Laos - Land of Smiles (and caves, waterfalls, beer Lao, pigs, goats, ducks and RAIN!!!)
After getting our lift at the Thai border that saved our day we drove for a couple of hours heading north towards Ubon Ratchathani which was our destination for the day. Our driver was not heading that far but would drop us off at a bus to get us there. It was 6:30pm and dark by the time we got a bus and it was a local one at that. We rattled along in the old bus for about 2-3 hours until we reached the town. Once there we were starving as no food had been consumed since breakfast. I was hanging out for some Thai food but our choice of restaurants near our hotel was limited and being so late we didn't want to wonder far. We ended up having a simple fair of noodle soup with egg as no-one spoke English and the food on offer was very much not too my liking (offal, liver etc).
The next morning we were back at the bus station and getting our tickets for Pakse in Laos. The trip was very straight forward and after paying the $30us visa fee I was in Laos. It was only about a 3 hour trip all up and we arrived into the town of Pakse just after lunch.
At the border we met a retired Englisman who had a very interesting story. The gentleman had been in Thailand back during the Vietnam war building airstrips. During his time there he had a Thai girlfriend (as many of the guys did back then). The gentleman decided that when he retired that he would go back a revisit the places he got to know so well during the war and see if he could catch up with any of his old contacts including the old girlfriend. He spent weeks following leads of her existence around Thailand and on the Saturday night before he was to leave for good on the Monday he decided to take a different approach and ask if someone knew someone who new someone and sure enough she was found but not only did he find his old girlfriend but the daughter she had (she was pregant when he left but she kept it a secret from him) and a grandson also. So he now lives in Ubon Ratchathani with his family and has bought them a home. He also has family (a sister I think) in Kettering, Tasmania and will be there over Xmas. It would be funny to run into him again.
Pakse is a basic town but clean and quiet and the afternoon was spent catching up on emails, eating some good food and having a beer Lao. Beer Lao is the local brew (and only brew) and is really good stuff. It costs 10,000 kip for a 640ml bottle (6,500 kip to the OZ dollar). You can also get a dark beer lao which is pretty good but more expensive than the lager.
The next morning I headed off early south to the 4,000 islands to spend a few days hanging out on the island of Don Det. The islands are part of the Mekong and there is only 4,000 of them during the dry season when the water levels fall and islands of sand are exposed. Don Det Island is very popular with backpackers but fortunately it is the low season so only a handful of tourists where there. My bungalow was situated on the sunset side of the island and cost me a whopping 15,000 kip. I stayed for 4 nights and spent the days bike riding, getting caught in the rain (BIG TIME!!!), eating at the one and only bakery on the island and run by and Aussie guy, eating pumpkin burgers which are a specialty on the island, enjoying the local chicken larp dish (also comes in pork and beef) and drinking beer lao at sunset.
My next destination was Champasak where the Wat Phu Champasak was located. A significant Angkorian temple for Laos. It lies just 240km from Angkor Wat in Cambodia. I hired a bike to ride the 15km to the temple. It was a rainy day and I got caught in a shower along the way but nothing to drastic. The temple was much in ruin but very beautiful and definitely worth the trip out.
From Champasak it was back to Pakse where I stayed for a couple of days waiting for the rain to clear. I was to head out to the Bolaven Plateau but with it raining so much and having to return to Pakse once again should I head out there I decided to head north and see if I could escape the rain. I ended up in Savanakeet which is well known for good trekking. The town itself was very ordinary and with the weather still threatening rain I didn't like the idea of trekking out in it so I decided to head further north to Tha Khek. As I arrived to a hotel in Tha Khek the heavens opened up. I really wasn't having much luck escaping the blasted rain (but hey its the wet season so what can one expect) and it bucketed down for probably near and hour. The next day however was fab and so I rented a bicycle and headed out to a cave. It was a beautiful ride through the limestone karst hills and along the way I witnessed locals fishing.
Next I headed north-east to Kong Lo cave with a swiss guy that I had met in Tha Khek. The journey required two buses and our first bus left from the local bus station at 7:30am. The trip took until 11:30am to a village called Na Hin and once we arrived we were soon to discover that the local bus to the village where the boats left for the cave wouldn't leave until 2pm. So with 2.5 hours to fill we found one of the very few restaurants in town and had a simple meal of fried noodles and vegetables. The bus left a little earlier (about 1:30pm) and another foreigner was on this bus also making her way to the cave (Chokyo form Tokyo, Japan). She had come up from Tha Khek on the 9am bus (which required a change on the main highway) and was intending to return to Tha Khek that night. Haans (the swiss guy) and I looked at each other and then looked at her and said "so you can get transport back this afternoon" and she seemed pretty confident she could. I explained that the boat trip would take 3 hours alone and we both knew that it would be unlikely that a bus would be going back tonight. When we got to the village from where the boat departs for the cave Chockyo asked the driver when the next bus would be going back only to discover that the next bus was at 7:30am the next morning.
Thankfully there were 3 of us to take the trip as the boats are hired out per boat not per person and hold up to three people so we were able to share the cost. The trip was amazing and scary. We travelled 7km on the boat through the cave with only flashlights to show us the way. In some parts the ceiling was low but in others it was several stories high. At one point we got stuck and our two drivers had to pull us out. We travelled in both directions through the cave and passed locals on our way back transporting their goods (so it was obviously a main thoroughfare to get upriver and not just a tour for tourists). It was dark once we came out of the cave and we had about a 15 minute journey until we arrived back to the village. The drivers had to navigate there way back with flashlights being cautious of rocks and trees. At one point out boat nearly tipped (and we were not wearing life jackets) and we took on quite a bit of water. The trip back was made in silence and I am sure we all prayed to make it back without going in the river first as the top of the boat was just 5cm from the water.
Once back in the village we had to organise a place to stay. As there are no guesthouses here our only option was to stay in a home stay. What a wonderful experience. The three of us rocked up to this family home and the mother was soon in the kitchen preparing us dinner and making up beds for us in the main living room (mossie nets and all). Our dinner consisted of instant noodle soup, omelettes and banana's, simple but very satisfying fare. Us ladies had to wear traditional Lao skirts while in the house. The toilet was outside down and around a path and was shared by many of the villages (a squat toilet but fairly clean and not smelly). We all went to bed early (about 8:30pm) as we could see that the family wanted to go to bed also.
The family was made up of Grandma (who sat on her cushion and ate this thing that she spat out continuously and was red - gross), mum, 3 daughters and a son. There was also another son but he lived in his own home as he was married. The father had died the previous year.
The next morning we rose at about 6am with breakfast waiting. First we had to go through the tradition of putting on a Lao scarf, holding a boiled egg and sticky rice in the palm of our hand while the mum and the older son and the home stay manager tied string around our wrists and wished us luck. It was very nice. Then we ate our sticky rice and boiled egg along with fried rice and omelettes and noodle soup (I only made it through the boiled egg and fried rice and even then I was absolutely stuffed). The cost to stay in the home stay was 50,000kip and was an experience not to be missed.
Once back on the bus we arrived back to the village of Na Hin to get a bus to the highway so that I could head north to Vientiane, Haans north to Paksan and Chockyo south to Tha Khek. Within ten minutes a bus for Tha Khek arrived. We all hopped on as Haans and I could get off at the intersection on the main highway to catch a bus north. This we did and within 5 minutes we were on a bus north. At Paksan I bid farewell to Haans and mid afternoon I arrived into the capital city of Vientianne. I decided to be lazy and catch a tuk tuk to the main hotel area on the waterfront. I lookd at several places before settling on the Youth Inn near the waterfront. It was nothing flash and cost 70,000 kip p/night but was convenient to the cafes and restaurants (which is very important).
Vientiane would have to be one of the most laid back capital cities in the world. Even Hobart moves at a faster pace. The traffic is minimal and you can comfortably ride a push bike around at any time of the day. It is flat and so walking everywhere is easy also. Not much to do in the way of sightseeing but a place to just sit back and enjoy the cafe's and river front restaurants. The river is quite a wide stretch and on the other side is Thailand. It is strange to sit on one side and to look over and see another country.
One evening at one of the river front restaurants I ordered a meat soup for my dinner. A local couple were eating this and so I asked the waiter what it was and he explained that it was a meat soup that comes with fish, chicken, beef and pork and you cook it yourself. I only wanted to try it with chicken and this was no problem. So out comes my little coal stove with a clay pot boiling with a stock for my soup. I also got a plate of thinly sliced chicken and a basket of greens (mint, basil, morning glory etc along with glass noodles and an egg) in addition was the garnish of chilli, fresh limes and garlic. My waiter then explained what I had to do as I was not sure what went in first. First was my egg, followed by my chicken and then the greens and glass noodles. Let it boil for a few minutes and then it was time to eat. Boy was it yummy. One of the best dishes I had on my travels and one I will certainly give a go on my return to OZ.
During my stay I meet some expats and spent the Friday night and Saturday afternoon watching the semi finals of the AFL.
On the Sunday I headed north to Vang Vieng famous for its tubing. Vang Vieng is not a very big town and you can ride a bike around the main part in all of 10 minutes. It is full of backpackers and restaurants showing reruns of Friends. I spent 2 days here and on the first day rented a bike and rode out through the more rural parts where you can see many caves. I visited only one cave and it was very disappointing so did not bother with any of the other 10 that you could see. The next day I took a Kayaking trip that took in one of the bars on the river. The tour included a visit to a cave that is used as a temple and has a couple of big buddha's in it and then we went to the water cave. This was really cool and after we had our lunch we grabbed out tyre tubes and strapped on our flashlights and went into the cave. There was a rope of about 200 metres long that you could pull yourself along on but then the rope stopped and you had to paddle your way around. The ceiling was quite low in places and you had to watch your head.
Next we had to paddle quite a distance (the trip was about 20 km in total along the river) to one of the 6 bars that lined a section of the river. We had a few spills along the way but fortunately I was paired up with one of the guides so I had a nice safe trip.
The river bars are insane. You get to them by tyre tubes or kayaks. The bars are about 6-10kms north of the town and once you have hired your tube you are taken to the starting point and then you just float your way down the river and stop in at the bars of your choice. The bars have swings and zip-lines to throw yourself into the river and after several beers it doesn't take much to get people to do it. There have been some fatalities though as people get so drunk they fall out of their tubes and drown.
The next day I made the god awful journey to Luang Prabang. It took about 6 hours or so to travel about 240kms around windy roads up and down mountains. At one stage I just wanted to get off the bus and scream. The trip though was worth it as Luang Prabang is a beautiful place. The old quarter is free of traffic as it is a UNESCO world heritage site (would love to show you photos but my camera disc has a virus and I cannot download my photos). It has a nightly market of local souvenirs and in the mornings there is the locals' market of fruits, vegetables and meats (including rats and lizards - yep they eat anything and there is no bird life in Laos as they have eaten all of them too). I spent my days here eating (what's new), noodle soups for breakfast (and sometimes lunch too), the most amazing omelettes ever and grilled fish and chicken for dinner washed down with a beer Lao of course. I walked around heaps and on rainy days kicked back and watched a bit of telly and on my last day I watched the AFL Grand Final in one of the bars - what a great game!!
I also got up very early one morning (5am) to watch the morning alms. This is where the buddhist monks walk along the streets with their bis silver bowls and receive offerings of rice from the locals. It was a very beautiful thing to witness.
My next destination was Huay Xai, the border town to Thailand in the north. I needed to get to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand and this was the gateway. I had two options to get there, a 2 day scenic boat trip along the mekong or a 15 hour overnight bus ride from hell through the windy roads and mountains. I opted for the boat which turned out to be very adventurous. We left a bit after 8:30am and in an hour or so upriver our boat broke down, w***, not a good start. We had to wait for another boat to come and get us to continue the journey. This took over an hour and we all piled onto the new boat (which was bigger and we had more room to spread out so we were better off) but now we would be late and we would be pushing it to make it to our overnight stop of Pakbeng by nightfall. The trip was beautiful but long and by the time the sun had gone down we were still more than an hour out from Pakbeng. The captain had his foot down and we were quickly trying to get to the next village before it became too dark to see the river (the river is full of debris and logs and big trees so it is important to see where you are going). We made it and we were advised that this is where we would be staying the night. Cool an adventure we said and you can't complain about a free night's accommodation. The village was small but had a couple of stores and noodle bars so we could fill our tummies and buy snacks for the following day. There was even beer Lao but with no electricity it was a very warm beer Lao (I refuse to drink warm beer even its free). So we bedded down for the night on the floor of the boat and I managed to get a few hours sleep on the hard floor and then as soon as day broke the boat had started and we were on our way to Pakbeng. At Pakbeng we had to change boats so it was important that we get there in time, in which we did with time to spare. At 9am we started the next part of the journey and arrived at 6pm into Huay Xai. A night was to be had on this side of the border as immigration closes at 6pm (they obviously time the boat so that you cannot cross in the same day). It was great to have a shower and sleep in a bed ( how you appreciate the little things when they are taken away from you for a night).
The next morning I was up bright and early to make the crossing when the border opened at 8am.
My journey through Laos was over!!!!