The joys of travelling. It’s 3pm on a Saturday afternoon. I’m in the Luang Prapang airport and after negotiating with about three different people I have finally found out that my flight has been cancelled to Hanoi, Vietnam. Thankfully, I have managed to get on another flight but it doesn’t leave until 7.30pm. So that means I just need to wait it out, eat the cheese crackers I bought for 50 cents as lunch and tell you all about the glorious country that is Laos.
I had so many ideas in my head before I left home about how countries I would be visiting would be like in real life. When I told everyone I was travelling around South East Asia I imagined steamy tropical clouds behind a jungle of mountains, smiling locals greeting me with a bow not jaded by the Western culture, bumpy bus rides through pristine country side, small towns and villages with crooked streets to explore and get lost in, crumbling temples and buddhas hidden in masses of bamboo and Monks dressed in red strolling along in their leather sandals…Laos has certainly delivered all of this. What an amazing country.
I believe that Laos may be one of the last remaining jewels of South East Asia – it is a very different atmosphere to Cambodia and Vietnam. The Lao people are actually quite “well off” in Asian standards and I would not call Laos third world unlike Cambodia. They are very clean and tidy people who take pride in the shop fronts and houses, sweeping away the dust every morning. There is no begging, a small amount of touting and no constant sound of beeping horns – there is just a sense of calm and peace. Laos is still raw and natural and dare I say it – not ruined by the tourists just yet!
Last Saturday, 3 May, I flew the one hour flight from Hanoi to the Laos capital, Vientiane. The city of Vientiane isn’t one of the most beautiful or interesting places of Laos. After I met my tour group (two British girls and an elderly New Zealander gentlemen) and checked into the hotel I went for a walk. I wandered a few back streets and made my way to the Mekong River and strolled along the river front. The Mighty Mekong I had heard – not so mighty or much water in this section! Its interesting to note that just across the river you are officially in Thailand. Most of the small local restaurants were shut for the day, so it was just me and a few stray dogs hanging out. Walking back to the hotel I passed a few local shops selling electrical goods and many Government buildings.
Later that evening the four of us went out for a group dinner. Its amazing what twilight can do for a city! The river front twinkled with lights and tables and chairs were set up along the river, but still very laid back. We choose a quaint local restaurant and managed to order some meals – obviously none of us could speak Lao and the waiter had some trouble understanding us – but after some pointing and laughing we got there in the end.
Sunday saw us depart the hotel for a guided sight seeing tour of the city. Vientiane shares a few small attractions. The most interesting for me was the COPE centre. The centre helps and supports victims of unexploded cluster bombs that were dropped all over Laos during the Vietnam War by the US. The US dropped these cluster bombs into Laos to stop the Viet Congs from using Laos as a side track down into Southern Vietnam – more commonly known at the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Its incredible to think that thirty years on there are still quite severe impacts of war occurring in Laos. Children go to touch them; thinking they are toy and are either killed or severely mained, usually losing an arm or leg. The COPE centre employs experts to track these bombs and deploy them as safety as possible.
We left Vientiane on Monday morning and drove north for most of the day until we reached the small backpacker town of Vang Vieng. Along the way we stopped at salt extraction plant to see how salt was pulled from the ground, dried, bagged and loaded on to the truck. We were also meant to stop by a rice whisky brewing factory, however this was closed down. The family across from the factory do brew rice whisky which they were only too happy to show us. The entire family about 12 people came out from the house and giggled and smiled at us. A middle aged women sidled up beside me, grabbed my arm and held it against her – apparently she loved the colour of my skin because I was lighter then her! All the women laughed and covered their mouths thinking this was a great joke! An older women, I would say the grandmother, called me over to where she was stripping pieces of bamboo to make plates. She pulled a little wooden chair over for me and asked me to sit and explained in Lao what she was doing – I had no idea what she said – but we chatted to each other in our languages and somehow understood. One of the most memorable experiences of my life. These people are not a tourist attraction, they were a normal, hard working family but they kindly accepted us into their home. I didn’t want to leave – I could have spent all afternoon with these beautiful people. I left with a huge smile on my face and thinking “this is why I wanted to travel”.
Vang Vieng is in the middle of land locked Laos and you know its a happening place when the die hard backpackers have found it. The town itself is small and there are a few tourist shops mainly selling thongs and board shorts, quite a few local restaurants and street food vendors, every second store is a “travel agent” selling water sport activities and a number of “lounges” for the backpackeys to hang out in. The lounges consist of short legged tables and cushions on the floor facing a TV screen, usually playing an episode of “Friends” with Lao subtitles.
Vang Vieng is famous for its tubing, where the backpackers float along the Nam Song River in the inner tubing of a tractor tyre, stop at a bar on the banks, down the 2 for 1 shots of potent alcohol and continue on, doing the same thing on and on. Its also famous for the number of deaths as a result of alcohol induced stupidity mixed with water. There has been a large crack down on the bars and now there are only 3 bars to get drunk at! We decided as a group (which basically meant I really wanted to experience tubing (sans the alcohol) but couldn’t as elderly John did not think this was a good idea) to go kayaking down the river the afternoon we arrived. We arrived at the travel agent, paid for our tickets and ca-boom!! A huge tropical thunderstorm erupted that bucketed down the rain! The wind blew the rain into the store, the gutters backed up, the locals pulled their blinds down on their restaurants (most don’t have a actual door) and the thunder and lightening was impressive. The driver kindly came back to rescue us and we re-booked our kayak trip for 7am the next morning.
Walking down the streets of Vang Vieng after dinner you wouldn’t believe who I ran into! My old tour group from Vietnam! They were heading back to the hotel so it was a quick reunion but still great to see them. Further down the street I then saw Ratha, my old tour guide, in a bar with a couple of mates. I was persuaded to have one beer and catch up. Of all places in Laos!
Tuesday morning was glorious – the overnight rain cooled the temperature and produced mist and fog over the mountains outside my hotel room. The view along the kayak tour was also stunning – early morning means no backpackers so it was peaceful. Just some locals out fishing and some washing their clothes in the cold water. The water isn’t very deep but its crystal clear and rocky in sections which means a bit of navigating and steering through white water.
After the paddle, we went and visited Tham Jang caves before departing for Luang Prabang. I could of easily spent another few days in Vang Vieng. The atmosphere is chilled and the swimming holes are beautiful to wade in.
The drive to Luang Prabang was long and bumpy. The road is destroyed by the rain and it weaves through the mountains and valleys making it slow and difficult to maintain. A few times I got bucked from my seat and ended up on my feet – I decided that thats why seat belts are used and strapped myself in – first time in South East Asia! The views are incredible and the jungle is lush and natural.
The drive was well worth it – Luang Prabang is an amazing town. It’s perfect with rustic shop fronts, temples adorned with glass mosaics, frangipani trees that smell delightful, cafes hidden behind a mass of tropical plants, paper lanterns floating in the summer breeze creating a charming atmosphere and happy people everywhere – that’s all in the main street!
The Brits and I couldn’t help ourselves picking a restaurant to eat at with the most about of charm possible, plants and twinkling lights! Then we spend hours strolling through the night markets stopping to look at the beautiful, local, handmade products. I never wanted to leave!
Wednesday afternoon we drove about thirty minutes out of town to the Khouangsi Waterfall. I didn’t realise at the time but Free the Bears (who I volunteered with in Cambodia) also has a sanctuary here. I was so excited to see my old bear buddies again (although different bear buddies obviously!). They were still as beautiful as ever and they have a fantastic enclosure thats well set up. Funnily enough, I bumped into the lady I worked with in Cambodia – Pisi. Again – the people you meet in Laos! Pisi’s husband, who also works for Free the Bears, was doing some work at the enclosure so she had travelled up to visit him.
As soon as I saw the pools of Khouangsi Waterfall I thought “this is paradise” and I couldn’t stop saying wow. I can’t recall a more beautiful, natural place on Earth. The photos I took don’t do it justice – imagine it to be a thousand times better in real life and an amazing vivid blue colour.
On Thursday we all woke at 5.30am to travel into town and witness the food offerings to the monks. Whats happens is locals (and Westerners wanting to experiencing Lao life) line the streets with bowls of sticky rice, vegetables and cakes. The monks leave their monasteries at about 6am and walk in single file along the streets stopping to receive their food for the day. Each monk carries their own bowl with a lid and the “laypeople” place a handful of food into their bowl. There is no conversation, it is silent and the monks continue through the streets before returning to the monastery to share the food.
Later that morning we journeyed down the Mekong Delta to the Pak Ou Caves and had lunch in a floating restaurant on the river. Along the way we stopped in a river side village and looked at their handicrafts for sale. Back on land we visited one of the most beautiful temples in town – Wat Xieng Thong. I loved the impressive glass mosaic of the Tree of Life. We also walked into the centre and watched the monks doing their daily prayer at about 6pm. It was incredible – they have a sing-song prayer which is kind of like a meditation session. It was nice to sit at the back of the temple on the floor and just watch them.
On Friday, I spent the day strolling, looking in shops, browsing at jewellery, taking any quirky back street I could find, getting lost, smiling at monks, getting caught in a down pour, drinking a iced chocolate in a cafe with a French man while it rained and enjoying lunch in a local restaurant. I spent half an hour in a book shop teaching an Lao man English. He had written on pieces of paper words that he must be learning through English classes. He must ask any English speaking person that comes in to help him as he had a lot of pieces of paper! My words were “crumbling”, “peer pressure” and “resilant”. Do you know how hard it is trying to explain a word that is so natural to me! I found it very difficult but we got there in the end and we made some sentences to use the words in.
That night Brits and I went out to dinner together and then went to a cool bar called Utopia where I caught up with two more Brits I had previously met twice before in Vietnam. Hmmm…I’m definitely on the backpacker trail!! The world is very small!!
Due to the monks needing to go to bed early to rise early, all the pubs shut at about 11.30pm and there are signs everywhere asking you to be quiet and not be rowdy. According to the backpackers the next best place to hang out after midnight in Luang Prabang is the bowling alley further out of town. So about 12 of us loaded into the back of a tuk tuk and spent the next couple of hours drinking Loa Beer and bowling.
So it’s Sunday as I write this – I’m back in another airport – Hanoi this time. I arrived at about 8.30pm last night and went straight to bed. This morning when I arrived at the airport, my flight had been bumped again! Thankfully the airline moved me to the next flight at 11am, so I’m only waiting an extra hour.
Today (Sunday) I will arrive in China. I don’t think I can class myself in South East Asia anymore which is a little sad because I love this part of world but I am extremely excited to see another part of Asia. I have three free days in Beijing so I have downloaded a e-copy of Lonely Planet’s guide to help me out. On Wednesday night I meet yet another tour group and I spend the next month travelling through China, Tibet, Nepal and India. I am really excited and can’t imagine the places I am going to see and the experiences I will encounter.
P.S – Its Monday afternoon now as I finish this post. The flight didn’t leave until 1pm. But Vietnam Airlines kindly gave all the passengers a free soft drink or bottle of water. I arrived late last night and have been sleeping most of the day. Its a huge culture shock being in Beijing! Hardly anyone speaks English (even the hotel staff) and most things are written in Chinese so even on my little venture out today I have been a bit overwhelmed!! Plus I’m the only blonde person in miles so getting lots and lots of stares! Also FYI – China doesn’t allow access to many websites including Facebook and WordPress so I have been a little sneaky to get my access, but having issues with the photos so will put them up as soon as I can.