25th August - 30th August
On the 25th i woke up thinking of leaving for Laos, but at breakfast i bumped into Janna and Cathy who i had spoke to briefly before, they were going to do a thai cooking class so i decided to tag along.
It cost 800B and was excelent fun, we had to eat everything we cooked, which was a lot, spring rolls,green curry, massaman curry, veg fried rice, ginger chicken and fried bananas in coconut toffee for desert which dad would love. I booked up a trip with the girls for tomorrow who, like me felt a little disappointed by the hill tribes, then went for a quick afternoon drink with them which turned into a bit of a session as we were al chatting and having a good time.
The next day we were picked up at 07.30 and most of the day was spent inside an air conditioned minibus with an eratic driver and a chinese sounding guide called Art. The main objective of the day was to see hill tribes, particularly the 'long necks', in traditional costume. We ended up in a tourist market where 3 diferent hill tribes, in traditional clobber had lots of stalls, all trying to sell us pretty much the same stuff (mainly hand woven scarves, necklaces, bracelets and shit).
Managed to take some good photographs but it was a pretty dull day really. In the evening i wanted to go to the Thai boxing but found it is on every night except Saturday.
Took the 13.00 bus to Chiang Khong, first class was all that was available, with air con and a really loud tv playing thai music videos and films the whole way, i could even here it over my mp3 player on full blast.
I met Tom and Eimer, both from Cork university. Spoke to them for quite a while, they are here on holiday and Tom will be going out to Oz around November as well so could meet up somewhere. We arrived at about 20.00 in the pouring rain where a woman persuaded us all to stay at her guesthouse. My room and shared bathroom was a bit dingy but it was only 120B. We ate there and the guy who runs it, a frenchman from Taihiti showed us a load of photos on his laptop. Taihiti looks like the nicest place in the world (bit of a honeymoon haven).
In the morning we paid 1600B for our Laos visa and crossed the Mekong to get the visa stamped, then with Tom and Eimer and a german couple, onto a long boat bound for Pak Beng. The boat was crowded with wooden benches seating about 100 passengers (mostly tourists) and it stopped at various places along the way where people
would either come on the boat to sell us drinks and snacks or load on cargo which filled the roof of the boat and gradually filled the aisle (big bags of rice or sugar). The Mekong is tea coloured with lots of swirling eddies littered with debris, mostly logs but we did see a bloated dead dog. The boat swings from side to side to avoid the debris. The scenery is nothing but green hills and the very occaisional village. Despite my blow up cushion (thanks for that piece of advice Richie B), my arse was numb and i was glad to get off in Pak Beng at 17.30 but geting the bags off was chaos and i lost my rag at a local when after waiting for ages and then searching the back of the boat in vain for my bag, found he had taken it off for me and wouldn't let me take it until i paid him - after some choice words i took my bag and he got nothing. During this time i had also been harrassed by blokes selling various guest houses and all kinds of drugs - amazing in such a tiny village. We all checked in at a nice hotel, and i haggled my room down to 250B while the guy who works here was still trying to sell me weed. Tom, Eimer and myself found an excellent Indian restaurant. The currency here is the kip, it suffers from massive inflation (from 11,000 to the pound in 2001 to 18,000 now) so the US dollar(10,000 kip:1 dollar) and Thai baht (260 kip:1 baht) are widely accepted and preffered, but whenever you get change it is in kip.
We were back on the boat at 08.30 the next morning bound for Luang Prabang, there were less seats this time but an empty space at the back where we could lean against the sides of the boat and stretch our legs. A couple of stops on the way and we were huddled into a tiny space with our knees under our chins. I was very glad to get off at 17.45, and this time i managed to get straight to my bag and the reception committee was much less intimidating. We found a really nice guest house 5 minutes walk from the main street for 200B - apart from some tiny ants making a constant march through my room this could have been a room in a 3 star hotel back home. Laos was colonised by the french (for most of the 19th century i think) and Vientiane has lots of french buildings. It was awarded a world heritage site status in 1995, has a very laid back atmosphere and has a night market which doesn't sell fake designer gear but mostly hand made fabrics, clothes, lampshades (made from the local paper with flowers pressed into it) etc. There is very little hassle from the traders here, just a 'Sawadee' (hello) if you show some interest. Beer Lao has given Tom and I both slightly dodgy stomachs, now I have discovered Lao dark beer which is more expensive and tastes like Newcastle brown ale, it's not available everywhere but it's bloody lovely.
The next day, i went walking around Luang Prabang with the sun burning my head and neck, loads of temples (Wats) and buddah statues. The place is swarming with monks and the younger novices all wearing orange shawls and often carrying umbrellas, i spoke to a couple of them. A popular game for the local boys is throwing flip flops at a stack of picture cards, whoever hits the stack wins, i watched this for a while until the boy who lost all his cards started crying and the others left counting their spoils. Had lovely tomato soup with french bread for lunch and watched local men play boules in the afternoon, there is lots of cheering, barracking and laughing and the games are played for money from about 6000kip (35p) upwards, doesn't sound like much but probably is to them. In the evening i ate a nice rare buffalo steak in garlic sauce (garlic is nothing like as strong as back home) and drank while watching Wigan beat Reading. Tom and Eimer popped in for a drink.