We are now well into the Lao leg of the trip and we're still having a whale of a time. We're in Vang Viang which is the famous for the tubing pub crawl which we might have a go at this afternoon. Before we can do that I have to bring you up to date, so here goes:
We left Chiang Mai last Wednesday and we were pleased that we had decided to pay the extra cash and get an air-con minivan for the journey to Chaing Klong on the ThaiLao border: the journey would be shorter, cooler and more comfortable than on a public bus - in theory! Our minivan was packed, there was no air-con and the driver was working to his own agenda and drove us at 60kph all the way so that we arrived 2 hours later than we should have done. Coincidentally we arrived at 4 o'clock which is the time after which you have to pay an extra dollar for a Lao visa - we suspect there might be some kind of dodgy dealings between our driver and the immigration men. Anyway, we crossed the Mekong eventually and things immediately changed for the better when the guy handling the money charged Zoe and I $26 each instead of the correct $36 each for our 30 day visas (we discovered the next day that our friends had seen the immigration guys well on the piss earlier in the afternoon!). To finish the day off we changed some cash, checked in at Gibbon Experience HQ, found a hostel and passed out. Before passing out we had to figure out the new currency and sort through the collection of US dollars, Thai baht and Lao kip that now filled our wallets. As we drifted off to sleep we were slightly concerned that it seemed to rain through the whole night but how bad could it be!
Finally, the day of the Gibbon Experience had arrived and we met up with out fellow experiencers on the high street at 8.00am. There were ten of us in total (a Canadien couple, an English couple, a girl from Hong Kong, an Aussie couple with their 8 year old son and us) that piled into the back of 2 pick up trucks and set off. The French guy who briefed us about the trip made a couple of bold statements before we set off:
- "The journey to the tree houses takes 4 hours in the trucks. If the track is bad you might have to walk some but it never takes longer than 7 hours total."
- "You will have plenty of food. Regular meals and plenty of bread, fruit and snacks in between."
(We would look back on these words fondly later in the day.)
Half an hour out of town we picked up a woman and her massive baby who were getting a lift to her village near the tree houses. An hour or so further up the road we pulled over at a village shop to drop off our big bags and all transferred into the back of one truck ready to make the river crossing. With one of the guides walking in front to check the depth we drove into the water and it was almost up to the flat bed of the truck - Hi-lux 4x4s do this kind of thing in their sleep so we made it no trouble. Once across we changed into a Landcruiser for the next leg of the trip and the driver was not a good 4x4er! We made it up the first muddy, slippery hill by the skin of our teeth with his "bury the throttle and hope for the best technique", but hill number 2 got the better of us and with the tyres smoking as they spun in the mud we started slipping back down the hill. We all jumped out of the truck, the girls set off walking and the lads were tasked with pushing alongside the guides. The next hour and a half passed in a haze of flung mud and diesel fumes. The driver went at the loud pedal with such enthusiasm that even if we had made it up the hill we would have run out of gas part way there. We used a winch to get us a few extra feet up the hill but the guides ripped out a ton of small trees and bamboo plants in the process. Eventually we told them we would push no more and abandoned the truck well and truly buried on the hill. Turns out we were only a small way into a massively long and increasingly slippy incline and there was no way in hell that we could have inched the truck the whole way - the hour and a half that we spent pushing was never going to get us anywhere!
The walk to the tree house complex took about 5 hours after we left the truck, amazingly, the woman carrying the massive baby made the same hike wearing flip-flops while we slipped and slid in hiking boots. Tree house 3 was another hour further into the jungle but we got to sample 5 of the zip lines on the way. Frenchie's statement number 1 about a 7 hour maximum was bettered by a good 2 hours. Zoe and I were accompanied by the Canadiens as we settled into tree house 3, knackered and ready for dinner only to be told that Frenchie's 2nd statement was false as well - plenty of food translated into plenty of boiled rice, boiled cabbage, boiled bamboo and boiled egg plant. We were assured things would improve the next day when supplies arrived so we ate and went to bed.
On Friday morning we woke at 6 o'clock to the sound of Gibbons howling their hearts out for 5 minutes or so and then they fell silent. We didn't see them but the sound was amazing. As we were awake anyway we decided to harness up and followed our guide Max on a tour of the zip lines before breakfast. The longest is a 600m goliath with an amazing view up and down the valley, truly an unforgettable experience made even better by thoughts of the big breakfast that was to come. But when we got back to tree house 1 there was still only rice and cabbage with not a sausage, an egg or a bacon in sight! Once again we we're assured that food would come later in the day so rather than mope around we zipped off into the jungle once again to play for a few hours in the rain.
When we returned to tree house 1 for lunch we were greeted with f**king rice and cabbage again so I headed off to the kitchen to see what was going on. The guides were all tucking into fried bananas and seemed surprised when I got very angry and demanded some for our group. While I waited for the bananas to fry I talked to a young American girl who has been volunteering at the Gibbon Experience conservation project for the past month because she "loves conservation so much". Having discussd the lack of food for us as paying guests I went on to the non-existence of any form of conservation. The truck carving up the track and ripping out treesbushes, the big heap of rubbish bags near our tree house and the number of other little things I had seen. Her response? - "Last week I helped a monkey"! She seemed very proud of this small feat and used it as a statement to end the conversation and sauntered off. Eventually my bananas were ready so I set off back to the tree house and I walked past the girl in a hammock and saw one of the local guides having a good old fondle of her ass. Conservation seemed to be a great excuse for living deep in the jungle as the only girl with a bunch of horny local guides!
With bellies full of bananas we set off into the jungle again. The sun came out and the zip lines seemed to get better and better as the views emerged from the rain clouds. To top off a great afternoon we got back to a proper meal with meat and other stuff to accompany our obligatory rice and cabbage - the truck had got through!
Saturday morning we were woken again by the gibbons singing and then we had a good breakfast and played for a final time in the trees before setting off on the long walk back to civilisation. The truck met us half way back as well which was another bonus and the driver made it all the way back without us having to push any. Once across the river we washed all our boots, had a couple of beers with lunch and then together with the Aussie family Zoe and I piled into the back of a pick-up truck bound for Luang Namtha. We got dropped at a guest house, got washed and then the 5 of us went for dinner and beers at a street market food court. On the way to being drunk Hans ended up playing a game with his son and a gang of local kids, lots of running round and shouting and throwing in the air - funny as hell for spectators.
We got up early on the Sunday to get our bus to Luang Prabang and ended up at the bus station with an hour and a half to spare so we went for food. It was better than cabbage and rice but we were all surprised when our omlettes turned out to be fried eggs and the bread rolls must have been 3 days old. The bus journey was a 10 hour epic with many stops for toilet and food - there was 1 roadside stall selling bags of live eels (we just bought donuts and pringles instead). As evening drew in we arrived at a lovely guest house right on the bank of the mighty Mekong. After an exhausting day we had just enough energy for a quick walk up to the funfair, a bite to eat and then bed.
After all the excitement of the previous few days we needed to unwind some so spent the day doing very little. Strolled round town, checked out the sights and investigated bus prices and bicycle hire. We met the Aussies for dinner and had one of the most fun meals of the trip - a Lao BBQ at the restaurant across the road from our guest house. They put a fire and hot plate into a recess in the middle of the table and we cooked for ourselves a variety of meats, veggies and noodles. It was great to have company for dinner having spent the previous few weeks dining just the 2 of us.
On Tuesday we hired a couple of bikes to go out to the waterfalls. Our 9 o'clock start turned into a 10 o'clock start as I had to get my Gerber pliers out and fix the bikes to make them rideable before we could start. Once on the move we stopped to buy some suncream and headed off. The reason I mention the suncream is that I wanted to trial the local brand stuff as imported Nivea costs more than diamonds over here. With Zoe wearing tried and tested Aussie brand sun lotion and me wearing "brand X" we set off on a 2 hour ride through magical scenery to the falls. When we reached the falls it was apparent that "brand X" had failed in it's duty to stop me from burning so I spent the rest of the day in the shade with slightly pink arms and shoulders. The falls were amazing with pools to swim in and rope swings to jump off. Unfortunately the water was a little too cold for Zoe and after a couple of dips she retired to a bench in the shade. We climbed up to the top of the biggest fall and the view was amazing but the climb coupled with my sunburn helped us to decide to get a tuk-tuk home with the bikes on the roof.
Yesterday was Wednesday and we spent the bulk of the day cramped in an AC mini-van with the AC turned off. It took 7 hours to do the 5 hour journey to Vang Viang and we were dropped outside of town and not in the centre as we had been promised. The local tuk-tuk drivers were well p!ssed off when we told them where to stick their 10,000kip (just over $1 US) per person ride in to town, they told us it was over 3km and we'd never walk it but we set off anyway. Just 10 minutes later we arrived in the centre smugly satisfied that we had got one over on them. We found a great guest house where we have our own wooden bungalow with massive en-suite and then we met up with our Canadien and English Gibbon Experience buddies for dinner and beers.
That brings us up to date and so we are going to head off and find out what we need to do for this tubing jaunt.
Over and out and see you in October. Hope everyone is well.