Laos - 11.06.11 - 28.06.11
Before I came to Laos I'm afraid to say it was a country I had heard very little about but I can definitely say now that it is a country to which I would love to return. The pace of life in Laos runs at a considerably slower pace than that of its neighbours. In fact it is a lot slower than that of any country I have been to, even in Fiji where they really do run on island time Laos appears to be one step behind. Unfortunately it is not just in this sense that the country is so far behind. It is one of the 15 poorest countries in the world with a per capita income of less than $1000. I read in an article that almost a third of people in Laos survive on less than a dollar a day and a staggering 74% on less than $2. It is hardly possible to conceive these figures when you are faced with the people of the country. These are the ones who offer you a lift to the bus in their tuk tuk for free so you don't miss it and who run out of their shop after you to let you know they haven't given you enough change. The kindness we were shown in our time here was overwhelming and it is for this reason I will tell everyone to visit this stunning country.
Don Det and the 4000 Islands
Laos is landlocked but it still manages to cram in some 4000 islands, well not exactly. In the dry season the river recedes to reveal thousands of islets, some nothing more than a single tree, but all year round three islands remain and we chose Don Det island for our residence during our first 4 nights in Laos. Once we had finally crossed the border from Cambodia we were greeted by a massive construction site and mounds of mud which had the VIP bus stuck. This pleased me greatly as we were travelling on the cheapos bus and our driver must have been to school, he turned around in the dry patch. A boat ride to the island and a short but hot and sweaty walk along a mud path brought us to our new home, a wooden hut with 2 hammocks out on the decking for just shy of £2.50. We settled right in, got the books out and lazed away the day. Time for some action and a cycle to…well to as far as we could be bothered to go. On our mini tour we stumbled upon a man and woman working on what looked like a small hut made out of clay. We parked up the bikes to ask them what they were doing and of course they told us exactly what they were up to but I didn't have a clue about a single word of it. On closer inspection we figured out that they were making coal, not something I had seen before. In return for some picture taking and Adam having a go with the saw we exchanged smiles and proffered a cigarette and carried on our way. We were happily spending our days like this, it was just bliss until Martijn and Linda and a new girl, Emily, arrived from Cambodia, apparently it was time for us to wake up and get back on our bikes. We rode to neighbouring island Don Khong and visited a stunning waterfall, the colour of it was a little off-putting but we were promised that in the dry season it is a gorgeous teal colour, I'm not so sure. This waterfall is the reason why it is not possible to travel through Laos to China but I guess that's why man invented aeroplanes. The main attraction of this area is the presence of the rare Irrawaddy dolphins that congregate in a 50 metre deep pool, unfortunately for us, just inside the Cambodian border. However, luckily enough corruption sometimes works in your favour and for a small fee you can pass back into Cambodia, buy a beer in dollars and see the dolphins. It wasn't that expensive to make the trip from Laos to Cambodia but we had heard reports from other travellers that the dolphins can be rather elusive and the trip is a serious waste of time so good old Linda stepped up. She bargained with the driver that if we didn't see any dolphins we didn't have to pay him and he agreed. We needn't have worried, we saw about 12!
Life on the islands was bliss and there was little reason to get worried about anything, everything seemed so safe, however trouble was afoot, no, literally. Every time you go into a restaurant or bar or even the local supermarket you have to remove your shoes. This is not specific to Don Det island, it has been this way throughout Asia though I'm not good at knowing when you have to remove your shoes and when you don't, I just look for the pile of fake Havaianas outside and add my real ones to the collection. As we left one riverside bar to head for another my flip flops were nowhere to be seen, in fact the only pair that looked like they would be even a close fit for my tiny feet were black and fake. I did a scan and found the bar lady wearing my wonderful real, grey Havaianas. She seemed to think it was an honest mistake, I think she needed to go to Specsavers.
This was where our adventure really began. Up until now we clearly didn't know what fun really was but I can tell you now that fun is sitting in the back of a pick up truck with 32 other people including 3 monks, 7 chickens and 4 crates of fish for 3 hours, now that is real fun! As we travelled it was so interesting to see the way that people from different cultures react. The youngsters made way for their elders and there were 2 sisters, one was about 4 and the other probably 7, the eldest really looked out for her sister, tried to make her laugh when she was upset, cuddled her when she was falling off the seat and gave her own food away when it was clear she was still hungry. Things like this are unfortunately sorely missed in our culture. Another local bus and a walk for us, a lift in the back of a truck for the rest of the crew, and we arrived at the very small village of Tat Lo. The town is in the area just south of the Bolaven Plateau which is known for stunning waterfalls, lush forests and plentiful rivers all in the same area where Laos coffee is grown. We had a little hut, of course with hammocks, on the edge of the river overlooking a small but still impressive waterfall, a 5 minute walk up the river brought us to another waterfall. Two local girls showed us the way and, followed by a little dog, we cooled off in the pools at the top of the falls. For some reason our thirst for waterfalls had not been quenched though I cannot tell you how many we have seen during our trip and I am a real snob now so we rented motorbikes and headed up to the plateau. For a region known for its huge coffee growing industry there was a hell of a lot of cabbages, no really, there were huge trucks and trailers all full with cabbages and I was wondering if we had gone the wrong way but we stumbled upon a cute coffee shop where fortunately they also served hot chocolate seeing as I can't stand the stuff. Here they also sold Kopi Luwak, the same thing we/Adam had in Indonesia and they ship to England for reasonable prices so if you're interested in coffee found in poo then let me know.
We continued on our motorbikes having been refreshed and revitalised and I with a carrier bag full of ice tied to my leg in an attempt at first aid. I had gotten myself the infamous Saigon kiss though it had to be renamed the Bolaven kiss and my leg was stinging. The 2 waterfalls we found were immense. They both had 2 high cascades running down the mountain with a huge power force, in fact I might go as far as saying that these were the best waterfalls I have seen and that is saying something. So next time you find yourself with a motorbike and a few hours to kill on the Bolaven Plateau in southern Laos, do make sure you take a look.
Tha Khaek and Kong Lo Cave
I had heard all manner of wonderful things about the Kong Lo cave, according to the travellers grapevine it was a must see. However we were too far away to make it in one day, well we were too far away if travelling by local buses in Laos time, the 300km journey took a total of 13 hours, when in Rome… Eventually we stopped in the closest large town for a night's rest before setting off again the following day for more than likely another excessively long trip. Unfortunately I hadn't realised that this town is also a border town for entering Thailand so there was no river view, no hammock, no mosquito net, no soft mattress, no privacy at all just a room for 10 at the bargain price of £2.50 EACH, I wanted to cry. To make matters worse the group, which was now at 6 including Adam and I, were having trouble deciding how to get to Kong Lo cave. There is a "must do" from Tha Khaek called the loop where you travel for 3 days by motorbike and end up back at the start (I'm not sure I really needed to clarify that, I did say it was a loop) but that sounded like asking for trouble to me. 2 days on bikes in Vietnam with professional riders was bad enough so Adam and I declined and the rest spent the next 10 hours talking about it.
The next morning, alone, we headed to a little village, dropped off our bags and hired a motorbike to do our own very mini loop. It was a brand new bike and the pressure was a bit intense, we more than doubled the mileage on our 50 miles ride. We weren't sure of the way and shouted to some locals who pointed us in the right direction. It appeared however to be the right direction for tractors and as we stared at the river flowing over the road and I waded through it to establish it was knee deep, we realised there must be another road. In fact the other road was perfectly straight, river free and brand new. It was lovely to ride on and the views of tree covered mountains either side, bright green rice paddies in between and the bamboo huts with small children waving away as we passed meant the thought of the cave was well out of our minds. When we arrived we realised that this "famous" cave was most likely to be a let down but that the journey had been worth it nonetheless. The cave itself is a 7.5km long tunnel running beneath limestone cliffs set in 1580 sq km of national park and was most definitely not a disappointment. We entered the cave through a small tunnel entrance and boarded a long boat, this was the only way to explore the cave. It was magically spooky as the light faded and the boat sped along in the cold and dark cavern. The height of the cave reached up to 100m high at some points and half way we moored up to explore a floodlit area of stalactites and stalagmites, the whole experience was well worth the 40,000 kip, £4.00.
Vientiane is the capital city and is home to a whopping 350,000 people. We arrived on a Sunday lunchtime and it reminded me of the scene from 28 days later when he's walking through the streets of London, if you haven't seen that film and don't know who I'm talking about then all I can say is "Loser". The fact that the Lonely Planet states "There are five ATMs in Vientiane" shows the sheer power the place holds. The city became one the classic Indochinese cities when it became a French protectorate in the 19th century and the abundance of patisseries and the French shuttered buildings are the only giveaway of this fact today. The city was taken over by CIA agents, US Special Forces and Russian spies during the Vietnam War, however, according to the 1954 Geneva Convention, Laos was a neutral nation but the largely, though not officially, communist country clearly was no friend to the US. The result of this was massive carpet bombing that devastated eastern and north eastern Laos from 1964-1973. The bombing of Laos is known as the Secret War and it is estimated that 260 million bombs were dropped on Laos, which is the equivalent of a planeload of ordnance every nine minutes, but worse than that is that 78 million of them failed to explode. Since the end of the war over 12,000 people have fallen prey to UXO and there is a centre in Vientiane to provide support to their victims.
The city was calm and filled with tourists, the only locals we saw were business people who worked in the large companies like GlaxoSmithKline and Price Waterhouse Cooper. There was a dual carriageway headed by an Arc de Triomphe replica that was built in 1969 with cement that the US donated to build a new airport, the name for it locally is the vertical runway. The city and our visit was non eventful and we were ready to leave as we headed to Vang Vieng.
Throughout Asia we had seen plenty of travellers sporting vest tops that said Tubing in the Vang Vieng. These vests and the ideas that I had regarding tubing meant that, I am sorry to say, I judged each and every one of these people and labelled them as being chavs. I am now the proud owner, well owner at least, of one of these vests and can say that the whole experience was just a lot of good old fashioned fun. The town of Vang Vieng lies along the river and we welcomed back our hammock and our view as we lazed away watching copious episodes of Friends and Family Guy until we finally moved from the hammock to the tube.
Whoever thought up this concept is a genius but unfortunately it is responsible for at least one death a year although the locals will tell you that is only the official figure, the real number is around 5. You hire an inner tube for a rather hefty sized tyre and are taken in a tuk tuk 4km upstream. Here you are dropped off and begin in the Start Tubing bar. Whisky is free and it comes in the form of a bottle being poured into your mouth, a water gun shooting it into your mouth or just plain old shots. You can buy buckets of cocktails and drink offers are common. The bars will draw on you, spray paint on you, tie things on you and hose you with water, all in the name of fun. You sit in the tube float down the river stopping at the bars as you go, the locals throw you a rope with a plastic bottle attached to help you in to their bar and shout such things as free food, free slide, free mud wrestling and the piece de resistance, free spliffs. At some bars they have made slides from a piece of plastic and some bathroom tiles, not something I intended on throwing myself down, but Adam had a blast. The music is blaring and the drinks are flowing, they used to have zip lines and rope swings but it was apparently these that caused the high death rate so they have now been removed. The tube needed to be returned by 6pm or else there was a penalty, another great money spinner as it's almost impossible to keep an eye on the time when you are having so much fun. We arrived back with ours at 8pm.
That evening the crew arrived from their loop to the Kong Lo cave and how pleased was I that we declined when we discovered that it had been a complete disaster. They had taken till almost midday to find enough motorbikes, had suffered 2 flat tyres and the rain did not subside. They had to abandon day 1 and start again the following day, perhaps I should consider a job as a fortune teller when I return home.
It seemed that all the talk of tubing had Adam jealous and he wanted to go again, we should have been almost leaving Laos by now but this place had us hooked. Unfortunately being in and out of a cold and dirty river all day and in and out of the rain had not agreed with me so I declined and Adam was sent out with strict instructions to return before 6pm. As I lay in my sick bed watching Nanny Mcphee 2, I heard shouting coming from outside, Adam and some of the crew, now at 7 by the way, went floating past the balcony. It was pretty cool to see.
One of the reasons why Vang Vieng had us hooked was sadly because of the copious variety of western food, delights such as pizza and jacket potatoes was a serious draw. I met a lovely Australian girl who told me that since the cyclone devastated the east coast of Australia, which we of course knew all about, the price of bananas had risen to $13 per kilo, she was loving Asia where they give you bananas for free and with everything. In case you don't know, I do not eat bananas, they make me heave, even the sight of them used to be enough to make me turn but I've had to get used to it as they are as common in Asia as chips are in England. It became a bit of a joke for me, as we planned our next stop I would find myself saying "I really hope they have bananas and rice"
Our trip to Luang Prabang was long. The roads were so windy they even made Adam feel travel sick, the huge amount of rain they had suffered had caused a number of landslides, we even saw one hurtling down the mountain towards us as the driver squeaked and sped up. I was wondering if perhaps Laos didn't like us after all. The town of Luang Prabang is a UNESCO world heritage site, we hadn't seen one of them for a while, and with its cute lantern lit streets, the quiet river running by, the peninsula covered in crumbling old French villas and the copious amount of sparkling temples, it wasn't too hard to see why. However as luck would have it the rain, aka a storm, was playing havoc with much of SE Asia including northern Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, and that included Luang Prabang. We had missed all weather catastrophes up until now and I was starting to get a bit edgy, in fact all the travellers in the hotel were concerned for their plans so what do you do when the going gets tough? Go shopping. There was a really sweet little night market and the rain stayed away just long enough for us to enjoy it. The market was not the usual tat you see but local handicraft items where all the profits go to the sellers rather than partly to the local council so bargaining was easy and the quality of the items was amazing. What wasn't amazing was getting lost on the way back to the hotel and walking for 10 times longer than we should have, we couldn't even get a tuk tuk as we didn't remember where we were staying. I don't intend to do that again.
The rain was only spitting the next morning so armed with my new umbrella we headed to the temple of Wat Xieng Thong. The temple sits on the northern tip of the peninsula with views of the Mekong. Commissioned by the king in 1560 only a few hundred years after the building of Angkor, and the style couldn't have been more different. The wat sparkled, a tree of life mosaic filled the back wall of one of the buildings and outside gold glittered and a stunning mirror mosaic elephant stuck out from the side wall. It was one of my favourite temples, until the rain came again. My umbrella leaked and we arrived back at the hotel soaked through, my spirits had been dampened, pun intended.
Next up was our last trip in Laos and this journey was the worst I have had in my entire trip. The tuk tuk collected us at 6pm and we were transported to our bus, this left at 7pm. After 14 and a half hours of winding roads, land slides, un-surfaced roads, pot holes and other passengers puking, singing and playing the guitar we arrived safely at the border with Thailand. The only good thing I could say about this journey was that as we travelled high in the mountains we saw some of the local Hmong tribes people heading to work. They all carried bags made from old cement packaging, I had bought myself a handbag made from the same material in Cambodia for $3 but I'm sure they had not chosen theirs due to the cute elephant design.
Laos had been our good friend and I hope the country invites us to return very soon.