Archive for May, 2011

All places V…

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

The pick-up from our guest house to the bus station arrived on time at 08:30 but things went downhill from there. There were two partially full minivans for Vang Vieng and the dispatcher was adamant they weren’t going anywhere until they were full. Our bus had three out of eleven empty seats, the other needed just one more person. There were no solo travellers on our bus, and not three who wanted to switch together on the other. So we sat and waited. Entertainment was provided by a pot-bellied 55+ year old guy exercising and stretching shirtless in front of the buses. There was much sniggering from the girls on our bus. We could only guess what the other occupants of the second bus, or the watching Laotions thought of the show. A tuk-tuk delivered nine more recruits but they were a group who wanted to travel together and partially filled a third bus. Almost two hours after arriving at the bus station we were still waiting to depart. Eventually another tuk-tuk arrived with three people on board – Joe, Phoebe and Renee. We got Crazy Dutch and the third bus Joe and Phoebe. Shirtless stretching guy bought the empty seat in his bus and we all set off.

The road to Vang Vieng wound uphill and we swerved around potholes and slower moving traffic, or bounced through the potholes when the driver misread the road. Hannah was feeling unwell to start with and felt much worse by our lunch stop. Shortly afterwards she hung her head out the window and decorated the side of the bus with vomit. Classy! I kept an eye on the road ahead to make sure no oncoming traffic took her head off, and the driver carried on oblivious.

We travelled past lots of villages, all looking the same. A mixture of stilted and non-stilted, timber, block-built or woven bamboo walls, thatched or tin roof dwellings on both sides of the road. About 30-50% had 1.8m satellite dishes out front. Kids played at the roadside, tiny stick-thin creatures with smiling, happy faces. Mothers bathed babies and toddlers in metal bowls and hung washing from lines in front of the houses. The driver was impatient to pass anything and everything in his path, frequently overtaking on blind bends. Only luck prevented us joining the accident statistics we passed off the sides of the road. I couldn’t work out whether Laotian drivers don’t use their mirrors and don’t realise people are trying to pass them, or if they are aware and deliberately pull out to the middle of the road to make passing difficult.

At some point we reached our highest point and began descending. The villages got bigger and more prosperous looking. About 20km before Vang Vieng the potholes won the battle with the tyres and one of the rear tyres blew out. We bumped to a stop, all piled out and the driver replaced the wheel.

Vang Vieng, when we arrived really had nothing to recommend it. A town full of bars showing endless repeats of Friends, and hotels full of 19-year olds busy getting drunk and going tubing on the river. Two nights there was quite sufficient.

The bus to Vientiane picked us up on time and arrived when it was supposed to – amazing! Vientiane has slightly more to recommend it than Vang Viene. The National Museum has several galleries but only the first two had information in squiggly wiggly and English. Those two were very interesting. The remaining eighteen or so had exhibits labelled only in squiggly wiggly with a few photos having French descriptions too and and even smaller number labelled in English as well. On the wall above the comments book at the exit was a sign saying they’re working on providing multilingual exhibit labelling. The sooner the better! There are wats aplenty and a Victory Arch modelled after the Arc de Triomphe. Other than that it’s ugly concrete buildings, a multitude of bars and restaurants, and lots of construction. There are a few photos over at Flickr.

Vientiane was also a place of farewells. Yesterday was Phoebe’s birthday. A group of us went out for celebratory drinks and dinner. Today the group has dispersed to destinations across south-east Asia – Renee to Chiang Mai, Joe and Phoebe to Hanoi, Marcel and Claire will go to Vietnam tomorrow, Matt and Susie are going to Thailand in a couple of days and in a couple of hours we’ll be on an overnight bus to Pakse in Laos. We might be in Phnom Penh at the same time as Joe and Phoebe in about ten days time to trade stories about where we’ve been, where to go and where to avoid.

Luang Prabang

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

Up the hill from the pier at Luang Prabang we found a tuk-tuk waiting for us. He drove us about a quarter of a mile to our guest house where the guy on reception was totally bemused by having people with luggage turn up. What could we possibly want? He spoke not a word of English. We showed him our voucher and the fax with our reservation details but of course, since he couldn’t speak English he had no chance of being able to read them. He even had a fax of the reservation in his guest book but still couldn’t work out what we might want. It was as if aliens had arrived in Luang Prabang. Eventually he worked it out and showed us to a room.

Before getting off the slow boat we had arranged to meet Joe, Phoebe, Renee, Marcel and Clare at L’etranger book and tea shop later that evening. Hannah part-exchanged a book there and we had pizzas with Marcel and Clare. The others turned up later having already eaten so we met them again later in a bar round the corner. There is a curfew throughout all of Laos and everyone is supposed to be home by midnight. There are places you can party later; in Luang Prabang it’s the bowling alley outside of town which stays open until about 03:00. At 23:15 the bar kicked us out and we decided to call it a night.

Next morning we had breakfast at Joma – expensive at between 30,000 and 60,000 kip (13,000 kip to the pound). Hannah was keen to go to Pak Ou (broken Buddha caves) on the other side of the river and I wanted to look round Luang Prabang. So we found her a private tour. Read all about it and her falling on her arse in her blog at Travelpod. I wandered round taking in the sights of Luang Prabang until the heavens opened at lunchtime. It’s a very pretty town with French colonial buildings and the obligatory wats scattered all over the place. Pretty much what I was expecting Chiang Mai to be. It’s definitely the nicest place I’ve seen so far in Laos. There are some photos at Flickr.

Hannah returned in the middle of the afternoon and later we met up with Joe, Phoebe and Renee for street meat and drinks. We all enjoyed our chicken on a stick but Hannah wasn’t so keen when hers made a repeat appearance the next morning. It may or may not have been related to the dodgy Lao cocktails. Entertainment for the evening was found in a bar where some drunken Kiwi girls were trying to teach the oh-so-gay Laotian guys to salsa.

Mekong slow boat

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

Our journey in Laos started with the usual hurry up and wait that is the staple of travel in south-east Asia. Eventually we were across the Mekong with Joe, Phoebe, Renee, Sophie, Louisa, Vasili, Kiril and Becca and on the slow boat for the journey to Luang Prabang. The guide who met us when we stepped off the ferry boat across the river warned us that the slow boats sometimes didn’t always make it to Pakbeng on the first night. In dry season when the river is low and slow moving the boats don’t always make good time. They only go until it gets dark and if that happened we’d have to sleep on the boat. Here’s the way it works if you’ve bought a package from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang:

  • You pay the agency and get a voucher in return. The voucher gets you on the bus and into your accommodation at Chiang Khong.
  • The guest house at Chiang Khong buys your ticket across the Mekong and gives you another voucher for the slow boat.
  • A guide meets you on the Laos side, herds you though immigration and tries to persuade you to buy a bus ticket or fast boat ticket at extra expense rather than take the slow boat.
  • The guide takes your passport and buys ticket for the boat, returns your passport with ticket.
  • You find your own accommodation in Pakbeng on the first night.
  • Your ticket gets you back on the slow boat the next day.
  • If the Loatians try to pack more on the boat than will fit, mutiny and occupy another boat. So long as enough people mutiny and refuse to budge they’ll run the second boat.

Most of our gang ended up at the back of the boat near the very noisy engine while me and Hannah were near the front. We met some new friends, Marcel and Clare near the end of a westward round-the-world ticket, and Mark and Stacy also near the end of a westward round the world ticket. I picked up some useful tips for Cambodia, Vietnam, New Zealand and China.

The Mekong was brown and wide (100-300metres across) with strong undertows evident in places. The scenery on both sides was sandy beaches, rocky cliffs, green jungle and occasional villages. We stopped after an hour at a village on the Laos side where they pulled the good old marketing ploy of sending the kids onto the boat to sell snacks and drinks. We had stocked up well before boarding so had no trouble resisting the cute looking kids and their wares. We played Scrabble, read, chatted, watched the scenery go by. I guestimated the boat was making about ten knots but didn’t know how many miles it was to Pakbeng so couldn’t judge if we’d make it before dark. Actually we arrived at Pakbeng before 18:00 – an hour or so before dark. At random points along the river the boat pulled into one bank or the other to let the locals off.

We ignored the crowd of waiting touts and found our own accommodation. Joe and Phoebe, Renee and the Russians came with us. We went out for dinner and were hassled by touts outside every restaurant. They all had pretty much the same menu and all offered identical incentives – free (Lao) whiskey, free rice, discounted prices (yeah, right). We picked one at random. The Lao whiskey was so bad even the Russians wouldn’t drink it. There was nothing to do after dinner so it was an early night all round.

Next morning we were at the pier at 08:30 to find a smaller boat waiting for us. Marcel and Clare had saved us seats about half way along the boat. Anyone who turned up after about 08:45 found they had no seat. A mutiny was staged, a second boat occupied and eventually at about 09:30 – when there were still people strolling slowly down the hill to the boats – ours departed. The scenery was much the same as the first day, perhaps a bit more jungly. Again the boat stopped in random places to drop off locals. We reached Luang Prabang at about 17:00, an hour earlier than we expected.