Laos and Thailand Take Two: 05.06.09 - 26.06.09
Vientiane - Vang Vieng - Luang Prabang
Chiang Mai - Thailand
For a country so famously laid back and chilled as Laos, we partied it up a storm. Jess' ex-flatmate Jo had joined us for a two-week holiday encompassing a whistle-stop tour of Laos and northern Thailand, and we determined to show her a good time (aside from being in desperate need of a good boogie ourselves!).
We eased ourselves in gently with a two night stay in Vientiane, the impossibly relaxed capital (a far cry from the bustling streets of Bangkok or Hanoi), which overlooks the Thai border. Proving easy to navigate (and to be honest, with not THAT much as a must see), we hired bicycles and soaked up the atmosphere of the town, cycling down the 'Champs-Elysees' and picking up the odd baguette filled with moss (a bizarrely delicious filling and the one thing potentially not a throw back from the French ruled days). FOr the first time in months, everywhere was peaceful - what traffic there was adhered to normal road safety rules and didn't feel the need to beep every twelve seconds to let everyone know they existed and are present, right here and right now.
So it was with calm minds that we glad-ragged ourselves up for our first night with Jo. We cycled the bikes down a dark and potholed dirt track (little thinking how difficult the return journey three cocktails later would be!) and found a beautiful riverside bar that mixed up cocktails that would put some of London's bars to shame. And to be honest, for a few hours I could have been at home - Jo brought all the London gossip (as well as the latest copy of Vogue!) and our catching up could have as easily been up the OXO tower on the south bank as on the banks of the Mekong... and for one evening my heart was desperately home sick for my friends and family and London laughter.
As if in response and to pull me together, the next day could not have been more Laos. Having heard rumours of a 'monk spa retreat' deep in the forest, we cycled off in curiosity rather than really expecting to find much of interest. We were so wrong - Wat Sok Pa Luang houses a herbal sauna and wooden beds for massages, hidden in the trees and made entirely rustically out of uneven dark wood. As we waited for the sauna to heat up (smells of eucalyptus and jasmine eminating now and then in fume clouds of heat) we watched the family who ran the place make their bamboo and mushroom soup lunch - all sat around the table to clean and prepare the mushrooms together, as well as to eat.
Having burst open our pores and sweated at least a bucket and a half each, we lay down among the green trees and got pummelled into shape. It was a setting that The Sanctuary would spend millions trying to emulate, but never come close to replicating the peace. Especially when you follow all of that up with an hour's long meditation session led by the temple's monks for free. We settled in, cross legged on floor mats and tried to ignore our screaming Western muscles and joints in silence for twenty minutes (followed by twenty minutes' slow walk around the temple, staring at a spot on the floor and walking slowly from heel to ball, then twenty sitting again). It's surprising, given the initial discomfort, how quickly you learn to shut off your mind from your body, and just how many things you learn about yourself when you make time to stop and listen. The aim was to achieve a mind stillness, blocking off all thoughts, which i couldn't do, and i think would take longer than one session's practice for any Westerner to manage it, but, as the monk said (in the "Monk Chat" session afterwards!), even a bad meditation is enlightening. And I think making space of any kind - prayer, or running, or just lying awake for an hour before bed - can help see things more clearly.
And we took this new wholesome frame of mind out that night, and got it drunk on Lao Lao whisky in the local disco (mainly frequented by 14 year olds as there's no age limit) to the magic sounds of a Klastafunk band.
The next day dawned not so brightly, nor so early for us, but since we spent most of it staring out of a bus window en route to Vang Vieng past amazing views of the Mekong and encircling hills, it wasn't too much of a write off! And one of the best things of travelling as a three is being justified in ordering far too many dishes to try for dinner - we feasted that night on papaya salad, Mekong fish and laap (a local minced duck dish with mint and chillis) in a bid to prepare ourselves for the next day...
... which was the sole reason for stopping in Vang Vieng. Tales of the Tubing had reached our ears all around SE Asia (even aside from the t-shirts which EVERYONE seems to be sporting) and it wouldn't have felt right to have been in Laos and missed it. Apart from gathering that the idea is to float down the river in a massive rubber ring, having the odd drink now and then at bars along the way, we didn't really know what it was all about. We were so clueless in fact, that we got a tuk tuk and rocked up to the starting point without a ring, and had to get taken back to town. But, finally stocked up with our own lao lao and iced tea (another winning combo) as well as tractor tyres AND life jackets (Mother would be proud!), we made it to bar one on the river. And we left 3 hours later.
Most of the time was spent chatting to the other tubers, dancing in the monsoon rain to the pumping music, and launching yourself off a zipwire into the water (although i refused to let go first time and made it into more of a swing). But a large chunk of it was drinking, and it was all about treading the fine line between having the best time of your life, and nearly drowning (like one firl who bellyflopped off the zipwire and nearly didn't come up). The sun came out for bar two which was full of Ibiza- style dancing and losing yourself (and the other two girls for that matter, i think we were all oblivious), which made a nice contrast to bar 3, or the mud wrestling bar. My bikini will never be the same again.
Jess and i tubed back together as it got dark, beginning to panic but thankfully rescued at the end point by a horde of boys who leapt into the water and pulled us ashore. We were seriously grateful until it dawned on us that they were rubbing up on us in the tubes and we ran away as soon as we could to get pancakes from the market stalls and to get clean. Jo, who had shot past the end point (but avoided being felt up by 11 year olds) and tuktuked back, joined us back in the room as we prepared to finish the day off with another night out.
So again the next day's bus journey was mainly spent gazing with half-shut eyes out of the window, but despite it being seven hours of bad road (plus a puncture!), the trip to Luang Prabang was full of some of the best scenery we've seen so far. The winding road travelled up and down misty topped mountains, taking us through wood-hut villages (many of them with beautifully carved bannisters and doors) with washing hanging out on bamboo lines by the side of the road. The children seemed older than their years; the little girls strapping younger siblings to their chests and marching around like adults, and one little boy sitting alone on a bench by the road, swinging one leg and staring wistfully far away as though the wisdom of centuries was stored in his youthful mind.
Luang Prabang was chilled. We ate cheaply at market stalls, chatted to the local monks eager to practise their english in the Wats we visited, looked around local art galleries and watched the painters at work. The monks seemed pretty 'normal' guys - keen to swim, and bowl, and with ambitions to 'get jobs' when they're older (so being a monk isn't a lifelong calling as i'd imagined), but still strictly adhering to the rules - not being able to shake hands goodbye with us for example. To be honest i was surprised and pleased that we were able to have as much interaction with them as we did, sitting in the shade of the temple's trees and laughing away over memories of their drunken nights (on a 'break' from monking). Our final big trip was a river cruise along the Mekong to see some caves, which left us with sore bums from the hard wooden seats, but composing Alan Bennett-type stories in our heads about the lives of the river-dwellers, particularly the lone girl running the boats' floating petrol station.
We flew to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand half way through Jo's trip. The area is famous for cooking courses and hilltribe treks, so we signed up to both on the first day. Cooking came first, and a day of market touring, chopping, crushing and frying resulted in 7 delicious (if incredibly filling) new recipes and a group of new friends with whom we celebrated our new found culinary expertise long into the night at Chiang Mai's resident reggae bar.
Given the theme of the night before, the day which followed was suitably relaxed. We all had a late breakfast at a reformed herion addict-turned artist extraordinaire's cafe and were treated to his philosophies on life well into the sunny afternoon. A couple of iced coffees later, we all sauntered off to the Sunday Walking Market, a huge extravaganza of homemade bags, slippers, t-shirts, bracelets and PERFECT for present shopping - which i did in abundance. As the sun fell we ate in the market stall food section which was chock full of things to try (although the longest locals' queue was for chicken goujons and french fries!).
Trekking day dawned and we hauled our boots from the deepest darkest depths of our rucksacks and set off to the hills overlooking Burma with our guide, Boonwan ('lucky day'). We stopped off en route for a gratefully cooling 'dip' (more of a drenching plunge) in a waterfall before heading into the mozzy-infested forest. Although it was only a 9km walk, it was hot work uphill (particularly when one of you is still recovering from a hole in her pelvis!), but the views at the top were stunning, and we arrived at the village at which we would be spending the night long before sundown.
After showering (in a wooden hut with no light and with rainwater from a hose, but still the best shower i've had in ages), we all helped to cook, and were left to eat by ourselves. Apart from a half-hearted attempt to sell us a couple of headdresses, the locals didn't come near us again, which was disappointing as we'd envisioned a 'songs around the campfire' type evening, but our guide showed us a few string and stick tricks and we left for bed (mattresses and mozzie nets with the cats sleeping by our heads).
Waking up in the village starts early, and we could hear busy sounds around us long before we got up ourselves. But get up we did, and after breakfast (an entire white loaf toasted for 3 girls - they have a strange perception of how much Westerners eat!) we set off again into the hills. Today's trek was less tiring- mainly because a large chunk of it was spent on the neck of an elephant. I never thought I'd feel so secure astride Dumbo, with nothing to hold on to as he plodded into the murky river but his ears, but it was so comfy, I didn't want to get off. Although to be honest it wouldn't have mattered too much if we HAD been tossed into the river, as the final stretch of the trek was on board a bamboo raft (made before our very eyes) which promptly half sank the second we all stepped on board! We spent the rest of the day clinging to the sides as we rode the odd rapid, hip-deep in water.
Jo left us the next day, and Jess and I went straight to bed and slept for hours! We were going to try to see some more of the the northern towns, but we both loved Chiang Mai's sunny streets and relaxed atmosphere, so agreed to stay there and chill until we had to leave for Bangkok, and Nepal. We spent our time taking Thai massages (which are truly amazing, and only THREE pounds!), catching up on 2 weeks' worth of internet, reading and sleeping in preparation for a while new country, and for leaving SE Asia after two and a half months' travel.
I spent one day alone on the 'Flight of the Gibbon' - 2 km of zipwiring in the jungle to the sounds of the gibbon (although i'm not convinced that wasn't a recording ;) ). Although there's a lot of waiting around while you wait for everyone to get across, the treetop canopy is beautiful and i had a good group, with an average age of 17, which kept me entertained. "Don't you find you just meet all your mates out here?" One conversation went. "Well, no, not really. Most of my friends are very serious and in jobs." "oh. PAUSE. How old are you then?" "Twenty-five." "Oh, WHOA." Hmm.
We'd made friends with some guys training to be muai tai boxers and they motorbiked us up to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep one morning, just outside of Chiang Mai and past some stunning lookouts over the city. The temple itself is considered one of the most holy of the north, and it was full of worshippers being blessed bu the monks and hanging prayer bells and lighting incense. Heading back, we checked out the training gym (and i nearly got my head knocked off by the trainer who i had foolishly play-challenged) and went out for a few celebratory drinks by the river.
What we THOUGHT were going to be our last night drinks turned into a debauched affair (neither of us having quite managed to get used to the strength of Sangsom) which had us both reeling while packing the next day. Just as we staggered our bags downstairs though, an angelic vision in the shape of our guesthouse owner came out and told us that there was a train strike and our sleeper to Bangkok wouldn't be running. I've never been happier to climb back into bed in my life, and even though it meant that eventually we had to change to the sleeper bus (which is hell on wheels when sat in front of partying Israelis), it was worth it for that soft bed's night sleep!
Bangkok is as we left it two months ago and it feels like a fitting end to our trip to have circled back here before flying off to adventures new...