1st – 16th Mar – Laos Adventure.

(Daniel) After a very brief return to civilized life again, getting a haircut, using a proper shower and eating my fill of sushi and steak, I immediately felt the call of adventure, and to move on from bustling Bangkok. I was staying at a hotel close to the famous Khao Sarn road. This has long been known as the hangout and hub for backpackers entering and leaving Thailand. In truth, after so many years coming here, and probably a few nights I would rather forget, I am quite satisfied that I have experienced Khao Sarn already. However it is certainly the place to book tickets and meet with other travellers who are passing through.

The hussle of the Khao Sarn Road

My first stop was a travel office outside the D&D Inn, an old haunt, known for it’s rooftop pool which overlooks the busy street. I have been coming to this office for many years and know the people there. Inside I had some papers to fax off to the UK, and was chatting with the staff while I waited. During this time a young girl came in, having obviously just arrived from the airport. She was trying to get hold of a contact in Bangkok, and obviously having no luck. I offered her the use of my new mobile, which had a Thai SIM card now, as this would save her money on each dropped call with the travel agent. She was very grateful, and introduced herself as Leanne. Her contact still wasn’t available but she left a message, so I took her number should they call back.

Later that day, as I was heading to do some shopping for supplies, I met Annelene, another girl just returning from Laos, where she had set up a charity to provide books and reading lessons to underprivileged Laos children. We shared a taxi, and she told me her story.

Having arrived to work for a well known NGO, she had been totally disillusioned at the reality which met her. Gold name plaques and brand new Land Cruisers outside white offices staffed with interns at Macbook pros clicking away. She left after a day, and went in search of a way to make a difference. As she visited the villages, she saw that the literacy rates were appallingly low. She surmised that the children were too far from school, with their villages being along rivers and not roads, and that reading materials and teachers were in short supply. So she came up with a plan, and together with a friend borrowed two bikes from a shop, contacted friends and colleagues back home in Norway, and cycled across country to raise money, sleeping in temples and houses along the way. She managed to raise 20,000USD, which was enough to buy a boat, and employ a teacher. She was able to get reading materials, and begin a floating library and school for the kids to learn to read. After a fun day together I said goodbye to Annelene, knowing that I would always remember her inspiring account of seeing a need and filling a need.

Annelene’s adventure reminded me of the wonderful times which I had also enjoyed in Laos, and the sheer potential of the place. I felt a yearning to get back there. During the same day, Leanne’s friend called me back and I made arrangements as per Leanne’s instructions. The reply asked if I would also like to meet up with her, to which I agreed. That evening over drinks in Khao Sarn I agreed to go with Leanne to Laos. She would have to return on a similar date to the arrival of the ship in Malaysia, which seemed too much of a coincidence to ignore.

A couple of days later having prepped for the trip, we boarded the bus to Laos and it’s capital city Vientiane. We slept most of the way, arriving early in the morning at the border and crossing over to Laos at around 9am. Vientiane was much as I remember: a quiet place that wouldn’t seem out of place in a French suburb, Laos having once been a colony of France. We found a nice hotel and checked in before exploring the city. One of the most impressive sights in the city, and probably in Laos is the golden temple situated at one end of the town, its entrance is marked by a huge monument, and it is flanked on either side by other temples and Monks dwellings. We arrived here just before sunset, the best time to take photos of the area, which is mainly covered in varying shades of Gold, whether it be the Buddhas, the carvings or the gold leaf coated temple itself.

After taking some photos and wandering around, we headed back to town, where we had dinner and visited a Karaoke bar where Leanne showed her singing prowess, much to the appreciation of the Laos people, who love singing especially soppy love songs, (which is all you can choose in the Karaoke menus which lie on the tables.) After the Karaoke bar we walked back to the Hotel via another bar, sitting on the bank of the famous Mekong river, which separates Laos from Thailand along the southern border. This is an amazingly atmospheric river, steeped in history, an effect only spoiled by the singing of Leanne, who, spurred on by the rapturous applause in the bar, was unable to stop belting out musical numbers from Maria to the Phantom of the Opera. I felt a slight issue looming on the horizon, with our difference in attitude towards travelling.

The next day we tried to take the bus to Vang Vien, but the seats were full. Remembering another trip that I had taken to the town before, I asked if it was still possible to take a pick up truck to Vang Vien, and apparently it was, (this being the budget method of travel for locals). We arrived at the market on the outskirts of town, and asked if there was a pick-up going soon, fortunately there was one, and after loading up the bags onto the canvas covered roof frame, we climbed onto the bench seats on the back. There were two other foreigners travelling in the vehicle, two girls from the USA and Canada, Julia and Melanie.

I should point out now the ease at which we were able to negotiate, find travel, and communicate with other people during the journey. As this is the real benefit of my having a little Thai language. In Thailand most people speak a basic level of English, or are at least used to foreigners. Here in Laos that number is very few and the Laos language is quite interchangeable with North Eastern Thai, so I am able to speak with Laos people who do not even speak a word of English! During the journey, many people got on and off the vehicle, with whom I had some great conversations and took some amazing photos. My favourite of these was a lady who in preparation for the upcoming Laos National Women’s Day, had bought a huge vat of ‘Laos Laos’, the locally made whiskey, which she was taking this back to her village. As I explained to the others what it was, she poured out tasters for everyone and laughed as they all coughed and choked on the strong tasting drink made from sticky rice. After three and a half hours we arrived in the sleepy town of Vang Vien, where we eventually found a bungalow resort on the river. We took a couple of rooms, one for the girls, and one for me. Mine was more expensive, and sat on top of the river on stilts with huge windows looking out onto limestone cliffs and the red sky of the sunset.

That night the four of us went out to the town and got pretty drunk. I noticed in the bar we visited that there was another menu on the table, this one listed opium, mushrooms, and weed in the various forms in which they came. This was a very different Vang Vien to the one which I had visited almost six years ago. Formed, no doubt, by the needs and demands of a different kind of traveller who can now travel with ease into this innocent country.

Vang Vien Limestone cliffs
Vang Vieng Limestone cliffs
The river in Vang Vien
The River in Vang Vieng

The next day, Julia left for Vietnam to meet her mother, a Vietnamese herself, who had not returned to her country since their family left before the war. Leanne, Melanie and I had breakfast and then went tubing on the river. Tubing is one of the best daytime activities in Vang Vien. This basically consists of lying in a tractor inner tube, and floating down the river from a spot where a taxi drops you, eventually returning to your hotel after around 4 hours. Things here had changed too. The river was filled with people, not tubing, but drinking, and swinging off huge rope swings before hurling themselves off and splashing down into the deepest spots. Again, the peace and wonder of this amazing place had been shaped into something quite different by the demands of travellers with little or no appreciation of the culture and beauty that this area had before their riverside bars and amusements. I wondered if any of Laos was as I left it all those years ago. Leanne too was starting to drift apart from us, as I could not hide my despair at her heeled sandals and choice to bring a leather handbag down the river. No-one that I could see managed to make it down the river, all electing to take a taxi from the half way point, having spent the whole day hanging around at the rope swing bars.

Sunset Vang Vien
Vang Vieng Sunset

A couple of days later Leanne left with a guy she had met in the Jaidee’s bar that I mentioned before. This left me feeling better, although a little worried at where she may be headed and Melanie and I went Kayaking and trekking together. Melanie is a really wonderful person, headstrong and proud of being a feminist, a great conversationalist, and wonderful company in any situation. I suppose I found her attractive, but that after all these days in relative solitude on the road, I found it impossible to make any kind of suggestion of this! We had a great day out and over drinks that evening, agreed to carry on to Luang Prabang together. It was this evening that we also met Warren and Simon. Warren, another Canadian, looked like a typical traveller with his dreadlocks and hemp fishermans trousers, but was refreshing in his attitude. He spoke first and asked questions later, usually coming out on top! Simon, was a well travelled guy too, with a great attitude and good wit, coming from England.

Unfortunately at the end of the night, we seemed to lose the guys and, as usual, found ourselves being ushered home by Police who enforced a curfew at around 11.30. Actually I should say something about this also. It seemed as if the fear of God was suddenly put into everyone at the end of each night, as closing time came around, and rumours of men with AK-47s circulated. I even saw one of these guys that night, in a shell suit, with a machine gun strapped over his shoulder. These are just normal men doing a job, not terrorists! Having just come here from Pakistan, where it was not unusual for a man to give you his own gun over dinner to make you feel at ease, I feel less worried at the sight of a gun. It is simply a tool to enable a man to do his job. In this case he is a policeman, and therefore his gun did not strike me as odd, unreasonable, or something to panic about.

Another funny thing which I noticed, is that people just didn’t understand what a curfew is. This means go home, not go to the next bar just in case they won’t come down there! The crowds of people build as they move from one bar to the other each night, eventually getting to the same place and then realising that they must go to bed now! We even found ourselves being followed back to our bungalow one evening by a group of at least fifty people who couldn’t shake the cattle mentality!

The next day Melanie and I left the horizontal town of Vang Vien and headed for Luang Prabang, a cultural centre of Laos, with many Temples including the amusingly named Phu-sie Temple, on Phu-sie Hill, with the Phu-sie massage parlour at the bottom, (I’m sure I don’t have to write the pronunciation here!) We found a simple guesthouse on the bank of the Mekong, with rooms for $5 per night. Whilst out walking around the street market that night, we met up with a couple of Israeli girls who had been at our Bungalow complex in Vang Vien. They intended to go to the waterfalls tomorrow, so we arranged to meet them in the morning to go together.

We met at around 10.30am and, together with the girls Leore and Marran, and their friends Gal, Gali, Leaore, Jonathon and his friend, headed off in a rickshaw for an hour journey to the falls. The falls were still as I remember, but now there were tourists crawling all over them, and signs had been erected telling you where you could and couldn’t swim. After exploring for a while, I told the others that I remembered a great pool at the top of the falls, and that if they were feeling up to it, I knew that we could climb up and would be the only people there. To my surprise they agreed, so we all started to climb the 200 feet up to the top. Not everyone made it, but most of us did. At the top, the pool did not materialise, and I was really confused until I looked down one level and saw the area which I had passed before. We all climbed down, and found ourselves in the most amazing place, with a deep splash pool. It was possible, after jumping in, to swim up to the edge of the waterfall and look down onto the levels below all the way to the bottom, an amazing view! Everyone agreed that it was well worth the climb, which was good, as I could see that before finding the pool they had their doubts.

Waterfall Luang Prabang
Beautiful water pool in Luang Prabang
Kouang Xi Falls
Warren doing a backflip
Warren doing a backflip
Cave at the top of the waterfall
Inside the cave
Inside the cave
Walking down the waterfall
Climbing down the waterfall
Warren climbing a huge tree
Warren climbing a huge tree

That night, in town, Melanie and I found a great wine bar, where I had a few too many glasses of red wine. While I sat outside the front of the bar on a bean bag, some of the young children who sell bracelets and trinkets from trays came up and started to talk to me, I noticed that they got very close, and bought them a drink each to make them go away. However when they had gone, I realised that my phone was missing. Unable to say if it was the girls or the waiter, who was also very cheeky, I went home really angry. This was the second set of photos to go missing, not to mention the fact that I just bought this replacement phone in Bangkok, the last one having been stolen in Pakistan. This is the reason that once again, my diary entries are fairly bereft of photos. : (

A couple of days later Melanie headed off northwards and I stayed on in Luang Prabang with the Israeli girls, Marran and Leore and the boys, Warren and Simon. We visited the waterfalls several more times, and also took a ride across the river to the Buddha cave.

Negotiating with the boatman
Negotiating the with the boatman
Stairs to the Buddha cave
Inside the Buddah cave
Offerings in the cave
Sitting on the cliff face with Simon
Contemplating with Simon
Sitting on the cliff face with Warren
Sitting on the ledge with Warren
The top cave
Buddha statue in the highest cave

After the visit to the cave we stopped in a hill tribe village where they make Laos Laos, and also a medicinal form of Laos Laos that contains snakes, scorpions and millipedes in the bottle. I saw that next to the display there were two lifeless scorpions in a jar, one of the girls joked that I should put my hand inside. Thinking that they were dead I put my hand in and waved my fingers about. Imagine my surprise when a local man then picked up one of the very alive and quite mean scorpions with a pair of chopsticks. I could well have had a painful experience! There was also a jar with a patterned yellow snake inside, I asked the man in Laos if it would bite. The local man told me that this was a constrictor. Of course the others couldn’t understand the language and really freaked out when I put my hand in and pulled out the colourful snake. I was surprised that none of the Israelis or even Warren would touch the snake! After putting the reptile back in it’s jar we sampled some of the Laos Laos and then went back to town for dinner.

Banxai, the whiskey village
The Laos Laos village
Reticulated Python

The last day of my time in Laos came around too quickly. To mark it, I bought a live chicken, and went around to Warren and Simon’s guesthouse. There I woke them up by putting the bird in their room, exclaiming that it was time for a BBQ! We took a taxi to a spot up river, where I set up a fire while Warren went and chopped some Bamboo. We used the bamboo to make a couple of shot glasses, from this we drank a weak version of Laos Laos, then Simon made chopsticks and skewers to cook with from another piece of bamboo. After this we lit the fire, and then it was time to kill the chicken. For those who don’t understand why we did this, you should try it.

Our Lord of the Flies day!
Bad news for the chicken
Yes, Warren is mad!
Warren is crazy
Preparing the bamboo
Making the fly
Making camp
Veggies, look away now
Prepping the fire
Simon making chopsticks
Making Chopsticks

There is something very special about being completely self sufficient, and although we did not hunt this chicken or raise it, this is closer to the way that nature intended us to eat. First I washed the chicken in the river, then held it up while Warren hit it over the top of the head with the blunt end of the knife (far quicker than ringing it’s neck). If you miss first time, as we did, the animal is at least unconscious from then on. We killed the bird, and then took turns plucking it before cutting it into pieces and then stretching the pieces out on the skewers to cook. We seasoned them and then left them on the fire to cook while we had another Laos Laos each. After around 30 minutes the pieces were starting to look good, and we got some very admiring glances from the few Laos passers by that walked along the river bank. We ate the Chicken, then walked down the bank before heading back to town on foot.

Cleaning the chicken
Plucking the chicken
Plucking the chicken
Simon cooking the chicken
Simon cooking the chicken

The next day I woke up at 7am and bought a ticket from Luang Prabang airport to Bangkok, where I would change and fly on to Kuala Lumpur to collect the Wolf. I met Simon and Warren for breakfast and, after saying our goodbyes, bid farewell to Laos and took a taxi to the airport. All this time in Laos I have found myself telling people over and over about the amazing trip which I am on, and almost feeling like many of them do not believe me, as there I was with no vehicle, just a lot of stories. Now this will all change, as the Wolf arrives in South East Asia and I will continue the next leg of the Expedition.