A Travellerspoint blog

Laos

Of weddings, rock stars, job offers and Turkmeni's...

I think this entry might just top all previous ones....

Enough people have laughed and commented on the whole Kiki incident (and continue to do so - update: I've been offered employment [yes, paying] to be their marriage councillor) and keep offering questions about whether I have since got married or am about to to some poor unsuspected fool, that I figured i should add a small side story for everybodies amusement.

A couple of weeks ago, Simon, a cheery Aussie we had met in Hanoi, and a few others happened to be on Don Det. This was barely a week after we had left there after New Year. There was a few of them around, and as happens, you pick up people as you go along. One afternoon whilst in a bar on the island, a Danish girl they had met and wasn't entirely free of the influence of chemicals, happened to notice that the menu of the bar included "weddings". Curious, the question was asked to the staff. When told that it did indeed mean that, she was somewhat enthusiastic and said that she was having such a good time that she wished she could get married there and then. Opinion was canvased of the assembled males, and Simon said he'd be delighted do it. After spreading the word in full, the next day in front of virtually the entire islands population of travellers, and a good 30 or so locals, they tied the knot. And you all thought that I got into strange situations?!

For those now sniggering people who actually know my life history, lets leave certain previous incidents out of this, shall we?

Sadly, it didn't work out, and they divorced about a week later.

I love Lao, I really do. It's an amazing country, and despite so many people saying how great and unspoilt it is, it does actually live up to it, and then some. It is great to be back, although I am admittedly somewhat depressed that it is only for such a short time, out of necessity. Better make the most of it.

In Vientiane, I met up with Troy. Couchsurfing's only Lao based member, and somebody who had been highly recommended to me by Kevin and Solene. In a slight twist, since they finally stopped stalking me, I've more or less been following their route and dropping by all the same people that they did. In this case, I'm glad I did. Troy is certainly one of the most interesting and intelligent people I have met in a good while, and I only wish that I could have stuck around for longer. After all, anybody that has lived in Yemen and Azerbaijan is bound to have a tale or two to tell.

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Luang Prabang's Night Market

Travel in Lao, at least North of Vientiane invariably means long daytime bus journeys, and with that I returned to Luang Prabang, 10hours and barely a few hundred kilometres later. It was another one stopper between transport, but entirely randomly and barely 30mins after arrival, I randomly bumped into Chevy (he of the fecked-up beer fish night in Yangshuo, ice hockey in Hanoi and the circuit in Nha Trang) and Mick Jagger (who's an old short guy with a young girlfriend who sings in some band). It was from Chevy that I got the Simon wedding story, and as they were still travelling together, later that evening I heard Simon's version as well. And met a curious Swedish tattoo-ist. I hadn't met anybody I know by accident since I was last in Lao (The French guy from HCMC) so I was definitely due.

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Assorted Tuk-Tuks waiting for passengers in Luang Prabangs North bus station

A good 7 or so hours of standard wonderful Lao scenery the next day took me to Oudomxay. Admittedly the also standard 2hour or so delay on departure meant It was too late for me to continue northwards when I arrived. And I did spent most of the journey being vomited on by an extremely cute, if admittedly slightly sick seeming young child. And being a local bus meant that we stopped once for a guy to get off and buy three large bags of salt, once for everybody to buy courgettes from a roadside stall (although one passenger somehow managed to buy a dead monkey instead) and numerous times just because they felt like it.

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Reasons I love Northern Lao numbers, whatever the heck we are up to now - The gorgeous hilly great mountainside, random roadside markets on the tops of hills in the middle of nowhere on virtually empty roads, and the ubiquitous black pigs that can be seen wandering unattended around every village

Many people get stuck in Oudomxay. It's in no way unusual, despite everybody desperately trying to avoid it. And all known guidebooks offering about a paragraph saying that it's boring, but you are likely to get stuck there at some point. Most of them seem to be German speaking. Those that aren't are either French Swiss, or Chinese. They only ever stay a night. It just is the way that Lao works. And as I discovered from talking to two German's who worked at the tourist office trying to encourage growth (Read: Bang heads against the wall in frustration of not being able to achieve even tiny things), until they come up with a way to take advantage of that, and get the locals excited (meaning they actually prepared to do something, instead of just take free money), that's how it will stay.

We also pondered the fate of a night bus alleged to have disappeared during a night the previous week (but being kept very quiet by authorities) and also an American, Ryan Braben Chicovsky, who had disappeared in Northern Lao a week or so previous. And as it's just one of those fairly mundane and standard travel things that just happen, there's no need to explain how I somehow ended up sharing a (tiny) double bed with a middle aged German lady who's name i didn't (and still don't) know. Not entirely related, I suppose, but more or less at this point my camera died. Grrrr.

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Our Guest House in Oudomxay (Close enough, I suppose...) and early morning clouds over the valley

What follows should probably come out of a work of fiction. In fact, its possibly all just too bizarre, and any author trying to pass it off (Carlie, believe me, i don't recommend it) would have been laughed out of their publishers at light speed. Sometimes, however, truth really just is so strange that you can't make it up.

Some days just defy all logic and expectation and it was simply one of those days. And with the possible exception of one of the days spent trying to leave Vladivostok, it certainly now tops my list of most memorable days on this trip. Curiously, 4 different people have mentioned that my blog is being serialised in a provincial Ecuadorian newspaper. What 4 different friends were doing reading provincial Ecuadorian newspapers, I'm still unsure. And have as yet not been able to confirm or deny these rumours (if anybody comes across an article from here, please, PLEASE save it and post/give it to me as i want to see if its true or not), but if they are oddly enough true, they may like the following. Or not. I don't really care.

After waking up slightly freaked (i hadn't remembered that there was an old German lady in the same bed until I was awoken by snoring), i had a strange twist, whereby I couldn't get on the bus as it was alleged to be "full". This is an interesting - and unusual - concept in a country where people and goods can be packed in with amazing skill, and for a bus which almost inevitably would then stop and start picking up more people of the roadside within 200m of leaving the Bus Station. If I'd have thought, I'd have jumped a tuk-tuk to the edge of town and then hailed the same bus and got on without a problem.

But the same delay meant that by the time I got to Luang Namtha, happy to return to the site of my first (and brilliant) Lao experiences, plus some evil looking clouds and thunder noises ahead, it was too late to make renting a motorbike any sense. A shame because in the short time I'd been away, all the the roads which had been dodgy - part of the fancy Chinese financed and built highway running from where the Kunming - Boten expressway will eventually end through Northern Lao and Thailand to Myanmar - had been fully completed and were stunningly smooth and tarmacked, like the stretch in from the border. The Chinese don't mess about. Things happen quickly, and the result is unquestionably the best road in Lao.

Instead I hired a mountain bike. At half a dollar, it was significantly cheaper than a motorbike, i love bikes anyway and in honesty i needed to work out some of the pain in my legs caused by being squeezed on the minibus for so long. I made it to the Luang Namtha museum, which had been shut when Erin and I first passed through, and was happy I did as it has some very interesting stuff especially about the local tribal groups. I then headed out into the country with no plan except just to ride quite hard for an hour or so, see what happened, and then probably turn back. I was on a fairly quiet road north towards the National Park, when what i hope will be the final of my 3 transport mishaps (think Cambodian minibus and Thai pickup) occurred. Without anything nearby, i went over a slight pothole and the rear triangle of my frame snapped. Both at the same time, and sheer. Obviously, the back of the bike gave way somewhat and I landed on the ground in a heap. No damage to me, but It really didn't take long for me to realise that I was about 10km north of the town with an utterly fecked bike. With the storm rapidly approaching. Bah. I hoped to catch a lift, but wasn't passed by anything in any direction for 20mins, so hung the bike over my shoulder and was about to start the walk back towards Luang Namtha.

The reason that I'm not convinced that it will turn out to be the final incident in my accident trilogy is that it was right at that moment that I got the most amazing and stunningly unexpected piece of luck. My eye was caught by movement round the corner, so I stopped expecting a motorbike or something that i could flag down. Instead, 3 elephants with riders came along. They stopped. The lead man got off and in a perfect Midlands accent asked what I was doing. I explained that I had no choice but to carry the bike and walk back to town. He - his name sounded something like Mwaaauy - asked why. I said because no cars or motorbikes have come past that i could hitch with. Mwaaauy asked why I wanted a car or to walk when there was an elephant right there. It took my brain a few seconds to register, and then i believe I may have had a large grin on my face.

Yes, I managed to hitch-hike with a bicycle on the back of an elephant.

And yes, you did just read that correctly.

I've had a lot of great moments on this trip, but it's going to be damned hard to top this. Admittedly, elephants are not quick animals, but no slower really than a pedestrian at Lao speed, and the time passed quickly. And the storm clouds broke off without more than a quick splattering, and thus we wandered under the most amazing rainbow I have seen in years. Deep colour and shine. I can't think of anything better. I was also treated to several gasps of delight and looks of awe from other travellers as we wandered into town. It was great! I was dropped outside the rental shop after agreeing to meet them a little later for food and to buy them a drink.

They wandered off to park the elephants or whatever you do with elephants, whilst i embarked on a long, calm and reasoned discussion with the rental owner. He wasn't overly surprised when I refused to pay him 500usd (!!!) for a replacement, and we continued a relaxed and open discussion as to what to do next. A few others appeared, and things started to get a tad more animated as two of them also got involved and seemed to want a cut of any money for unknown reasons. I had paid a 10usd deposit that I was happy to let them keep, but stood my ground refusing to pay anymore for something that blatantly wasn't my fault. What swayed me into giving them another 25USD was the guy who ambled over to see what the fuss was all about and had a machine gun swung over his shoulder. I'm not overly fazed by guns, but he seemed somewhat agitated, utterly reeked of alcohol, and was waving the gun in my direction, with rather more intent that I would ideally like. Especially when I noticed that the safety was off.

In cards, as in life, always know when to fold. I will gamble with the best of them, and can often bluff my way through, but a drunk guy pointing a live machine gun in my direction seems a good enough reason to fold. I meekly apologised, handed 25usd to the renter, apologising that I didn't have more (if he's have realise I had a money belt, i could have had a problem), and left pronto. I was a good 300metres away when I turned around to see another local waving a large sword in my direction and group of people watching the guy with the gun.

It can sometimes be useful having a good grasp of local geography and being relatively fit, although I admit that being a white guy in town meant I wasn't overly inconspicuous and had visions of the motley duo touring every guest house that evening, demanding to see all white people, and then me being dragged away to who knows what. If you are reading this, it didn't happen.

This is where the levels of credibility really start to get stretched.

I no longer have my passport.

Or rather, I do now again, obviously, but for a while that evening I didn't. Let me explain. Or at least vaguely try, for I'm really struggling to grasp this one as well.

After a very pleasant couple of hours with the elephant guys in a locals restaurant, they took their leave and headed off. With a few kip left over, and not enough to make exchanging it worthwhile, I decided to have another beer. An hour or so earlier, a very strange group of people had entered and occupied several tables near the back. Two were quite polished looking and white (i pegged them as Russians) and sat alone in the middle table, whilst those around them were locals but a tad ominous looking. But as they left us alone and I had my back to them, i had ignored them. About 30minutes after Mwaaauy and his friends had left, one approached me and asked in thickly accented English if I would like to join them for a drink. I politely refused, saying I was about to leave (I was as well) and had no money (also more or less true). He, erm, "suggested" that it might be rude to decline their hospitality and that I should at least stay for a drink. Looking back over my shoulder, the local guys seemed a heck of allot more ominous than I had remembered. So out of a lack of reasonable options, and in fairness, with absolutely nothing better to do, I accepted.

I discovered that my Russian guess wasn't entirely correct, and they were actually Turkmeni's. And allegedly not irrelevant ones either, although how true this is, I don't know. Turkmenistan is somewhere few people know much about, and fewer still visit. Having said that, I have actually been there in the past on more than one occasion (long story), and know a bit about it. In a nutshell, it can be characterised by Saparmurat Niyazov. Mr Niyazov is the President and essentially Turkmen dictator and is generally known as "Turkmenbashi the Great". In 2002 (i think), he renamed the month of January after himself, and amongst many other idiosyncrasies has also come up with a new system for dividing people's ages (which are not, as you may possibly guess, children, teens, adults, middle aged and elderly, or words to that extent). He's an interesting man leading an interesting country.

Oddly, they seemed to know at least a bit about me, which was a bit freaky and unnerving (especially as I had now quickly cottoned on to the fact that the ominous looking people were the heavies/security detail) although i am fairly sure that they had just overhead the previous conversations I had been having with Mwaaauy. Anyhow, one thing led to another and whilst I am aware that nobody will believe any of this in the slightest, but there I was in a locals bar in an obscure town in Northern Lao, being offered the job of chief strategic and planning officer to the Turkmenistan army and presidential advisor on foreign affairs.

..... I need time for that one to sink in, let alone you .....

I've always said that life is never boring.

My passport was whisked away for some kind of check of some description (i don't believe that there is a Turkmen military attache to the province of Luang Namtha, but on the last few days experiences, i really wouldn't bet against it) without my having any say or choice in the matter, whilst all manner of business was discussed. I believe that I managed to decline on the grounds that I already have a commitment to my current employer (Sten, the things I do out of loyalty to you and the company. I really think that I deserve a large pay rise for my loyalty here in the face of adversity....).

Long story cut short, but a couple of hours later, my passport was returned. They thanked me, i thanked them, they said they would be in touch, and I took my leave, wandering straight out of the bar and into two guys loafing against one of 3 jeeps who just happened to be the guys with the machine gun and sword from earlier. They gave me a drunken grin and wave. I started walking in a random direction at a fairly high rate of knots whilst desperately trying to work out what the f*ck had just occurred.

I am expecting an email from somebody at work within the next few days asking some very strange questions about why I am consorting with such people, and what the situation is. Plus potential correspondence from assorted Turkmeni's.

I have a feeling that this one is could run and run, although I doubt Kiki (or any of my normal crazy bet and strange situation - and that is one I'm not even going to try and explain to all those that have no idea what I'm talking about, except to say that these guys are so good that I once spent 8months trying to prove that I wasn't married. Which sounds easy enough, but when they can produce a wife, photos, and even get assorted random friends and family members swearing it was true and had happened, you get the idea that this is not an entirely conventional betting ring - group) is involved....

Despite being perhaps slightly unconventional by many peoples terms, and this pass sadly only being 4 nights, Lao has more than lived up to my memories, and I leave with it still being a top my list of favourite places on this trip. It's been utterly amazing, and on this brief transit, stupendously surreal, unlikely and just plain weird. I like that.

It's a wonderful country, and I really can't wait to return.

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[i]Taking a nap at work during the midday heat[i/]

Posted by Gelli 02:04 Archived in Laos Comments (3)

And so it begins...

... and from the Heart album, the Road home, no doubt! (possessed MP3 player in-joke)

Pained but alive and on my way, I left Thailand. Leaving Bangkok (on my first Thai train) for the last time was really strange for me, and not only because i was under the influence of assorted drugs from the hospital. I had a kind of sadness I don't usually have, but not simply because I was leaving Thailand, which if you remove the people I met (most of whom I already knew and was just catching up with) I could more or less give or take. Whilst in no way over - and months before i have to return to work - from here the journey is back. I have only about 25days before I need to be back in Europe for some commitments, and with i think a theoretical minimum of a 16-17day (on a pre-planned and pre-booked perfect scenario journey) trek from Bangkok to Sweden ahead of me, It means I don't have much room for manoeuvre.

In addition, with few exceptions, all of the journey I now have to undertake I have done beforehand, so there will be little new and really exciting stuff for me. And I don't yet know how I am going to get back. I have an idea of how things will go and how to do it, but I am gambling heavily on getting lucky in Beijing. I may yet have to insert a flight (believe me, I'm working on avoiding it) in to this trip, simply due to a lack of spare time to play with on alternative routes - of which there are many - if my gamble doesn't pay off. It's an all or nothing roll of dice, and only time will tell if I'll hit the double sixes.

Although my neck still hurt like heck and i had a general stiffness, I was pleasantly surprised by how I felt waking in the morning. I had expected to be feeling effects of my high speed tumble onto tarmac and rolling in broken glass and spilt diesel allot more. I crossed back into Lao (Really great to be back, Wish i had time for a much longer stay here) via the Friendship Bridge without incident and even got myself a cheap and rare (in SEA) dorm room in Vientiane, possibly as life compensation for the previous afternoon. I don't want to get cocky though, as I will be needing all the luck i can get in the coming 3 or 4 weeks, for both logistical reasons, and because i will be more or less living on buses and trains doing a number of long journeys, and with my 3rd strike of "things come in 3's, such as accidents" still to come...

And so, back to Lao and onto day 2 of the Road home

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A sign to strike fear (or alcohol poisoning) in the hearts of a certain couple of TPers after New Years exploits waaay back when...

Posted by Gelli 02:58 Archived in Laos Comments (1)

How to get wet for a week solid

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.

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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.

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The Arc du Triomph in Vientiane

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.

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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.

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Views of the Buddha Park, plus me by the Big Buddha, the first statue to have been built

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.

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Tuk Tuk station in Pakse, Erin on the boat across to Don Det, and the sunset on our first night on the island

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!

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the infamous squeeky

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...

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A school on Don Det

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.

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At the conclusion of the game... When we started it was August 2003, or therabouts...

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[Another sunset from Don Det, and the islands main road[/i]

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.

Constantly.

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.

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Guest house sign and an advertsiment over the road (no, I don't understand it either), both in Vientiane.

Posted by Gelli 00:08 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Tight bus security and the return of the drunken urinator...

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!).

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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.

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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.

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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...

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

B*gger.

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.

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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...

Posted by Gelli 02:05 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Damned, these little Honda's are good fun....

Early days in the green paradise of Lao PDR

Astonishingly, the Chinese proved their benelovent selves yet again. For somebody with my record, I should have run into trouble entering or leaving China at least once, but they've all been perfectly routine to date. The journey down was slightly longer than expected due to a prolonged wait for some road building, a common theme in China, although delays are surprisingly rare. And this being in Yunnan, some of the workers were hard at work as expected so that the road could open again in the shortest possible time....

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In Lao PDR, we suddenly realised that we had to work out a few minor details. Like where the heck were we actually going that day, and the the fr1cking hell would we get there. A bit of a peruse through the book and a game of rock-scissors-paper later, we were heading to Luang Namtha. Or rather, trying to work out how to get there. The Lao side of the border consisted of a small restaurant and a couple of houses, and then the road sweeping off into the distance. No taxi's or Sawgnys (flat bed trucks or pickups with a covered roof and benches down each wall) in sight, and the only bus was going Non stop to Vientienne, which was of no use.

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Erin leaving China at the obelisk in no mans land between the Chinese border at Mohan, and the Lao border at Boten

So we did the obvious thing and tried to hitch. A few rebutals later (normally combined with much laughter at the mere mention of Luang Namtha) and a local guy with a nice Toyota pickup ambled over, and said he would take us for 25000 each. Lovely man. In China just before leaving, i had changed 10usd to kip (the rate is about 10,000 to a dollar, making it easy) and recived a wad about 2inches think of 1000 kip notes. With the biggest note being only 20000 (2usd), we were in the land of monopoly money.

So we hopped in the back of his pickup, surrounded by some shopping and boxes, and headed off. To stop about 1km further on at a road block. The Chinese are building a new road (and a damned good one) between the border and Luang Namtha - and onwards - but which mean't that the road was only open for 2x 3hour spells during the day, plus, cunningly, at night when the border is shut so it is of no use anyway. We killed our 2 hour wait by wandering around the border down, a couple of KM away, and then playing with 2 stupendously cute young Chinese kids who took great joy in the strange white people they could run up and hit/laugh at. Even after the one had urinated on the floor, crawlled through it and still delighted in high fiving us with his soggy hands. You gotta love kids.

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Crazed for food at the road block leaving Boten, killing time by reading in the back of the pick up, or cleaning windows if a lorry driver, and the Chinese kids

And then with the border finally opened, a somewhat rapid, (the roads really are lovely now - perfectly smooth and empty) and windswept roller coaster 75 min ride in the back of a pickup to LN. Although i've been in the back of pickups before, it's mostly been places with poor roads and speeds have been slow. There is no European equivalent to the standard american TV/film way of riding in the back, so this was my first such journey at speed. By the time we arrived, my hair was wind slicked into such a style that even vidal sassoon would have been able to gel it to such a position. By my god, it was a great journey, and so much fun.

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Yup, you kind of ending looking not entirely like this...

On our first day in Luang Namptha, we did the logical thing, and hired two motobikes. Admittedly you may be able to pick holes in that logic (most people normally can find more holes in my logic than the average piece of Emmental, but in order to understand the logic you need to be attuned to that extremely rare thing of "Rich-type-brain". If you were, you'd know it all makes sense) when you realise that neither of us have ever riden a bike before, and between us have maybe a dozen rides on the back of them in total. But we figured, how hard can it really be?

Yes, i know, i know.

This is the same person who managed to snap a ski into 3 pieces and broke both poles within 100m of his first attempt at CROSS-COUNTRY skiing. With my record, i really should know better than to go tempting fate by getting involved with such things, especially in a land with no such thing as insurance, and no helmets provided.

You can almost tell what came next, can't you....?

Ah b*gger.

In all honesty, it's not really all that hard at all. With the exception of my first 5 seconds or so, which were, erm, perhaps slightly less conrolled and pre-planned than you would hope, and a moment when Erin decided that the mud looked really fascinating but forgot to stop the bike and get off before taking a closer look, it was mostly incident free. And stupendous fun.

And there you all were with your normal - and admittedly generally justified - expectations of disaster and cock ups. HA!

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Paying the local kids to enter Poumpouk Stupa - A Buddist monument to a teacher, rather than anything to do with an alcoholic state - and the Stupa itself

Sure, we were two obvious white folk in a country they had been in less than 24hours, on machinery they had never used before travelling down dirt roads aiming towards we're not entirely sure what, but really, so what?

I could get to love this biking thing!

Before I left on this trip, i'd never been on a motorbike of any description. And now i'm hooked, and will be getting one as soon as I have somewhere to live again next. And after i've liberated my driving licence from the Romanian b*stard who's still holding it to ransom.

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Erin and I with our bikes near Poumpouk Stupa

Personal message to a specific reader (hello, Mrs. King. I hope you are doing well back in Iowa). For the record, i would like to say that admitttedly despite much evidence to the contrary, i am in no way trying to get Erin killed by forcing her to hitchhike, ride in the back of crazed pickups, death buses, dangle out the back of Sawgnys, or to ride motorcyles recklessly around a strange foreign country. I'm not (currently) trying to sell her off or force her into the prostitution racket - although in fairness, I admit that i did offer her hand in marriage to a Chinese bike taxi owner - and i'm not deliberately getting her drunk on a regular basis. How was I supposed to know that her tolerance is significantly lower than it ever was in Korea? We are being entirely responsible and not undertaking anything of even vague danger. Everything to the contrary has been entirely accidental and unplanned (Read: Blame her, not me. And as I won't be in Iowa anytime soon, I don't want you to have all your anger towards my pent up for untold years. It could be very dangerous to your health).

Travel in Lao is slow. The country is mountainous, the roads bendy, and whiulst generally of a surprisingly decent standard, including pockets which are in not particularly great, and involve much slow bumping around. A 40km/h average is very good. And very little departs until it is full anyway, meaning listed departure times don't always stand for a great deal. We spent a day going from Luang Namtha to Nong Khiew, barely 250km away, using an assortment of Buses and then sawgnys (including one so full of people and luggage that we were dangling out the back). The fact that it was April 1st* being of no relevance except to make us briefly wander if the joke was going to be on us the entire day, as there would be no transport. But a day's travel in Lao is of no relevance, because the country is just so damned stunning.

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I had been asked in Kunming which country I thought to be the most beautiful in the world that I had visited, and after much pondering, had plumped for Norway. After less than 3 days in Lao, I was fast changing my mind. It is hilly and mountains, has some great rivers, and everything is green. But not a uniform green. Green in so many shades that it it almost seems multicolour. The local villages, with their wooden construction, buildings on stilts and thatched roofs, lots of wildlife and animals, and as in China and Vietnam, lots of always happy and really cute little kids running around break up the green in just the right places. And as we proved at one of our enforced waits for more passengers between sawgny rides, you never know what you will see next. 4 elephants with riders, ambled down the road. I know it was just an elephant, but even so it was just great so see! I love it here, I really do.

And after Vietnam, that is a huge relief.

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(((Please Note: most of photos in this blog entry are courtesy of Erin (www.erindoeskorea.blogspot.com/ and www.dropshots.com/eeking). Her camera downloads pictures automatically and mine doesn't, so i shamelessly stolen some of her pictures until i can get my own downloaded and onto TP. And by the time I could download mine, i figured there was no point replacing the existing pictures so i left them on and just added a couple. Thanks Erin!)))

  • I know that many of you will be dissapointed, but I decided agaist adding any April fools to the blog. I had a few ideas, but the fact I couldn't publish on the day and was already behind partly put paid to it, whilst the idea was shelved entirely when I realised that I would struggle to actually come up which would be out of place amongst all of the random stuff that has already happened on this trip. Be honest, after my explouts leaving Russia, the Kiki incident and arrests for Licourice and Coffee amongst everythig else, what the heck could I actually make up to be a worthwhile April fool? Ok, ok. Yes, I do own a nice handglider and have held a pilots licence for 10 years. Happy now?

Posted by Gelli 06:47 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

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