The removal of wisdom…

The day had arrived for me to have half my wisdoms removed, and we had arrived in the super clean foyer with no less than five smiley receptionists at Bangkok International Dental Centre. I was put at ease upon meeting my dentist whose rather camp lisp and gentle manner was immediately comforting. He would remove the top and bottom teeth from the left side first leaving me the right side to eat with. I will spare you the details of the bone drilling. Actually, I didn’t feel much and surprisingly the operation was less painful than a regular check up with my London dentist, whose wife ran away with a Welsh sheep farmer…

Upon leaving the operating theatre with blood stained cotton wool and drool protruding from my mouth I was surprised to find no sign of my loving boyfriend who was to be my carer for the next few days. I immediately suspected the ice cream parlour a few doors down and assumed he’d be back in no time. But time passed and I sat in the waiting area downstairs until I was called to the payment counter. Unfortunately my loving boyfriend held all the cash and as I endeavoured to explain the situation out of the right side of my mouth a security guard appeared before me. I clutched my baggie of gum speckled teeth and the weeks dose of painkillers. The image of my dentist trying to violently reinstate my teeth flashed through my head. I was asked to describe Carls appearance as heads lent forward ears obtruding as the Thai dental entourage attempted to decipher my mumbles. They managed to comprehend the words ‘red t-shirt’ and ‘Liverpool’. Luckily the security guard was a fan and had seen Carl earlier in the wrong waiting room and was able to retrieve a rather timorous boyfriend in his red Liverpool top and the cash to pay for my operation.

We got in a taxi home and with the help of a large rimmed straw I managed to consume a mango smoothy whilst compiling a list of words that would come in useful for the duration of my muteness. Inspired by recent incidents the first word on my list was ‘tw-tbag’, which I was to point to repeatedly over the next few days. Other useful phrases included ‘get me ice-cream’, ‘nice kitty’ and ‘painkillers please’.

Although my face looked like an oddly shaped freckled rugby ball, the pain wasn’t too adverse and the bleeding stopped rather quickly. We decided to take a bus and boat the next day to Koh Chang, an island on the east coast of Thailand and only 5 hours from Bangkok. This hilly jungle clad island was a beautiful place to unwind and recover. Although it was ‘off-season’ the sun still shone and bars still pumped out music to the few travellers who wanted to listen.

The thin stretches of golden sands and tranquil blue seas would rival any of Thailand’s best, and the wild jungle encroaching onto the beach only added to its charm. One of our favourite pastimes was to swim out into the calm blue sea and admire the picture perfect scenery on land. We moved hotels a few times and finally found a quiet place away from the Thai trance. We met an Asian forest scorpion, a big black creature who seemed to wave to us with his pincers as he shuffled amongst the grass. I decided that I wanted to stroke it but Carl advised against my endeavour citing a few too many pain killers, so I just waved back ‘Sawadee Kaa Scorpion’!

Our time on Koh Chang was short lived, as six days later we had to return to Bangkok for my stitches to be removed and for more to arrive in place of my remaining wisdom.

This time I was less nervous, but this time the dentist knew I was not coming back for more. Was it my imagination or had his lisp suspiciously subsided? This operation hurt more and I was forced to use the first word on my list to inform the dentist what I thought upon exiting. As my first wounds had healed so well the dentist informed me that I could return four days later to have these stitches removed so we decided to spend some time in Bangkok.


We hung out in Bangkok’s well kept Santichaiprakan park, shopped in the mammoth Chatuchak market and walked the streets surrounding Samsen Rd and the various opulent Wats. Orange robbed monks loitered, bartering with sellers, smoking cigarettes and praying. Carl cashed in on my need for cold soft substances by depriving me of the last bites of my glorious ice cream Sunday lunch and we met a man who was inexplicably sticking penis shaped wooden objects to an obscure wooden article. He wasn’t able to explain but was happy to let us take a picture. I guessed his wisdoms had also been confiscated.

 

One evening I sent Carl out to get me something soft to eat and he returned with a yoghurt and a perplexed smile upon his face. He informed me that as he was walking down the street our hotel was on, he was called over by a local Thai woman and her friends who were sitting at the hotel-come-bar-come-dive a few doors down. ‘When you walk why you go like this?’ she asked making a side to side motion with her hands. ‘I see you before and wanted to know.’ Carl a little embarrassed assumed that she was ridiculing his lopsided walk (one leg is longer than the other which causes a slight bounce). She clarified, ‘no your pee pee go like this, side to side’, again the hand motion. Her friends were laughing to which Carl clutched his balls with one hand and replied that he had no boxers on and some rather thin material trousers. Upon telling me the story he sought to blame the ‘promiscuous Thai woman’ citing that he never had this problem in India. I insisted that he wore boxers the next day but still as we walked past the group of ladies they made the side to side motion with their hands giggling and telling me I was lucky lucky…

We had grown to love Bangkok despite it’s promiscuity and we didn’t seem to tire of the different Wats, markets and streets filled with insanity. Frozen chocolate dipped bananas on sticks made great toys for the lady boys; old Westerners living in an era long gone meander the bars and traveller streets, whilst fashionable contemporary Thai youngsters sip their ice coffees near by. If you ever find yourself in Bangkok with time on your side then the best pastime is by far people watching. And wear underwear.

 

Too old to tube

November 9, 2011 1 comment

If Carl and I had visited Vang Vieng at the age of 18 at a time when we were able to handle more than a unit of alcohol each, then this would be a very different blog post. A picturesque spot on the Nam Song river houses a party town complete with magic mushroom pizzas, weed burgers, opium yogurt shakes and the highest concentration of ’gap yaars’ in Asia. Little is left of the Lao village that Vang Vieng once was. The main attraction here is the tubing and the debauchery. Tubes (big tyre like rubber ring inflatable’s) are hired in town and wearing only very small items of clothing, tanned youngsters are packed into a van, along with their tubes and taken to the ‘start point’. From here the day is spent drifting down the river to the ‘end point’ stopping in the numerous bars on the way and getting incredibly drunk. In an attempt to retain interest for at least another day the restaurants of Vang Vieng provide cushions and wide screen TVs showing reruns of ‘Friends’ and ‘Family Guy’ alongside their magical menus. The perfect hangover cure.

Feeling rather like the old folks in town Carl and I opted for a pleasant bike ride to a nearby cave. Having arrived in low season the weather wasn’t looking so good, and being in a tube on the river all day became even less appealing in the cold rain. Carl insisted on a mountain bike after previous biking experiences but my concerns lay elsewhere and as a mountain bike could not be found with both the bell and basket that I required, I opted for a cheap ‘city’ bike. The off road terrain proved a struggle, exacerbated by the recent rains. My bike slipped and skidded but I managed to keep the contents of my basket in tact and my bell proved to be a very practical necessity in passing chickens, cows, goats and locals.

As has now come to be expected, we first rode our bikes to the wrong cave. Upon realising that this ‘blue lagoon cave’ was neither blue nor a lagoon, and barely a cave, we decided to move on arriving an hour later at the real ’blue lagoon cave’ just as the day’s rain set in. Another mineral colour enhanced river greeted us before the cave entrance, this one a bright deep blue that looked inviting and almost warm even in the midst of grey rain clouds . We by-passed the swimming area and headed straight for the shelter of the cave.

 

It was a steep slippy incline leading to a small opening. We edged our way inside and switched on our torch to reveal a large aperture that accommodated a large Buddha shrine. Water dripped inside and clambering into the darkness in flip flops became an arduous task, but onward we persisted. That is until the light from the entrance faded entirely and we were enshrined in utter darkness with only a flimsy torch to highlight the cave’s magnificence and menace. We passed by discarded footwear and I wondered what had happened to the proprietors. At this point I made the decision that I didn’t really like caves. They are dark, cold and damp and if this was what I coveted then why had I not stayed put in Wales?

We left the cave and ventured out into another scene that resembled my Welsh home; insipid rain. We waited for it to subside in the cave entrance before slipping haphazardly down to the shimmering blue lagoon. Back on our bikes the rain returned so we stopped off at a local charity and organic farm where we were fed fresh par boiled veg with sticky rice and ‘jeow’ a spicy tomato based dipping sauce which was delicious. We shared our sticky rice and shelter with a beautiful grey cat with bright blue eyes.

On the way back my bike proved inept in tackling the rough, bouncy terrain. Here I would like to include an excerpt from my partner Carl’s diary to describe the incident: “I thoroughly enjoyed bouncing along on my mountain bike, but Hazell wanted one with a basket so had a road bike which was completely inadequate for the terrain and ended in the slick tyres slipping in the mud and Hazell falling off. Instinctively I turned round to help but just burst out laughing instead. She had her hair tied up in a manic manner with a scrap of what used to be her skirt, her trousers were tied up at the knee and she broke a flip flop so had to ride with one bare foot for the remainder of the journey. I haven’t laughed that heartily for a long time.” I cleaned my bike and myself of the mud in the river and stopped off to purchase an intact pair of pink flip flops. Carl suggested we leave the next day…

Laos capital Vientiene is not much to write home about (which is why it’s tagged nicely onto the end of this predominantly Vang Vieng blog). It is a pleasant place to be, has some nice temples and great restaurants but the highlight for us was a small ginger, black and white cat that appeared outside our guest house door each morning, happily entered our room and curled up on our bed for a morning nap. The relaxed comfortable atmosphere even pervaded the Thai visa office; getting our 2 month Thai visas was relatively painless even though we‘d arrived late with the wrong currency and had to queue behind a middle aged American with verbal diarrhoea.

We enjoyed our time in Vientiene, watching locals exercise and play games on the banks of the Mekong and had thoroughly enjoyed our time in Laos. I was saddened to be leaving the country after a month exploring only the north. Not only was my sorrow triggered by an imminent dentistry date in Bangkok where I would have all my wisdom teeth extracted, but Laos had been one of our favourite countries of our entire travel. Although probably the poorest country we had visited, very seldom did beggars approach us and children would want photos not chocolate. We were honoured to learn about the trials and the tribulations of the Laos people who are still suffering the consequences of an unjust war. With heavy hearts we left Laos but with smiles on our faces we know we’ll return.

Bombs, Jars and Drips

November 9, 2011 Leave a comment

The tourist attractions in Phonsavan are twofold; bombs and jars. We were joined on a protracted journey from Luang Prabang by a group of ’you’re old enough to know better’ travellers. Still hung over from their ’party boat’ trip a few days previously, they complained incessantly about the cramped conditions in the van. Compared to some of our journeys, this carriage was luxurious, so I was having a hard time empathising with the four and a half brain cells valiantly remaining within the skulls of these six people. Do I sound bitter? Well that’s because I was; the tourist circuit in South East Asia had begun to patronise me to tears. Plus I was hungry. Furthermore my propensity for becoming nauseous in the back of minivans had continued.

 

We reconvened with our trekking partner Jorge upon arrival and, still feeling ill, I promptly went to bed. Hazell joined our friend for dinner and reported she had found it easy obtaining a vegetarian dinner, whereas Jorge had encountered rather more difficulty finding flesh, his clucking and flapping of ‘wings’ apparently incomprehensible to the local vendors.

 

I was feeling brighter the following day and we hired mountain bikes to explore the beautiful greenery surrounding the town. We headed for ‘Site Number 1’ of the ’Plain of Jars’, one of the main tourist attractions in the area, consisting of randomly positioned stone vessels. Historians, archaeologists and anthropologists are unable to agree on what the jars are all about, with explanations ranging from ’cremation pots’, to ‘containers for tribal liquor’. The three of us decided that they were most likely receptacles for intergalactic communication, perhaps relics of a long forgotten technique of trans dimensional dialogue which remains locked within the mute frames of the resident cows.

 

All this talk of space travel, combined with the bike ride home, rekindled my sickness. For the following 36 hours I was in a state of fevered delirium, thankful only for the western rather than squat toilet in our room. We decided I should go to a local clinic, which proved a challenge as I was having difficulty placing one foot in front of the other. The kind man at our guest house offered to take me on his motorbike, the only thing in the past day or so which raised a smile. ’You’re joking right?’ My stare of incredulity was clearly disguised behind bloodshot eyes; as he grinned back I sighed and flopped onto the bike behind him. He did his best to drive slowly as I swayed all the way to the doctors.

 

A prenatal clinic was not the destination I had in mind, but it was the only place open, so I thanked my friend for the ride and waited patiently for the doctor to arrive. Thankfully I wasn’t offered an ultrasound, just a thermometer and some antibiotics at tourist prices. I thanked him and presumed our consultation was at an end, but alas, I was asked to lie back and relax on a semi hygienic bed. A smiley assistant came in and inserted a large needle into my arm – antibiotics apparently. She then prepared an IV drip, which I presumed was for the next patient, but with a motherly, placid grin I was plugged straight in. I was too knackered to argue, and in all honesty I was quite enjoying the attention. Hazell stuck her head around the cubicle curtain and a look of what-the-fuck-are-you-doing?, immediately swept her features, followed of course with ’how much is that going to cost?’ I was unlikely to request politely to be unplugged due to a lack of funding from my Welsh accountant, so I lay back and enjoyed two hours of re-hydration as the nurse administered a blanket and tucked me in.

 

Upon completion Hazell offered me her hooded jumper, a kind gesture tainted only by the cockroach that fell from the garment onto the surgery floor. I averted my gaze in embarrassment and observed my fellow patients scattered around the premises. Each and every individual not displaying the signs of procreation was clutching an IV drip. Some were leaving the surgery with ‘take away’ drips on wheeled stands; I wondered if there was a ‘drip drive through’ in the adjacent alleyway. It appeared if one was present for any reason other than to receive an ultra scan, our ’drip happy’ doctor would serve up an Extra Value Meal of IV medication to all concerned. I no longer felt special, though I was feeling a little revived, and our encounter with Phonsavan could continue.

 

We had planned a trek through the local countryside, but unfortunately my illness led to cancellation. We were due to learn a little of the harrowing history of the country from our guide, but had to settle for the ample supply of information in the town. The ’Vietnam War’, as it is known to those outside South East Asia, was a high profile display of man’s terrifying destructive capabilities. The US offensive on the Communist Vietcong was broadcast extensively; what remained unreported within the wash of American propaganda was the ’secret war’, which took place on the ground and in the skies above Laos. Known to Laotians as the Second-Indochina-War, this period of sustained US air attacks from 1964 onwards saw a bomb drop on Laos every ten minutes for nine years. The country still holds the unenviable title of ’most bombed in history’.

 

The US had attempted to subdue communist ‘Pathet Laos’ forces in the north of the country preceding the Vietnam war. The rebels were cooperating with Vietnamese communists, a coalition which the US considered a threat and attempted to control by funding the Laos government’s defence. Under J. F. Kennedy, the US eventually pulled out of this agreement, supporting Laos neutrality. However, as the Vietnam War escalated, the area surrounding Phonsavan became a crucial segment of the Ho Chi Min trail, a route used by Hanoi to infiltrate supplies and personal. This tactical route became a prime target for the US, and in 1964 they began to bomb the Plain of Jars. Officially 2,093,100 tonnes of bombs were dropped at a cost of $2 million per day for nine years.

 

The Mines Advisory Group state on their website, (http://www.maginternational.org/laopdr) “more than two million tonnes of ordnance was dropped over Laos during the Second-Indo-China War. An estimated 30 per cent did not explode on impact. UXO still affects more than 25 per cent of villages and remains a key cause of poverty.” MAG do a fantastic job of educating and training locals to cope with the huge amount of ’unexploded ordnance’ (UXO) still scattered throughout the country. It is predicted at the current rate work rate, it will take another hundred years to clear the country of UXO entirely. We learnt through films shown in the town that the scrap metal trade is an ongoing problem. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds dig for ordnance in order to sell the scrap, with many maimed or killed by detonation.

 

The Lao people live with this terror every day and many are unable to farm their land safely, but in characteristically high spirits, the locals make use of the abundance of rusted metal. Bullets are used as keyrings, bomb canisters are employed as ornaments, fence posts and plant pots, all acting as a stark reminder of the danger that lies hidden just below their feet.

 

I felt almost guilty handing over a measly donation of $10 for a MAG t-shirt, but every penny that contributes to such a worthy cause is precious. We were thoroughly moved by the films we watched at the MAG office and chilled by the empty caves surrounding the area. It was in these now derelict hillside hollows that many Laotians spent nine years sheltering from aerial attacks, only to return to a post war land contaminated with a lifetime of danger.

 

 

Water Wonderland

November 8, 2011 Leave a comment

All the windows of our hot and sweaty minivan shut as we entered Laos cultural capital Luang Prabang through a sea of locals, young and old, armed with hosepipes, water pistols and all sorts of contraptions filled with water ready to spill over passers by. Whether on foot, on moped, on bus or on duty, all visitors and locals are subjected to an array of soaking if and when they ventured out of the door.

The build up to Lao New Year had begun, and along with the classic dress up and get drunk approach to celebration, a nationwide water fight commences under the pretence of wishing one another good luck through offering a ‘cleansing’ with water. At this time of year it is not wrong for two 26 year olds from the UK to purchase state of the art water pistols and join a guerrilla army of friends new and old to prowl the streets of this otherwise culturally rich city. In fact, it is necessary. All is done in good humour despite the amount of alcohol consumed (mainly by the local Laos). Pick up trucks filled with wet, dancing locals, dodgy sound systems and a dustbin or two filled with water, bounce their way down the historic Indo-European roads and ornate temples soaking everyone in sight and taking as good as they get. Families and friends gather outside coffee shops, grocery stores and bars armed with water pistols, sometimes supplemented with dye or flour just to make it that little bit more messy.

When the festival is not on, Luang Prabang shows a different face. Its Indo-European heritage buildings, religious significance for Lao Buddhists and riverside location make it a UNESCO world heritage site. It is a traditional town full of temples and golden Buddha statues where the residents still awake every morning at 5am for the daily alms giving to the monks. Amongst the temples remnants from the French era dot the streets and the restaurant menus in the guise of coffee, baguettes, real cheese and steaks. Bakeries and charismatic guest houses dominate the main tourist haunts and the roadside baguette stalls sell the petrol like Lao coffee alongside fresh fruit and Oreo smoothies – yum! Luang Prabang is definitely a place for eating well (see http://www.theveggiebus.org/luangprabang for details) and slowly watching the days slip by with some temple visits. That is of course, unless it’s Lao New Year.

30km outside Luang Prabang sits a beautiful aqua blue waterfall. Most tourists get up early and jump in a shared song thaw (open taxi) to reach it via a steep hilly road. Along with three friends, Carl (yes another one, slightly younger and taller), Lin and Frederick (an enthusiastic Flemish couple) we’d met in Nong Kiaw, we decided that renting bikes would be a good idea. Our London friends who we had also reunited with in Luang Prabang warned us that it wouldn’t be. And it wasn‘t. The road to the waterfall is particularly hilly but would have probably been a little more manageable if we had spent the extra 20,000 kip (£1.70) each on mountain bikes with gears. Our enthusiasm waned as racing each other up the various hills, peddling furiously as the incline increased became less fun and less viable. We re-grouped after pushing our bikes up a particularly steep hill and all admitted, only 10km in, that the ride was a lot harder than we expected. It is a mystery why we thought we could manage it, as everyone had told us that it would be hard and had warned us against renting bikes with no gears for the trip. Luckily for us an empty pick up truck was driving past at that very moment. Spontaneously Frederick stuck out his thumb and we loaded up the truck. A bumpy ride commenced and as the truck struggled up some of the hills we were very glad of our ride but guiltily made the decision to ride the whole way back.

 

The truck took us 4km from the waterfall entrance. Huffing and puffing we rode the final kilometres to the waterfall and were there nice and early as our ride had not taken as long as expected (yes… because we got in a truck). We entered the ’protected area’ and first encountered a black bear enclosure where endangered black bears were given a new home and served as an extra tourist attraction for the waterfall. These bears completely epitomised the word ’teddy bears’ and the connotations it brings. Playfully they rolled over and tumbled with each other, stopping momentarily to chew on leaves and twigs or pose freely for photos.

 

Passing the bear enclosure we entered the jungle that lead to the first aqua turquoise lagoon where water overflowed from a pool above. The water appeared almost chemically enhanced and the lagoon like swimming area almost man-made. We were still hot and sweaty from the ride but decided to give ourselves an extra challenge by taking the wrong path up to the very top of the waterfall before jumping in. A steep climb commenced and we joined other tourists to admire the lush scenery and mystical water.

 

New Year celebrations were evidently at the fore-front of the local psyche as the local and visiting Laos unpacked water-pistols, picnics and portable karaoke machines for the celebrations. Rewarding ourselves for our climb to the top and back down again, we stripped down to our swimming gear and plunged ourselves into the cold turquoise water amongst small water skaters. We had our own private pool and basked in the sun, wondering where all the other tourists had got too. On our way back down we discovered the main swimming area and felt a little foolish, but also a little glad for our own private lagoon.

 

We soon dried off upon mounting our bikes and soaring downhill in the afternoon sun. Now the traditional villages we’d passed on the way were in full spirit and full of locals whose delight at seeing Westerners on bikes was astounding. Screeches of excitement and a rush to fill up water pistols played out at every village we approached and in the tropical climate we were glad to receive. Those villages fortunate enough to be placed on an uphill incline found particular pleasure in walking beside us and soaking us repeatedly as we struggled to move our peddles up hill.

 

We pushed our bikes up one hill but eventually made it back to Luang Prabang. As we entered the town we were greeted with black, blue and red paints accompanied by flour and of course all washed down with some water. Before taking our bikes back we stopped off at our friends guest house where Carl and I were attacked by a family of four children, their parents and grandparents who all took pleasure in soaking the helpless Westerners on the bikes. The dad lifted his youngest so that he was able to aim his water pistol right in my face. We soon recovered our own pistols and I was able to give this four year old a taste of his own medicine.

 

New Years day came and the processions started in Luang Prabang. School children, group elders and the towns mass of monks took to the streets in a parade which was subjected to open fire. Old women would approach the monks with pails of water making sure each monk got their equal share. The younger generation stuck to water pistols as their weapons of choice. But even with the New Year well wishes in my head, I found it difficult to bring myself to shoot the monks. A ‘Miss Lao’ contest promised much but the parade seemed to dominated by those whose sex resembled that of a Thai ladyboy rather than a national treasure.

We met up with our Aussie friend Jorge again and would follow him to his next destination, Phonsavan. We both agreed that we’d had a lot of fun but were longing to be dry for a while; as was our wrinkly skin. Carls gun was stolen by a young girl and I donated mine to a young boy under the arrangement that he would stop throwing flour at me. He soaked me instead. So as New Year celebrations started to draw to an end, so did our time in Luang Prabang.

 

Riverside Ramble

November 8, 2011 Leave a comment

Set amongst soaring rock mountains dotted with greenery flows the river Nam Ou, reminiscent of the Yangtze in China only a few miles north of here. The quaint riverside town of Nong Kiaw is a typical Laotian town on one side, and a traveller hang out on the other, but most travellers, like us, rest here only one night waiting to get the small boat down the river to the relaxing village of Muang Ngoi.

 

Another baguette breakfast saw us board the slim and wavering boat that in a Western country would carry no more than ten. But this is Laos. 14 backpackers plus backpacks and two Laotian families boarded the boat and off we went, drifting through the power of the engine down the wide river. It was a beautiful journey past vast rock mountains and a jungle that seemed to thrust forward into the river. The trees in the front line bobbed their heads against the water, helpless against the flow and the expansion of the Nam Ou.

 

The journey took two hours and would have been more enjoyable had our legs been given a little more room, but the sight of the charming town of Muang Ngoi made the journey worthwhile. Locals washed clothes in the river, and young naked children splashed around the tourist canoes while Westerners watched from their hammocks, book in hand, letting the time slip away. There’s not much to do in Muang Ngoi apart from relax, but we managed to find some caves and a view point that required a rather strenuous climb up an unsuspecting mountain. The danger was somewhat exacerbated by our choice of foot wear; flip flops. We were rewarded with excellent views of the surrounding milieu but our luck wasn’t so good when it came to the caves. Our rookie mistake was to leave behind our trusty head torches, so the wonders of the cave went unseen. However, upon hearing noises from within the darkness Carl slipped inside to explore. I stayed put outside under the newly made decision that I was not too fond of caves; a fact to be confirmed on later trips in Laos… I stood guard outside and restrained myself from shouting after Carl in fear that an avalanche of rocks would trap him inside forever. Luckily with no head torch to guide him Carl appeared fairly quickly still unable to shed any light on the noises we had heard.

 

A few more days spent in our hammock and we started to see signs that the Lao New Year celebrations were starting. We made the decision to move on to Luang Prabang for the festivities but for us they came early; on the boat back to Nong Kiaw. This boat was much less crammed creating space for the young driver to welcome on board some of his friends, a mobile phone sound system accompanied by a chorus of singing, and most importantly a bottle of homemade Lao lao. In the Laotian language the word for alcohol is ‘lao’. Consequently the title of any homebrew made in Lao is aptly named ‘Lao lao’. The bottle got passed around the boat and Carl and I politely took our swigs and politely refused a second. Laos like things strong, and the Lao lao was no exception to this rule. As sampling the Lao coffee had also taught us, Laos like the taste of rocket fuel and that is how I can best describe the drink.

 

The party boat dropped us at a stop where a ‘non-party’ mini bus would take us to the party town of Luang Prabang; 3 days to go until New Year but upon arriving in the city you would have thought the midnight countdown had begun.

 

Set amongst soaring rock mountains dotted with greenery flows the river —, reminiscent of the Yangtze in China only a few miles north of here. The quaint riverside town of Nong Kiaw is a typical Laotian town on one side, and a traveller hang out on the other, but most travellers, like us, rest here only one night waiting to get the small boat down the river to the relaxing village of Muang Ngoi.
Another baguette breakfast saw us board the slim and wavering boat that in a Western country would carry no more than ten. But this is Laos. 14 backpackers plus backpacks and two Laotian families boarded the boat and off we went, drifting through the power of the engine down the wide river. It was a beautiful journey past vast rock mountains and a jungle that seemed to thrust forward into the river. The trees in the front line bobbed their heads against the water, helpless against the flow and the expansion of the —-.
The journey took two hours and would have been more enjoyable had our legs been given a little more room, but the sight of the charming town of Muang Ngoi made the journey worthwhile. Locals washed clothes in the river, and young naked children splashed around the tourist canoes while Westerners watched from their hammocks, book in hand, letting the time slip away. There’s not much to do in Muang Ngoi apart from relax, but we managed to find some caves and a view point that required a rather strenuous climb up an unsuspecting mountain. The danger was somewhat exacerbated by our choice of foot wear; flip flops. We were rewarded with excellent views of the surrounding milieu but our luck wasn’t so good when it came to the caves. Our rookie mistake was to leave behind our trusty head torches, so the wonders of the cave went unseen. However, upon hearing noises from within the darkness Carl slipped inside to explore. I stayed put outside under the newly made decision that I was not too fond of caves; a fact to be confirmed on later trips in Laos… I stood guard outside and restrained myself from shouting after Carl in fear that an avalanche of rocks would trap him inside forever. Luckily with no head torch to guide him Carl appeared fairly quickly still unable to shed any light on the noises we had heard.
A few more days spent in our hammock and we started to see signs that the Lao New Year celebrations were starting. We made the decision to move on to Luang Prabang for the festivities but for us they came early; on the boat back to Nong Kiaw. This boat was much less crammed creating space for the young driver to welcome on board some of his friends, a mobile phone sound system accompanied by a chorus of singing, and most importantly a bottle of homemade Lao lao. In the Laotian language the word for alcohol is ‘lao’. Consequently the title of any homebrew made in Lao is aptly named ‘Lao lao’. The bottle got passed around the boat and Carl and I politely took our swigs and politely refused a second. Laos like things strong, and the Lao lao was no exception to this rule. As sampling the Lao coffee had also taught us, Laos like the taste of rocket fuel and that is how I can best describe the drink.
The party boat dropped us at a stop where a ‘non-party’ mini bus would take us to the party town of Luang Prabang; 3 days to go until New Year but upon arriving in the city you would have thought the midnight countdown had begun.

Tribal Trekking

November 7, 2011 Leave a comment

Our time in Luang Nam Tha began with a blast from the past. We shared a bus ride with a couple named Nick and Amelia from London and immediately recognised the body language of England’s capital. We chatted away about shared experiences and admired Nick’s dreadlocks, which had been seventeen years in the making. Although sporting diametrically opposed hairstyles, we held a common employment history. We both stand as refugees of the television industry, Nick having worked at a post production house named the Farm, not far from my previous workplace in Soho. He had also spent time as a DJ on pirate radio station Origin FM, most likely in direct competition for listeners with my show on Rude FM. We were joined by a German woman who had a portable ’exercise hula hoop’, a fat busting workout which, upon demonstration, gained rapturous applause from the locals at the bus stop. Her ample breasts were no doubt the cause for many late departures that day. I would like to offer a fair portrayal of her Glaswegian friend, but I couldn’t understand a word she said.

 

Unfortunately none of these characters were to join us on the wonderful trek we undertook in the area. We were however joined by a conscientious Chilean, Martin, an eccentric Aussie named Jorge and two wonderfully dead pan Canadians named Mari-eve and Amalie, both from Quebec. We all met in the office of ’Jungle Eco Tours’ and spontaneously decided to do the three day ‘Jungle Trek’ together, a decision which would keep the cost down to 750,000 Laos Kip each. One becomes a millionaire at every ATM withdrawal in Laos with every transaction becoming a laughable game of count the zeros, but after some tough maths this price came to roughly £65 each.

 

We were assigned our guide the next morning, a charming young local named Hak. Our first stop was the local market for supplies, though Hazell wasn’t keen to linger after being greeted by locals huddled around a fire barbequing a rat. A quick purchase of mossie repellent and back to the car. We began walking from a small village where we met our other assistants, two female porters and another well built Lao man who had been watching too much Rambo. We were followed to the river by two giggling girls who fell into complete hysterics as we attempted to cross the river on a highly unstable wooden vessel. We all managed to stay afloat and our trek began in earnest on the opposite bank.

 

We walked for a couple of hours through the dense greenery, all enjoying the soft heat and fresh air. We were particularly satisfied with the fact there was only a faint trail and we most certainly required a guide to lead us through the dense jungle. Lunch time soon arrived and our guides first laid a picturesque banana leaf table, soon to be adorned with the ubiquitous lumps of Laos ’sticky rice’, vegetables and omelette. After taking my fill, I was attracted to the hillsides behind us which were billowing smoke. Huge plumes of dark grey and black stretched far into the distance; a pyromaniacs fantasy unfolded, precipitated by a single old lady brandishing a flame. I felt a sudden connection to Linus the self proclaimed pyromaniac from Finland we had met in Darjeeling. Slash and burn agriculture is the norm in these parts, though we were informed by Hak later that within the protected ‘Nam Tha National Park’ area, it is not strictly legal. Nonetheless the locals continue to farm the land as they have always done, preparing the area for rice growing season.

 

We crossed a number of rivers and streams during the afternoon and, feeling brave and indolent, I neglected to cover my bare feet with flip flops. Our female porters doubled over in laughter as I slipped and teetered my way across stream, while they carried cooking equipment casually on their heads. Despite my shortcomings, we arrived at ’jungle camp number one’ before sundown. It was a fantastic spot nestled next to a river and before the sun went down we all jumped in, intentionally this time, to relieve ourselves of the days sweat. Our lodgings had been constructed by locals for our benefit and they would receive a portion of our payment for the trek. It was a basic wooden affair that certainly wouldn’t keep the bears out, but it was home for the night.

 

We all chatted around the camp fire as dinner was prepared, and once again I was glad to be a vegetarian as the others chewed their way through some tough buffalo meat. Furthermore, our very own Rambo had stripped down to his pants in the dark, donned a head torch and spear combination, and waded into the river to catch breakfast. He returned half an hour later, Y-fronts bulging with minute fresh water fish, all delicately arranged on an icy bed of shrivelled testicles; certainly not a retail tactic favoured by mongers elsewhere in the world. With this image etched in our minds, we fell asleep in our sleeping bags to a cacophony of noise from the jungle’s permanent residents.

 

We were woken at sunrise by cockerels and tucked into breakfast. I couldn’t stop grinning as the non-vegetarians tucked into an extra fishy opener for the day. At least they were provided with a sachet of Nescafe 3in1 to wash it all down with. The second day was the toughest of the three, a rewarding uphill climb through dense bamboo jungle, which according to Hak had caused a previous trekking group of French hikers to cry. Our guides expertly plucked young, white bamboo shoots from the ground, which are soft and succulent and were to be cooked for dinner. This amazingly versatile plant has many uses in the jungle, a point proven as our guides lopped down sections of the more mature variety and constructed a table for our lunch on the spot. Our sweaty garments lured a swarm of wasps into our vicinity and poor Martin was stung while chewing on his buffalo.

 

We stopped to admire the views across the valley during the afternoon and I also learnt a little more about Hak’s background. My favourite aspect of hiring a guide is learning about their culture, though Hazell claims I interrogate rather than converse. Either way Hak was happy to oblige and informed me he is from a tribe named the Tai Dam, or ’Black Tai’, an ethnic group originating from Vietnam. Confusingly, ‘Tai’ in this instance doesn’t relate to Thailand, but a distinct demographic of South East Asians who have been displaced many times by warfare. ‘Black’ refers to the traditional headdress and skirts worn by female members of the tribe. Hak explained Tai Dam members are ’animist spirit’ in religious terms, and it is believed that the spirits of the deceased live on. Shrines are erected for parents who have passed away and food is offered to them every ten years. We particularly admired the attitude of our trekking company towards local tribes; their aim is to preserve traditional cultures while distributing profits from tourism fairly between participating communities.

 

On this basis we arrived at ’jungle camp number two’ on the second night, built by another group of locals. The wasps had also joined us so the distinct lack of walls was a pressing concern. Before dark Hazell and I ventured down to the fresh water spring to shower. We were both a little self conscious and cold as we stripped down to our birthday suits, but in the end thoroughly enjoyed a naked shower in the jungle. Another sticky rice based dinner slipped down nicely before we all huddled around the camp fire and watched a storm move in. I woke in the night to a crash of thunder and a wet sleeping bag. The rain was torrential and a flash of lightning illuminated the leaking rafters above our heads, between which Rambo was swinging, banana leaves in hand, attempting to patch up the holes. What a man.

 

The third day of trekking saw us emerge from the tightly packed trees and encounter a cultural highlight. We arrived at a hillside that had been completely stripped of greenery, leaving only dry clay earth. The mounds were dotted with a few houses and tribal villagers looked on inquisitively as we came into view. The impact was instantaneous and we were transported hundreds of years into the past. We made our way self consciously through the incredible landscape, stopping in the centre of the dwelling to observe two small huts on stilts. These tiny abodes are built to house one 14 year old girl, Hak explained. Upon reaching this age, girls in the village sleep in one of these huts until a male selects her for marriage.

 

The inhabitants of the village had only seen foreign faces for the first time four months previously, so we were a little uneasy as we attempted to interact. Hak assisted and soon we were taking photos and laughing together. The older residents were enchanted to see their faces in the digital camera screens. Hak instructed us not to give cash, though none of the villagers asked, as it encourages begging in the future. A much healthier model is promoted by his company, whereby a proportion of our payment is given to the inhabitants we met.

 

From the village we descended further and I spent the afternoon falling over and enjoying the transition into a landscape of rice fields. As the warm sun dipped we arrived at our destination village, greeted with a ‘sabaidee!’ from the locals. As we waited for a lift back to our guest houses, a small girl played hide and seek with us, clearly enjoying the attention. She knew how to strike a pose. The whole group agreed the trek had been fantastic and worth every penny. Most importantly it had endeared us fully to the Lao people and their fascinating country.

 

Wats this all about then?

November 7, 2011 Leave a comment

As another bike ride approached Carl decided to cease his fruit and nut diet three days in, and tucked into a breakfast of egg on toast and a number of Tetleys. A price was agreed for another pair of faulty bikes and off we went in the wrong direction. It was a beautiful ride through green fields and past small wooden Thai coffee shops but according to my intuition we had been riding for a lot longer than planned. Carl then decided to take the lead and matching a junction with our map that I had failed to read accurately we realised we were nowhere near Wat Rong Khun the temple we were trying to reach. We’d seen numerous temples on our travels but were assured that this one was something special. A modern crystal white sanctuary created by an eccentric Thai artist was tempting, but it was the Buddhist motifs that included Darth Vader that couldn‘t be missed.

A couple of hours later than planned we approached one of the most extravagant buildings in the history of religious architecture. From a distance the classical Thai temple figure appeared silver and white, like it belonged in a far away, romantic, snow clad land rather than in the sticky heat of northern Thailand. White paint and mirrored tiles provide this celestial effect but neither pictures nor descriptions will do it justice. A closer look at the temple reveals that demons replace classical dragons. Beyond the serene lake shrivelled claws of the damned reach out from the realms of suffering and craving. Dishevelled heads, human and otherwise, hang in trees and a bottle of whisky and packet of cigarettes take centre stage in the bounds of a red hellish sculpture. We pondered over the moral messages indented…

Inside the temple a peaceful Buddha image is worshipped, while the other walls appear to condemn popular Western culture and the modern world in general. Demons and characters such as Superman and Neo from The Matrix adorn the red walls and in the eyes of the biggest demon appears the image of Osama Bin Laden and another figure whom we failed to recognise. We wondered what the local Thai Buddhists and monks made of the temple. It was obviously a statement about the world we live in appearing glossy at first but housing so much suffering and evil.

Wanting to know more we watched part of a video which showed the artist Chalermchai Kositpipat walking around the temple ‘explaining’ sections. However, in true Thai style he would walk up to a sculpture, point and commence the classic Thai laugh ‘ahahahahaha’ and move on. He was a rather bizarre character and you wondered how he’d stayed serious long enough to actually build this masterpiece, (work is still ongoing).

We took the shorter root back and stopped at a Veggie Bus recommended café for some vegetarian northern Thai style noodles; cooked in a yellow curry sauce and topped with crispy noodles that are specific to northern Thailand. Yum!! Our visas were soon to expire and after another night market, a few more bowls of these scrumptious noodles we were running out of things to do in Chiang Rai. Another Chiang awaited us; Chiang Kong the quaint border town in the north where we would make our crossing to Laos by boat.

 

The smaller they became the more captivating the Chaings seemed to become. Chiang Kong was no exception; a small riverside community amidst a small selection of wooden guest houses, restaurants and coffee outlets and a sleepy riverside vibe. We spent the evening on the river watching the sun set over Laos on the opposite side.

 

The next morning we boarded a long tail boat and submitted our papers. After a short delay due to Carl misspelling his own name on the immigration form, ‘Sabaidee’ welcome to Laos. Despite being just a hop, skip and a long tail boat ride from Thailand a definite shift in culture was evident. Slightly stale baguettes, happy cow spreadable cheese triangles and the infamous ‘Beer Lao’ greeted us from every shop front and the locals conversed with tourists in a mix of French and English. This side of the river was rather unpolished compared to the Thai side; it was immediately apparent that we had entered a poorer, less ‘developed’ (in the economic sense of the word) land. We wondered what the French thought about the spreadable cheese…

 

Upon exchanging our remaining Thai bhat into the local Laos currency we were rewarded with the sum of over 2 million kip. I chose to ignore Carl’s insistence that we should purchase only small notes in order to spread them across our next hotel room and roll around naked in rapture; but it was still a big wad. The first time I was asked to pay 1,000 kip to use the toilet I was outraged, reminded by an innocent bystander that the actual value of such was only a few pence my resistance subsided. Onwards to Luang Nam Tha for only 20,000 kip!

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