Tag Archives: laos

That’s travelling folks!

14 May

And so we said goodbye to SE Asia. Sensing this, the taxi driver who dropped us off at the bus station took his last chance to rip us off and charged us 5 more ringgits than it cost on the way there because he refused to use the meter, but at 7am we weren’t going to argue. He had a good go at trying to convince us the buses would all be empty and would wait for hours before going to the airport and that we should actually pay him lots of money to take us all the way there, but we’d heard this many times before on our travels and just politely smiled, nodded, and then insisted we went to the bus station, where we caught the bus for £2 each and it left immediately. Can’t blame him for trying though!

Unlike the other airports we’ve visited, KL’s is quite big and full of people, so although we left with plenty of time, by the time we’d worked our way round the various queues and check points, the gate was already boarding. By luck of the draw, I managed to get a seat in the centre by myself – the third time this has happened, win! [Except seconds after writing this, a snotty kid came and sat next to me playing his bleepy little game thing. Giving him the death stare like I owned the plane didn’t work so may have to resort to actual violence, or at least making him kill himself. In the game, honest…I made him move in the end. I did give away my copy of Marie Claire to an Aussie girl to restore karma, but not sure that makes up for kicking a small child. Probably not going to heaven after all].  And the meal I’d booked whilst in Koh Samui before the tiny fish eyes incident was actually edible and Malaysian so that evens up our junk food:Malaysian ratio somewhat.

I ordered an Asahi beer and ended up with a bottle of sake but that was soon corrected and a little bag of Bombay mix was placed in front of me to go with the lager. I immediately gave this to Craig as I hate nuts…after inspected these he informed me that actually, it was a bag of tiny battered fish (with and without eyes). Yummy.

So I guess it’s time to do a round up of SE Asia seeing as I did one on Sri Lanka (don’t look at our ‘where are we’ page – our route looks like a plate of spaghetti)…

I was going to do a list of good things and bad things but it’s impossible as they often cross over. For instance, the first thing that hits you when you get off the plane is the wall of heat. That never, ever, goes away. If you don’t have a fan, or can’t afford aircon (like us mostly!), you will be sweating at all times. Even in the shower. We ended up getting used to it after so long, but the only time I really felt cold was when we were in Vietnam in January and when we had airconditioning in the room but weren’t given sheets. The rest of the time, you’re either slightly sweaty or very sweaty. But pretty much guaranteed sunshine every day was a never ending benefit despite the feeling of being hot all the time. It took a while to fight the English urge when the sun came out to immediately drive to the seaside and sit on the beach, no matter where you are. When you live in the Midlands, as far away as possible from the beach, sunshine is a rare pleasure and one that you can’t complain about.

Smells is another one. I will never get tired of the smell of frangipani trees, or jasmine, incense, delicious food cooked on the street, limes, spices and rain on hot pavements or grass, but all too often you’re half way through enjoying a wonderful combination of these and you spy a bin full of warm, rotting food, or fish drying in the sun and you tell your lungs ‘abort, abort!’ but it’s too late, it smacks you in the face before you can do anything about it and all you smell and taste is bin juice and fish guts.

One thing I feel really bad about though is the way they treat animals here. There are some people who look after them but I would say the vast majority don’t. From puppies in a cage in the boiling hot sun all day without food and water, to zoo exhibitions where the animals are in tiny cages, to stray (or pet) dogs covered in fleas and mange, it really broke my heart. I saw a Doberman like Holls in a cage in a petshop yesterday: clearly distressed and pacing in a sun-filled shop window and I really did consider buying it but there would be no way to take it over to Australia. Poor thing was docked and cropped within an inch of its life and was bored senseless. I am not sure why the state of the animals affected me more than the way the poorest people lived or seeing children begging on the streets – maybe it’s time to sort my life out? Or accept the fact and just work in a kennels?!

On that note, here’s a quick update on the puppy we adopted in Cambodia and rehomed with Geordie, a Canadian expat, and his family

From starving mongrel to pampered pup in three short months!

Something we could both embrace was the food though. Aside from the junk fest we’ve been having over the last few days, purely because it was there and it was a link to back home, not to mention laden in fat and therefore scrumptious, we have loved pretty much every minute of trying Asian food. We didn’t bother trying the things that we knew were going to make us sick (spiders, bugs, kidneys etc) but everything else was lovely and the worst times we got food poisoning was when we ate at restaurants, not street sellers. They have some of the cheapest and nicest food out there give it a try :)

Noise is another omnipresent presence in SE Asia. I hate not being able to sit in silence and it really began to wear me down that I needed to be underwater before getting any kind of peace and quiet. Whether manmade or natural, you will not find a quiet spot. I think that’s why I’ve read so much here – it helps block out the madness around me but eventually I’ll have to put it down and Asia will come flooding back in until the next time!

Philosophy – whether it’s Buddhism, Hinduism, Muslim or other, we very rarely saw people get angry or shout whilst we were out here. We know it happens as we spoke to the only farang Thai police on Koh Samui, and he definitely saw violence, but in day-to-day life, everyone we spoke to was very calm and resigned to the fact that being angry helps no one. If you want to bargain or disagree, it’s best to smile the whole time than get cross. This was incredibly difficult at borders where we charged huge amounts of money over the official price, or when we got robbed on the ferry etc, but I think it’s good to take a leaf out of their book generally and try and get on with things without bearing grudges or teeth. They also have some of the best manners – everyone is addressed as sir or madam in English and most countries’ people were very friendly and welcoming. In Thai they use ‘kaa’ if you are a woman and ‘kup’ if you are a man to show respect. This bled into English on Koh Samui so every morning you got ‘GOOD MORNINGKAA!’ or ‘HELLOKUP!’ depending on who was speaking. The exception to traditional manners is the habit of hocking up whatever is in your throat and then spitting it where you feel like – on the bus floor, on the street, over bridges, up walls. A custom I really couldn’t get on board with!

SE Asia was incredibly beautiful, particularly in the more undeveloped areas such as Cambodia and Laos. Whereas the ancient temples and buildings we saw were stunning, the landscape was breath-taking and it even made long and otherwise boring bus journeys a joy. We were never happier than when we were climbing the mountain in Vang Vieng, or cruising down the Mekong in Luang Prebang, or trekking through the jungle in Banlung. Even though I couldn’t afford to buy new lens for my camera, I am most happy with the nature shots of all the places we’ve been as they will cheer me up when I’m back in England staring at four grey office walls and wishing I was elsewhere :)

Toilets are fairly hard to find, never mind negotiate when you’re laden with backpacks and carrier bags. Carry babywipes with you and don’t breathe in. Don’t put your bag down because the floor is inevitable wet with water from the bucket and ladle (or worse) and don’t forget to check for spiders and cockroaches in the bowl or paper before you go! I found the bucket and ladle quite good though, especially when this was your shower option, as some of the showers we used were so weak you couldn’t wash the shampoo off. Best use the ladle and pour as much as you want over you!

Shopping was fairly amazing – we wished so often that we weren’t travelling and could take all the gorgeous things home with us. Even more tempting was the relative cheapness of everything! But we couldn’t carry much and the things we did buy were little bits and pieces for friends and family, along with some clothes for ourselves as the temperature changed. And best of all, you can haggle! If you’re going anywhere in SE Asia, never pay the first price. Or the second. Or even the third! Craig is more ruthless than I am so we got some pretty good deals.

And then of course there are the people. Obviously you get the scammers who are just after your money, but generally we found SE Asians to be the friendliest, gentlest, happiest and most generous people. Some people we met had been through the most horrific experiences but were still laughing to tell the tale, some people had nothing but offered us a shady spot and a cold drink when we had gone on one of our stupid walking adventures without water; from the old lady who fixed my skirt with her sewing machine, to the man in Laos who patched up our tyre and gave us two drinks for less than £2, to the many guesthouse owners who let us stay in their rooms with a six week old puppy, we’ll never forget you!

Things I have lost:

Sunglasses

Nail file

Bra

2 combs

Hairbrush

Phone

Needle

Towel

Bikini bottoms

Needle

Things I should have brought on the trip:

Something to wear on my lower half other than one skirt

Less cardis

DVD drive

Things we found:

60,000 dong in Vietnam

1 puppy

Total number of miles travelled:

19,037

Backpacker’s bad luck bingo:

Top 5 favourite experiences:

Thai New Year/Craig’s birthday on Koh Samui

Swapping a hat for a dog in a Cambodian jungle village

Gorgeous botanical gardens in Kandy

Messing about in a Cambodian waterfall

Mountain climbing in Vang Vieng

All in all, a great trip and something we were very lucky to get the chance to do. Saw a lot, got our eyes opened, laughed a lot and met some amazing people. Can’t wait to go back…although I have really missed cooking my own meals, gardening, having a bath instead of a grim shower full of frogs and spiders, the relaxation of being able to speak to someone in their own language and of course Marmite. The Aussies have this poor imitation called ‘Vegemite’ but I’ve asked my stepdad to bring the real deal over from England as our stash ran out in Sri Lanka. Oh happy days!

“You pay. You pay $5. Or no Cambodia”

13 Feb

We decided to spend the following day doing what we do best, going for a walk. You can walk between the island we were on to Don Khon as the French left behind a failed attempt at a railway there and the bridge is pretty much all that is left. So off we went down the most peaceful roads

and over the bridge

to find the waterfalls on Don Khon. It was 40 degrees and ended up being a 7km walk to them so we were fairly knackered by the time we got there, but they were worth it

There were waterfalls as far as the eye could see. It was very beautiful but the funniest thing was that there were signs by the edge telling people it was dangerous and the rocks were slippy. This must mean it is lethal when wet as nothing is classed as dangerous in Laos!

We then headed off to the beach to see if we could spot some dolphins.

As you had to get a boat and the dolphins are apparently quite shy, we thought we’d go for a swim instead. I went in in my clothes to try and cool off before walking all the way back, but unlike when I did this in the blue lagoon further North, my clothes were dry after the first 2km :(

We went for a meal and found Elina again, who was a bit surprised to see us seeing as we were going to go to Savannahkhet first…it was really nice to see her as we didn’t meet many interesting people on our island, so it was great to have someone to talk to. We explained that we hadn’t really planned this too well as it said in our guidebook that the islands had no ATM but as our guidebook is 10 years old, and we only realised we had a small amount of cash on us just before the tuktuk left, we thought things must have changed or we could get some cash out at the port. Nope, no cash until you get back to Pakse. So we had to take out money on my card as a cash advance and got charged 6%…ouch.

As everything was quite expensive on the islands and we’d seen most of what there was to do, we booked a bus ticket to Cambodia for the next day. This meant that we had enough left to pay the hotel, get some drinks for the journey and buy some dollars for the border (obviously this included the $1 or $2 “fee” the guards charge you on top of the official price of the visa) so we managed to get ourselves out of that problem but without any kip left.

We got the ferry across to the port and walked up to the bus station the next day. Where we sat, waiting for the bus that would take us 20 minutes to the border, for over an hour. Finally it turned up and we all got on for the short trip. We’d done some research on this border and you were practically guaranteed to have problems with the border or the bus as there were stories about paying to go to Siem Reap and ending up in Phonm Penh, or being dropped off in the middle of nowhere, or being told “your hotel rang and said you still owed them $15” and being asked for cash etc. So we booked to the shortest point over the border, Stung Treng, and then thought we’d get the next bus to Phonm Penh from there.

As predicted, the problems began immediately. Our bus left us at the border (having being assured one bus was taking us all the way so bye bye water and travel pillow) and we went to get our passports stamped to leave Laos. Two German girls were in front of us and they got charged 20,000 kip ($2.50), but the guards looked at our UK passports and said $5. We tried to argue but were up against stony stares so gave him $10…which he kept. Oh, so $5 each then. Great.

We moved to the “Quarantine section” where you had to fill in a form to say you hadn’t got any illnesses. Honesty was definitely not the best policy here so we lied through our teeth and said we were 100% healthy. So another $1 each to get the form stamped.

Off to the visa on arrival section – $1 for most people but again, UK passports, so $2 each. And the visas were $23 each (not the official $20) so all in all, it cost us to $10 just to leave Laos and get across the border. Welcome to Cambodia! That left us with exactly $2 between us so we bought some water as we hadn’t eaten or drank anything since the morning.

And then…we waited. And waited. The driver said the guards were doing “more checks” so we couldn’t leave. The “extra checks” were waiting for an hour for more people to come through the border and cram them on our bus in the aisles.

Eventually we set off, stuffed full of travellers, bags, random extra Laos people we’d picked along the way. We left the border 2 hours after we were meant to get to Stung Treng. Whilst we on there, the driver’s assistant told us there was nothing in Stung Treng (which is true according to the guide book, it is literally a place to stop before going straight on again) and would we like to go to Banlung for $7.50? Banlung sounded great so we decided to go for it, along with an American guy, Chris, who we met on the bus. He paid for our bus tickets for us, having been assured that there were cashpoints in Banlung.

The driver asked us for our original tickets and just crossed out Stung Treng and wrote Banlung on them. We were a little bit worried about that but he said that the bus to Banlung was run by the same company and he had already rung ahead and told them to pick us, along with the other eight people who had chosen to do the same thing. He then said the bus would probably be along in about 45 mintues and we should just wait in the cafe and have some food (with our non-existent money).

This was either going to end very badly or work exactly as he said…so we put our faith in him and got our bags off the bus, sat at the cafe and looked longingly at the water and the Pringles and waited. The group of nine had about $4 between us. But the second bus did turn up after an hour so we all piled on…except this time it was us sitting on little plastic stools in the aisle! We settled down for the 2.5 hour journey, instantly sweating…and then broke down. For half an hour. As we couldn’t move, we guessed it was a flat tyre, but the bus finally got going again so we assumed it was ok.

Two kilometres down the road, we stopped again. Most of the bus got off so we knew it was serious. Turns out it was something underneath the bus that had gone wrong (not surprising considering it was overloaded so much the back was about 30 cm off the floor) so we sat and waited in the middle of nowhere

for an hour. Got going again and then stopped about 5km at a garage for it to be fixed some more. So after crawling along for four and a half hours in the boiling heat, we made it to Banlung! Someone put a flyer up for their guesthouse on the window – all we saw was “$4” “free wifi” “clean rooms” and most importantly, “free pickup from the bus station”. Sold. The free pickup arrived – a motorbike. Amazing. But by this time, I didn’t care. So the guy put my rucksag in between his legs, I got on and then another girl got on behind me. I said to her that he’d got my bag between his legs and she said that that was nothing, the guy who had her boyfriend on the back had his guitar in his face.

We got to the guesthouse and it was lovely. There was cold beer, a bathroom, amazing food and the guy arranged for us to go trekking to waterfalls and villages. Even though we were tired, it was a great evening as we all so glad to get off the bus. Euphoric!

Viantiane to 4,000 islands…in 24 hours

13 Feb

The next day was spent chilling out, walking along the banks of the Mekong. As it’s the dry season, you have to walk a lonnnnng way out to actually get to it

but it was great when we got there because when we got there the sand shimmered like gold

Craig finally got his tonic water

and we met two lovely new people – Elina from Finland and Edward from Oz – and booked the night bus to our next stop, Savannahkhet for that night.

Before we had even got out of the bus station we had already got a flat tyre…and the driver didn’t want to use the spare wheel that he was likely to use during the journey so he had to take the old tyre off and put a new one on, snapping a wheel nut off in the process. So we left about an hour after we were meant to. The actual journey was ok – fitful sleep but the nine hours went fairly quickly. We got dropped off at Savannahkhet at 5.30am. This was a little earlier than we thought so we decided to walk the 5km to the town centre and the Mekong banks as nothing opens in Laos before 8-10am. We wandered round, looking at all the temples and quickly realised that temples aside, there was nothing in Savannahkhet for us to do. We waited outside the tourist information centre until they opened, got the bus timetables and went straight back to the bus station to get another bus to Pakse.

Pakse is the last big town before the 4,000 islands so we decided just to keep going and get all the travelling done in as few days as possible. We got there and found there were two bus stations, and we were at the wrong one for the 4,000 islands. It was also 40 degrees and sweltering. There was only one tuktuk around and 10 bright red westerners. The tuktuk driver saw his chance and told us it would be 20,000 kip to take us to the centre (usually tuktuks charge 10,000). We all argued for a bit and eventually he decided no, he couldn’t go to 10,000. So we all had a chat amongst ourselves and called his bluff by all beginning to walk to the town centre (suicidal – the centre is 7km away and we would have been shrivelled and weak within about 5 minutes in that heat) but luckily he changed his mind and picked us up about 3 seconds later for 10,000. Yay.

Got to the town centre, saw we weren’t missing anything at all and leapt on the next tuktuk to the other bus station as it was 2.30pm and the last bus to the islands went at 4. This was all going rather well, we thought. Until a part on the tuktuk exploded when he went round a roundabout and he couldn’t make it go anymore (stop me if I am getting too technical). So we were stranded on the side of the road until another driver stopped. Which was good news except he had a table with a saw in the middle of it and another table in the back…one of the tables went on the roof, I went in the front with the driver and Craig and the other guy we met went in the back.

Not too much time lost. Except that the driver decided to deliver his tables to wherever he was going in the first place first. Off we went to a little village with gravel roads to deliver these, where he got stuck in the gravel. We were beginning to think we’d never make it but Craig managed to push us out and did eventually get to the bus station, where the “bus” was just about to depart.

What our actual mode of transport was was a giant tuktuk with 20 people and their bags inside. Our hearts sank when we heard it was going to take 3 hours, but on the plus side it would get us to the islands today and then we could finally relax and chill out. So we got on and as we were the last, we had to sit on the bench down the middle. Comfortable. On the way we stopped for a monk to get in the front seat, two other westerners and a little old lady with 15 sacks of turnips. All of these were piled up at the back to make way for her. So with the new additions and the drivers, we had 27 people on one vehicle built for about 5 Lao. But it did get us to the port just in time for the sunset

As we were knackered and the boat that most people were getting on was going to Don Det, we just went with them, thinking we’d be able to move the next day if we didn’t like it. It is a beautiful island but a little backpacker-y. It was also very full – the people next to our bungalow said they were walking around for three hours trying to sort out accommodation so we were quite lucky to get one within about 20 minutes. It was expensive for what it is (a bed in a hut with a fan and net) but the views are lovely and best of all, it had two hammocks outside. Which is excellent as the bed had jumping things on it :/ So I slept outside all night in a hammock, curled up in my sleep sheet and only woke up to watch the sunrise.

Mountain-conquering in Vang Vieng

8 Feb

On our way back from the Blue Lagoon yesterday, the Thai man told us about the way to get up to a nearby mountain, so we decided to climb it in the morning when the weather is a bit cooler (still 29 degrees in the shade at 11am though!).  We got out of our bungalow to find the massive spider from yesterday dangling ominously from the rafters of our veranda above Craig’s chair. The picture is a bit rubbish because I was standing at a safe distance of a mile away. A swift discussion confirmed that no, Craig could not have my chair.

 

Craig got rid of him later on in the afternoon by enlisting the help of a German girl who had the bright idea of throwing a fruit that was growing in the garden at him. Hopefully he is not lying in wait in the bushes as our veranda doesn’t have an outside light.

We found the little path the man had told us about and climbed up a very steep track for about an hour.

 

Look expensive North Face, all you actually need for trekking is a teeshirt, skirt and New Look ballet pumps, see?

We walked to here

 

from here

We were knackered when we reached the top…the lens had steamed over from being in Craig’s pocket

After we had caught our breath (several hours), we climbed down and went back to Sabaidee Garden, the Thai man’s place, for lunch. His wife cooked us Pad Thai with fresh pineapple and mango which was lovely but the ants were perhaps an unnecessary addition. Craig was so hungry he ate his all up anyway. Sabaidee Garden is halfway between Vang Vieng and the blue lagoon, so people stop there all the time to ask for directions or get a drink. When he started up, he didn’t have any money so bought a cooler, some ice and eight drinks to sell on his land. From that, he’s now built a kitchen and has got a fridge, tables and benches, and plans to build a guesthouse. To help him on his way, we wrote a sign for him to put up next to the road telling people to come in and rest in the shade, buy a drink and get a free map to the blue lagoon (come for the food, stay for the ants?) etc so more people stop :)

The German girl who helped us get rid of the spider told us that her boyfriend was in bed with food poisoning – discussions with strangers about the state of their bowels seem to be the norm now – so we told them to go to see the Thai man, which they did that evening, as the leaf tea he gave us did actually begin to work. There aren’t any other English people staying at our guesthouse; they are mainly French. We struggle to understand people all day (our fault though!) and then when we come back we chat to some French people which is quite tiring as you have to sign what you’re saying. So the conversation goes “today, I walked (mime) up a mountain (mime), it was very hot (mime) and we are tired (mime)”. It’s become second nature so when we do meet up with other English people (or even when talking amongst ourselves) we now involuntarily talk with our hands at the same time, which probably comes across as very patronising! Sadly French, a language which, despite having studied it for nine years, has slipped quite effortlessly from my mind. All I can seem to remember are the words for “quick”, “slowly”, “now” and “it’s beautiful”; possibly helpful if starring in a certain kind of film but quite useless when trying to ask someone how their day was.

We find we have been craving a few things – Craig for tonic water and me for peace and quiet. Craig found one can in our guesthouse in Vang Vieng which made him want more, but two days of fruitless searching and no more can be found. We took the minibus to the capital, Vientiane, which was very bumpy but quick, and ended up in a Korean restaurant where the menu said they had tonic water. The owner came out and said he didn’t have it at the moment but he would go out and get some. He didn’t come back for ages and it turns out there is a stock shortage and nowhere has had any for two weeks :) I have been missing silence…even in the garden or on top of the mountain, you can hear motorbikes, roosters, people, chopping, animals, music etc. The last time we were in absolute silence was in Halong Bay! I can’t wait to get to the 4,000 islands in the South! We have booked our sleeper bus to Savannahkhet for tomorrow night as it’s quite expensive here and as it’s a city, it’s quite busy. We also accidentally spent a fortune on pizza for lunch…the waitress said a medium was about the size of the dinner plate which was tiny, so we both ordered a large pizza and chicken dippers to share. When the pizzas came out they were as big as the table. We managed to spend $39 on pizza that we probably ate a third of! Idiots!! So it’s left over pizza for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the next few days…but at least we found a pharmacy which sold antibiotics for food poisoning so hopefully we will both start to get better soon :)

Vang Vieng

6 Feb

We arrived in Vang Vieng at about 5pm and walked from the bus station to a guesthouse that was recommended in the guide book for its lovely garden

The view from our bungalow

This was a 5km walk in the mud because it had rained for hours before we got there – my feet are completely wrecked now as I only had flip flops on and the roads are terrible around here. I now have blisters between my toes and mozzie bites on my feet as we’re very close to the river Song.

The feel of the place is mixed because on the one hand, you’re surrounded by the most beautiful sights

and the other hand, you’ve got tourists off their faces, wearing very little (you don’t often see a Lao woman with her knees or shoulders exposed, even when showering they wear sarongs) and sitting in the hundreds of TV bars watching endless repeats of Friends or Family Guy. So a mixture of Paradise and Faliraki – Palariki? Faladise? But having said that, they all have internet (unlike our bungalow) so it’s nice for me to be able to update this and catch up with emails etc at a normal download speed as it’s been very slow elsewhere. Besides, we’re over the other side of the river, away from all of that where it is more peaceful.

Our bungalow also didn’t have an ensuite so we had to use a shared one. Luckily it wasn’t that busy as food poisoning struck again…this time it was Craig’s turn due to an undercooked burger so he was up all night going to and from the toilet and I am still not well so it’s been a romantic few days.

Our bungalow also has a veranda so as we were not feeling up to much, we sat outside in the shade watching the butterflies and listening to the crickets, frogs and windchime cowbells, and reading. I finished my book between the train to London and the plane to Singapore so I’ve been desperate for something to read, but Laos doesn’t have the thousands of copied books for sale like Vietnam but I finally managed to get a couple here. Each bungalow comes with a free ginger kitten as they like to sit on you whilst you read :) Despite the accommodation being basic, it is easily the most tranquil and beautiful place we’ve stayed so far and less than half the price of our guesthouse in Luang prebang.

The day after we tentatively tried a bit of food so it was me who was up all night this time. We spoke to the owner (a complete eccentric straight out of Fawlty Towers who has a knack of making things breaktakingly awkward instantly) who said that a bungalow with a bathroom had become free so we have moved into that one. The view isn’t as nice but it’s bigger and has a toilet, a shower and a fan so a bit luxurious compared to our old one. And with it, comes a new cat; a brown and ginger tabby who sleeps on the table on our veranda. It also has quite the spider collection – 6 inches long and black and yellow. One of them seems quite content to sit in his web waiting patiently for something to land in it, but the other is a tricksy little (big) thing that shifts from place to place. We immediately put our mosquito net over the bed :I

We went for a walk to reach Blue Lagoon caves, a natural pool outside where you can swim. The guesthouse owner said it was about a 6km walk from his place but we thought maybe the exercise would do us good. Bit of a false start in the blazing sun as we took a wrong turn and ended up at a different cave which was tiny (you had to take your bag off to make sure you could squeeze through all the tunnels), very hot and cramped and although the sign said “crystal waters, swimming” etc, the pool was inside the cave and was more of a muddle puddle with a rubber ring in it. No thanks. When we got back out, the boys running it wanted a 50,000 kip (£4) tip for the five minutes of showing us into the cave, after we had paid 20,000 to get in there. We told them were to go and warned the other people coming up the track that it wasn’t worth visiting.

Even though it was very hot, we decided to persevere and continued walking along the main road. We got to a little bar after about 3.5km and sat there for a drink, nearly on fire. The old man that ran it was a Thai who had spent four years in the forest as a monk and had lived in Europe for 29 years so had quite a few stories to tell. He also taught us which plants he used for cooking, and which he used for medicine. We tried some leaf tea cooked by his wife which is meant to be very good for stomachs…then his wife told us about the time she cut down all his marajuana plants and boiled up the stems to make him some coffee. Ours was fine, if ineffective for me but Craig thinks it helped him. The other things the man told us was that 14 people died in Vang Vieng last year tubing and that the first, wrong, cave we visited was very dangerous and that nine years ago, someone fell through one of the ladders and their body is still there. Eeeep.

The Thai man told us how to get to the correct cave so we went off again and carried on walking the other 3.5km. We beat the guys who had stopped at his cafe and left before us on bicycles but the pay-off for this was that we were blisteringly hot by the time we reached the lagoon. Stripped off and jumped right in and it was blissfully cold

We also climbed up rock stairs to visit the cave there to see the reclining Buddha

and then walked back (it was a good idea to go in with some clothes on as it meant we weren’t as furnace-like on the way back).

We met Andy from our Halong Bay trip in the evening for a meal and a few beers and decided to go kayaking down the Song the next morning. It was very beautiful

but the guide was an idiot. He kept splashing me (just me) and getting me soaked, washing off all my suncream, and we still had an hour to go so my arms and neck are quite red. He was also quite keen for us to go at breakneck speed, meaning I didn’t have much time to take many photographs. After I made him stop to take a couple of pictures of the view, he did slow down a bit but I feel like it was more workout than meandering. We did see waterbuffalo taking a bath though :)

Flowers in Laos

3 Feb

We got another bus, this time to Vang Vieng. The accommodation etc is more reasonable there so we caught the express bus to VV…being completely spoilt by comfortable seats, free water, snack and lunch included and best of all, a toilet on the bus! No alfresco weeing for us! And all for 105,000 kip.

We were going to try and get a boat down the river so Craig got up at 5.30 this morning to see whether we could get tickets for today as everything leaves early but it turns out there wasn’t a boat so he bought some rice and fruit for the monks who live in Luang prebang (there are hundreds of them and they rely on the kindness of strangers to eat). They leave in a procession from their temples in their long orange robes at around 6 am and people hand them little parcels of food to put in their bowls. Craig said that he watched them go down a side street and they all took a small amount out of their bowls to in turn give this to street children and the homeless.

On our last trip we played a mature and grown up game of “punch monkey” with the rest of our group which is where if you see a monk, you have to punch another player on the arm before they do but we decided not to play it here as we decided we couldn’t carry backpacks without having any arms left. Instead, we have been amusing ourselves on long bus journeys with an adapted game of Horse – see previous posts – using buffalos. If every bus had a toilet this would be a great drinking game but probably not a good idea on an 8 to 12 hour trip. Particularly if Craig has to change the wheel again!

The journey was as usual, through gorgeous mountain scenery and a conservation forest of 5 million hectares. It was 20 degrees already at 8 am when we left our guesthouse so it was lovely and sunny and the bus had aircon so we had the best of both worlds :) There are lots of flowers around here; blue flowers on the mountains, tangles of purple wild clematis dripping from the trees in the forest and a range of more exotic flowers in pots or by the side of the river in Luang prabang

We also passed lots of little villlages – 80% of Lao live in villages – the smaller ones don’t have running water in their homes so they have a communal tap with big buckets for people to wash themselves in. The taps I saw have been put in by various foreign charities or government organisations, along with some new schools, libraries and toilets. The houses in the smallest villages are usually one-roomed and wooden with thatched or corrugated iron roofed. Fifty percent of Lao people are on or below the poverty line…bit of  a contrast to Luang prebang where there were old French villas and smart coffee houses.

The pace of life here is much slower compared to Vietnam where everything moves at a frenetic speed. However, more people live in Hanoi than the whole of Laos! Not much opens early here and everything tends to shut quite early too…although VV is meant to be a bit hedonistic so our experience might soon change. According to the guide book we picked up, you can get happy shakes with different drugs in them…and then get in a massive rubber ring and go tubing in the river. No wonder at least one tourist downs there every year! Fortunately I got my drug-taking-whilst-swimming proficiency badge in the Brownies so I’ll be alright. [Mum, this is a joke. Of course I won’t mix the two…I’ll just do drugs. Lots of drugs. So don’t worry :) ]

Sunset on the Mekong

3 Feb

We ended up meeting two Aussies who joined us for drinks. Everything shuts pretty early here so we went off to find a little bar or a shop open and go and sit by the river, but on our way we found an American guy who was drinking with some of his guesthouse’s staff.

What they were drinking was laolao…with a dead lizard in it.

Perhaps it was the Beerlao we had been drinking, but this seemed an excellent idea so we all had some. It didn’t taste too bad (laolao tastes really strong anyway) but the thought of it is still making me feel a bit ill. It also gave me a very bad head the next day!

This was unfortunate as the power went off at 8.30…so had a freezing cold shower with a crashing hangover. I was not in a good mood :) It also dawned on us (when the power had been off for a couple of hours) that if there was no electricity none of the ATMs would be working and we didn’t have much cash left. Luckily we had some dong on us still so we got that changed to kip and eventually found an ATM that was working. The electricity didn’t come back on until after 5 pm but everyone just got on with it and cooked on gas or fires and dug out birthday candles so we could still use the loo.

Whilst I slept in, Craig went fishing in the Mekong river which is a five minute walk from our guesthouse. Some local guys who lived by the side of the river

(this is him showing a picture of dogs with human teeth. He has no teeth himself)

and got talking to him – well, chatting away in their own language and pointing etc – and looked at all his kit. They hadn’t seen wire tracers before so he gave them a couple and they invited him to eat some breakfast with him. This included eel’s head so I’m quite glad in a way I wasn’t there! But he said the food was very nice and had all been caught by the locals.

We met up with Trille and Bror today, and a couple of Germans who we saw on our bus from Phonsavan. Trille and Bror are getting a seven-hour slow boat north which sounds amazing so we might do that next as although it is absolutely gorgeous here, it is very expensive compared to the rest of Laos.

After lunch, we both went back to go fishing with the same Lao guy earlier. He was busy catching shrimps with an ingenious invention made from old water bottles cut in half. The top half was put upside down into the bottom half, the bottom half had little holes in to drain the water out and then he put worms in through the hole where the lid would have gone. So the shrimps go in to eat the worm and then can’t get back out, and as he lifts it out of the river, the water drains away. Simples. Craig helped him find worms

and then went to help another man cut a huge log in half. He had had some help from another tourist but he got tired so walked away, so Craig decided to help him finish. He was sweating buckets and after about 15 minutes let someone else takeover…who sawed three times and then the log split in half, completely stealing Craig’s glory. He was gutted :)

As it was really nice weather all day, we decided to take a sunset cruise across the river

and ended up crossing a little bamboo bridge to a pretty restaurant with little huts with cushions and tables in them with lanterns. If I was a millionaire I’d definitely stay in Luang prabang longer!

Phonsavan to Luang prabang – BANG and the bus is done!

1 Feb

The next day was spent chilling out and wandering round the market (where you could buy live porcupine). We also went to visit  MAG, an organisation in Laos which helps clear unexploded bombs and weapons etc from the Vietnamese war. They said that 800kg of bombs were dropped by the Americans on Laos for every person in who lived there at the time so there is still a lot of material left in the ground – one person a day dies because of it. This hadn’t occurred to us when we went walking down the track to the waterfall the day before…Also explained was why people in Laos, especially in small villages, aren’t as smiley or friendly as the Vietnamese towards foreigners – they see white skin and assume you are American.

You see bombs and shrapnel left over from the war everywhere – the shells are used to make fences, support for the houses and as decoration. Even our room key was made from a shell and the bar we had drinks in with a few other travellers in the evening was called Bombies.

As we were there already and the owner spoke very good English, we decided to book a tour for the next day with the Belgian woman who was staying in our guesthouse with Bombies as they also did trips. The trip we picked was quite expensive ($40) but as it included a lot of activities and lunch we decided to go for it. We were going to go to the Plain of Jars, see another cave, have lunch, bathe in hot springs, see a Hmong village, trek to a weaving village and then go to “Happy village” where opium and cannabis grows and try laolao (local rice whiskey) and chicken soup.

We set off in the minibus to the Plain of Jars first

There are 85 sites where these stone jars are found – this is site one where 250 jars are. They are 2,500 years old and as no material has ever been found in any of them (although money, bones and tools have been found next to some of them), no one knows why they are there or what they were for. There are lots of theories including them being used as prisons, coffins, banks or storage, but my favourite is the Hmong legend that giants came from the sky, drank rice whiskey all day and then forgot their massive drinking cups on the way back up :)

We then went to a huge cave where Lao people hid from the American bombings. In 1968 the Americans used small planes to get right up to the entrance of the cave and bombed it, killing 374 people.

Unlike the other one we went to, you couldn’t go far into this one, but you could see where the local people had arranged some of the rocks that fell down into the cave during the bombings into little piles to look like  stupas (grave markers). They also have a shrine for the dead and leave open cans of drink for them. They also leave lit cigarettes on the rocks, just in case the dead don’t have Nicorette.

On the way back, I followed the guide over the scary rickety bamboo bridge (Adventure Sarah)

but the others went over this one

This was definitely not because I hadn’t seen it, I’m just amazingly brave.

After the cave we went for lunch in a very grubby cafe. Having looked at the state of the kitchen, the animals running through the restaurant and the whole (as in, head, neck and legs etc still on) chickens in a dirty cabinet, we decided that the noodle soup was safest. Luckily it was vile, which saved us from eating the undercooked beef in it.

We arrived at the hot springs and found that that yes, they were hot, but they were more like shallow pools and you couldn’t sit in them. There were bathrooms but they were locked and they didn’t have baths or showers in them anyway. They were so small I found it impossible to take a worthwhile photo so didn’t bother. What was good about them was the woman who was weaving in the little shop there, using a very complicated-looking machine

She was making an intricate scarf, which the guide told us can take up to two weeks to complete. Craig bought a green and black one with elephants on it for 60,000 kip (£4.80), which seems very little for two weeks’ work. We then went to see the “weaving village” which was a very expensive shop and a few more looms in a workshop. We did see where they dyed the silk they were using before hanging it out to dry though

but the guide didn’t really explain much and everything was expensive so we left quite quickly.

The Hmong village we went to next was a bit of a strange experience because it felt like a people safari. If I was in my house, I would be annoyed about people peering in and taking pictures! I didn’t end up taking any pictures as it felt so uncomfortable and as the guide didn’t explain much, we were there for about 10 minutes.

We were going to go and see another bomb crater (there were quite a few at the Plain of Jars)…however, there were some people digging up the road to put a pipe in so we had to turn around. We went back the way we came to find this

so we didn’t have much choice but to sit and wait for the digger to flatten it all.

We were then taken back to the bar – an hour early and a bit deflated as apart from the Plain of Jars and the cave, the guide hadn’t really explained anything, we didn’t do any trekking or visit the second village and all of the things we saw were either free or 5,000 kip maximum (even lunch was only 10,000 kip), so we felt the tour was very expensive for what it ended up being.

We explained this to the owner who came up various excuses (the tour programme was old, the Belgian woman was “too old for trekking” – she’s 61 and treks all the time – we told the bus driver to turn around and come back, trekking takes a day, they thought they didn’t have enough time to do everything and so on). I felt a bit sorry for the guide as he clearly hadn’t been told to do all the things we’d paid for, but we asked for some money back as it was so disappointing. The owner told us that would be coming directly out of the guide’s salary – I don’t believe that’s true but he was trying every trick in the book not to give any cash back, including saying he wasn’t the owner and that he had to ring his brother to make the decision…the brother being the driver who was sat in the minivan outside the bar! We ended up getting $8 each back, which I suppose is better than nothing.

In the evening we sat round the bonfire again with a few other people who had got to our guesthouse that day. I’m all for cheap travelling but the guy who only ate one small baguette in the morning and a bowl of rice in the evening to keep costs down (telling us this over a 10,000 kip bottle of beer), might have been taking it a bit far. He missed out on laad, a traditional Lao dish of minced beef, lots of chillies, garlic and fresh mint, which was delicious. I suppose he must never get ill though. He was good company as he knew lots of Cornish sea shanties, and one of the staff from the guesthouse had a guitar and knew some English songs (personal favourite – Hotel Scranaforna by the Eagles, his accent was hilarious) so it was another nice evening.

Having decided our next stop would be Luang Prabang, we booked bus tickets for the following morning (8 hours and £9.60 each) with a hotel. It would have been slightly cheaper to get them from the bus station, but that’s 4km out of town so you have to get a tuk tuk there and back so I think that would have cancelled it out. You can get a minibus to Luang Prabang but we heard that some hotels squish lots of people on so thought the bus would be the most comfortable option.

We got picked up on a tuk tuk from our guesthouse to the bus station. The bus (where I’m writing this), isn’t too bad as there’s quite a lot of leg room and it’s only half full. A bit of a boneshaker as it’s quite old but ok.

The other half is taken up with everyone’s bags…what people take on a bus here is amazing. Huge bags of fish food, a pile of sticks (literally, an old man is sitting next to a pile of sticks), sugar cane and a live chicken. Luckily he’s in the hold. I could have probably done without the girl being sick behind me (in a carrier bag and then throwing it out of the window).  There was also a guy with a cockerel which he clearly loved over everything as it didn’t go into the hold, he got his own seat. When we stopped for lunch, he made a dinner plate out of a leaf and fed it rice and cupped his hands in a bucket to enable it to have a drink…I don’t think he ate himself but he made sure his best friend the cockerel was alright!

We had another flat tyre – something that is becoming an all too depressingly recent occurance – but apart from that the bus journey was ok. Craig made more friends by helping again :) We got to Luang prabang in under 8 hours so not bad. It’s high season here so the guesthouses are full and want to charge ridiculous money to stay but we found one for 15 dollars so for a couple of days we can stick that. Luang prabang is so upmarket and there’s a lot to do here so unfortunately the prices are expensive, but there is an awesome night market where I got a couple of bits and pieces (trousers and a skirt – don’t go travelling with just one skirt, nitwit). We sat and watched the Mekong river drift by during the sunset and had a meal and a few Beer Lao’s…a very relaxed, warm place :)

Exploring the mountains in Laos

30 Jan

The next day we woke up to lovely warm sunshine so decided to have a coffee upstairs outside by the guesthouse. We were are staying has seven wooden bungalows surrounding a little garden where I am writing this

and a main guesthouse. There is an outside area to eat and drink which is much more sociable than a hotel. The boys who got us the coffee immediately descended so they could try out their English…it was their first day of a kind of work experience arrangement where they study English at school amongst other subjects, and then practice it working in guesthouses or on tourist sites. They wanted to know everything, how old we were, where we had been, where we were going, what the temperature is like in England, what our hobbies were – coffee turned into An Audience With Craig and Sarah which when you’ve just woken up and have only been somewhere a day, was quite intense!

But they were very sweet and had a really cute habit of if when they didn’t know how to say something in English, they’d have a go but just say it really, really quietly :) They taught us the words for Hello (sabadee) and Thank you (cuptai) and laughed at our attempts to say all their names.

We wanted to see what we had missed in the dark bit of the bus journey so we went and got another motorbike (sigh) for 100,000 kip for the day. I hated this stupid bike

because unlike the other ones I’ve been on, it was a manual but with an automatic clutch so it was really jerky. It therefore felt even less safe than the previous ones so whereas I was happy going at a leisurely 30 km/h (and by happy I mean I could stop watching the road for holes/cockerels/children, unclench my hands from Craig’s trousers and look at what we were going past) but over 40 km/h was just too nervewracking as although the roads were quite compared to Vietnam, they are not in as good condition and this happens all the time

 

 

After about 15 minutes we had to stop as the back wheel had gone flat. Luckily, there’s a mechanic every 300 yards because this kind of thing happens all the time. So Craig pushed the bike back to the last one and with some pointing and smiling, we were soon sitting on little bamboo stools, having a cold drink and watching a man repair the tyre

It seems that two white people don’t often do this so we had an audience of our own – the mechanic’s friends actually stopped in their truck to watch us watch him. He patched it up in about 15 minutes and held up five fingers when it was time to pay. I thought this meant 50,000 so gave him that…and got 30,000 change. So two bottles of drink and a tyre change cost a whole £1.60. Reminds me why I left England!

We went out towards the mountains (there’s only one road so even I can’t get lost here!) and saw a little sign in English and Laos saying waterfall 2km. We headed off down the little dirt track and after some serious off-road scootering and trekking through some bushes, we found it

We paddled for a bit before turning round to come back home as we hadn’t had any breakfast or lunch, but on the way back we saw another handwritten sign – “caves, 5km”. We couldn’t go past that so off we went down another dirt track to find them. We soon discovered that it was actually just a quick way to kill tourists – there was a rope tied across the road (handily the same colour as the road) which I saw at the last minute so we stopped just time and a little old man came out and gave us tickets to the caves for 4,000 kip each and undid the rope so we could go over it.

We got to where the parking was for the caves and there was no one around. We walked down many, many steps

 

before coming to a cave that had a sign saying Hospital Cave. As we hadn’t planned to come here, we didn’t have a torch and it suddenly occurred to us that exploring caves in the dark wouldn’t be as much fun as we thought. We walked to the next one to find it was locked and had six huge beehives at the mouth

Worst tourist attraction ever? We turned round to find two guides behind us – we were obviously meant to wait for them when we parked :) They unlocked the gate and gave us torches and led us into the cave. It was enormous…it was used for residence during the war and at one point held 1,000 soldiers. It was hot and you had to squeeze through little gaps to get to bigger caves – we must have been in there for half an hour or so. The guides were very nice and although they didn’t speak English, they showed us their favourite formations and pointed out where bats were sleeping.

Then came the arduous climb back up the million steps to get back to the bike. The guides were giggling as they still had their coats on and hadn’t even broken a sweat, whereas we were puce and sweating. Two more English tourists turned up when we got back to where the bike was and looked positively alarmed until we explained that we had been climbing steps for 15 minutes :)

We got back on the bike to head home and have a shower. We thought we’d have a beer at the guesthouse before finding somewhere in the town to eat…and as soon as we sat down, the four boys leapt on us again with 44,000 questions. I had brought my laptop, hoping to be able to update this, but it soon had to be abandoned as they kept talking and talking. We ended up eating there was it easier, and then Trille, Bror and two other people staying here joined us so the boys lit the bonfire and had a lovely evening

17 hours on a bus – leaving Vinh for Laos

30 Jan

…Surprisingly they did honour the $25 rate so after looking round a few more damp hotels, we decided to book another night as the bus to Laos left at 6am so we’d already missed it by the time we got up. We thought getting a good night’s sleep before a 12 hour bus journey was probably a good idea, despite the expense. The bus didn’t go to Vientiane like we’d hoped but it did go to Phonsavan which was in the right direction, and more importantly, 27 degrees according to the net so that was fine as North Vietnam was freezing. Our visa is still valid for Vietnam until March so we might go to the South after Laos, but we already visited Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang and Ho Chi Minh City on our trip last year.

We went back upstairs to chill out for the day and enjoy the last bit of luxury for a while but whilst I was googling “what to do in Vinh” – surprisingly there was no results – we found that there was a KFC about 20 minutes away. Given that there was nothing else to do as the town is not geared up for tourists at all due to the main visitors being on business, we went to try and find the KFC to treat ourselves.

By the time we got there we were really hungry – this is in pounds.

As with most fast food experiences, somehow it never lives up to your expectations. The “queue” was typical Vietnamese style – this time a sticky group of children clamouring for ice cream – so it took forever to get served and it wasn’t quite what we ordered or particularly nice so we left in a film of grease and disappointment. However, we did find 60,000 dong on the way back so not a total waste of time :)

We then found that our hotel had misunderstood what we had asked earlier and did not have any dollars we could buy for our Laos visas ($35 each). Craig ended up trying pretty much every other hotel in Vinh before he found one who could change some money. He came back with $100 as this was the smallest they had! We then got a fairly early night as we had to be up at 4.30 the next day to get to the bus station in time and say good bye to grim Vinh

We got the taxi to the bus station and found two of the three Westerners we saw in Vinh on the bus. Everyone else was Vietnamese and as usual, the bus was completely packed with about 15 people sitting on plastic chairs in the aisle. It was fairly dirty

as was the habit of several of the men on the bus of hacking up phlegm and then spitting it on the floor where they were sitting :I The Norwegians told us later that the guy next to them was plucking his stubble…and then eating it. Lovely. Under every seat was a case of beer – not in-bus entertainment as I hoped – but due to be delivered to various tiny villages and shops along the way.

We paid the driver 450,000 dong each (I think it was meant to be 470,000 dong each but he didn’t have any change – £14 each is not bad for a 600+km journey) and left on time off into beautiful, if slightly soggy, countryside

We stopped after about 3 hours for some food and to go to the loo. Having looked at the dogs and flies in the kitchen we gave the food a miss but got chatting to the two Norwegians on our bus. They are taking a sabbatical from work before returning to Europe to meet their six children for a two month Croatian cruise on their yacht :) The toilets were as unappealing as the food – the doors had gaps in and there was a guy staring at me so I had to wait for ages for him to get the message and go away.

After about 7 hours, the sun finally broke through as we got nearer Laos and suddenly we were in the mountains going through the most gorgeous scenery

It was so beautiful I didn’t want to sleep. We were on one road through the mountains, carpeted with blue forget-me-nots,

the whole way until we stopped at the border control. The bus driver shepherded us through which was nice of him as we didn’t have a clue what to do and then we waited for the other 50 or so Vietnamese to get their passports stamped.

The blue sky slipped into red as the sunset enveloped the mountains (sadly the bus, being a bus, didn’t stop for me to get any good photographs of this!) and we settled down for the last bit of the journey. Until we stopped in the pitch black in the middle of nowhere. The bus driver got off and kept looking at our side of the bus…one of the wheels directly underneath our seats had gone flat and something had caught fire…so the driver threw a bottle of water on it and started jacking up the bus after ordering everyone off. This gave Craig an excuse to show off his head torch and to help undo the wheel nuts so he made instant friends with the driver :) I just enjoyed looking up at the stars because although you can see the same constellations in England, as there was no light pollution where we stopped, you could see a million more. Everyone else just went for a wee…against the bus, in the middle of the road, at the sides of the road…no one seemed to care!!

Eventually we got going again and finally reached Phonsavan at 9.30pm – nearly 16 hours after we set off from Vinh. The puncture, the border controls  The Norwegians, Bror and Trille, were planning to stay at the same guesthouse as us so we decided to walk together to see if we could find it. We got a bit lost so a boy offered to show us the way. We were pretty close but he showed us which track it was up and then stood there. It dawned on us he wanted a tip but neither of us had any kip as nothing was open and there was nowhere to change money in Vinh. He told us to put it on the room so Bror asked the receptionist to give him 10,000 kip ($1 is 7,000, £1 is 12,500). He stood there some more and then said he wanted 20,000 which, considering our wooden bungalow was costing us 50,000 kip (£4, win) for a whole night, was too much. It was beyond awkward but the receptionist eventually gave him the 10,000 and told him to go away, which he finally did. Hopefully he won’t come back to our bungalows and stab us in the night.

We dumped the bags and went out for a meal and a beer

Tired bus faces!