Monday, 12 March 2012

My wonderful gap year revisited - Laos

It's five years this month since I set out on my solo, around the world adventure. At the grand old age of 38yrs, I finally managed to go on my gap year! 

In a fit of nostalgia, I've been revisiting my travel diaries. You can read the first installment in 'Five years on - my wonderful gap year revisited'. 

This week, we move from Thailand across into Laos.
Spot on the map! 

Every so often a map of South East Asia pops into my head. I can see all the towns, cities, rivers and mountains and then I see a small spot on that map with a big arrow pointing - 'YOU ARE HERE!’ I still have to pinch myself to remind myself where I am. 

And where am I? Luang Prabang in Laos of course :-)

Since I wrote to you all last, I've said good bye to the old smiling lady in Chiang Mai and adventured my way via minibus and slow boat, over the Thai border and into Laos!

The drive up to Chiang Kong on the Thai border was manic. I repeated my mantra “I've never seen a Thai person have an accident, I've never seen a Thai person have an accident”, over and over. 

We blazed a trail - quite literally as controlled (?) burning of the jungle undergrowth meant that the air was thick with smoke and flames which lapped the side of the road.

By the time I arrived in Chiang Kong (after 5 hrs) I had just about had enough.

But as we got off our bus and walked to the hotel – I found myself catching my breath. This time it wasn’t due to smoke inhalation. Stretching down beneath me was the Mekong river, which was brimming with oriental romance. Just across on the other side were the bright lights of Laos. I was lost for words.

After a long day on a bus I needed to stretch my legs, so I went for a bit of a wander. And it was on the banks of the Mekong that I came across the funniest thing - a dragon boat race. Flush with testosterone the men inside paddled furiously, while someone at the back bailed furiously to stop the boat from sinking.

Still feeling like a caged tiger, after dinner I hooked up to my ipod for a bit of a groove and with 'I love it when you call' by The Feeling* blaring out at full blast and with my boy and my friends in my heart, I danced along the veranda outside my room, which in turn looked directly out across the Mekong. I didn't really care if anyone saw me because I was as happy as a happy thing. Imagine Jennifer Grey dancing her way across the bridge after her dancing lesson with Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing and you'll have half an image of me and the Mekong. 

(*I love it when you call ended up being our first dance at our wedding four years later).

It was an early start to cross over to Houayxai in Laos. I have to say, it’s the strangest border crossing I've ever done. We were stamped out of Thailand at the port on the river bank, before boarding a small narrow boat with a hairdryer on the back. Exactly 1min 30 seconds later we’d crossed the river and were in Laos.

The people in Laos are so lovely and smiley – it’s all “pop chi li li gun pop gun chai li lie l.” You can't help but smile back. 

Laos is much poorer than Thailand - more of an adventure!

I’d booked a seat on the ‘slow boat’ to take me down the Mekong for the next two days.

It wasn’t what I’d imagined! The slow boat was actually quite fast! With one hundred tourists crammed on a 50m long x four people wide boat – it was cosy. We had to make friends fast. 

Laos is a former French colony. Apparently the reason the French came to Laos was because they saw the Mekong as a way through to China and the silk route. That was until they actually came to Laos, explored the river and realised in places it just wasn’t navigable.

“Merde - no bateau!” you could hear them cry. “We'll give them the baguette and then slope out before anyone notices!”

And un-navigable in places it very nearly was. I marvelled at the skill of the pilots as they threaded the boat between rocks, navigated whirl pools, cross currents, rapids and hidden obstructions which threatened to smash our skinny boat into the rocks. I had no idea it was going to be so rough. When booking, I'd envisaged some kind of Mississippi paddle steamer arrangement.

After 6 long hours sitting on a wooden bench, we finally reached Packbeng. During that time I’d made some new friends, Wayne from Ashton Under Lyne (about ten miles down the road from my home in Manchester) and Nicola made the journey go much faster - as did the Beerlao (a magnum of larger for 45p). Who'd have thought I'd be talking about Stalyvegas on the Mekong. 

Wayne entertained me with stories about his mate 'BigandDaft' and Colin from Rawtenstall, who recommended going to Soi 33 in Bangkok, picking the best looking prostitute and asking for a b*lls and oil massage! Apparently you can hire a prostitute for eight quid a day and they'll do whatever you want - even your washing!

Arriving in Packbeng was a bit of a scramble - we had to climb through the windows of our boat onto another boat, while small boys made off with our bags. The intention being, that they carry them up the hill for you, then you have to pay to get them back! 

Bounmee guest house, which had a fine restaurant looking over the river - until the generator broke down and we had to use candles. 

The next day was another long day on a hard wooden seat on the boat to Luang Prabang. As we journeyed, the scenery gradually changed to huge sand castles of thick jungle soaring high around us. Unfortunately the air was still thick with smoke so the light was poor, but it was still an amazing thing to have done.

Arrival in Luang Prabang bought another river side restaurant. This time 'fried aquatic morning glory oyster sauce' and 'pork appendix salad’ were on the menu. I had something else!

This brings us up to date. This morning I wandered around the most lovely temple - Wat Xieng Thang, which is the oldest in Laos. It was absolutely beautiful and my favourite Wat so far. I think I'm going to try and stay here for a few days and then fly back to Bangkok just to save a bit of time – I think I’ve had my fill of going overland for the moment.

Hope you are all well and enjoying my exploits – I’m missing each and every one of you.

Oh My Buddah! 

Following on from my last blog - I've just had an e-mail from my dad to ask where he can get his laundry done! Father, honestly! 

Well - here I am back in Bangkok. I was very sad to leave lovely, cultured, smiley laid back Laos. Now I’m back to the madness that is Bangkok to meet up with my tour group this evening (for my journey down to Singapore). 

My hotel (organised by the travel company) is the most expensive and by far the most disappointing so far. To top it all, the bottom fell out of my sink this morning while I was brushing my teeth. I hunted around from something to stick it back together with - fearing that I might be charged to have it replaced. I could only find tooth paste and sadly that didn't work. The offending piece of porcelain fell out and smashed into a million more pieces. I was forced to fess up to reception - luckily they didn't charge me but moved me to a new room with a working sink!

Impressions of Laos:

Beautiful, beautiful people - even the ugly ones! They are happy, smiling, friendly, dignified and with a great expertise in patisserie (another legacy from the French). Lattes and croissants for breakfast, baguettes for lunch freshly made by the side of the street, with chicken cooked in front of you on skewers over BBQ pits. 

There were monks - everywhere! Tangerine clad men and boys on bikes, on boats, in internet cafes, even wheeling their wheelie cases through Luang Prabang airport yesterday. 

Yes - I liked Laos a lot and as soon as I've finished going round the world - I'm going back there again!

What did I do there? I visited waterfalls - tumbling down 60m into a series of turquoise pools where you could swim (or if you are a boy, swing on vines and pretend you are Tarzan). I saw tigers and rescued moon bears (apparently they are poached and exported to China to bile farms. Bear bile is used in Chinese medicine). 

I visited caves by the side of the Mekong that house thousands of de-commissioned Buddha’s.
I went to a puppet and traditional dancing display at the local school and I chilled. 

Being back in Bangkok is a bit of a culture shock to be honest. I’m back to prostitutes and ladyboys, and being hassled on every corner. I'm planning to try and visit the Grand Palace (again) this afternoon. I'll let you know if I finally make it.

I'm seeing and doing so much, it really is incredible. 

One final thing - you'll probably know that disaster tends to follow me around. Missing Hurricaine Ffloyd and 9/11 etc. by one day. Well, three days after leaving Chiang Mai, the whole area was designated a disaster zone. The fires and smog got so bad (three times greater than the safe level), that a state of emergency has been declared. 2,000 people in Chiang Mai alone are visiting the hospital each day! 

I learned this from the very informative Bangkok Times which I read each morning in Laos while attending to my latte. Other news from The Bangkok Times – the trouble in the border area between Thailand and Malaysia is getting worse. I’m so glad that I’ve booked an organised trip for that part of my journey, so I won’t be on my own. 

Apparently, in Cambodia, the Crown Price is being prosecuted under new monogamy laws, while in Japan there is a Sumo scandal. But the big news in the UK, well, it’s the production of HP sauce! It’s moving from England to Holland - despite vigorous protests!

Anyway - enough from me. Thanks again for all your messages. I do appreciate them.

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