there are some interesting temples, or there’s the chance for a walk along the Mekong, which, in dry season, is pretty unimpressive here.

View from Youth Hotel (1) The view from my bedroom

Riverfront Wat (2)Mekong River at Vientiane (1)

Sunday

I took a walk out of town, first of all visiting the Vientiane equivalent of the Arc de Triomphe, called the vertical runway by the Americans because it’s built with cement donated for a replacement runway.

Patuxai (2)

And then on to Pha That Luang, which is the most important Laos national monument. Very beautiful in its semi-rural setting.. but one heck of a walk.

Pha That Luang (17)Pha That Luang (15)Pha That Luang (12)Pha That Luang (4)

Now, dear reader, you will recall that I lost my bank card last month on the way to Bangkok. Which means I have to move money from that account to another one for which I do have a bank card.This is the first test of moving money around…and I thought it would be so easy….!

So, first things first. I need to wait until the money is actually in my account before I try and move it somewhere else. Having waited until sufficiently late in the day – but up against a ticking clock as I am being picked up at 4pm and taken to the middle of nowhere, I attempt to go on line to check. But the free internet is offline. No problem, just pay for some internet… or I would, if I hadn’t cleared myself out of cash at dinner last night (it’s the Beerlao, you know). No problem, just buy some on line. Apart from the fact that the accounts are empty. Finally I discover an account that has enough in – but now PayPal won’t work as the connection is too slow. Finally, with a combination of loving patience and hitting the refresh key I manage to buy an hour on the internet. From here, it’s dead easy. Move the money, wait a bit, then off to an ATM, where I am offered the opportunity to become a millionaire. Blinking on the screen is the option to withdraw one million Kip. Now, since the exchange rate is a little over 12000 Kip to the pound, that’s a little over £80… but it feels good to be a millionaire, albeit in a different currency, for a few minutes. It’s a feeling I could get used to!

image

 

And then, we’re off to the river, and the jungle.. more fun to be had, more blogging to be done. See you in the next chapter…

Cry me a river . . . Into Laos

21 Feb

And so it’s back on the bus. But not before I have gone into mad panic last minute sorting things out mode. Like, I need $70 to get my visa for Laos. To explain (although you will wish I hadn’t) I need to go to Laos in order to get back to Thailand in order to extend my Thailand visa so I can spend a few days in Bangkok to apply for a visa for India. With me so far? Good.

So the sensible thing to do is to turn up at a bank that does currency exchange (and I know this because it has a big sign on the door that says ‘Exchange’). Sounds sensible, but in practice, after taking a numbered ticket for a place in a line that doesn’t actually exist, and after a confusing exchange between me and the counter clerk, I find that they don’t have US dollars.

I have more success finding somewhere to take photographs for the visa, although it still means I need to run backwards and forwards before our bus arrives…

So, onto the bus. I have the bench seat next to the driver, which, to a backside numbed by cycling, is the worst form of torture. And we head out into the countryside. This time, the scenery is far more interesting – little villages, hills, forest… we really are starting to get into nature. We pass the Khao Rai National Park, which is lovely, although it does remind me a little of Scotland.

And then we rock up near Chang Rai for a stop at Wat Rong Khum temple. In contrast to most Thai temples, this is recent, begun in 1997 and still under construction. The place glitters in the distance, made of white cement and tiny mirror tiles. There’s a real ‘Heaven and Hell’ theme going on – the alien from the Predator movies is half buried in the grass, while hands reach out from a Dantean hell in front of the temple.

Wat Rong Khun (9)Wat Rong Khun (5)Wat Rong Khun (24)Wat Rong Khun (14)Wat Rong Khun (12)

Inside the Hell theme is revisited, with a crazy mural that, unlike most temples that recall the history of the Buddha, is filled with modern images – I spot neo from ‘The Matrix’, Iron Man, Superman, Spiderman and Batman, the Twin Towers on fire, a whole slew of Star Wars characters and more. It feels completely out of place and yet absolutely in keeping with the structure.

smbuddhashipsupermanneotemplemural2-568x426

(photography is forbidden inside, so I borrowed these from others)

And finally we roll into Chian Khong, on the banks of the Mekong river – wide and slow moving outside the hotel, with lorries being ferried up and down, and long tail boats ferrying folk across to the other side – which, of course, is Laos.

Mekong Sunrise (18)Mekong Sunrise (14)Mekong Sunrise (9)Mekong River (7)Mekong River (3)

The next morning we’re up early to be run to the boat. I find that I could have got currency exchanged and photographs done at the ferry.. so we pass through passport control out of Thailand, and then across the Mekong into Laos. After which we queue up to get visa forms, then queue up to apply for the visa, then wait for half an hour, then queue up to get our passports back. It feels crazy and chaotic, and a systems analyst would have a field day… but by 10 am we are allowed into Laos – at which point the frantic behaviour of the last couple of hours come to a complete stop as we wait for the boat.

Mekong Day 1 (38)Mekong Day 1 (37)

Eventually the boat is ready for boarding. There should be 70-100 people on the boat, so when they try and cram 150 on board we demand a second boat. There’s a combined protest group of Australians, Brits, French and German (including one or two people who seem worryingly good at the whole protest thing and have come equipped for the long haul. There’s a complete impasse until I go and check the numbers of seats available. There’s 7 seats, and 20 people to get on, a fact which I communicate with a lot of arm waving and holding fingers in the air. Eventually they relent, and it looks like another boat is going to happen – but no, they are just taking more seats out of another boat. It;s a minor victory, but it beats sitting on the floor. (The seats, by the way, have obviously been rescued from old cars)

And so the boat sets off – although it’s the slow boat, it’s faster than any of us expect – although when the fast boat zips past, the occupants wearing crash hats, we realise just how slow it is.

Mekong Day 1 (32)Mekong Day 1 (26)Mekong Day 1 (22)Mekong Day 1 (11)Mekong Day 1 (6)Mekong Day 1 (2)

So, five hours on the boat passing one or two little cottages, fishermen and groups of kids out for a swim. The cottages disappear, to be replaced by cows wandering the beach – it’s a beautiful journey, made even more enjoyable by the presence of a young American couple, recently engaged and travelling round Asia. And when Mack makes it big as a jazz pianist, remember you met him here first. (That’s Mack and Chelsea – and a Frenchman who worked at the same dive company I went diving with in Oz – it’s a small world – above)

And so, as the sun sets over the Mekong river, we arrive in Pak Beng, a little town that exists simply because it’s half way between Chiang Kong/Huay Xai and Luang Pra Beng, where we get off. The local kids flood the boat, carrying our bags off. I swear that my bag is heavier than the kid carrying it – and I am quite happy to pay him 100 baht just to reward his determination.

Pak Beng (5)

Our system has failed us – there doesn’t seem to be a hotel booked – but there are more than enough folk trying to sell us a room, and yet again we find ourselves in a comfortable little place – enough time for a drink, and to sleep, ready to get back on the boat again….

So, back on the boat… just as we leave the bank, my friend realises she has left her camera in Pak Beng. As time goes on it becomes clear that it’s not just the camera, it’s the credit cards too. We can’t do anything beyond juping off the boat and swimming for shore. We do not attempt this – but it does mean that nothing can be done for several hours and several hundred miles.

Mekong Day 2 (19)Mekong Day 2 (16)

However, the river is still gorgeous… every now and again we hit a spot of white water, which gets slightly exciting. We invested in a bottle of local rum last night, which means that we can drown our sorrows…

The river unfolds – little sleepy settlements, makeshift fishing lines, the occasional speedboat or cargo boat passing by and disturbing the gentle flow of the boat. In frequently there are temples, and monks, and lots of kids who wave like they’ve never seen a boat before. Sometimes we stop and drop someone off, or pick up someone with three months of shopping (or so it seems) – although the boat is mostly tourists and backpackers, there’s a healthy sprinkling of locals making their way down stream.

And so, finally, into Lua Pra Bang – the sun is setting again as we arrive, and we make our way to the hotel where we get increasingly frustrated trying to track  down the camera (what do you mean, there’s no directory enquiries? what do you mean, you won’t give us the bar’s number because they are competitors). Eventually, we surrender to the inevitable, and head off for dinner. There’s not much choice by this time in this sleepy World Heritage town, so we settle for a barbecue which is similar to Japanese Shabba Shabba cooking – cook your meat on the heated pan while cooking your meat in the stock below. Yes, I know I am a vegetarian, but needs must!

Mekong Day 2 (15)Mekong Day 2 (5)

Luang Prabang (27)Luang Prabang (24)Luang Prabang (19)Luang Prabang (14)

%d bloggers like this: