Many, many weeks ago, 2 young ladies by the names of Bennett and Bowles left the town of Chiang Mai. This departure filled them with much regret. They had grown accustomed to the place and its numerous distractions - coffee shops, jewellery courses, cookery courses, pad thai, massages, hair cuts...
However, they travelled by omnibus further north until they finally reached a border. This is where our story begins....
"It's got to be here"
"We're going to have to catch the bus back to Chiang Rai - it's under the bed"
"I wouldn't have put it in there"
It was bound to happen somewhere. I had just realised that this was a full on border crossing - not just a boat trip across the river - and I needed my passport. But where was it? It wasn't in my 'usual' passport pocket, nor the standby passport place, nor even my "it'll be fine in there" third favourite place. Miss Bowles patiently rummaged through my hand luggage while I emptied the contents of my rucksack onto a bench. I had created a fourth passport place without realising it. Phewee. Panic over. On with the trip.
The border crossing from Thailand to Laos (country number 3) was across the Mekong River. It was all very low key. A few stamps on the passport on the Thai side, then a short blast across the river in a narrow long boat with a few locals. Visa on arrival (more forms and stamps) and that was it. River travel certainly has fewer hoops to jump through than plane travel!
The next day we started our much anticipated trip down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang. I had romantic images of me, Celia, a few locals (and maybe a couple of hunks?) cruising down the river soaking up he scenery. Very Palin-esque (though he probably would have done without the hunks). Of course, the reality was quiite different (will I ever learn??!). The boat was 90% western. about 50 people in all. The seats were wooden benches. For a while the view was of an american guy's armpits. MmmMMmm. he had placed his behind on the edge of the 'window' and was stretching his arms from one side to the other. Boys smell.
Two days of boat travel followed. We spent the time:trying to get comfortable, being entertained by some witty french guys (yes, they do exist!), reading and getting the kind of sleep that only lasts for 2 seconds before your head rolls to the side or nods forward and leaves you feeling self conscious because your mouth had dropped open. Though thankfully not long enough for the dribbling to start.
Just as we were contemplating a lifetime without any feeling in our bums, we arrived in Luang Prabang. It is a beautiful city. The UN have designated it a World Heritage site which means there is plenty of work going on to maintain it. I hope this benefits the locals as much as the people lucky enough to visit it.
Luang Prabang is famous for its Buddhist Temples (32 of them, I think). One morning we got up at 5.30am to see the Alms giving - locals offering rice and food to the monks. We decided taking part wasn't the right thing to do but the sight of 50 odd bald headed guys dressed in saffron robes (the guidebooks say saffron, I guess I would call it...orange) was pretty amazing at that time of the morning.
Books are in short supply in Laos: we found a project which encourages people to buy children's books and give them to children or community leaders. We bought a couple and ended up volunteering at a kind of after school club for local kids. With a well recognised certificate in Teaching English as a Foreign Language, Bennett and Bowles ended up teaching them 'Heads, Shoulders Knees and Toes'. Genius!
After our two long days of boat travel we felt in need of a massage (why am i trying to justify myself??! You can do this kind of thing while you're travelling!). I booked myself in for a hot stone massage. It started off with a standard oil massage which was nice. But then the hot stones came on the scene. I nearly went through the roof when she put one on my calf muscles - I think they had just been spewed out by a volcano. HOT! After this I had a herbal sauna - sat on a chair sealed in by a cover and left to steam for about 20 minutes. Just like the chicken I had had for dinner the night before.
Near Lunag Prabang are some waterfalls. We went for a stroll when we got there and then returned to the bottom ready to swim in one of the pools there. Very fresh (as my dad would say when it is actually bloody freezing!). But it was good. Haven't felt that cold in ages. Kept thoughts of water snakes and leeches at bay.
[I also saw a painting in a bar in Luang Prabang. It was 'only' US$350 and was of cherry blossom and blue sky with white fluffy clouds. I've got a milestone birthday next year so if anyone wants to treat me and fancies a trip to Luang Prabang.... ;-) ]
After much deliberation on the best way to Vietnam, we headed off on another boat trip on the Nam Ou. This was a smaller boat - just two seats wide. Just as uncomfy. This time, we were travelling upstream and the Ou was a lot more feisty than the Mekong. More rocks breaking the surface and lots more splashing. Loved it :-)
This started the stretch of the journey where we stayed in small villages. Travelling by bus and songthaew (funny pick up truck things which have seats down the side and a roof). We travelled North East on the river and then east towards the border. Life became a lot more basic. I found some sick pleasure in having cold bucket washes (if they're good enough for Michael Palin...). Villages consisted of bamboo structures. It was rice planting season, so lots of people (women) were out in the fields nearly knee deep in water, bending over to plant the seedlings by hand. Made my back ache just seeing them.
For one section, the only bus we could take picked us up in the niddle of the night. The owners of our guesthouse woke us up as the bus trundled through the village (I heard it from about 3 miles away!). Luckily we had been scuzzers and had slept in our clothes because the driver was impatiently revving his engine as we detangled mosquito nets, grabbed our rucksacks and staggered out to be faced with a monster of a bus next to the bamboo guesthouse.
From the outside, the bus looked empty. When we go on the bus, we realised that this was because the occupants were draped over the seats and boxes in the aisle (the bus was also the post van). It was a really bizarre trip. It was too dark to admire the view - all I could see was what was caught in the headlights. We blasted through villages - if they hadn't been woken by the engine, some of the villagers were treated by a honk on the horn. On board, we were treated to ' we want to send the bus driver to sleep' music. I didn't worry. much.
At the end of this trip, we found ourselves in a village called Viet Thong. At 4am. Without any accommodation booked. In the rain. Someone told us the direction of a guesthouse. Luckily the establishment had a living room with armchairs and an unlocked front door. Phewee. The owner didn't look too shocked to see us there when he came down a couple of hours later.
We went for a walk to try and find the hot springs in Viet Thong. Missed them, but ended up walking through a small village. Kids followed us or said 'sabadee' as we walked through. One woman was outside her house washing rice - she spoke english and invited us in. We chatted for a while (about the weather, obviously!) and then I noticed a blackboard in the corner - she was the local english teacher. We ended up going with her to her class. It was in the primary school. The classroom was a state with rubbish on the floor and the appearance of the students certainly wouldn't have passed muster at school in the UK (Dr Haes would have had a hissy fit hahahahaha!). But they were really keen and the teacher did a great job with few materials.
We ended staying there a day longer and spending more time with the teacher and her family. We had lunch with them. That was interesting: we sat in their kitchen on low stools around a low table. Part of the meal was soup. It had an unidentified meat in it. With stubbly fur still attached. "Don't think about it Karen, just swallow". Celia later confessed to hiding her bit under a spoon. Snails were also on the menu. They were small and had been boiled. I think they lived in the water in the rice fields. In for a penny, in for a pound. I didn't have the right sucking action to get them out of the shell like the locals did: shame, I won't be able to eat one after all. But my 'good friend' Celia, who had declined the delicacy, suggested I used a fork to hook it out. Thanks C. Mmmmm. Tasted of soil.
We ended up teaching in the classroom on the second day -- yes, good old Heads Shoulders Knees and Toes again! The whole time spent with the teachers (her husband was one too) was soured slightly by her asking for money to buy alcohol - they were going to share it with us but it felt wrong. Not least because we suspected (and were proved right) that she was pregnant. I guess you can't blame them for trying....
On the way back to Viet Thong from the teachers' village was a restaurant called BBQ Dog. Curious, we went and had a look. A man was placing meat from a bucket onto the grill. The skinned paw we saw in the bucket confirmed that this was indeed dog meat [sorry mum! I do miss the pogs. Sometimes]. We walked off, trying not to inhale the smoke emitted by sizzling dog meat...
It was in the provincial capital, Xam Neue, that I got weed on (what is the past participle of wee?!). We were sat in a cafe eating our breakfast of omlette and bread, I was enjoying it, when I felt something warm and wet on my arm. I looked up and there was water trickling through the ceiling. then it stopped. How do I know it was wee? It was warm, smelt and had a yellow tinge to it. I don't know what was upstairs - maybe it was a child, or an animal? Not sure. But it put me right off my omlette.
The final town / village in Laos was a place called Vieng Xay. It was a gorgeous place. It has a karst landscape dominated by huge limestone limestone cliffs. During the Vietnam war, with all of the attention on Vietnam, America also fought Laos, one Important American Guy said that they wanted to "bomb Laos back to the stoneage". * "From 1964 through 1973, the United States flew 580,000 bombing runs over Laos ? one every 9 minutes for 10 years. More than 2 million tons of ordnance was unloaded on the countryside, double the amount dropped on Nazi Germany in World War II".
While this was going on, the Pathet Lao hid out in the caves around Vieng Xay. They built an entire town around various cave networks with factories and shops and accommodation. The sound of the bombing must have been immense. A guy was hammering while we were there and it echoed round and rouind the cliffs.
Not all of the caves are open - a few opened up the month before we arrived. We went on a guided tour. It was really interesting. There's a real sense of history to the place. Our guide's english wasn't great. He was good at reciting all of the names of the important people who used to work and live in the caves. Because the sites were dotted around the town, we used mountain bikes to get around. We found ourselves dropping in to visit a friend of the guide. In this guy's garden was a barrel with a flame under it, water in the top and a clear liquid running down a stem into an empty Beer Lao bottle. We were witnessing the production of LaoLao - the local spirit. We were feeling a bit ropey because we had drunk this the night before: William, an american man introduced it to us and was very generous in his servings. Our host poured us some from the last bottle to be feeled from the barrel. Miss Bowles left me to represent the UK, "Bottoms up". Eeeuww. It was rough. Apparantly, the bottles get weaker as they drip from the barrell. The one we had just tried was bottle #3. We were then poured a shot from bottle #2. William, who had accompanied us on the tour, didn't seem too bothered by it and I didn't want to seem rude. Chin chin......... I thought my head was going to explode! It is the strongest tasting drink I have ever tried. I didn't attempt any from bottle #1.
I really enjoyed Laos - it is a beautiful place and the people were friendly. Some of the poverty we saw has been exacerbated by the country's history: Lots of the bombs didn't explode and are sat waiting for football playing kids or farmers trying to grow more rice before they do what they were designed to do.
We met some westerners who are playing a part in opening up the country for tourism: one lady had been working out there for 10 years doing conservation work and there was another couple who were working with a silk farm to develop tourism opportunties there. These both seemed like they would offer something for the local community. However, we overheard a conversation in Luang Prabang: 3 americans discussing a project. We didn't hear it all, but it sounded like they were looking for 'poor' village where westerners could go and help build something (a starbucks?!) to help them, after being treated to a tribal dance and having their dinner blessed. It all sounded very dubious. I think it would be interesting to come back to Laos in 5 years time and see how it has changed....
... and to buy that painting.