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Laos: The land of a million elephants

Hi all,

Hope you're all keeping well.. Here are a few stories from my time in Laos..

Laos was one of the most amazing countries I've visited...I loved it!! Didn't see a million elephants of course – just the one and, sadly, it wasn't wild...! But apparently there used to be lots of them wandering around.. Laos was the third (and final as I believe there were only 3?) of the former French Indochinese colonies that we visited. And for the record, because I never knew until I got there, Lao people pronounce the “s” at the end of Laos...so now I do too. The Lao people are smiley, friendly and noticeably more laid back than their neighbours – that's probably their most charming trait. Life is chilled out, relaxed and things happen when they happen...

Anyways, myself and Marcus crossed into Laos from Cambodia and headed north along the Mekong to Don Det on February 12th. Don Det is one of an archipelago of large sand-bank type islands called Si Phan Don or 4000 Islands (Si is Lao for 4, Don is island so I'm guessing Phan is thousand..). Apparently this archipelago is at the widest point of the course of the Mekong River. There's not much happening at all on Don Det, it's a very sleepy place with a very slow pace of life. Lazing in hammocks and drinking Beerlao (the country's best beer...in fact the region's best beer!) featured quite a lot in my time on Don Det. I did also hire a bike occasionally and cycle around the small laneways on the island and across the bridge that links the island to its closest neighbour Don Khon, where there are some waterfalls and a beach or two... The French built the bridge for a railway line they put down from the north end of Don Det to the south end of Don Khon in order to transport goods more easily than by river as there are some rapids in that part of the Mekong. One afternoon myself and Marcus went tubing (i.e. we sat in a tractor tyre tube with a bottle of Beerlao and floated downstream until the beer bottle was empty and then scrambled up the sandy edge of the island and walked back to the place we hired the tubes from) which was lovely and relaxing. On my last day on the island I bumped into Adam, an American guy I met in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, and had dinner and drinks with himself and this three travelling buddies – including the two Joes from England, who I've bumped into three times since!! A stop at Don Det, or at least at Si Phan Don, is becoming more popular with tourists but it still manages to remain beautifully quiet.

I spent five days chilling out on Don Det. Marcus spent just four. This was the point in our trip that was always going to happen at some stage where we went our separate ways. With a little over six weeks left in South East Asia then, Marcus was beginning to feel a time pressure that I didn't feel as I had two months on top of his six weeks left, so he headed off before me from Don Det. Besides, 3 months is a long time to spend traveling with anyone and I don't do 24/7 very well, so it was time to go it alone.. After Don Det I headed to Champasak to see Wat Phu, a(nother) ruined Khmer temple from the Ankgorian era and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I wondered at myself for going to another temple having had my fill in Cambodia, but it was worth it thankfully. I crazily chose to cycle from my guesthouse to the temple – a distance of maybe only 7 km – but it was a killer in the heat!

From Champasak I continued north to Pakse, the main town in Champasak province, in order to visit the Bolaven Plateau. Pakse was one of the many towns I passed thro' while making my way north that's situated on the east bank of the Mekong with Thailand on the other side. Most of these towns show architectural influence from French colonial times...I'm sure it's very interesting if you're into architecture, which I'm not, but I did find lots of the buildings quite pretty and quaint..

The Bolaven Plateau is, as the name suggests, an area of high ground at an altitude of between 1,000 and 1,300 m to the east of the Mekong River. The area has some lovely waterfalls and is home to some of the minority peoples of the area. The French realised the potential of the local climate for coffee and tea growing and set up some plantations that produce apparently world famous coffee beans...I don't drink coffee (well, I had my first ever cup while I was there...when in Rome and all that) so I wouldn't know whether the coffee was good or not nor would I remember the brand names...maybe they still have a market in France? The strains they grow are arabica and robusta. Laos, at least in the eastern reaches of the country, had the unfortunate title of being one of the world's most heavily bombed places in the 1960s as the Americans were trying to stop the passage of arms and men from North Vietnam down thro' the mountainous Ho Chi Minh Trail, most of which lies in Laos, to support the Viet Cong in Southern Vietnam during the war. In fact it was the heaviest US bombing campaign since WWII, a fact that was kept very much secret from US citizens, and the rest of the world no doubt! There's still lots of unexploded ordnance lying around but the locals make good use of some of the shells of bombs that they've found. I visited the Plateau on a day trip with four others from my guesthouse. It was a lovely trip but, as with other places in Laos and some places in Cambodia and Vietnam, the freedom to do it on my own would have been great, but only possible on a motorbike! I need to learn how to ride a motorbike!! During the trip we visited three waterfalls, coffee and tea plantations and two minority villages: one Alak and one Katu.

Next stop on the journey north was Savannakhet – another French colonial town on the banks of the Mekong which forms a border town with Thailand. I didn't stay here long as my reason for stopping was to check out how much it cost to do a trek to the east of the town visiting an animist (animism is the belief in spirits in nature, as in that animals and plants etc. have spirits..) village which all sounded very interesting. But it was too expensive because of the distance to the area unless I had about nine other people with me!! So I paid a very quick visit to the local dinosaur museum, which was surprisingly good despite the fact that all the information was in Lao and French only and I'd too much of a hangover that day to be attempting to read scientific French!

Next stop on the way was at Tha Khaek, yet another town with old colonial architecture situated on the banks of the Mekong with Thailand across the river. This time my hope was to do a trek in the Phu Hin Bun NPA (National Protected Area). I took my usual wander around the town to see whatever there was to see. As it happened, I had arrived there on the February full moon which is when Lao Buddhists (and Buddhists in other countries too) celebrate Magha Puja – considered one of the most important of the Buddhist festivals. I went along to the local stupa, Pha That Sikhottabong, with some people from my guesthouse to see what was going on... It was a big party really with the Buddhist religious thing going on around the stupa and in the temple and on the non-religious front there was a boxing ring set up (no-one was actually boxing when we were there), lots of different stages with music, lots of food, market stall, the works – it was fun to wander around.

Fortunately there were enough people in Tha Khaek interested in doing the same trek as me in Phu Hin Bun, so eight of us set off with our guide for a 2 day, 1 night excursion in the NPA. It was an interesting trek in terms of the company I had – all seven were Germano-phones (is that a word?!). There were 3 Germans, 2 Swiss Germans and 2 Austrians...it was the first time on the trip where the group I was with wasn't made up of a mixture of nationalities that defaulted to speaking English. And altho' I did spend four years learning German, I've never visited the country and have never had the chance to practice it so can barely string a sentence together now. Fortunately (naturally!) they all spoke English from fluent down to pretty good, but obviously they conversed in German quite a bit too...by the end lots of words that had long since disappeared into the depths of my mind were coming back and if I'd spent another few days with them I'm fairly sure I would have tried speaking some.. Anyways, enough of that, the trek itself was amazing. The scenery was gorgeous. It's a karst region so lots of limestone outcrops and lots of caves. Lunch on the first day was a fantastic spread and the “tablecloth” was lots of big green leaves laid out on the ground!! We spent the night in a local village. We arrived there in the evening when it was still bright and played football with the children. They were a lot of fun. The boys continued playing football with two of the guys in the group and then one started swinging them around...which they all loved and wanted a go of!! Some of the girls taught myself and Eva, the Austrian girl, how to count in Lao and we joined in playing some of their games. We also had great conversations with them – well, they spoke Lao and we tried to guess what they were trying to tell us! I don't think anything much was understood, but it was fun for all of us!! The animals were being fed in the evening and they let us help feed them – just some pigs and ducklings...but it was all so cool – I loved it :) And more importantly, they loved helping us get involved.. In the evening we had dinner with the village chief and he performed a traditional basi ceremony on each of us...and of course we shared some Lao Lao (whiskey – awful stuff especially when, like me, you're not at all a whiskey fan but you have to drink it to be polite..). Some things were a little wierd, like when we were all sat around the dinner “table” (it was all sitting cross legged eating off the floor) it was only the chief and some other men from the village who joined us – the women, who had incidentally cooked all the food (altho' myself and Eva did help a little with the prep) sat away on their own with the children... I know societies are different and lots have very specific roles for males and females, but it did make me feel a little uncomfortable..was I really “better” or “socially higher” than the women of the village to get such a privileged position at mealtimes?

The second day was great too – more wandering around the countryside thro' some wooded areas and to some lakes. I even ate red ants!!! Our guide just took the ant-nest from the tree and squished it in his hands and offered it to whomever wanted some...I was very reluctant at first, I think only Oliver (Eva's boyfriend) and one of the German guys tried them, but when I saw they weren't keeling over and dying I decided to try some too...really very tasty as long as you actually break their tiny bodies...it you just swallow them you taste nothing.. Otherwise you get a really lemony kind of taste...bet you didn't know that before!! Our guide was full of informative knowledge about the area (the flora and fauna and the local traditions) and had pretty good English too – always a bonus! Anyways, I think the photos will tell a better story than I can.. It really was a beautiful area and a great trek and I'd recommend it to anyone in the area.

In another part of the NPA is a cave with a river that can be navigated for 7 km thro' it and out the other side. To get there I'd to leave Tha Khaek and make my way up and around (the NPA) and back down again further east to Ban Kong Lo (Ban is village/town in Lao). Unfortunately I kind of flew thro' here only spending one night in the village where I could have happily spent a few days. Life was simple there and I had the feeling it could be the last really simple-life place that I would have the chance to spend the night at.. Two locals took me in a boat thro' the cave (Tham Kong Lo – Tham being the Lao word for cave) which was pretty cool I have to say. It was pitch black apart from where their headlamps were shining and there were bats flying around. Everytime there was a non-navigable part (rocks/small rapids) the guys made me get out and pulled and pushed the boat along...it was upstream on the way and downstream on the way back – much easier for them! I had a few drinks with some of the locals that night and with very simple English tried to learn about their lives – oh to speak the local lingo...but Lao is like Thai – very tonal. So you can have one 3-letter word that can be pronounced in about five different ways to give five different meanings...and I sure as hell can't hear any differences between any of the sounds...I felt like the only white person in the village that night – I wasn't..there were at least three others, but I didn't see them...it was a great feeling :) Actually, all the travel that I'd done thro' Laos up until that point (and on as far as Vientiane) had been very local. I was often the only white person on the bus or songthaew (local trucks with three rows of seats in the back – one down each side and one in the middle...best seats are definitely along the sides...) or at least one of only a small small handful. I had some great conversations on some of those trips with various locals jumping at the chance to practice their English. They're all so interested in what you're doing and where you're going, and I was equally interested in what they were up to. I loved it :) Anyways, enough of the reminiscing...

After Phu Hin Bun I headed north to Vientiane, the capital of Laos and yet another city on the banks of the Mekong with a view across the river to Thailand. Vientiane was a nice enough city. I only spent two days there. I wandered around some of the sights in the city centre and hired a bicycle to cycle to some of the slightly further away ones. For a capital city the roads weren't very busy. Accomodation wasn't very easy to find on the first night even tho' I hadn't arrived very late in the day. I ended up sharing a room with a family from Quebec that I'd met on the bus from Phu Hin Bun that first night – a little strange...reminded me of when I was little on family holidays. For the following two nights I took a bed in what was probably the dodgiest dorm I've slept in this whole trip. There was a German-speaking guy in the dorm with me who went drunken (I think) sleepwalking in the middle of the night and tried to get into bed with me...he'd been out very late that night and there were blood stains all over the floor the next morning from where he'd cut his head...a little freaky – I didn't sleep very well that night at all and was delighted to see him packing and leaving in the morning! On my second day in Vientiane I bumped into John, an American guy I'd met in Nha Trang, Vietnam, and spent that evening eating and drinking with himself and his two travel buddies. Anyways, not a very exciting place..

After Vientiane I headed north to the infamous backpacker “town” of Vang Vieng. Really it's only a few streets that have grown up because of backpackers. The town is situated in another karst area and there's a river running thro' it – the Nam Song (where Nam is the Lao word for river). This was definitely the least Lao place I visited in Laos. The main reason that the majority of backpackers come here is for the tubing. You pay for a tractor tyre tube, take a tuk tuk ride to somewhere a few kms upriver of the town and you float back down the river to the town...well, that's the theory of it anyways. Very few people actually make it all the way back to the town, which should only take 3 hours non-stop. The reason is that there are lots of bars set up along the banks of the river with all sorts of swings and zip lines and offers of free beer and buckets of strange concoctions to tempt even the not-so-big drinkers out there.. North Americans I've met have likened it to spring break...it's a little like rag week back home I suppose – lots of young people drinking themselves into oblivion. So for that reason I was a little wary of arriving there on my own. It's one of those places that I imagined feeling a little like a granny. But I figured I had to stop by anyways and see what it was all about. There is another thing that Vang Vieng is known for – 'Friends' bars... yes, that's right...walk down the main couple of streets and you'll hear snippets from various different episodes of 'Friends' blaring from both sides of the street. The bars are completely open to the street and all the seats are facing big screens where re-runs of entire series of the sit-com play. And two bars next door to each other would always be playing different episodes from the same series. There were also some bars playing 'Simpsons' and 'Family Guy' re-runs. Now while this is certainly very surreal and very far from the “Real Laos”, I am a big fan of 'Friends' and thoroughly enjoyed sitting in one of the aforementioned bars the first evening I was there watching the entire last series while eating dinner and having a few drinks. And I even met people in there despite how antisocial it all sounds.

So, Vang Vieng turned out to be quite a cool place as long as you ignored all the early 20s drunkards. I did a caving/kayaking trip one day (lots of fun), visited some local waterfall/spring another day and I did go tubing too with Jason, a Canadian guy I'd met. The tubing was fun – I didn't drink very much as I'm not a huge fan of the alcohol/water activity mix, but we did play table tennis at one of the bars and I had fun watching the drunken antics of the other tubers. I didn't do any of the swings or zip line things either – there were just too many stories of people landing in the river in funny ways and ending up in the hospital...I guess I'm getting a little sensible/boring in my old age..! Lots of people go rock-climbing in Vang Vieng but I didn't get around to it. I ended up spending four days there and thoroughly enjoyed it. Apart from Jason, I met a few Americans on my kayaking trip who were lovely and also a little older than the crowd and not all about the drinking.

After Vang Vieng I was hoping to head north east to see the Plain of Jars, but between one thing and another (mostly my watch hadn't realised it was a leap year and I hadn't noticed and thought I'd lost a day somewhere which meant I really didn't have time to make that side trip..) I didn't go...next time! Instead I headed for the UNESCO World Heritage Town of Luang Prabang...another Mekong River town, about six long slow windy hours of a bus journey north of Vang Vieng. Jason (the Canadian) came with me. Luang Prabang is a very picturesque town with lots of things to do in the surrounding countryside. We went kayaking one day on the Nam Ou. There were a few serious rapids, at least in my mind they were serious enough, and I capsized on the first set...scarey stuff but great fun!! There was also a beautiful waterfall not too far away that we visited one afternoon. I also took a wander around the town and up Phou Si, this hill in the middle of the town with lovely views of the surrounding area from the top. It was a little busy at the top at sunset of course! The food in the night market at Luang Prabang was delicious – such an amazing choice and for nothing! The was also a night market with lots of lovely crafts that was lovely to wander around.

I left Jason in Luang Prabang and headed to the Lao-Thai border town of Huay Xai by night bus to rejoin Marcus for a 3 day 2 night experience that really has yet to be rivaled on this trip!! We had signed up for the Gibbon Experience (www.gibbonx.org) about six weeks previous having heard about it from two Australians we met in Vietnam. Booking in advance is necessary as there are a limited number of places per trip. Anyways, Marcus and I met up in Huay Xai and shared Laos stories over a delicious Indian (I'm sure Marcus won't agree with that statement as it made him quite ill). The following morning we met up with our fellow “trekkers” (I'm not sure that you could really call this a trek..): Dani and Simon – a lovely couple from South Africa, and seven Dutch people – a family of five (three children) that live in Vientiane and two of their friends who were visiting from the Netherlands. We set off on the two hour drive into the jungles of Bokeo Province in north western Thailand (bordering Myanmar/Burma)...for 3 days of the best fun ever!!

So what did we actually do? Well, to be honest – not a whole lot apart from swinging thro' the trees for three days!! We had signed up for the classic experience as opposed to the waterfall experience, which I believe does involve some real trekking. Our accommodation for the two nights was in a tree house that was at least 100 m above ground level. The only way in and out was by a zip line!! There's a small network of zip lines that we had to use in order to get deep into the jungle where our treehouse was. They were so much fun!! The idea behind the Gibbon Experience is ultimately to save the natural habitat of the Black Gibbon, a monkey once thought to be extinct in the area. Natural forest is often destroyed by slash and burn techniques in this part of the world to gain land for farming. Poaching and logging (usually illegal) also take their toll on the environment. So, the group behind this novel tourist venture wanted to help the locals realise that they could make money from their forests without destroying them, thus saving, hopefully, the natural habitat of the Black Gibbon. The idea of course is for the tourists to try to get a glimpse of the monkey, but it's fairly illusive so sightings, as with all wild animals, are not guaranteed! Each morning when we were there we could hear the gibbons singing. I'm not really sure that singing gives an accurate impression of the noise they make tho' – they'd be amazing creatures to use to create soundtracks to computer games – they make all sorts of siren-like noises...really cool and you certainly wouldn't sleep thro' it. They sing early in the morning...very early! In the morning our guides showed up and took us on an early morning “trek” thro' the jungle to try to spot some gibbons, but I didn't get the impression that they (the guides) were particularly keen, and to be honest, I wasn't too bothered either – I was more interested in getting out and zipping around!!

And that's what we (Marcus, the South Africans and myself) did each day...we just zipped around taking photos of each other, making movies of each other flying along and generally acting like monkeys...I guess if you don't get to see the gibbons, the next best thing is to see what it might be like to fly around the tree tops like they do :) I was lucky enough one day tho' to spot three gibbons in a tree way in the distance. I watched them for a short while, took the mandatory “yes I really did see them” photographs and then went to get the others...of course they were gone when we got back...! The whole experience really brought out the children in all of us – I think all of our faces were smiling the whole time we were there!! And Marcus was caught singing the theme tune to Indiana Jones once while swinging along on one of the longest lines...he thought no-one could hear him...!! We're hoping one of us has a video with the sound of it in the background!! Anyways, I have to stop talking about this now cos I could ramble on forever... It's one of those things that when you meet someone else along the way who's also done it you both reminisce for ages about it :) So so one of the most amazing things that anyone passing thro' Laos should make the time to do....

So that was Laos anyways, only ended up spending a month there – crossed the border at Huay Xai into Thailand on March 12th :( Really could have spent another month there and did have a 2 month visa, but I knew I'd miss out on other stuff at the end if I did and it was getting unbearably hot and I wanted to get to Bangkok at the same time as Marcus to give him a proper send off – who knows when I'll next see him....I'll just have to go back and visit the north of the country another time :)

Some pics from Laos:http://www.flickr.com/photos/niscratz/sets/72157626914440749/

Gibbon experience video 1:http://youtu.be/t3zMoxWu_as
Gibbon experience video 2:http://youtu.be/BBU9cQglu5s
Gibbon experience video 3:http://youtu.be/enUQmDtx1sk
Gibbon experience video 4:http://youtu.be/0jJUjlvIa7k
Gibbon experience video 5:http://youtu.be/-hsNZKix4WM
Gibbon experience video 6:http://youtu.be/Uijb1XcScIk
Gibbon experience video 7:http://youtu.be/0pVip7K9gmI

Right, so Thailand stories next, hopefully sooner rather than later as the photos are all already uploaded on Facebook so it's mostly a matter of just writing the blog!!

Take care all,

Aoife

Posted by niscratz 06:54 Archived in Laos

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