Sunday, 13 January 2013

Moving on down The Mekong.

Laos is the smallest country at the top end of Indochina (Vietnam and Cambodia being the other two countries). In fact, considering it is such a tiny country with a population of just under 7000, it is the most bombed country per capita, in the whole of Asia. And unfortunately to this day, there are still thousands of unexploded land mines hidden around the countryside.

Breakfast was a delight, especially as I have now set up a system whereby anyone else from the group drinking tea, passes their used bag down to me, so that I can 'strengthen' mine up. It's ridiculous this bloody Lipton tea that everyone seems to drink abroad! It's so weak it doesn't even stain the cup, let alone my insides!

Today was the first part of our two day trip down the Mekong River - the heart and soul of Laos' freshwater ecosystem and the longest river in South East Asia; beginning high up in the plateaus of Tibet, traveling through Laos and Cambodia and fanning out into seven deltas in Vietnam.

The boat we travelled in was a house boat, one of many found taking tourists up and down the river. It was very spacious and the waters calm with stunning views on either side, but unfortunately no wild life to be seen.

We stopped off at a small Hillside farming village - 73% of the population are farmers - where the children were running around and playing, laughing and giggling at us. Especially when they agreed to have their photos taken and due to the digital age we live in, we were able to show them the images immediately.

All the huts are built high up on stilts, as life continues below. There is electricity cabled through and plenty of satellite dishes to allow a TV in every home.

I walked past one hut, a little girl was sat in the doorway with her mother, the child just sat and stared at me, eyes as wide as saucers. Her mother smiled, then pointed to her daughter and then to my hair. I obviously was the only curly red head in the village!

Some of the children were walking up the steep river bank carrying hessian bags filled with pebbles on their backs or shoulders. Apparently they were in training for carrying sacks of rice up to the village when they were slightly older. (Sticky Rice being the traditional rice grown in Laos, with steamed rice next in line).

I have to say I did feel awkward walking through taking snapshots. I mean if a group of tourists turned up in my little road in North London and started walking round the cul de sac taking photos of me and my neighbours, I am not sure I would be too impressed!

After our brief education on village life, we climbed back on board our boat and set of for another four hours til we got to Pak Beng; the halfway point between Houay Xai and Luang Prabang.

Pak Beng gives the discerning traveller a taste of the back country with its Hill Tribes and basic accomodation in this ramshackle little town.

Even before we had time to fully moor the boat, a group of local men and young boys jumped on and picked up our heavy cases and rucksacks and carried them off for us. One skinny teenager managed three heavy bags, one on each arm and another across his shoulders! But this was their living and at 10,000Kip a bag, (48p), there was heavy competition!!

We arrived at our evenings lodgings, chilled out for a bit then went to check out the local town, had dinner and ended up at a little Karaoke bar, where there were only three tables. One was empty, one was occupied by a group of Laos teenagers and the other one we grabbed. And by we I mean myself, Karen, Caroline, Jamilla, Andrea, Nicola and Liz.

Finally, after a few too many Laos songs we were allowed our turn and we showed them! Without the use of a microphone our rendition of 'I Will Survive' (sung to a dance beat!!) could probably be heard all the way to China.

We left after that, the Laos group had started singing some kind of love song, well at least that's what it sounded like, however the accompanying video was of a young man forcing himself on his girlfriend!!

The following day was our final one on the river and after a few hours, on a very cold day, with us all wrapped up in towels and blankets to keep warm, we arrived at the Pak Ou Buddha caves. There are many little caves scattered along the side of this cliff but the two important ones are Tham Ting and Tham Phoun, because for centuries they have been used as a 'safe haven' for thousands of Buddha images that can no longer be used due to damage and disfigurement. It would be as religious to throw them away. For many years, on Laos New Year, hundreds of Laos would make their pilgrimage to the caves to bathe some of the Buddhas chosen for cleaning - a huge honour.

Tham Ting is the lower cave, that looks more like a grotto when you enter it and see the tiny gold and wooden figures scattered all around. Then I took a deep breath and climbed the 250 steps up and into the depths of Tham Phoun to look at the remaining Buddhas by torchlight. Though obviously it took me a few minutes to appreciate the splendour of it all as I needed to get my breath back and hopefully not pass out from the strenuous exercise I had just done!

And then we were back on the boat and on our way to Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang has been described as a "Tiny Mountain Kingdom" in The Rough Guide and they are not wrong. UNESCO declared it as a World Heritage Site in 1995 and as you walk through and admire all the old French-Colonnial buildings you can understand why. It actually reminded me of Pondicherry in India, (also Colonised by the French), but with nicer food and much better shopping!!

We arrived at The Thongbay Guesthouse, where we were going to be staying for the following three nights and as we walked into the beautiful grounds, huge smiles filled our faces! This was by far the nicest place we had stayed in so far.

We were each shown into our bungalows, Karen and I had one with two for poster beds in it, that each had fully operational mosquito nets and an ensuite bathroom that was so big you could probably fit another bed in it! There was a verandah to sit and eat on, whilst looking out over the surrounding luscious gardens, where a couple of roosters and hens were running around quite happily AND there was free wifi in the rooms!!

That night we took the free shuttle bus into town to wander through the night market, where all sorts of delightful ethnic and colourful wares were being sold - I think I may have to buy another bag soon! Oh and some more earrings ... Perhaps a necklace ... Maybe a purse .... A couple more baggy trousers, a t shirt, some tea ...

Dinner was right in the heart of the market.

Tables were laid out with various meats being barbecued and other, tables laden with salads, noodle and rice dishes. For less than £2, you take a plate and load it up, then take a seat at one of the packed tables and 'chow down' with the locals.

After dinner, well there was more shopping to do!

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