A whirlwind week in laos
As Meandering as the mekong
Arriving at the Thailand/Laos border I joined sixteen other people and embarked on a boat journey down the Mekong that would last for two days. Let's just say it’s a good job we all got along, as there wasn’t much to do on the boat other then enjoy the view, exchange stories and take a nap. Some people had thought ahead and brought packs of cards. There’s nothing like a good intense card game to pass the time! The large boat, made out of wood, was home to a Laos family and used to take travellers down the river to Luang Prabang. We didn't stay the night on the boat; instead we stayed at a budget hotel on the side of the river in Pak Beng. It was a very simple village; the rooms of the hotel were complete with lizards that moved freely between the gaps in the walls and doors, and a mosquito net over the bed made it feel like you were in the jungle. All this said I was amazed when they asked if I would like the WiFi password! WiFi in the middle of nowhere - I’m sure they have a better connection than some places in the UK too! Crazy times.
Pak Beng was a unique place for me, somewhere that was yet to change through tourism, still really basic. I enjoyed walking around the local market that was a world away from the markets we have in England. Brightly coloured produce lay on sheets on the floor, meat sat on tables, a girl wafting a plastic bag on a sick to stop the flies landing on it and a hygiene rating of 5, maybe not. What really got me though was a plastic bag full of live toads, a hole in the bag just big enough to allow air in to keep them alive. Bowls of eels and bags of blood were also available for purchase. Lets just say it was enough to make me think about becoming vegetarian. After a good nights sleep considering the amount of insects and lizards in the room around me, I woke up to elephants having a bath in the river across from the hotel. Definitely not a sight you wake up to every morning.
After another day on the Mekong I felt myself become very calm, there’s something about water and the slow pace of life that soothes you. I arrived in Luang Prabang with a new appreciation for the culture. Luang Prabang certainly didn’t disappoint either, firstly with a trip to a traditional arts and ethnology centre, followed by Kung Si Falls, the most incredible waterfall I have ever seen and finishing with a traditional blessing. Not bad for one day. The traditional arts and ethnology centre gave the uneducated traveller (me included) a great insight into Lao culture and history. My particular favourite was tie-dye and batik, watching practised elders teaching others the craft and getting an insight into the natural processes used to make and die the products. The centre was a little oasis too, I could have stayed there all day lying in a hammock looking out at the view but I had a waterfall to visit! Well, Kung Si Falls defiantly didn’t disappoint. WOW. They were just such a perfect shade of blue; if I were to design a waterfall it would look like Kung Si, 10/10. A peaceful afternoon spent swimming in the pools and laughing as fish swam around our feet, gazing at blue water falls surrounded by a green oasis, nature at its finest.
Finishing the day with a blessing was the cherry on top of an already great cake. The blessing was held at a local elders house, during which white string was tied around my wrist, and I was told it had to be kept on for at least three days to make sure the blessing was honoured. I felt extremely humbled that her and her family had welcomed a few others and me into their home, blessed us and provided cultural food for us to try. Sitting on cushions on the floor in small circles eating delicious food I really got the sense of family and community.
When I remember Luang Prabang town centre I think of the bamboo bridge that is constructed every year so people can cross the river. It fascinated me. It looked like a health and safety nightmare - but like many traditional things it worked just fine and was environmentally friendly too. I crossed it and found a little garden restaurant that served mango juice, just perfect for a hot day. Leaving the bridge I climbed the mountain, the locals call it a mountain but it’s safe to say it’s a hill. The view from the top is worth the sweaty climb and it’s a peaceful place to rest a while. At the bottom of the hill I encountered my first caged birds aimed at the tourist. Capturing the small birds the locals put them in a cage and then advertise it as a good look symbol. ‘Pay to free the birds for good luck.’ It’s not so lucky for the birds though, especially when they have a high chance of being captured again…
Saying goodbye to Luang Prabang, I took a hairy bus ride towards Vang Vieng. Stopping off to use the toilets with a view, yes as you sit on the toilet half the wall is missing and you find yourself looking out across the mountains. Not many toilets can boast that they have a view like this! I do seem to recollect that they were squat toilets but you can’t have it all!
Before I got to Vang Vieng I stopped off at a remote village, to experience a little of the rural life by staying with a host family. It was a far cry from the village I lived in back in England. Cows and goats wandered freely down the dirt roads, children too, laughing and playing. It was strange going into someone else’s home, but not once did I feel unwelcomed, their English was minimum but it didn’t matter, hospitality was shown through kind gestures, like being given traditional skirt to wear to the dinner at the Chief’s house that evening. Me and the other travellers that were staying in the village all joined together and went to the dinner and afterwards the children of the primary school treated us to a performance of local dance. This for me was a definite highlight. We were even encouraged to learn the dances. I did fear that I was going to trip over the wood that we had to jump over as part of the dance, which would have been pretty embarrassing. Thankfully I found my coordination when I needed it. The children’s pure excitement for life was infectious and it definitely made me not only appreciate what I had but also what I didn’t need. We are very materialistic in the western world but seeing these children with hardly anything but enthusiasm for life, made me think, do the unnecessary things we buy really make us happy?
Saying goodbye to my host family I carried on to Vang Vieng where I had a busy day of tubing, kayaking and a blue lagoon ahead of me. No rest for the wicked. The tubing I did however was not the drunken, party version. Mine involved a cave. Yes it was tubing in the dark. Equipped with a head torch, a helmet and a rubber inner tube from a tractor tyre we floated off down stream into the cave. It was an experience to say the least. Using ropes attached to the side of the cave we pulled ourselves along, the only light coming from the head torches. It was fun but I was glad when I left the cave, it became claustrophobic after a while. The kayaking was entertaining, including the bus journey to the river as the bus got stuck in the mud, well and truly stuck! Everyone had to jump out and help push the bus, it’s a good job no one was afraid to get their hands dirty. After an eventful journey we made it, pairing up we kayaked the 10k down river, admiring the scenery as we paddled. Two activities down we still had a third to go, this one however included some relaxation too! The blue lagoon was a deep-water pool in which you could swim in and jump into. When I say jump, I mean, climb a ladder up a tree, walk across a branch and hurl yourself off into the water. It looked like great fun until I got up onto the branch and froze. I’m not scared of heights but standing looking down and knowing I had to jump, that I didn’t like. I had an audience too, but they were encouraging and I did jump into the water, I did it once, I didn’t need to do it again. It was rather embarrassing though when a lady in her 50s was jumping off it backwards and doing summersaults. Maybe that will be me in a different life. Instead I went and found an ice cold drink and chilled out, that was enough for one day.
Arriving into Vientiane on a minibus with other travellers we disembarked and went into the hotel where we were staying. It was only after two hours that me and another girl realised that we had left our trainers on the bus. Great. We both thought they were long gone but it turns out that the people in Laos are extremely helpful and we were reunited with our shoes that evening. From that moment I checked everything three times - it doesn’t bode well to loose things when you’re travelling, especially when I didn’t have a lot to begin with!
Vientiane was an interesting city, my day went from learning about the affects of bombs left from the Vietnam war to a bar full of lady boys that bribed the police to stay open past the licencing laws. I like to keep things varied. A tuck tuck tour of the city took me to a replica of the Arc de Triomphe, a great view of the city from the top, before moving to the palace and although it was shut the gardens were open which had many statues of Buddha. Lastly I went to the Prosthetic Centre, which has a small museum that explains the lasting affects of the bombs dropped in the American-Vietnam war. Many unexploded bombs, which were dropped with the intention to mane people, are still being found today. Injuring many, costing them to loose limbs and with that work. It was sad to read and understand the lasting affects of war but positive to see how people are working together to fund prosthetic limbs and give people a better chance at life.
In the evening I experienced a night out in the capital. Random sums it up pretty well. A group of us going out to dinner, good food and beer, nothing surprising about that but when one bar closed and we found ourselves in another, slightly underground bar run by lady boys the night got interesting. The licensing laws state that no alcohol to be served after 11.30pm, it was definitely passed 11.30pm and I found out that the bar pays the police to turn a blind eye. To be fair it was fine, as long as you didn’t mind the lady boys and seemingly the old men that filled the bar too. I do remember turning to my friend and saying, ‘where are we?’ but we had beer, friends and had a good time and I certainly remember laughing a lot. The most random part came when we turned to speak to an elderly man sat at the same table, he turned out to be from the same town as me in England but now lived in Laos. Small world.
The next morning with a hangover I said my good byes to Laos and boarded a plane to Hanoi, Vietnam. What a crazy week. I still can’t believe how much I did in 7 days. Now time for a rest I think.