Another week has gone by and we're in another country now too!!Jade and I arrived in Laos last Sunday afternoon, and yet again we've had another week so here we go...
The evening after I last blogged (Thurs 15th), we headed off for our last meal in Siem Reap together with Jill and Jo, and they'd decided to head to Laos a couple of days before us, as we were heading to Kratie on the Southern end of the Mekong river in Cambodia as we'd heard that it was the best place to see Irrawaddy dolphins which are extremely rare but live on the stretch of the Mekong between Kratie and Southern Laos. We ate at a place called the Temple Bar, where I had a huge (but very delicious) portion of fish khmer curry and we were entertained by traditional Khmer dancing- some of the outfits were amazing, including a guy and a girl dressed up as peacocks, a demon and a horse!We went to a nearby bar for some ice-cream, then traipsed back to our guesthouse for an early-ish night as Jade and I were being picked up at 6.30 the following morning, but poor Jo and Jill were leaving at 5am!
Next morning, bleary-eyed and groggy we were picked up by mini-van then taken to a very local bus station, where we were then ushered onto a bus after the guy in charge marked our tickets with the word 'Kratie' on- a bit weird as that's where we'd booked the bus to anyway, but we didn't think much more of it until a few hours later when everyone got off the bus at somewhere random and we were then shown to some guy's rather broken down looking Toyota Camry, along with a monk and a Cambodian girl and boy about our age (I think they were brother and sister)...After a quick stop for lunch in the town, the guy prompted us to get in the car again, but to our surprise there was now a woman, her two small children and her mother in the back seat of this average sized car!This didn't phase our smiling driver, who indicated that Jade and I should climb into the (now extremely crowded) back seat, while the Cambodian boy and the monk got in the front passenger seat, and the driver AND the Cambodian girl got in the front driver's seat (thank God it was an automatic car and not a geared one!)!!!So, with ten in the now very cramped car, the driver set off down the road, balancing the poor Cambodian girl (who also suffered from travel sickness it later transpired when we kept stopping for her to throw up in the road) on the side of his chair!!The family sitting with us took up the lion's share of the back seat space, so Jade and I had just less than a seat to share between us- we kept having to put our arms round each other just so we could stop our arms cramping!!Despite the health and safety nightmare that unfolded as we drove the hour and a half to Kratie, we did just have a massive giggle about it, as the situation was just completely hilarious really- only in Asia!!!After what felt like a day's worth of cramp-inducing travel, we arrived in Kratie (pronounced Kra-cheh apparently), and made it to a nearby guesthouse where we were able to get some food and sit down in our own normal, person sized seats!We just chilled out for the evening, then went to bed fairly early as we were tired from travelling.
Unfortunately, I spent a fair bit of the night up with an upset tummy, so our plan for the next day to get up early to go cycling along the Mekong had to be abandoned (no one wants to go cycling when they've got the runs!!), though we did manage to make it to nearby Kampi in the afternoon via tuk tuk, which is where the Irrawaddy dolphins hang out. That part of the river is a conservation area run by the local government, so all the dolphin spotting trips are priced at $9 each for a two person boat, so we paid the (pretty steep)price, crossing everything in the hope of seeing the apparently rather elusive sea creatures. Thankfully though, we weren't even in the boat 5 minutes before we first spotted on of the small dorsal fins that are characteristic of this species of dolphin, and after the boat driver had gunned the engine a bit to get us out onto the water he cut it out, so we saw loads!!Unfortunately I couldn't get any pictures as they only pop up for a few seconds for air, so they were too quick for me, but the boat driver was so sweet as he kept pointing them out to us when he saw them with an excited shout of something in Khmer (I think) which sounded like he was saying 'see there!!', but I couldn't be too sure!!There were only two other boats out for the whole hour we spent watching the fascinating animals, and the setting was so tranquil and calm- though again, I don't think any of my pictures did the beautiful scenery justice. I definitely think our money was worth it, especially as the bulk of the funds go to taking care of the dolphins, and paying the local boatmen's salaries. My tummy was still bothering me that evening, so Jade had dinner out by the river on her own while I slept and read my book. The next day we were hoping to do a little cycling, but then decided to just chill out again until our bus to Laos at 12pm, though of course we went to the bus company early at 11.30 and ended up waiting until after 1 for our bus to actually arrive!!!
The journey to the Laos border was pretty uneventful (an ordinary a/c coach for us this time, no care sharing!), and as we'd been good girls and sorted our visas in Phnom Penh, all we had to do was pay the $1 and $3 'stamp fees' to the border guards when we were heading out of Cambodia and into Laos, and we made it in a matter of minutes- least stressful border crossing so far and we've only got one more (Laos to Thailand) to do, so hopefully we'll have a similarly good experience there!Back on the bus again for another hour, looking out the window the scenery and houses weren't that different to Cambodia, with a lot of farmland and huts as well as some more luxurious houses too. I think we're here at quite a good time of year as because it's the rainy season, everywhere is very lush and green, and the showers, although often pretty heavy are really quite nice as a break from the 40 degree heat we have most of the time!!We arrived at the main village at the edge of the Mekong where you can get the boat to some of the islands in the area known collectively as Si Phan Don (or Four Thousand Islands). As it's the rainy season, there are probably more like about 400 'islands' (counting every single sandbank!) at the moment, but apparently when it's drier there really are a few thousand!We chose to go to Don Det, which is meant to be the most popular and amenity filled one, as we didn't fancy going someone with no electricity like Don Khong!!We'd met a lovely dutch girl, Stephanie, on the bus and so the three of us and three spanish guys piled onto a long boat to make the quick trip across the water, though the guys didn't seem to get that if they all sat on one side of the very narrow and low in the water boat, there was quite a high chance of it capsizing, and we had to get them to rearrange themselves sharpish- I was pretty fed up after being a bit ill, so the last thing I wanted was a soggy bag!We made it across in one piece and fairly dry, admiring the gorgeous scenery and slowly setting sun as we went. Jade, Stephanie and I managed to find a cute couple of riverside bungalows (when I say 'bungalow' I mean beach shack, though with no beach to speak of it would be incorrect to call them that!) with flush toilet, mosquito nets and kiddie bedding- all the mod-cons really!!It was quite fun actually as the huts were probably the most basic thing we've stayed in in a while, but it really took me back to our beach bum days in Goa, and thinking about India always brings a big grin to my face. After a quick shower to de-sweat, we headed off for a drink and something to eat, and who should we bump into on the rather tiny island but Jill and Jo!Great to meet up again and a bit of a relief, as we hadn't heard from them since we'd separated although we planned to meet up when we got to Laos, so we were slightly worried they hadn't made it past the border crossing. We ended up having dinner with a big group of people that they'd met in the last few days on the island which was fun, and great to swap stories of what we'd been up to.
next day, Jade, Stephanie and I got up and grabbed breakfast before renting some lovely bikes (mine didn't have a basket unfortunately, or working brakes) and heading off around Don Det to explore. It was really lovely to cycle on the little dirt path running around the island, past bamboo bungalows, lots of local people, dogs, pigs, chickens, a random evil monkey chained up to a tree (we think he's someone's pet but we kept well clear of him!),gorgeous green fields with water buffalo and cows in them and of course the picturesque Mekong river. the island is attached to the larger island of Don Khon via an old unused railway bridge which apparently is part of the first railway in Laos which the french started to build but it was abandoned after independence, so it's quite a bumpy bridge with that shingle-y stuff that you get on railway lines, though no actual railway line to speak of!!After about 45minutes cycling, we managed to navigate ourselves to a cool, but kind of scary waterfall!!It wasn't the sort that you could bathe is as the current was so fast, and rocks so trecherous looking that it would probably be a suicide mission just to try, but it made for some pretty looking pictures, although unfortunately the water of this part of the Mekong appears to be woefully muddy- not sure whether it's the time of year or whether it's always like that.further down the river from the waterfall, we did find a sort of beach-y bit where we sat down for an hour or so and sunbathed, listening to the rushing of the waterfall and enjoying the heat of the day. Afterwards, we decided to cycle a bit further into Don Khon, but we ended up back on part of the railway I think, as the road was SO full of stones it was crazily bumpy, and we had to take it easy as our bikes were slightly dodgy so we were worried about punctures (especially after we'd heard that Jo had got one the day before)!Eventually we got to a little area of huts with a sign saying we'd cycled as far as we could go, and we'd have to turn around!We thought we could cycle the whole way around that direction, but we had to retrace our steps for a bit, and we spent quite a while cycling along the beautiful yet slightly confusing wooded and farming areas in the other direction!Eventually, later on in the afternoon and after lots of suncream and water stops, we made it back to the bridge back to Don Det, but unfortunately by this stage Stephanie's chain kept breaking so she had to wheel her bike, and then just as we were setting off again my kickstand (for holding up the bike when you're not on it) broke and the spring wouldn't come unsprung, meaning that I couldn't even pedal my bike back as the back wheel wouldn't more and the stand scraped against the ground!I had to abandon my bike on the road as it was, and walk back which took about half an hour, while Jade rode ahead to tell the people we rented it from what had happened. By the time Stephanie and I got there, Jade told us that there was no one in except their kids and the old lady across the path whose bungalows we were staying in, and none of them spoke any english!Using sign language and a map, we eventually got the message to her that her neighbours would have to go and pick their bike up on a motorbike as we couldn't do anything else with it, and thankfully after we left the other two bikes there we didn't hear anymore about it!!We had a great day though, such a pretty place and for the most part unspoilt by hordes of tourists which was really lovely.We spent the evening with Jo, Jill and Stephanie getting some food and relaxing at one of the handful of bars on the island with a few beer Laos.
Next morning on the Tuesday, we had a quick breakfast of cake at a bakery run by an Aussie guy (great banana cake) before hopping back on a long boat back to the mainland, then getting a 'bus' (well, we'd booked a bus ticket but it turned out to be a glorified people carrier, though everyone got a seat-the only downside being our bags had to perch precariously on the roof!) to Pakse with Jo, Jill, Stephanie and another woman called Vikanda who we met through Jill and Jo who's from Thailand originally but has lived in Belgium for most of her life. It didn't take too long, but the ride was quite sweaty, and we arrived in Pakse in the heat of the day. We found a hotel though, and Jade, Jo, Jill and I ended up sharing a 2 double bed air-con room (rather a treat!) which was cool, while Vikanda and Stephanie shared another room. Much later after lots of walking, we (minus Vikanda who ate at the market nearby) ended up at a floating restaurant along the river which specialised in seafood, though what with my recent tummy troubles I decided beef would be a better choice, and went with the choice of a Laos dish called Lap, which is basically meat with onions, garlic, chillis, and salad leaves- they bring you a plate of green vegetables and leaves to eat along with it. Unfortunately the main ingredient in mine appeared to be onion, so it was a bit sickening after a while, but we had good dinner chat before heading to a bakery nearby for pain au chocolat. We also came across the long distance bus stop, with quite literally the most pimped out buses I've ever seen- they had flashing lights, massive looking beds and snazzy looking curtains-one of the companies was even called 'King of Bus' and each of it's buses had flashing adverts saying King of Bus in english and Laos!We decided to book our overnight bus to Vientiane for Thursday evening, giving us two days to explore the nearby area. Next morning, Stephanie and Vikanda decided to go motorbiking around the area for the next two days so we said goodbye to them for the time being. The four of us were quite interested in going to a place nearby called Ban Saphai, where we could catch a boat to an island that had local weavers who can teach travellers how to weave, and also you can do homestays with some of the local people. However, we also wanted to go to the nearby ruins of Wat Phu (pronounced 'Wat Poo' funnily enough) which are in Champasak. We ended up going to Champasak on Wednesday for the day as we got a good deal on a return jumbo (big tuk tuks they have here) trip from a driver based at our hotel.
After an hour in the jumbo, we arrived at the Wat. and What a place it was haha!!!Apparently dating from the 5th century AD, the ruins of the wat which was part of the ancient capital city of Laos at the time have a promenade running through them which actually eventually leads to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but the ruins are pretty small in comparison to the complex there. They're also small on crowds too, which was one of the best things about it- set at the foot of a 1400m high mountain (colloquially called Mount Penis apparently, which tickled us no end!), the lush scenery really made the place. It was so peaceful, and really cool just to explore the area without hordes of people in your face the whole time, it had a very authentic feel about it. It has an interesting fusion of hindu and buddhist deities in it just like some of the temples at Angkor, and we recognised Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma from when we'd seen them depicted in India. There's also an interesting carving of an elephant on a big rock, as well as a crocodile carved out of another rock, which was reputedly (but never has been proved to have been)used for human sacrifice!!The view from the top level of the Wat was simply stunning, gorgeous green farmland for miles around. There was a mid-afternoon monsoon shower so we hid out for an hour or so playing in one of the buildings where the locals sit when they come to the working shrine to Buddha, before heading back to Pakse in our jumbo. That evening, we had a delicious, and pretty authentic italian meal (I had lasagna, which I'd been craving as the four of us keep having really indepth conversations about food,especially comfort food from home!) in the place we'd had breakfast that morning, before playing uno until the staff pretty much threw us out at the very late hour of 9.30pm!That must be the only annoying thing about Laos so far, everything closes really early so our evenings are pretty tame, though Vang Vieng is supposed to be a bit of a traveller hub so we're going to spend our one evening there having a bit of a night out I think to blow the cobwebs of our middle age away!
Yesterday, we got up relatively early and headed to a local cafe for some eggy breakfasts before hitting the road via jumbo to Ban Saphai, which is just under an hour away from Pakse. From there we caught a long boat across the river to the island of Don Kho, where we found some local ladies weaving silk on bamboo looms, and asked if we could give it a go. Jill and I were with a rather imposing and larg chested matriarch and a younger girl, while Jade and Jo got literally dragged off to someone else's house to start their weaving!I got to work on the big mama's loom, and Jill worked on the younger girl's, which the girl's brother who was the only one around who could speak any English helped to translate their instructions to us. It was pretty fiddly work, particularly as the patterns we were doing involved a base colour and then putting a pattern through it, though it was easier said than done to match up the patterned thread and big mama helped me a lot- pressing her matronly bosoms against my sweaty back the whole time!Poor Jill had a bit of a struggle to get the pattern right as her girl kept leaving her to do it on her on, but I think even without the pattern completely perfect they both turned out pretty well!!The process of weaving itself is actually quite relaxing as it's so repetitious, and I had so much fun as every time I did it right my lady would get really excited and shout 'Ok!Ok!Ok!' and clap her hands!After we'd done our bit, with the help of a monk who happened to be passing we agreed to pay about $2.50 for the lesson, and I bought my length of silk, which I'm hoping to get made into cushion covers when I'm home. Then we headed over to the other guys, who were still hard at work, their pattern was a bit simpler to do but no less eye-catching as it involved making a tiny pattern by changing the amount of threads being put through the loom. They had a slightly longer lesson at 3 hours, before their lady offered us a meal of sticky rice, a VERY spicy curry thing and very salty, bony fish- not what I'd pick but we couldn't turn down the hospitaility and it was quite fun to eat like a local, siting on a grass mat and eating with our hands. Apparently their lady was a bit of a crazy one, and she got changed in front of Jade and Jo, flashing her boobs and laughing before changing her top! Soon it was time to go, but there was a bit of confusion over how much Jade and Jill had to pay, as the woman was asking for more than we'd agreed in the first place. Soon pretty much the whole village got involved though, and our lady and the other lady got into a bit of an argument as I think our lady was saying that the price we'd agreed in the first place was ok, but it got sorted out and we said 'Kwap Jai de Lai' (thank you very much) and big mama gave me a friendly pat on the back before catching the boat back across to Ban Saphai and getting our tuk tuk to the hotel. I really loved the weaving, it was a really different thing to do- and it was great to hang out with some local people, they were all so lovely to us!
The guys at the hotel very kindly let us use their (pretty grim) shower to have a wash before our overnight bus, and we met up with Stephanie and Vikanda again, before going for dinner (minus Vikanda who's bus was earlier than ours) at a restaurant right by the bus station. It started to rain while we were eating, and only got worse until it was a bit of torrential downpour, and we had to rather soggily get on the bus. It didn't start off too promisingly as a Laos guy made some pervy comment when Jade and I climbed the steps up, but we ended up with pretty sweet beds- in fact bed, as all five of us were seat right at the back of the bus on the second floor in a huge king size sleeper bunk!While the others had a bit of groan that we would have to sleep like sardines, Jade and I were having the time of our lives- This was the best sleeper bus we'd been on so far!!There were fancy pink drapes on the windows, and we had lovely floral duvets each, very chic. We also got given goody bags filled with water, sweets, biscuits and a yoghurt drink-they don't call them VIP buses for nothing!!Unfortunately as usual with overnighters, none of us really got much sleep, but we managed to get to Vietiane around 7.30am which was only an hour and a half late, and Jade, Jo, Jill and I managed to find a really awesome brand new hotel with lovely posh rooms for only $5 each which is great. We've spent most of the day just chilling out and eating (my favourite kind of day!) at a little french bakery down the road from our hotel, and we're hoping to have a good meal tonight perhaps followed by a little bowling which is apparently big here!!We'll have a couple of days sightseeing in the city before heading up north to Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, then coming back down again this time next week to cross the border to Thailand near here.Then we'll have just over a week until it's time to go home, unbelievable!!
Anyway, that's it for this time folks, I'll write more in a few days. In the meantime I've put all my photos up on flickr so feel free to peruse them.
lots of love from Vientiene xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx