Down the Mekong, around the Plain of Jars and wanderings in Central Lao.
In Nong Khiaw - a stunning village, if small, on the only bridge across the river in hundreds of kilometres - we finally made the acquaintance of two English guys. We had come across Ben and Mike briefly in Kunming, and they had also been in Luang Namtha, and travelled down the same day, albeit by a slightly different set of buses. Our plan was to take a boat down the Nam Ou the following day to Luang Prabang, and we had heard that they were planning on doing the same. And as the boat was allegedly going to cost the same regardless of number of passengers, the more the merrier. They turned out to be two top blokes, and it wasn't even long before one of the inevitable coincidences/mutual acquaintence stories came up. It turns out that they had first heard of me in Shanghai after talking to Jimmy (he of the fireworks and monkey mountain climbing extravaganza), who had mentioned that three of his friends, including the guy he had come to China with and a Welsh cartographer, were currently travelling in Vietnam. The world is amazingly small.
Really not the greatest of pictures, but Nong Khiaw
In the end, the boat had it's full complement. The tiny chairs weren't great, but we spent about 6hours happily wandering down stream, through gorges, past mountains and fields, and steady stream of locals and fisher people, just enjoying the wonderful scenery. Luckily we were at the back, so managed to avoid the majority of the increasingly inane ramblings from one of the most stereotypical, stupid and inane Americans it's been my misfortune to come across. This being April, it is right at the end of the dry season, and the water levels are at their lowest, so at one point we had to disembark and walk about a kilometre down stream to rejoin the boat (not enough water depth for our weight as well), during which us 10 foreigners had no idea what was going on - we had guessed we had to walk downstream, that was all - almost relieved the planet of one American, and pondered the possible presence of snakes, alligators and large amounts of unexploded ordnance and bombs, mostly for the purpose of scaring said American even more.
Views from the boat heading down the Nam Ou towards the Mekong, and Luang Prabang
And in an interesting twist, and something i've never had to do before on a boat - especially one i was a paying passenger on - at one point nearing the point where we joined the Mekong, we all had to get out and push for a while, whilst trying to avoid submerged rocks in the low water. Actually, we didn't have to get out to push, but as both crew did, and then a score of little local kids joined us, I felt a tad sheepish just sitting there being lazy so got out anyway to join the push, quickly followed by Erin and the guys and then all other passenger save our 'friend' and his accomplice.
Luang Prabang, former Imperial capital and UNESCO registered city, has a reputation as one of South East Asia's most stunning destinations. Architecturally, it is not at all unlike Hoi An in Vietnam, with a large amount of classic French colonial architecture, with the Mekong taking the place of the Ocean. Similarly, it is perhaps over touristy, especially in the central areas, but very pleasant to walk around all the same.
Foreigners aren't allowed to rent motorcycles in Luang Prabang, which put paid to some of our ideas and plans to explore the surrounding areas. We did manage to spend an afternoon out a lovely - if hugely touristy - waterfall in the forest and did some walking/climbing etc around, plus looked at the bears. The rest of the time was spent in the town, wandering randomly around and generally taking it easy. We did some chores, had the police called on us, utterly frustrated the guys by setting them random football trivia to ponder over, and went and hid in a bar so as to be well clear as Erin went on a shopping spree in the night market (oooh look! Multi-coloured fabrics!).
Spent an afternoon in a "Monk chat", been given a tour of the local Buddhist High school and library, and spending a couple of hours talking to one of the monks. If you are ever in Luang Prabang, I can highly recommend giving up a couple of hours to go to the School and talk to Ven. Khaonoy Thammavong. Fascinating stuff, especially listening to the problems in the current monk hood (very low wages means that few Monks want to return to be teachers, so that in Luang Prabang, there are only currently 3 monks to teach 752 novices) and his plans for the future, especially involving technology. He showed us his cellphone, and talked long about his use of computers, projectors, videos and camcorders etc for use in teaching. I admit I wasn't expecting to find Laotian monks so technologically advanced, and unequivocally in favour of the Internet. We viewed his Stupa, toured the caves, and went to Phat Phu Si, the temple on the top of the hill in the centre of town.
Luang Prabang - Line of washing at the Buddhist school, selling meat by the road and a throne room in a bar
The guys were on a short time frame and headed straight to Vang Vieng (we think - they were still passed out when we were all supposed to leave), whilst we spent the bulk of another day on a proper local bus to Phonsavan, the largest town on the central plateau and on one of the main routes into Vietnam. Despite never actually being in the war Lao remains the most bombed country of all time, due to Vietnam war. The relevant parties and their backers on both sides made a tactic agreement not to admit that anything was going on there, whilst also recognising it's large strategic value, and as such fighting over it with vigour. The Americans (allegedly) never once entered on foot - their Vietnamese allies did that - instead preferring to bomb the place to smithereens. At 70's prices, they dropped 2MILLION USD WORTH OF BOMBS A DAY on Lao, and to repeat, Lao were not even in the war. Phonsavan had been totally demolished in the war and the area scene of heavy fighting, and even now, much of the area is uncleared of land mines and unexploded ordnance.
It really isn't anywhere that you want to be wandering off the beaten track. In addition, this is bandit country, and whilst things seem relatively clear now, only a couple of years ago, raids and sudden attacks, plus ambushes (on buses) were by no means uncommon. Whether that had any relevance to the fact that our bus had a civilian dressed guy with a machine gun on it is unknown although a couple of the fellow travellers seemed slightly agitated after he boarded that he put the gun on the seat next to him and promptly fell asleep. Having said that, the same backpackers were even less impressed by another local who boarder half way through - and again fell asleep - when a large machete that was in his rucksack on the luggage rack wriggled it's way out on the bouncy road and fell with a loud clatter into the aisle, barely half a metre from my bare foot. I had been watching it come loose out of curiosity for a good 20mins and saw it fall, so wasn't bothered, but the loud clang scared the living bejesuz out of more or less everybody who had been sat in front of him and never knew what was coming...
Phonsavan is more or less a nothing town, visited for only one reason, the plain of jars. Hundreds of large stone jars of unknown origin (believed to be 2000+ years old) and of unknown - at present - use (currently believed to be part of some funeral ritual) are scattered across several sites in the nearby countryside. Studies are underway to uncover further sites, and discover the real purpose and history of the jars, and also de-mine and ordnance the land around them. Three sites have currently been cleared enough to allow visitors (with guides), although you are constricted to very narrow areas of definitively cleared ground. Some of the jars are huge (2 metres +), some small, and many have been damaged or were destroyed in the war. Bomb craters are also much in evidence. Whilst you don't necessarily need to visit all 3 sites, it's definitely worth a visit (to site 1), as they are fascinating curiosities to look at, and the surrounding countryside is of the standard stunning Laotian fare. Phonsavan is also one of those places where travellers go for one reason only (ok, I also finally got a haircut, but that wasn't exactly reason #1 for visiting) and then leave, and it means that you get to meet virtually all the other people in town. Which on this occasion including a couple of fascinating people, plus happily Raewin (an older Kiwi lady we had met on our way to - and in - Nong Khiaw), and more randomly, Niall. Who is the Irish guy I met in Seoul who is suspect #1 (and indeed, only suspect) in the case of the b*stard who urinated all over my bag, and also stole one of each of my pairs of socks. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. It's a small world.
The Main street getting dusty just before a storm hit, and Frickin Mozzies!
Another 6hour + bus journey on a local bus (a half empty old metal bus with no other foreigners, minuscule leg room between the seats and a driver who let his - by the look - 14year old son driver for an hour or so after lunch) took us to Vang Vieng - a kind of a backpacker haunt in the way that Yangshuo is. It's claims include the fact that you can buy "substances" in many forms off the menu's at all restaurants in town (from more subtle things like a 'happy shake' to the less subtle 'joint'), that all the restaurants are full of loungy sofa style places to collapse in (with your happy pizza, if you so desire - we didn't) and that they all show TV or movies at all hours. 2 places were entirely showing friends. One had a large 'no friends' sign outside. One place showed only Simpsons, etc etc. It was very surreal.
Roadside village from the bus en route to Vang Vieng. Note the black pig roaming free, ubiquitos in all villages across Northern and Central Lao
On a more useful note, Vang Vieng is also home to tubing (everybody raves about floating down the Mekong in a rubber ring in Vang Vieng, despite the fact that it isn't actually the Mekong), kayaking, and numerous caves. We gained a Canadian guy, Josh, hired some mopeds, and using a map of such poor quality that it could only have come from Pindar (that will miss most of you, I know, whilst no offence should be taken by those that do get it) headed out to find some caves.
Despite probably riding some 120km+ over the day, we never did actually find the caves we were looking for.
We did find some others though.
The end of dry season has it's advantages on occasions, and one cave we headed in well over a kilometre on a dry river bed until we reached an underwater pool and stream, which even after another hour or so of traversing, was still pouring in and with no end in sight. It was a stunning sight (although only when torches were on, of course) and well worth the long trek inside. An amazing array of rocks, stratas, stalagtites, stalagmites, hollow rocks and more. And that was just one of the smaller caves.
Unfortunately I bailed on the second day there, sadly having to chose to spend a day online and doing some w*rk and assorted chores, leaving Erin to her own devices. And apparently, she found some even better caves.
Oh well. Excepting another run in with Niall, running into a few odd others from earlier in my trip, meeting a fascinating old Luxembourg guy (John, late 60's, travelling for the last 13years. About to head of a see South America for a bit. Meaning 4 years), one of the very few Luxembourgers I've met when travelling, and a stupendous overhead thunderstorm (WooHoo!! loud banging, flashing lights and lots of rain!) the night/morning that we left, there's not much else to say.
We're on our way to Vientiane (pronounced something like Wang-chen, due to stupid transliterations being of French origin), the Capital of Lao right near the Thai border for a couple of days, and then onwards to celebrate Lao New Year.
It will be my fourth in the last 4 months, and whilst I'm looking forward to it (basically, it's a 3day water fight), i must admit that the novelty is starting to wear off, just a little...