We decided to fly into Laos and avoid the 36 hour bus ride that travellers refer to as the journey from hell which is saying quite a lot in Asia! We planned to get some Lao Kip from the airport to pay for our visas but in the departures area in Hanoi Airport you could only exchange to Vietnamese Dong so not much help! We had enough Dollars to pay for one visa so San got hers and went outside to get some more money for Jeff's, leaving him stranded in international area with some very grumpy security people! Jeff ended up paying for his visa in our remaining American dollars, some Thai Baht we had and 200000 Kip and was eventually allowed into the country. A short taxi ride later we were in our very basic guesthouse. It was clean but we are not sure what the pillows were stuffed with, and think it may have been rocks. We found a bar down the road with cheap food and cold beer. We enjoyed our first Beer Lao overlooking the Mekong River. There were a couple of girls aged 10 and 15 running the bar and once we finished eating, they set up a game of Bingo to play with us.
We woke up to a very peaceful Laos (apart a funny chanting which we later realised was people in bamboo row boats training for a race) and got a pastry and coffee for breakfast. There is a big French influence here. We explored the National Museum, some temples and the Royal Palace. We ended the afternoon with a few beers in a riverside bar and then climbed towards a temple to see the sunset over the Mekong. We explored the night market and found some very cheap tasty food, where you can fill up a bowl with whatever you like for 10,000 (73p).
We found some Lao coffee and homemade baguette the next morning for breakfast and spent the day at Kung Si waterfalls. We climbed straight to the top of the waterfall and walked across it to the other side, wading through knee deep water and over bamboo bridges which was really fun but also terrifying as we were a couple of metres from the falls. We stopped for a swim in one of the smaller falls and the current was so strong, there were lots of fish in the water and you could feel them all over your body, especially when you stood up, you could feel them nibbling at your feet. There is also a bear rescue centre in the same area, they rescue bears from poachers. In China they confine the bears to a tiny cage and use their bile for medicinal purposes.
We woke up before the sun rose the next morning to watch the monks during the Alms Giving Ceremony. This old Lao tradition dates back to the 14th century and the idea is that monks collect food from the faithful for their one meal a day. The main purpose is for locals to give alms to monks but local children walk around with baskets in the hope that the monks will share some of their alms so they can take food back to their families. It has been a tradition for centuries in Luang Prabang but unfortunately tourists are ruining this tradition by getting up close and taking photo's right in the monk's faces. There were a number of local people volunteering and giving tourist information about how to act respectfully during this very peaceful ceremony. The monks threatened to stop the ceremony along this tourist strip but the Lao government informed that if they did they would replace them with actors to dressed as monks so the tourists would still have the experience. If tourists want to give alms it's advised not to buy from street vendors as there have been reports that monks have become ill due to contaminated food. The monks gave in and continue. It was a spectacular scene, the monks are dressed in orange and saffron robes and the whole ceremony is so peaceful.
We took the bus to Vang Vieng a few hours later and were crammed into a minibus; one guy even had to sit on a stool in the middle of the aisle for 6 hours. We arrived at our bungalow mid-afternoon after a beautiful and windy drive. We noticed that the town was really sleepy and there weren't many people around. It's set in a beautiful location on the Nam Song River which is surrounded by limestone casts, the main activities here are tubing (getting a huge rubber tube and floating down the river) or kayaking. He whole town is backpacker orientated with bars playing US sitcoms, pumping out loud music, serving western food, which made it difficult to feel like you were actually in Laos. The tubing was started by the owner of the Organic Farm (now the starting point of the 3km float down the river), initially the farmer let his volunteers borrow tubes to relax and enjoy the views down the river. Locals jumped on the idea thinking it was good to bring in tourists and shop rotate renting tubes so everyone can make some money from it. In 2012 it was all getting out of hand with 15 bars offering "happy" shakes, free shots, unsafe rope swings and zip lines, shallow water in high season and deep fast flowing water in low season along with no safety restrictions along the 3km stretch of water and 27 tourists died. The Lao government cracked down and closed all the bars along the river, there are now 3 that remain open.
On a more positive note, having read all of this after we went tubing we were keen to give it a try and we had so much fun. It seems to be much more relaxed now, we floated down the river with a couple of guys we had met and stopped at the three bars for a Beer Lao, played some volleyball, local kids throw you a rope and pull you in, the view was incredible as you float past the limestone karsts. We ate in local restaurants and tried the famous Lao mince with green beans, chilli and herbs with sticky rice. It was so tasty but so spicy and they only used half a chilli! The waiter was a sweet kid who showed us lots of magic tricks, we were the only customers in the restaurant so the whole family joined us to watch the tricks. We ate quite a lot of street food which was cheap but we were both very sick the morning we had to leave so we stayed an extra day to recover.
We arrived back in Luang Prabang after a very surprisingly short drive, we drove across landslides and mountains, at one point the mini bus cut out a few times and struggled to get through mud and up a hill but eventually made it.
The bus drive to Luang Namtha was an experience, it was a very bumpy, steep dirt road driving through tribal villages and passing some locals collecting fire wood, corn or leaves for medicine from the jungle. As we were bumped around we admired the beautiful landscape of rice fields and jungle. When we finally arrived we immediately booked our hill tribe and trekking trip for the next day. There were village ladies selling home-made crafts of bracelets and bags and also selling marijuana which they kept trying to sell to Jeff. They were funny and enjoyed a bit of a joke.
We were picked up the next morning and started our kayaking on the Nam Tha river within the National Protected area passing different villages with different ethnic groups, this is an area that can only be accessed by kayak or walking. The Lao government won't build a road for the villagers as they are worried it will impact tourism. In total we kayaked 16km stopping for lunch half way which was served on banana leaves, there was stir friend veg and pork, pumpkin, beans with mint and chilli and sticky rice. They love their sticky rice in Lao. We sunk the boat at a V junction mainly because we weren't paying enough attention, San sunk her end of the boat causing our rucksacks (which were in a bin bag) and dry bags (with phones, camera and passports) to almost float away, luckily the guides stopped and freed us. After that conundrum we were off again whizzing down rapids. We stopped at a bigger village and had a wander around, looking at all the animals (ducklings, piglets, puppies, dogs, pigs, cows - which they all breed to eat), we passed a man making fishing net from bamboo and another man using leaves and bamboo sticks to make roofs for the huts. Everyone in the village had a job and they were all kept busy. There is also a school in the village and this village had electricity and cable television. They had to carry huge satellites by foot for four hours from Luang Namtha. They also dry lots of goods for export to China such as rattan (which is a species of palm used to make furniture), cardamom and corn (which the Chinese feed to their animals). We continued kayaking for another few kilometres and then came across our village. This village was a lot smaller than the previous one, it had no electricity and families and villages take turns to host the trekkers so they all get some income. On this particular village they have built a hut for trekkers to stay, a kitchen and a toilet, it's very basic and the same as the huts they villagers live in, this is because some families in the village have very small houses and have no room to host trekkers so they will come down to the kitchen and cook for trekkers. We had two families cook for us and watched as they gathered all the chickens and chose one for our dinner. We watched as they had somehow stunned the chicken and then tied some bamboo around its neck to finish it off. We had a shower at a tap (they had a German company come and install fresh water pumps from the mountain), Jeff had a dip in the river. They have power in the summer through the turbine in the river but not now as the river is too big and their dam has been washed away. While our dinner was being cooked we joined a party, it was a celebration for a family whose two boys were going to secondary school the next day in Luang Namtha (they had to walk 4 hours and would stay in a boarding school during the week and go home at weekends). The boys accept white bracelets on their arms with a small donation (5-10,000 kip (50p) and offer the person who tied a bracelet to them a shot of Lao rice whiskey. After many many shots of rice whiskey (it was rude not to drink it when being offered) with the Chief of the village and the local policeman it was time to go back for dinner. We played some Frisbee with the local kids before eating. Dinner was served on banana leaves and there was chicken and veg, another chicken and veg but with chicken feet, beak and head, squash soup, tomatoes, pumpkin with onion and carrots and sticky rice. Once we finished dinner we made up our beds and sat around the fire watching the stars. Once in bed with a very good mosquito net all you could hear were the crickets. We woke up at 1am to a huge thunderstorm and downpour of rain, our two guides had to move to the other side of the hut as the got soaked. We had to move our bed down further as were getting dripped on a little. Overall it wasn't a bad night's sleep, we woke up and the rain was still coming down. After omelette, sticky rice and coffee we set off for the jungle, walking through puddles and streams (some were knee deep), we also had to keep stopping to take leeches off our shoes and socks. We trekked over bamboo bridges, across numerous streams, passed some large crabs, saw some bear claws on the trees and tasted some bark from a tree that is good for stomach upset. The villagers come to the jungle and find numerous plants for medicinal purposes. We walked through rice fields and stopped in a hut in one field for some lunch, we had sticky rice with pumpkin, eggplant and beans. A short trek after lunch we arrived in the village where we took a longboat across the river and to a waiting minibus. After a 14km wet trek, we were very happy to see the bus and after the days rain we were cold for the first time in Asia.
The next day we took the bus to Huay Xia which is a border town to Thailand. We'll hop over the river tomorrow and go to Chaing Mai so just time for one last Beer Lao by the river before we go.