In February and March 2004 we spent 10 days in Laos, as part of our four month time in SE Asia.We've also created a Laos photo album.
Friday, February 27, 2004
Into the land of communism...
We woke up on the train in a different landscape to that we'd left behind in Bangkok everything looked a lot drier, as the dry season is in full swing up in the north. Instead of lush green trees and grasses, as around Bangkok, there is instead a profusion of different shades of brown and grey. But we weren't planning to hang around, but instead get straight across the border to Laos. We'd already arranged our visa in Bangkok (dead easy through any of the travel agents in town, and cheaper to buy there than on arrival), and so we hopped straight into a tuk-tuk (motorised three-wheeler), to the bridge.
We got our passports stamped to leave Thailand, and then caught a minibus on the bridge over the Mekong. The river bed was huge, but because of the dry season the river was filling only a part of it, with a kind of muddy soup. Mind you, it was still 200m wide (we later learnt that the Chinese are building 8 dams upstream, and less water is coming down the river every year). Perhaps the most curious feature of the crossing was a road-sign that showed two arrows crossing over. It was when we saw the road do the same that we realised what was going on we were changing from driving on the left (Thailand) to driving on the right (ex-French colony, Laos!). Although we're used to that living in England, its the first time I've come across on the road border, and I'm glad I wasn't doing the driving the road was just like a cross-over on a Scaletrix track!
Then we had to get all the formalities done in Laos, the ninth country of our trip, and we all admired the pretty passport stamp (communist countries really go to town on their stamps, to create quite a work of art). Then we went to the exchange desk to get some local currency. Knowing we'd be there a while, I changed $100 (these days, only worth about 55 Pounds!). But in Laos it's worth a fortune, and we got a huge wad of notes from the bank teller. The Kip trades at 10,400 kip to $1. So we ended up with 1,040,000 kip. Fortunately it wasn't all in One Kip notes, but we did get quite a lot of 5,000 Kip notes. In fact, up to 2 years ago, the 5,000 Kip note was the largest denomination, and that was the biggest one the bank on the border had.
So I ended up trying top cram 200 banknotes into my wallet. Just to help you imagine what that's like, the picture on the left shows my Million Kip wad, photographed alongside our South East Asia Rough Guide (the guidebook covers 11 countries over 1,400 pages, so its pretty thick!). It made everything seem hugely expensive, until we got used to it. We decided to miss Vientiane, as nobody seemed to have a good word for it, and head straight to the bus station to catch a local bus to Vang Vieng, two and a half hours away. The taxi fare was 60,000 kip, and the bus was 10,000 kip each!
The bus trip brought back so many memories of travelling around India. The bus was an old wreck, with seats with no padding, and all of the windows wide open to let in a small breeze into the stifling interior. Our rucksacks were lashed onto the roof by the conductor (who also travelled up there most of the trip), and the two and a half hour trip turned out to be a four hour one. But we did have one toilet stop in full view just crouching in the middle of a field. There was no discretion involved at all all of the passengers were fascinated with the sight of Charlotte and Emily heading off for the toilet. I decided I could wait!
When we arrived in Vang Vieng we knew we'd made a good choice we found a clean and modern guest house, with a triple room for $4 a night, and then had a cool drink on a terrace, overlooking the river and the sunset. Moving around is always a bit of hassle, because you never know what to expect at your next stop/destination, so it was great to put the bus trip behind us as we sipped on ice-cold 15p bottles of Pepsi. We were so lethargic, we didn't even move for dinner, and just stayed for a great Laos style meal, costing a massive 73,000 Kip (whoa, almost 4 Pounds). Part of the reason we felt relaxed here was the striking similarities to Yangshuo in China, one of the nicest towns and views in China limestone karts towering over paddy fields and people.
Saturday, February 28, 2004
To market we go...
At sunrise we took a look at the local market, to see what delights were on offer for us. Bird flu is still an issue here, and is expected to be for a few more months, so the usual supply of chickens at the market was absent, and instead all kinds of different animals were on offer only some of which we could identify. As well as squirrels, there were rats, bats, deep-fried grasshoppers, snails, tadpoles and a strange animal that looked like a bald porcupine, being sliced and diced in front of our eyes. Everything was laid out, alongside all the usual cabbages & chillies on banana leaves.
Later in the day we went on an hour long river trip, meandering through the hills and watching life carrying on on the shores. Although Laos is a communist country, there seems to be a huge private economy here, with few of the outward signs of communist states (for example, unlike most, there are very few people wearing uniform here). In town, one example is the bamboo bridges built across the river which divides the town from outlying villages. As the rivers drop at the beginning of the dry season, two separate bridges are built by competing groups, who then charge locals and tourists a few thousand kip to cross it and keep their feet dry. They looked a bit wobbly, but once we'd seen motorbikes riding across them, we knew that the appearance was deceptive.
We saw lots of life on the river small boys fishing and searching for snails for the market, and old ladies gathering 'sea weed' bright green spirogyra to be dried and sold in the market (apparently it's fried or boiled into rice porridge for breakfast mmm!). We also passed flotillas of other backpackers, taking the 3-hour drift down the river in inner tubes, stopping only to buy a cold bottle of beer.
Emily continues to be a fussy eater, refusing anything that she may have eaten enthusiastically before (oh, how I remember when rice was her favourite food but that was in England, before we got somewhere that it is dead easy to get now she's decided she doesn't like it). But she has finally arrived at the conclusion that she likes eggs two, fried or boiled for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Meanwhile, Charlotte tucks into noodles, stir-fried vegetables, and all things Asian.
Sunday, February 29, 2004
Biking off more than we could chew
It seemed like such a good idea hiring bikes, and setting off into the countryside. And in the morning, it was. We cycled up and down the main north/south road, only occasionally being passed by motorbikes and an occasional bus, tractor or lorry. We haven't seen a car for two days! We got to see some local villages, and see how the people of Laos live outside of towns mainly in wooden houses, raised up from the ground. The girls continue to be brilliant ice-breakers in any situation, and more so here in Laos, where they obviously see less European children. The Laos people are fascinated with their blonde hair, and all want to shake their hands and practice their "hello's".
Poor old Emily, she found it all quite exhausting, and ended up almost asleep on the back of the bike. It was alright for her, she didn't have to do any pedalling, but Charlotte was completely whacked out, and overheated, by the time we got back to the guest house.
After lunch we though we'd be a bit more adventurous and head off the paved roads, and cross the bamboo bridge towards the villages on the other side of the river. Charlotte, who'd hired a child's bike, decided to leave it behind and hop on the back of my bike, while Emily travelled on the back of Sarah's. On tarmac this had been okay, but on a bumpy cart track, uphill, it proved to be much more difficult. Eventually, at a village 6km from town, we turned around, and flagged down a tractor-trailer, which is the equivalent of a local bus. Charlotte and Emily climbed aboard, paid the driver his 5,000 Kip, and we waved them off before chasing them back to town. The tractor driver was obviously related to Schumacher, and we were soon following a trail of dust, which then petered out. But all was well, and when we got back to the bamboo bridge, the girls were on the other side, waiting for us at our favourite sunset spot.
So we did it again, just sat and watched the sun sink over the mountains. The calm and peace was disturbed a bit by the arrival of the lorry and pickup owners, who drove their vehicles straight into the middle of the river to give them a good wash, thoughtfully downstream from the children from the boarding school, who were all having their bath in the river.
We almost went somewhere different for dinner, but in the end we didn't move, and stayed on the terrace for another delicious, 5 Pounds, dinner. Vang Vieng is an amazing place, where you can eat great food, with a million dollar view, for less than one Pound each. Already we know that we're falling in love with Laos, because it doesn't seem to have the 'hassle' that accompanies travel in most Asian countries.
Monday, March 01, 2004
Into the mountains, and past the guerrillasTuesday, March 02, 2004
The next step of our journey, further north, is to Luang Prabang, the ancient capital city of Laos, sitting on the Mekong and surrounded by mountains. The journey takes 6 to 10 hours, depending on how you elect to travel there local bus, air-con coach or minibus. We opted for the minibus - the fastest option - which cost us a massive $8 each. Because four of us were travelling together, along with 2 others from the same guest house, we had our own minibus, rather than being cramped in with 20 other people definitely a bonus when the road got windy and twisty half an hour out of town. And it stayed that way for the next 6 hours!
Although Laos was badly affected by the Vietnam War, there don't seem to be many signs of militarization in this part of the country. Of course, there's the usual posters and placards celebrating the great sacrifice made by the army to forge the People's Democratic Republic, with goose-stepping soldiers waving flags around, but in real life there are few uniformed signs of the military. But in the hills north of the capital is where the Mhong villagers have been fighting a sporadic campaign against the government. A year ago it even got as far as some of the rebels taking a few pot shots at passing buses. So now, armed militiamen prowl the edges of the road, casually carrying AK47's and RPG's, in a show of strength to keep the rebels away. And with armed men seems to come corruption, with the minibus driver having to drop packets of cigarettes at each militia post we passed.
The Mhong (or some say Hmong) villages which we passed through we some of the most basic we'd seen anywhere. They all clung to the side of the road, perched over the mountainsides, because they could get electricity that way. But they had no running water or other conveniences, and seemed poorer than many of the villages we'd seen in India.
All of the houses were really basic reed walls surrounding floors built on stilts. Out of the back was a drop of a few hundred feet, and out of the front was the edge of the road they literally stepped into it as they left their front doors. In the afternoon, as we passed through each village, the women were gathered at the pump, filling buckets with drinking water, and washing themselves and their clothes right alongside the road.
As it is the middle of the dry season, the fabulous mountain views have disappeared, to be replaced by the white smoky haze created by the slash-and-burn fires in the area. Apparently we're luck in March it gets so bad that people are constantly coughing, and almost wears a handkerchief over the faces. It was a sad journey, for all of these reasons, on top of which was the road, a narrow strip of tarmac wide enough for a single vehicle in many places, and twisting all over the ridges of the mountains. We were all glad to get into Luang Prabang and get out of our seats!
We're now in Luang Prabang, the ancient mountain capital of the Kingdom of Laos. Nowadays it's not the capital, and Laos is no longer a kingdom, but a People's Democratic Republic. But the history of the city is everywhere you look. We arrived last night, hunting for accommodation near the Mekong, which flows on the west side of the town. Upriver is the border with Thailand, and further the head of the river in the Chinese Himalayas, and downriver is another border with Thailand, and eventually Vietnam and Mekong Delta. The city is filled with temples, up to 700 years old, and many, many monks some of whom look as old as the temples.
All over the city you see monks, and novices. Not just around temples, but dozens walking along the streets going to and from their lessons, and even wading, knee deep, through the river to get home. At first, it comes as a huge surprise to see so many, and we're constantly grabbing our camera out of our bag to take another monk-shot, but by the end of the day we've finally realised that there are so many opportunities to see them, and to talk with them.
Although it is smokey in the hills here too, every cloud has a silver lining or rather an orange lining. As the sun gets within an hour of setting it starts to turn orange, and then deep red, up to half an hour before it finally sets. It makes for an idyllic end-of-day, to sit on a terrace looking down on the Mekong far below, with the red sun reflected back up towards us.
The other thing that is obvious about Luang Prabang are the French influences, from the old colonial power. As well as overhearing French tourists for the first time, its also odd to see people sitting down at cafes with baguettes and croissants. But all of this in a setting which seems more like a remote Chinese city, because of the absence of cars and heavy traffic.
Friday, March 05, 2004
Although there's enough to see and do in Luang Prabang, we thought we ought to make an effort to get out to the waterfalls, 15 miles from town. As it is currently the dry season, wed expected a trickle of muddy water over a small rock. We definitely weren't prepared for what we found a 60 metre stepped waterfall ending in a series of crystal-blue pools (yes, it actually says that in our guide book, but even then we didn't expect it!). We didn't even take the girls' swimming costumes, but that didn't stop Emily stripping down to her knickers and jumping in. The fact that the water was almost freezing nearly stopped her, but then she's obviously got less cold-receptors in her skin than me.
Further downstream we came across beautiful blue pools of water, hemmed in by bamboo thickets, and ideal for swimming in. We also found a tiger but fortunately (or not, depending on how you view these things) he was behind a fence. He'd been rescued from poachers at the age of 2 months, and was now being raised in a large enclosure in the jungle, with help from a British charity (we donated, but were in two minds their next objective is to move his enclosure into town, which can't be a good thing, can it?). Although we're enjoying the city, we found it nice to get out into some countryside for a change we'll have to try it again sometime!
In the evening we went to the night market, a kind of craft-fair (oh joy!) covering the whole of the main street of Luang Prabang. There are hundreds of stalls, all pretty much selling the same thing (Why do they do that in Asia? It's the same with villages you pass through a village where everybody sells watermelon, and then another where everyone sells strawberries. What's wrong with diversity?) Anyway, the night market thrived on selling needlework, silverware and 'Laos' t-shirts. There are only 3 t-shirts available in Laos one with the Lao-phabet, one with the Laos flag and one labelled 'Laos Beer'. That's it. Period. Want another design? Go to Thailand.
Sarah drifted off on her own, delighted with the fact that she had a quarter of a million (Kip) burning a whole in her pocket. Seemed like a lot of money to me, but apparently it only got us a painting, two Laos script scrolls, a set of silver opium weights, two shoulder bags for the girls, a pencil case for Charlotte's return to school, five Chinese-style soapstone carvings and a Lao-phabet T-shirt. Hey, that's not bad for $25!. Didn't get much change from a quarter of a million, but then I'd recklessly spent 25 cents on a postcard.
Thursday, March 04, 2004
Wherever you go in Luang Prabang, the monks are inescapable. On every street corner, set of steps and pavement, there is normally a monk chatting or hurrying between temples. It is one of the things which makes Luang Prabang stand out as an other-world place.
At 6.30 in the morning, the monks leave their monasteries and temples, wearing just their orange robes, and carrying a silver alms bowl. They walk around the streets of the city, receiving gifts of sticky rice from the townsfolk, who get up each morning to give each monk a small amount of rice. As there are dozens of people doing this, the monks receive a days supply of rice.
We tried to relate this back to village life at home could we imagine Father Hugh going round the village begging for his lunch, collecting one scrap of scrambled egg here, another there? And could we imagine us, as parishioners getting up at 6 o'clock to cook it, and then waiting on bended knees on the pavement for him? I don't think so.
There are hundreds of monks involved too, each queuing patiently in the cold air, wearing no shoes and only their light saffron robes. In fact, there are so many monks doing this, that sometimes they have to have a system of 'traffic control' to stop the separate columns interfering with each other (in the picture on the left, the column going straight ahead, has to wait for the column from the left to cross, before they can move forward. It took about 5 minutes!). After that the monks and novices return to their temples, to eat breakfast and prepare for their studies.
In Laos, every man must become a monk for a few days before he marries, so the monasteries and temples are full of novice monks, all with newly shaven heads. Some of the novices do only stay for a short while, but others are there for 3 to 5 years, with only one trip a year back to visit their families. We met novices as young as 8, living in the temples, away from their families. But it's not as archaic as it sounds in their lessons they learn Buddhism and restoration of temples, but also algebra, art and other technical skills. And we saw that each evening some of the novices would hot-foot it down to the Internet cafes in town to surf the web and knock out a couple of emails.
All of the monks would spend their days in and around the temples, and were keen to practice their English on anybody who said 'hello'. They also went all giggly in the presence of Charlotte and Emily. Each day we'd pass through the grounds of the same temples, and strike up conversations with the same monks about their lessons today, or particular questions they had for us, or we had for them. Although none of them were superbly fluent in English, they knew enough for us to talk about most things, and their English was a damn sight better than our Laos!
Wednesday, March 03, 2004
Luang Prabang was the historical home of the Laos royal family until the revolution! In 1975, when the revolutionaries finally won a war against the King's forces, King Sisavang Vattana was forced to abdicate, and then imprisoned in a remote cave, where he and his entire family died from starvation and neglect. And within 20 minutes the royal palace was opened as a museum and exhibition. Now it is a regular little money-spinner for the government, with visitors paying 10,000 Kip for the privilege of seeing the French-built palace. Although I've not visited Buckingham Palace I imagine that, on a different scale, it is similar large rooms filled with very little, and seemingly offering few home comforts. One of the most interesting rooms displayed the ex-Kings possessions, including his clothes, thrones and his elephant howdah (riding seat).
One of the revealing rooms was that put aside to display the presents given to the royal family from other countries. From Japan, China, France, Canada and others were brilliant gifts of artistic merit fine crystal, silverware, porcelain and art. And from the USA? Well, the Americans were obviously in their technical age a 6" model of Apollo 11 from Richard Nixon, 2 scraps of moon rock (and I mean scraps you wouldn't even see them without the accompanying magnifying glass), and 2 flags taken to the surface of the moon in space missions. (Help me here, because the letter that went with the gifts wasn't on display, but surely it must have said something like "Dear King Sisavang, we're sure sorry that we flew 580,944 missions to Laos and dropped 2,093,100 tons of bombs on your country instead of Vietnam last year. Here, have a bit of moon rock to fill a crater, to make up for it. Yours, Tricky Dicky") (Seriously, that many bombs over the ten years of the Vietnam War mean that the country now has a huge unexploded munitions problem, and people regularly get blown up in their fields).
In the evening, to cap our right-royal-day, we went to the Royal Ballet performance, with heaps of dancers in traditional dress, performing parts of the Ramayana (what a relief in India the whole thing takes a week to perform). The tickets cost a massive 75,000 Kip (5 Pounds, which is a lot of money in Laos) each, but the number of people involved in the production meant that we felt we got our money's worth. I'm afraid I'm not really into ballet, but Charlotte, who is, rated it as 'boring', but she was chuffed that the attendant piled five chairs on top of each other, so that she could see the stage!
So there we go, a right royal day, all made slightly odd by the fact that the royal family were bumped off in such recent history (like, when I was at secondary school that's not total-history).
Sunday, March 07, 2004
Getting around Luang Prabang
We're becoming experts on getting around Luang Prabang (not difficult there are so few ways to do it, and so few places to go!).
Slow boat up the Mekong
One of the ways to enter or leave Laos for Thailand is to take the slow boats which ply the Mekong river. Although we've declined the 2 day trip, we did take a slow boat up the river today for an hour, watching the world drift by. The boats, which are designed to be cheap to run, have absolutely no headroom at all I couldn't imagine sitting on a rock hard wooden seat, with my knees on my chin, listening to a howling engine, for 2 whole days. Although you see lots of life on the river bank, its becomes very 'samey' after a short while. Everyone on the banks is either fishing, bathing, doing their laundry, or collecting sea weed for the market. And with the smokey haze, everything beyond the immediate banks is out of sight. After 2 hours, I think we're glad we only took the short trip ($5 an hour, if you're interested).
Emily decided to wear a sarong-skirt for cycling around Luang Prabang, and therefore spent the whole day side saddle. And because we couldn't get a child's bike, Charlotte was again on the back of mine, which made it even more hard work than normal, especially as Laos bikes don't have gears, and normally the saddle is set at the ideal height for a genetically-vertically-challenged-person (dwarf). But with so few cars around, it wasn't a dangerous undertaking, and it meant we could get right out of the city and into the straw-hut suburbs.(Bikes are $1 a day)
Don't ask me why they're called 'jumbos', because theyre anything but. Basically, a jumbo is a minivan with bench seats in the back and a roof. (Similar to a tuk tuk, but with four wheels not three, but with the same engine - lifted straight from a Travelodge hair dryer). At first we thought they were great, because they seemed to get from A to B okay. But then we made the mistake of going out to the waterfall in one ("Hey Mista! I do you a good price Mista! You come me to waterfall Mista!"). The first 2 miles were good. But then the road ran out, or at least the tarmac did, and we drifted over the top of mud and stones, kicking up a huge dustcloud behind us. What a hoot! Couldn't see a thing behind us, and every bike we passed got immersed in a dust bowl. And then the first lorry passed us, and we started to breathe road-dust. By the time we'd arrived at the waterfall, we all looked like we'd been one of Rommel's tank commanders racing to El Alamein. Our skin had taken on a lovely shade of mud-brown. (The Jumbo cost us $10 to take us, wait and bring us back - a 4 hour round trip)
Turned out to be a pretty good option in Luang Prabang, because there was always something new around every corner, and the lack of heavy traffic meant that even the fact that pavements stop in a big hole with regularity everywhere in Asia wasn't a problem. (Travelling by foot costs ice creams and fizzy drinks at regular intervals!)
Monday, March 08, 2004
Leaving LaosWe've also created a Laos photo album.
It seems like ages ago that we arrived in Laos, but in reality it was only 11 days ago. But now we need to leave - our visa only lasts for a fortnight, and we've got other things to get to. We had 3 options - the two day slow boat to the Thai border, plus 10 hours on a bus to the city of Chiang Mai; return the way we came - 12 hours on a bus, then 12 hours on a train to Bangkok. Or fly out. Eventually, when we managed to get a flight for $70, we decided to fly to Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. After spending a few days there, we'll then head back to Bangkok to meet up with the BBC Holiday crew.
So we sadly left the haven of Luang Prabang, and flew with Thai Airways (not before paying 400,000 Kip in departure tax!). As we flew out, the pilot had to dodge around a couple of huge smoke plumes, created by big burning areas of woodland. Getting into the city was easy by taxi, but the Guest House we'd chosen was full, so we wandered the streets for about an hour until we found one we liked (3 pounds a night for a triple fan room). Chiang Mai is an ancient city, and the streets are a complete warren of little alleyways tucked between the big, busy streets. These little alleyways, called Sois, are named after the main road, and numbered along the road. Once you've discovered the secret, it does become a little easier to navigate, but you'll often come across businesses advertising their address alongside a 'description for taxi', like 'The alleyway opposite JJ's restaurant, then on the left'. While Chiang Mai doesn't seem to have changed too much, they have at least put up fancy signs on every soi, to make life easier. The other thing that you see on the street everywhere in Chiang Mai is draping electric cables, in huge bunches hanging down and across the street (you can see them on the same photo above).