Its been roughly two weeks since my last blog entry but i'm sure i can recall the highlights...
After we got off the slowboat in Luang Prabang we were approached by the usual guesthouse touts who were falling over themselves for our business. Myself, Ciara and about 12 others all booked into the same guesthouse for a reduced rate of roughly 17000 kip per night each, about 1 pound 50.. The room was clean for the price and had a fan, all we were looking for on a budget. The only drawback which we were to later find out was that the shower only seemed to work at certain times of the day, it was sheer pot luck if you had a shower or not. The guy who ran the place had a really cracking combover so i didnt mind about the shower in the slightest! I didnt manage to get a picture, sorry folks..
We'd been drinking whisky on the boat all afternoon so we were a bit tired when we arrived but managed to summon the energy to get back on our feet after a snooze. A couple of lads we were with on the boat had drank way more than us and had a good 15 mins of lairiness whilst checking in and then...... silence. They slept the evening asleep and were wide awake when we got in later that night. The perils of afternoon boozing!
We spent our first evening in Luang Prabang just updating our blog of the previous week, had a look round the local market then went out to a local cafe for a something to eat so not a lot to write home about from that day..
The next day we had a wander and took in the sights, plenty of Wats (temples) and monks roaming the streets. Its funny being the foreigner, they looked Ciara up and down whilst passing as she was showing her shoulders and knees, something that is frowned upon as far as they're concerned.
In the evening, most of us from the guesthouse went out for a meal in one of the main bars in Luang Prabang, a pretty stylish place that gave out free Lao Lao shots. Rice whisky has become an instant non favourite due to the potency of it so 1 shot was enough.
We had a nice pizza each and a couple of cocktails washed down with some beers and plenty of sangria. We stayed for an extra half hour after finishing our meals and drinks due to the confusion for sorting out the bill... There are no coins in Laos currency and as a result, no payphones on the streets either, strange.. Because the currency is in thousands , i.e, 13500 kip = 1 pound, trying to get used to the money took a little while and it seemed like everything cost an absolute fortune due to every sum having a thousand on the end. As there were 12 of us dining, when it came to sorting the bill it took a while due to us all being a bit drunk..
From there most of us took a tuk tuk to the bowling alley. Because Laos is a communist country, there is a strict curfew of 11pm. Legally, everyone, including tourists are supposed to be where they are registered as staying and indoors by this time. The only way to get a late drink past 11pm is to hit the bowling alleys which strangely enough, stay open til 3.30am, AND serve alcohol! They also have cats roaming around inside, odd. We only played one game as there were a lot of us but it was a top laugh.
The next day was pretty much wasted as we both slept in with sizeable hangovers, I dont think we surfaced til 4pm. Ciara and I went out that evening and had a drink or two and a bite to eat before going back to crash out.
The next day we decided to make the most of things as this was to be our last day in Luang Prabang. Ciara and I along with two lads from the boat got a minibus to some waterfalls that were about an hours drive away. Theres one main waterfall that leads down into 3 or 4 other pools that vary in current. It was very scenic and on taking a picture of the main waterfall, I realised that i had the exact same shot as my screensaver for the last few months at work! You can stand right underneath it whilst getting covered in the spray that kicks off it, well refreshing. One of the pools further down had a rope swing hanging from a tree which i had a go on after watching someone else to make sure they didnt break any legs on rocks lurking beneath the water. I wasnt going to be the guinea pig!
Later that day we climbed the steps up to a Wat on top of a hill in the city which looks out across the Mekong, a great view on a clear day. We sat there for a while and while we did, bought a little birdcage with a pretty scared looking sparrow inside it for 20000 kip. I couldnt afford to buy his mates too so we just released the one bird at the top of the hill at sunset. Aaaw. ha ha
That evening myself and Ciara went out for a meal, a Laos style barbecue. A stone stove full of hot coals is placed in the centre of your table (they take out the centre tile of the table and slot it in) and then a metal tray with a bowl at the bottom and a dome at the top is put over it and allowed to heat up. You then add the soup to the bowl and fill it with lots of veg and chillies. While this is heating up, you rub some pork fat on the tray and then add strips of chicken, pork, beef and buffalo and cook on each side for a minute and half before dipping in some traditional Laos style barbecue sauce. It was a really different kind of meal and really enjoyable although, there was too much on the soup side of things for my liking. I prefer food that you can really sink your teeth into and that fills you up. Still, a good meal all the same.
We had a last drink at the converted VW combi bar on the way back to the guesthouse before turning in for the night.
We awoke the next morning to the sound of the builders next door hammering away. Laos is a developing country and there's building work going on at every turn. We went to the bus station where we hopped on our minibus for a 6 hour drive to Vang Vieng. The road was as twisty, if not more, than the journey from Chiang Mai to Pai! I hadnt overdone the drink the night before this time so didnt feel too bad on the way.
We arrived in Vang Vieng and found a place to stay almost immediately, a nice clean room with a powerful hot shower for less than two quid a night each. The only drawback was that as with the place in Luang Prabang, there was a building team working on the place next door, no lie in for us, ha ha..
For those who dont know, Vang Vieng is famous for tubing, along with quite a lot of nice caves in and around the town. Tubing is basically where you get a lift in a tuk tuk about 3km up the road with a rubber tractor tyre innertube and then get dropped at the edge of the river. You then get in your tube and float down river and stop at bars on the way, having a drink and messing about on the zip wires and swings that drop you into the river..
Ciara didnt feel too well that day so stayed in the room while i went by myself along with a few other people. I booked a day package which started with some cave tubing which was ace. The caves can only be entered if the water levels are just high enough. After being given a head torch you lie back in your tube and grab a rope that leads you into the caves. Our guide lead us through and the further in we went, the darker it got, the ceiling got lower and the water a little colder. About halfway, there was a little bank which you can walk across to another tunnel. We spent about 30 mins in the caves which was enough as i was getting a little chilly. I see why they have ropes leading you round in there, if you were to go in alone, you wouldnt find your way out in a hurry, if at all.
After the cave tubing, lunch was laid on, 3 chicken and veg skewers in chiili sauce, a baguette and some egg fried rice cooked in a banana leaf, a cracking meal which didnt even touch the sides! After lunch we got the tuk tuk down to the river to begin the proper tubing! Myself and a British couple werethe only ones out of out greoup to be tubing, the rest were in kayaks and had started upstream from us. We set off down the river and got pulled in by the 3rd bar along. The bar guys throw you a line and haul you in. I had a beer for Dutch courage before trying out the swing which wasnt as bad as it looked from the shore. Once i'd gotten the initial first swing out of the way, that was it! We declined a match of 'mud tug of war' and 'mud volleyball' as i noticed that there was a film of scum on the surface of the tug of war pool and one of the bar guys had just spat in it too. Nice. The mud volleyball looked even worse as it was right next to the toilet block, a definite no go.. One of the lads i had met cave tubing in the morning saw no problem with jumping in it and said he loved it when he got all the mud in his teeth! After you our kid!
We left that bar and went to the next which for me was the highlight of the days tubing sheerly cos of the massive slide that they have that spits you out into the middle of the river! I dont know if i was wearing the right kind of shorts but it felt faster than it looked when i watched other peeps have a go on it. About halfway down, i picked up speed and came flying off the end squealing like an idiot. Ace. If you want a look at it, type in 'big slide vang vieng tubing' on youtube, you'll see what i mean.. Also the rope swing at this bar was even better than the previous bars, much much higher with a longer distance to swing across.
Although it was a top laugh, I had expected there to be more bars along the river. There were about 10 all in all, with the last one stating 'last bar' which i thought must've been a ploy for more custom but was sadly true. From there I floated down 45 mins of peaceful river sipping my beer whilst looking at the mountains on either side of me until i reached 'tubing end'. It has to be a good thing there isnt 20-30 bars as if there were more there'd be sure to be more casualties.. A good few people have died tubing but mostly from overindulging and then getting in the water. Its not a fast river, in fact its very calm but i can see how there's been accidents in the past. 3 Aussie girls that I met were clutching a bottle of whisky and were pretty half cut at 3pm. I had 4 beers and took it easy, I'm born again sensible!
Although the tubing side of things is fun, Vang Vieng doesnt really have a great deal to offer besides that. Its pretty much a one horse town that has exploded with the influx of backpackers coming through it for the tubing etc.. Its chock full of restaurants with chill out chairs that show endless episodes of Friends. I had heard about this before i went to Vang Vieng and was glad to discover that half of the restaurants also show endless Family Guy episodes too :)
That night, we went to the Q Bar which is basically the liveliest place on the strip if you want to have a drink. They had a DJ playing drum n bass so i was happy enough. I also got a wristband when i went tubing which let me get cheap buckets for 10000 kip each which consisted of a good few shots of whisky, coke and half a bottle of M150, an energy drink similar to Red Bull which is probably twice as potent. I dont know whats in the stuff and i cant remember past 10.30pm but you know you've drank it the next day!
We stayed in Vang Vieng a day or two more and then hit the road to Vientiane, the capital. The journey to Vientiane was a lot smoother than previous journeys as in southern Laos the land flattens out once you get out of the mountains. 3 hours later we were there. I was glad to arrive though as the aircon on the coach was faulty which meant we got dripped on all the way there. I tried steering the drips toward the idiot in front of me who reclined his seat for his guitar. Seriously..
On arriving, we booked into pretty much the first reasonable place we could find as the sun was rapidly going down. It cost us more as it weas the capital and the bathroom wasnt up to much but the room had aircon and a TV, something which i'm ashamed to say I've missed! I bought some beers that evening and we sat in watching fuzzy cable telly.
The next morning after finding out that there was once again builders next door banging away (i know, what are the odds? I think there must be someone following us with a hammer), we went out and found a Scandanavian bakery that did an awesome breakfast, so much so that we went back the day after too.
Vientiane reminds me of a slightly nicer Bangkok so naturally, we didnt feel like staying there too long. On our first full day there, we went down to the river and watched the annual boat races. They were televised and most banks and other shops close as its a public holiday. We didnt stay all too long as the crowds were mobbed and the heat was a bit much. I did spot some Lao kid who couldnt have been much older than 12 who was wasted on beer jumping around and waving his bottle about in front of an all girl dance troupe who were on stage, ha ha.
The only downer of the trip so far is that we've had to cancel going to Vietnam. About a week ago, a typhoon hit the Phillipines and central Vietnam, followed by another, which meant that 170,000 people got evacuated, power went down, roads blocked, bridges down, landslides and general chaos. As far as i'm aware, another typhoon was forecast for any day now too. So to avoid possibly getting stranded or worse, we decided not to go and continue to travel south in Laos and on to Cambodia instead. As reluctant as we were, it seems like the sensible thing to do.
We got a sleeper bus out of Vientiane and down to the 4000 islands near the Laos/Cambodia border. Ciara and I had to share a bunk which was barely big enough for me. Lying flat on my back, my feet touched the end of the bunk. I watched a film on my Ipod, sunk a few beers and managed to get a half decent nights sleep during the 10 hour drive. We then swapped into a minibus which drove us to the pier for the 4000 islands.
The 4000 islands is a series of sandbanks and islands varying in size that the Mekong runs through. We came over from the mainland in a boat and stayed on one of the smaller islands, Don Det, which only has electricity from generators for 4 hours of the day, 6pm -10pm. I can honestly say that the island is one of, if not the, most relaxed places i've ever been to. Its full of villages and all sorts of wildlifeand just really chilled. As I found out, its also a great place to get your budget back on track! I've been enjoying my staple diet of noodles and fried rice and have been saving a few quid in the process. I bought some cheap Blu Rays in Vientiane and got stung on the postage sending them home, wont be doing that again, lol.
On our second day on the island we rented some bikes. In hindsight i wished we'd rented moubntain bikes as we didnt bargain on how muddy the paths were going to be! We cycled all the way around the island and over the bridge to the next island, out to some cracking rapids and back again before sundown. All for 80p. On our way round, we ran into a Lao funeral taking place. Presumably the person had just died and as the Lao people are largely Buddhist and believe in reincarnation, there isnt any need for a postmortem. The body was carried straight out of the house in a makeshift ceremonial coffin and placed onto a trailer that was being pulled by a tractor. We felt quite out of place just standing there looking on but didnt want to muscle past the procession out of respect so just waited until we could pass when they took a different route.
We realised later that day that we didnt have enough money to last us much longer on the island and as they dont have a bank or any ATMS there, we had to move on sharpish! Ciara and I pooled what funds we had together, booked our bus to Cambodia and changed the rest into dollars for our visas. That then left us with about 5 quid each to our names!
That night we were exhausted and achy after our bumpy ride so grabbed a couple of beers and some candles and chilled on the porch of our bungalow by the river.
We took the minibus to the border today where we were dropped off and literally walked right out of one country and into another. Not before the Laos customs and Cambodia visa officials, immigration and quarantine (swine flu) had all stung us for a dollar each for 'stamp fees'. Luckily a German couple we'd met on the island gave us 5 dollars or we'd have been well stuck。。
My fingers hurt now and i've had enough of typing so thats your lot! I'll have to update this blog more frequently as its just too taxing writing up 2 weeks worth at a time.