I have always found it fascinating to see the make up of fellow travellers in different countries I go to, and how they travel. In Japan for example, I essentially came across no foreign travellers at all outside of Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima, and most of them were older (late 20's - early 30's and alone). In China, there was a large proportion of younger single travellers; In Vietnam, everybody was more or less a couple (or at the very least, a M-F combo), mostly younger than me and including a huge number of Scandinavians. Lao on the other hand seems to consist of a more mixed bunch of ages, and be mainly single travellers or same sex duo's. I have no idea why the make up of these people interests me, and I accept it's of no interest to you or relevance to this entry.
Surely by now, you expect this.
Vientiane, the Lao capital is a cool little place. With barely 5.5million in the country (at a wild guess), it comes in at a nice manageable 500,000 or so (ditto on the guess front). It feels not unlike smaller French university cities in a way, and has a mixture of SE Asian and French colonial bits to it that just seem to work. I like it.
One of it's most redeeming features, and a huge novelty to anywhere I have been in recent months is that it has no high rise buildings./ There are no glass scrapers, and whilst concrete does make an appearance, there are no buildings higher than 6stories in the entire city. Giving it a lovely low rise spread and smaller feel. There is of course, one exception, and to steal a phrase from our Charlie about "Monstrous Carbuncle", the new hotel complex down by the riverfront is both hideous and sadly in all probability, a sign of things to come. This concrete calamity can be seen in all it's glory from the top of the Arc du Triomph. A former French colonial capital with an Arc du Triomph? Surely not... Interestingly, this Arc was only completed 15years ago or so, and is built entirely out of concrete which the Americans donated to build a new runway. You've got to love it.
With New Year fast approaching, we only spent 2 days in Vientiane. Actually it's Wen-chen, approximately, but because it was transliterated into French (colonials) and not English, and French not having a "W" sound, means it just confuses us idiot Anglophones. After discovering that visa's - Russian and Indian, respectively - in a hurry would not be possible due to the upcoming New Year (and, which we had completely forgotten about not being in Christian countries, Easter), we spent the time being touristy and running around like headless chickens. Took in the Cultural Centre and free photo exhibition, the Ho Phra Keo Museum, a fairly small collection but housed in one of the most amazing buildings I've come across for a while. Where the heck are your stalking Architects (hi guys. Hope your having fun back home...) when you need them??? The building contained any style you could possibly name, plus many you couldn't, and a mixture of concrete, several types of stone, some with carvings and some without, brick, granite, wood (several types and styles) slate and thatch. Wow.
Took in the Sisaket Museum, not so much a museum as the oldest temple (Wat) in the city containing huge numbers of Buddhist statues and with a definite "used" feel to it, the morning market, a long winded and unintentional wander through the backstreets in searing temperatures (although i probably shouldn't admit it professionally, i love getting lost in strange cities and just wandering), the aforementioned Arc du Triomph (both day and night). Spent a few hours in the great - and surprisingly level headed and relatively unbiased - National Museum, and an afternoon out in Buddha Park. It's a large park by the river, and was originally intended to just contain one large stone lying (as in down, not un-true) Buddha. But they had so many donations from people (who all had their own agendas and wanted specific things) that it turned out to be contain well over 100 Buddhist - and Hindu - statues. The Big Buddha is big. The ball of Hell was interesting (although we didn't discover what it was until after we had emerged again), and the Park fascinating to wander around. I struggled to shake off a really strange local kid who seemed both drunk and high (probably wasn't either), was loud, spoke little English except 2 or 3 strange sentences, and seemed content to follow me around trying to scare me whilst putting his hands up my backside, whilst Erin lucked out and was accosted by a local trainee Monk who gave her a full tour and explained what they all meant.
And after first getting a lift to the station in a Tuk Tuk with a trio of girls (English, Scottish and Northern Irish, and no this isn't a a joke), we headed south on the overnight bus. On some of the best and smoothest roads seen in Lao, but best described as a show case for really bad loud karaoke music videos, taking 3 hours longer than expected and including both a puncture and running out of fuel (timed to utter perfection to roll into a petrol station). Then squeezed onto a large sawgny bus for a 3hour trek south. Stunningly, we even made it, although not actually to where we were intending to go. Oh well. Don Det was to follow a day later in any case, so no big deal. We got a boat to the Island, lucked out getting a bungalow with veranda and hammocks for a dollar each at what we later discovered was the place with the best view (to watch the sun go down) and the best food on the island.
And then vegetated for 4 days.
Don Det is one of about 4000 islands in the Mekong which straddle the Lao - Cambodian border. It is home to rare freshwater Dolphins (sadly we didn't see them), and a place to just be for a while. Whilst not quite the tropical paradise experience with the traditional single palm tree and wooden hut which I'd kind of been looking for (and which Mue Ni had also been a contender for), it was more than enough to keep me happy for a bit. We went on a day trip to a neighbouring Island, which was spent doing not much except drinking, BBQ'ing and being terrorised by Squeeky. Oh, and watching the first snake of any size (a metre or so long) that I've ever seen in the wild slither right across the centre of our little camp whilst the locals stayed as far away as possible.
The day beforehand when we had booked, Squeeky (the pet monkey of two motley English guys who ran a bar on the island and were organising the tour) had decided that Erin wasn't allowed to get her water bottle back and instead deserved a small bite. Squeeky has issues with females, it transpires. Being male and being able to tell M and F apart, he seems to always look down on females and try and assert his dominance. On the island he decided to step things up a level. A promising start collapsed around lunch time, after he'd had a bottle of fanta and thus had his sugar intake. He decided first to steal some food, then climb a tree and shake it angrily, sending large swarms of red ants down on us and the food - nasty buggers they were too - and then urinate from the tree all over a poor unsuspecting couple. He then disappeared a while, and came back mostly friendly. Over Erin's back. And after a little bit of being nice, he went for a bottle of beer, decided that someone was in his way, bit Erin again, then headed across the mat onto the Canadian girl next to me. Lets a just say that she wasn't happy, so i tried to pull him off and also got a bite for my troubles. Somehow, we managed to scare him away from the corner (where most of the females were), but it didn't necessarily help as he just ran to the opposite corner and decided to take a nice chunk out of the back of Chris, a big English guy. Great. Martin, the owner, is by this point so stoned and sozzled (he looks close to complete liver failure anyway) that he can't do much, so the rest of the afternoon is spent trying to keep the monkey away from anybody, especially two poor young local kids who were both petrified of him. And Squeeky sure as hell knew this. And he then escaped and terrorised a village when we stopped at another island to thank the monks for letting us use their island. WooHoo!
Yay. Lets add a monkey to my list of things that have bitten me on this trip, which so far includes a dog, red ants, two children, several million mosquitoes, a cat and assorted other insects. Next up, my death defying tiger attack.
The rest of the time was uneventful. The island was laid back, and even the locals took things easy instead of going for their traditional New Years chaos. New Year's day I spent on a hired bike, cycling over to the adjoining Ban Khone Island, lazing by the Mekong waterfalls, doing a couple of laps to stretch my legs, talking to some locals who took me out in their boat to fish (local net fishing is hard, but great fun), being conned into playing volleyball with them (not my best sport) and watching a group of old people doing karaoke dancing...
I fell out of a hammock (one end became unattached, and gravity did the rest). I randomly bumped into a couple of girls from HCMC, plus the non joke trio from the Vientiane tuk-tuk. With a trio of young English folks and 2 Norwegian girls, we played allot of cards, including one by torch light after the power failed and one of the most convoluted games of Shithead ever concocted, which had me at various points standing on one leg, holding one ear, moving cards only with my forehead, with my nose (and then elbows as well) on the table - try playing cards with both elbows and your nose on the table. You can't see whats just been played or your cards - speaking only in multiples of 5 words, saying only yes and no, and only being able to use swear words amongst others. It took 3hours to play one game.
And with that, the New Year was in. With things now likely to be operational again, and us nicely rested up - if loathe to leave - we headed out. Back up to Pakse where we had got off the night bus. Whilst New Year is actually only 3 days long, the locals celebrate for longer on either side. Even since we left Luang Prabang, we have been treated to periodic water attacks. This is a long custom in Lao, Cambodia and Thailand around New Year, and traces it's roots to a Buddhist tale, which basically involves the 3 day cleaning of a decapitated head to clean it of crap (in the literal sense). As most of our attacks have been against buses, this has been of no great inconvenience. You can see in advance what will happen, windows are shut, and buckets/pistols etc full of water splash harmlessly against the side of the bus. On the day after New Year, and riding in a sawgny for 3 hours however, it is a different mater. The most obvious issue here is that a sawgny is an entirely open sided vehicle. Which means that if water is thrown, you get wet. Assuming their aim is good. By now, these kids have had 5+ days of practice, it's in the semi official soaking season, and the driver deliberately slows down as we approach each wet point to allow the kids more time. So yes, their aim is generally good. Basically, you get soaked through more or less the entire time. It doesn't matter if you are male or female, foreign or local, reading a book or listening to music on an electronic machine or just trying to hide. And with your bags in the open in the truck or not.
You just get wet.
And in Pakse for good measure, some kids had gotten hold of a hose pipe to help their cause. And knew where the Tuk-tuks drop off passengers near the market.
So it was that 5 drowned white rats stood in Pakse, mostly happy if slightly bemused and trying to dry off, trying to work out where the heck the border was, and praying like hell that it would actually be open.
Welcome to 2549.