Sara's RTW adventure!
Hi everybody.... sorry its been such a long time since I last 'blogged'... but I do have good reason for it, promise. Anyway, I'll split this one up into different sections for each country, and hopefully that will make it easier for you to digest. The last time I wrote I was in Chang Mai, northern Thailand, planning my trip to Laos. Myself and the 3 German girls I met on the trek (Maggi, Lisa and Stefie) made our way towards Chang Khong (the border town) where we were to spend the night. Clearly the only reason anybody ever goes to Chang Khong is to cross into Laos... the place was like a ghost town! We found a place to spend the night (with free mosquitos - good job I bought a net) and headed out for some supplies for the boat trip the next day. We soon found out that not only was the town deserted, but that the local shop owners wouldn't serve us - after trying to give money to the shopkeeper for 5 minutes a woman came over and asked the owner what was going on. She translated for us - "she doesn't serve foreigners".... land of smiles eh? Thankfully not everyone in Chang Khong was so nasty, and we managed to eat that night in a Mexican restaurant whose motto was "Please be patient, quality takes time when Thailand meets Mexico!" We were all glad to get out of there the next day and made our way towards the border at 8am in order to catch the slowboat to Luang Prabang. Thai immigration was the funniest thing ever. I can't ever imagine immigration looking so shoddy in the UK. It was basically just a little office by the sea, with some makeshift tables to collect money for the river crossing! Still, it was a painless. Lao immigration on the other side wasn't much better, and as we'd chosen to cross on a Saturday the border officials were charging 20baht "overtime fees". Of course, you either pay it or they don't let you in, so reluctantly we handed over our 20baht notes (its only 30p but thats not the point!) and entered Laos. We made our way towards the boat dock, bought our tickets and boarded the slowboat which would take us to Luang Prabang in Northern Laos. I'd heard that the trip can be hard on the bum so had bought a cushion to sit on, and I'm glad I did. The seating options were a) hard wood floor with mat, or b) hard wood seat. The boat trip itself was one of the most memerable things I think I've experienced. Floating down the Mekong towards Luang Prabang, the boat stopped at little rural villages to allow locals on/off the boats, transporting their goods from market back to their homes. The villages were very much like the hilltribe villages I visited on my trek in Thailand - huts made from leaves and mud, no electricity, no running water. Small, frail old women boarded the boat carrying huge bags of sugar and rice... presumably supplies for the village for the next few weeks. I was amazed at their strangth, slinging the bags over their shoulders to get on and off the boat. I could barely lift my backpack! Watching the 2 days go by and seeing these villages it really struck me how different those peoples lives are to ours at home. They have probably never owned or used any form of technology, whereas at home children whine if by the age of 8 they don't have a mobile phone. At one point the women getting off the boat collected a brand new bicycle from the roof. They were so gentle with it, it was to become a precious form of transport no doubt. I can't even begin to imagine life like that. My dad threw my bike away because I didn't use it and it was taking up precious garage space. Quite the contrast. When we eventually arrived in Luang Prabang it was like taking a beath of fresh air. It was nothing like Bangkok, and certainly very different to Thailand altogether. As we left the boat there was no pushing, no aggression, just a few quiet people holding signs advertising their guesthouses. We chose to go with one lady whose place was very central and close to the river - Oudomphong guesthouse. This place was definately one of the best places I've stayed in. Run by a woman who calls herself "Mama" (she even refers to herself in the third person for some strange reason) it was brilliant. As soon as we arrived she said we should "take it easy, relax" and to "eat free banana." She was quite a character. I loved Luang Prabang - a beautiful old city, with no cars in the centre (UNESCO decreed, apparently), a wonderful, peaceful night market that sold local handicrafts and cheep Beer Lao... what more could you ask for? Whilst there we took a hike up Mount Phu Si to visit the important wat (temple) there. Whilst we were exploring we saw lots of monks going about their daily duties and stopped to talk to one of them. I can't remember his name, but he told us that all boys are expected to be a monk for at least 1 month during their lives.... and that although there are many monks, not all are so devoted in their faith. Many choose to do it because it means they get an education, something most local kids are deprived of due to poverty. Whilst we were there we also got to see the annual float festival. The festival marks the end of the monks' period of fasting, so in the morning at around 5am, thousands of people line the streets with food parcels to give to the monks when they go around collecting their alms. They then take it back to the temple and have a huge feast. In the following days floats (which are built by all local villages) are paraded through the streets, and local people make mini boats which they set alight and float on the water, hoping for health and good luck for the coming year. The festival was huge, and I felt I got to see a bit of real Laos. Fireworks were everywhere (which was actually quite scary, as the method seemed to be light it, throw it, and watch the people scatter) and the beer was free flowing. On another day I volunteed for Big Brother Mouse - an organisation set up to help youngsters improve their English. I went along and talked to one boy for 2 hours. He told me all about his village - how he lives on top of a mountain so has to climb up and down everyday to fetch water in a heavy barrell. He said that in Laos there is no healthcare. If people get sick then they can either stay in hospital at a very high cost, or, more likely, try out some "traditional medicine." I asked him to give me an example of this, and they ranged from rubbing plant mixtures on your body to jumping up and down and wishing for the evil spirits to be expelled from the body. It seems so mad to me that even in todays world there are people who are so poor that they have to continue to believe such things. It really does make me appreciate the fact that I was born in a developed country where we take healthcare for granted and even moan about the "service" - at least we have a service to take advantage of. After a week in Luang Prabang I reluctantly dragged myself away and caught the bus for 6 hours to Vang Vieng. The German girls had left a few days earlier, but on the way I met two English girls, Lizzy and Helena, and we continued to travel together for the next few days. Vang Vieng is a strange place, and to be honest it didn't really feel like Laos. The town is tourist central - row after row of bars and restaurants playing endless re-runs of "Friends" and "Family Guy"... but to be honest it was quite nice to order a pizza again!!! The main activity of VV was tubing. Tubing consists of inserting yourself into a giant tire innertube, and floating down the Nam Song river, stopping along the way at the numerous makeshift bars and taking part in all sorts of stupid activities like zip lining (where if you don't let go in enough time you get whiplash) and mud-pool volleyball. As you can imagine, the alcohol-water combo leads to a lot of injuries.... especially as you are not given a lifejacket! It would never be allowed in England.... but bloody hell it was a lot of fun. When you get your tube you are told that you should leave the last bar by 5pm otherwise its too dark to find the exit point, but obviously as everyone is bladdered no-one takes any notice of that. So come 7pm when it was pitch black and we were still floating down the river, we did begin to panic a little. Thankfully we saw some lights on the pier and assumed that that was where we could get out.... after clambering up the rocks and around the corner we walked straight into another bar - one more for the road we thought, lol. Brilliant. After VV, we made our way down to Viantiene, the capital of Laos. We shouldn't have bothered really - there is very little to do there, so instead we spent the day sitting around eating food and drinking coffee. I had a craving for a jacket potato, which I saw was on the menu.... but trying to explain that I wanted it with beans proved difficult. I had to wait for 2 hours for this thing, but I was hopeful that the end result would be good. As I sat there I imagined my fluffy potato all big and gooey and yummy.... what came out was a TINY, I mean TINY NEW POTATO that had been baked, with about 4 beans on the side. I couldn't beliveve it, I was mortified and we all burst into laughter so loud we almost cleared the place. The worst part was I tried to re-order (as one new potato is not quite enough to fill me up) and the kitchen had closed for food. Tragic. After the potato experience I decided it was time to move on. The girls went to Vietnam, and I moved further south to a "city" called Pakse, where I was due to fly to Cambodia from. These isn't much to do in Pakse itself, but its a good base for day trips. I visited Wat Phou Champasak, which are ancient ruins from the time when Laos was rulled from the Champasak area. The ruins were interesting but it was a strange experience being able to walk through and over them. I half expected it to be sealed off to stop looting and further destruction, instead there were just signs everywhere saying "national treasure - do not steal." Hardly going to stop anyone now, is it? I also went on a trip to the Bolaven Plateau with a mad Frenchman and some Belgian girls. We visited a tea and coffee plantation, got to go swimming in some beautiful waterfalls and visited an Animist village. The village was the best part - it was very traditional and there were no other tourists (hoorah!) That was about it for my time in Laos - I've obviously left loads out but it was a long time ago and you're probably bored from all of that anyway, lol. In the next few days I'll try and add Cambodia and Vietnam... and you can find out why its taken me so long to blog again (oh, the suspense!) Take care, Love Me X