Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Wow oh Wow….Laos!


Laos is the main reason I returned to South East Asia. I’ve heard nothing but raving reviews about Laos, its somewhat of an undiscovered gem. Completely landlocked, it has no beaches, which is why so many people opt to skip Laos from their travel itinerary. However what Laos lacks in beaches, it more than makes up for in dramatic mountain and river scenery. Unlike Vietnam and Thailand, tourism is a relatively new phenomena in Laos, and the locals have not yet learned to take advantage of the westerner. Once the most heavily bombed country in the world, (during the Vietnam war), Laos is now a laid back, almost sleepy country. Its heart is the mighty Mekong river, which flows through its entirety. It’s a Mecca f or travellers looking for a more genuine cultural experience, with some of the best trekking in South East Asia. There are no McDonnald’s or Tesco’s here. Just hundreds of miles of breathtaking mountain scenery, rich in luscious green vegetation and wildlife.

I leave the Hanoi Backpackers with a Dutch girl called Inga. We have decided to fly from Hanoi to Luang Prabang in northern Laos rather than opt for a 30 hour bus journey. On the journey to the airport I make a casual remark about how Laos Airlines has “The worst air safety record in the world” as quoted by the Lonely Planet. My comment does not go down well with Inga. Unbeknown to me she is a nervous flyer and she is also suffering with a severe case of “stomach problems”. I’m sitting in the departure lounge with Inga, who has turned a strange tinge of green. “Do you think the plane will make accident?” she enquires flicking through her Lonely Planet book nervously to verify my claim on air safety. “No of course not” I reassure her, “we will be perfectly fine, the planes that crashed were the old propeller planes from years ago, now they’ve all been upgraded”. As the small bus takes us from the gate it passes several Laos Airline jets, it’s a sturdy looking fleet. Sadly the bus drives us straight past the modern planes and parks up next to an old decrepit propeller plane large enough to seat around 30 passengers. Inga looks at me in terror and begins to vomit uncontrollably into her handbag.

Although the journey was a little shaky (even I was a quite scared at times), we arrive in Luang Prabang unscathed. Inga has spent most of the journey in the toilet, either vomiting, or cleaning vomit out of her handbag. Things go from bad to worse for Inga. Her card is declined at the ATM at Laos immigration and she has no money to buy her visa, or pay for a taxi, or even a drink of water. Feeling slightly guilty about being the catalyst for her illness I lend her some money and check her into a nice room by the Mekong river so that she can continue being sick in some relative comfort.

Next morning and all is well. I meet a group of people who want to share a taxi to Luang Prabang’s main attraction, its waterfall. Inga has stopped throwing up and has managed to sort out her finances. I jump in a Tuk Tuk cab with a French girl, an Aussie guy, a Canadian girl, Inga and a British lady who is the TV casting editor for “I’m a celebrity get me out of here“. She was the one responsible for putting David van Day and Timmy Mallet on our screens last summer. I resist the urge to punch her in the face and we make our way to the waterfall.


We arrive at the mid level of the waterfall, which is a stunning enclosure consisting of a bright turquoise pool with white water flowing into it. The pool is surrounded by rich greenery and natural rockery. We pose for this photo and have a look around.


Whilst the setting was very beautiful, the waterfall was quite small and not what I was expecting. “This is just the beginning” the Canadian girl informs us. The waterfall is in fact a series of many waterfalls, all different in size and ferocity, cascading down the side of a mountain into one another. We will have to trek up the mountain to reach the top.

We actually have to walk up the banks of the waterfall itself and then up several steep tracks for about an hour to reach the top. Tentatively the group remove their footwear and begin the climb up the mountain.
The surrounding scenery on the journey up was dazzling, but it was extremely hot and humid, around 35 degrees. As usual my fitness came into question and I arrived at the top sweating and wheezing like a bronchial asbestos miner.

We reach the top and the scene is simply breathtaking. The large main falls spill over from the river at the top of the mountain into a huge lagoon like rock pool which you can swim in. The water here also streams gently over its edge of into further lower pools like a huge natural infinity swimming pool.

The view from the top lagoon is stunning, you stare first at the waterfall itself, then at the turquoise blue lagoon and then into vista of the surrounding mountains which are blanket covered with trees and vegetation.

In desperate need of cooling off I stand under the flow of the water before stripping off and diving into the lagoon for a long swim.

We stay at the top lagoon for about an hour before heading back down the waterfall to discover several smaller but equally stunning pools. Just as we leave the sun comes out and you can really see the beauty of the waterfall as is cascades majestically down the mountain. The attractive French girl we were with was the perfect subject for this parting shot of the falls as we head down.

Lower down and the water is even more vibrant and turquoise. The colour is derived from the natural minerals that are found in the mountain and mixed with the water as it thrashes down into the lower pools.
We luxuriate in the warm blue waters and natural rock pools for hours.
Some opt simply to read and take in the beauty of the site.

Afterwards we return into town for some dinner along the banks of the Mekong.

Later we wander the many market stalls that are set up all around the town. Luang Prabang has a very laid back vibe and its streets are a pleasure to walk along by day or by night.

NORTHERN LOAS
Next morning and I consult my Lonely Planet to find out my next destination. I’m told that a 6 hour bus ride north will take me to a place called Non Kiaw, which is supposed to be beautiful and a good place for river activity. I head off alone in the early morning to catch the bus. I’m driven through some fantastic scenery only to be dropped off in the middle of nowhere.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, maybe a town or something, but there was basically a bridge and some small huts on the side of the river. Thankfully I was not alone. A British couple called Troy and Pippa also got of at the same stop, which I was rather relieved about, otherwise I would have been in the middle of no-where, by myself.
As we walked along the road past the small wooden shacks we were stuck by how beautiful the area was. There were low clouds that seemed to engulf the mountains, and then the sun would break through and bring out all the colours.
We were the only westerners there, but the locals were so friendly, coming out to meet us and entice us into makeshift restaurants for food and drinks.

We strolled around the village for several hours, taking in the scenery and hiking to a small cave we read about. The cave itself was nothing special, but as we arrived the heavens opens and torrential rain poured down on us. It was on the journey back to our huts through the thick vegetation that we had our first encounter with the leeches. I’ve never been bitten by a leech before, although I can remember a scene in the movie Stand by Me when River Phoenix gets one in his underpants. All I can remember is that the little buggers didnt come off easily, and it’s even more difficult in real life. I had a couple on my legs and Pippa had one between her toes. Its quite disconcerting when you have a living thing sucking on your blood and your flicking it and pulling it and it just wont come off. They just wriggle even more and look like they’re burrowing further into your skin. After about 10 minutes of panic, several attempts to remove the little bastards using leaves, sticks, a lighter and lots of swearing was successful. For me it had been nuisance but for Pippa the experience had been downright harrowing.

We walked back though the cloud singed mountains to our huts to plan the next days activities. We were to take a slow boat further up the Mekong to a place called Maung Noi.

Next morning we board a boat filled with monks, locals and livestock and head further north up the Mekong. We arrive at a small town with a few shops and restaurants and small huts on the side of the river.

We take two huts on the river banks, settle in and relax. The scenery from my balcony was just beautiful.

I was lucky enough to have a hammock so I sat in it for hours reading my book and taking in the view.

As the sun set around the mountains the view was even more magical. We sat around drinking beer, exchanging stories and playing cards. It really was one of the most tranquil and relaxing places I’ve ever been.

Although in the evening came something to spoil the tranquillity of the situation. Insects. Hundreds of insects. Insects of varying sizes and species. We were sitting on the balcony under a light, but the light just seemed to attract even more insects. After a while we decided to turn off the light and sit and talk in the dark. All the we can hear is little critters buzzing, flapping, crawling and scuttling around the balcony.At one point I heard the sound of something buzzing towards me. It was really loud and although I couldn’t see it I could tell that it was big. It was then that something landed in my lap which I can only describe as being about as heavy as someone throwing a tangerine into your lap. I jumped up and wiped whatever it was off me onto the table beside me.

When we turned on the light this is what had landed on me. Although this photo doesn’t give it much perspective, its about the size of the salt and pepper containers also in the shot. About 3 inches in length, even bigger when it opened its wings. We decide to call it a night and head to our rooms.


The next morning and we head out with some locals on a small boat for some fishing and exploring. We sat for several hours taking in the views from the river as the locals caught fish with nets and showed us the sights. All through the journey they found plants and herbs along the Mekong to add to the fish to make a delicious lunch.


We sat on the riverbanks and made a fire, the boat boys prepared a delicious fish lunch with rice, herbs and spices cooked on the fire and served on palm leaves. We ate the meal with our fingers and I have to say it was totally delicious.

After the meal Pippa, Troy and I got into these large rubber tubes and just floated back to the village downstream for about 2 hours. It’s one of the most relaxing experiences you can imagine. Just floating down this beautiful river surrounded by mountains and trees without another single soul around.

The next day and I head off alone for one of the treks that’s been recommended to me. This unguided trek will take me through some of the jungle into the rice paddy fields and will take me about 4 hours. I head off on the solitary walk and completely overwhelmed by the natural beauty around me.
I walk for miles past rivers and streams, waterfalls and caves and huge expanses of rice fields surrounded by rolling mountains and forests.

Although I didn’t see another single soul on the walk, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a peaceful experience, I was able to think about all the things that had been going around in my head and make sense of a lot of it. I came back mentally refreshed and totally relaxed.

Although I had loved my time in Northern Laos, especially the serenity and beauty of the landscape, I was feeling the need for a little excitement and activity. So a few days later I pack up my things and head for Vang Vieng. The fun capital of Laos, with a reputation for all things good, and all things bad!

VANG VIENG
After a long long bus ride I arrive in Vang Vieng, a town which is notorious for being the most touristy place in Laos. The main reason for this is the tubing. Now I had already experienced river tubing in northern Laos and I found it to be a tranquil and relaxing experience. In Vang Vieng it’s a completely different story. The aim of the game here is get people as drunk as humanly possible, get them to risk their lives on a selection of death swings, and then have them float down the Mekong river in a giant inner tube. Let me just say that there are absolutely no health or safety guidelines or watchdogs here. Injuries are common. Anything goes. Vang Vieng is a giant adults playground that would have any serious traveller searching for the first bus out of town. For me… I loved it and stayed for about a week. But as well as being a serious traveller I‘m also a social creature and enjoy the company of others, and Vang Vieng is the perfect place to make new friends!

Here is the view from y new balcony. Still beautiful, but clearly more developed than the rest of Laos.

On the walk into town I take a stroll along the banks of the river. it’s a scorching day and I spot a girl in a bikini sunbathing. She’s listening to an ipod trying to catch some rays when out of nowhere a herd of cows appear and surround her. At first she’s blissfully unaware, eyes closed, music playing. I have to take out my camera at this point to see what happens.

Finally as they get really close she realises and gets the fright of her life and jumps up screaming. I have to put my camera away at this point and walk past nonchalantly pretending I didn’t see anything. I’m guessing she must have been Brit, only we would goto such lengths to get a tan. Mad dogs and Englishmen eh?

Once in town I take a look around. I’m totally amazed by how western and tourist driven Vang Vieng is. It accommodates every western whim. English breakfasts, fish and chips. Israeli menus, French menus and most unusual of all, dozens and dozens of bars that play Friends, The Simpsons or Family Guy all day long. You can go into a bar which has beds with cushions on it, and literally spend all day lying down watching your favourite TV shows back to back as people serve you food and drinks. It’s the least cultural experience you can have and it totally caters for the lazy western backpacker. It was so tacky it was unbelievable. So far away from the real sense of travelling, but I have to admit, I kind of liked it. Sometimes you just need some creature comforts when your along way from home, and Vang Vieng provides them in every way.

Next day and I’m up early for my first days tubing. I’ve heard so much about the tubing experience and I want to see if it lives upto the hype. I hire my tube and strap it to the roof of a tuk tuk and jump in the back with 8 strangers. Within seconds of being in the tuk tuk which is taking us 20 mins upstream to the launch point, I’ve made some new friends. Some northern lads called Rob and Smithy who are your stereotypical young Brits on the piss, and an American guy called Corey. We’re all excited and ready for what may lay ahead. We pull up to the landing point which is basically a large riverside bar with music pumping out of it. Scores of scantily clad girls and guys are hanging by the river, drinking, dancing and splashing about. It was kind of like a cross between American Spring break and Ibiza, but on a river surrounded by mountains instead of on the beach..

Next to the bar is a giant rope swing which is accessed by a set of ladders running up a large tree.

The swing is just insane, its about 30 meters high and you drop in when the swing reaches its maximum arc which is about 40meters.

I sat there for about an hour watching the various swingers do their thing. Some fell off instantly to an embarrassed cheer. Others performed death defying stunts including backflips and summersaults, some fell off really badly and hurt themselves. video
Here is the king of the swingers doing his thing.. check out this vid!
This one slightly large girl fell off the second she left the platform, her arms couldn't take her own weight. She landed flat on her face and gave herself two black eyes.
There are no lifeguards or ambulances here. The swing itself is manned by a small child. You'd have to be a complete and utter moron to attempt such a thing!

Obviously I had to give it a go. I managed to perform a graceful dismount resulting in neither embarrassment or pain. It was exhilarating and I did it again several times. But I made sure I only did it when relatively sober. I at least has the sense not to try it drunk.
Finally it was tubing time. I leave Rob and Smithy in the bar and take to the river with Corey. We go and speak to the girl who has given herself two black eyes and check she’s ok. Her and her friend want to tube down the river with us so we hop in out tubes and start our journey downstream. I can’t tell you how much fun this is. The sun is shining, everyone’s had a few drinks, we’re cruising down a beautiful river with incredible scenery.
We were laughing, and bumping into one another and just thoroughly enjoying the whole experience.

Every now and again you’d pass another bar with loads of people dancing. There are boys throwing plastic bottles at you attached to pieces of rope. All you have to do is catch the bottle and you are pulled into the next bar. You stack your tube, have a few more drinks and then head off again down the river. This process is repeated for about 5 miles, as you can imagine it’s a pretty raucous affair. At each bar there is another death swing or death slide. People are getting progressively more drunk and injuries are becoming increasingly common. This doesn’t dampen the spirits, there is basically a massive party all along the river. Its easy to see why Vang Vieng has such as good and bad reputation. Everything about it is so totally wrong. It just shouldn’t be allowed to happen. But its just such amazing goddamn fun!

Back in the town the next day and I’m in need of another haircut. I scope around for a barber but this one the only thing on offer.
I think I’d rather have my haircut by Sweeny Todd!

Over the course of the next few days I hang around with Corey the American guy quite a lot. We share many tubing experiences and many recovery sessions together. He’s one of those Americans who breaks the stereotype. He’s well read and well travelled, he lives in Chang Mai in Thailand and works for a charity, but he’s also a bit of a party animal. One day when we’ve decided to go tubing but without the tubes. So basically swimming. But down the tubing river, so that we don’t have to be burdened with taking the tubes back. I tell him I don’t want to drink that day and that having a nice relaxing swim down the river, and hanging out in some of the hammocks in the quieter bars would be a good way to spend the day. We find a nice chilled out bar with just a few people in a beautiful setting on the river. Ambient tunes are playing and hammocks were everywhere, it was lovely.

Corey then asks me if I’d like a shake. I ask him what on the menu and he says Banana, Lemon, Mango all the usual shakes. I ask for a Lemon shake and he comes back a few minutes later. As I’m slurping down the delicious fruity shake I’m suddenly taken by a strange aftertaste. In the bottom of the beaker I can see some small brown bits floating around. I look at him quizzically and he looks back and says “What? You knew these were “special shakes” didn’t you?”. I walk over to the bar and there is a sign advertising “Special Shakes”. It reads “All our lovingly prepared Special shakes are made from 100% local organic produce and are 100% legal in Laos”. I’m not sure if this reassured me or not, I just sat back in the hammock and enjoyed the view. After about 15minutes I started to feel strange, the colours were more vibrant and the music sounded more resonant, if not a little echoic. This isn’t too bad I thought to myself, rather pleasant in fact. However the feeling didn’t stop, it intensified. After about 20 minutes I realised I was completely off my face. I was speaking to Corey and he was totally taken aback by how strong the shakes were too. It was at this point the large group of drunken tubers from another bar sailed upto our quiet bar and dismounted. Some of them were covered in paint, all of them were totally drunk and rowdy and it was absolutely the last thing we needed. One guy was actually pained green from head to toe like the incredible hulk, (Id seen him earlier when I was sober so I wasn’t imagining it). He came over and started talking to me. It was more than I could handle, Corey looked at me in the same terrified way and we agreed that we had to get out of there. We stumbled up through the bushes and scrambled our way to a Tuk Tuk to get back to town and to the safety of my balcony. It was quite an adventure getting back I can tell you. But the relief to be on the my balcony, away from all the stress of painted drunken people was immense.


I took this photo of us when we were back on the balcony.
In any normal situation this would be a terrible photo. Ironically it has managed to capture the moment exactly as we saw it at that time.
Corey and I arrange to meet up when I get to Thailand, we both agree that its probably time we left Vang Vieng and continued our travels.
I head down to the Capital Vientienne, which was probably the only underwhelming part of Laos I visited. Then make my way to the Thai border.

I’d had an incredible time in Laos. I’d witnessed the sheer beauty of its natural landscape and the charm, openness and honesty of its locals. I couldn’t recommend Laos highly enough as a holiday or travelling destination. Get there soon before it becomes spoilt and tainted like Vietnam. It has something for everybody and its impossible not to fall in love with.

Next stop Thailand.. Were I zip line through the northern jungles of Chang Mai, dive with sharks and turtles in the southern islands and enjoy the delights of the full moon party!

If you want to read more of my blogs, please leave comments. I realise I’m a long way behind, but I’ll keep it up if there is a demand

2 comments:

  1. yes there is demand please continue.

    Steve

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  2. Blog blog blog blog blog blog!

    ReplyDelete