Unarguably Laos is one of the most beautiful countries I have had the opportunity to visit. After having spent just one week here I am already head over heels with the country and feel certain it's going to be my favourite in south east Asia. In comparison to Malaysia and Thailand the journeys from town to town are quite enjoyable. Yes, they're always 5/6 hours longer than stated and yes you spent half your time reaching for the sick bag because the roads are attrocious, but it's so worth it for the spectacular views. It's a fantastic country because on arrival you have the choice of travelling by road or by river. The river option is rather appealing, spending two days on a slowboat travelling to Luang Prabang. Two days of relaxing aboard a boat, drinking and watching the water buffalo swimming in the Mekong, who can complain? It's undeniably the most popular option with travllers, especially those travelling alone as it's a great way to meet people. Dan and I however, were feeling a little tired of being stuck on the tourist trail and decided it would be a better use of our time to head further up north by road to Nong Khiaw, a small town on the banks of the Nam Ou River.
The journey was like no other. There we were, Dan and I, two germans, two locals, a french girl and an American boy crammed into a "vip" minibus. The two germans, a couple I believe, provided the entertainment for the trip. In true (stereotypical of course) german fashion they threw themselves in the bus before the driver had had the chance to put on his handbrake and claimed their seats. After a lot of huffing and puffing, complaining to the driver, throwing used toilet tissue at the local children (?!) they seemed to settle into their seats. There'll be more about these two later in the story...
The road, if you can call it that, was trecherous to say the least, but it was an experience. Six hours of being thrown around in a dust filled van can make even those with the strongest stomach feel a little queasy. Throw in the raw rodents that we were offered for our lunch time snack and it's time for a sick bag. The raw rodents actually lead to us making friends with a couple Richard and Carol, he - an American masters student, she - a french psychiatrist, they - met travelling in Peru and have been together for three years. Really lovely couple and became fantastic friends of ours over the next few days.
We all arrived together into Nong Khiaw and wow! As I mentioned the town is set on the banks of the Nam Ou River, against a backdrop of limestone mountains and beautiful river views. To cross into the main town you take a short walk across the bridge which is fantastic. We were blown away by the beauty of the place. I just fell in love. The town seems to be stuck somewhere inbetween maintaining it's traditional ways and turning into a fully fledged tourist town. To me, it felt authentic, deserted, as though it were still waiting to be discovered. There were only a handful of places to stay and we managed to get a nice guesthouse with rooms for both Dan and I, and Carol and Rich.
On our first day, Dan and I went to visit the Patok cave. During the Laos civil war the cave acted as a northern headquarters for the Pathet-Laos forces. We climbed the rickity wooden ladden into the dark interior of the cave and groped our way around. The cave is charmingly out of the way, meaning you can explore the cave alone with only the there children tour guides for company. We were quite grateful for the children who followed us around silently, providing torches for guidance. However, when we were leaving they each stuck their hands out demanding money "kip kip." It's really awful when they do that. I hate to give them money because it's of no use. The children don't keep it, and those that do settle into the mindset that they would rather 'work' for money, than attend school daily. I think in the end we gave them a very small amount of money as they wouldn't go away, but I won't be doing that again!
The next afternoon when we were all sitting out on our balconies, a few more travellers arrived and it turned out Rich and Carol had met a few of them along the way so we all set out for dinner and drinks. It turned into a rather drunken affair as we went to drink with one of the locals who insisted we call him 'Papa' and his wife 'Mama.' He was hilarious. In Laos they have a local spirit of rice whisky named 'Lao Lao' and it is lethal. Papa found it hysterical when the ten of us were sitting there doing Lao Lao slammers (I think that may be something we invented!) It was a great evening and so fun to sit with the locals and learn more about them. We did however pay for our evening of fun and the next morning with heavy heads we made our way to the boat dock to leave to go up river to Muang Gnoi. The Lao Lao claimed me as it's victim and got it's revenge by making me so poorly I had to retire back to the guesthouse and take the boat the next day! Cringeee.
Attempt two at leaving Nong Khiaw was much more successful. We hopped aboard a long tail boat to head for Muang Gnoi. It was magical. There are no cars, no motorbikes, no telephones, no internet and barely electricity. It felt so peaceful. They call Laos the land of a million smiles - Muang Gnoi cemented this for me. The villagers were so friendly and welcoming. Whilst there's not much in the way of creature comforts, the locals have done all they can to make it a comfortable place to visit. The day we arrived was Rich's 28th birthday so of course we had to celebrate!
We spent the afternoon in Muang Gnoi's equivalent of a cocktail bar, playing cards, dice and drinking the dreaded Lao Lao. Of couse, we were all pretty merry by 2pm but there's not really a lot else to do on Muang Gnoi except float down the river in a tube. We played pigs, I'm not sure you can really call it a game. Rich produced two small pink pigs and the game was that you throw the pigs like dice and score points depending on the position they land in (exactly, it was a bit silly!) We accidentally left the pigs in the bar when we went for dinner and when we went back they were gone!! Tragedy. Rich was drunk and pratically crying saying he'd had the pigs since he was a child. He then went on to accuse the locals of stealing our small pigs. Don't forget that we were in a small village where they speak no english. They must have thought we were insane asking if they had seen our small pigs that we had left on the table. We ended up getting in a spot of bother with the locals, turns out they don't like being accused of stealing, and they especially don't like having their photograph taken. At the exact moment they turned the electricity off, I was falling over the chickens, Carol was being sick in a squat toilet in a shed and the boys were celebrating the safe return of the pigs (turned out the locals had stolen them and we found them behind the bar!!). It was a great day.
Ps. We've had a catastrophe with our camera and have somehow managed to corrupt our memory card. Hopefully we can save the photo's of Laos but there will be none until we get home!
Pps. I'm super behind with the blog as we've not had a huge amount of time to access the internet!