Hey everyone, i believe last time i wrote i spoke of the life draining 60 hr mission from Kunming in China to our starting point in Laos, Houyaxai, near the border with Thailand. It featured a 12 hr overnight sleeper bus from Kunming to Jinghong, with 6 of us crammed into a bus's width. nice. After a quick sojourn to Jinghong market for a breakfast of beef noodle soup, began a 6 hr hop from Jinghong to Mengla followed by a mere 2 hr ride to Mohan in the south of Yunnan province. We finally got a bus to the border at 4pm, just in time to go through the mandatory 1 and a half hour wait for no apparent reason and having finally crossed, we learned that we couldnt actually get anywhere in Laos that night as busses were finished for the day and we were stuck in a tiny town called Boten which appeared to be hotel-less. Eventually we managed to persuade a tuk tuk driver to ferry us 60km up the road to the nearest town, Louang Namtha and having parted with our 60,000 kip (4 quid) we could finally relax as we spent a night in this quiet town. First impressions of Laos were not exactly massively contrasting to southern China, pretty poverty-ridden, some beautiful terrain (unless you wanna go for a drive) and pretty undeveloped/not much chance of meaningful chit chat with the locals. The reason for our great sojourn to the east of Laos was to take the two day slow boat from Houyaxai to Louang Prabang, so first thing in the morning we managed to catch the 6 hour bus from Louang Namtha to Houyaxai. Full marks by the way to anyone who's still following this as its hard enough recounting the journey in detail, knowing the places involved! Anyway we finally departed Houyaxai on wednesday morning, some three days after arriving in Kunming. This had better be good....
And we were not disappointed. This 2 days slow boat is a very popular of travelling across Laos from Thailand and is a fantastic way to see some of this country (not to mention a damn sight safer than getting on the roads!) Although lacking in comfort as the boats are generally packed to the rafters with tourists, it makes for a fantastic couple of days, with great views, good people and plenty of what was rapidly becoming our favourite beer in Asia, the woirld famous BeerLao. Stopping overnight in Pakbeng provided a chance to get to know the rest of our boat better but as we would find with so much of Laos, its a great country and really good fun... until about 9.30 pm when it goes to sleep. So we arrived the following afternoon (thursday) to the first of our three main stops in Laos, Louang Phabang. The city is the first main stop on the tourist route through Laos and does have some pretty impressive sights around the city. With our spare day in Louang Prabang we checked out the Pak Ou caves, which are a very impressiver sight. Once inside you discover that they are used as storage for hundreds upon hundreds of serenely smiling Buddha images that are no longer used, which is pretty spooky in the pitch black. Not that i was scared or anything. Also appropriate to mention that our two nights in Louang Phabang featured firstly a bizzare experience as we discovered that pretty much everything in the town shuts by 10pm, when the electricity is switched off and so everyone heads to this bowling ally on the outskirts of town, which is literally the only option to get light and sound, let alone a drink. So Western and Laos folk mingle over a few BeerLaos and the occasional half strike til 4 am at this tiny bowling ally, very bizzare! Our second night was noteworthy only for the 5 of us (punch, myself, 3 lads from our boat) playing the Laos Poker Million event as we played to become millionaires. (about 40 quid)
The following day meant another bus journey unfortunately but it was only a few hours down to Vang Viang. Those that have been will have had their fun and games in Vang Viang, its such a crazy place. It is typical of the contrasts we have found in countries like Laos and Cambodia, countries with terribly sad histories, ravaged and wartorn that are split between remembrance and education of sadder times past and a freakishly laid back attitude which manifests itself in some of its tourism. Vang Viangs main attraction is tubing down a 4km stretch of the Nam Xong river. Sitting in big rubber tubes, you can relax and watch the world go by, safe in the knowledge that every 50 metres or so sits a bar on the banks of the river, featuring such delights as LaoLao (shot of whisky like drink), BeerLao and other intoxicants if you're that way inclined. The bars have set up swings, zip slides and all sorts of throw yourself into the water type activities so its really not that bad a way to spend a day. Coupled with the simpsons and family guy bars that sit in the centre of Vang Viang its very tempting to sit tight and spend a week there and it is true that we did manage to spend a few more less than productive days longer than we had planned to in Vang Viang. We also met the world famous MamaLaos on one of our many nights out in Vang Viang. Something of a celebrity in the area, she gives out free Lao massages in bars from which you may never recover, in return for your custom at her club later in the evening. A marvellous arrangement for all involved.
We finally did leave Vang Viang after about 5 days and headed short to the capital Vientiane. We only spent a night here, using it primarily as our starting point for the bus ride to Hanoi in Vietnam. It was a pretty low key day and night in Vientiane after the antics of Vang Viang and theres not a lot to report on the capital. Once more we did the obligatory Fountain, Museum, Palace round trip and generally relaxed for the day, drinking Cappucinos in charming french cafes just like they do in the book. We had just enough time to purchase our BeerLao singlets before hopping on the 24 hr bus to Hanoi....