When we first decided we were going to visit Laos I remembered that Dad had a friend who was from Laos, Kay, who had married an old school friend of Dad's, David. I remember going to their house quite a few times when I was under 10 years old and playing with their kids, Kevin and Nicky, or watching fascinated as they played Mah Jong for hours on end (no honestly, I was fascinated, it's a great game). I asked Dad if he could see if they had any suggestions on where to go in Laos and they recommended Luang Prabang and also said that they had family living in Vientiane. We got in touch with Sally and Anne, Kay's nieces and they gave us some more info on Laos and when we got to Vientiane we were lucky enough to meet up with them.
When we got to Luang Prabang I set off to find us somewhere to stay, leaving Richard with the bags in a cafe. We take it in turns to go hunting so that one of us can mind the bags rather than both carrying them around. We've been surprised by just how many people lug their bags around while looking for somewhere to stay. If you are travelling on your own it can be difficult to leave your bag on it's own but we often see couples or two, three, four or more people all humping their heavy backpacks with them as they walk in the heat around lots of guesthouses. We figured in the end that people have different requirements or that they don't trust each other to get something decent. To some people money is the important factor and they will stay in a pretty grotty place if it only costs a few dollars a night whereas other people would rather pay 7 or 8 dollars and stay somewhere with their own bathroom and hot water.
Looking around I found that the room rates were three or four times the price quoted in Lonely Planet (2002 edition). Rooms quoted as 3 or 4 dollars were all $12! but eventually I found somewhere cheaper (Lao Irish Guesthouse), $7 for a massive room in an old wooden house (a listed building) which had it's own bathroom. The room was ramshackle but full of character with old pictures, swords, big chests and boar skulls dotted around it - a bit spooky. Kingsmill, who ran the guesthouse with his wife Sone, later told us that all the guesthouse owners had put up their rates two months ago - they'd all agreed to do it - because they could and people would pay it. He'd followed but was still cheaper than the others.
Luang Prabang is a small place nestled between two rivers, the Nam Khan and the Mekong River (the main river running through Laos, Cambodia and Southern Vietnam). You can see the impressive mountains that surround it in the distance. It is hard to believe that this is one of the biggest cities in Laos, it is only just starting to develop in response to tourism but it still has wide and dusty quiet streets and lots of historic old buildings. One night we had dinner at a beautiful old wooden house that used to be the residence of the King's physician. Luang Prabang recently became a UNESCO World Heritage Site which should help to preserve the old buildings and temples and the old world charm it possesses.
One of the most famous temples in Luang Prabang is Wat Xieng Thong. In one building we found an impressive funery carriage along with hundreds of Buddha statues. The other buildings had lovely murals depicting village life on the outside and the main temple had cute elephant heads around it. The temples in Luang Prabang differ from those in Thailand because they have much lower sweeping roofs. Another difference is the way the buddhist monks and novices wear their orange robes. In Thailand they covered themselves up totally but here they wear their robes off the shoulder exposing some flesh. Is it the fashion?
While we were in Luang Prabang the sky was often hazy and smoky due to the large amount of fields that are slashed and burnt at this time of year in this area. Most days it was only really noticable when the sun set a vivid red but on our last day the air was thick with smoke making our eyes sting, the sun was an unnatural bright red during the day and large leaf sized fragments of vegetation fell from the sky.
We hadn't planned to climb all the way but somehow we ended up at the top of the 80m waterfall before we realised how far we'd climbed. Luckily it was the dry season so the mud wasn't too slippy but I had my moments coming down when I thought I was going to fall. It was pretty steep in places but a really lovely climb through the wooded area at the side of the waterfall, sometimes right by the waterfall and sometimes we just heard it and followed a trail in the direction of the noise. At one point we had to cross the waterfall, getting very wet. These pictures don't give an overall impression of the scale of the waterfall because they are taken at different points on the way up but it cascaded down to big green pools at the bottom where some people were swimming - we were wet enough by this point and settled for a drink and a rest overlooking the waterfall. On the way out we saw a tiger called Phet that lives in the compound. She was rescued as a cub and is kept in a pretty big enclosure but unfortunately her two brothers died and she lives on her own.
Being suckers for punishment when we got back to Luang Prabang at 4pm we decided to walk up the biggest hill in town which is a popular spot to watch the sunset over the Mekong River and the mountains. The hill is 100m but that's 329 agonising steps and when we got there the smoke from the slash and burn meant that the sun disappeared in a puff of smoke well before it was due to set. The temple at the top is the focus of the Buddhist New Year celebrations in April.
We decided to have a quiet evening with just a couple of drinks in Lao-Irish Guesthouse's garden which has tables and chairs and a raised platform with triangular cushions on perfect for relaxing. When we got there we found a party going on for Sone Noi who was working at the guesthouse and had just turned 22 - so young. They'd run out of vodka so Richard nipped off and bought a bottle which we planned to share over the next few nights. It was not to be. The quiet drink turned into noisy mayhem as Sone invited us to join the party. One bottle of vodka and countless hours later we were very drunk as was everyone else as the booze buckets (very popular - half a bottle of spirit filled up with coke or sprite or something in a bucket with straws for people to share it) were drunk and as every five minutes Sone asked you to drink half a glass of Beerlao and toast him on his birthday. Kingsmill got more cake than he bargained for. We were thinking of leaving the next day but we ended up staying another three nights. (to recover!)
Somehow we managed a trip to the Royal Palace Museum the next day which was the Royal Palace until 1975 when the King and his wife were exiled during the Revolution and apparently died in a cave in Northern Laos. It looks like a really old building but was only built in 1904. It had some interesting artefacts in, mostly items which belonged to the Royal Family or other important people in Lao. One room contained presents from other countries and from the US there were a couple of Lao flags about the size of postcards which had been aboard some of the Apollo missions. Given that the US was secretly bombing Loas at the time that Apollo 11 landed on the moon it propably means that they took the flag of every nation with them - I wonder where the UK's is kept??
Unless you hire a taxi the only way to go to Vang Vieng is by local clapped out old bus. We were lucky to get a proper seat but it was very cramped and when the bus was full more people piled on and sat on uncomfortable looking plastic stools in the passageway. We travelled up and down and round the mountains covering 150km in 6 hours which is a speedy 25km/hr or about 15mph! The bus made a couple of stops, one for lunch in a small village and once for a toilet break. When I say 'toilet' there weren't actually any toilets we just stopped in the middle of the road and everyone piled off and went to the loo. Some people made it to the side of the road but most just used the middle of the road including the women who just lifted their skirts and got on with it. Richard joined them [I'd like to point out that I was *not* wearing a skirt, but "joined them" in the sense of going to the toilet at the roadside - ed] but I'm not quite up for that yet so I held it until we got there. Squats toilets I can cope with and I don't mind the open air but I can't quite bring myself to have a piss in front of 40 other people. I wasn't that desperate but I guess if the journey had been 10 hours maybe I'd have had to get over my western embarrassment. Another local custom that we didn't join in was chucking rubbish out of the window - plastic bottles, sandwich wrappers, anything in fact. No wonder that for the whole route the side of the road is littered with trash.
Vang Vieng, like Pai, is a town that has grown up for tourists because it is halfway between Luang Prabang and Vientiane (the Lao capital). It is very similar, geared up for tourists but with lovely scenery, Nam Song river and striking mountains. As in Luang Prabang the smoke in the sky makes for a lovely sunset and when we were there lots of people were doing their washing in the river, that's washing their trucks, motorbikes and themselves as well as their laundry.
We did what you do in Vang Vieng which is take a trip down the river sitting on a rubber inner tube. We were dropped off about 3km upstream and it took nearly three hours to float back - that's 1km/hr, slower than walking and sometimes you didn't move at all unless you paddled. Novel and relaxing for a while but it got a bit tedious. It was nice to see the world go by and there were lots of really brightly coloured dragonflies, yellow, red or blue which kept landing on us and were really beautiful. Like the waterfalls, it would be much better in the wet season as there just wasn't enough water for a fast flowing river. There were a couple of mini rapids which were quite fun and if it had all been rapids it would have been an exciting ride.
I got to see the second race of the Grand Prix season in Vang Vieng - the Malaysian race that we were supposed to go and see. It was to be over a month before we actually got to Malaysia - guess our scheduling was a bit out. Looks like yet another Schumacher season as well - two races, two wins...
The first thing that strikes you when you reach Vientiane is that although it's a capital city it feels like a quiet and laid back town. It has wide streets, old colonial buildings and not very much traffic. People don't seem to be in a hurry and nobody bothers to beep their horns unlike the other countries we've visited where everyone is in a rush. Vientiane is built on one side of the Mekong River and on the other side of the river is Thailand. The river was very low when we were there and in some places dried up but everybody seemed to congregate there anyway. At dusk, it was a little hive of activity with people playing ball games, doing aerobics, taking a stroll or sitting by one of the small kiosks having that first beer of the day - we joined them - ahh cafe life. We spent our first evening pottering around and ended up spending the evening with a guy we'd met on the plane to Laos a week before.
We spent four days in Laos and managed to take in a few of the sights as you can see below. We called Sally and Anne to see if they were free and met up with them and a friend of theirs, Khamtan, in the very plush Lao Plaza Hotel before going for dinner in a restaurant called Khawp Chai Deu where we sat out on the pretty terrace, had some nice Lao and Thai food (Richard had Lao steak and chips) and got to know each other. Sally and Anne grew up in England but returned to Laos a few years ago to work in development areas, Sally in health and Anne in banking. Sally took us to the Lao National State Circus one night with her seven month old son, Leon and her nephew and niece. Being the big kids that we are we really enjoyed it, I was especially excited because it was the first time I had ever been to the circus. There were all the usual acts such as the clowns, acrobats and tightrope walkers. The performers are Lao but they were taught by a Russian troupe and they all have day jobs and don't perform regularly which might account for the wobbliness of the tightrope walkers and some of the acrobats during some of the acts. I was glad they had safety ropes on when they did the balancing acts high above the arena. Having said that, the performers where incredibly entertaining and skilful and it was great fun.
Patuxai (Victory Monument) resembles the Arch de Triomphe in Paris but with Asian style decoration. Under the arch are beautiful paintings and if you climb to the top you are rewarded with a lovely view of Vientiane. The city sprawls out for miles but the buildings are all low level and there is so much vegetation that you can just about spot a building here and there through the camouflage. You can see from this picture just how quiet the streets are. Apparently, Patuxai was built in 1969 with cement purchased by the United States which was supposed to be used to build a new airport - hence the local name of "the vertical runway".
Formerly the Revolutionary Museum, it now contains a room containing dinosaur fossils and ancient tools found quite recently in Laos but the rest of the museum is dedicated to Lao's long struggle for independence. The museum has some interesting exhibits and you can see a few artefacts from the battles with Thailand and then a huge number of items and photographs taken during the battles with France and the United States. Although the museum has changed it's name from 'Revolutionary' to 'National History' it has not changed the labels on the exhibits which are strongly communist and revolutionary in nature using phrases such as 'the US Imperialists and their puppets'.
The quirkiest place we've been to so far was this small park, designed on the whim of one man, which was densely packed with Buddhist and Hindu sculptures made of cement. There were literally hundreds of quite intricate sculptures but the most impressive were the big sculptures of a reclining buddha and one which looked like a big pumpkin. The big pumpkin, which reminded me of James and the Giant Peach, was split into three levels which represent hell, earth and heaven and we walked inside the pumpkin and up through the levels to emerge at the top. Each level has a corridor around an inner chamber which you couldn't enter but you could see hundreds of statues inside through windows in the wall. You could also look out over the park through windows in the outer wall.
Saturday was our last day in Vientiane and we met up with Sally and Anne for lunch before they drove us to the Friendship Bridge border between Laos and Thailand stopping for a quick look at the outside of That Luang (Great Sacred Stupa) which is a big golden stupa and a symbol of Laos. It was great to get to meet them and we really appreciated the way they dropped everything for a few days to spend some time with us. After crossing the border (a land border crossed in vehicles and Laos drives on the right and Thailand on the left... So you'd build a flyover to change the lanes over yes? Nope, you leave it flat and have a very strange four-way intersection where traffic lights control you as you change which side of the road you are driving on!) we got a tuk-tuk to Nong Khai where we got the overnight train back to Bangkok. We had been slightly apprehensive about getting our tickets which we were due to pick up at the station. We booked the tickets on the Wednesday and went to pick up the tickets on the Thursday but only one had arrived so we were told to come back on Friday. On Friday they hadn't arrived from Thailand and we were told to pick them up from the train station in Thailand. Once we got into Thailand if the tickets weren't at the station we couldn't go back to Laos to the travel agent because you need a visa so we were a bit worried we might have been done. At Nong Khai station they told us our tickets had gone to Laos but would be sent back and should arrive by 4pm in plenty of time for the train which was due to leave at 6.30pm. At 4pm we were told they would arrive at 5pm which, luckily, they did. We were relieved but we had been done in a small way because we had booked and paid for one lower berth and one upper berth but we got two upper berths which are cheaper than the lower berths.... but at least we could get back to Bangkok.
Our next journey was down to the islands in Southern Thailand