Our time in Thailand wasn't even a whistle-stop tour: We took a night bus with unnecessarily swanky curtains from Bangkok to the north and crossed the mighty Mekong River straight into Laos. We spent a night in the border town of Huay Xai and discovered that we'd become millionaires overnight (1,000,000 Lao kip is just under 100 quid). Then we headed into the very leafy north of the country, to the town of Luang Namtha. Expecting to find a remote jungle town, we were confronted with full English breakfasts and steak and chips. (After India and Burma, this part of Southeast Asia was, at first, a bit of a shock, with often over-developed tourism that leaves you wondering where the country you've come to see is actually to be found. But we've since discovered that in Laos there is still a lot to explore and, besides, we've had the opportunity to meet some very fun and lovely backpackers in this part of the world.)
With an English guy, a Dutch girl and two German lads we met en route, we arranged a two-day trek into the forest. Walking mostly under a dense leafy canopy proved very humid, until buckets and buckets of rain made us much cooler, and much muddier. I grumbled a lot. At night, staying in a far-flung ethnic-minority village, we sampled some of the locally produced Lao Lao (rice whiskey). Despite passing the bottle between us and drinking it neat, it wasn't as bad as you'd expect. Back in the town of Lang Namtha after the trek, we celebrated with a few too many Lao Laos in a Kiwi-owned pub, before heading to the somewhat unexpected local disco, which, even more unexpectedly, played good music and was heaving with young Laotians who had apparently flocked from far and wide to get down with their bad selves.
The next day was a write-off.
Shahar and I then headed back to Huay Xai to catch the slowboat to the former capital of Luang Prabang. Dozens of Western tourists and a few locals climbed aboard for the two-day journey along the very wide and very brown Mekong River, with huge swathes of rolling green hills on both sides, the occasional village and one sighting of a labouring elephant. It was lovely and lazy, broken up by a night in a hotel. The trip gave us some rare reading and iPod time and lent Shahar the opportunity to ponder a riddle about an invisible rabbit and an infinite fence that's been bugging him. (He's solved it now.) Some of the tourists and most of the locals didn't even have seats and sat along every inch of the long, wooden boat, but no one seemed to mind and thankfully we didn't sink.
We'd heard other tourists singing the praises of Luang Prabang and, by the time we'd made our second trip to a local bakery to sample the delicious buttery croissants and crusty baguettes, we'd figured it out too. This former French colony has more wooden-shuttered, white villas and posh boutiques than you can shake a French stick at. A market teeming with handicrafts and food stalls popped up every evening (at least, until the early-monsoon rains sent both traders and tourists running for shelter with almost-comic predictability, every night we were there).
We were lucky enough to make our travel plans temporarily match up with those of my friend (and former Lambeth workmate) James and his girlfriend Katy, and we also met up with the lovely aforementioned German lads, so we had good drinking company. We took a trip out of town to a crazily beautiful waterfall with jade-coloured natural pools of water, and also witnessed the less beautiful sight of a group of young men instigating a brutal cockfight, presumably out of boredom. In another adventure, we visited the former royal palace, which was turned into a museum when the communists took over in the 1970s. Weirdly frozen in time, the museum let us peek into the former king's and queen's bedrooms and private parlours - as if the royal family disappeared in a magical puff of smoke to make way for the Party...
Despite its many and varied attractions, Luang Prabang remains a relaxed and surprisingly quiet place. with a midnight curfew, a smattering of very lovely temples and lots of Buddhist monks. Flanked by two big rivers, surrounded by hilly forests, yet full with European-style, red-roofed villas, it was an unusual and special sight.