Sunday, 27 December 2009

Two week world tour 2: Flashpacking around Laos and a spot of cookery

When we arrived into Vientiane, the capital of Laos, there wasn’t time to do much but find somewhere to stay and head out for some fried rice and a couple of Beer Lao’s. There isn’t too much to see in Vientiane so we hailed a Tuk-Tuk first thing the next morning and went to the bus station and jumped on a bus to Luang Prabang, which took all day arriving early evening. Wasn’t the most comfortable bus either even though it was being advertised as the executive service, or something like that.

Luang Prabang is a chilled out little town on the Mekong River, and next day we ‘chartered’ a long-tail boat and headed to the Pak Ou caves. Chartering basically entails hanging around at the side of the river for no more than 30 seconds before someone asks you if you want to get a boat to the caves. After a small amount of negotiation resulting in us almost certainly being ripped off, a down payment was made, the bloke disappeared on a motorbike and 20 minutes later someone turns up and loads us into a boat.

The Pak Ou caves are pretty small and are full of literally hundreds of Buddha statues. On the way back there was the mandatory stop at Bang Xang Hai, which is better known as the Whiskey Village. Here the local moonshine - Lao Lao - is produced in significant quantities, so after brief demonstration on how it is made, we were introduced to the business end of the trip, the shop. We purchased a couple of bottles of something, although not sure what, as it was as cheap as chips.

That evening we climbed up Phu Si, a hill with various gardens and temples up it, as it’s quite a good spot to watch the sunset. On the way up Al had to disappear to lets just say use the bathroom. He wasn’t seen then for well over an hour but reappeared just in time for the sunset looking considerably better.

Next stop after Luang Prabang was Luang Nam Tha where we were going to do trek for a couple of days. If we had got public transport it would have taken all day so to get there , and meant we were spending too much time travelling having spent a full day on a bus in Laos already. So we did some more ‘chartering’ this time someone with a mini van. This basically entails going into a random tour office, telling them what you want, they suck in through their teeth as if its not possible, but then suggests it could be done for a price of around US$100. He then gets on the phone to someone, has a long conversation in a language you don’t understand (probably about something completely unrelated), hangs up, then explains that it can’t be done for less than US$130. Done…I think we probably had been.

This is the “ok I getcha” way of travelling, i.e. if something can’t be done, throwing a bit of money at the problem and greasing the wheels will suddenly make it possible.

But at least we got to spend an extra morning in Luang Prabang rather than on a bus, so we visited the Royal Palace Museum and just hung out really. We then caught our minivan and headed for Luang Nam Tha. I was in the front to get some extra leg room and this was a pretty scary trip, because in the towns en route, people and animals just hang out in the middle of the road. The people get out the way pretty easily, but the animals tend to leave it until the last second, and the amount of times I thought we were going to hit something… And of course the driver was never going to slow down. But somehow we managed to not kill anything.

We also picked up some locals en route. We were flagged down in a small town and asked if we minded if three local guys hitched a lift. It felt a bit tight to say no as hitching was probably their only way of getting there and there was space, so we agreed, although they dutifully crammed onto one row of seats leaving us with plenty of room to spread out still. The driver collected further monies from them, and even though we’d paid for a two person trip he wasn’t about to share with us. All we got was a free energy drink. Oh well…

When we arrived in Luang Nam Tha we were just told we’d arrived, at least that’s what I assume we were told as it wasn’t in English and we were being ushered out of the van. It took some time to work out where we were exactly and needed the help of some other tourists as any locals we asked to point to the map of the town didn’t recognise it!

Next morning we headed off on a two day trek. It was an organised trip and we were in a group of 5 people. The trek was neither short nor over easy terrain and we were walking pretty much 9-5 or so. For at least the first 10 minutes we tried to keep our feet dry, but it soon became obvious that this would be a futile task. I slipped on a log and drenched one foot after not long at all so after that there was no point bothering, and wet our feet stayed for two days.

Leeches were the other problem. If you stopped - or sometimes even if you didn’t - leeches would attach themselves to anything they could in the hope of getting to your skin to suck some blood, so you periodically had to de-leech yourself. I found one in my sock at the end of the day, so it probably had a good time. It won’t be doing it again though.

The food on the trek was pretty impressive. Lunch was pre-prepared in banana leaves, and we each got a big lump of sticky rice and there was a big selection of meat and stuff with it, as well as something ridiculously spicy that the guides wolfed down without a second thought.

That night we stayed in a local village. Another feast was cooked up by one of the locals and he even managed to rustle up some bottles of Beer Lao (for a fee obviously). After dinner a load of local girls aged from probably 10 to 16 marched into our hut and we were told it was massage time. Our first reaction to this was “errrrrrrrrr” thinking it was some sort of sting operation where the police would burst in and arrest us, but the guides said it was all legit and the girls practice how to do massages on tourists. Nobody explained why all the girls in the village needed to be fully qualified masseuses.

At this point I would just like to state for legal reasons that the girl giving me a massage was one of the ones over 16, no money changed hands, and that the massage stopped just above the knee. All the massage was was a bit of prodding and poking of the arms and legs and trying to pull fingers out the sockets, and probably didn’t do a lot to alleviate any aching from the days hiking.

Next day we set off for another full day of hiking. We filled our water bottles with some brown liquid you couldn’t see through which we were told was boiled water. It tasted horrendous but it was all were going to get so off we went.

On the trek there were lots of logs over small rivers and streams. Logs being logs they were round and they weren’t the easiest things to balance on and on several occasions both me and Al almost came to grief. It didn’t help that sometimes when one of us had got over, the other would get the camera out and set it to video to try and catch the fall on video!

When we got back to Luang Nam Tha we were still on a tight schedule and getting the public bus to the Thai border would have wasted half the next day as it was a 3 hour drive. So in much the same way as last time, we waved some US dollars around and secured a minivan to Huay Xai which is on the Laos-Thailand border. The guy we it organised through came along too because the driver didn’t know where he was going and needed a navigator. It was pretty clear he didn’t have much clue on how to drive either, but we made it in one piece and found some lodgings that night before heading to Thailand the next day.

The border crossing was pretty straight forward. You get stamped out of Laos, jump on a long motor boat type thing, get taken across the Mekong, and get stamped into Thailand. Then some bloke with a motorbike puts you on the back, your luggage on the front in front of him and takes you to some hotel where we’d arranged to be picked up to get a bus down to Chiang Mai.

One of the big things to do in Chiang Mai is a Thai cookery course, so we signed ourselves up for the next day. That night though we managed to stay up long enough to watch the England world cup qualifier against Andorra on the TV (just like we watched the Kazakhstan game in a pub in Luang Probing - its great experiencing local culture!). Had a fair few Chang Beers too which are pretty strong at around 6%, and didn’t get to bed until 4am and was up four hours later for the cooking.

Didn’t feel too bad early in the day (probably because I was still drunk) and we were taken to the market to buy various ingredients. We then headed out of town to where the place was we’d do the cooking, and it was on this journey in the back of a minivan that I started feeling a bit queasy. We were shown how to cook dish number one which was Thai yellow curry and through this I was sweating profusely, and not because I was slaving over a hot stove. Once I’d cooked it I was in a whole world of trouble and had to sneak off to the bathroom for a tactical chunder. Unfortunately I managed to pick the cubicle where the flush was broken, so I couldn’t get rid of the evidence. But on the plus side I felt a whole heap better and was able to eat the food I’d cooked. Have to say I wasn’t expecting to be sick before eating the food I’d cooked - after I wouldn’t have been surprised.

Recovered after that and we cooked six dishes in the end. Weren’t any major disasters either and most tasted pretty good, although whether the yellow curry was actually yellow is debatable…it was more brown.

That evening we went to a Muay Thai boxing event. This was blatantly put on for the benefit of tourists and every night they seemed to have some westerner on the bill. We saw some English guy, but on other nights there were Canadians, French etc. It was fun enough and the highlight was definitely when they blindfolded three guys and let them just swing around at each other. The ref pushed them in the right direction, and occasionally got hit himself, but when that happened he just hit them back.

Next day we got a tuk-tuk to the Ping River and did a trip up the river. Our tuk-tuk driver more or less insisted on waiting for us and taking us on a tour afterwards. She swapped the tuk-tuk for a car, and took us out of town to a snake sanctuary and tiger sanctuary. We watched a snake show where some snake handlers parade some snakes around to silly music and commentary. At one point it looked like they were trying to fish a snake out of a box with their snake stick, but then threw it into the crowd right in my direction. The snake was of course a piece of rope, but obviously this was a cloth touching moment. Everyone else found it highly amusing.

Then we went to the tiger sanctuary. The sell here is that you can go in their cages, obviously with guides. This was ok although it was a bit much when the guides pretty much insist on you hugging them. Photos of this hugging will not see the light of day.

After this we flew from Chiang Mai to Bangkok where we had one night. We’d heard that table tennis was pretty big in Bangkok so we went to a ping pong show. You can obviously imagine our horror when ping pong turned out not to be table tennis…although ping pong balls were involved…as were candles, straws, darts, balloons, cigarettes, bananas…you get the picture. Course, some things are funny wherever you’re from in the world, and one of those things is some bald guy who’d amazingly managed to fall asleep through this getting hit on the head with a ping pong ball. And with only her second shot. There truly is some real talent on display. Anyway…

Next morning unfortunately all the knocked off DVD shops hadn’t opened and we had to get a flight to Singapore for Kris’s wedding, so we left empty handed - annoying because this was half the purpose of the trip.

Was a good week or so’s holiday although probably slightly too rushed. We didn’t really miss anything we really wanted to do but it was a lot of rushing around, so an extra couple of days would have been good. But when you have two weeks holiday and two weddings to get to…

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