I have just spent the past few weeks travelling through Laos, which is a great little country with really pretty scenery, nice food and lots of fun outdoorsy things to do.
I started off in Luang Nam Tha where I had hoped to do some trekking in the forests. However, the weather conspired against me and after some torrential rain that appeared to begin as soon as I got off my bus, the rivers swelled up and blocked the roads into the area I wanted to go to.
Therefore I ended up only spending a day exploring the area by bike and enjoyed cycling over the bumpy lanes through countless little villages full of children who would come running out waving to shout 'Shabba di' which means hello. The countryside was all lush green paddy fields with little wooden houses on stilts and the locals were out in their straw coolie hats tending the fields, swimming or washing in the rivers or sitting around underneath their homes watching whatever went on. I cycled the whole way to a waterfall that turned out to be considerably further than I had thought and my arms went numb from the vibrations off the bike across the bumpy path. However, it was worth it when I got there and waded through the river which had risen above the path to reach it.
I then caught a bus to a fantastic little town called Luang Prabang. The bus journey was pretty interesting with some incredibly high pitched Laos pop blaring on the radio and the usual maniac drivers that seem to be employed by Asian bus company's on their most dangerous routes. We also had to share the bus with some wildlife as other passengers bought bags of cockroaches to take home and cook - yum! An italian man practically jumped up on his seat and screamed when one escaped from the bag.
I really liked Luang Prabang and Laos previous experience as a French colony and could really be seen in the pretty old buildings with wooden shutters, balconeys and tree lined roads. It also had some great cafes to get baguettes, coffee and cakes.
I met a couple of Irish girls on the bus and they decided to come to a guesthouse that had been recommended to me by a girl in China. I had my first Laos experience of an attempted con when the tuk tuk driver kept taking us to different guesthouses that he was being told to go to by touts on scooters who were following us. We refused to get out - even when the driver was pretending the vehicle had 'broken down' just outside another guesthouse!
Eventually we made it to the right place and got an extremely warm welcome from Mama. For the next few days she plied me with 'banana.....coffee.....water..... sticky rice cakes......more banana!' etc. Both her and Papa were a lovely couple who treated their guests like family and I really enjoyed staying there.
Luang Prabang is probably my favourite place in Laos as it is just so nice and has a real fusion of East and West. There were great night markets to buy nice crafts and souvenirs from, nice restaurants to have a Laos Laos cocktail made with the local rice wine or relax with a Beer Lao. However, this country has a midnight curfew so you have to be off the streets before then so it becomes extremely quiet after 11pm. I also explored the food markets to see what delicacies they eat here and seems to include rats and cockroach kebabs and frogs that are bought live.
You could also have a massage here and it was pretty funny going for one and a steam afterwards where the locals were all sitting around taking breaks between steaming by watching their favourite soap opera in their towels.
The river curls through the town and is a lovely place to go cycling to see the various sights, most of which are Wats and to be honest do get a bit boring after a while unless the journey to them is as nice as here. Much of the time we just wandered around the town exploring it and finding new places to see. There were monks in saffron robes everywhere walking to and from the wats and in the mornings they were out with their bowls walking in single file past the locals who gave alms by giving them food.
A group of us also hired a 'jumbo' , which is a little truck that has been converted with two benches in the back and is how most people get around here. We spent a day at a waterfall, which due to it being the end of the rainy season was really swelled and you had to wade up the path to get to it. It was really impressive though and we spent a few hours there having a picnic and swimming in the pools underneath. There was also a wildlife rescue place next to it which had a tiger and some asiatic bears which had apparently all been rescued from people keeping them to put in Chinese medicine. Apparently there are farms here were they drain bile out of the bears stomachs to use - yuk!
We then caught a bus to Phonsaven to visit the Laos equivalent of Stonehenge called the Plain of Jars. Here there are fields in the middle of nowhere filled with huge stone jars that have been there for years, but no one really can date them or knows where they come from or why they are there. One local myth that I liked was that giants had previously lived there and been carrying jars of whisky for a celebration.
We also explored some of the other areas near Phonsaven including some villages where the people have made use of the millions of bombs dropped on them during the Vietnam war by using the shells instead of wooden stilts for their homes, fences or even to grow plants in. I had not known too much about Laos history prior to coming here, but it was pretty shocking to see the countryside dotted with craters from bombs and see the huge areas that are still being combed for mines that they call bombies and which regularly kill people here even now. Had I known about this I may have taken slightly more care to stay on the main path whilst out cycling. We also visited a temple and were blessed by a monk who we later recognised on the front cover of a book about his life, so I guess he must have been quite an important one.
Our guesthouse was owned by a Laos version of Richard Branson who despite being very young seems to own lots of businesses in the town. He was an interesting character and covered with tatoos of insects including an enormous beetle across his chest. He too had made use of the shells from bombs and had a rocket shell as a barbeque and bullet casings for keyrings. The staff treated us to a few renditions of some typical Laos songs and then asked us to perform too. None of us could remember any songs by heart so we had to resort to playing my Ipod and singing along. As I was travelling with two Irish girls I put on some Irish tunes and we sang along to Van Morrision and The Pogues. However, bizarrely a little guy there from a tiny village in the north of Laos was able to sing word for word some Westlife songs - their audience is obviously far reaching. It was a nice place to stay other than the confused local cockeralls who began crowing at 2.30 in the morning and would go for about half an hour until they realised the sun was not coming up so would go to sleep again until dawn.
We then went to Vang Vieng, which has got to be one of the strangest places I have visited since being away. It is a small town that has built up around a backpacker scene of tubing on the river and indulging in the local 'happy pizzas and happy shakes' at restaurants with names like 'Give Pizza a Chance'. Therefore many places in the town are TV bars which are basically open air dorms with large seating area/beds facing big screens that show episodes of Friends back to back from first thing in the morning until late at night. The stoners all lie out on the cushions with pint glasses of happy shake staring vacantly at the screen. Meanwhile locals will be walking to and from the temple or going about their daily lives probably wondering what the hell happened to their town. I went into one tour company to make enquiries about kayaking and the guy behind the desk with red blurry eyes just burst into a heap of giggles and couldn't stop. I quickly made the decision not to go kayaking with him.
We had a great day tubing along the river and stopping off at the numerous riverside bars which offer BeerLaos, cocktails in buckets and rope swings that you have to climb high up to a trapese and cling on until you feel safe to drop into the fairly fast flowing river. At this point a man throws a ring out to you and will pull you in. Sometimes people missed it and went floating off down the river where hopefully you get pulled in by the next bar along. Sometimes people forgot to lift their legs above the water on the swing and would be pulled forward into a face down belly flop and we all winced and said ''ouch''. However, despite their pink slap marks the anaesthetic of alcohol clearly dulled any pain and they all clambered out laughing.
There was a group of five of us who went together and it was great fun trying to all make sure we came into the same bar and sometimes holding onto each others feet to try and stay together. We were having such a good time that we had not realised how late it was and had to try and rush back before it got dark and you found yourself down the Mekong river into Cambodia.
That night we went for drinks in one of the TV bars and éven without the assistance of happy shakes found ourselves staring vacantly at episodes of Friends for about two hours. Maybe there are subliminal messages in it......
The following day we had booked to kayak between Vang Vieng and Vientiene and were prepared for a long day on the river. However, it was a bit of a disappointment as we drove for about an hour and then only had about two hours on the river before lunch. I shared an inflatable kayak with another girl and as I was the more experienced kayaker was supposed to be steering. However, for the life of me I could not stop it from turning circles and it was really frustrating. During one rapid the bendy inflatable kayak just folded underneath me and I plopped out into the river. However, the rapids were really tame so it was not particularly scary. Indeed we jumped in for parts of it to float along and tip our guides in the water.
Our guides cooked us a great lunch using bamboo sticks to make a barbeque and served up kebabs, rice and salad. We then returned back into the river expecting to paddle for a few hours, but it must only have been another hour until we finished. We were then packed into another tiny truck with twenty other people and had a two hour bumpy ride into town.
We then travelled to the capital Vientiene, which also has the very interesting East/West fusion that I had previously seen. They even have a similar looking building to the Arc de Triumphe alongside golden wats and colonial buildings. We met some friendly young monks there called Wind and Moon who wanted to hear all about where we were from. However, when I asked them about their lives they suddenly became hushed and said they did not know what their future held so could not tell me. I have no idea why.
From there we travelled on an overnight bus to Pakse where for the first six miles of the journey twenty five of us were packed like sardines into a little truck. I had to stand but was at least fortunate enough to be inside the truck whereas about three guys were just having to balance on the bumper and cling onto the back. So much for our VIP bus ticket! We had intended to go to Pakse to visit a temple or a plateau, but due to time arriving and no buses running after 2pm we never made it. Pakse had a strange feel about it and we witnessed someone being attacked whilst we sat in a cafe. As it had little else of interest to hold us we happily moved on.
We then caught a bus and then a little canoe to the area called Si Phan Don, or 4000 Islands. It is in the far south of the country and has lots of little islands in the middle of the Mekong River. We have stayed on a small one called Don Det which has lots of little wooden shack guesthouses on the riverfront with hammocks hanging to relax in. Mine is called Mr B's and is on the side that gets good sunsets. The island only got electricity a couple of years ago but already boasts an internet cafe shack that I am currently using. We have had a few days to kick back and relax in between cycling around the islands seeing their waterfalls, fishermen, locals going about their daily lives washing in the river etc and indulging in lots of nice food. Like Vang Vieng, this place also specialises in 'Happy shakes, meals etc.' The funniest things I saw here on a menu was a 'Happy Birthday cake' asking you to specify how happy you wanted it and a 'Hangover Brunch' made up of scrambled eggs, baguette, chips, cold Pepsi, fruit salad, 500mg of paracetamol and 10mg of Valium!
Anyway, my time in Laos is now over and I will be heading into Cambodia tommorow. I am still travelling with the same Irish girls for a bit longer, although due to meet a Chinese friend I made along the way too.