From Mao to Lao
Trip Start Sep 25, 2003
59Trip End Apr 23, 2005
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Abstract: Left Jinghong on bus not boat, crossed border into Laos PDR - please don't rush, via Oudomxai to follow the beautiful Nam Ou river staying in idyllic village of Muang Ngoi and floating down to the Mekong to the wonderful Luang Prabang, a world heritage city with dozens of Buddhist temples. Took VIP bus to Vietiane, the capital.
After our disappointment of the cancelled boat trip we took the bus to Mengla one and a half hours north of the border with Laos. No sooner had we left the bus station, when our transport to Mohan, on the Chinese side of the border, found us(as transport often does in China) in the shape of a chinese 'dad' who locked our bags in the boot and jollied us to the border
The Chinese, all bustle and parades for the national anthem and raising of the flag are working on a six lane super highway to Thailand, resulting in yhe border looking like a building site. By contast in the customs hut on the Laos side, the guards yawned and burped their way through our admission and waved us through to a single lane dusty potholed road - so much for the super highway!. We had to take a tuk tuk accoss no man's land to Laos.
For info our average spend in China and Hong Kong was 15 pounds per person per day including expensive HK and mainly ensuite rooms.
We had checked the exchange rates before leaving China, 947Kip to the yuan, and were therefore happy to be offerrred 1000kip at the border, and not so happy to find out that it was 1200 at Oudomxai. That's what we call inflation! At least 10 & 20,000 notes are now available so we can avoid the backpack full of notes we had heard about.
We waited in a noodle shop for several hours for our 'ute' pick up with 2 rows of seats in the back a 'sawngthabw' litterally meaning 2 rows. This 'bus' took us to Oudomxai. At Oudomxai we were delighted to discover a french influence - gorgeous baguettes, we were initially sceptical of the condensed milk topping, but we are now converts - try it!
Met our first 'earnest young english speaker' who had taken the day off school as he was feeling sad, well it was Monday, not that we care anymore! We had been warned about the Laos work ethic....it certainly takes some getting used to being in a relaxed country after China.
Next morning took sawngthabw to Muang Kwa a dusty bumpy 4 hours down a graded but un tarmacked road. It was only 100km. We have discovered the best way to get to know the locals is to get cosy with them on a bus, have them sit on your legs and feet, have their farm yard at your feet and their children vomit on your shirt. It's one big happy family. United in suffering for a common goal. Graham gave up and stood on the footplate - easier on the butt, but being launched skyward over each bump and covered with dust is wat you call character forming.
On arrival Graham dashed to the best guesthouse ahead of the other westerners on the bus to bags the best room in the house with a gorgeous river view. The Nam Ou (a tributary of the Mekong) is very beauitiful as it windes its way through limestone peaks and cliffs.
Within half an hour the nice American (not an oxymoron) Jackson arrived grinning from ear to ear, he had taken a 50mph suicide speedboat dowm from Phonsaly and was on an adrenaline high - it was good to see him again
Munag Ngoi was idyllic (definitely too many backpackers), no cars or roads, guesthouses made from bamboo and rattan and occassional US army bomb casing. The little village was over run with resort style guesthouses and bars and must have been great a few years back. About an hours walk from the village is another village beyond the rice paddies. This village had a guesthouse and we wished we'd satyed here, still lunch gave us a good feeling for the place and it's friendly people. As it was rice harvest time, a very communal time of year, the villagers gather to thresh and winnow the grain by hand - after a day in the fields they hit the moonshine.
All of this area of Northern Laos was very heavily bombed during the US 'secret' war. Laos had the greatest tonnage of bombs dropped on it per capita of any country. One of the restauranters told of how for 9 years from age 11 he lived in a cave with 50 other families. Bombing lasted from 7am to 10pm and they searched for food at 4am. Indeed these UXO (unexploded ordinance) still kill and mame hundreds each year (mostly children). The sight of children playing on the fences and staircases made from bombcases (often with english writing on the side) was enough to break your heart
Graham and Jackson spent an hour swimming and wading though water and mud in the very caves used as airraid shelters. Geat fun till they lost their way, exiting via a different route to their entry relieved to see Rachel who then told them of a travller who had entered the caves alone and got lost spending 2 days in there after his torch failed.
Rachel spent the second night in the rattan 'hotel' chasing rattans and mice around and trying to stop them chewing through our packs in search of food. Luckily a Milo carton in the bin kept them occupied for quite some time. Graham slept though it all and Rachel had very red eyes in the morning as did most of the other guests who also sported various nibble marks.It was however our cheapest room so far at 30 pence each per night.
We managed to get a group of 6 togther to charter a boat to take us all the way to Luang Prabang after some hard bargaining to reduce the price. The 7 hour journey down the Nam Ou to the Mekong was lovely, river life, fishermen, children playing and spectacular peaks.After a brief stop at Pak Ou caves ( overated caves filled with Buddas) we arrived at Luang Prabang, a world heritage city.
Whilst walking to our hotel we noticed a big crowd of onlookers watching about 50 monks in saffron robes unloading an enormous budda statue from a barge on the Mekong. We discovered a street of great food vendors and had tofu and a large BBQ fish for tea, not to mention BBQ bananas, pancakes, spring rolls and coco\nut cakes - we hadn't eaten since breakfast and were starving
The next morning, whilst Rach caught up on some post rattan sleep deprevation, Graham got up at dawn to watch the most amazing scene of hundreds of monks silently walking past devout kneeling alms givers collectingsticky rice and food in bowls. The bright orange robes in the morning mist all added up to a fabulous experience.
When rach got up we set off on an ambitious walking tour of the city but ended up spending the morning talking to a monk in the first monestry we visited, he was a delightful 18 year old and we came back at sundown to walk around the stupa with him and then he wanted to share his breakfast with us, so the next day we where there eating sticky rice and seaweed with him... Laos has a way of slowing you down.
We decided that we should go off andsee something of the city so bid farewell to 'our' monk and went to the museum and some fabulous wats. Sunset on the Mekong and up Phousy Hill were other highlights... oh and Indian curry and other street market food!
We got the express bus (10 hours) to Vientiane (the capital) and the road between LP and Vang Vieng was stupendous a bit like Guilin. Vientaine is more like a country town than a capital, and we hired the cronkyest bikes yet to get around, very pleasant...
First job was Cambodian visas and after descovering they couldn't be done same day (despite Rach's best offer of an extra 5 dollar present- seems not everyone can be bribed) we explored cambodias 'arc d'triomphe' and the shiney gold wat, cant remember its name... we have decided that Beer Lao (7/10) comes in a close second to Dali beer (8.5/10) in our exhaustive testing, we will continue our valient attemptto discover a 10/10 and keep you posted. We also went to the market to buy a Beer Lao t-shirt and sunscreen, and ended up buying a watch for Rachel and some noodles hmmm.. markets have a way of doing that to you.
Then, shock horror, we found a shop selling New Zealand cheddar!!! Baggettes at the ready we ecstatically enjoyed our cheese in the fountain square, we could have been back in Europe!