Hello once again from Bangkok. I'm a bit behind on my blogs having not updated in the last 6 days and I have a lot of catching up to do! The last time I updated was way back in Luang Prabang, Laos, which seems like it was more than a week ago. Bangkok certainly is a world away from tranquil Laos.
On the morning of our departure from Luang Prabang we were all up before 6am in order to head down to the main road and give alms to the monks. Buddhist monks rely solely on donations for their food supply, and the vast majority of this comes from alms giving. The monks gather around dawn and walk down the road in single file so villagers (and tourists) can place what food they have to give into the monk's bowls. As all the food is mixed together in the same bowl, locals tend to stick to providing dry foods such as fruit and especially sticky rice - the staple diet of all Laotians. We bought some produce off local sellers, but it was barely enough to last more than two minutes into the monks procession. Around 180 monks from 6 different temples across Luang Prabang turned out, providing a really interesting spectacle as they walked by in the early morning light. Whilst people in our group were careful to keep their heads below the level of the monk's and not point our feet in their direction, older tourists at the other end of the road were less thoughtful, thrusting SLR cameras into the faces of some monks and even getting in their way as they walked past. I'd be interested to hear what the monk's views about non-Buddhist tourists giving alms is, as the prescence of westerners has certainly detracted from the religious meaning of the ritual.
After breakfast it was time to say goodbye to Luang Prabang as we headed down to the Mekong River dock to board our boat for the next 2 days. Saying goodbye to Luang Prabang also meant saying goodbye to adorable hotel receptionist Lee, who had taken a shine to me in my 3 nights there. Our guide had attempted to arrange it for me and her to go on a date on one of the evenings, but sadly Lee was ill on the first night and then had to attend English school on the second, so it never materialised. Lee had never travelled abroad like most Laotians, but at least she was lucky enough to be born and raised in in Luang Prabang, one of my favourite stops in my entire world trip. Of all the places I've travelled to in developing nations, Luang Prabang is perhaps the only place I feel as though I could happily live. It was a gorgeous town set in great surroundings, and it retained a beautifully calm and traditional feel.
Wednesday was spent almost entirely on our Mekong River trip boat. Having heard horror stories from other travellers about overcrowded and uncomfortable public boats, I was most relieved to see that Intrepid had rented us a private boat just for our group. In the entire leg of our Laos trip we only used public transportation once, which is a sharp contrast to the other 2 legs. The long and narrow boat was decked out with train style seats, a toilet and a small shop, though we had to bring food with us to eat. It was open to the elements and at least for the morning was surprisingly cold. Northern Laos could feel a tad chilly in the morning and the sun took a lot longer to heat up than further south. With only a jumper and shorts on I was too cold until about 1pm. The boat took us a long way from civilisation, and in the entire 9 hour trip we only passed about 4 small villages and saw very few people or animals. What people we did see looked very poor and I suspect they were from ethnic minority villages up in the hills. They had come down to the river to fish and pan for gold - something which makes them a pitiful amount of money as there is very little gold in the Mekong. The scenery did not change much along our journey, and I got a tad bored of seeing tree covered hillsides, as nice as they were. The river level was low and there were rapids in places which I was surprised to see our slow boat go up. Occassionally we would be overtaken by one of the eight seater "fast boats", which looked lethal. They do the journey from Luang Prabang to the Thai border in 1 day as opposed to two, but they have a reputation for jack-knifing in the rapids and all the passengers were wearing motorbike helmets.
As the sun set we arrived into the busy dock at the remote and tiny town of Pak Beng. As the boat approached the shore we were literally invaded by hordes of young kids who wanted to carry our bags to the hotel. They only charged about 80p for the privelage, but not all of us wanted to pay them and the local guide had to calm them down. As it was our last night in Laos I had very little Kip left and had to save it for my evening meal, so I had to decline their offer. They would have been useful though as disembarking the boat with a heavy bag on was no easy feat. We practically had to leap from the boat to a rocky cliffside, and then ascent very steep steps to the road above. How the 10 year old kids do it with bags almost as big as them on is quite incredible. I felt bad not being able to donate to them as they were all very poor kids, too poor even to go to school as they couldn't afford the uniform. The small Pak Beng school was reserved almost exclusively for the wealthier children of hotel and restaurant owners, and without a uniform the poorer kids risk prejudice if they go.
There was very little to Pak Beng other than a strip of market stalls, hotels and restaurants. It was simply a stop off town for the many tourists doing the 2 day Mekong trip. We barely saw the place in daylight as around dawn the next day we had to board the boat again for another 8-9 hour trip. The river was shrouded in mist when we first got up, but fortunately the sun came out at around 9am to ensure that every single day we spent in Laos was blessed with clear blue sky. The scenery was very similar to the first day, but the hills gradually started to fade out as we approached the Thai border. We disembarked the boat on the Lao side of the Mekong in order to get stamped out at the Lao immigration office in the town of Huay Xai. From there we caught a small and unstable ferry boat across the river to the Thai town of Chiangkong, where we spent the night. Immediately the difference between Laos and Thailand was evident as the main street at Chiangkong was awash with advertisements and shop signs. Coming from Laos really does make Thailand seem very modern and sophisticated. Even the places outside of Bangkok which are nowhere near as prosperous as the capital itself appear western by comparison.
I was really sad to leave Laos after just 10 days. It was a country that really captured me and it is definitely my favourite of the 4 Asian countries I've visited so far. The people were so nice, and so quiet and reserved. The whole country had a relaxed and peaceful demeanor, and you could almost sense the place's close links to Buddhism. Everywhere we travelled felt very safe and in the whole 10 days there we never encountered anyone who tried to rip us off or con us. The scenery was also beautiful and if we had stayed longer there was a wealth of outdoor activities I could have done, ranging from rock climbing to white water rafting. I can't imagine that I'll be back in Laos for a very long time, but there's certainly much more to do and see there than what we did in 10 days. I just hope that if I do return I will find the country to be as traditional and undistrurbed as it is today. Right now it is trapped in old world Asia, which is in sharp contrast to its more powerful neighbours who are very much apart of a newer Asian culture.