Friday, 8 February 2013

Laos- Luang Prabang

Craig Writes: We met Som, our new guide, when we finally emerged from Luang Prabang Airport at around 8.30pm. Lovely guy but his english is 50 - 50 and he speaks very softly. It's a strain to hear him. We were scheduled for a quick tour and then dinner but somehow the schedule got rescheduled and instead of arriving at 5pm we were now leaving the airport at 8.30pm. We said, "hotel please, forget the tour and the dinner". Our room in the small guest house was described as "central and clean". And, "as it is 5 to 10 minutes from the main restaurant and club scene you may expect some noise. There is however a curfew of 11.30pm for the whole town so things will quieten quickly". What a load of bollocks. We had a back packers pub literally on the other side off our driveway and they were still partying well after 12.30 am. Next morning before we left for our tour we found another hotel where we didn't have to kick empty cans off our balcony when we got up, the shower worked and we didn't have to share a towel.

Laos has a population of only 6 million and is the only landlocked country in Asia. It has some interesting and aggressive neighbours. I don't know what it is about this whole region but people here just cant seem to get along. These guys have been invaded by the French, the Vietnamese, the Chinese, the Thais, the Japanese and effectively taken over by the US during the Vietnam War years 1964 to 1973. Not forgetting their own nasty civil war between 1954 and 1973 between the Communist and the Royalist which segued into Russia , China and the US all getting involved. 

During that time when the North Vietnamese were invading the northern parts of Laos the Yanks were that keen to prevent the commies (read Russians and Chinese) from getting a foothold that they dropped bombs, on average, every 8 minutes for NINE YEARS. That's 250 million bombs, 2 million tonnes worth. Of which, 30% remained unexploded. As if 5 million land mines left over in and around Cambodia after their Civil War wasn't enough. This equates to a terrifying 80 million unexploded bombs. Laos was, per capita the most bombed country in the history of bombing. Over 12,000 people to date have been killed by unexploded ordinance. For decades after there was a thriving ( and quite perilous I would have thought) industry recycling the metal from the bombs. Today you can still buy bracelets, necklaces and cutlery made from the remnants of old bombs. 

The North Vietnamese backed Communists eventually won the Civil War when the Yanks, once again, picked up their bats, balls and tanks and left in 1973. It is now a single party Communist Socialist Republic and not likely to change any time soon. Their main income now comes from selling river generated electricity to their neighbours but tourism and mining of copper and tin is on the rise.

After checking out of our frat house and finding new digs we were off on our first tour. A trip down the Mekong. The boat was about 30 metres long, narrow and built for comfort with reclining bucket seats straight out of a Greyhound bus. And once again only us, our guide and a driver. I hate to think what some of these cruises are doing to our carbon footprint. 

That's a lot of boat for four people.
 That's four more trees we have to plant
The river is only about 1 to 3 metres deep at the moment but in the wet season, June to August, that will rise another 25 metres. For now it is a beautiful sun shiny day. There is an assortment of crops growing along the banks, strings of brightly coloured clothing drying in the still warm air. A small band of monks are wandering down the grey sandy beach to wash their saffron robes on the large smooth pebbles that become the waters edge. Further along a family prepare their long narrow boat to join a smattering of others fishing up the river. There are hillsides to the left covered in white teak trees and to the right of the river the hills rise and broaden to become mountains, mist shrouded as they disappear into the distance. The river forks and we turn left. Later when the two forks rejoin we ride rough over a turbulent mass of water that looks like it's boiling. Further down we slide onto the banks of the beach. Thin cows roam freely nibbling on tufts of weed and grass and try desperately to stick their skinny necks between the fence protecting a small crop of peanuts and herbs growing a little further back from the sandy soil. A narrow and steep clay pathway leads up to our first village. Towards the top it is cracked and crumbled by the regular traffic. Further down it is worn smooth and shiny by the rising waters of the wet season. At the top of the stairs lies a pod of coconuts freshly dropped from a 25 metre high tree by the human monkey perched high up in the fronds. We're given one by his friend who stands at the bottom holding a safety rope. Within minutes the top has been knocked off and we're sculling the freshest coconut water you can imagine.

The cheeky one on the left was inside the fence
 eating the peanuts when we got back
Two minutes before that was hanging up in a tree
 The coconut, not Callum.
Charming little village
The Village Monastery
We had bought another big bag of toiletries and handed them out with big smiles all around. The village is rustic and well kept. The houses look strong and well maintained, chooks dig at the soil looking for worms to feed their chicks, cows graze lazily and dogs lope around giving us passing glances of interest. Young kids are running here and there, clothes clean, healthy cheeky faces on them all. A small group of three follow me for a while. Not looking for anything, just being curious rascals. The 3 year old with the big machete was an eye opener but she was swinging that thing into a coconut like she knew what she was doing. I had a look around at the older kids watching her and they seem to all have their fingers so they must teach them young and teach them well. 

There was music playing and a big feast was being prepared for a lunch time celebration. Fresh fish were being skewered with green bamboo reeds, ready for grilling over an open fire. An enormous wok full to the brim of a mix off vegetables cut fresh from their own gardens was being tossed. Pork bought from the markets that morning was diced, fried, mixed with herbs and spices and now also being similarly tossed into a huge salad. The village has a small school and a Monastery which supports the 40 families that live here and another smaller village close by. Each village is run by a Headman who is elected every four years and can be reelected as long as the villagers like him. He decides on property disputes, wedding requests and other matters. All serious matters are referred to the local Constable Plods. I loved this place. There was a wonderful feeling of community, purposefulness and calmness. 

We hung around but they didn't get the hint
How good would these have been?
Som took us to the first village because no other tourist went there and he was right. It was just us. The second village we went to was just a massive market selling cheap woven crap out of China. It had all the charm of a cock fight and we cut it short to hit the river and get out of there. We made a small detour to see a Buddhist cave carved by nature into the side of a mountain but apart from the interesting fact there were once human sacrifices there, prior to the Buddhist arriving, it was a bit ho hum. The high tide marker from 1966 was a spin out. It must have been 40 metres above the current level. That's a flood of biblical proportions. Lunch was on the other side of the river in a restaurant set high up on a hill overlooking the Mekong. The view across the river and over to the distant mountain ranges was stunning. It was another of those, "man, look where we are', moments.

Not a bad playground hey
The old Buddist Cave where pre Buddha it didn't pay to be a virgin
Imagine your standing this high up and you'v'e still got water up to your chest.  Scary
The hilltop restaurant
Today was a trip to the last Laos King's palace, which is now a museum. So many of these amazing places around the world are now available to us, the common man. I for one forget that there was a time that if someone of my lowly rank even approached the front gate of so celestial a place I would at best be turned around or at worst been shot at. These days for the price of a beer or two we now get to roam, almost at will, through such Royal Palaces. To walk upon their beautiful White Teak polished floor boards, marvel at their tall shocking red lacquered columns, sculptured ceilings and the intricately carved and gold leafed furniture. There, only an arms reach away is the King's Coronation Chair. We casually meander past his private meeting rooms, where previously only the most senior Monks or Heads of State could go. Here is his bedroom, his dining room, his clothes, the medals he wore on his chest, the ornate and majestically carved ivory hilted swords worn on his side. All there to look at, and but for a thin pane of glass, to touch and hold. Yet so many of us walk past showing as much regard as if we were walking the aisles of Ikea looking for cushion covers. I've been into some of the worlds greatest and most treasured, cathedrals, palaces, temples and museums and remember on occasions when I too have shown scant regard for what should be a privileged moment. Travel and the opportunity to witness history's stories first hand is a gift not to be taken lightly.

The Royal Palace, no photos inside unfortunatley
Did anyone see the Getaway episode where they went to Kuang Si Waterfalls? There's a Sun Bear sanctuary there. It's three separate cascading waterfalls falling away into a stream that runs down the mountain side to meet up with the Mekong. At the base of each waterfall is a pool of chilly swirling mountain water. The largest at the top and decreasing in size to the smallest at the bottom. The top one was the pick for me and Callum as it was the deepest. It had a rope swing and was deep enough to jump the 6 metres from the top of the falls into the pool. Callum jumped repeatedly from the rope swing, even after getting a whack in the goolies from one of the knots on the rope on his first attempt. I had one jump from the rope but preferred the long leap down from the top of the falls. The top waterfall was packed with Chinese and Japanese tourists but most were on the shore taking photos and not in the water. When we had had enough we dried off, got changed and walked back down to the markets for lunch before the 40 minute drive back to the hotel. It was a simple little market side restaurant but turned out to be one of the best meals we've had on the entire trip so far. Nothing fancy, only grilled chicken and fried rice but , wow, what flavours. Half a chicken rubbed with salt, lemon grass, oyster sauce, sugar then slow cooked to perfection over an open grill and served with fluffy, salty, perfectly balance fried rice. Brilliant. Accompanied by an icy cold Laobeer. Ohh yeh.

The magnificent Kuang Si waterfalls

Even the crowd winced at this one

 Not my most graceful moment

Aarrhh, I can still bomie with the best of em

I must give an honourable mention to the last meal of the Laos experience. We were taken out for a meal by the owner, Somdy of the tour company Spot Laos Travel on our last night. It was an authentic Lao BBQ place. You can always tell the local spots by the lack of tourists there. It was just us. They delivered a scorching cast iron pot of burning embers and placed it in a hole on our table. Then arrives a conveyor belt of pork, beef, fish, prawns, squid, greens, elephant ear and shitake mushrooms, thin rice noodles, carrots and a delicious broth to cook it in. It was all self cook and serve. This was the authentic Lao dish we were hoping to experience. It didn't disappoint. 

Laos version of a hot tub
Mr Miyagi, eat your heart out

         Some Closing Observations
  • There are no bald Laos men
  • Its ok for 3 yr olds to carry machetes
  • Its ok to pull over and take a piss anywhere, anytime if you need to.
  • They don't toot here but they still over take on blind corners and they still text and talk while riding their motor bikes.
  • Good stuff is very cheap here. That includes the food and local beer. Unlike Bali where cheap stuff is very cheap.
  • They're friendly and aim to please. They'd give you the last coconut off their tree. 
  • Lots of back packers.
  • They don't seem to eat their pets here. Cats and dogs roam freely and seemingly with out fear.
  • The night markets rock

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