Laos, Laos and more Laos!

Trip Start Mar 31, 2009
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Trip End Oct 14, 2009


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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Saturday, July 4, 2009

Bus from phnom phen was a little late arriving at the border town 50km from the border post. We hopped into the awaiting car and sped towards the border post. Unfortunately we didnt make it on time and arrived after "closing" time. The border control officer did come to great us and informed us kindly that he would stamp our documentation if we paid US$5 each for "overtime".....grrr. We were annoyed, but didnt fancy the hour trip back to the town we had just come from located in the middle of nowhere, just to have to pay more money to return in the morning, where no doubt we will be hit with the same tax just hiding behind a different name! So we paid the money....walked across no-mans land.....paid the less extornionate US$2 "overtime" tax on the Laos side and made our way via another car to the dock, where a long boat to Don Det (an island which is part of Si Phan Don (4000 islands)) awaited. Our crossing to the island was blessed with the most amazing sunset, the perfect end to a very arduous day! By the time we reached the island the sun had packed away for the day. Dumped in the dark on the shore of Don Det we found ourselves some bungalows on the sunset side of the island. Our lodgings were certainly at one with nature.....bugs and things crawling everywhere! When I entered the outside bathroom to take a shower that evening I was confronted with one big spider.......I thought the fella had come to seek retribution for eating his friend back in phonm phen....I was a little scared!! He had mean looking eyes! I bought my negotiation skills to the table though and we came to a deal......I would not send him to a early grave through drowning or death by shoe, if he stayed on his side of the bathroom! It worked out well for all parties...although I was always slightly nervous when I entered the bathroom and couldnt see him!

Our only full day on the Island saw us hire bikes and explore what Don Det and neighbouring little Don Khon had to offer. We cycled across the old French bridge that connects the two islands and saw the old and rusting locomotive that was Laos only train for many years, once again a French initiative.........there are no trains now! We also took in the waterfall, which was more like a very large set of rapids, but still impressive. There were of course miles and miles of beautiful scenery and another stunning sunset greeted us that evening. The only unfortunate incident of the day was Jacques tumble off the bike......being boys (aged 7) we tried to race eachother on our very speedy bikes and well Jacque ate my dirt, what can i say! (seriously though, thankfully it was not too bad, but looked good for the cameras! A visit to the island bakery was a given (purely for energy replenishing purposes....all engines need fuel!) and indulged in iced buns and coconut cake.....delicious! The evening was passed with many games of cards under the mosquito nets..very cosy.

The next day saw us take a boat back to the mainland, a 3 hour local bus to Paske, where we had to kill 6 hours before catching another overnight bus to Vientienne. We spent the time visiting the local "mall".....a very big diappointment and then we paid a visit to the local catholic church to see what it was like.....it was just like many others I have seen before :-). When we passed the town hosiptal we were surprised to discover the car park fiilled with hospital beds......either they had just refitted the place or the patients decided the floor was more comfortable! That is all Paske had to offer and at 8.30pm our bus departed and it was warmly welcomed! it was our first experience of a sleeper bus....a bus of beds.....wicked.....the best nights travelling so far! Our arrival at Vientienne saw us change back to a local bus. This was certainly an experience i wont forget in a hurry. Three people to a seat, my knees jammed inbetween seats, luggage and food piled high down the centre aisle, ladies complaining that our heavy bags were crushing their mangos, people without seats trying to make seats from the luggage in the centre of the bus, craziness! The savign grace was the view. We watched as the laos countryside changed from flat rice paddy fields and became a mountainous landscape full of lush green vegetation, beautiful. So 29hr after setting off we arrived in Veng Viang. There was just time for a shower and then the girls departed to go and do some voluntary work on a nearby organic farm.....Jacque and I stayed in town and prepared ourselves for the following day of...... Tubing and Partying!!!! Vang Viang is an interesting place, its seems to have sprung up purely for tourists to go wild along a short stretch of river littered with a handful of bars that offer cheap booze and the ability to hurl yourself into the river via one contraption or another.

The bars and restuarants in the centre of town all have friends or family guy playing constantly. Great mindless hang over telly to pass away the early part of the day until tubing begins again. There was one "gentlemen" there who had been tubing something like 160 days in a row, SERIOUSLY, go see the world!

Well as you can probably gather Jacque and I did take the opportunity to experience TUBING and what an experience it was! We keenly made our way to the tubing shack with other similarly minded adventure seekers! Here we parted with large amounts of cash for a tube (essentially an un-neccessary part of the whole tubing experience) and a mighty fine deposit with the promise to return the tube by 6pm.....in hindsight I can see what a brilliant idea this is to releive backpackers of their hard earned cash!  We were herded onto a bus and driven to the first bar of the tubing experience. Here there was a swing (like the ones trapeze artists at circuses use!) that the partygoers were using to hurl themselves into the middle of the river. I watched for a while as individuals expertly timed their swings, flying high into the sky and then downwards to the awaiting river, landing to great cheers from those drinking at the bar, as cameras of friends flashed, ensuring the moment was captured for generations to come. I sat and continued to drink my beer! To our amazement the girls came drifting down the river from the organic farm they had been helping out on earlier in the day. They had finished their work and heard all the music and had come to investigate! Seeing the swing, no fear miss martin headed straight for it. With a little fuel to misguide my judgement I followed her up the ladder. On reaching the platform at the top of the makeshift ladder that climbed up the tree trunk, I looked over the edge and realised how far we had climbed up......we must have been about 10m high......my knees were suddenly a little shakey....heights not being my thing! I thought get some balls McCoy, just do it. So I waited my turn, took hold of the swing and lifted my feet off the floor of the platform. It took a couple seconds but soon i was swinging out towards the centre of the river....my stomach still back on the platform...but it felt great......I was so chuffed with myself for doing it! However, my joy was short lived. In my eagerness to get back to the bar I released my grip from the swing at the lowest point of the trajectory, rather than the highest point, resulting in my speedy descent to towards the river. This was greeted by an intial "ooohhhhh" from the crowded bar, as they could see it was going to have an unhappy ending! My body weight was totally in the wrong position and i headed head first in the direction of the water. I tried to recover by turning it into a dive, but i was too late..........using my face as a brake to decelerate I entered the water! (To a second, even louder and prolonged "ooooooooohhhhhhhhhhhhh" from the bar!) I dont think I have ever had such a heavy impact. Luckily I have a jaw bone and neck capable of withstanding 12 rounds in a boxing ring with the likes of such great british heavyweights as Bruno and Lewis, otherwise it may of snapped like a chickens. My contact lenses were knocked straight out of both eyes. By the time i stopped seeing stars and birds circling my head, I had re-surfaced to discover the man on the side of the river had already thrown the life ring in my direction and I grabbed on and let him pull me into the safety of the shore! The rest of the day was a blurry mess, involving dancing, mud fighting in mud pools and a minimal amount of tubing.....although i am not sure if that was due to a lack of contact lenses or the alcohol! Come 6pm, I had no tube and no intention of returning to town anytime soon.......I kissed my money goodbye and continued rocking out! An awesome day.

The following day we arranged to go rock climbing through Green Discovery (they are exceptionally good tour operator - highly recommened!) We drove about 1-1.5hrs outside Veng Viang. we then trekked a short distance through some farmland...to the obvious dislike of one young farmer......were later informed that the company does pay the farmers for using their land, but this particular chap wants more money and was trying to disrupt the proceedings in order for the guides to give him more cash, tut tut! We finally reached a ledge at the base of a shear cliff face. The view back across the farmland was just incredible. An awesome spot to give climbing a bash. As i have mentioned before and probably will many times again, heights are nto really my thing, please bare this in mind, when you consider I am about ascend a shear cliff face with nothing but a 1/2 inch thick (if that) piece of rope and the wits of the guide to catch me if I fall!

I am pleased to say that I made it up the first route of the day. (A grade 5B if that means anything to you!) There was a tricky moment when I managed to wedge my body into a crevace facing away from the cliff face.....not really conforming to the ideal climbing technique! but I overcame this small obstacle and touched the anchor point signifying my superiority over the mountain! This is however when the trouble began. Up to this point I hadnt really realised that I had ascended approx 15m above the ledge and this looked even higher if you focused on the rice fields meters below that. One of the "joys" of climbing, supposedly, is that when you reach the top you can let go of the cliff face and your belayer (technical term) will gently lower you to the ground, leaving you time to appreciate the view. Now for me this was a very diffciult concept to conform to. I would like to add at this point that firstly, no-one had shown me that the rope was capable of bearing my weight and secondly, I was currently comfortably holding onto a perfectly secure cliff face that had probably stood there for hundreds of years with no probs.So to say it took a little persuasion "Ryan, let go of the f**king cliff" would be an understatement. I eventually plucked up the courage and was most pleased to see the rope tighten and take my weight quite comfortably, after holding me steady for a few seconds and telling me to take a moment to appreciate the view, the guide asked if i would like to be lowered quickly or slowly.....i shouted in a perfectly clear voice numerous times "slowly"........ so what did the little git do, drop me! I screamed like a girl as i fell towards the earth, certain my time was up, only to find my descent rapidly halted as I was a couple meters above the ground......what an adrenalin rush!
The other 3 routes of the day (a 5A, 6A and 6B) prooved a little too demanding for me and I ended up dropping off the cliff face on all three occassions as my muscles tired and i could no longer hold on! Lunch was amazing, we had a mini bbq, certainly didnt go hungry...tasty! A shattering day, but most enjoyable and a great way to end or time in Veng Viang.

The following morning we were back on the buses and heading to Luang Prabang. It took most of the day and left us with just the evening to explore the night market once we arrived, which was very pleasant! The following day we hired bikes and took a cycle around the area, we visited  a few more wats, had lunch by the river, then just generally took it easy and relaxed.

The next morning we set off on a one day trek/one day kayak tour (with Green Discovery again) that included an overnight stay in a mountain village. we drove I hour out of Luang Prabang to the drop off point and then began trekking. We crossed many streams as we made our way through the countryside and to higher ground. Considering all the trekking we had done previously as a group, the pace and the intensity was not particularly taxing. Lunch was taken in a hut adjacent to an unused rice paddy. The one guide trotted off and returned with two huge banana leaves, straight from the tree....these formed two big plates, the food was emptied out and everyone tucked in with their hands...the way it should be done....an excellent meal! After a few hours we arrived at a village populated by Maung people, there were about 45 families in the village a total of 250-300 people, although most of them were not home :-) There were a few kids running around and they had great pleasure in showing us this neat trick where they took the stalk of a plant and ripped it in a particular way and then you could use the sap of the stem to blow bubbles....very bright! We got to spend a little time in one of the villagers houses and got to learn about how they lived, there dependancy on the spirits etc etc. We then trekked/climbed on and a short distance later through the rain arrived at a second village of maung people, where we were invited into the sharmans house and through our guide who acted as an interpreter got to ask a few questions and vice a versa.....was very interesting...although the guide refused to ask a few of our questions like "who is the next sharman going to be?"!

We then trekked a further km or so to the next village that would host us. This was a village of Kumar (spelling?) people, there were about 60 families (approx 400 people). In between the villages was a school shared by both villages, a recent government initative. The school was pretty basic, as expected, but what I loved about it was the geometry formulas nailed to a tree in the playground. Education, education, education! We had an excellent evening in the village, playing football with the kids, having an excellent dinner cooked by the guides and playing cards under the watchful ey eof many of the villagers, who came to take a look at the "white" people. We tried to teach one old guy the rules to our card game, but i dont think he had seen cards before and was probably more interested (as interpreted through his smiling face) in the alcohol on offer from our guides.....local stuff, had a couple shots myself.......lethal! These moments are the things that really stand out for me in this travelling experience. Whilst we were unable to communicate with anyone but ourselves and our guides we were able to have an enjoyable highly interactive evening with the villagers, which continued into the night.........the house we stayed in had a family with a young child, which meant waking up everytime the baby decided it wanted feeding or attending to, a real life experience!!

The next morning we had rice for breakfast (the first and only time I have indulged in rice at such an hour.......it is common all over south east asia, but i just cant get my head around it, i have managed to hunt out western style breakfasts so far and long may it continue!) we then trekked for a couple hours to a pick up point, where we were driven to our drop off point upstream for our day of kayaking, woohoo! Kayaking was fun and pretty uneventful except for a brief instant when jacque and I flipped our kayak at the first rapid! Once again the surrounding views throughout the day were special as we paddled downstream....you can never get too much of the landscape in these parts of the world. A brilliant couple of days.

Our final full day in Luang Prabang was certainly not for the faint hearted. We hired mountain bikes and road the 32km to Kuangxi Waterfall, along the windy mountain roads! Thankfully there were a limited number fo tough climbs and with the right gearing we easily over came the challenge put infront of us and arrived at the falls a few pounds lighter and very sweaty indeed! The falls were stunning, we trekked to the top of them and then back down again before taking a dip in the very cold water......brrrrrr! But not before we had taken a short walk through the bear sanctuary located at the base of the falls and conducted some suitably nutty photos of kung fu poses infront of the lifesize kung fu Panda! We then got back on the bikes and began the 32km ride return. With 11km to go and approaching the top of the highest climb Jacque and I decided to test out the bikes! We complete the first km descent in under 2 mins and continued at an impressive pace giving us an average speed of almost 20km / hour for the total distance. Our defining moment was chasing down one of the larger van like tuk-tuks and then in true professional style after closing in on the back of the tuk tuk (and having a joke with the guys sat in the back), we lined up one behind the other and pushed the pedal to the metal so to speak, smoothly cutting inside the tuk tuk on a bend and then making it eat our dust (well wet dirty spray...it had been raining a little!). We are awesome! - unfortunately I have no photos from this day :-(
 
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