After our last night in Thailand (which was about a week or so ago - it took me a while to find a wifi connection so I could post our last blog entry), we set off on the next leg of our adventure.
We were picked up in a truck from the place we had been put in overnight in Chiang Khong and dropped off at a beach on the edge of the Mekong River. We took a small longboat across the Mekong to Huay Xai in Laos. The Laotian side was pretty chaotic, but we managed to get our visas and go into town to get our tickets for the 2 day boat trip to Luang Prabang. The company organising the tickets was obviously out to make money on every aspect of the trip, including using many incorrect stories about how we would not be able to buy food or drink or change money or find rooms while on our boat trip. All were intended to get us to pay them in advance at inflated prices - which we did for several things. We knew we were probably being taken - but we had to remember to put things in perspective and remind ourselves that we were concerned about booking a room for $15 when we could have got one for $10 if we took a chance that they really were available when we arrived - as they were.
The boat ride was great - on a boat that must have been over 100' long and about 15' wide. The seats were far better than expected. We had been warned that the seats would be hard wooden benches, cramped together and allowing little chance of movement; when in fact there were rows of what seemed to be pairs of minivan seats set up in airplane layout, with space to roam round and socialise.
We managed to find the last few available seats - though it was very noisy at the back by the engine. The scenery along the Mekong was incredible - most of it completely untouched except for the occasional village of simple huts perched in the forest just above the high water mark. The huts would prove to be pretty standard for much of rural Laos that we saw - simple wood frames, sided with wicker panels and covered with a roof of banana leaves or grass.
Laos is still one of the poorest countries in the world and it was obvious that we were going through country that had not changed in hundreds of years - except for the simple gas engines in the very small longboats used by some fishermen and other villagers who ventured onto the river. No electricity, roads or wheeled vehicles - just beautiful hills covered in tropical forest and high rocks and sand banks along the river's edge.We could not help but think that with the pace at which tourism and development is starting to occur in Laos, the views and way of life we saw will probably disappear within a few years.
I was surprised by how fast, narrow and rocky the Mekong was for the 100 miles or so we covered in the first day. Some of the rapids and whirlpools were quite impressive as we swept by jagged rocks within a few metres of us, the old diesel engine working hard to keep us under control. We passed closely by the occasional group of local villagers fishing, washing or panning for something - presumably gold - at the river's edge.
There were about 120 people on board - mostly young back-packers and a small handful of locals who got off and on at villages along the way. Although there was limited food on board, there was plenty of beer, which kept most people and particularly the Australian and British contingents quite happy. Jessi and Krista quickly made friends with many of our fellow voyageurs.
We stopped overnight at Pakbeng - a small town perched on the steep river edge - the only place with roads or power since we left Huay Xai.We stayed in 2 rooms of a guest house that were constructed pretty much the same as the local houses, except for the bathrooms.We had dinner and breakfast on a rough but pleasant balcony overlooking the Mekong.
The next day was even better in terms of scenery, boat and atmosphere on board as we began to get to know people. Thanks mainly to Jess and Kris we quickly knew an interesting mix of French, Chilean, British, Australian, American and German people - who we would continue to come across for days on our trip through Laos.
On the 2nd day of our trip, many of the younger travellers started drinking beer by 11:00am - which meant that by 3:00pm, when we passed a small remote village nestled among mountains, we were approached by a small long boat, steered by a 10 year old, which came up alongside. The boy's father quickly passed us a few crates of beer and we were on our way again. I guess our skipper had called ahead to say that we were about to run out of critical social lubricant.
As we came out of the mountains, we arrived in Luang Prabang - the old capital of Laos until the King and Queen were overthrown and, after their exile, the capital was moved to Vientiane.
It is a very laidback and intriguingly attractive place - the old quarter nestled on a peninsula between the Mekong and a far smaller but pretty little river surrounded by sand bar beaches, restaurants, forest and temples. The buildings are generally small and 1930's colonial style - packed among streets and alley-ways. As Luang Prabang is a world heritage sight, the buildings are generally in good condition with virtually no new development.
We stayed on a farm a few miles outside of town - in a couple of comfortable thatch-roofed huts, surrounded by forest-covered hills. The access road was rough - and we were shuttled by the owner's brother in either a 60's Land Rover or a Vietnam War-era Jeep to and from the town.One night when the girls stayed in town to party with new-found friends they made it back by 2:30 am in a tuk-tuk taxi that managed to find its way up the trail.
Most of the visitors to Luang Prabang are back-packers -though there are some higher-end and somewhat coolrestaurants and bars that are beginning to attract visitors on far larger budgets.
On our last day in Luang Prabang, Jessi, Krista and I went by open taxi truck to some waterfalls about 30 kilometres from town. The high falls and multiple tiers of pools and smaller falls were remarkable - milky blue and so beautiful that they hardly seemed real. (We commented that they looked like the setting for a shampoo commercial - or the latest attraction in Las Vegas).
We spent 3 nights in Luang Prabang and then drove by minivan south towards Vientiane. We climbed steadily up into the mountains, until we were passing through a series of villages, each of which was little more than a cluster of wicker-panelled huts stuck upon the edge of the road, perched upon steep drops into the valley below. As we crossed the ridge of mountains we were met by a spectacular view of karst hills, with one enormous mountain standing out among them like something out of a Lord of the Rings movie. We followed a mountain ridge for some time before dropping down into a river valley nestled among the karst hills and arrived in Vang Vieng. The small town is renowned as a base for various outdoor activities and its bars - and in particular for combining the 2 by renting inner tubes to float down the river so that the meandererscan stop off at the bars to consume large quantities of very cheap and potent liquors.
We arrived fairly late in the day and found a nice place to stay with a spectacular view on the edge of the river. So the girls only had time for the tubing and left the drinking to later that night when they met up with some of their boat-people friends. However, we did first manage to eat together in a small restaurant where the girls ordered the Laos specialty of a bucket of liquor, Red Bull and a few other things thrown in. I had to test it, of course, as well as a few shots of the local snake-bite whisky. The latter comes in bottles containing snakes, tarantulas and other creatures and tastes surprisingly good.
The girls partied until late and all 3 of us were suffering the next day - while Sue, who had been particularly virtuous that evening, was cheerful and bright for our bus trip on to Ventiane. The bus journey seemed rougher and bouncier than ever - which really did not help the tender heads and stomachs of the less virtuous.However, we survived the trip and arrived in Ventiane, to stay in a pleasant place near the centre of the old town. Just around the corner from the hotel we found a French restaurant that Sue had read about and wanted to try to satisfy a craving for French food, as an alternative to the Asian dishes and pizza we have lived on for the past few weeks. The food was excellent - easily as good as Le Gavroche in Vancouver, for a fraction of the price. By the way, we still have not come across anything but great pizza in Asia - and the French restaurant served some of the very best. (One small quirk - the best Thai curry and pizza we have encountered was actually in an Irish Pub in Chiang Mai - go figure.....)
The following day, Sue and I wandered across Vientiane to a large local market, which sold just about every conceivable edible plant and creature, as well as the usual range of low end clothing and other stuff. We wandered for an hour or so and were noticeably the only non-locals there.We stopped and bought a few things to eat - but were a bit disappointed to find that we were charged foreigner prices for anything - about 250% more than the local price. Sue bought a top from one merchant who was clearly not used to selling to foreigners and so we ended up with one thing at real local prices. Again, the amounts were inconsequential, but it was interesting to see how we were treated.
The produce was really intriguing - I came across dried barbequed field rat, which I had heard about and definitely wanted to try. But when I actually found some, sitting in a very sad looking plastic bowl, I am afraid I wimped out and deferred from buying. We did find a fair amount of live creatures, including fairly happy looking duck, some not so happy fish kept barely alive in small oxygenated bowls, and some still squirmy eels. Of course their average life-expectancy at that point was about 75 minutes, but as a potential purchaser I would have definitely preferred a live critter than one that had probably been decaying in the tropical temperatures for some time.
After our market visit, we felt that we had experienced something of real Laos outside of the typical tourist circuit. We both ate from food vendors in the market, though were a bit disturbed to see how it was usual practice for someone to feel every piece of a product for sale before buying. This meant that someone would handle pieces of raw chicken and sliced water buffalo before they got to the deep-fried plantain or waffle that we were interested in - but it appears that our immune systems have responded well as none of us have had any major intestinal problems.
So we are just about to leave Laos - the highlights for me being the spectacular undeveloped scenery, the boat trip and the people, both local and visitors. The Laotians are not particularly friendly on the surface - but I suspect that it is because of the last 10 years of dealing with ever-increasing numbers of foreign visitors. Whenever we have had the chance to speak for a while they seemed friendly and fun loving - though out to gouge visitors whenever they can.So far the visitors to Laos are primarily back-packers and not package tourists. Our experience of the latter in Thailand was far from positive, particularly those from parts of Northern/Eastern Europe and Russia, many of whom were just obnoxiously rude to the locals. Even in Luang Prabang, we experienced a guy in an internet place who reduced a young Laotian worker to tears by shouting at him because the printer quality was not good. The old stereotype of the ugly/loud American tourist seems to have been replaced by equivalents from the other side of the Atlantic.
We are at the airport now, waiting for our plane to Hanoi. We had a slight hiccup when the check-in agent noticed that our Vietnamese visas are not valid until tomorrow - but they checked and thought it would be OK. Hopefully, Vietnamese immigration will be of the same mind…….