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    Friday, 28 August 2009

    Forgotten Again - Luang Prabang to Huay Xai by Bus

    Chinese Road Builders [Enlarge & More]
    We’d had a very enjoyable week or so in Luang Prabang, and so were sorry to leave the place for the border town of Huay Xai, where we intended to cross from Laos into Thailand. There are a couple of choices for travelling to Huay Xai from Luang Prabang, and they’re not great ones at first glance. You can either take a slow boat, described as “hot and crowded” by some sources, and a great scenic routes by others, which takes two days, or there’s a bus which we could not find a great deal of information on, which makes the journey in approximately 12-15 hours if the road is good.

    Having already done a couple of boat journeys in south-east Asia, we decided we didn’t want to spend the extra time doing another one, and looked into the bus journey. We were quoted similar options by a number of travel agents in Luang Prabang – three buses went to Huay Xai per day, one in the morning and two in the evening. Not keen on doing another sleeper bus, we chose the morning “VIP” bus, which left Luang Prabang at 9am.

    In a familiar scenario to our journey from Pakse to Vientiane, 20 minutes before the bus was due to leave, we were still sat in the hotel waiting to be picked up. We asked the hotel to phone the tour agent to check that the pickup was on it’s way – only to find that once again, they had forgotten us! This seems to be a sad repeat occurrence in Laos – if we book a journey through a tour agent, we get forgotten – if we book through a hotel, it’s usually OK (but more expensive). A tuk tuk rolled around at about 8:50am – with the driver looking rather worried. We were rushed off to the bus station which was a fair drive out of town (that’s another thing – there’s loads of space in Lao towns, so why make all the bus stations so far out of them?!), and finally arrived at 9:05 – just as our bus was pulling out! We jumped out of the tuk tuk and onto the bus – to find it completely empty, bar one middle-aged woman, the driver, and the porter. Our bags got pride of place one their very own row of seats each, and off we went.

    Well, despite the hairy start, the drive was very interesting. The road started off in a very good condition, following the Mekong River and meandering through low mountains. We covered a lot of distance in a short amount of time, but once we reached Pak Mong the drive got slower and the road got smaller and a bit more pot-holed (but still sealed!). This was pretty much the way it was all the way to Luang Nam Tha – the road was pretty much fine, just a bit small. The only time I can think there would be a problem with the road is if there’s a landslide – we saw evidence of quite a few, some relatively recent, but none that hampered our own journey.

    And the view was fantastic – I haven’t taken the boat to Huay Xai, but surely that can’t be a better experience. We drove through numerous hill tribe villages, where normal people go about their daily lives, kids wave to the buses and hold up squirming bamboo rats, and small shops sell naturally grown produce. The landscape was so dramatic, and nowhere else have I seen such raw effects of the slash-and-burn culture which is ongoing in the north of Laos. Steep mountainsides which once held huge trees now hold banana trees and crops, but the landscape is so amazing that you can’t help but be in awe.

    We were graced with a porter who thrived on spending his days watching VCD’s on bus’s onboard TV. I use the term graced in a slightly sarcastic way – most of the video CDs he put on were slightly irritating (but highly amusing) Thai and Lao music videos. Some of the Lao music videos were a bit random as well – I’m not sure who the singer was, but in a couple of the videos he actually looked like he’d forgotten the words. One of his music videos also featured a middle aged housewife having a midlife crisis and going out and getting drunk with some dirty old men, before crawling home after dark and passing out, at which point her husband threw water on her. I’m not sure what demographic the video was trying to appeal to, but it was quite interesting. There were also a few very badly choreographed videos – it’s like watching a car crash, you can’t really help yourself, and it did pass the time well. A real crowd pleaser were the Thai slapstick comedies which the porter stuck on a couple of times. Even we enjoyed them, although we couldn’t understand them. It was always a relief when the TV was off though – the porter and driver weren’t shy with the volume control.

    We stopped several times along the way to pick up villagers who were travelling to Huay Xai as well, but the bus never even got half full – it was nice to have so much space to ourselves! We wondered at first why every villager that got on the bus was given a yellow plastic bag by the porter, and why we didn’t get one – we soon discovered that it was in case they were sick. I guess some of them are not used to travelling on buses, because a couple of people were sick, and one guy was sick around every 30 minutes for about 8 hours! A few of them also used the bags for spitting into – it’s amazing how much you can fill up a bag with spit!

    There were quite a few characters on our bus as well. The first people to get on were a tribal woman and her child. The child (a girl) had a shaved head – I wanted to know why, but did not want to ask – but she watched the television with big brown eyes. When they got off, the woman waved goodbye to me – she was very sweet. There was also an old man sitting across from us for a while. He kept glancing over in my direction, and eventually reached across as though he was reaching for my bag. I was about to tell him to get off my stuff, but at the last minute he stroked the hair on my legs lightly, before pointing at his own which were completely hairless. He looked quite entertained by my hairy legs, so I showed him my equally hairy arms, and in turn he pointed at his hairless arms and laughed. The Lao are not known for their personal space, and I was pleased that his glances were curiosity for my hairy-ness as opposed to anything more sinister!

    After Luang Nam Tha, the road was mostly good. The road between there and Huay Xai is currently being upgraded, but is almost done. The upgrades are thanks to the Chinese government, and they’re also upgrading much of the road between Pak Mong and Luang Nam Tha. However, I’ve read that this goodwill is at the expense of some of Laos’ northern forests – China apparently has some rights to log some of these over normal capacity. Still, it’s difficult not to appreciate how much the improved roads must change the lives of the villagers living along them for a better – if not for the preservation of their cultures.

    The Approaching Storm [Enlarge & More]
    We arrived in Huay Xai at 8:30pm, meaning that the bus journey only took eleven and a half hours. Overall, it was an excellent journey and very hassle free. Surely the scenery that you get in the boat journey along the Mekong can’t be better than the sights we saw from the bus. I have to say, there was a certain satisfaction in seeing everyone else disembarking from the slow boat the following day, right in the middle of a huge storm (it was like a vortex!) and getting soaked. I’m sure karma will get me for that one, but it did make me feel pleased that we had such an easy time on such an uncertain option that not many people recommend!

    Tuesday, 25 August 2009

    Lazy days in Luang Prabang

    The pace in Luang Prabang is slow and infectious which was not the case when we first arrived. Having been dropped of in the centre of town in the searing heat, we wound our way through people, parked bikes and general melee to find a hotel to stay at. What we did not know was that we arrived on the day of a boat festival which is one of the highlights here. We did not catch any of the boat races but did see the winner's procession down the main street later that evening. Imagine a winning football team, it was just the same. It was poor timing on our part as we were told later it was a cross between a boat race and Notting Hill Carnival, sounded like fun. The next day the town returned to a much quieter place.

    We’ve been bumping in a couple from London since North Cambodia however apart from brief conversation or the odd wave from a boat as we passed we’ve not really got to talk to them. We bumped into them here on the second day and arranged to meet them that evening for food. It turns out they are also travelling for a long time and are off to Vietnam next. It was good to compare stories and experiences over some food.

    The next evening we arranged to meet them again and we also knew that the Australians we’d met in Vang Vieng were about. After a couple of texts we also arranged to meet them and ended up having a great evening over a Laos style BBQ, where you cook your own food over hot coals.

    Morning Alms [Enlarge & More]
    We’ve fallen into bit of a pattern here where we do our own thing during the day and then meet up in the evening with the friends we’ve made. The London couple have moved on now so the Aussies have to put up with us. 

    One of the things I’ve found hard is to be selective about what we do, when something is on offer I want to do it. Here the cost of trekking or elephant riding makes it prohibitive to do so I’ve had to learn to just take it easy and enjoy being in a place. Luckily Luang Prabang is a world heritage site and I can see why as the French architecture is well preserved, even the ATM’s are well hidden and there are what seems like hundreds of wats here. Subsequently there is a very large monk population and if you rise before sunrise you can see the monks collecting alms from the local people. An amazing experience as it’s all done in silence as the dawn breaks with 200 odd monks proceeding through the town in single file, collecting whatever is on offer.

    Tails and Trotters [Enlarge & More]
    The main street is lined with restaurants and oddly loads of massage places. At some point there must be loads of tourists here to fill these places but for now they’re pretty empty. I opted to have a massage - what I asked for was a shoulders, back and neck massage but got a full body workout. The little Lao lady had me bent in all sorts of positions and an hour later I came out relaxed if not a little jelly like.

    There is both a morning produce market and a night tourist market here. The produce market is one of the best we’ve seen so far, the most unusual things we saw this time were Buffalo trotters and tails for sale. For the night market the main street gets blocked off and all the stalls get set up. It’s full of colour with lanterns, T-shirts, Bags and lots of things for sale. Unlike markets in other countries you see a lot of owners sleeping at their pitches. It’s not the hardest sale here, which is kind of sweet.

    In the centre of town there is a hill with another Wat at the top. The Wat is nothing exciting but the view is spectacular, once you get up the 300 odd steps you get to see that you are surrounded by lush green vegetation and hills. As we were enjoying the view these retired Americans arrived covered head to foot in the most appropriate gear, they reminded me of the models you see in the catalogues you get with the Sunday newspapers back home. That in itself is not really something to mention but what was slightly amusing is that between them they had absolutely no flesh exposed but as soon as they got to the top they proceed to fumigate everyone else by spraying their clothes with mosquito repellent. I also overheard one of the old ladies proudly say she had a mosquito net for the face with her just in case she needed it. Between us we’ve seen one Mosquito since we’ve been here, bless them!

    I’ve not been the biggest fan of the Tuk Tuk drivers in Laos but even though we have not taken them up on there services here, they are full of smiles. They still charge a fortune blaming petrol prices, which is odd as they were the same in Cambodia and there it was cheap to get about.

    The Drum [Enlarge & More]
    Tonight is our last night here, we’ve spent a relaxing time just chilling. The stay has been made more pleasant due to the guest house we chose, Xieng Mouane. It’s an old French building with high ceilings and wooden floors and is located just outside one of the many Wats. It definitely has character, as every morning you get woken up by the monks banging their drum. The first time it was quaint after that my trusty ear plugs came in very useful! One of the benefits of travelling off season again is that the room would normally be $45 US but we got it for $20 after a bit if negotiating, a right bargain.

    We plan to meet the Aussies for one last time tonight and then we have a 14 hour bus ride to the Thai border. It’s a shame that our time in Laos is nearly over just as we are starting to really enjoy it.

    Sunday, 23 August 2009

    Laos is looking up, Vang Vieng

    Bus to Vang Vieng [Enlarge & More]
    Towards the end of our stay in Vientiane, things were looking up. Our hotel, LV City Riverine, was a good place to stay for the price (hotels seem more expensive in Vientiane than in many other places in Laos) and we’d put the free Wifi there to good use! We booked a “VIP” bus to Vang Vieng from the hotel – a total journey of three hours. Our pickup arrived on the day we were to leave, at the correct time. Sadly, the bus did not have working air conditioning so it was a stuffy journey, and I got sunburn on my arm from having it out the window! A slight theme here – we don’t seem to get what we pay for when we book bus journeys in Laos!

    Tubing, Vang Vieng [Enlarge & More]
    As we drove along in the stuffy bus, the scenery got better and better as we went further north. By the time we arrived in Vang Vieng, it was simply stunning – even the weather was one of the most beautiful days we’d experienced in our two months of travelling. We arrived in Vang Vieng, but rather than drop us at the bus station, the driver drove us to a remote part of town and dropped us off at a hotel of his choice – fortunately for us (but unfortunately for his commission), our hotel was only about 100m away so we walked down the road.

    We stayed at Elephant Crossing – pricy for us, but an absolutely beautiful view across the Nam Song to the limestone mountains behind. Honestly, I think it must be one of the best views I’ve ever seen, and was worth every penny (the hotel was not bad either!). The good weather helped – in the four days we spent in Vang Vieng, every single one was full of sun and blue sky. That’s pretty much unprecedented for us – we’ve had a lot of cloud in our travels, so it’s been lovely to bask in the sun. It was really hot too – too hot to walk around in, but we both spent some time on our room’s balcony, soaking up a bit of sun and watching the world go by on the river below, and beyond. Let’s hope that as we continue north the weather holds.

    View from the Room[Enlarge & More]
    Vang Vieng is an interesting place. It’s not like the rest of Laos at all – there aren’t many French tourists for a start. However, there are a lot of British and Australian tourists – hmmm, I wonder why – could it be something to do with the drinking culture us Brits are so famous for?! And Vang Vieng is the place to do it in Laos, it seems. Vang Vieng is particularly famous for tubing – this involves sitting in a large inflated tyre and floating down the Nam Song River, stopping at various bars and restaurants along the way. These bars mainly exist to cater for the tourists’ needs to get drunk – and they cater for it very well. You float along in your tube, and various bar staff throw bits of rope out to pull you in to their bar – some bars are busier than others, but all see their fair share of custom from the hundreds of tourists who ride tubes down the river each day. Many of the bars have added attractions – one we saw had a mud pit, another had a waterslide, and most had zip wires – all of which end up with you ending up face first in the river, or in the mud!

    Our tubing stint was excellent – we met a nice Australian couple who were on the same wavelength as the two of us (i.e. sensible), and we had an excellent afternoon. We had a good laugh at all the drunk people making fools of themselves. Unfortunately, we had such a good afternoon that we did not make it back to town until after 6pm – at which point we had to pay a 20,000 kip fine each for returning our tubes “late” – mind you, it seemed like we were some of the first people back, so I’m not sure anyone on the river manages to escape that fine?!

    Tubing, Vang Vieng [Enlarge & More]
    Tubing was excellent fun, and so the next day we followed it up by booking ourselves on a kayaking and caving experience – neither of us had kayaked before, so it was an interesting introduction to the activity. After some basic instruction from our guide, we were set afloat and we struggled down the river. After a couple of capsizes, we managed to gain some element of control over our kayak, and had a good time – maybe next time we’ll get away with only one capsize? The caving was also a lot of fun, but there were a lot of people doing it. Basically, you sit in a tube (much like the ones we’d been in the previous day), and pull yourself through the cave holding a rope. After a short time, we disembarked and scrabbled around on our hands and knees, crawling through the cave. It’s not for the claustrophobic, but it was a lot of fun – a shame it was so busy!

    On our final day in Vang Vieng, we enjoyed some well-earned rest and time on our balcony – on that day it was absolutely scorching, so a brief walk through the rice fields that we’d planned had to be scrapped – shame really, as Mahmoud had not taken a lot of photos (due to the water activities) and wanted to get some of the area. We also went to what we’ve dubbed a “Friends Bar”. These bars exist throughout Vang Vieng, and they all continuously play reruns of Friends (the sitcom). Some also play Family Guy. I like Friends, but just walking past those bars winds me up – it’s so irritating that they play nothing but Friends! Also, apparently they’re good spots to make your shake or pizza “Happy” – quite a regular request in Vang Vieng I understand! Having been to a Friends Bar, I can say that I don’t want to go back – once you’re in there, you can’t stop watching it.

    Vang Vieng was excellent – the locals were nice, but I felt a bit sorry for them to be honest. Lao culture is often being ignored there by the young, drunk tourists. Signs in shops saying “Please cover yourself”, or “No bikinis” are largely ignored, as nearly-nude foreign youngsters parade through town in an inappropriate fashion. Saying that though, the amount of money that comes through town has to be good for the community – they have a big new hospital in town, and I imagine that a lot of families must be making a lot of money from tourism, giving them many opportunities. Furthermore, the scenery in Vang Vieng and the surrounding areas is breathtaking. I knew northern Laos had some lovely scenery, but I never expected it to be so beautiful. I understand that our next destination, Luang Prabang, is even better – looking forward to it!

    Tuesday, 18 August 2009

    Laos has been a dissapointment so far

    Vientaine [Enlarge & More]
    There’s been something bothering me since arriving in Laos. I’ve been trying to put my finger on it for a while now but just can’t work it out.

    The capitol of Laos, Vientiane, was a big disappointment; it had none of the charm of Phnom Penh and was really expensive. It’s a small capital and does not really have much to see or do. What there is to do you can walk to which is a bonus as I had no intention of paying the over-inflated prices charged by the Tuk Tuk drivers. I wouldn’t mind it if that was it but they are humourless and on occasion rude. I’m sure there are exceptions but I wasn’t giving them a chance to find out. Most of them also offer you first of all Hash, if that does not get a reaction then the drug becomes increasingly stronger ending in Opium and I’m sure if you hang around enough it would become crack cocaine.

    Buddha Park [Enlarge & More]
    Laos has definitely not lived up to any of my expectations so far; apparently it’s a lot about being in the place. Which is all well and good but the people you deal with on a day to day basis have to be nice.

    Having said all that I did enjoy our day out to Buddha Park, a few kilometres out of the city. It’s the brainchild of an eccentric and the park is full of statues combining Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. It was a real mix and I found it fascinating. You can also climb on, in and around a lot of the statues and I loved that, it always brings out the big kid in me. We decided to take the local bus out there and it really showed the contrast for me of what Lao people are really like. We were unsure as to which bus to take and it showed, so you had the scam artists who were trying to ‘help’ by offering to take you in a mini van for an extortionate price. Then you had the local lady who was happy to point you in the right direction with a smile.

    Crazy Buddha Park [Enlarge & More]
    I’ve just worked out what’s been bothering me, I think the Lao people are genuinely lovely and honest but the ones dealing with the tourists are dishonest and out to make a quick kip. It’s not at all what I expected. There are many places in the world that are the same; I’m disappointed Laos is one of them.

    Saturday, 15 August 2009

    Pakse to Vientiane - What went wrong?

    Laos Tuk Tuk Driver [Enlarge & More]
    After much deliberation as to where we would go after Pakse, we eventually decided on Vientiane, a ten hour bus ride away. Our other choice was the town of Savannakhet, five hours north of Pakse by local bus. Our choice was made based on the lack of sights in Savannakhet, as opposed to north Laos, where we expected to spend a fair bit of time sightseeing. Oh, and also the bus ride to Savannakhet sounded like it would be a lot of hard work for little payoff, given it was a free-for-all local bus, whereas the bus to Vientiane was V.I.P (air conditioned, goes when the seats are full).

    Having made our choice, we went to book our ticket the day before our intended departure. Unfortunately for us, we discovered that the only buses leaving Pakse for Vientiane were sleeper buses – even though the journey was only ten hours, and you could easily arrive by 5pm if you left at 8am, every single bus in Pakse left for Vientiane at 8pm. Okay – unlucky, but that’s just the way it goes, right? We accepted our fate to spend a night on the sleeper bus, but remembering our Indian experience of taking a bus from Ooty to Chennai, we were sure it would not be too bad.

    After taking it easy the following day, we waited at the Pakse Hotel for our arranged pickup from Pakse Travel (who we booked the ticket through) to arrive at 7:30pm and take us to the Pakse Northern Bus Terminal (everything in Pakse is so thoughtfully named). Ten minutes passed, and the clock edged closer to 8pm, the departure time. So we were last on the list for pickup to go to the bus station – fair enough, someone has to be. However, ten minutes later our pickup still had not arrived, and given the bus station was at least a five minute drive away we decided to act. Mahmoud got the hotel receptionist to phone Pakse Travel, who eventually answered the phone. They were apparently surprised, and sent someone around to get us in a minivan – they arrived at 7:56pm. The driver apologised profusely – at least he was honest, and told us we’d been forgotten rather than the dog ate his passenger list or something. We sped off to the bus station, amidst promises we’d make our bus on time.

    Unfortunately, just as we pulled up to the station, a large shiny new looking V.I.P bus pulled out and drove away.
    “Was that our bus?” we asked.
    “No,” our driver responded. “There are other buses.”
    That was fine, but as we pulled up we noticed the other buses were not quite so shiny and new looking. As we pulled up, our bags were extracted from the minivan and rammed into the already stuffed undercarriage of the bus before we could argue. However, argue we did, and Mahmoud in particular was adamant that we were not getting on the bus. The driver admitted it was not the bus we’d booked, but insisted it was a good bus. Eventually, we relented and got on, not willing to spend another night in Pakse.

    The bus was hot – the air conditioning was a bit hit and miss, sometimes it was working and sometimes it was not. Worse though, was the size of our berth. It was roughly the size of a single bed, with two small pillows on it, and about the right height for a 5’6” tall person. I’m 5’10” and Mahmoud’s 6’3”, so imagine the two of us crammed into a single bed made for two small, slim Lao people. Oh, and we also had to fit our day bags in with us, and the temperature on the bus when we boarded was around 28 degrees Celsius. Wonderful.

    Needless to say, the night’s sleep was not great, but we managed to arrange ourselves into positions which sort of worked. The sometimes-working air conditioner was blowing on my feet which was great, but it soon became apparent that something was wrong, because the hot air from the back of it was blowing onto my head. Eventually, I managed to stuff the vent with a sheet which worked wonders, and hoped the air conditioning unit would not catch on fire.

    Sadly, the bus also had a toilet. I was sad about this, because the toilet was in front of our berth. Therefore, we had every person who couldn’t be bothered to hold their bowels and bladders until the next stop going back and forth, creating nasty smells near us. Nastier still was the air freshener the attendant used to “disguise” the smells emanating from the squat toilet, and pouring bottled water down it to “clean” it, owing to the flush not working (or possibly not existing). This resulted in a foul, flowery, shitty, air conditioned but still hot smell that lingered all night. With sweat running down the back of my neck, I contemplated ramming the air freshener into the squat toilet and disabling both sources of the problem. I’m not joking!

    However, we DID make it to Vientiane in one piece, arriving at some remote bus terminal at 6am. Nothing’s quite as fun as arriving somewhere at 6am having had no sleep. I just love the adventurous aspect of travelling. No, wait, I love the fact that in Laos, you have no choice but to accept overpriced transport fares working on poor timetables and you have to like it!

    We jumped on some shared transport into the city. There were no tuk tuks around, but in hindsight that’s probably a good thing as you’ll see shortly. We arrived at around 7am, and wandered off to find our hotel of choice, where we left our bags until our room became available. We then got some breakfast, and decided to get to the Thai embassy to sort out our Thai visas straight away. We knew it would be difficult to do on almost no sleep, but we were confident our tempers could withstand the strain.

    Well, that was before we spoke to our first tuk tuk driver in Vientiane. We’d spoken to a couple of people beforehand, but no one seemed to know quite where the Thai embassy was – apparently, it had moved in recent months and wasn’t on any of the printed maps. Therefore, we’d have to rely on someone to take us there and back, as we did not know the layout of the city at all. We approached a tuk tuk driver, who presented us with a laminated card of fares. 40,000 kip to the Thai embassy! That’s around $5 – and that was only one way! We knew the embassy was about 2 or 3km away, we just did not know where, so we knew that was extortionate. Eventually, after some haggling, we settled for 50,000 kip return. Still a lot of money, considering we’ve spent $10 on a day’s sightseeing in Cambodia. Despite this, we decided to take the hit once.

    We arrived at the Thai embassy – accosted by touts, trying to sell us the visa application forms (which you receive for free inside the embassy). Ignoring them, we walked up to the front gate – only to find it closed, locked, and bolted. The embassy was shut for the day due to a Thai public holiday. Too angry to look at the driver (who clearly had known all along it was closed), we got back into the tuk tuk and were driven back to our hotel. After we arrived the driver pulled me aside for a private word:
    “You want fun with Lao women tonight big titty?”
    I snarled at him and we stomped into the hotel to get some sleep.

    Our windowless room was decent, if expensive (all of Vientiane is), and we decided to have an hour’s nap to recuperate after all the stress. I had a shower and settled down. Just as I closed my eyes, the power flicked off – off went the air conditioner, off went the lights, up went the volume from outside, and wide open my eyes flicked. Out of the room we stomped, to find the power up and running in the rest of the hotel – a fuse had blown. The man on reception assured us it would be fixed “within an hour or two”. Giving up, we went out for the rest of the morning - cursing Vientiane, tuk tuk drivers, tour companies, touts, horizontally challenged bus berths, squat toilets, the electricity, and Thai public holidays (how dare they!).

    Thursday, 13 August 2009

    Three Nights in Pakse

    After three nights in the beautiful but extortionately priced Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands), we made our way via mini-van to Pakse, approx 150km to the north. Pakse is the provincial capital of Champasak province, and one of the major cities (well, towns) of Laos. The mini-van ride was a non-event, and once we arrived in Pakse, our driver was good enough to drop us off near our hotel – the aptly named Pakse Hotel. The hotel was one of the best we’ve stayed in - $25 per night netted us free - and really good – breakfast, unlimited wireless internet, and a clean and comfortable room with Mekong views.

    While our hotel was nearly full and milling with people, Pakse was not. We had arrived on a Saturday, our first weekend in Laos. I can’t speak for the rest of the country, but Pakse was like a ghost town – we were pretty much able to walk down the middle main road of the town with no cars to get in our way! Many of the shops were shut, and there did not seem to be many people around. Blissfully, there were also no horns – a common sound in many of the towns and cities we’ve visited.

    Swapping Languages [Enlarge & More]
    Pakse was an interesting, if quiet, town. We visited a number of Wats in the town, which were very impressive, and in one we spoke with the monks and compared phrasebooks. Having not been in the country long, we learnt how to say “Thank you” – khawp jai. In turn, the monks learned how to say “province”!.

    Chick on a Stick [Enlarge & More]
    We also visited the market – markets are always interesting in this part of the world! Amongst other things, we saw live freshwater crabs, live frogs and some kind of crushed bird on a stick over a barbeque – probably a baby chicken, but I’m not sure! A lot of the people were friendly, particularly those who do not have much contact with tourists. We’ve both noticed that the locals who have the least contact with tourists are the most openly friendly, those who have contact on a regular basis are friendly when prompted, and tour operators and tuk tuk drivers are downright mercenary. Unfortunately, it’s the latter you have to deal with the most! This is in contrast to Cambodia – where everybody seemed friendly – even the tuk tuk drivers. I can hardly remember anyone who wasn’t friendly in Cambodia!.

    Our Guide [Enlarge & More]
    Speaking of tour operators, there seemed little choice in Pakse for getting around to some of the sights outside the town other than the choice offered by tour operators. A day on a tour is not generally my idea of a good time. Invariably you end up with some moronic tourist who irritates you more than anyone else in the group, speaking loudly and just being a moron. You also end up being shipped around the place, having to keep up with other peoples schedules – I always pity those on a tour group! Our tour was not so bad however – there was one slightly odd French woman in the group (not that that’s unusual, you can’t spit without hitting a French tourist in Indochina), but she was more entertaining than irritating. In fact, no one annoyed me in our tour group – quite amazing really, considering I’m easily irritated by other tourists! Our tour guide was named Jack, and he was entertainment in himself. He treated us to a little sing-song in the mini-van. I was concerned it might be like an awful reality show audition, but he wasn’t actually that bad!

    Waterfall [Enlarge & More]
    Our tour consisted of a day in the Bolaven Plateau, an elevated area covered in coffee plantations, waterfalls, and home to a number of minority tribes. Unfortunately the weather was not very good, owing to the hills and the season, but the tour was still good. The waterfalls were definitely the best we’ve seen so far – swollen rivers make for much more dramatic waterfalls. Standing near one, I got almost completely soaked by the spray.

    Tribal Village [Enlarge & More]
    We also visited a tribal village which was very interesting. Many of the houses had coffins beneath them – apparently, the people buy themselves a coffin upon reaching the age of 45, so that they’re ready to go. This is something to do with the animist beliefs upheld by the people, but I can’t remember the reason behind it! We also saw some kids under 10 years of age smoking – very common apparently, and they often start around two years old. Still, as Jack noted, they were smoking tobacco, whereas they used to smoke opium which is now outlawed – an improvement maybe?!

    Although we enjoyed the tour, it was a very expensive way of spending the day – we spent just over $20 each. In India, we could have chartered a private taxi for the day for that, but instead we had to tag onto a group! Shocking. Seriously though, we’re definitely noticing a hike in the transportation costs in Laos. Accommodation and food is comparable to Cambodia, but simple transport is hyper-inflated. It’s frustrating when you know that in comparison to food and everyday living, transportation costs so much – and that tour operators, taxi, boat and tuk tuk drivers are blatantly ripping tourists off. What is more frustrating is that many of these people are unlikeable characters, and that we end up paying them so much more money than those whose company we enjoyed so much more in other countries. I guess that’s just the way it goes, but so far these costs and people are putting a bit of a dampener on Laos for me.

    Waterfall Video:

    Saturday, 8 August 2009

    Crossing the border between Cambodia and Laos

    Dirt Road [Enlarge & More]
    Both of us were sorry to leave Norden House in Ban Lung but really pleased to be on our way away from the constant rain. All our stuff was wet and starting to smell as nothing was drying in the damp environment. My shorts had been wet the entire time we had been there, after the perilous Moto ride in the rain to the hotel on the first night.

    In the guide book it says that crossing the border into Laos in the north at Voen Kham is for the adventurous. It did take 3 buses, a walk on foot over no mans land and two sets of ‘bribes’ but other than that it was really straightforward.

    We’d got our Laos visas back in Phnom Penh at $45 each (it costs more for the Brits for some reason) but we knew that at the border it was useful to have some $1 bills handy to ease the path across. Interestingly you can take the name of the officer who asks for the extra money at the border and complain but we thought we’d rather get across into Laos.

    I still thought of ourselves as adventurous having made it across the border and as we drove away into Laos I was a little surprised to see a golf course and luxury holiday resort. It turns out that the area in Laos is very close to the Thai border and it is one of the most visited areas by the Thais on holiday due to some major attractions.

    The Bridge [Enlarge & More]
    The final leg of our journey to our first destination in Laos was by boat, or that’s what we thought. We got the boat over to an island called Don Det as planned and were going to walk over the disused railway bridge built by the French to another island, Don Khon. Our packs are definitely not the lightest at about 20kg each and the prospect of carrying them more than a few hundred metres was not appealing and on the map it looked straightforward and not too far.

    We started to walk through the rice fields avoiding the odd buffalo and barking dog. It didn’t take long for me to build up a healthy sweat as it was definitely the most humid place we have stayed- I guess an island surrounded by water during the monsoon would be a good candidate.

    After a couple of pit stops we spotted water and what looked like a bridge as we approached. I jokingly said ‘wouldn’t it be funny if the bridge no longer existed’. As we got closer it became all too apparent that the bridge did not exist anymore, it just stopped a few meters into the water. Sweating, hot and tired both of us weren’t in the best of moods but we just about held it together and managed to find a boatman to take us over to the island we wanted to get to for an extortionate price.

    The Actual Bridge [Enlarge & More]
    As we set off in the boat heading in completely the opposite direction to what we expected, we made sure with the boatman that he had understood where we wanted to go. He definitely had, as a couple of minutes into the boat ride we turned a corner in the river around the island and in front of us was the bridge that linked the islands of Don Det and Don Khon. All we could do was smile at each other.

    We could have stayed on the first island but wanted to stay at a particular guesthouse and that’s where we were dropped off. As we wandered through the courtyard of the guesthouse no one seemed too bothered and there were none of the usual offers of ‘do you want to see a room?’. I asked whether a room was available and I was told they were full. We did eventually find a room at the Auberge Sala Don Khone - a lovely place even if the bathroom smelt of cabbage.

    Don Det Island [Enlarge & More]
    The Island itself forms part of Si Phan Don (4000 Islands) and is supposed to be the most laid back place in Laos. It was laid back but greed had definitely struck as the prices for food and boat hire were extortionate, but despite the cost we did have a lovely time there.

    After our successful cycle ride in Kratie we hired bikes again and toured both the islands. It was a little bit muddier this time and some of the routes were impassable. We were stopped by some fellow travellers who were covered head to foot in mud warning us not to go down a particular track. We had a great time even if we were a little muddier by the end. I did also get a bite on the foot - I think it was a spider but not sure. The foot’s swelling up nicely and at the moment it’s really painful to walk on. It’s not spreading so I’m keeping an eye on it and hopefully the swelling will start to ease soon.

    Khon Phapheng Falls [Enlarge & More]
    There are some huge rapids along the Mekong and we took a day trip to see the largest set in South East Asia according the blurb on a tourist sign. I’m not sure if they are but with the monsoon rain you could hear them from quite a distance away. As you got closer the thunderous sound was all-encompassing and I can see why it’s one of the most visited sites in Laos, especially by the Thais. It holds a sacred significance as well, with the idea being that all the bad spirits are trapped in the rapids.

    I think Laos will be something of an acquired taste, so far it’s like Cambodia but to coin the phrase you hear a lot here – ‘Same same but different’

    Friday, 7 August 2009

    Treks and Jungles and Rain!

    Boeng Yeak Lom Lake [Enlarge & More]
    In every country we manage to find the wettest spot to spend some time. I suppose it has to happen at some point, but in Ban Lung it has rained nearly non-stop for the past three days. We had planned to spend five nights here, but we’ve decided to cut it short by one owing to the bad weather. Of course, as soon as we made that decision and bought our tickets out of here, the weather brightened up somewhat. Typical!

    We had a reasonably uneventful bus journey from Kratie to Ban Lung, with the bus leaving at 1pm. We were slightly apprehensive as that would mean we’d arrive in Ban Lung in the dark – the journey was just over 5 hours long in total. The journey was fine until we passed the town of Stung Treng near the Lao border – after that we passed into “unsealed road” territory, and the ride got a lot more bumpy. After being thrown around in our seats for about 3 hours, and watching the carrot coloured slush fly past the bus windows as we drove through the red mud, we arrived in Ban Lung – the small provincial capital of the Ratanakiri district in north-east Cambodia. Our bags were unceremoniously dumped out of the back of the bus into the mud, and we were thrown into the usual mix of slightly desperate moto-drivers and guesthouse touts, all wanting our business. Eventually, we managed to persuade two moto-drivers to drive us 4km out of town to Norden House, our chosen hotel.

    Taking a Dip [Enlarge & More]
    After a motorbike ride similar to that-one-where-we-thought-we-would-die in Mandrem, Goa (India), in which my backpack slid around on the bike, the driver negotiated crater-sized pot-holes, and it started pouring with rain, we arrived at Norden House, fronted by a nicely lit up (but empty) restaurant. We quickly discovered that we were the only guests at the hotel, and that the internet connection (one of the reasons we’d chosen the hotel) was not working due to satellite issues. However, as it was pouring with rain, we resolved to spend the night there and move on the next day. We enjoyed one of our nicest meals in Cambodia to date in the restaurant, had attention lavished upon us by the staff, and then went off to our bungalow with a free DVD in tow to watch on the DVD player.

    Boeng Yeak Lom Lake [Enlarge & More]
    The following day we ended up staying in Norden House, as we decided that despite not being what we expected, it was a lovely place and met our needs well. No other guests arrived, and over time we’ve started to think of it as “our hotel”! On our first full day in Ban Lung we visited Boeng Yeak Lom, a volcanic crater lake (or meteor impact crater depending on who you ask), just down the road from our hotel. We had a swim in the clean light green/blue coloured water, and then walked around the perimeter of the lake, trying to ignore the persistent showers which followed us around. The lake was well worth the visit, and we were determined to make a return trip to it in order to have another swim, but we have not quite made it back unfortunately.

    First River Crossing [Enlarge & More]
    Also on that day, we organised to do a trek in the jungle with a guide in Ban Lung – he was to pick up the two of us the following day, take us on an amble through the jungle, provide us with a tasty lunch and then walk us back to the bikes and take us back to town. Well, that night it poured with rain, and we half expected that he would not turn up in the morning – so we were relieved but not particularly pleased to see him waiting for us in the rain the next day. The trek was a nightmare – I wouldn’t do it again. We didn’t really have much concept as to what we should expect – I hadn’t really thought about it, but I guess I was expecting a walk through the woods. Well, we rode to the place the trek was due to start on the back of two motos. Even before we got there I was already wet up my arms, despite wearing my waterproof jacket and trousers. Despite this, I was completely determined that I would not get any wetter – surely the water had just gone up my sleeves after all.

    Getting Wet! [Enlarge & More]
    The rain continued, and we walked downhill through small trees towards the jungle. Within half an hour, we came across our first stream – well, actually, it was a river. There was only one way to get across – by fallen tree. We were a little nervous at this unexpected turn of events, but our guide helped us across – no problem. However, I managed to drop my water bottle into the river while crossing, which was a bit disastrous – so we were now down to 2/3rds of our water! We continued on and entered the jungle. The rain also continued on, and it was starting to get further into my rain jacket. A weird-looking breed of fly was also starting to turn up, and was biting bare skin where it could find it – I suffered a few bites on my hands and neck.

    Made it over another 'stream' [Enlarge & More]
    Next, we came across an even bigger river – and this one had no tree to cross! We were both a bit surprised as our guide hadn’t mentioned that we would be crossing rivers. We didn’t want to get our boots wet, so we took them off for the crossing, and waded through up to our knees in water. On the other side of the river, we wiped our feet dry and put our boots back on – my socks were a little wet, but not too bad. However, within a few metres of leaving the river we both stepped into a deep puddle, halfway up to our knees, letting water into our boots. How frustrating after all the effort we’d put in! When we came to the next, even larger, river, we decided to just keep our boots on for the crossing as they were already wet – but, as we discovered, they weren’t THAT wet yet! Once we stepped into the river, they quickly got soaked.

    By this point we were completely wet, and as the rain went on, and we crossed more swollen rivers, we did not get any drier. At around lunchtime the rain stopped in time for us to eat, but the humidity persisted. With the sweat that resulted, it was very difficult to get dry, particularly as every river we crossed seemed to get deeper and faster. The final river was the most difficult, and the three of us had to hold hands to cross so we did not get swept away! By the end of the day we were completely knackered – I barely even had the energy to smile for our photo at the end!

    So that was the main story of our trip to Ban Lung. The following day we did nothing – we had to rest! Ban Lung is definitely an up-and-coming tourist destination – in a few years when the road is sealed and there are a few more hotels and restaurants it will be big business. For now, it is still a small and relatively sleepy town, and the hills surrounding it make it particularly wet at this time of year. Despite the rain, I have enjoyed it – it’s been an experience!

    Monday, 3 August 2009

    We thought it was a simple journey

    Bicycle Ride [Enlarge & More]
    After the temple overload at Angkor we’ve made it by 3 buses and 12 hours later to a sleepy town in the Northwest of Cambodia called Kratie. It’s on the way to the Laos border where we are headed slowly.

    Getting here was more complicated than either of us thought as we thought we’d bought a ticket for a bus that took us all the way here. The journey started off straight forward enough at 7am. About 11am we stopped for a pee break and food and when we got back on the bus and headed off there was a commotion at the front. It later transpired when we were stopped at the local police station that a tourist had left his day pack on the bus when we had stopped and now it was a little lighter. It was missing one camera and two iPods!

    Cow Pat [Enlarge & More]
    We all had to get off and our bags were searched but the thief was long gone as nothing was found. We stopped again later on and the bus driver shouted something in Khmer from the front. I don’t know what made me go and check but I did, and once I got over to him where we were headed, he gesticulated for us to get off quickly and get to on another bus. This bus we thought now headed to Kratie but once it got to Kampong Cham we were told we had to buy another bus ticket and also pay a Tuk Tuk driver to get to another bus station. I was not having any of this and the guy who was being helpful at first got ruder and ruder as he did not get his way. We did get to the next bus stop and did get another ticket but we did not pay another penny.

    The final bus we had to get on was due at 2pm. We waited. At abut 2:45 we started to feel as though we had been had and that we were going nowhere fast. After a couple of enquiries I was told the bus was 5 mins away. At about 3:15 it arrived and we got on.

    Enjoying the View [Enlarge & More]
    The rest was uneventful, a bit like Kratie. There is nothing to do here so we have taken it easy. We did get the local ferry across the river to an island which has no cars. We cycled round for a couple of very relaxing hours and then made our way back.

    We’ve got a lovely room at Oudom Sambath Hotel, the only downside it the water is a little on the murky side. After the first night we did look elsewhere and on balance for what we are paying this was the best. The water has got better the longer we’ve stayed but at any point it can change to the colour of the muddy Mekong river which it overlooks. Taking a shower can be a bit dicey!
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