Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Day 18 - Last Day in Luang

We woke up fairly early. About 2am... and then again at 2:30... 2:45... 3:00 etc etc.

The monks were driving us insane . Closely following them were the staff of the hotel. You might remember we had no towels or hot water the day befroe. This time, we had no glasses (useful for brushing your teeth when you can't drink tap water) and no second roll of toilet paper. Oh yeah, and we'd come back one night to find all our windows wide open and the room freezing. Add to this the fact that we'd been bitten by mosquitos the owner said couldn't possibly exist at this time of year and the horrific suburn we'd picked up from our tubing the day before and you can understand why we weren't quite up to much on our last full day!

What we did do was explore the town a bit more. We'd seen signs here and there for Mister Mouse and we'd wondered what it was all about so were pleased to find ourselves outside the office in the early afternoon.

Mister Mouse is a fantastic literacy project that was started by a university student who grew up in a village nearby. Having been taught English and how to read his own language as a child, he got a vision for passing on the privilege to others who lack the opportunities in the villages of northern Laos. Returning to Luang Prabang after university, he gathered other student and youthful friends and set up a literacy project creating books in both Lao and English. These are illustrated very well by teenagers with stories of local traditions alongside health and social issues such as AIDS and international relations.

We were very impressed partly because we ourselves are considering working in a similar area in the future and the art element really appealed to Sheena. What impressed us more than anything though was their vision and attitude. With very sparse resources and no training whatsoever, they were managing to have a very positive impact in some of the most needy areas of their country. Very worthwhile.

We meandered around the streets making the most of the evening light. In Luang Prabang the sun sets down all the streets that run east-west and the sunlight is a photographer's dream. Streets, temples, everything was lit in the most intense and piercing light.

Returning to our favourite watering hole for a last dinner, we watched the boats slipping by in the dusk on the Mekong, then did a bit of final shopping at the night market before making our way back to endure another night of hellish chanting from the everpresent temple. For once, the staff had got it right, we had everything we needed for a good night's sleep except silence.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Day 17 - Rub a Dub Dub

We awoke this morning, despite inserted ear plugs, to the sounds of the people in the next room and the persisitent chanting from the local temple playing as it had been when we'd gone to bed and was still.

A buffet breakfast in town lured us in to enjoy fruit, homemade yoghurt, museli, toast, bacon and even pancakes on a terrace overlooking the Mekong. John even tried a local breakfast - rice noodles with a spicy soup with fried garlic, beansprouts and fresh herbs. It smelled good but not my cup of tea in the morning!

After being well satiated we headed over to the tour office where we had booked to go tubing the day before for the bargain price of $5 each. Tubing is all the rage in Laos and it's great because it is completely environmentally friendly. It involves drifting downstream in a giant inner tube. We piled into the back of a truck with two Germans and the giant inner tubes we would soon be riding in. The staff drove about 20 minutes out of town, dropped us off at the bank of the Nam Khan river, helped us into life jackets and gave us a waterproof bag to put any personal belongings in.

Before we set off on the river - we all slathered oursleves in suncream and changed into swim wear. The river looked good and surprisingly clean. In the water, we could see lots of feathery seaweed being swept in the flow. It made the river look a brilliant green colour from a distance.

The morning had started out so chilly with such low cloud that we feared it wasn't the right weather, but it seems to be the norm here that by 11am the clouds lift ansd the sun breaks through and it is a different scene altogether. Now it was nearly twelve and warming up.

One by one we plonked into the tubes and off we went. The water was refreshingly cool, the current quite strong in parts and it was surprising how fast you could move in places. When you looked down at the water under you you could see more clearly the speed you were going. But in other places the flow was very slow and sometimes stationary. It hardly mattered. The scene was so tranquil and pleasant we were in no hurry.

The plan was to float down river for about 3 hours and then be picked up at the other end. It was lovely just drifting enjoying the sunshine, leaning back and closing our eyes breathing in the stillness that was periodically interrupted by village life on the banks or in the river itself: children at play in the water, locals rowing boats going about their business, cows and water buffaloes drinking and bathing at the water's edge.

It was so funny how we all went at different speeds with the currents and sometimes one of us would be separated from the group for some time. This happened to me - I lost sight of the others ahead of me for ages and got stuck in a very slow patch. During this, I drifted into a group of young guys going out in a boat and some standing at the bank. They seemed very surprised and curious to see me and said greetings in Lao and English and some tried to ask my name in very basic English. They were embarrassed and so was I and I was trying hard to paddle out of their area and away form their staring. As I passed them on their boat, the boy at the back coyly called "I love you!" Embarrassed, I hurried to paddle away.

Later, I found John and one of the German guys disembarked and waiting on a small sand bank. Then we set of together again.

Downstream, we came across a busy operation of people in the river with boats scooping up stones in various sizes and sifting them into their boats and others collecting large bucketfulls of sand form the riverbed. Obviously, they must sell this for building materials, but we wondered what effect this must have.

We could have happily floated all day I think but eventually, we came upon a sign boldly informing us to "STOP TUBING " But it was difficult to do so there as the current was quite fast and in my case the guy had to come in and get me!

We'd lost sight of one of the German guys - getting out the water only one bend before the stopping point, he'd wanted to get something to eat. We ended up waiting for him to come back so we could all return in the truck together. After about 40 minutes he turned up. Apparently he'd been invited in by some locals and they had given him food and beer and he couldn't get away!

We returned to town in the truck for a well-earned cool drink in a cafe and watched the street life in the late afternoon sun. It was there we discovered that, despite our best efforts with factor 75 suncream, we had some souvenirs that would last us a week or more. John's knees were particularly red. If it hadn't been for this, we'd have probably done it all again the next day!

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Monday, January 01, 2007

Day 16 - Loafing in Luang

Luang Prabang is a really sleepy town. This is a good thing. After our hectic time in Vietnam, we were grateful for the small scale and quieter mood of Laos.

This said, we were rather put out by the temple behind our house. Buddhism has quite a name for tolerance and this too is a good thing. Why they need tolerance was very apparent to us when the temple behind our hotel began broadcasting chanting through loudspeakers in the wee hours of the morning.

You know how uplifting Buddhist chanting is with its lilting melodies and energising rhythm? Well, by the time we pulled ourselves out of bed, we'd had just about as much lilting as we could take.

What made it worse... much worse... was the fact that our hotel room walls, while appearing to be made of teak, were in fact made of nothing at all. The priest and his monotonous drone could have been right there in bed with us. In fact, thinking about it, that would have been much more convenient. We could have just smothered him with pillows and helped him on the path to enlightenment.

This also meant that the temple had several accomplices. Our room was one third of a traditional Lao dwelling. We could hear conversations in other rooms, whenever they walked across their floor, the moving floorboards in our room made the bed sway, and when a group left early on wheeling their luggage past our door it sounded like they were dragging heavy machinery over gravel. Add to this the incipient whine of the water pump under our floor and you'll understand why we didn't get a great night's sleep.

But the gardens were lovely and we were right by the river and, surely, the temple would stop soon right?

We found our own way into town along the Nam Khan river through some ramshackle buildings (all of which toted satellite dishes despite being on the verge of collapse) and over an open sewer that had been a stream in some long-forgotten previous life back at the dawn of time.

First stop was the Sticky Rice Exhibition. We'd been told about this by our hotelier but hadn't really intended to go. But there we were standing right outside it. Good thing too because it really was excellent. Very well produced and extremely informative both about rice itself and the culture of Laos. There were insightful exhibits though such as the Contented Rice Farmer Song, a good glimpse into how socialism has become part of the mindset here.

Town was sleepy by day too. There were restaurants, Internet cafes and tour offices lining most streets in the main area but still plenty of areas of temples and houses where the locals lived. It was a great town to walk around. Better still to bike and we rented bikes for the three remaining days we were to be there.

We didn't do much but explore that day. We'd toyed with the idea of doing some trekking, rafting or even some mountain biking out in the forests but Vietnam had scared us out of the idea of an organised tour. Then we hit on something which turned out to be one of the best things we did on the whole trip. We booked it for the next day and spent the rest of the day in cafes or exploring.

We got back to our hotel late, but the Buddhists were still at it in the twinkling darkness. To add to our joy, the hotel staff had left us without any towels. We had to get the owner out of bed to get us some. It hardly mattered though. There wasn't any hot water either.

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Sunday, December 31, 2006

Day 15 - Laos at Last

For more pics, click the links below.

Well, we had 12 days in Vietnam and I think that was enough. It was interesting but the full-on hassle was starting to wear us down by the end. Originally we had planned to do this trip clockwise going from Laos to Vietnam. I think that would have killed us actually. Going the other way was just perfect. Laos is a refuge after Vietnam.

We didn't do much on our last morning in Vietnam. We'd forgotten it was a Sunday and some of the stuff we would have done was closed anyway. We sat by the lake and Sheena enjoyed a coffee and then headed to the airport in a taxi.

The flight was uneventful. It was Lao Airlines and so we exchanged Vietnam Airways' horrific pate for some strange green goo. Ah well, at least it was edible. The flight into the town was quite spectacular. You fly right down the main street quite low.

We landed on what looked like a cloudy day. It was early evening. By the time we made it out of the airport it was dark. It took immigration quite a while to process everyone's visas. A sign at the counter informed us that we had to pay an extra couple of dollars because they were working at the weekend. Poor dears.

A guy was waiting to take us to our hotel. This was pretty close to the airport and was off the main road set alongside the river in some great tropical gardens. These were lit when we arrived and we were welcomed by a couple of friendly dogs and the Australian wife of the ex-pat who own the Nam Khan Villas.

She showed us our room. It looked very rustic and we changed and headed to the restaurant for something to eat. She'd encouraged us to have a bite to eat there before we headed into town. It was New Year's Eve and we were anxious to see if we could find somewhere to catch the vibe.

Our first impression of the menu was that it was a bit limited. This became acute when we discovered that of the buffalo steak, chicken and fish available they were out of both buffalo and chicken. Suddenly, fish seemed a capital idea. We had fish... er two fish.

It was obvious that the staff were learning the ropes. While the manageress taught the cook to cook, we chatted to Joy, our waiter. He wasn't local. He was from Udomxai north of Luang Prabang. He was here for university and he was amazed at how developed it was. This only left us to imagine how undeveloped Udomxai must be. Luang Prabang is little more than a large village. We described Seoul and, thankfully, he wasn't able to imagine it at all. Seoul has nearly twice as many people in it as the whole of Laos put together. Hmmm...

We'd already exhausted conversation topics a number of times when the food arrived. It was okay but neither worth the wait nor the price. This was to become the trademark of our stay at the hotel but little did we know.

After dinner, we headed into town on a tuk-tuk. At $3 each way, we knew we had to solve the transport situation. That was simply too much to be spending on this kind of holiday. Town was, well... quiet. Lovely and quiet.

We were dropped off on Sisavangvong Street which is the main one. All along it were cafes and restaurants overflowing with tourists. The atmosphere was great. Nice and relaxing. Best of all was what we found at the end of the street.

I wanted to explore and we set off down some inviting side streets. We found a beautifully lit temple and then, as we were passing, I caught sight of something interesting in the grounds of a house. Being a tourist grants you immunity to take risks sometimes. Wandering into someone's private property wouldn't normally be okay but we were welcomed curiously.

What had caught my eye was the sight of a long row of fires on which something was cooking. It turned out to be rice cooked Lao style which I'd never seen before. Rice is put into baskets and these are suspended in the mouth of metal pots of boiling water. The rice is steamed. Even more curiously for us was the quantity these people were making. It seemed to be, and turned out to be, one family. But they were emptying the cooked rice into a coooler box that was almost full. It would have fed a hundred people.

We were invited to sit down. They brought us some beer and we began the lengthy process of figuring out what they were doing. Only one guy spoke any English at all and this was minimal. He also had terminal pronunciation and it took us a long time to figure out that he was saying "monk" We eventually realised that they were cooking rice to give the temple monks in the morning and would be cooking all night.

Luang Prabang has something like 16 billion temples and between them they have more monks than any country could possibly need. In the morning, every morning, a sea of saffron greets the dawn and the local people hand out alms consisting of rice mostly but also other types of food. We wondered but never discovered how often this family did this. I guess it must also be a sign of wealth to be able to give this much rice to the monks.

Sisavangvong Street hosts a night market. It is very tastefully done on a small scale that perfectly fits the town. Immediately we noticed that we got no hassle. Everyone left us alone. If we wanted to look, they helped us but they were never pushy. Sheena was in her element!

Time was moving on. It was getting near 11pm and we had no idea where to go to see in the New Year. We walked and walked but just couldn't settle on a place. In the distance, we could see lanterns rising on the horizon. In the end, we followed the crowds to their source and discovered a huge open-air party going on. It was really quite wild with a band and dancing and everything.

For a price, you could purchase a huge rice paper lantern and a paraffin burner. These were what we had seen rising thousands of feet into the sky. Groups bought these and lit the paraffin. They then held them over their heads until the air inside had heated up enough before releasing them. They looked beautiful as they rose up and drifted away. Not so beautiful was the one that caught a downdraft and landed on the wooden roof of the adjoining French colonial building. A fire engine turned up and doused the building but there was no damge.

We hung around until about 2 and it was getting quite chilly. We headed home eager to cosy up in our nice bed...

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Friday, December 22, 2006

VNA Update

Well, we're back with the answers you've all been waiting for (see earlier post on Vietnam Airlines (VNA)).

Actually we only have one of the answers to the two questions we challenged ourself to answer on our last flight out on VNA. Unfortunately, what we actually got on was not a VNA plane at all but Lao Airlines so please forgive us for not finding out what was actually in a VNA sandwich. It's probably more fitting that we never know actually as it was pretty indescribable anyway.

What we can tell you though is that the three individuals banned from ever being served by VNA were all banned for "joking" about having bombs in their bags. In each case the flight was cancelled and, according to our source in Hanoi, they claimed that they were using the word "bomb" to refer, not to explosives but to money in actual fact. Likely story. As a result, they were taken to court, fined and banned from ever using VNA again.

We did go to the airline office to preorder a vegetarian meal this time in an effort to avoid the VNA sandwich. When we checked in, we enquired as to whether our request had been fulfilled."Ah yes," beamed a check-in clerk obviously in the running, if not the favourite, for the happiest employee of the year award "You have special meal."

When the Lao Airlines cabin crew came round with refreshments then, we were kind of excited to see what we'd get. In the end, it turned out to be exactly the same as everyone else i.e. a vegetarian meal anyway consisting of two sweet pastries and free keyring each (Happy New Year!)

So much for that then...

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