don't look so nervous Ryan!
"But it looks so close on the map" is all I could say to myself on arriving, finally in Luang Prabang
, Laos. It had taken the best part of 3 days to get here from Sapa, Vietnam. Here's how it unfolded:
We left Sapa very early, again plagued by rain. An over full rickety minibus was to take us to the boarder in DIen Bien Phu - a mere 300 km away and SO CLOSE on the map... Not even half way into the journey we were brought to a stop by a truck that had driven off the muddy road into a ditch. The 'roads' are bumpy, rugged, often absent and wet - and to add insult to injury, the bus guy decided he wanted to share my seat the whole way - lucky Jones. Comfort didn't enter the day's events, this journey is treacherous and slow going.
a break with the locals
Luckily I was blessed with a good bus load of people who made it all the more bearable : Dan, Jo and Johnny form UK, Aaron and Shane from Oz and Catherine from Belgium. We also had a Vietnamese family in the front with a small boy who, poor thing, was sick - like clock work - the entire trip. every now and again you'd see a bag of vomit pass by your window... But eventually, having past through some breathtaking scenery, we made it to Dien Bien Phu.
LAOS AT LAST
A night's sleep in a local hotel and another very early start on the 5am bus - we were on our merry way to Laos and a small village, Muang Khua
. More rain came that night, so we were fearful of the 'roads'.
out on bikes on the plateau
Our seemingly comfortable spots on the bus were soon descended upon by gas cylinders, bags of food and pots and pans, all in our foot well - it was going to be an interesting day. It didn't disappoint. The landscapes, much like the previous day was stunning, the roads were even worse in point, mere dirt tracks that had been slashed by motos and pick up trucks. When we actually neared the immigration offices, we had to get out and walk as there was no road yet to take the bus, they had to dig it! Trudging through rain drenched sludge wasn't how I imagined reaching Laos - my Birkies will never be the same. Still, we had made it to the boarder! We were in Laos! The remainder of the day was much of the same - passing hill villages, wild jungle, some rivers, dozy buffalo, naked children and a marked slowing in the pace of life.
at the waterfall
At one point, we were held at a road construction site for 4 hours, whilst we watched numerous JCB's pointlessly clawing at the red claggy earth to make the path for us. 4 hours.
We arrived in the pretty river side town of Muang Khua in time for sun-down - beautiful. 1 more day down and STILL not in Luang Prabang. We stayed in ramshackled huts on stilts on the riverside and enjoyed our first tastes of Laos - Laap (minced meat heavily flavoured with lemongrass and mint) and the famous BeerLao; a nice end to a difficult day (I also had my ipod stolen from the bus...) The last and final day of the, now epic, journey saw us through far better roads to Udomxai to change buses and then South to our destination.
Luang Prabang is another UNESCO site, it's on the banks of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers, has a wide range of restaurants and accommodation, and temples.
We, the survivors from the journey, hired bikes to get out and about to see the town. It was incredibly hot and single gears was not the best option, still, it was lovely to be able to see the architecture, little streets and temples. One day we took a boat trip up river to an 'ethnic village' and a cave with some Buddha statues in it. The afternoon though was saved for a trip to the Kuang SI Waterfall half an hour up the road. WWWWOOOOOWWW. This place was paradise - I've never seen anything like it before; crystal blue waters, very cold, tiered waterfalls forging bathing pools - absolutely amazing. I wanted to stay there all afternoon. The night market in Luang Prabang is well worth a visit - so, doing what us girls do best, Eva and Maja (two gorgeous German girls I met along the way), hit the market.
Everything is for sale from Tshirts to bags to silver to shakes to cake! Alot of the same thing is sold, but just made for good bargaining power! It was soon our last night and Hive Bar was on the hitlist of places to go - with free fashion and break-dancing shows, an open courtyard, moody lighting, and a great DJ, it made for a great end.
TUBING AND OTHER SUCH FUN THINGS
Next stop, Van Vieng. Infamous for it's Tubing, I had heard all manner of tales about this place, so it was a must for a stop. And an familiar face was to join me there - Ryan from India! Sophie and Alex from Vietnam would also be there, so I was expecting some good times! The journey down was very winding and utterly stunning, the landscape seemed to become for severe and rocky the further south we went, the limestone formations becoming more prominent and spectacular.
Van Vieng is a beautiful pleace, possibly one of the most beautiful in Laos, it's a shame that it is here that this drunken phenomenon has rooted itself here. However, if it's a good night out you want, buckets galore, heavy dub-step tunes and fire limbo - Van Vieng is the place for you. I have to admit, despite the grotesquely drunken Brits (sadly) everywhere, I had a really fun time here. The inevitable day of tubing came - floating down stream on the Nam Song in a tractor inner tube, stopping at river side bars to drink, fling yourself off the trapeze swings, slides, play mud volley ball, to name but a few things that you can do - it made for a very fun day. I did feel myself retreating to that 18 year old, fearless teenager in me... it ached in the morning. The backdrop to the day all the while is some of the most striking in Laos, it's a love-hate relationship toying with fun vs beauty.
mixing with the locals
Onward bound it was (having said my goodbyes to traveling companions Sophie and Alex), and it was to Vientiane. For the Laos capital, I had high hopes given the natural beauty of Luang Prabang, interesting architecture and general feel... I did not find this though here and so I shan't say too much about it: it's a sleepy, quiet town offering little to do. I found it lacked the buzz of other places in Laos, so I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed. Everything closes very early, there's an odd Buddha park, some admittedly beautiful temples - that's about it. It was way to hot to do too much anyway!
Before long, Ryan and I were destined for a date with a motor bike and a whole lot of countryside. A rather interesting and VERY bumpy 9 hour sleeper bus ride to Paske, we arrived tired and very rattled.
although not eating with the locals
Following a strong coffee and noodle soup, we decided to don our crash helmets once more and head out into the Bolaven Plateau for a few days. This turned out to be one of the best choices made in the whole of Laos - it was a great few days. Once you're out of town, the roads open up and quieten down, giving way to sweeping roads through jungle, open lush fields, through wooden shacked villages, rickety stalls and makeshift petrol huts, and noodle shops. This countryside is gorgeous, not as striking and severe as the north, but equally as spectacular, with huge open skies and amazing cloud formations. Every village past was full of smiling faces, waving children and shouts of 'Sabaideeeeeee!!!!'. These people are gorgeous, friendly and very happy. On our way round the plateau, we stopped at waterfalls, fed an elephant, swam in plunge pools and ended up at Tad Lo waterfalls for the night.
When we arrived at sunset, it was full of squealing children fishing, naked and playing. We fell asleep to the sounds of the falls and the busy jungle that had just woken up for the day. The following day was a lot cooler, with the threat of a storm, it made riding all the more enjoyable. We past coffee plantations and more waterfalls - Tad Fan is very picturesque, surrounded by greenery and a 50m drop - we swam there, watching a local fisherman collecting weird and wonderful creatures from the river bed. We reached Pakse
by night fall - tired, but buzzing from the trip. Now, Pakse is a fairly small town, slow paced and quiet. So it was to our surprise that night, when we hit the river front for dinner, we ended up 'cheers'ing many a BeerLao and dancing in 2 full-on sparkly, glossy nightclubs that wouldn't look out of place in Miami.
The locals were very friendly! And the clubs were pretty good too!
With a slight hint of a hangover, we boarded a ride to Champasak
in the morning, not far from Pakse - the former capital of the Kingdom and home to the Wat Phu complex (Laos' answer to Angkor Wat). The temperature just kept on risin' and risin' and by the time we were in Champasak, it was nearly debilitating. Scaling the steps at the temple was sweaty work (even with a large bag of iced coffee), but the view from the top was well worth it - a full view of the valley all the way to the Mekong River. The rest of the time in Champasak was all about the chilling by the river and the local food, which was very very good, served from small tables in, what looks like, people's front porches.
no pants gang
DON KONG, DON KHON, DON DET, DON WAT?
Next stop, 4,000 islands - 'the best sunsets you'll ever see in your life' I was told by Aron from Nepal and 'well worth the 3 day journey to get there!'. I was very keen to get there and excited too. I was looking forward to kicking back in a hammock, with a book and doing very little for a while. The heat made me want this even more, it was so intense. The journey from Champasak was interesting, starting with a boat ride, a leaky bus, another boat to the island in the midday sun - but my heart rate dropped the minute I stepped onto the beach of Don Det
- this was a very chilled out place and a great place to do nothing.
There is stuff to do though : kayaking, tubing (not on the scale of Van Vieng though!), dolphin watching, cycling, swimming in the Mekong, fishing, waterfalls, reading, eating and sleeping... lots to do! We hired bikes one day for $1 and set out for the island loop and the neighbouring island, Don Khon - turns out, it's pretty big. We saw waterfalls, buffalo, dolphins and French and Japanese train ruins (who knew?!). Both islands are very pretty - at times it's is very dense jungle and wild, others it's parched paddy fields full of buffalo desperately trying cool down, temples full of saffron-clad monks. We ended our day watching 2 young monks doing laundry in the river from a beach across the way - they were playing and joking around, we'd get the odd wave of laughter and squealing from them in the breeze.
The afternoon saw us take a boat out to try and catch a glimpse of the rare Irrawaddy Dolphins on the Cambodian boarder (we saw about 5, difficult from a distance but unmistakable, so the trip was worth it!). We headed home and watched the sunset from the Mekong waters whilst some locals bathed around us. The sky was ablaze with indigos, lilacs, crimsons, vermillions and soft yellows - the river reflecting it, it looked like an oil slick. The skies throughout Laos have been an artist's palette.
On Don Det, we were blessed with a great, ever growing bunch of people who met every night at Tena restaurant for the best food you could imagine, listening to Fleetwood Mac (as requested by Kiwi Carl), BeerLao and Lao Lao whiskey - needless to say, many a good night was had.
One night, we had a fish caught by our Israeli friends - they cooked it for us, steamed in pandan leaves with lemongrass, mint, coriander, all for $1, it WAS delicious, utterly delicious. The days ticked merrily and casually by, and soon enough I had to say farewell again to travel buddy extraordinaire, Ryan - he was off to Cambodia and I wanted to sit in my hammock just one more day before heading to Thailand. Thanks Ryan ;)
ELEPHANTS AND BANG-BANGKOK
I reluctantly peeled myself from my hammock a day or two later to begin the journey back to Pakse and over the boarder into North East Thailand. It's a well trodden path and before I knew it, I was in a land of smooth roads, 7-Eleven's, traffic lights and brick houses. It's so close, but the contrast is remarkable; modern cars, billboards, a world away from southern Laos.
Ubon Ratchatani is a very Thai town with few tourists or attractions, full of local shops and eateries (so good to be eating authentic Thai food again, probably the best in SE Asia? There was little to see or do, so I headed to Surin a few days later and went straight to Ba Than Klan Elephant Study Centre, an arduous 2 hours away from town by local 'bus'. On arriving at the centre, I paid witness to the "Elephant Show' which was put on most days - it was quite tragic, like circus, they had elephants playing football, basketball, carrying people on their trunks - all sorts. It made me feel a bit sad to see them being paraded around like that. I had expected to see them in their natural habitat, but alas. I stayed the night in a homestay arrangement the park offer - your stilted hut sits high above the elephant's home.
tad fan waterfalls
Taking a tour of the park, you soon realise that these animals are far from free, mostly chained up (often very tightly), swaying in frustration and often exposed to the sun's full force without shade. We were able to wash some of these amazing creatures by the man made bath and shower, it was nice to be able tog et so close to them. In the morning, I was introduced to Chong Dee - a 30 year old male who we took for a walk around the park. It's quite wobbly up on top of an elephant, knees tucked in tightly behind his ears, my hands grappling at his bristly head. I just wished his mahout, or guide, didn't have such a big metal hook to hit him with. I didn't know what to make of the Centre, I loved being close with these immense beings, but the circus treatment of them saddened me.
It was time to get back to Bangkok and onward to end my Asia leg on the beach in Koh Chang. It was at this time that the Red Shirts in Bangkok were well into their violent protests with lots of bloodshed. Government officials had advised again any travel to Thailand, let alone Bangkok - but what can you do when you're already there? The mood of the city was subdued, but other than the Koh San Road being particularly quiet during the day, you wouldn't be aware of any problems at all. I had one night there and managed to see Biker Ben AGAIN here! We shared a dinner and a beer before catching the bus and boat to the beautiful island of Koh Chang, 5 hours SE from Bangkok.
THE LAST PARADISE
I was very lucky to meet lovely Lucia, and Italian living in Sydney on the bus to Koh Chang from Bangkok.
We spent the next week together on this very pretty island doing as little as possible, soaking up the rays, reading, eating fresh fruit and enjoying the scenery. We hired a motorbike the first day to explore the island and get a sense of the place - it's very beautiful, the landscape at times is unforgiving and winding. There are a few temples, waterfalls, elephants - the usual really! There are pockets of the island that are overcrowded with resorts and restaurants, but you can easily escape that and find a secluded quiet spot to sit and watch the waves. I was staying on Lonely Beach (tragic name I know!), and each resort had an event or other on most nights - free BBQ, DJ, fire dancing, live music. So there was an opportunity to get out and have fun too. We were plagued a few days with bad weather, as the monsoon season started, but is was otherwise very nice, the perfect end to the big Asia leg.
Lucia had to return to Bangkok before me to sort some bits and pieces out, so I was to have a few days to myself in paradise - nice! On the way back from the ferry port though, I bumped in Fleetwood Mac-loving Kiwi Carl from Laos, so turns out I had some company, and much fun to be had - motorbikes, tree houses, rum and failed fishing attempts...
Before I knew it, I was back in Bangkok (now minus the red shirts and several buildings), back on the Koh San Road, back to shopping, beautician trips and getting ready for the off to Australia. Not before a great night out with Carl and the boys and Lucia as a perfect Thai send off.
And that's it - my Asia experience: India, Nepal, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand... how the time has flown, the places past by in a shot. I have met some wonderful people, seen incredible things - I couldn't have expected it to be any better. I have laughed to tears and face cramp, been calm and centred, and invigorated and excited. I couldn't have wished for anything more from the trip so far - so thank you to everyone for making it what is it.
Oz here I come....