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Mekong Meander

Lazing about in Laos

Luang Prabang is the magnificent old capital of Lao, featuring a cluster of shimmering royal temples and remnants of the faded grandeur of the monarchy. The town (often referred to as jewel like) is compact and tiny. After the capital was moved to Vientiane in 1563 the town flourished as a trading post amongst the people of Northern Laos, Thailand, Burma and China. There was very little contact with non-Asians until French occupation in the mid 19th century. Under French rule a commissiriat was established in Luang Prabang, which led to the construction of french residential houses and buildings. Today the town and its buildings are a world heritage site.

Ok, so now that I have bored you to death with another brief history, lesson let me talk you through our last few days in Laos. To get from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang we had to endure another painstaking drive through more mountain passes that snake, twist and turn back on themselves in hairpin bends with no safety barriers. A sheer drop is what awaits should anyone make a mistake. What makes it more interesting for the drivers is the mountain villages line the side of the road, with livestock, pets and children in the street, not to mention Ngorongoro sized potholes and the constant threat of landslides. It is understandable that our driver never got into 4th gear once on the 8 hour bus trip.
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Exhausted after along day we turned in to get some sleep. I was tossing and turning and couldn't fall asleep even though I was shattered. Eventually around 1am I dozed off. Only to be woken at just after 3am, by what I thought was the end of the planet. It was loud banging and the thumping was making our bed tremble. After getting my wits about me The panic subsided when I realised it was only the massive drum from the temple next door and the lively monks were celebrating a full moon holiday. Soon my heart rate returned to normal and I relaxed enough to snooze again. Later that morning we walked around town and through the day market, where you can buy anything from wasps larvae to python steaks. I have it on good authority that if you get there on the right day you are able to buy any wildlife from sun bears to eagles, dead or alive.
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After the market we went to a silversmith that used to work for the king. I was really impressed with the amount of work these guys put into creating ornate works of art on everyday items such as bowls and goblets. We then went off to temple to learn about the life of monks. Lou went off and spoke to a young monk and it turns out that he had been a monk for 5 yrs already and was only 14. They wake up at 3am, eat 2 meals a day and cannot eat after 12pm(noon). Totally different to what we know as a 'normal' lifestyle.
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We also went to Kuang Si waterfalls by Jumbo (a big tuk-tuk). At the waterfalls there is a rehab centre for bears and tigers that have been confiscated from markets or poachers etc. After looking at the bears for a while we walked up through the jungle towards the waterfalls. Wow, they are even more spectacular then guidebooks describe. The water is turquoise from the white limestone that has been worn away by years of erosion and looks alive - almost fungus like. After a swim and a massage from the pounding water of the falls we headed back into town. The evenings we spent here consisted of walking through the market and eating street food.
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The done thing in the town is to wake up early at around 05h30 and watch the monks receiving alms. Hundreds of monks walk the streets of town every morning and collect food,milk, fruit etc donations from locals and foreigners. This food is then used by these monks for their daily food rations. It is an interesting part of their lifestyle to witness and well worth the very early start. We then went to visit local craft villages. We saw a paper and textile(silk) making village, blacksmiths and also whiskey distilleries. These are more like the moonshiners you see on discovery channel. They cook up the rice wine exactly the way they do it on "Moonshiners" - incredible.

So that was a brief encounter with Luang Prabang. We now had 2 1/2 days days of travel ahead of us, via slow boat down the Mekong. The morning started with me rushing to the market to get us some chicken, bacon and avo baguettes and some fresh fruit whilst Louise stayed at the hotel to book our flights from Chiang Mai to the islands. I rushed back to the guest house, ordered breakfast and then headed off to buy us some beer for Pat and myself. I made it back in time to inhale my hot coffee and omelet. The boat departed around 8am for the 8-9 hr journey to the riverside town of Pakbeng, marking the half-way point of the voyage from Luang Prabang to the Thai border. I’d feared hard seats and a long, uncomfortable ride, but was pleasantly surprised by the ‘car seats’ installed in the boat, which provided some much appreciated cushioning for our large buts. And the first day, although it was long, provided us with more than enough beautiful scenery of enormous jutting, crumbling rock and jungle-clad mountains to keep our child-like attention spans at bay. This was also helped by the 2 cases of beer we brought with us in our polystyrene cooler box. This box was a very good investment and had been with us since the first night train in Vietnam. It was indeed a smooth, peaceful ride, the boat open on all sides, allowing a cool breeze as well as the odd shower to aerate/humidify the cabin. The first day was spent playing cards, drinking beer, writing diaries, napping, reading and chatting. I would take this trip over a bus anytime as at least here you can walk around, lie down, jump around or even use 1 of the 2 toilets.
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The day ended with us docking at Pakbeng. This tiny place is a stopover for people heading between Luang Prabang and Thailand. The town is built on the hills overlooking the Mekong. If you are so inclined you can get hold of weed, opium and I am sure other drugs here. On all of the menus in the limited choice of eateries, there were happy shakes, happy pancakes, happy pizzas etc etc. there was even a bakery offering opium pipes to smoke. Every person we walked past in town offered us narcotics in some form or another. The following day was spent pretty much the same as the day before except we ended in Thailand once we crossed the border at Chiang Kong.
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Chiang mai here we come!!!!!

Posted by louslabbert 20:41 Archived in Laos Tagged laos monks luang_prabang pakbeng alms slow_boat chiang_kong_border Comments (0)

The Ho Chi Minh trail

Step back and chill

The Laos leg of our tour started in Hanoi. To get to Laos we had 2 very long bus journeys ahead of us. The first one was leaving the next morning down to Vinh - still in Vietnam. But first we had to meet the new guys joining us on the Intrepid tour. After our meeting a bunch of us decided to go find beer junction and then have dinner. Beer junction is an intersection in the old quarter of Hanoi. Each corner has a bar (if you can call it that), with stools on the pavements that spill out onto the street. Now sitting on a stool in the road, drinking a nice cold, cheap draught, praying that you dont get hit by a scooter or a taxi, might not sound like fun but it was grand. Beer junction is the one place in Vietnam where you will see locals and tourists sitting side by side laughing and having a good time at the same place. It has an amazing atmosphere and the beers are around 50c US, with amazing snacks to add to the great evening vibe.
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After a few drinks we all went in search of food. We walked up and down a few streets until we found a busy street stall filled with locals and tourists alike. The place looked septic with rubbish all over the floor, bones and leftovers in amongst the litter under the low tables. But that is the norm in Vietnam. Most places we went to on the street was the same with people just chucking the scraps and serviettes under the tables. They cleared a table for us by literally wiping everything onto the floor adding to the pile of trash on the pavement. Now as anyone knows after a few drinks you really need to use the toilet, so my 2 swiss friends and I asked where the toilet was. The one waiter showed us an alley down the street. It was about 60cm wide and we followed it with trepidation. Once we got to the end, about 5 meters, it was pitch black and the rotting corpse type smell eminating from the darkness was making us wretch. Nils had a torch attached to his belt and Ronny took it and went into this 'cubicle' first. Once the torch was on we could see the sewage piled up and the toilet overflowing. The floor was covered by a few centimeters of excrement and urine and could be the single most unpleasant moment of my trip - or life for that matter. As the light revealed more of our situation Ronny discovered that there was a fresh coil steaming on top of the already overflowing pile of poo. Don't ask me how the person managed to squat there without getting it all over their clothes. Anyway we hurriedly did our business and went to eat back at the street stall, laughing at everyone else gagging when we recounted our most recent experience of SE Asia. My meal was the best fried rice I have had on my entire trip. It was a great evening and everyone had lots of fun.

The next day we spent on a bus bound for Vinh playing dodgems with traffic and potholes down the crappy roads of Vietnam. 8 hours of bus later we arrived in Vinh-the birthplace of Ho Chi Minh. Vinh is a port town with nothing to offer these weary travellers. We ate dinner at a place that looked like a sushi bar with a conveyor belt that transported plates of raw fresh food tantalisingly close to our noses. In front of us at our stations was a hole for a soup pot. We could control the temp of our soup(stock) with a little controller in front of us. This is such a great idea. Its basically a hotpot and the food that comes past is placed into your pot and you cook it till you are happy that its done. Boy did I eat - clams, prawns, crab, pork, veg, noodles, steak. . . . . I think the place was called Kiwi-Kiwi. a great concept and for 159 000 Dong for all you can eat, a real steal!

The following morning saw us up early again for another day of bussing. The first 3 hours was spent driving up winding mountain passes to get to the Laos border. Here we left the safety of our bus, crossed the border and climbed onto a new bus. We continued on our journey through the mountains with a long drive to look forward to. The first noticeable difference between the 2 countries are the roads. Laos roads are in better condition. Its cleaner, quieter and full of toyota 4x4s. We stopped for a few scenic photos and some lunch and a drink. Beer Laos is a great beer, in fact most beers in SE Asia have been great. After lunch we drove and drove and drove. We eventually arrived at our Hotel in Vientiane some 13 hours after we had started the day - roughly 333km away. Crap that's slow going.

Vientiane, capital city of Laos and home to roughly 210 000 people is a stunning city. It is clean, quiet and is located on the banks of the mighty Mekong river. We had a guided tour of the capital in the morning. We took in a temple and then walked up a road resembling the Champs Elysee in Paris. This even has its own version of the Arc de Triomf too. We climbed the steps to the top of it for the amazing 360 views across the city. After climbing down the 300 steps to get down, we headed off to COPE Centre. The COPE Centre was set up to help people who have lost limbs or have been injured by bombs that did not explode during the american war. It also helps children with clubfoot and people needing orthotics. Whilst at COPE we were all shocked to find out that Laos is the most bombed place ever, YES ever. Around 30% of these cluster bombs never exploded and people regularly get injured when one of theseunexplodedbombs does explode. The US ran, on average, a bomb run evry 8 minutes for 9 years. That works out to almost 600 000 bombing sorties in Loas. This was because Laos was letting Viet Cong use the Ho Chi Minh trail to get supplies to troops on the front lines.The USA dropped more bombs on Laos than were used in the entire second world war. That is shocking. Still today their bombs are killing innocent people. I have learned so much about the USA that most people dont know and it is sad to know that most people on earth will never find out the truth. The rest of the day was spent relaxing and the evening saw us having sundowners whilst admiring the sun disolving over the far bank of the magnificent Mekong.
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The next day we were heading to a place called Vang Vieng. Any person that has heard of this place will know it for its reputation as a hedonists paradise, where you could get high on drugs and as drunk as a skunk while having a whale of a time floating down the river in an old tractor tube. The Laos government has shut down all the pubs along the 4 km tube route because too many tourists were losing their lives on the many slides and zip wires into the river. It was a painless 4 hour bus ride(160km) from the capital. Vang Vieng is a tiny village set against a backdrop of a dramatic limestone mountain range. It is extremely picturesque and sits on the bend of the Song River.

The town is a tourist place between Luang Prabang and Vientianne so everything is geared towards people like us. Souvenir shops, restaurants and bars and then the normal bike hire and tour shops all dotted amongst the many hotels and guest houses. All the restaurants play reruns of Friends or Family Guy non-stop and the pace of life is slower then slow. I timed the one waitress with my beerlao and it took her around 40 seconds to drag my beer a full 30 meters. I challenge anyone to drag their feet like this lady and cover that distance in that time. It is almost impossible to crawl that slowly, but that lady made it look like life was in slow motion. our favorite pub/restaurant was called Other Side and was a great place to watch time elude you as you lazed about the benches overlooking the river.

After our first night we hired bicycles and headed to Tham Phu Kham. This cave is about 7km from town. First up we payed 4000kip to cross the bamboo bridge with a bike, then we made our way with a basic map towards the caves. This was a very scenic ride as we passed rice paddies, streams and villages. We passed cowboys tending their buffalo, kids playing in the roads, farmers harvesting crops of rice all in the shodow of this spectacular mountain range. Once we got to the cave we were greeted by a chrystal clear stream that is turqoise blue and very deep. The first thing I noticed were the branches hanging over the stream, so I promptly climbed to the 5m(roughly) and jumped into the refreshing cool waters. We all had a dip here to cool off before tackling the 200m or so almost vertical climb to the cave. Once at the top we were rewarded with a large dark cave with a reclining buddha inside. Like many caves in SE Asia it ad been turned into a place of worship. The descent down the side of the mountain was much more difficult, especially with wet flip flops. We all had another long swim before heading back to town. The night on the town was spent at Other Side again, but heck it was so nice to sit there and chill.
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The next day was tubing day. We payed our cash, grabbed a tube and hopped into a tuk-tuk(jumbo) and enjoyed the ride 4 kms upstream where the guy dropped us off and left us to it. T-shirts stuffed into the dry bag we set off bobbing down the river like giant corks. The river was stronger then it looked. Relaxing on the tubes, we floated past incredible scenery and the remnants of bars, with slides and zip lines that peppered the banks of this river. Apparently the barstaff used to fish tubers out of the river and ply them with free booze. But that part of Vang Vieng doesn't exist anymore because of this. We had avery relaxing few hours on the water and ended off the morning with lunch at our local.After lunch I went to see the cock fighting, which I didnt find all that interesting, but it was one of those things I had to see once in my life. They do not fight to the death and there is a vet on hand to stitch up wounds if any cocks should get injured.
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That pretty much sums up our time on the Ho Chi Minh trail. We had an amazing time in an incredible sleepy town. Very memorable indeed, Vang Vieng you will never be forgotten, the 3 days of buses to get to you, your beauty, peacefulness and charm pulled all the right strings, thank you!

Posted by louslabbert 19:30 Archived in Laos Tagged landscapes waterfalls sunsets_and_sunrises mountains bridges buildings parties trees animals birds sky boats food rain street travel bus river roads vietnam rice laos vientiane wat monks forest sights time border ancient stalls hours vinh ho_chi_ming ho-chi-minh-trail Comments (0)

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