Matt: This is the first time i have had to sit down at a half decent PC since leaving Japan...so quite a bit has happened. We are now in Luang Prabang in Laos and have covered a fair bit of ground in the last week or so. I think that this is now day 17 of our trip and day 7 of our tour of Indochina. The tour is going relly well and the group is definitely bonding - and chilling out...or getting into "Laos Time".
But first to catch up a bit...Japan was great and I really got a lot from it. I would recommend a visit to Tokyo and Kyoto to everyone...although it definitely is not cheap, so wait for a Japanese economic crash and the exchange rate to get a bit better. But it is a great place to experience how the old, traditional ways of life are able to sit pretty comfortably next to what is basically the future.
Thailand, on the other hand, is definitely a place to come if you are on a budget...but cleanliness, order and peace suffer directly. Bangkok is basically mental and filthy and tourists are seen as walking pockets to be dipped into, although I am sure there are some nicer sides to be seen in the people and the traditional and Buddhist aspects of the culture.
However, if you do want to see that Chaing Mai is a nicer place to visit. We travelled by overnight sleeper train (14 hrs) to Chaing Mai which was pretty good despite the occasional cockroach. Chaing Mai itself was really good, more rural and a much slower pace, with nice street markets and food stalls. Our accomodation there was basic and clean, with hot running water...so we couldn't complain. We also managed to take part in a Thai cooking class where we learned to make (blow your head off) Tom Yam Soup, Fishcakes, Green Curry and Pad Thai...nice.
We left Chaing Mai a few days ago (I have lost track of exactly when) to head by bus (6hrs) to the border crossing on the Mekong River with Laos. We crossed the border in a tiny fishing boat and entered Laos in hot bright sunshine in Huay Xai.
Lao people are instantly more friendly and genuine than the Thais...they seem much less interested in trying to fleece you and more into making an honest buck by selling you food and souveniers etc.
The first place we stayed was a small guest house made up of little bamboo lodges (I will upload some photo's when we get somewhere with fast enough internet connections and reliable computers - we have lots of great pictures since we were last able to post).
Again - the accomodation was clean and comfortable, and the owner was nice enough to introduce us to Beer Lao...which I would recommend.
We had a quiet first night in Laos - eating a local version of Shabu Shabu and drinking rice whisky (LaiLai) which, although tasting very strong, leaves you neither drunk nor hung over. It provides a momentary fit of the giggles and then is gone ... strange.
The next day we were up early, boarded a barge and started a two day slow ride down the Mekong to Luang Prabang. The family who own, run and live on the boat were very hospitable and friendly - though very quiet. We are having to get used to the local cultural oddities of no public affection, taking off shoes to enter buildings, no touching of other people's heads and no pointing your feet - or showing the soles of your feet - to people.
The journey was pretty nice - time to relax, snooze, read etc as the hours and hours of Lao forests slipped past. It is an extrordinarily lush and undeveloped country - turned over almost entirely to self sufficient rural villages. We were even luck enough to be allowed to visit a small hill tribe on the way down the river. These are people who still live in traditional ways and live off the land...the pics will say it all (when I get them on here).
We stopped the first night at a small town called Pakbeng which is a real frontier town. The electricity comes on for 3 hours a night...between 6 and 9pm...so after a cold shower in the evening, there is not much to do as everything is pitch black.
We arrived in Luang Prabang yesterday afternoon and are here for 3 days. This is a really nice town, full of friendly people and all the travellers that are on similar trails around Indochina. We are staying in a lovely guest house - which again is made up of nice, individual timber lodges. We have a really nice room tucked away from everyone else...though the local rooster seams to know where we are and likes to let us know from about 4.30am to 9am...if I could find him I would kill him.
Kel and I, and another on our tour - Veronique - went on a 15km trek today across the local farms and hills (with a guide of cousre) to a beautful waterfall where we were able to swim in the cold, clear spring water...nice after the sweaty walk through the forests.
Kel and Veronique are now having a Lao massage, while I write this, and the we are heading for dinner - and a few more beer(lao)s.
Thanks to everyone who has been mailing us and putting messages on the blog board - it is appreciated. Sorry we aren't able to reply to them all - but decent, working internet access is kinda hard to get time on in this part of the world.
...hope all is well in the real world...peace...
Kel: Well I don't recommend traditional lao massage.... involved a lot of thumb prodding and a girl on all fours on my back! I was in absolute agony. Still you live and learn : ) We absolutely loved Luang Prabang. It's a preserved UNESCO site so there are no high rises or big developments. We spent another day exploring but the biggest highlight had to be a garden meal followed by the local disco (plus more lai lai) The locals were brilliant. They started off really really shyly. A local band was playing lao music and slowly a couple (always same sex - no couple couples) would get up and dance mostly with their hands. Cut to 1 hour later, the dj was banging out r&b tunes and the girls were bumping and grinding all over the place and enjoying the token westerner attempts too. We must have been twice the size and twice the age of everyone too - it was so much fun.
On our last day we went to an Ethnology museum which was a fascinating place to learn about the 50+ tribes in Laos and their local traditions. An evening flight (a wee jet propeller for 30 mins) took us to the capital, Vientiane... def one of the most chilled out capitals we've ever visited.
The next day we hired bikes (mine was a pink hello kitty one - cool) and cycled to a charity organisation called COPE, a prosthetics centre for people with lost limbs. We learnt more abou the impact of the Vietnam war in Laos. They call it a secret war because the US were frightened that Vietnamese would flee into Laos. They dropped more bombs in Laos than were dropped in the whole of the second world war and 30% didn't go off. It's a real concern today because since the population is fairly small vs size of land, kids don't come across the bombs v often so don't often realise the danger. Also they are made of heavy metal which could be worth 2 month's salary to them so they try and move them to sell them. Now and again they go off... so loads lose their lives and there are lots with losts limbs. V sad. The US totally denied it at the time and to this day don't fund any restoration projects - just awful. Had a real impact on us both.
Eating highlight in Vientiane was banana pancakes cooked by street vendors.... OMG - delicious. I'm salivating writing about them now. Dad you would love the general adoration for condensed milk here too. It's in desserts, coffees everything...euch.